Playlist: November 2018

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Lately I’ve been haunted by a couple of lines by James Schuyler: ‘In the sky a gray thought / ponders on three kinds of green’ (‘A Gray Thought’). I can’t work out what kinds of green he means. Funny how the trees of London still have their leaves, mostly, and how the city keeps its own climate. Sunk in a basin. Schuyler names the source of the greens: the ‘tattered heart-shapes / on a Persian shrub’, ‘pale Paris green’ of lichens, ‘growing on another time scale’, and finally ‘another green, a dark thick green / to face the winter, laid in layers on / the spruce and balsam’. A grey thought to match the greyer sky. The sky has been grey in my life for weeks, it came from Glasgow and it came from England; I saw it break slightly over the midlands, a sort of bellini sunset tinged with pain. I just wanted it to fizz and spill over. I saw my own skin bloom a sort of insomnia grey, a vaguely lunar sheen. Schuyler’s greens describe a luxury of transition, pulling back the beaded curtains of winter and finding your fingers snagged on pearls of ice.

There is a presence here, and a space for mortality that starts to unfold like the slow crescendo of a pedal, held on the upright piano of childhood, whose acoustics promise the full afternoons of a nestlike bedroom. Which is to say, everything here. Protection. Which is to say, where every dust molecule seems to glow with us, which makes us multiple. A commodious boredom that opens such worlds as otherness is made of, ageing. Annie Ernaux in The Years (2008):

During that summer of 1980, her youth seems to her an endless light-filled space whose every corner she occupies. She embraces it whole with the eyes of the present and discerns nothing specific. That this world is now behind her is a shock. This year, for the first time, she seized the terrible meaning of the phrase I have only one life.

There is this life we are supposed to be living, we are still working out the formula for. And yet the life goes on around us, propels through us. It happens all the while we exist, forgetting. It is something about a living room and the satisfying crunch of aluminium and the echo chamber of people in their twenties still playing Never Have I Ever. And the shriek and the smoke and the lights outside, reflective laughter.

The many types of grey we can hardly imagine, which exist in friction with the gild of youth. He shows me the birthday painting hung by his bedside. It is blue and green, with miasmatic tangles of black and gold, like somebody tried to draw islands in the sky with lariat shapes. I look for a roar as I walk, as though something in my ears could make the ground tremble. The air is heavy, a new thick cold that is tricky to breathe in. It requires the clever opening of lungs. I stow cigarettes from Shanghai in my purse. My Nan says she gets lost in the city centre. She gets lost in the town. She looks around and suddenly nothing is familiar. She has lived here for years and years and yet. It is the day-to-night transition of a video game, it is the virtuality of reality, inwardly filtered. She sucks industrial-strength Trebor mints and something of that scent emits many anonymous thoughts in negative. How many worlds in one life do we count behind us?

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From P. Syme’s Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1821)

There is something decidedly Scottish about singing the greys. A jarring or blur of opacity. We self-deprecate, make transparent the anxiety. There is the grey of concrete, breezeblock, pregnant skies delivering their stillborn rain. Grey of granite and flint, grey of mist over shore; grey of sea and urban personality. We splash green and blue against the grey, call it rural. Call it a thought. Call out of context. Lustreless hour of ash and in winter, my father lighting the fire. In London they caramelise peanuts in the crowded streets, and paint their buildings with the shiniest glass. It is all within a movie. My brother walks around, eyeing the landmarks and shopfronts fondly, saying ‘London is so…quaint’. He means London is so London. I stray from the word hyperreal because I know this pertains to what is glitz and commercial only. It does not include the entirety of suburb and district; it is not a commuter’s observation. Deliciously, it is sort of a tourist’s browsing gaze. Everything dematerialises: I get around by flipping my card, contactless, over the ticket gates. There is so much to see we forget to eat. It is not so dissimilar to hours spent out in the country, cruising the greens of scenery, looking for something and nothing in particular. Losing ourselves, or looking for that delectable point of loss. As Timothy Morton puts it, in Ecology Without Nature (2007), we ‘consume the wilderness’. I am anxious about this consuming, I want it to be deep and true, I want the dark green forest inside me. I want the hills. I’m scared of this endless infrastructure.

Some prefer a world in process. The greys reveal and conceal. The forest itself pertains to disturbance, it is another form of remaking. Here and there the fog.

In ‘A Vermont Diary’, it’s early November and Schuyler takes a walk past waterfalls, creek flats, ‘a rank harvest of sere thistles’. He notes the continuing green of the ferns in the woods, the apple trees still bearing their fruit despite winter. Our craving for forest, perhaps, is a primal craving for protection of youth, fertility, sameness. But I look for it still, life, splashed on the side of buildings. It has to exist here. I look up, and up; I j-walk through endlessly aggressive traffic. What is it to say, as T. S. Eliot’s speaker in The Waste Land (1922) does, ‘Winter kept us warm’?

Like so many others, in varying degrees, I walk through the streets in search of warmth.

Lisa Robertson, in Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture (2003), writes of the inflections of the corporeal city:

Architectural skin, with its varieties of ornament, was specifically inflected with the role of representing ways of daily living, gestural difference and plenitude. Superficies, whether woven, pigmented, glazed, plastered or carved, received and are formed from contingent gesture. Skins express gorgeous corporal transience. Ornament is the decoration of mortality.

So with every gorgeous idiosyncrasy, the flourish of plaster, stone or paint, we detect an age. A supplement to the yes-here fact of living. I dwell awhile in Tavistock Square and do not know what I am supposed to do. So Virginia Woolf whirled around, internally writing her novels here. There was a great blossoming of virtual narrative, and so where are those sentences now — might I look for them as auratic streams in the air, or have they regenerated as cells in leaves. There are so many sycamores to kick on the grass. There was a bomb. A monument. Thought comes over, softly, softly. I take pictures of the residue yellows, which seem to embody a sort of fortuity, sprawl of triangular pattern, for what I cannot predict. Men come in trucks to sweep these leaves, and nobody questions why. The park is a luminous geometry.

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I worry the grey into a kind of glass. The cloud is all mousseline. If we could make of the weather an appropriate luxury, the one that is wanted, the one that serves. In The Toy Catalogue (1988), Sandra Petrignani remembers the pleasure of marbles, ‘holding lots of them between your hands and listening to the music they made cracking against each other’. She also says, ‘If God exists, he is round like a marble’. The kind of perfection that begs to be spherical. I think of that line from Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘Daddy’ (1960): ‘Marble-heavy, a bag full of God’. So this could be the marble of a headstone but it is more likely the childhood bag full of marbles, clacking quite serenely against one another in the weight of a skirt pocket. Here I am, smoothing my memories to a sheen. I have a cousin who takes photographs of forests refracted through crystal balls. I suppose they capture a momentary world contained, the miniaturising of Earth, that human desire to clasp in your hand what is utterly beautiful and resists the ease of three-dimensional thought. How else could I recreate these trees, this breeze, the iridescent play of the August light?

I like the crystal ball effect for its implications of magicking scene. One of my favourite Schuyler poems is ‘The Crystal Lithium’ (1972), which implies faceting, narcosis, dreams. The poem begins with ‘The smell of snow’, it empties the air, its long lines make every description so good and clear you want to gulp it; but you can’t because it is scenery just happening, it is the drapery of event which occurs for its own pleasure, always slipping just out of human grasp. The pleasure is just laying out the noticing, ‘The sky empties itself to a colour, there, where yesterday’s puddle / Offers its hospitality to people-trash and nature-trash in tans and silvers’. And Schuyler has time for the miniatures, glimpses, fleeting dramas. My cousin’s crystal ball photographs are perhaps a symptom of our longing for other modes of vision. They are, in a sense, versions of miniature:

“Miniature thinking” moves the daydreaming of the imagination beyond the binary division that discriminates large from small. These two opposing realms become interconnected in a spatial dialectic that merges the mammoth with the tiny, collapsing the sharp division between these two spheres.

(Sheenagh Pietrobruno, ‘Technology and its miniature: the photograph’)

Miniaturising involves moving between spheres. How do we do this, when a sphere is by necessity self-contained, perhaps impenetrable? I think of what happens when I smash thumbs into my eyes and see all those sparkling phosphenes, and when opened again there is a temporary tunnelling of sight — making a visionary dome. Or walking through the park at night and the way the darkness is a slow unfurling, an adjustment. For a short while I am in a paperweight lined with velvet dark, where only bike lights and stars permit my vision, in pools that blur in silver and red. The feeling is not Christmassy, as such colours imply. It is more like Mary of Silence, dipping her warm-blooded finger into a lake of mercury. I look into the night, I try to get a hold on things. On you. The vastness of the forest, of the park, betrays a greater sensation that blurs the sense between zones. I cannot see faces, cannot discern. So there is an opening, so there is an inward softening. What is this signal of my chest always hurting? What might be shutting down, what is activated? I follow the trail of his smoke and try not to speak; when my phone rings it is always on silent.

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Enter the zone through the sky… Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

It becomes increasingly clear that I am looking for some sort of portal. The month continues, it can hardly contain. I think of the towns and cities that remain inside us when we speak, even the ones we leave behind. Whispering for what would take us elsewhere.

Write things like, ‘walked home with joy, chest ache, etc’.

They start selling Christmas trees in the street at last, and I love the sharp sweet scent of the needles.

There is a sense of wanting a totality of gratitude, wanting the world’s sphere which would bounce back images from glossier sides, and so fold this humble subject within such glass as could screen a century. Where I fall asleep mid-sentence, the handwriting of my diary slurs into a line, bleeds in small pools at the bottom of the page. These pools resemble the furry black bodies of spiders, whose legs have been severed. A word that could not crawl across the white. I try to write spellbooks, write endlessly of rain. Who has clipped the legs of my spiders? I am not sure if the spells I want should perform a banishing or a summoning. The flight of this month. The icy winds of other cities.

The uncertain ice of my bedroom: ‘tshirts and dresses / spiders in corners of our windows / making fun of our fear of the dark’ (Katie Dey, ‘fear pts 1 & 2’). Feeling scorned by our own arachnid thoughts, which do not fit the gendered ease of a garmented quotidian, the one we are all supposed to perform. I shrug off the dusk and try out the dark, I love the nocturnal for its solitude: its absolute lack of demand, its closed response.

In the afternoon, sorting through the month’s debris. A whole array of orange tickets, scored with ticks. The worry is that he’ll say something. The dust mites crawl up the stairs as I speak between realms. This library silence which no-one sweeps. There is the cinema eventually, present to itself. I see her in the revolving glass doors and she is a splicing of me. Facebook keeps insisting on memories. People ask, ‘What are you doing for Christmas?’ Wildfires sweep across California and I want to say, Dude where are you? and for once know exactly who I am talking to. I want to work.

On the train I wanted a Tennents, I wanted fresh air and a paradox cigarette. They kept announcing atrocities on the line.

She talks in loops and loses her interest. She gives up on her pills, which gather dust in the cupboard among effervescent Vitamin C tablets and seven ripe tomatoes, still on the vine.

Every station unfurls with the logic of litany, and is said again and again. Somewhere like Coventry, Warrington. This is the slow train, the cheap train. It is not the sleep train.

In Garnethill, there is a very specific tree in blossom; utterly indifferent to the fading season. It has all these little white flowers like tokens. I remember last December, walking around here, everything adorned with ice. Fractal simplicity of reflective beauty. Draw these silver intimations around who I was. An Instagram story, a deliberate, temporary placement. Lisa Robertson on the skin of an architectural ornament: well isn’t the rime a skin as well; well isn’t it pretty, porcelain, glitter? Name yourself into the lovely, lonesome days. Cordiality matters. I did not slip and fall as I walked. One day the flowers will fall like paper, and then it will snow.

It will snow in sequins, symbols.

Our generation are beautiful and flaky. Avatars in miniature, never quite stable. Prone to fall.

Maybe there isn’t a spell to prevent that, and so I learn to love suspense. And the seasons, even as they glitch unseasonable in the screen or the skin of each other. Winter written at the brink of my fingers, just enough cold to almost touch. You cannot weave with frost, it performs its own Coleridgean ministry. Anna takes my hands and says they are cold. She is warm with her internal, Scandinavian thermos. Through winter, my skin will stay sad like the amethysts, begging for February. Every compression makes coy the flesh of a bruise; the moon retreats.

I mix a little portion of ice with the mist of my drink. It is okay to clink and collect this feeling, glass as glass, the sheen of your eyes which struggle with light. A more marmoreal thinking, a headache clearing; missing the closed loop of waitressing. Blow into nowhere a set of new bubbles, read more…, expect to lose and refrain. Smile at what’s left of my youth at the station. This too is okay. Suddenly I see nothing specific; it is all clarity for the sake of itself, and it means nothing but time.

Paint my eyes a deep viridian, wish for the murmur of Douglas firs, call a friend.

 

~

 

Katie Dey – fear pts 1 &2 (fear of the dark / fear of the light)

Oneohtrix Point Never ft. Alex G – Babylon

Grouper – Clearing

Yves Tumor, James K – Licking an Orchid

Daughters – Less Sex

Devi McCallion and Katie Dey – No One’s in Control

Robert Sotelo – Forever Land

Mount Kimbie – Carbonated

Free Love – Et Encore

Deerhunter – Death in Midsummer

Sun Kil Moon – Rock ‘n’ roll Singer

Noname – Self

Aphex Twin – Nanou2

Martyn Bennett – Wedding

Nick Drake – Milk and Honey

Songs, Ohia – Being in Love

Neil Young – The Needle and the Damage Done

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Dark Chocolate Auras and Strange Ecologies: Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air 

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Sylvia Plath wrote many of her Ariel poems in the wee hours before dawn, sucking in the cold and inverse crepuscular air, its colourations of sinister lilac and absent sleep. We have a cliché of the poet’s spontaneous overflow, but instead with Plath there’s a sharp intake, a suspension of air, of breath: ‘Stasis in darkness. / Then the substanceless blue / Pour of tor and distances.’ We have to think through the impossibility of a substanceless blue, as everything must be a component of something; we are all of a sort as perilous hybrids, weak in some place with the viral code of our own demise, shimmering within and outside us like a beautiful aura. The speaker paralyses herself on the brink of sublime, of suicide. Tor: a hill or rocky peak. Vertiginous depths to erase the scale of the self on earth. Tor: a free software project which protects your privacy online. Where history bounces back, is the elaborate sarcophagus that traps the foul air of your history. Think of layering, onions, peeling stench of purple flesh. Indulgent recipes for regret; the cloying addresses of cheap pornography, of midnight Amazon deliveries. Inside the deep centre a secret, liquid sweet as Timothy Morton’s chilli-dark core of chocolate ecology. Chilli, chilly; a shiver in the air that is freeze or fiery. I have been googling your name in my sleep. A shivering, unsettled enmeshment. The encryption an insufficient addition to the substance of memory, its thick brain mulch of skin and image. Such protocol stacks are hypothetical only, nested as the heavenly day that will not die. Wordsworth singles his day from a tangle of others, the onion clot and rot of forgettable hours. To dwell forever in that substanceless blue! To wear innocence on the sleeve of freedom! Plath’s line breaks are harsh and sharp, they flake off the page in their skinly abscission of sound and sense; the body is imposed on grander scales, made to stretch then wither in variable ‘dead stringencies’. All of a space, the thin poem shivering down a spacious page. All of this is so much of air. Take me to the edge, go on, it’s a dare.

An understudy is someone who learns another’s role in order to act at short notice in the person’s absence. You lurk in the background, an absent presence of possible flourishing. The poem as understudy: recipes perhaps in the absence of breathing. What we read when there is no air left to breathe. Poems in reserve for a gradual apocalypse. What exists as core substance, what complements the element whose insouciance charms the lungs without thought. Derrida’s maddening supplement: neither presence or absence, something added and something in place of. An understudy for air, a rehearsal of air’s function. Anthropocenic, tarry air, stung with coal and thickly textured.

Robert Macfarlane asks that we find a ‘thick speech’ for articulating life in the time of climate crisis. Enter Daisy Lafarge’s Understudies for Air (Sad Press, 2017). This is not a collection, ostensibly, about ecology or even the end of the world. It is a phantasmic scaffolding of words and lines for living, breathing, being. Its epigraph takes the axiom of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Anaximenes: ‘The source of all things is air.’ Air being then the ubiquitous neutral substance, something available for occasional roles in physical process. A reluctant but capable actant, developing itself or forced upon by other natural causes. Air’s principle shifts bring about the other main elements: flicker into fire through precious density, condense into wind or water, earth then stone. Anaximenes articulates this through a simple example: if you relax your mouth and blow on your hand, it’s hot; if you do so with pursed lips, the air is cold. So rarity correlates with heat, density with cold. A beautiful, quiet, material intimacy. Everyday action, for Anaximenes, here forms the source of a theory of matter, and yet ever with time this matter recedes. There’s a scarcity of air, something sparse and grasped for in the gelatinous enjambment of Lafarge’s lines.

Precision of form: shortness of breath. When we pause at caesura, pause to breathe, when we lilt our words over the ambiguous interval of a line-break, we are forced temporarily to think about air. I recall the little ticks my brass instructor would make on a sheet of music: remember to breathe. The ticks would supplement a conventional musical pause; I guess I just needed more time to breathe. Breathing is temporal, but also material. There’s a precision to Lafarge’s form, a negotiation of reflective lyric transposed through material effects and affects. In ‘sapling air’, a sense of childhood’s loss is articulated as nonhuman ailment, the ‘first outbreak’ which is a poisoning of the air or the bark of trees. At first I think ash dieback, but then we are taken somewhere more grandiose, planetary, magmatic. Lying in the liminal space between ‘child / and whatever came next’, the speaker is in the bath, ‘gazing up through the skylight / as a plane passed overhead’. This sense of temporary epic scale, its vanishing écriture of ‘vapour trail’, is a writing of fleeting sheen. I think of glassels: those stones which appear glossy beneath water (in river or sea) but when picked and brought home they revert to dispirited dullness. It is as if life has left them, where momentary they truly appeared as vibrant matter, appealing to the senses with electric connection. Is this the fate of the bath-varnished body? How beauty consists in the wounded part of a thing, a fragile glitch in the viral code—what makes death inevitable. Stones ground down by the sweat and chafe of salty water, the sky a landfill for carbon dreams, modernity streaked across substanceless blue.

The speaker glimpses the oscillating scales of panorama and miniature: the passing plane and the ‘passengers’ eyes’. She sees through the eyes of others; a vertiginous, fleeting sublime in which she is the one looking down and the one looked down upon. Humans become binary nodes in this networked communion of sound and sense: ‘the passengers’ eyes flickered on and off / with signal’. Air carries, air travels. Air miles, as both temporal noun and verb. I find myself tangled in the space between transitive/intransitive. Air signifies the dialectic flickers of presence/absence. Accumulates, billows. What the speaker notices is a peculiar distortion, a toxicity overlaid with her own poisoned body: ‘I looked down. the bath water / was the colour of porphyry and I could no longer breathe’. The excess of the skin flakes away as feldspar, silicate rich and igneous, carrying traces of radial or volcanic exposure, imperial purple or deposited copper. Containing within it divergent scales: wee matrix crystals and larger phenocrysts. The speaker experiences her body as this suddenly alien thing; the sight of the bathwater steals her breath. Is it the first glimpse of what the outside does to the inside, the staining within us we leave on the world in a permanent toxic chiasmus? But I can’t help think also of period blood, given the speaker’s interlude adolescence: something tricky to articulate that nonetheless clots in the mind as childhood’s instated loss of innocence, a condensation of excitement that clings then turns readily and stickily to red, to blood. That moves in turns, cycles as the waxing mist of the moon. What is this substance, this iron-rich bodily flood? Where matter confuses, we turn back to air.

She tries to express to her father a bewildered grief, ‘there’s something wrong with the air’, but her ‘words went through to dial tone’. There’s a delay, language meeting its buffer at difference: through what? Gender, generation, divergent points of vision? Her special melancholy is something that lingers down the line, seeps inside the passage of time. The poem closes: ‘I still wonder, how many months, years from now / he will listen to the message’. Throughout Understudies for Air, Lafarge uses this technique of unfurling: instead of saying simply, ‘how many years from now’, she adds in the months, practices a sort of delay or lag. I think of smoke billows, slowly dissipating. Of what it means to say, there was chemistry between us, an atmosphere in the room. The way voiced words vibrate momentarily in meaning then once again settle to silence, stasis. An almost electricity, crackling then out. Compare this to the written word’s more permanent, inevitable viscosity. Language sticks: you can tease it over and over, read the same thing till centuries down the line the ink wears off from the page. You can replicate. Speech is quite a bit more fleeting, unless you set it down on wax or tape, find new ways to materialise language’s spit, crackle, lilt. The forcing of sign and shape from sound.

Air in Lafarge’s collection is a sort of pharmakon, in Jacques Derrida’s sense of an undecidable fluctuation between poison and cure. It is a substance acted upon with the medical impetus of invasion: in ‘desecration air’, ‘brittle waves of grit’ are ‘growing, syringe-like / into the air, and in so doing suckle / and cleave the dunes around them’. There’s a sense of maternal genesis and geologic violence, an injection of force into air’s spaciousness. For air at once signifies space and density of matter at the brink of scattering, sparking, forging. I start typing what is air into my search bar and it suggests, where can it be found? I am suddenly struck by air’s mystery, the possibility of everyday deception as to its ‘nature’. What is taken for granted has elusive substance; after all, can we view air in the object-oriented sense of ‘object’, or even, at transcendently nonhuman scale, ‘hyperobject’? For air blends and bleeds, both substance and accident. The painting or glass had an airy quality, we talk of a room as light and airy. Does this mean more air, or air less dense, more receptive to breath and space and quiet? Air is rich with the silt of existence: dust being its materialised twin, these myriad phantasms of hair, fibre, textiles, minerals, meteorites, mostly skin. Air is nitrogen, oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide flavoured with traces of neon, methane, helium. We breathe air but also pass constantly through it, as our molecules swim in the vast bombardment of other molecules swirling. Ambient air is safe, we pass through it daily; but air can also spark, as fire’s immanent ingredient, awaiting some flagrant chance to burn. We talk of dry air, damp air, air that feels ‘close’. Air signifies both absence (space) and presence (elemental matter, tangible substance). Air is always potentially transformative.

There is a poem called ‘calque air’. Calque means loan translation: a word-for-word exchange of meaning across languages (examples include ‘fleamarket’ and ‘skyscraper’). In French it means literally ‘copy’, derived from calquer: to copy, base on, trace; derived again from Latin calcāre, to tread, press down. Thus in the abstracted xerox of translinguistic exchange, we meet a sense of material rubbing, the friction that exacts its inscription between two substances: stone on stone, wood on wood, paper on paper etched with lead. It’s a physicality that chills the spine. Yet tracing somehow also connotes residue, the excess material produced by this rubbing, the patterning stains set down by a tread, like footprints sunk deep in the sand and preserved semi-permanent by glitters of frost. Lafarge writes: ‘people / were finding messages / in their bodies they hadn’t / written’. Again this sense of material semaphore, whose translation is a phenomenological act of physical reality, a sudden otherness within us that requires an empathy, an excess, a confusion of words rubbing wrongly against one another: ‘it was decided the system was malapropic’. Language spiralling as if in the hands of the nonhuman, the air or machine or book.

Anthropomorphism reaches its textual extreme: ‘the book grew hair, organs, toes’, and so even ‘accurate translations’ become disputed, subjective, active and physical. What is it about air that somehow substantiates the symbiosis of language and matter, its aching and perilous leak? Here we are, tipped in the gaslit eve of twilight, where ‘the sky throbbed / sideways like a haemorrhage’. Matter acts upon us, causing a gulping or gaping as we churn through it, our bodies mucilaginous mulched into altered form, new affect. We can try to discern the nature of air, but in some way its inner essence remains recalcitrant, resistant to the interpretive instruments of other forms, including humans. Lafarge plays on the semiotic plurality of ‘forms’, poking fun at science’s ‘consent and feedback forms’, ethical necessities which prove useless upon the elusive air. This raises the question of how to extend a nonhuman ethics, what forms of consent are required when probing and monitoring their patterns of agency or behaviour? In ‘attempted diagnosis air’, Lafarge concludes: ‘in the end, / you left the forms in the airing cupboard / to let the air fill out itself; it acquiesced / in many hands of mould, dust and heat, / none of which you could hope to translate’. The air transmogrifies into purely itself, is available only as sensation in the perceptive ‘hands’ of other substances. It’s worth quoting Jane Bennett at length here:

 Thing-power materialism figures materiality as a protean flow of matter-energy and figures the thing as a relatively composed form of that flow. It hazards an account of materiality even though materiality is both too alien and too close for humans to see clearly. It seeks to promote acknowledgment, respect, and sometimes fear of the materiality of the thing and to articulate ways in which human being and thinghood overlap. It emphasises those occasions in ordinary life when the us and the it slipslide into each other, for one moral of this materialist tale is that we are also nonhuman and that things too are vital players in the world.

Air is surely the channel for thinking through this vibrant materiality. Lafarge’s poetics, shifting through sparsity and density, perform this slippage between human and nonhuman at variable scales. Rooted in ordinary life, in personal memory, the poems of Understudies for Air root out these collected knots of ontological ‘torsion’, the ‘bunioned’ meanings that wash up like offerings then shut down all visible meaning—‘they closed in my hand / like eyes’. The lack of capitalised titles renders the poems’ drift into one another, in free-flow without the arche conventions of literary closure, of textual finality. A sense of fractured or wounded text, poems chipped out of a grander object, left now to change and drift. In ‘driftwood air’, driftwood makes a temporary semiology of the shore. Driftwood being perhaps the airiest form of wood, a text well-chewed by aquatic bacteria, lightened and smoothed by the tide; erosion performing its nonhuman act of calque: a copying of wave upon wood, the tiny treads of millioning microscopic appetites, like the imperfect press of a nonhuman telegram. With her spells of air, Lafarge conjures a vibrant ecology of non-anthropocentric process; evocative still as such effects take place through the decomposition of the lyric ‘I’, whose voice drifts out in nonhuman confusions, signals and distance. Human affect returns in glimpses like delicious flotsam, jetsam, moments of reflection gleaned from material debris.

The ‘I’ often shrinks or recedes, but sometimes floats over the ambient scene with declarative assertion: ‘the twin lines of naming and being / run parallel but never touch’. Such philosophic pronouncements then melt away in exploratory thought, lines closely attuned to trans-species process: the swell and lurch and pleat of water, plant, lichen or toxin. Once again we come to air as pharmakon, and so its process arises as a sort of pleasing monstrosity. The odd thing about plants is they just grow, often without purpose, foregoing teleology for an impersonal, gorgeous flourishing. In ‘asbestos air’, the speaker marvels:

lichen and moss
grooming your body;
it is a relief to watch
things grow without
difficulty

End-stopped punctuation is often foregone for free-flowing, morphological enjambment throughout Understudies for Air, so the inclusion of semicolon here is its own kind of force. I think of imagism’s stop-motion visual equivalencies: Pound’s apparitional faces in the metro and wet black petals. The ‘body’ in question could be human or nonhuman. There is a plain admiration of process and flow, the ease of growth that feels significant against the endless stuttering, knotted bolts of human maturity. And what about ‘asbestos’? More silicate minerals invading the air, released by abrasion and enacting a slow-release of symptoms, as deadly fibres clot in the lungs. Asbestos makes its own mark upon air. The speaker clearly craves that insulation, a felting of absence with ‘lichen and moss’ that comes as a ‘grooming’. Grooming being the softening and smoothing of matter, but also tinged with danger: to be groomed is to be seduced towards some form of invasive peril. Twin signals, twin materials; a chiasmus of death and sleep’s electricity. Sucking in air, we sleep towards death; slowly we rove over lines that enamour with deceptive simplicity. We can’t help but breathe in sleep; it’s just evolution. What’s more, nature isn’t mere positive growth, but might be compounded poison, cancerous swells. Tumours accumulating almost mycologically, darkly twisting and rising in the shadowy mulch of the organs, the undergrowth. Behind a benign appearance is the spectre of asbestos; for of course mosses and lichens are indicator species, material harbingers of polluted air. Air is the cure, the restorative; but air can also kill. It is both oxygen and carbon monoxide, its healthiness hinges on a delicate balance.

Air’s undecidability, perhaps, is a deconstructive motion of question and answer, a maddening circuitry of frazzled nerves and linguistic synapses. In Lafarge’s attempt to materialise air, to verbalise its form as supplementary poetics, writing does the work of metaphysics. Enter Maria-Daniella Dick and Julian Wolfreys in The Derrida Wordbook, glossing Derrida’s term undecidability:

If metaphysics teaches us how to read, and reading teaches us metaphysics, birthing each other in a twin maiuetics, then deconstruction also calls us to a reading. To read undecidability is to resist that other resistance which would efface it.

Air’s invisible toxins make themselves known with prickling, painful insistence at the miniature level of surface pollutants, scum left on water or stains on metal. A poet’s Keatsian eye would draw out this material tread of Anthropocene effect, illumine its slow evolution with the linguistic wit of a chemist. The irony of deep-time causation at the hands of humans, those obfuscations of cause and effect that place humankind as geologic agents. Reality, matter, climate change become undecidable. We are being taught, in these poems, the call to the earth that is really a subtle conversation within our own bodies—palimpsests of dangerous nature we tried to fashion but grew otherwise, anyway. Despite melting icecaps, the air grows colder in winter, it thickens.

Lafarge develops this viscous, hyperobjective symbiosis through her descriptions of air’s sticky contaminations. There are ornaments of scattered matter: bitumen, seed heads, the wildfire possibilities of ‘drying leaves’. There is a constant overlay of the biological, spatial and arboreal: ‘we soiled our mouths to mimic / the good fettle of root and seed’; those ‘dark thickets of lung’. I think of the word forest, then ‘for rest’. Places we go to shelter, to cleanse ourselves scented on pinewood air. We can’t see the woods for the trees, or was it the trees for the woods? Morton’s idea that we need a return to parts over wholes, this notion of subscendence: the whole is always less than the sum of its parts. A tree more important than a forest. Lafarge strains her ear to every little activity, the expressions of suffering that come from sources beyond the human: ‘on every corner a tree / articulates its script’. Tree language is material too, it is sound in the air unique, and seedlings glistering on rustling rhythms. It is the flail and droop of branches diseased, stung acid by rain or ravaged by leaking methane.

To put words in air implies a sense of declaring, but this is less the enlightened ejaculations of a singular genius and more a sensual symbiosis: ‘the words / identified me as carrier / and now along I go / sowing their imprint in air’. To sow, to plant seed, to let meaning take root and feed upon air and soil, sound and shape. By tuning to nonhuman forms of inscription, Lafarge attempts to answer the call of the absolute other. This is ecological poetry’s luminous tool, its potential ethics.

This is also, to a degree, Michael Marder’s ‘plant-thinking’: a thinking about plants, a thinking through plants, a symbiosis of human and vegetal thought at the level of form and content. Not discursive domination of subject but a perceptive, non-anthropocentric and multisensory modality of what Marder calls ‘transfigured thinking’. I cannot help think of a shadowy, cooperative alchemy in which the baroque foliage of language ravels round the utterances of the absolute other, those bladed shivers and flashes of light, that speak of time felt close in the skin of a cell. It is a metaphysical elixir that deconstructs its own postulated recipe. Metaphysics, for Marder, is unable to think coextensively ‘with the variegated acts of living’ that exist in plants; it seems to ‘affirm the quasi-divine life of the mind’, but actually ‘wields the power of negativity and death’. It risks becoming ‘a cancerous growth’, smothering the plants it attempts to draw ‘vitality’ from in knowledge and energy. I think of the chemical kill that Keats in Lamia implies is the effect of philosophy, which ‘will clip an angel’s wings / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine’. Writing poetically, we must be tender, channel the lurid sounds that fill the sparkling air, nevertheless deathly polluted as a charnel ground. Embrace inexplicable oscillations between the living and dead; challenge binary conceptions of stasis and liveliness, animals and matter. Retrieve a kindred sense of mutual mystery, preserve the lingering aura of species-being. Plant-thinking must instead be ‘receptive’ to the ‘pole of darkness’ within botanical existence. There is a Keatsian sense of negative capability here, a chameleon dwelling in the infinite and multiple, the rhizomatic offshoots of unknown effects, undecidability. There’s a Deleuzo-Guattarian intermezzo too, as Marder puts it: ‘To live and to think in and from the middle, like a plant partaking of light and darkness, is not to be confined to the dialectical twilight […]. It is, rather, to refashion oneself […] into a bridge between divergent elements’, to allow that darkness to shine as much as the light of visible knowledge. Remain discursively flexible, morph through variant perspectives.

We have here an immersive rhizomatics, hinting also towards Graham Harman’s assertion of the object’s metaphysical withdrawal. Lafarge’s speaker certainly stands in this middle, exploring ‘a vernacular for pipelines, / circuitry, the fetid grids and systems’. She doesn’t penetrate essences. Stinking like soil mulch, our carbon economy is overlain with what we traditionally take to be ‘nature’: those lichens, mosses, leaves. We are reminded that cancerous growths, chemicals and shameful asbestos are as earthly as the daffodil or ash tree; each to each, irrevocably and intimately enmeshed, from the clinging of air to shared DNA. The speaker lets nonhuman forms speak through her: the shape of those gusts and shudders, those incremental growths and sudden ruptures, take effect in the passage of language. She brings us quietly, unassumingly, to aporetic conclusions, refusing to clasp meaning’s assertion from the lateral sprawl, preferring the precarious, seductive dissolve towards undecidability: ‘I still think of them, their clod eyes / roiled with fever, churning the peat / of a stagnant loop’. Clod: insensitive fool or chunk of mass. A clod of stone, an ignorant clod. An estrangement of nature, a closure of humanity to uncanny matter, churned in the loop of signature tautology—a metaphysics of presence that is ever an ‘argument’, a stagnant pool. How we must dwell, thickly, in these poems, these fleshy pools of blood and sap and dripping air. The declarative trochee like a stone thrown in a pond, ‘roiled with fever’; these shivers on the petrified skin with its fur of moss, toxin, mould. Conveyers of nonhuman temporality. The speaker licks such substances with lapidary language; the effects are circling, strange, recursive as a maddening philosophical problem. She dwells quite certain in uncertainty. Perhaps this makes her the perfect understudy, questioning but never at the point of egotistical revolt.

If all that is solid melts into air, then we know this now to entail less evaporation than transmutation. Solid objects arise elsewhere. What daily we flush, cough and excoriate from our bodies floats out in the hothouse biosphere, only to be reborn as fragrant waste, the fettered matter that is fetid at the point of being/becoming other. In the pamphlet’s final poem, the speaker passes a ‘high-rise’ and in the shrill of its alarm encounters an ‘elderly lady’, naked in her white towel like a terrible angel wrenched from the heavens to corrode on earth. The white signifies a kind of surrender to time and matter; the woman addresses the speaker thus: ‘one day I will know how it feels / to haul around a body of rotten flowers, to let memory / chew holes in my mind like maggots’. I’m reminded of a passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, where Peter Walsh witnesses a vagrant woman, ‘opposite Regent’s Park Tube station’, her gurgling vowels speaking in a tongue he cannot understand. Is this a primitive ecofeminist figure from the future-past, her voice ‘bubbling up without direction, vigour, beginning or end, running weakly and shrilly and with an absence of all human meaning’?  She speaks with ‘the voice of an ancient spring spouting from the earth’, channels somehow that geologic core, its rupturing pain. There’s Jonathan Bate’s insistence on poetry as ecological dwelling, in The Song of the Earth (2000). Woolf’s eerie, primeval wanderer stirs up the dead leaves from their settled grave, recalls an ancient song that aligns feminine suffering with planetary pain. I think again of Lafarge’s speaker, lying in the bath with a sense of her own body eking out a substance unfamiliar, the water stained a curious, feldspar colour. Poetry as monstrous giving-birth, poetry as vegetal thinking; poetry as lichenous growth or ambient eddy and flow.

There isn’t much pastoral about Understudies for Air, where things are scorched or ‘unspeakable’, full of porous holes and an inexplicable, surveilling gaze, those eyes which absorb and emit reality with cytoplasmic osmosis. There’s a dwelling in-between; a refusal of pastoral’s smoothed surface, its crudely soldered contradictions. Lafarge’s material history is thick, polluted, complex: irrevocably enmeshed with the speaker’s autobiography, a slow enclosure of tainted expiration; the result of some unreachable, originary trauma—the first infected inhalation. As the first poem opens: ‘difficult to pin the beginning / of the bad air’. In the Anthropocene, as with shame and trauma, it’s tricky to find causes, to trace singular beginnings. We have to face the impossibility of the transcendental signified, keep crossing over the same old tracks, tuning to peculiar scale effects in the dust and dirt, shaking the rain from our wilting manes, blades, branches, names. We can hack at the data, break the trees. In the end it is all just mutual suffering, the poem as supplement for what we can’t say, the horror of thought that is personal guilt and environmental blame. Yet somehow, Lafarge stirs sweetness from the wastelands of contamination, a little bit of the old Eliotic ‘breeding / lilacs out of the dead land’, or Morton’s molten, dark ecological chocolate. We move from depression to mystery to empathetic, mouth-melting sweetness. What you bury might come up lavender later; death still tainting, beautifully, the fullness of life. There is a shivering ethical suspension between the one and the other, cheating human text with the infiltrating voice of the strange stranger, where even the poet doubles back on herself, shrinks and fades, becomes alien against her own voice and song. Amidst all these ‘unspeakable things’, Lafarge reflects the coruscating absence, the flicker-to-effect of the dust in the air; motes of melancholy love, life and death, that cluster temporarily in poems and feel like a homecoming, yet always on the brink of becoming unsettled. Forever this ‘speech / impaired through contact / with the air’, the wrenching of justice from staunch aporia.

All this is so much of air. The words clot and float, they are pushed elsewhere as stacks of data, the coded reverie of software forgotten. Dwell in the dark web, a gossamer poetics that drips with the fringe-work of hackers, pirates, spiders. Once again: ‘homes / for unspeakable things’. Protection of privacy, pelt of fur, air that gluts on the temporary flesh of speech. A child’s ‘moonmilk / crusted round its mouth’. Language for future generations, raised on the logic of ‘selenography’; all human attempt to make sense of time beyond the body. There is a rhythm and a dwelling, a child’s bright cry in mica-flecked darkness. We all find overlays for our love or trauma—‘perhaps it was an early leak of the air / that conjured the image of his mother’—but instead of burial there is only entanglement, the sentencing ever excess of ‘a bad root / growing in every direction’. Trouble is, we can’t find it exactly; it grows and grows regardless. It shrouds us, auroral, auratic. Lafarge picks at flakes of flesh and star and paint, travels arterial between filament, taproot, wire, synapse and galaxy. Understudies for Air feels performative, a traversal of myriad sorts that folds back on itself, reflectively prone to spiralling dialogue, a postured void. For, as Steven Connor reminds us, the thing about air is ‘it encompasses its own negation […]. Take away the air, and the empty space you have left still seems to retain most of the qualities of air’. It’s in this multivariant, phenomenological pulse that Lafarge’s speaker dwells, sparked against the air’s vibrant matter as much as its ever conditional abyss. I read her words over and over, fragments of collected matter; conjuring in the cold winter light some other possible, nonhuman chorus. I’ll vapourise now, leave you trailing in the ‘fuzzy, fizzy logic of volumes rather than outlines’ (Connor), for it’s the sheer glut of language, coming in and out of phase with human perception and nonhuman form, that really matters. Matters. Connor again: ‘We earthlings, we one-foot-in-the-grave air-traffic-controllers, may have much to learn from the clamorous cooccupancies the air affords.’

Playlist: August 2017

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Start with the kernel of something. The year’s first fallen acorn I have not seen yet, though pinecones have been thrown in the direction of whoever. Hypothetically, my life as a typewriter, the body punctuated with the same mechanical violence. Clattering impression of symbol. A certain attention to gardens, as if in longing for confinement, safety. Time spent in Cambridge. Willows sweeping the skin of the river, an endless wandering the result of what. Hard work, long mornings in bed with the warm aluminal form of a laptop. White glow, silence. Someone mowing their lawn too early. Being what it is to be lonely not letting the light in except with broken blinds it comes fractured, skewed, something. The early fears abated, return to trust the body. Sun beaming through unfinished paint, the colour of mauve roses, faded hydrangeas. There is a hyperspace in which the dreams become apartments with balconies folding to abyss, you lean out singing it felt like a kiss the crystal taste which is what a violent text a certain whisky with peculiar salt with the flavour of drowning. Shades of cool. Allergic to punctuation after so much editing. Late night taste of Mogwai, Aphex Twin in the long long mornings. The perfect cupid’s bow of her lips. A geometry of light on the living room carpet. Sit in me, wheat-coloured pool of Vitamin D. The gunshot pulse of the stuttering track. I close my eyes for the White Lodge, the shrouding. Mountains come up and when we are at work we hum the Song of Healing while customers come and go in a panoply, in circuits; the moon too close like a lump of cheese with a million calories like terrible space debris coming. There’s an underpass where the dank canal flows thick as a black black oil, as molasses. Closer, the exact texture of fishnets. Something of your composition, a fear. The cold and lovely brass legato. Confessions in brown paper-bags. These are penny sweets, many regrets, many ice-coloured touch of the tongue that flickers its absence. A pleasant stasis, curled fingers which wait for the rise of the chest and the breath that is chemical alone, that is Tennents at seven in the morning on a lino floor. Berryish, bitten. Making no sense of Four Quartets but embracing the paganism, looking equinox ready with a garland of wilted daisies as if August never happened. The goddess in flesh, Lana Del Rey with her seamless fragility that adds joy to melancholy, etc. You know it. Conor Oberst telling stories about Woodie Guthrie and another life-changing duet on Lua. Voices as clear and pure as expensive vodka, distilled through a mountain stream in the elusive valleys of sadness. Somewhere south of America. I see a desert. There are plants needing repotting in my room. A 39-minute album. A mixed-up connotation, lumps of quartz from a beach near Cardross. I wonder about the temperature of water. Last year’s gatherings, the same melancholy. The absolute cool refreshment of this late-summer’s day. Remembering Lilt as a Thing! Train rides, shudderings, altered temperatures. So much goddamn analysis. Saying it like a litany, my goodness my goodness my goodness. Enacting mythology of objects surrounding. The glass of ice cubes precisely polished, a sequence of droplets. Clotted spectrums. The time it takes between ordering and serving, circling like ravens or trying to negate the game of waiting. Complaints. August being the flourishing stammer of a potentially bad dissertation. Potentially not. Sometimes salt and vinegar just tastes good. Wake up to the sting of your own tongue. Passing creepy, sapphire hot-tubs at four in the morning while old-school Coldplay floats on by mysteriously. Bones sinking like stones. Floating on home at 9am past phalanxes of school children and furious mothers. With all these roadworks, the pavement is but a treacherous ridge between spaces. Samuel Johnson kicking a stone to prove something. Philosophical brutality. Voyage to the capital for Tom McCarthy. Sunlight and absurd erotic fiction displayed in cardboard boxes. The boiling point of all these projects. Nectarines. How everything these days just feels like browsing. Are we yet ready for nostalgia and autumn, and whichever comes before the other? I keep re-watching the same old episodes.

~

LCD Soundsystem – tonite

Kiran Leonard – Could She Still Draw Back?

Big Thief – Masterpiece

Conor Oberst – Napalm

Girl Ray – Trouble

John Maus – Hey Moon

Clarence Clarity – Naysayer Godslayer

Four Tet – SW9 9SL

Oneohtrix Point Never – Music for Steamed Rocks

Mogwai – Coolverine

Lana Del Rey – Shades of Cool

Au Revoir Simone – Lark

Lomond Campbell – Father is a Craftsman (Modern Studies cover)

Julie Byrne – Morning Dove

 

 

 

 

 

Homesick

Daisybank

Homesick

ONE need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
Material place.

—Emily Dickinson

It seems silly to write about one’s love for a house. After all, houses are inanimate things; they can’t feel or think, can’t love you back. It’s a bit materialistic, a bit capitalist perhaps, to love one’s property. Still, houses aren’t just houses. We are brought up in this world to experience ourselves through things. Not only is this the sociological and psychological consequence of living in a world where we define ourselves through the symbolic order of possessions, but it is also the personal, lived experience of assigning meaning to that which surrounds us, the structures and spaces in which we spill our being. What’s more, the very act of dwelling is charged with the problem of desire. We constantly pursue ownership and control over that which we occupy; constantly assigning possession, marking territory. As Karl Marx said, ‘the felt need for a thing is the most obvious, irrefutable proof that the thing is part of my essence, that its being is for me and that its property is the property, the particular quality peculiar to my essence’: we are, through and through, the things that we own, desire, lose. Maybe it is our seemingly irrevocable need for things that dooms us to a certain emptiness, a loss that prevents the fulfilment of the self.

The old Lacanian equation of desire as relying on lack. Maybe we love things more when we lose them. We start to think if we ever really had them in the first place; we question the possibility of possession altogether. In the void we clasp at meaning, like a baby blindly seeking nourishment.

When I was just three years old, my parents, my brother and I left a cramped cottage in leafy, small-town Hertfordshire for a three-bedroom, two-garden semi-detached house in Ayrshire, Scotland. Land of agriculture, Burns, Buckfast and teenage pregnancy. My first day at school, a couple years later, and I did not understand why everyone kept saying aye, still thinking they were making bizarre expressions of the first person pronoun, rather than simply saying yes. Ken was another strange one. Scotland was foreign and I was even more foreign. I spent most of my childhood trying to grapple with my Englishness, working out who the hell I was and what’s more, who did I want to be? Toning things down to avoid being bullied…but really, deep down, did I want to be different from anyone else? Slowly, the older I got, I felt the bright Scots words trickle into my vocabulary: hanek, gads, glaikit, wee, Ned, jakey. When my cousins visited, I found myself wishing I had the purity of that sweet, Hampshire accent, instead of my own brand of weird hybridity. When friends at school made jokes about Scotland’s superiority, their hatred of the English, the need for their country’s freedom, I felt that wavering sense of otherness, an instinctive need to protect my ‘origins’. As a child, England meant family; it meant going home and being ‘free’. Days out in the summer holidays to the sun-sparkly cities of Brighton and London; the suburban beauty of Milton Keynes in autumn. I liked how I was the only one in my primary school class who wasn’t born in Irvine hospital. When you’re a kid, you kind of like to be special.

Maybe it’s terribly ironic that I would grow up to become a pretty staunch supporter of Scottish independence; someone who works in a whisky bar and identifies more with the social milieu of Kevin Bridges’ standup than that of Austen novels, who cut their teeth drinking Frosty Jacks instead of White Lightning, who fell in love with a wasted seaside town instead of London, and spent inordinate amounts of time listening to endearingly miserable Scottish folk bands over whatever was ‘hip’ in Hoxton. When did the change happen? At what point did I stop mourning my lost English childhood, with its (probably false) promise of sunny summers, middle-class comforts and extra bank holidays? It was long before I started to associate much of England with the heartlands of UKIP and Brexit, long before I realised that Scotland did things differently (socially and politically) to the rest of Britain, and that this was a very good thing.

I guess part of it was realising I didn’t really belong in England either. I couldn’t play the cool and demure English rose, not all the way. For one, with the lack of sun up north, my naturally blonde hair faded, and I’ve now settled on a Celtic shade of copper red. Back then family members would point out queer things I said, like when I relayed stories about folk ‘battering’ each other at school, or how it was ‘pishin’’ it down with rain, or my periodic and derisive expressions of ‘haneck’ whenever anything unfortunate happened. My brother and I would amp up our ‘Scottish’ banter whenever we were down south, cracking jokes and putting on our rough Ayrshire accents the same way any Brit does abroad. I started to realise that I sort of loved the strangeness of Scotland: the Ceilidh dancing we had to learn in P.E, the pervasive aura of folktales, of haggis and kelpies; bottles of Irn Bru that I was forbidden from drinking as a kid, the stern broad Scots of the man on the tape who announced the beginning of every French Listening paper. I wasn’t sure how well I fit in, but I liked it anyway. It started to feel like home.

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Home. The year before I left for uni.

***

In my hometown of Maybole, there is a strict policing of difference. The smoke plume of neds at every bus stop will be the adjudicators of any risqué fashion you choose to indulge in. If you wore black and a slick of thick eyeliner, for example, they were sure to enquire whether you ‘shagged deed folk’; if you wore a miniskirt you were a ‘wee hoore’; if you were a guy who had slightly long hair you were a ‘poof’; skinny jeans made you – perhaps the ultimate insult – ‘an emo’. In our school, there was the Mosher’s Corner, the Farmer’s Corner, the Smoker’s Corner, to name just a handful of territories whose policing often bordered on the militant. In first year, I witnessed a friend being shoved headfirst into a spiky hedge because he tried to ‘invade’ the Farmer’s Corner. At the Mosher’s Corner, which took a couple of years to gain full acceptance, you were pelted with stones by bored and angry first years, or scolded by irate P.E. teachers, who had to pass through the area and always liked to pull you up on inane details of uniform. Don’t tell me I can’t wear my stripy knee socks to school when that guy’s cutting about in a tracksuit.

In the midst of this battlefield of identities, is it any wonder I loved my house? The one place where I could be whatever I wanted? Whenever we had to write our address down at school, I relished scribbling down the house name, Daisybank, with all its pastoral resonance. Compared to all the places I have lived in Glasgow (room such and such, flat 1, 2, 3 etc), having a house name is a proper luxury. It was on the road to Turnberry Golf Course; ten minutes walk from the Ranch caravan park. I had a pal who owned a dairy farm nearby, and the woman a few doors down bred collie dogs. For some reason, we always seemed to live beside ministers. In a way, Maybole is the epitome of rural quaintness: it is famous mostly for its former glory as a cobbler’s paradise, for being the meeting place of Rabbie Burns’ parents, for having a relatively crap golf course, a sixteenth-century castle and once upon a time a couple of lemonade factories. You’re ten minutes drive from the sea and surrounded by vibrant green hills studded with pretty villages. The air is fresh and the water tastes great. There’s even a train line.

Still, it’s difficult to appreciate all that stuff as a teenager. I started to dream of Glasgow as this mythical solution to all my problems: a place of cosmopolitanism, where people read poetry, played in bands, and didn’t care what anyone thought of them.

It was only when I moved away from home, got a flat in the city, that I realised the extent of my weird sense of belonging to this silly wee town where technically I had no roots.

***

The last time I properly cried was the day I said goodbye to Daisybank and Maybole for the last time. I paced round the empty rooms, hearing the silent creak of the floorboards, memories passing by me as fleetingly as moths, leaving me with this overwhelming sense of grief. It was like saying goodbye to the entirety of childhood, the last eighteen years of my life, all at once. Unlike most people, we didn’t move around much and this was our home all that time, through thick and thin, good times and bad. I realised how protected I had felt by the presence of the house, its strong sandstone walls, the elaborate latticework of memories that had wove themselves into every structure, every smell and texture and object.

I sat on the train back to Glasgow, staring at the late summer scenery pass behind me, feeling like I had severed a limb.

I don’t know what it is that made me feel that way. Maybe it was the garden: the pond we made with water reeds and frogspawn pinched from the lake at Culzean (the pond in which at my sixteenth birthday party, my friend lost his Buckfast bottle), the faint scent of the lilac tree and its treasure trove of bluebells in May, the memories of bonfire nights, Easter egg hunts, performing original plays; the August weekend when a friend and I climbed the rowan tree and picked every red, gleaming berry – each one to our childish eyes as precious as a ruby. Maybe it was the peace sign my Mum’s ex-boyfriend mowed into the front lawn. The lingering whiff of failed baking experiments that still haunted the kitchen, popcorn burnt to the bottom of the pan, bowls dissolved in liquid heat, vague explosions in  the oven (the door of which had to be constantly propped open by a chair). The mice that lived in the piano, the washing machine that shook so violently we had to put a brick in it.

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Maybole Golf Course & The Memorial monument. Winter 2014.

The bike rides up into the Carrick hills; the hysterical impersonations of bleating sheep, chasing chickens and pheasants off the roads. Feeding lambs in spring, horse-riding and jumping off hay bales. Long walks with friends, where we deconstructed the universe as the sun bled its final light behind the Kildoon monument.

The summer we painted the wall of the den at the back of the garden, purple and orange, and I got black floor paint, thick as molasses, on my brother’s leg. He was about six and it didn’t come off for weeks. The concrete steps I fell down once and grazed my side so badly I could hardly move. The cities we drew with chalk on the patio, until the rain came the next day to wash them away again. The nights of mild teenage trauma, when I crawled into the space beneath my bed to calm myself down. All the people that came and went, who knocked on the back door or else rang the bell at the front. Afternoons alone in the corner of my room, hunched over chord sheets and trying to play Paramore songs on guitar. Parties with gin served in secondhand teacups, with contraband vodka smuggled in Coke bottles, with the perpetual background flicker of my frozen iTunes library, which everyone cracked a shot at.

Halloween parties with ersatz cobwebs strung from every surface, bowls of punch and fistfuls of body glitter; dubstep thundering from the upstairs study.

The secret room next door to the bathroom which we never discovered, because you had to knock the wall through. Sometimes, when I was lying in the bath, I liked to think about what was on the other side. What wild and weird stories I could fathom from that dark place of possibility? You could see the skylight in the garden and I thought maybe someone had died in there and the previous owners had decided to seal it in.

Previous owners. It’s strange, when you settle so deeply into a house, you think you are the only person to have ever lived there. I remember being about six years old and finding a little plastic doll under the gas fire once and thinking how disturbing it was to think of another young girl playing on the floor of the living room, as I was. The mere thought of her presence could only be a ghost to me, as transient and fantastical as the people on tv.

There was the man next-door who thought we were dirty hippies, but still gifted us with various vegetables grown in his greenhouse, and murmured a gruff hello when we were in the garden.

The long grass meadows out front across the road, where once we made snow angels in winter and walked the dog, where now there’s an estate of houses.

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My wee bro and I hanging out on the patio. Don’t think I have aged at all to be honest.

The home videos from when we first moved in: plastic toys scattering the grubby carpet, school friends garbed in 90s fashion (lilac or orange crop tops, white peddle pushers and velvet hairbands) draped over the ugly, velcro sofa. The dent in the wall from a misfired golf ball; the scorch mark on the carpet where someone dropped char from a shisha pipe. Places on my bedroom wall, behind the plaster, where I scrawled Green Day, then Cat Power lyrics; ‘star pupil’ and various Kerrang stickers that couldn’t be peeled off the wardrobe (also the Metal as Fuck sticker we stuck on the lamp, which I’m sure still lingers, irrevocably); the cupboard under the stairs with the camping gear, the old washing machine and the pervasive smell of must. As soon as you opened the door, you were simultaneously attacked by a falling hoover, a bag of tent pegs and a canopy of jackets.

Whole evenings and afternoons, lost to playing Sim City on the old computer. Waiting patiently for dialup to connect, doodling on wee notepads that my dad brought back from hotels on his business trips. Sifting through stacks of Standard Grade artwork, band posters, electric guitars, music stands, golf clubs, tennis rackets and folders of homework.

I could go on forever listing details. I guess it’s the nature of missing something that you link things together, this endless concatenation of memories. You think it would be claustrophobic, living in a small town, but one of the things I’ve always missed since moving out was the space. You could run up and down the stairs, pretend the floor was lava and jump from sofa to sofa in the living room, stare out the big bay windows not at a yard of bins and more buildings but at the rolling, sprawling countryside. Hear the jackdaws in the chimney, watch the butterflies flutter around the Buddleja, the sunflowers bloom in June after the dying of the tulips. Life had a rhythm; you paid more attention to nature: the creeping in of the spiders in September, the wasps in August that nested constantly outside my mother’s bedroom, to the point where her windowsill was a nasty holocaust of their dying bodies.

My childhood home was flawed. There was the icy drafts that blew in through the floorboards, the lack of a shower, the grit that sometimes spat out the taps, the sound of lorries trundling past, the toilet that struggled to flush, the kids out back that belted JLS songs as they bounced on their trampoline. Sometimes the roof leaked, we had to clean the gutters, the hot water stopped working, the carpet always slipped on the top step of the stairs. Somehow though, despite their irritation, these flaws were endearing. It’s different, I think, when you own a property compared to when you rent: when you own it, the flaws are just something you sort of live with, rather than demand your landlord to fix. When you explain them to guests, you’re only ever semi-apologetic. The embarrassing parts (the Alan Partridge lap dance postcard on the fridge, the broken oven, the cracks in the kitchen tiles which our friends and I used to take apart and reassemble like puzzle pieces, the precarious stability of the garden wall) become something you’re sort of proud of. It seems kind of absurd now to think that one time, in the middle of the night, our garden wall literally just collapsed, blasting bricks across the patio and shattering the wooden bench, sending its splinters as far afield as the neighbour’s garden.

Maybe it’s that shambolic charm that drew me again and again to Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle, as a preteen. I wasn’t just obsessed with the lucidly beautiful voice of the young heroine, her story of unrequited love and the struggle to grow up amidst slightly meagre and crazy circumstances, but also her descriptions of the crumbling castle which her family called home. She describes her first impressions thus:

How strange and beautiful it looked in the late afternoon light! I can still recapture that first glimpse – see the sheer grey stone walls and towers against the pale yellow sky, the reflected castle stretching towards us on the brimming moat, the floating patch son emerald-green water-weed. No breath of wind ruffled the looking-glass water, no sound of any kind came to us. Our excited voices only made the castle seem more silent.

The image is imprinted on her memory, relayed back through her diary; as still as a flower pressed between the pages of a book, as the motionless water, a reflection of a very specific and idealised point in time, the fresh perception of this place that would become the crumbling though romantic ruin of a poverty-stricken home. It is clear that much of Cassandra’s descriptions of the castle are filtered through the discourse of fairytale, though in a knowing, reflexive way, that recognises the flaws of such fantasies. Her sister, Rose, will not be the perfect princess, English Rose though perfect she is; neither will she be the perfectly objective narrator. I just adore the scene when they are drinking outside the village pub: cherry brandy for Cassandra, bright green creme de menthe for Rose, to bring out the russet shades in her hair.

Sitting outside in the comparative paradise of my own garden, I enjoyed the traditional Scottish though equally vibrant liquor of Mad Dog 20/20 to season my youthful palette (unlike Rose, I don’t think my choice of tipple ever worked very well to seduce rich and handsome American suitors). I had the smell of woodsmoke in my hair, the wind coming in off the near-distant sea with a faint and familiar saltiness, the taste of health. There’s something so lovely about that nostalgia, when you can see yourself outside of yourself, picturesque in your childhood surroundings.

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The den beneath the sycamore tree and all its long-faded paint.

In a way, I guess I sort of thought as Daisybank as my castle. We didn’t have a mote, or a crumbling turret, but we had a garden of long grass and dog daisies and a steep drive that kept the floodwater out and the crazed night dwellers away (once, my mother parked the car on the road and some random jakes literally tipped it on its side, so she woke up in the morning to it pouring oil all down the street, like it was weeping sadness and blood). It’s hard to recreate that sense of absolute safety, of home — where all your memories have long seeped into the walls, where you first wept at a book, kissed a boy, got blackout drunk on whisky. All the birthday cakes and candles, the mean words said and the reparations. It’s like the house has witnessed the sweetest and darkest parts of ourselves and god knows it must be a burden to bear those secrets.

It’s kind of impossible for me to imagine the house with new people living in it. It’s even difficult to imagine Maybole without my family living there. You sort of stay in touch via Facebook pages, you have the odd dream about walking down the high street or buying a roll in the deli or sitting on the swings at Miller Park, but you can’t really imagine it just going on being. Like a kind of clockwork village, it stops in your mind when you’re no longer there; when your roots are sort of severed. When people I’d known a long time found out we’d sold the house, they talked about it with the almost the same level of sadness and compassion they would on discovering a close relative had died.

It was a bloody good house; I don’t think I’ll ever live somewhere as nice and homely again – or at least it’ll never be quite the same. There’s just something about the place you grow up in, a magical and elusive quality. I can start to describe it, the pink and orange light seen from the patio on winter mornings, the daffodils on the kitchen table, steam from the iron, the flicker of Sonic the Hedgehog games on the old television, the space under the desk where my dog used to hide on fireworks night; but then here I am again, slipping back into details. You can’t grasp it; it’s in all of these things. Like love. It’s supplementary, in the Derridean sense that it has no inherent presence or meaning: it’s just all the things you try to hold in place for a moment, the mesh of connections and space of interplay that forms, pliably, impermanently, when you try to grasp at the meaning.

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Houses are, perhaps, more than houses. Every writer, every intellectual discipline under the sun has spent centuries debating the meaning of ‘home’, but perhaps houses themselves are equally strange and uncanny. What does a house mean to us after we have vacated it, stripped it of all the stuff that made it personal to us? Can it still be a home? I must admit, I don’t imagine myself living in my old house anymore; I can only see it as it was before. I can recall myself standing in particular locations: the feeling of waking up in my bed, or standing at the sink, washing up on a Sunday evening, watching the birds out the window. Yet when I try to think about how it might be decorated now, what the people inside are doing, I draw a blank. You can’t picture it like in the the Sims; can’t just imagine the drama of the lives within.

Many authors have anthropomorphised the houses in their books. They become characters in themselves, or at least acquire some kind of emotional or physical sensitivity to what goes on in and around them. Toni Morrison, in Beloved, describes the house, from Denver’s perspective, as ‘a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits’: the domestic space is as much a character as Denver herself, it takes on the qualities of and indeed reacts to the events which take place within it. You know that eerie sense of dust settling, of silence and weightiness that falls upon a house after an argument? There’s something to it. An ethereal feeling, a kind of knowingness; as if the house itself could somehow be conscious.

Perhaps the most famous instance of an anthropomorphised house is that of the Ramsay’s holiday home on the isle of Skye in Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. Woolf takes a hefty chunk out of her narrative to describe the process of decay that unravels the household in the Ramsay’s absence. Significant family events, such as marriage, childbirth and death, are confined to parentheses, while intensely lyrical descriptions of the details of the changing conditions of the household are given centre stage:

[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]

And now in the heat of summer the wind sent its spies about the house again. Flies wove a web in the sunny rooms; weeds that had grown close to the glass in the night tapped methodically at the window pane. When darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again. But in the very lull of this loving caress, as the long stroke leant upon the bed, the rock was rent asunder; another fold of the shawl loosened; there it hung, and swayed. Through the short summer nights and the long summer days, when the empty rooms seemed to murmur with the echoes of the fields and the hum of flies, the long streamer waved gently, swayed aimlessly; while the sun so striped and barred the rooms and filled them with yellow haze that Mrs. McNab, when she broke in and lurched about, dusting, sweeping, looked like a tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters.

I just adore this passage for several reasons. It’s full of poetic devices which bring the house itself to life: all the personification which renders objects and shadows and light into living, breathing things. The recurring consonance of the l sound which leads us, liltingly, through all sensory encounters; as if we, occupying and flying through the sentences, were as light as air, a travelling dust mote, surveying the situation. L is a flickering kind of sound, fluttering, leading onwards, somehow soporific. A line like this sends tingles up your spine: ‘the stroke of the Lighthouse […] came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again’. The sentences and descriptions flit between movement and stasis: the loving caress and the sudden shift of a rock, followed by a hanging, a loosening, a suspension. Everything seems to be swinging, swaying; the material of the house unfolds and unravels like a shawl. The zanily surreal image of the housekeeper Mrs. McNab trying to control the chaos in the manner of a ‘tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters’ is deliciously both amusing and vivid, conjuring a sense of the beauty of this interplay of order and decay. It’s a clashing sort of image, the vibrancy juxtaposed with the dulling surroundings, but the effect is to exoticise, just ever so slightly, the whole scene. We are invited to look closer, as if peering through a fish tank. This is more than just a house laying to waste in its owners’ absence. Real empathy is stirred for the house itself: all the ghosts that inhabit the walls, the absence that tears at everything. Objects and noises, the vacant trails where once human footsteps made their passage. Mrs. McNab, in all her matronly cleanliness, is but a colourful fish, pulling itself fleetingly through the reeds. All our efforts to clean up the world, to annihilate its disorder, are perhaps similarly slightly futile.

Throughout Time Passes, Woolf contrasts and holds together opposites: day/night, abstract/specific, growth/decay, movement/stasis, beauty/waste, absence/presence and life/death, to name a few. At once we lament the abandoned house, while also marvelling at the ‘power’ of nature’s ‘fertility’ and ‘insensibility’: the way in which dahlias, giant artichokes, cabbages and carnations continue to flourish amongst the house’s decline. She might as well be describing the inconsistencies and tensions within the psyche of an actual human character. Time veers between eternities and instances; the sheer significance of a death (here, Prue’s) is passed by fleetingly, another stain upon the already well-blotched backdrop of war, a different trauma to the slow, inevitable decline of the house. The writing here is both photographic and cinematic: moving through the stillness of random snapshots to the build-up and unravelling of a time-lapse. Isn’t that like life, like memory itself?

***

‘Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar’

— William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

Maybe home is all about the seductiveness of boredom, the comfort of merely occupying space. Maybe its familiarity is what contains an inherent sadness: a sense of loss stemming from that which we cannot regain, despite our close spatial proximity. Like someone you love but who has changed, irrevocably, drifted out far beyond your reach. Like lost innocence and joy, the way we were before we knew certain things; before life happened, in all its terrible narrative beauty. Quentin’s reflections in The Sound and the Fury have a degree of universal application. Late summer and early autumn; the turning of the seasons, the fading of the year. We spend more time indoors as the air thins to a coolness; we retreat into the safety of houses. Each year, we think back to blackberry picking in gardens, cooking soup on the stove, going back to school. One of my favourite (and pleasantly simple) opening lyrics, from Stornoway’s song ‘Zorbing’: ‘Conkers shining on the ground / the air is cooler / and I feel like I just started uni’. It’s details like that that send us home. Reminders that time moves in loops; that constantly we are living through our memories, mixing the strange and new with familiarity. You don’t necessarily need a specific physical location to be ‘home’. Maybe it’s more complex and slippery than that. Sure, I miss Daisybank like hell, but it’s the details I miss most, and like everything else, with age they acquire that golden, treacly glow of nostalgia. Maybe I don’t need to be Scottish or English or anything at all. I just need to find home. Then I can begin again.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.

— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

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My wee bro & what was probably my first bike in the kitchen, 1997.
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Christmas 2014 in the kitchen
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2011

Other Echoes Inhabit the Suburbs

Other Echoes Inhabit the Suburbs

The soup tasted pretty gross, but April kept right on eating it. For one thing, she couldn’t bear letting her grandma know that the heap of sugar she’d added ‘to bring out the flavour of the carrots’ had rendered the whole dish a form of cloying mush, as opposed to subtle teatime cuisine. Her grandma wasn’t all that good at subtlety. You only had to glance around the dining room, where they were sitting right at that minute, to know that Ms. Grainger (a return to her maiden name after the divorce) had a taste that lent itself to the gaudy and nostalgic, far more than the graceful and subtle. Along the mantelpiece, ugly china ornaments cluttered the marble surface (long overdue a good dusting); the wallpaper, a lurid shade of magenta, bore the same floral pattern it had done 30 years ago. As a child, April enjoyed peeling the corner of wallpaper behind the headboard of her bed, leaving a gape where the plaster underneath revealed itself like a blank and secret canvas. On that surface of plaster, April had written something special, eight years ago, when she first moved into her grandma’s home. The day after her parents died. It had been a long while since she’d checked if it was still there.

Despite her constant culinary failures, Ms. Grainger loved to entertain. She ran a competitive bridge club, who every Thursday traipsed through her door and gambled their pensions away round the dinner table. She still took great pride in her swimming pool, the envy of neighbours for decades now, even though she rarely (if ever) used it herself. Once upon a time, April had splashed around in that pool with her brother and sister, falling off her father’s shoulders as he waded her through the water, laughing. She had advertised her thirteenth birthday as a pool party, gathering all the kids from school round the kidney-shaped turquoise surface, drinking lemonade in the springtime sun. April was named after the month she was born in; when the kids used to tease her and ask her if that was why, she would nod, glumly, complicit in their derision of her mother. Her grandma always said it was a lovely name, but April herself was indifferent to its supposed charms. She realised that probably it was another ornament, a quaint and pretty reminder of a golden, bucolic past, when girls would flock round Maypoles in their white dresses. Maybe it hadn’t been her parents’ choice at all, but another idea cooked up by her grandma.

“Don’t you think it’s marvellous, how Jacob is doing?” Grandma Grainger piped up, pausing to look around the room for dramatic effect, though her only audience was April, along with old Marjorie from down the road. Marjorie, who was half deaf, took a good long minute to process the question before answering.

“Oh, what? Jacob, how is he doing?” Marjorie slurped a spoonful of soup, piercing her lips in mild disdain.

“He’s sailed through his third year of law school, that’s how he’s doing!” Grandma exclaimed, making no attempt to suppress her glee. “They say he got As all through his exams.”

“You must be so proud,” Marjorie said.

“Not only that, but he’s landed quite the internship, out in the city with a big firm.”

“Isn’t that wonderful,” Marjorie said, even more mechanically this time. She, like everyone else, had grown used to Grandma’s bragging, and had developed her own form of automatism to deal with it. April sipped her soup. She fixed her eyes on Marjorie, intent on registering every hint of discomfort that showed on her face. She too would be tasting, right at that moment, the same watery sugary sludge, the faint aroma of sage that cut brutally through the blandness of broccoli, potato, carrot. There was a pleasure in the knowledge that they shared this painful experience, dragging their spoons through the viscous excreta that Grandma Grainger had poured so obliviously into bowls for them.

“And how is Grace doing?” Marjorie asked, clearing the last of her bowl with one triumphant swallow. The question seemed even more forced than the act of putting soup in her mouth.

“Oh Gracey,” Grandma smiled, “she’s doing just fine. Very sensible girl.”

“Is she still wanting to…what was it, design buildings?”

“Yes Marjorie, she’s actually apprenticing as an architect right this minute, though I have high hopes for her and this man she’s living with. He works for a bank and is quite the charmer. I can see them settling down very soon.”

“Children, at her age?” Marjorie seemed mildly alarmed. She had never had kids, and though the subject was once taboo in the neighbourhood, she was now quite proud of the fact that the freedom had allowed her time alone to tinker with her paints, with trips to the seaside – to spend the evening consumed by soap operas instead of her husband’s ironing. Besides, some of the art shops in town had once bought her watercolours.

“Goodness, but wasn’t I firing them out at eighteen? Grace is 22 now, perfectly capable of handling a couple of youngsters.”

“Of course,” Marjorie murmured.

“A year younger than April, in fact,” Grandma found the need to point out, unnecessarily, as April stared glumly into her soup. There was no way of finishing the last of it. Already she felt a little sick. She swirled it round until patterns appeared about the sides, patterns which soon sunk back down as gravity sucked at the sludge.

“May I be excused?” she asked, having long ago perfected the strategic politeness of an obedient grandchild.

“Yes dear, what have you planned for the evening? I was wondering if you’d let Marjorie and I teach you bridge. You could whirl up quite the storm, with those maths skills of yours. I’d like to show you off on our Thursdays. I could do with some more winnings too, now that I think of it. Ethel really swiped us last week, eh?”

“I’m not sure you need maths skills to play bridge,” April said quietly.

“Will you listen to this? The girl really cannot take a compliment,” Grandma retorted. “I’m just trying to involve you dear.”

“I work most Thursdays.”

“Oh well. You spend far too much time alone, it’s not healthy for a young woman. You ought to be more like your sister.” The cutting line. “She’s always telling me – on the phone you know – how much fun she’s having.”

“I’m going out, Gran, I’m going out.” She scraped back her chair and wandered upstairs to her bedroom.

“At this time of night? She must be crazy,” Grandma muttered, out of her granddaughter’s earshot.

“Indeed,” came Marjorie’s reply.

The house was so dark, mostly lit by old-fashioned oil lamps that were stuck to the walls. It was an ex-council house, which Grandma Grainger had spent most of her life trying to make look bourgeois. Most of the houses in the surrounding suburb had been knocked down, upgraded into gleaming new builds, replete with fresh pine surfaces and huge double-glazed windows. Grandma, along with a small handful of fellow residents, had refused this development and by some miracle they were allowed to go on living in their humble hovels. It was a good thing they did, because the new builds had driven the local house prices up considerably, pushing out many of her old friends. It was home now mostly to young families, who relished the picket-fence dreams sold to them in American movies, who wanted to cocoon their kids from the dangers of ‘town’.

It wasn’t just town that was dangerous though. April knew well enough that this house itself could be ‘dangerous’. Many times she had fallen up those creaking stairs in the darkness, had found herself privy to some sordid phone conversation between her grandma and a mysterious third party:

“Oh, a terrible thing indeed!”

“He’s quite the scoundrel!”

“You’ll never believe what she told me she found in his sock-drawer!”

“I heard they’re getting the police involved. A terrible mess, for certain.”

One thing April hated was her grandma’s tone of mock horror, her incantations of scandal. She had perfected it for all the local housewives, proving herself a key player in the steady circulation of gossip upon which the suburb depended. It was worse than Facebook, the way news got around, the way her grandma would dissect every last detail of her neighbours’ lives around the dinner table, while April stared into uneaten soup or peas or sometimes, on Sundays as a treat, ice cream. April deleted her Facebook a long time ago. It provided too many links to her past, reminders of times that were happier, sadder, or at least more complicated. It hurt, to get bound up in all that again. She couldn’t be bothered hurting anymore. She couldn’t help thinking it would be nice to delete real conversation  as easily as she’d gotten rid of Facebook.

“Well I heard he lost his job at the call centre. Shocking, isn’t it?”

April couldn’t help thinking: if only her grandma had employed that tone, to deft effect, when her parents had died. If only she had talked to the in-laws, to April’s father’s family; if only she had been more understanding, less impatient with the lawyers. Maybe then, April would still have another family. As it was, Grandma Grainger was all she had. Jacob and Grace, in all their seeming perfection, were always too busy – out of reach, ploughing headlong into their respective futures.

April’s bedroom, like the rest of the house, hadn’t changed an awful lot since she’d moved in. In fact, her grandma’s kitten obsession had crept its way even in here, in the form of a cross-stitch concocted from a palette of lurid pastels, tacked to the wall by the window. It was a very small window. The carpet was a foul kind of jungle green colour, supposedly a fashionable compliment to the orange walls, though its chic shabbiness was no detraction from the massive stain where Grace (who shared the room with April as a teenager – they slept top-and-tail in the bed) had once spilled half a bottle of red wine. Despite sharing a room for those years before university, Grace and April were never all that close. Grace seemed to find April strange, asking her all sorts of weird questions, as if she were the big sister and not April. Have you ever let a boy touch you? Ever done drugs? Why don’t you ever text anyone, I never see you with your phone. Are you gay? In truth, April had never really understood her younger sister. Her life had always revolved around a carnival of minor dramas – breakups and hook-ups and clandestine phone-calls, which April would eavesdrop on at night, while she pretended to sleep – and the whole wanting-to-be-an-architect thing seemed nothing more than just another design for life that took its place among the rest. Grace had always had plans, always rattled on about some boy she liked, a handbag she was saving for, a class she was intending to drop or take up. They were as sure in her head as the bottles of alcohol she stashed beneath the bed, and as certain to disappear or deplete by the end of the week.

As for April, the whole concept of a ‘design for life’ seemed drastically elusive. She couldn’t quite grasp how some people were able to think into their futures, then spin out a ten-step plan about how they were getting there. She liked lying in her bedroom, listening to obscure classical music, staring at the ceiling, letting the percussion and the elaborate orchestration of instruments and melodies weave themselves into her brain. She had been to university, stuck at it for nearly a whole year, but it just wasn’t for her. The equations and quadratics came easy to her, but everything else had gotten her down. Halls were a drag, seminars were a drag, and getting out of bed in the morning was the biggest drag of all. Making friends seemed to require some impossible formula that nobody had bothered to teach her, and April had made herself content with loneliness.

The mirror in her bedroom always showed you as fatter than you really were. Grace had first pointed this out, aged fourteen, preening her face and frowning as she noticed the curves that she hadn’t noticed before in the old mirror of their parents’ house.

“You haven’t put on weight,” April had assured her, with careful sincerity. Puberty had been the elephant in the room for a couple of months now: April had filled out and sprung up like a runner bean, her feet had grown to an impossible shoe size, while Grace stayed skinny and small as a boy, as her grandma. She became very touchy about it, worrying about every pound she might put on, pinching at her stomach.

“Oh,” she sighed in reply, “yes, it’s just the mirror I think. See the way it stretches out like that? The glass is damaged or something.”

After that observation, neither of the girls bothered much to look in the mirror. For April at least, it was difficult to be narcissistic in a house where every surface, every detail or ornament, sucked your attention away. It was all too lurid, too extreme; there was no place to retreat into the bubble of yourself. You found yourself trapped, submerged even, in the things around you, their perpetual assault on the senses. It wasn’t beauty, because there was no seduction, no entrancement caused between the eye and the objects that absorbed it; it was more like the constant bombardment of sheer stasis. Realising that time hadn’t really changed. Feeling as if time itself were that sticky thing that stopped you from leaving and growing. Grandma herself was as preserved, as perfected, as she was thirty years ago. The hair remained the same dyed silver; the face was as powdered and smoothed as ever. It was only when she frowned or smiled that the wrinkles cracked out around her mouth; otherwise she seemed not much of a breath over sixty. Yes, it was the sense of timelessness that drew April away from the mirror, away from thoughts of the future, of what she would do with her life. The stasis sucked you in, like some kind of chemical in the air.

She had gotten out for nearly a year, but something drew her back. The phrase ‘Boomerang Generation’ meant nothing to April, because coming back to her teenage home wasn’t like bouncing backwards – it was more like sinking into a deep and dirty swamp. The familiar, suburban smells of petrol, musty cars and marijuana. The Sonic Youth CDs she’d drowned herself in as a teenager, losing whole afternoons to that wall of gritty, reverberating sound.

Yes, Grandma’s house was the shrinking bedroom, the endless, empty summers, the grating noise of Kim Gordon’s cool and impassive voice, filling April’s ears through her Walkman headphones.

There were never any pets, no familiar animal presence. When she lived with her parents, there was always a budgie or a hamster or even a goldfish, whose daily needs and eventual deaths provided a healthy sense of normality and temporality and responsibility: they had to be tended to, their deaths were milestones in the family calendar. They had no garden, so it would be a ceremonial trip to the local park, a gathering by some innocent tree for the symbolic burial, followed by a treat – chocolate ice creams and tea. No such markers of time or presence existed in Grandma Grainger’s abode. There weren’t even any family photos; just the kitten pictures, the cross-stitches and faded placards declaring various slogans on love and housekeeping that Grandma herself forgot to live by: Home is Where the Heart Is (did she even have a heart?), A Clean House is a House Well Managed (the dust that covered the placard said enough), and, April’s favourite, Love is All (what was love? what was all?).

Thin as a rake, Grandma was always cold and perpetually had the thermostat turned up full, so that sometimes it seemed as if the walls themselves were sweating. Sometimes, just before dawn, when April would come home from a shift at the petrol station, she would sit in the kitchen eating toast and staring at the wall. As the butter oozed on her plate, greasy and gleaming on her fingers, so too did the floral wallpaper. It was as if the stems were bleeding, dragging themselves down over the other flowers, drowning each other out or else entangling themselves in a choking collective suicide. After a sleep she would check again, much to Grandma’s bemusement, but the wallpaper was the same – tastefully gross but admittedly flawless, unchanged, after all those years.

In her bedroom, April struggled to yank open her window, only managing to open it a crack. It always got stuck. She rummaged in her sock drawer and drew out the little tobacco tin (her grandfather’s, found at the back of a kitchen cupboard) and prised it open carefully, so’s not to spill any of the precious weed on the carpet. She sat on her bed, still sweating, and rolled a joint. It was perhaps the one thing that she wasn’t clumsy at. She bought her weed off a kid she’d known at school, a boy who met her in the carpark by the mall, who wore baseball caps and communicated mostly in grunts and ‘likes’ and ‘mans’. He had a nickname, Rattata, acquired during an epic Pokemon battle he’d won in his first year of high school. Somehow, it had stuck; such was the timelessness of the suburbs.

She left out the back door, trying to attract a minimal amount of attention. Through the window, she could see in the gap between the filthy velvet curtains her grandma and Marjorie sitting round the table still. They would not wash the bowls up, probably not until the morning. Nor would they do something normal, like sit together and watch telly (Grandma prided herself on having never owned a telly, which probably explained her absolute indifference to current affairs and anything which might tenuously be defined as ‘culture’). Grandma would bring out the bottle of sherry from the dust-filled drinks cabinet and they would sip it all night, mostly in silence, punctuated only by Grandma’s vague and inane observations. She saved her best gossip for the neighbourhood mums, not for little old Marjorie. April knew the routine well. That was why she was gasping to escape it.

The night air was cool and sweet. It was funny how you could literally taste it, it was so much nicer than inside. The sprinklers were on in the back garden and their spray lilted across the darkness and snagged a few rainbows from the street lights which poured their light upon the grass. April hung out by the bins and smoked her spliff. The smell rose up, warm and fragrant, curling around the drainpipes, hovering dangerously by Grandma’s bedroom window. April loved the smell of marijuana: the stuff she bought had a kind of spice to it, reminding her of far away locations, exotic places she had only imagined, the lifestyles of those who made a career out of slacking – or, at the very least, a perfected mysticism. She liked the way it numbed and slowed her brain, how it allowed her to focus on single things; how it dissolved, momentarily, the pressure of Grandma’s house, which always loomed, monstrously, at the back of her mind.

She stood for a while, watching a snail slide slowly over the patio, trailing its glimmeringly malignant ooze. Grandma left slug pellets all over her garden, but the little molluscs had grown clever and cunning: they knew their way around her property, how to crawl inside the skirting boards and leave their silvery traces over the carpets, walls and cabinets – even the stacks of housekeeping magazines.

April started smoking weed aged seventeen, two years after her parents died. It was the highlight of her day, lighting up behind the bus station in town, prolonging the return to the suburban hinterlands, watching the sun fold itself neatly behind the high rise buildings. Relishing that lovely oblivion on the bus home, giggling at nothing.

It was the perfect evening for a walk. The streets were pristine, gleaming from the shower of afternoon rain that had now cleared into a late spell of twilight sunshine, that bounced off the white gloss paint of the picket fences and semi-detached houses. Just a few yards from her grandma’s home, April felt lighter already, as if each step was somehow melting her material connection to the world. Often she was gripped with such wonder for things. It made her heart sore, to see the yellow roses in the neighbour’s garden, speckled with raindrops, swaying against the fading sky of pastel blue. Her body no longer mattered. She could not taste the gross sweetness of the soup, nor the earthy residues of the spliff. She felt the houses around her (of which her grandma’s was the sole, grotty anomaly) blur into a white haze, as if they were a chalky plume of cloud, following her, swaddling her. It was lovely. On nights like this, she kept walking.

When she was younger, she walked a lot; mostly to escape Grace (when she had a boyfriend over), or Jacob, who would always ask if she was okay. Grandma didn’t count. She was just there, and then when April crossed the threshold through the door, she just wasn’t. The whole while, she always wanted to get lost. She knew these streets so well, it seemed as if she were walking through a film set, a well-trodden stage which never changed.

Her footsteps echoed on the clean concrete. No chewing gum, no cans or crisp wrappers, as there were scattered around downtown. A man was out mowing his lawn, the grass cuttings billowing up in slow motion behind him.

The light was turning, darkening. April hardly noticed: she was so intent on her walking, that to a passing stranger she might seem possessed by her thoughts – though in truth she thought of nothing at all. She passed through the copse of woods where she had smoked her first spliff, where Katie Willoughby had pushed her into the nettles all those years ago, where Grace (as she had confided, breathlessly) lost her virginity. She passed by the pastel-coloured sheds where people stored cars and gardening equipment, the allotments which sparkled strangely with birdsong, the pile of slates stacked outside the Cherry Tree mansions, the road that led towards her old school. All detail floated by her. Until she heard the screeching.

At first, April thought it was someone being attacked, maybe even raped. The sound was so shrill, so gasping and sharp, that it seemed the definite screech of a tortured human. There was, however, no human voice, no desperate breathing. Just that screech, that terrible wheezing. She tried to identify its source, peering over the tall hedges into people’s gardens, but there seemed to be no person around at all. It was only when she crouched to the ground that the sound got louder, and suddenly April stumbled upon the poor creature who was making the awful noise.

It was a fox, its flesh bearing a graze of barbed wire across its back, gaping and bleeding out onto the grass and concrete. The fox was smaller than April had ever thought foxes were. From her picture book imagination, she had always imagined them larger, perhaps the size of collie dogs, whereas this one was no bigger than the average alley cat, worn scrawny by its scrappy suburban diet. April knelt on the pavement and tried to place her hand on its little head, expecting it to snap at her. Instead, the fox’s body was seized by a great spasm; it jerked violently as if to vomit, but only gasped instead – the kind of breathless gasp that seems to suck a lifetime of oxygen.

“You poor, poor thing,” April whispered, stroking its soft ears as it lay there, whimpering. She had never owned a cat or a dog; she had only watched the blonde labrador that used to skip about the street by Grandma’s house, chased playfully by the kids that lived opposite. The screeching subdued, the fox settled into a kind of stasis. April glanced at the wounds on its back. She couldn’t think where there was barbed wire round here (the allotments, perhaps?), though she had to admit that she wasn’t exactly sure where she was now. Had she really managed to wander far enough to get lost? It was an exciting thought. She found herself dipping a finger into the pool of blood that had gathered on the concrete. It glistened under the lamplight. As if by instinct, she raised the finger to her face and painted two streaks of warpaint on each of her cheeks. The blood thinned to a graininess, mixed in with the dust and dirt of the pavement. A solid feeling of invincibility formed in her stomach, like a knot.

She waited a while in the silence of the evening, alone on this street which she could not name, among houses whose windows were no longer bright and golden. A hundred chintz curtains shut her in darkness.

The day the police phoned, she had been alone in the house: Grace was at choir practice, Jacob at debates club. She remembered the cold feel of the kitchen tiles on her bare feet as she ran through to pick up the receiver, the smell of the toast that she had just burned. What chance of luck had made her pick up? April never answered the phone, but that evening she had. The way the words spilled through the line, clumsy almost, like chunks of food being forced through a pipe; had they made any sense at all? Had she slumped against the wall, the way they did in films? She had experienced that cold certainty, the tingling clarity that got her onto the phone with her grandma, that got her to school to tell her siblings. There’s been an accident. Mum and Dad.

What horror had torn this fox to such misery? Had it chanced its luck in the carpark of some warehouse, raiding the bins for food?

“Poor, poor creature,” she crooned. The thing was quivering, shaking with some savage pain which shook April to the pit of her stomach. Its black glossy eyes were shrunken, yellowed at the corners as if strained by some disease. Only once before had she spotted a fox around the suburbs, but it had sprung away into the shadows of an alley. Making eye contact with this injured thing before her, April felt something dissolve inside of her, the knot unravelling. She curled up beside it, trying to keep the fox warm with the mere heat of her body. The pavement felt cool; the fox smelt of damp fur and trash and blood.

“Hello?” How much time had passed since she had first lain down beside the creature? April sat up with a fright, to meet the gaze of the man standing over her.

“Is everything okay?” he knelt beside her. She could see he was wearing a navy cable-knit jumper, like the ones her father used to wear. He smelled faintly of soap, as if he had just had a shower, and of something else that seemed vaguely familiar.

“It’s-it’s a fox,” April stammered, “I found him on the ground and he’s really sick.”

“Oh.” She moved out the way a little so he could see the animal. “Jesus.”

“What should we do?” It was strange how easy it felt, talking to a stranger. She expected him to unleash a flood of genius upon the situation, to take control, to tell her she’d be safer leaving it in his hands. Instead, he took a seat on the ground. She watched him feel among the matted fur, which was beginning to clump and congeal with dried blood, though a steady stream of fresh stuff still made its way out onto the pavement. There was a deftness to his touch, a gentle, clinical sense of knowing.

“We should phone a vet. They’ll come out to sort it out.”

“Sort it out?”

“Well, put the damn thing out its misery I suppose.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that. You ever had a pet they put down?”

“Um, well, I guess they all just died naturally…”

“I’m a doctor,” he said, after a pause, “I guess I’m used to it.”

“What, death?”

“Mm.”

“It seems strange to say one is ‘used’ to death,” April pointed out. The doctor was surprised at the way she spoke: there was an old-fashioned, perhaps conscious naivety to her diction, reminiscent of some prim heroin of Jane Austen’s.

“Well, I wouldn’t say you ever get used to death,” the doctor replied. “Look, give me a sec, I’m just going to phone a vet. I have a number somewhere, a place that’s on-call 24 hours.”

Time itself suddenly occurred to April. 24 hours. Well, she supposed, it must be somewhere in the middle of the night by now; perhaps she had walked for hours. She listened to the doctor speak on the phone in a hushed yet urgent tone. She wanted to cling to the security of those words, whatever it was they were saying. She watched him click a button on his phone (a Blackberry, she noted), then slip it back into his pocket.

“They’ll be coming within the hour,” he said. “You don’t…you don’t have to wait.”

“It’s okay, I want to.”

“Better get comfy then eh?” a sudden boyish playfulness sprung into his face. “I have an idea. Be right back.”

“Oh, sure.” He hurried up the street again and disappeared round a corner. Those ten minutes while he was gone felt like an eternity. The fox seemed to be in even more pain now, slipping in and out of consciousness, its eyes flickering like the kid in math class who once took a seizure on the floor. April was increasingly feeling privy to some dark reality of the animal kingdom, a turn towards nature’s cruel lacerations. It was as if every minute she swallowed another gulp of the fox’s pain, the barbed wire gashing at her own throat.

The doctor returned, finally, with two bottles of beer. She realised that maybe she was just thirsty. He deftly opened the bottles with an opener attached to his keys. She took the first sip, murmuring thank you, tasting the sweetly bitter tang of the cheap hops. It was strange, the taste, because she had not drank alcohol since her months at university. It wasn’t really the drug of choice in the suburbs. Grandma liked her wine and sherry, but April had never been attracted to that sleepy retreat, the way it made you spill out truth after truth round dinner tables. She had seen enough people ravaged by alcohol, at teenage flat parties, where she stared at the walls while people around her pulled and played cards and were sick. She preferred marijuana, the way it scattered you into laughter, made you slink into sofas, soporific.

“Are you hungry?” she asked the doctor, after a brief pause. “I’ve got sweets.” She slipped a roll of fruit pastilles from her sleeve. Since starting her job at the petrol station several months ago, April had taken to sugar as a means of coping with the insomnia caused by the erratic night shifts, as a means of staying awake after ten hours staring catatonically at a cash desk.

“You’re getting fat,” Grandma told her, a few weeks in. Grandma, who didn’t own a car, had no concept of the world of the petrol station, its jelly-like liquefying of time. With her pinched appetite and terrible cooking, she could have no concept of the need to just gorge. She seemed quite surprised that April could put on weight so fast. She had no concept of coming home, drowsy and stoned at four in the morning, laden with packets of junk food. Of staring mindlessly at the flickers of a screen while stuffing all that salt and sugar in your face. No, she could have no concept of that at all; she was from a sensible generation, she knew the rules, the limits. She had dieted in the eighties, but only because it was fashionable.

April realised how rude it was to offer sweets to a doctor. Would he not warn her of the dangers of tooth decay, diabetes, heart disease? It astounded her that he simply took the first pastille of the roll (a black one) and slipped it between his lips. The alcohol had relaxed, almost instantly, the awkwardness between them.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had one of these,” he chuckled. April grew frustrated with his mildness. She decided to ask him about death again. It seemed so easy, pressing her questions upon the darkness, the distant sound of sirens that filled the streets. She wanted to fill that darkness with everything.

“You’re pretty morbid you are,” he replied to her query, chewing thoughtfully.

“Well isn’t death right here beside us?”

“I guess I can’t argue with that…”

“Have you ever killed a person? she asked brightly, after a pause.

“Of course not—have you?” The beer bottle was still partly wedged between his lips as he spoke, sending his voice into a strange consonance of echoes.

“Well no.” He took the bottle out his mouth.

“I’ve had a part to play. I’ve messed up enough times at work to know that sometimes I’m powerless against death. These dying patients, you realise that their whole lives are closing down. One by one they’re saying goodbye to their will, to their memory, to all those tangible things that kept them together. Personality blurs into a sort of serenity of acceptance, or else twists into violent denial. I’ve had folk scream at me at my practice, telling me I’m wrong. People are so sure that they’re fine sometimes. Then again, so am I. I’ve misdiagnosed before, of course. I thought a man in his mid-40s, non-smoker, vegetarian, track-runner, was fine. He came to me with stomach pains, problems with his digestion. I put it down to IBS, prescribed him some antacids and peppermint tea. A couple months later and he’d lost three stone and was passing blood. It was cancer of the bowels, and he only had three weeks to live. Hell, if I’d caught that sooner…he had a wife and two kids. It still haunts me, I’m telling you.”

“But doctors must make mistakes like that all the time,” April said carefully, “I mean, there are so many illnesses to choose from – it’s impossible to get it right for each person. You’re not a computer.”

“Man, human weakness is no excuse. I was lazy, I should’ve asked him more questions. Can I have another fruit pastille?”

“Sure.” She pushed out an orange one, the last of the packet – she’d wolfed the rest already. A residue of the sugar coating remained on her palm.

“Then there was this old lady,” he continued, after a while, “she had all these problems. Alzheimer’s, kidney problems, trouble breathing and eating – the lot. She just came to me constantly, every week, complaining about everything. Sometimes she collapsed and a neighbour would find her and rush her to A&E. There were never enough beds to keep her for long. She’d always come back to me, just her practice doctor, thinking I had the miracle of life or something. I should’ve referred her to a geriatric specialist. I thought I was being clever, taking on the challenge; I thought all she needed deep down was someone to talk to. These suburban types, sometimes they’ve been shut up all their life, silenced by housework and Vallies. It’s a wee cliche, but it’s kinda true – an army of hypochondriacs.”

“What happened to her?”

“One time she was at a coffee shop, you know the one by the park, Crow’s Cafe I think it’s called. She was just drinking tea and doing a crossword. Collapsed right there and then.”

“Wow.” For a sudden moment, the image of her own grandma flashed into April’s mind: she saw her standing over the sink, washing dishes, staring vacantly at the filthy windows. So transparent, she could be a ghost.

“It was fucking gruesome. Her spleen and all. Kidney failure. They never really told me what happened exactly, but I was heavily disciplined for not spotting the signs.” He added, bitterly: “I nearly took to drink, after that one.”

“You’re a little too young to talk like that, surely.” April sipped slowly on the last of her beer, savouring it, as though if she drank to the bottom of the bottle the conversation would end.

“How old do you think I am?”

“Um, maybe thirty…?” It occurred to April that she hadn’t the foggiest idea how old a doctor was supposed to be. All the ones she’d ever met were in their fifties – at the very least – and this man beside her wore a nice jumper and had nice skin and a smile you could fall for. He could be near enough fresh out of medical school.

He laughed, almost snorted at her suggestion.

“Put it this way…my fortieth birthday seems a long time ago now.” She was conscious that he didn’t ask for her age in return.

“Really?”

“Uh huh. Twenty years ago, near enough, that I told my first patient that she was pregnant, that I first prescribed a batch of sleeping pills, antidepressants. I don’t remember their faces. The woman sent me a card, after the baby was born. I think it was a boy.”

“That’s pretty cool. You have a hand in life and death.” He snorted.

“I wouldn’t say that. I just…notice things.” They were cut short by the sound of the fox wheezing again. Its body trembled, rustling the leaves of the hedge behind it.

“Come on now fella,” the doctor said, awkwardly, as if speaking to a person. April knelt close to it again, stroking it, making soft, soothing cooing noises.

“You have a way with animals,” he remarked, as the fox began to quieten again, “you’re like the fox whisperer.”

“Maybe it’s just cos I’m crap with humans,” April said.

“I guess we all think we’re crap with humans.”

“That’s probably true.” She scrunched the foil of the fruit pastilles wrapper in her hand.

“For some more than others, I can assure you. The benefits of hindsight and age.” She saw him wink at her in the darkness.

“The vet’s taking a long time,” she remarked.

“Oh, they have to come across town,” he said vaguely. “Anyway, what were you doing out this late, wandering around?” It was the unspoken mystery between them, the chance encounter, the dying fox beside them on the pavement, the press of the darkness like the sweet-smelling sheets of a stranger’s bed.

“I…I get sad. Sometimes I need to get out of my grandma’s house. I could feel the walls melting. It’s a nightmare. And you?”

“Believe it or not, I’m wearing pyjamas under this jumper.” He lifted the jumper to reveal a baggy, pinstripe shirt. She noticed a flash of his brownish belly underneath where the shirt rode up, the hint of a snail trail in wisps of hair that she could see even in the darkness. There was a slight paunch, perhaps the only suggestion of middle-age. “My…girlfriend, she’s a doctor too, at the hospital. Works crazy back shifts and nightshifts all the time. We catch each other for lunch, for dinner parties, in bed in the wee hours before dawn. I get lonely: sometimes I can’t sleep and I just get out of bed and walk. There’s never anyone around.” He put down his empty beer bottle, ran a hand through his hair, which was overdue a cut. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

“It’s like,” April replied solemnly, “you sometimes just need the fresh air.”

“Yeah, that’s probably it.”

“I wasn’t even sure where I was, but I think I know now,” she said, “it’s not far from my old school.”

“Have you lived here all your life?”

“Well…since I was a teenager. Something happened to my parents and we had to move from our nice flat downtown to Grandma’s place in the ‘burbs.”

“I bet that was a shock and a half for you.”

“Yes, they died quite suddenly.”

“Oh, er, no I meant the move to the suburbs…I didn’t realise your parents had actually passed away. I’m so sorry.”

“No, it’s okay.” His sincerity made something physically ache inside of April. Who was this man, and what was he doing to her? She felt as if all the scrunched-up resentments of the past few years were slowly melting away, leaving her with a sense of going soft, of somehow opening. It was so easy to just…talk. She stroked the fox’s ears, following a comforting rhythm.

“Yeah, this street…I think I even walked down it to school sometimes. I used to buy sweets at some corner shop. It looks different at night.”

“Indeed.”

“It’s funny,” she said, “I think a boy tried to kiss me once, just over there on that corner.” She gestured to a spot where the pavement rose up to someone’s drive, drenched in amber lamplight. “I’m pretty sure he did it for a joke.”

“What makes you say that?”

She frowned. “Oh I dunno, the look in his eyes. He was popular and they all hated me. He literally asked me the question, stared at me, came up to me out of nowhere.”

“What did you do?” She was surprised to see he seemed genuinely curious. What business did a middle-aged man have caring about the (non)romantic history of a girl almost half his age?

“I told him no thanks.” He laughed.

“Brutal, truly brutal. I’m telling you, you probably broke his puny wee heart.”

“I sincerely doubt it.” There was something so uncanny in the way she said that, I sincerely doubt it: it seemed a thing an older woman would say, someone made weary with bitterness, cynicism; someone with experience under their belt. There was a sort of aged wisdom that sparkled in her eyes when she said it. In the darkness he could not see her blush; could not read in her face that at 24 years old, she had never kissed anyone before.

“Can I offer you a smoke?” he asked, after a pause.

“So you smoke too, do you? I’m beginning to lose my faith in doctors,” she replied wryly.

“Well, you must’ve had a shock, stumbling upon old Fantastic Mr Fox here.” She smiled at his Roald Dahl reference. “And a thing I like to prescribe to myself on such occasions is, well, what you might call the humble drug of the suburbs.” He slipped a tin from his pocket and prised the lid open. There was a baggie of what was unmistakably weed, some tobacco skins and filter tips, like tiny pieces of white candy. “Marijuana.” He winked once again his mischievous wink, and April felt a tingling in her stomach.

“Yes please,” she said without pause. She felt like a child at a restaurant, being offered some exotic food for the first time. She watched him deftly roll a joint, handling the paraphernalia with the ease and grace of someone who spends all day tinkering with syringes and stethoscopes and thermometers. He lit up and sucked in the first draw, his face alight in the orange glow. In that slight intensity of light, she noticed the tiny lines that crinkled in the corners of his eyes, the tiredness that cut shadows underneath them.

He passed her the spliff. It tasted very sweet, and she realised there were little strawberries printed all over the skin.

“Yeah…” the doctor said awkwardly, “I find it hard to deal with the feel of tobacco in my mouth, so I use flavoured skins, like some brazen wee hussy from an American high school movie.”

April drew a long deep lungful of smoke. The weed was very sharp and bitter, but the strawberry taste smoothed it out.

“You just used the word hussy,” she stated.

“I know, is that very awful?” the doctor lay back against the hedge and giggled like a schoolgirl.

“Probably,” April replied. She took a few more greedy draws then passed the spliff back to him. The stuff was evidently much better than what she procured from Rattata. Already she could feel something lifting in her stomach, her brain sort of crumpling, lightening, as if filling up with a strange, ascendant vapour.

“Do your colleagues know you smoke this?” she asked, in all sincerity.

“Oh, I suppose they have an inkling that I’m not quite…orthodox.”

“I always wondered how you were supposed to have fun, as a doctor. Like, golf and stuff. Red wine, because it has antioxidants?”

“Terribly boring, eh?” he smiled. She saw that his lips were quite dry and pale. “I guess there’re some teenage habits you just can’t give up. I only do it alone these days. My girlfriend would kill me if she knew.”

At this point, April was only half-listening. Her hand was on the belly of the fox, softly stroking the ruined fur, feeling the troubled rhythm of its breathing. A Sonic Youth song – one she hadn’t heard in years – was pulsing through her head:

Everybody’s talking bout the stormy weather

And what’s a man to do but work out whether it’s true?

Looking for a man with a focus and a temper

Who can open up a map and see between one and two

“I just realised something.” The doctor straightened himself up from his slumped position. “Is that blood caked in your cheeks?”

“What?” April had totally forgotten about the tribal marks she had smeared on her skin on some bizarre impulse. “Oh.”

“I thought it was just the shadows from the street lamp, but no, I can see it now.” Then he did something strange. He licked his finger and placed it on her cheek. He gently wiped away the marks. Then he put the finger in his mouth.

“Bitter,” he muttered.

April finished the last of the spliff, stubbing it out into the ground, well away from the fox. She remembered, then, what she had written, all those years ago, on the exposed plaster behind her bed: I Hate Everyone. 

It was only now that she experienced the vague realisation that maybe she didn’t.

“I think it’s so sad,” she began, “the way things can just die like this. Who knows what it went through? It’s like, why should an innocent creature be torn to shreds like that? For what? An accident? I don’t understand how easily death can just happen. It can just shake up the world for a second and then it goes on as normal. And so often we take for granted the difference – between life and death – like seeing death as this other realm, dressed up in old age and frailty and all this flowery symbolism, but actually, actually, it can happen at any time. It can be as part of your life as brushing your teeth in the morning. It hangs over you, as easily and constant as routine. You could die anywhere, you could stumble upon someone dying.” There was a pause of silence between them. April felt warm and content at her own eloquence. They listened to a trio of starlings in the tree behind them, presumably settling down to roost.

“I used to be suicidal,” he said suddenly, “as a teenager. I never told anyone. For six months of my life I thought about death everyday, and I never told anyone. I would write all my plans on scraps of my maths jotter: tonight I will take my mother’s pills; today I will hang myself. I won’t eat or drink anything, so that I can starve to death. It felt safe, having those notes on me all the time. Then one day – the day I decided to be a doctor I guess – I realised that what was the point in death? It wasn’t even giving up, it was making an effort for something that didn’t want you. Like unrequited love. I knew then that suicide required an act of will that I didn’t have. Since then, I’ve been a slave to anatomy. There’s something soothing about studying the body in this precise, objective way. You stop thinking about that abstract thing inside yourself that you want to kill. Eventually, it just sort of goes away.” He sighed deeply. “You don’t forget, but you can make it go away.”

“Do you think everything happens for a reason?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he admitted, “I think everything just…happens. We make the reasons, maybe.”

“My parents were killed in a car crash when I was fifteen. It was no-one’s fault. Just two sets of people clashing on bad luck.”

“I’m so sorry,” he repeated the phrase from before, when she had first told him of her parents’ passing. His sincerity seemed genuine, and not the perfected sympathetic stare of the medical professionals April was used to dealing with in the immediate aftermath of their deaths.

“It’s okay,” she said, “it was a long time ago now. Nearly ten years…”

“Do you ever wonder about the future? I suppose you have a glittering career ahead of you, smart girl like you from the suburbs, living faithfully and chastely with her grandmother…”

“No, I can’t,” she said bluntly. She was struggling for the words, waiting to snatch them out of the air; she was so high now that she seemed to be speaking through fog, the words churning and swirling in her brain.

“The world is just day after day after day and will anything change or happen? I feel like I’ve been preserved in jelly, destined to play out the rest of my days in this stasis…but it seems impossible to imagine time not happening anymore, the world going on without you, consciousness itself dissolving. I can’t see what it’s like, not existing. It’s kind of exciting, more tangible maybe than any real change you could have in life. I feel like the death of my parents was the one shock, the thing that would decide the rest of my future. But what future? Nothing changes in the suburbs.”

She pictured the ripples of her years, spreading out from that central, dramatic node: the stone thrown in the water, the shrapnel left by two cars crashing.

“Things do happen,” the doctor whispered. And then she felt him lean in towards her, over the dying fox, his warm marijuana breath suddenly so close to hers. His hand slid into her hair and he pulled her close to him and kissed her on the mouth, softly at first, and she felt the press of his lips which were so light and almost papery dry and she was conscious of how wet her own felt, tasting of cannabis and fruit pastilles. She felt his tongue push through and dance around her own, slippery and not at all awkward as he led the way, their heads moving together just so. His stubble left a faint, grazing feeling on her cheeks. He pulled away, after what seemed a long, long time – this interlude in reality, strange and sweet.

April leant back against the hedge and looked up at the cherry tree in the garden opposite. She knew it would be bearing fruit now, little glossy cherries that would shrivel and fall off in autumn. She felt a lightness inside of her burst open, a kind of pale fire in her chest.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Just then, a flurry of lights cascaded down the road as the vet’s van pulled round the corner. A single man got out the van. April noticed the pale toothpaste blue of his coat, the Converses he wore on his feet.

“Over here,” the doctor called out. The vet slammed his door and strode over to them with nothing in his hands.

“Oh dear,” he said, “what happened to it?”

“We don’t know,” the doctor replied firmly, “he was just here.” The vet knelt down and gently turned the fox over slightly.

“He’s a she,” he said.

“I found her,” April piped up, glancing at the doctor. “I think she got caught in barbed wire.”

“Well, the thing’s lost a lot of blood,” the vet observed blankly. He would never get used to these calls in the wee hours; his head was still swimming from the evening operation he’d performed on someone’s cat, back in the surgery.

“Are you going to…?” the doctor looked at the vet uncomfortably.

“Yes,” he replied. “I see no other way. Nobody owns foxes as pets so there’ll be no bother with that. There’s nothing else we can do for it I’m afraid.” April thought then what a sad thing to say, that in the end they could do what they wanted to the creature, because nobody owned it. She herself felt a strange propriety over the animal, as if she wanted to shelter it from its cruelly inevitable fate.

“I’ll foot the bill,” the doctor said quickly, “I don’t mind.” There was such gravity in those three words, I don’t mind, that he could be talking about paying the medical bills for his own child, never mind some stray fox who’d stumbled into a roadside accident. The vet seemed impatient.

“No, no, there are council fees I can claim for this…duty. Don’t worry.” He went back to his van and returned with a plastic box that matched the blue of his tunic. April noticed his fingers were shaking slightly as he fixed up two syringes with the solutions contained in little glass phials. The doctor held his phone out as a torch, while the vet fiddled around with his drugs. April stroked the fox’s ears. Its wheezing was growing more intense, more laboured. The blood had seeped right out onto the road.

“It’s okay,” she whispered, to no-one or nothing in particular. Somehow, saying it felt like taking control of the situation. She could feel the adrenaline start to rush round her stomach.

The vet searched the fox’s neck for a vein. April was told to step back as the doctor held its head and legs still. Sure enough, the fox mustered enough strength to snap at the vet’s arm, but the bite narrowly missed. The first injection, the vet explained, was a strong muscle relaxant. The second was the anaesthetic overdose. It took just a couple of minutes to shut the life out of this animal, this russet-coloured beauty of the streets who had once roamed and scoured and hunted for fun. What was left was this bloodied toy of a creature, which the vet so effortlessly scooped into his arms and took back to the van.

“What are you going to do with her?” April asked urgently. She noticed that the doctor was distracted by his phone.

“We can take the animal back to the surgery to be properly destroyed,” the vet explained, regaining the strength of his clinical tone, the relief that soon he could be home and in bed again. “You did the right thing. We put it out its misery.”

Once upon a time, Jacob had brought in a dying bird from the park where they used to play near their parents’ old flat. It was such a small thing, cradled in his palms.

“Probably got by a fox, or more likely a cat,” their father had said, laying the creature out on a paper towel on the kitchen table.

“Can we save it?” Jacob had asked, eyes wide in earnest. He was nine years old at the time, eager to exact a place for everything in the universe. He would not let his sisters anywhere near the bird, which had to be, irrevocably, his personal discovery.

“Best to put it out its misery.”

Had her father said it as coldly and triumphantly as that? April pictured him now, gaining power over the situation as he instructed the children to leave the room, then bent over the thing to wring its tiny neck. End the pain. The following evening they all traipsed down to the park to bury it in a shoebox, along with the hoards of other dead pets whose shallow graves had amassed over the years. Perhaps there was some law against burying your animals in a public place, but April’s parents seemed never to care a fig what anyone else thought, digging out their makeshift animal tombs with gardening trowels while the other parents looked on with a kind of supernatural horror.

“Well thanks.” The doctor shook the vet’s hand. The hand that had killed.

“It’s no problem. Er, do either of you need a lift home?”

“I live just up the road,” the doctor explained.

“I’m fine,” April said quickly. The last thing she wanted was a ride with that dispassionate harbinger of death. Already she could see hints of the sun coming up and a walk home through the pastel glow of dawn seemed the perfect way to gain some catharsis from this incident. She suddenly felt very numb.

“You’d better clean yourselves up when you get in, you look like you’ve been at the scene of a murder!” the vet joked as he opened the door of his van, where the fox’s body was already loaded. April glanced down and realised that sure enough, there were great bloodstains caked in her bare knees, all up her calves and along her arms. The van drove off. She looked at the doctor and he looked back at her and they both laughed. Maybe they were still high; maybe it was the adrenaline; maybe it was just the relief.

“Well,” he said, after they had regained control over their breath.

“I guess I better split,” April murmured. The doctor glanced at his phone.

“Yeah, Amy—er, my girlfriend’s— finished her shift. She’ll be back soon. I’m supposed to do the right thing and go home and make her grilled cheese.” He smiled wryly.

“It was nice meeting you.” She thrust out her hand, an awkward reaction to the ensuing silence. “I’m April.” Laughing again, he took it and shook it firmly.

“I’m Jonathan. April’s a lovely name.”

“T-thanks.”

“It was nice meeting you too,” he said, playing along with the sudden formality, “and I’m sorry, well, sorry for…”

“No,” she interrupted, “it’s totally cool, really. Thank you.”

“Right, well.” He noticed with a shock that her eyes were shining with unspilled tears. She kept looking down at her feet. In an awkward, fatherly gesture, he sort of rubbed and patted her shoulder, then drew away again. In that moment, she seemed as vulnerable and defeated as the fox that had lain at their feet.

“Um, maybe see you again sometime?”

“Y-yeah,” she said. She couldn’t hold in the sigh that then escaped her lips.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, I just…” she paused. “I just wished we could’ve done something to save it. The fox.” As soon as she said the word ‘fox’ she realised she meant something else also: the moment, perhaps, that handful of hours they had shared, alone in the suburban gloaming, with the orange lamplight and the greenish shadows of the hedges and cherry trees, the spray of sprinklers intermittently twinkling in the neighbouring gardens. All the words they had said: hardly any, but so precious to her now as she saw it all disappearing, as she clasped at this silence between them, trying to preserve it in memory. The taste of the doctor’s mouth, clean and dry with the faintest tartness of marijuana, the blackcurrant fruit pastilles.

“If there’s one thing you’ll learn in life kiddo,” the doctor said, “it’s that there’re some things you can’t control, you can’t save or change.” And then he added, mysteriously: “you’ve got to work with what you’ve got. Everything else is just…nature. The course of life.”

“S-sure…yes, I guess so.”

“Don’t worry about it, it’ll be okay. Take care.”

He watched as she turned away, denying him the twinge of her smile – as she began to amble back up the street. He watched her until the sliver of her silhouette – the swollen thighs squeezed into denim shorts – had turned the corner, then he made his way across the road, back into his own house, where the door closed tight on the last of the evening.

***

She was standing over the swimming pool in her grandma’s back garden, near-naked in the pallid morning light. It was that queer interlude between dawn and night, where the sky acquires a nacreous frailty, burst intermittently with the blue and yellow watercolours of a morning. The pool was variously still and rippled, buffeted occasionally by the slight blasts of wind which were picking up in the trees, shaking some of the leaves off their branches and onto the water. There was a slight coolness to the air that was almost autumnal, but something inside April felt warm and fiery. She realised she had sweated through all her clothes, and so took them off. Just like that: she pulled off her t-shirt and unzipped her skirt, thrust aside her shoes and socks. In the light she saw more clearly how they were covered in blood. It had seeped through to her skin, so that her feet too bore the dying essence of that fox. She didn’t spare a thought for the neighbours, who, if they had been awake, would most certainly have had full view of her bare white body through their windows. There were no secrets, not even in the gardens or the back lanes of this neighbourhood.

She found herself slipping into the water. The pool had been utterly disused for at least a year now, though the man still came twice a month to clean it of leaves and dead insects, to pump it with fresh water and scrub the grime that gathered around the sides, to pinch out the weeds that grew in the tile cracks. April had forgotten that feeling of absolute submersion. She tugged her hair out of its braids and dunked her head under the water. It was her brother who had first taught her how to swim. She saw now the ghost of those flexing muscles, the firm tanned arms scooping the water as easily as knives being drawn through butter.

She was seven years old, the holiday they took on the coast. The sea spray licked her neck; the cries of the gulls were a sadness her childish heart could not bear. She preferred the anxious, argumentative coos of the pigeons in the city. The jackdaws she could hear at night, nestling and rustling for fruit in the cherry trees.

She liked the look of her limbs in the water, fish-like and shimmering.

She started to swim in laps, gathering momentum to the breaststroke she had first learned all those years ago. There was a slightness of violence to each bending kick.

Sometimes she rolled over onto her back, letting the water, the slipstreams of her movement, buoy her body up for awhile. From above, her body would seem a pale sliver; from as high as an airplane, she could be just a piece of plastic litter.

She plunged through the water, again and again, her arms sluicing little currents around her. She felt the steadiness of the world slowing down, the sense that there could be nothing else except for the perfect emerald of the water, the white of the porch lights turned on like clockwork by her grandma’s timer, the soft ebullience of an uncertain sun. It seemed there could be nothing in the world so pure as the pool water. She felt light and clean and free, just swimming and swimming.

For a moment, she pictured the doctor in bed with his girlfriend. Would their bodies fold over each other, like koi fish caught up in the quivering swirls of their chiffony fins?

She thought of his tongue in her mouth, its lubricious, hungry press against her own.

It ached a little, to think of that. She plunged deep to the bottom of the pool, brushing the tiles with her hands. She pulled herself into contorted positions: front rolls and twists and hand stands. Underwater she felt lithe and elastic as a ballerina; her body was just this flexing and yielding of muscle. It was as if she didn’t even need to breathe.

She pictured the fox, tangled in barbed wire, making its final, bloodied struggle along the pavement. Had it tried to cross some boundary line, a manmade defence against that which would penetrate some inward purity? A children’s playground, a walled garden, a hospital?

She pictured the fox down some suburban back alley, skulking around for trash. She saw it murdering the starlings from the cherry trees, tearing them up in a scattering of cries and feathers. Not even bothering to finish them off.

Her mother and father in a car crash, all metal and flesh and seatbelt leather, the eerie screeching of brakes. The trailer clip of their deaths she had played over again and again, sleepless each night in the terror of waking dreams, until the weed had abated the awful addictiveness of that fantasy. Its hazy shroud, smoked daily, was the only escape. It was like inhaling the detritus of the earth, entering into a polluted communion with waste itself, rebelling against the aseptic surfaces of the suburbs, clawing deeper with every toke.

She climbed out of the water, finally exhausted.

In the glazed, cerulean surface, she saw herself: milk chocolate eyes wide as marbles. Its fluid reflection was as mercurial as the mirror in her bedroom, the shimmering, distorting wallpaper, the surfaces of wood, metal, plastic, glass and carpet which seemed to ooze and blend into one another. Inside the house, everything flowed and churned in static repetitions of temporality, of reality itself, whereas here there was a possibility of solidity. The tiles around the pool clung to her pale cold skin. It was so easy to just fold inwards, to just lie down, right there, in the sweet gold light…how easy to be that sliver of a thing, which the world would burn through in its indifference.

“April? April dear, is that you?” It was Grandma Grainger, leaning out the bathroom window which overlooked the back garden. Her voice echoed around the surrounding houses. She repeated herself when she saw no movement of registration from her granddaughter, who lay by the pool on her side, like a beached seal.

Grandma came running out into the garden, cradling a huge white towel that she’d grabbed from the linen cupboard, neatly folded.

“Oh darling!” she knelt over April’s wet body, her underwear soaked through and the skin of her fingers wrinkled slightly from the water, like long thin prunes. She realised that the skinny, teenage girl she had watched since her own daughter’s death had filled out with fleshy, swollen curves. She was there in front of her; she was substantial. As if in pain, April groaned a little, and her grandma breathed a sigh of relief, to see she was alive at least.

“You look so very pale,” she said, tutting with disapproval. “Sit up.” Unconsciously, April obeyed this instruction. She hugged her knees and let her grandmother wrap the towel around her shoulders, feeling like a child again, small and vulnerable. It was soft and almost warm. Another kind of shroud.

For a while, they sat like that in the quiet suburban garden, the only sound being the soft calls and song of awakening birds. So close they seemed, yet distant. The two women did not appear to be speaking to one another. They just sat together, as if they were static ornaments in the mise en scene of a film set: April enveloped in her white angelic veil, shuddering in the cold, Grandma Grainger folded in the cream-coloured silk of her nightgown. The garden was bathed in a queer blue glow that seemed to emanate from the pool.

Grandma did not comment on the bloodstained clothes, nor the fat, silvery tears which were suddenly pouring from April’s eyes, uncontrollable as the rain that came in a storm. There was something elemental and strange in that unexpected display of emotion. She did not think she’d ever seen her granddaughter weep, not even after her parents died, or when she came back from university, defeated.

“I wondered where you’d gone off to for so long,” she said quietly, picking at a tiny chip in her vermillion nail polish. In the ensuing silence, Grandma knew that she would never get an answer, not properly: April really was this unknown entity, an absolute other who she could do nothing for but care for unconditionally. It was a sorrowful burden, the love of this shivering thing beside her, an adult and yet a girl, almost an alien.

Fighting the paralysis that had overcome her in the cold, April dipped her toe back into the pool water. The ripples undulated outwards, as if she had just pierced some huge and molten jewel. All you had to do was find the weak point.

“Oh, what are we going to do with you?” Grandma sighed deeply, her voice a fragile croak, almost lost in the rustling roar of the poolside trees. The breeze would come and go; would rattle the branches then leave them in silence again.

“What are we going to do with you indeed,” Grandma repeated, as if for good measure. She was surprised when April opened her mouth to reply.

“I don’t know,” she said, teeth chattering, “but maybe we’ll figure it out tomorrow.” She wrapped the towel tighter round her shoulders, then stared back out at the water, at the spot where she had just dipped her blueish toe, the ripples spreading outwards still, stiller and still.

Top 15 Albums of 2015

 

(in alphabetical order…)

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Beach House, Depression Cherry 

It’s moody and melancholy and perfect for Sunday afternoons in winter, where hardly an hour of light graces us with its presence. The singing is woozy and lush, the track titles are typical Beach House (‘Wildflower’, ‘Levitation’, ‘Days of Candy’) and a mellow, dissonant drone seems to drift over most of the songs. There’s a whispery feeling to the vocals and a scratchy-sounding organ keyboard. Also, the album is coated in soft red velvet, so the physical copy is pretty beautiful, and there’s definitely a ‘tactile’ sense to the music itself, with all the sparkling effects and the echoing texture of Legrand’s voice. I like Beach House for the same reason I like Cocteau Twins: the music enfolds you like the atoms (or pixels?) of another world – it doesn’t sound 100% human, there’s something too mystical about it. The band released a website with typed lyric sheets, which adds to the sense that the whole album is a hazy collection of dream poems. It was released in late summer but I have listened to it a lot more in winter; it’s like the sound of  Victoria Legrand’s hazy, drifting vocals is better suited to the cold weather, the whiter light, the sheen of ice.

Favourite tracks: ‘Space Song’,  ‘Levitation’, ‘PPP’.

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Beirut, No, No, No

There were a few weeks where I sort of just played this album on repeat in the restaurant where I work. Generally it was pretty harshly reviewed and there is a sense that single tracks stand out more than the whole. Still, I appreciated that cheerful continental folk vibe to get me through the autumn and winter with its remnants of pastel-hazed summer. Even though the songwriting might not be as *original* or *inventive* as 2011’s The Rip Tide, you can have a lot of fun with some staccato beats and percussion. Plus I love a bit of brass.

Favourite tracks: ‘No, No, No’, ‘Gibraltar’, ‘Perth’.

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Belle and Sebastian, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance

Just the sort of lively pop weirdness you need to brighten your January, when the album was released. I love Belle and Sebastian, the way they create simple catchy folk-pop but base it around stories and characters and inventive lyrics about lost girls and ~cutely~ wayward indie kids. There’s a bit more experimentation than usual on this one: from the funky disco atmosphere of ‘The Party Line’  and ‘Perfect Couples’ to the epic near-7-minute dance track ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’, there’s something for everyone. ‘Nobody’s Empire’, which approaches the subject of lead singer Stuart Murdoch’s MS, reveals Murdoch’s general genius for lilting melodies punched through with a weightier-than-usual buildup and bass line. ‘Ever Had a Little Faith’ is maybe the closest song to old-school Belle & Sebastian. Generally this album is full of interesting licks and typically witty lyrics, and its experimentation lends well to repeated listening.

Favourite tracks: ‘Nobody’s Empire’, ‘The Party Line’, ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’.

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Blur, The Magic Whip

Blur’s first album since 2003, The Magic Whip is kind of a mystical, surreal experience. Along with the artwork (a neon ice cream and some Chinese lettering), the album’s whole vibe sort of reminds me of this weird game I used to have for Sega Megadrive where you could do fight scenes on top of an apartment roof in the depths of Tokyo. Everything was blurry and glitchy and full of bright lights against the backdrop of glittering darkness. The Magic Whip is set in Hong Kong rather than Tokyo, but it has that strange sense of futuristic metropolitan darkness. It takes away the grunginess of Blur and sonic spaciness of 13 and enters a more self-aware, perhaps even ‘postmodern’ (ugh, the implications of that term) territory.

Well, for one there’s the obvious cultural borrowing from Hong Kong, where the album came together; there’s also the sense of meta-britpop on songs like ‘Lonesome Street’ and ‘I Broadcast’ which update the whistle-along laddish bounce of 1990s culture for a more accelerated version of the jaded digital and cosmopolitan era (‘Lonesome Street’ is overlaid with the sound of someone reporting – on the news? – sparkling synths and echoing city street noises). The sense of absurdity and collapse, like in ‘I Broadcast’ where the chorus falls into the repeated line: I’m running being played over Graham Coxon’s sharp guitar. It’s a complex and intriguing album with some sweet bass lines and dreamy Damon Albarn vocals. Listening to it really does sort of take you somewhere else. Also, ‘Mirrorball’, the record’s final song, sounds almost like it belongs on a David Lynch soundtrack.

Favourite tracks: ‘Ghost Ship’, ‘Pyongyang’, ‘My Terracotta Heart’.

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Clarence Clarity, No Now 

From the glitchy, 90s Windows computer aesthetic of its videos to the vibrating bass, disco rhythms and shrieking guitars and falsetto vocals, this is one crazy good album. Not many folk are brave enough to put out 20 tracks on their debut album, but the effect of doing so sort of drags you underwater into a world of sound that’s electric as a field of lightning, as shrieking neon as that purple lava you get in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Chemical Plant Zone. Sorry, is that mixed metaphors? Who cares, with music like this, everything is mixed to fuck. 

Some of the songs have a cinematic feel, which is hard to define except for a sort of atmosphere created by all the glitchy sound effects and samples (listen to the start of ‘The Gospel Truth’, for example). It’s a relief when Clarity strips back into ‘purer’ or softer vocals (see ‘With No Fear’), but also a great feeling when the effects pedals step on again, like having water thrown over you. Cold, shocking, refreshing. Kinda like the whole album. You’ve got references to ‘worm holes’ and ‘cancer™ in the water’ and all sorts of surreal cyber imagery and staccato vocals in reverse (‘Tathagatagarbha’ is straight out of Twin Peaks’ Red Room, right?). ‘Those Who Can’t, Cheat’ is the kind of psycho disco death funk they would play at the end of the world. I was lucky enough to see Clarence supporting Jungle in Edinburgh this year and I can say that it all sounds sweet as hell live – the band’s energy really plays out the craziness of the album – which isn’t always always the case when the production is one of the best parts.

Favourite tracks: ‘Those Who Can’t, Cheat’, ‘Bloodbarf’, ‘Will to Believe’.

(Also, I think ‘Hit Factory of Sadness’ is one of my favourite song titles ever).

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Foals, What Went Down 

I guess the critical/commercial success of Foals’ fourth album (in October they were voted ‘Best Act in the World Today’ at the Q Awards) means I don’t need to say much to justify my choice. I’ve been with Foals ever since they were bouncing out math rock on early Skins, and this album was no letdown. For one, it has several tracks which follow in the footsteps of ‘Spanish Sahara’: ‘London Thunder’ is a beautiful, atmospheric track with a lovely build, and even Lana Del Rey has sung her praises for ‘Give It All’, which addresses love as a kind of fragile presence/absence, of digital melancholia – ‘Give me the way it could have been / Give me the ghost that’s on the screen’. ‘Birch Tree’ has that sort of upbeat, syncopated feel reminiscent of ‘My Number’ (from Holy Fire). Other than the softer tracks, it’s a whole lot rockier than previous albums, especially on the frenzied ‘What Went Down’ and jangly guitar rhythms of ‘Mountain at My Gates’. I listened to this all throughout the month it took to move from my old flat, so it will always have that sense of dislocation and haunting futurity for me… (plus the stress of shifting boxes and scrubbing kitchens).

Favourite tracks: ‘Mountain At My Gates’, ‘Birch Tree’, ‘London Thunder’.

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Gaz Coombes, Matador

I have to confess that while Matador was released in April, I didn’t actually listen to this album until about a month ago, when I found out my cousin (the lovely Hannah Lou Clark) was supporting him on his UK tour dates. I saw Supergrass a long time ago when they supported Coldplay at Bellahouston Park, but I don’t remember much of it, especially as I was right at the back! This is such a gorgeous album though, I swear I’ve listened to ‘Matador’ on repeat to and from work for the last fortnight at least. It has great range and depth, another fine example of the maturity that can come out of the Britpop era. Coombes can sound both delicate and powerful, and there’s a certainty, a sureness, to this record. There are songs whose haunting atmosphere is complimented by stunning but simple lyrics (‘Worry fades the soul away / I’ll take the hurricane for you’ – ’20/20’) and climactic choruses. If I close my eyes I imagine this song being played over a dramatic film scene, like someone running through city streets, a breakdown, things exploding, changing. Something like that. I know it’s cheesy but there are definitely songs on this album which you could call sublime in the true sense of the word. Disorientating, awesome, majestic, powerful. Gospel influences, electronic beats, acoustic guitar. I’m still in love with it.

Favourite tracks (this was difficult, and may change): ‘The Girl Who Fell to Earth’, ‘Matador’, ’20/20’.

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Kurt Vile, B’lieve I’m Going Down

Aw man, there’s just this beautiful twang to Kurt Vile’s music that is so addictive. It’s not just his hair. The country twang of guitars, his sweetly droning, idiosyncratic voice. You can see the influence of Nick Drake, maybe a touch of Dylan, but also a very modern sense of disconnectedness, of goofiness even – the sense of being very self-aware but at the same time alienated from who that self is. Some of the songs sound a bit ballad-like, but there’s always a kind of dissonant, bluesy twist. He really nails his lyrics and imagery too: ‘I hang glide into the valley of ashes’, ‘A headache like a ShopVac coughing dust bunnies’. The twinge and stuffed wordiness of ‘Pretty Pimpin’ proves strangely addictive, as does that developing, repeating, turning, twanging guitar riff. ‘That’s Life, tho (almost hate to say)’ is a darker, sadder sort of folk ballad. Generally, it’s an album to listen to dreamily, maybe on a car journey, but also one that goes well in the background of bars, because it’s lively enough, and pretty damn cool.

Favourite tracks: ‘Pretty Pimpin’, ‘That’s life tho (almost hate to say)’, ‘I’m an Outlaw’.

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Lana Del Rey, Honeymoon

I could rave about Lana all day. She has the genius of Lady Gaga, Bowie and Madonna in her creation of the ‘gangster Nancy Sinatra’ persona, but an old-school Hollywood voice that haunts and croons and glides over dark, sweet melodies. Honeymoon is very much a coherent piece of art. It’s a very visual album, much in the tradition of Del Rey’s previous work (the monochrome vibe of Ultraviolence played out in the gloomy, stripped back energy of the Dan Auerbach produced songs). Picture a summer-hazed beach with pastel huts and neon-signed strip clubs, peeling paint. Lana writhing about in her mint green muslin in the video for ‘High By the Beach’. It’s her dark paradise, a retro realm of sweet pop richly infused with jazz, blues, R&B, trap, disco and poetry. The loveliest recital of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ I’ve ever heard, soft and haunting. A Nina Simone cover. Tracks like ‘Salvatore’ and ‘Terrence Loves You’ really demonstrate the crystal clarity of her voice, as well as the strength of her range. The title track can be described in many ways, but I prefer the terms glimmering and cinematic. Really, it was the perfect soundtrack for a melancholy, post-graduation summer — except I swapped the retro cars and ice cream for long walks in Glasgow rain.

Favourite songs (again, so hard): ‘Terrence Loves You’, ‘Honeymoon’, ‘The Blackest Day’.

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Laura Marling, Short Movie 

It’s quite lovely to witness Laura Marling’s music maturity. From the honest folk pop of Alas I Cannot Swim to the stronger, mythological tones of Once I Was an Eagle, she has really developed and expanded her sound, not just in a literal sense but in a metaphysical one too. Does that make sense? I mean the way that her music opens worlds up. Eerie, dark soundscapes and cessations of space, interruptions and pauses and softly twangling guitars. Opening track ‘Warrior’ is spellbinding, allusive and elusive; full of echoes and misty vocals, guitar licks that curl round and round. It feels distinctively American, as opposed to, for example, the Englishness, countryside sweetness of I Speak Because I Can. There’s a sense of being lost, looking for something (‘the warrior I’ve been looking for’), of endlessly journeying.

For most of the record Marling steps away from the acoustic songwriting (delicate, but sometimes forceful) which won her fame in earlier records; her electric guitar simmers through the tracks, building around her increasingly impassioned vocals. On ‘False Hope’, a track about Hurricane Sandy, she steals us away from the vague landscapes of ‘Warrior’ to the metropolis, the Upper West Side, where darkness falls and electricity fails as she tells us of the storm. The weather plays pathetic fallacy to the storminess of the singer’s mind: ‘Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be at all? / There’s a party uptown but I just don’t feel like I belong at all / Do I?’. ‘False Hope’ slides into a more traditional Marling track, ‘I Feel Your Love’, which rolls along like a nice old folk song, a bit Staves-like maybe, but more haunting. Her more ‘spoken’ delivery of vocals, intertwined with some searingly brief high notes, in ‘Strange’ for example, bring to mind Joni Mitchell. At times she addresses different characters: spurned lovers, young girls who mirror herself, the ‘woman downstairs’ who’s lost her mind. The overall effect is less introspective, and more fleeting, transient: the self behind the voice slips in and out of view, through various narratives and images. There’s a restlessness which contributes to the Americana vibe, but one which is perhaps also simply the natural expression of a successful singer songwriter still only 25, trying to find her way in the world…

Favourite tracks: ‘Warrior’, ‘False Hope’, ‘Worship Me’.

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Little Comets, Hope is Just a State of Mind

My favourite band for kitchen sink indie…I like how Little Comets ease you into their changes in sound through various EPs released throughout the year. With the tingly guitars released on ‘Salt’ and the earnest lyrics, a ballad (‘The Assisted’) and emphatic drumming (‘Ex-Cathedra’) of ‘The Sanguine EP’, listeners were prepared for what was to come on Hope is Just a State of Mind, which seems to head towards what might be called a more eccentrically pop direction. One of my favourite things about this band is how they delve into the political and there’s certainly no avoiding it on this album, from the dig at Robin Thicke’s gender politics in ‘The Blur, the Line, and the Thickest of Onions’ to the lethargy of rock and roll in ‘Formula’ and the cultural demonisation of single motherhood in ‘The Daily Grind’: ‘You must feel so proud / Stigmatising every single mother / While your own world’s falling down’. Songs like ‘The Gift of Sound’ and ‘Formula’ have a more straightforward energetic pop vibe, whereas ‘B&B’ begins with an accapella moment and revolves around the repeated line: ‘my own mother cannot take me back’. There’s lots of thudding drumming and a swinging sort of emphatic, repetitive melody. The song, incidentally, is about bedroom tax and Robert Coles has eloquently said of the lyrics:

‘Lyrically the words came quite quickly as I always had the “even my own mother cannot take me back” line in my head from writing the melody. I knew it was going to be about politics: specifically the patronisation of people by the political class in both ideology and delivery, and the way that my own region has been altered by the blue hoards of conservatism.

The title stems from a tweet by Grant Shapps regarding the last budget – “budget 2014 cuts bingo & beer tax helping hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy. RT to spread the word”. Beer and Bingo – because there’s nothing else to do.

I think the first verse is just frustration with the attitude put across by politicians that suggests that they think people are total idiots – policies light on detail, simplistic ideology, framing debates in headlines, constant ill behaviour. Plus from the other end of the scale the total demonisation of the less well off in the swingeing benefit cuts typified by the bedroom tax. I just think it is bizarre and to treat us with this brazen amount of contempt.

It really got me thinking about the north east getting so bashed up in the time of Thatcher – destroying lives and communities because of a need to dominate on an ideological level. I think the second verse tries to convey the depressing notion that beyond this pain, she also eradicated trades and skillsets that had been built for hundreds of years without the prospect of anything new, or transferability. To extinguish a trade, a way of life…. Wow….. That’s a pretty crazy course of action.

It’s almost like she stole those years from us – and it feels a little like it is being echoed now. Taking away what someone relies on is oppression, and this is being felt in communities across our country today – horrified in the knowledge that it will continue until people are so battered that they accept it. The worst part is if you look closely enough, past Grant’s apparent carrot you can see the joy in the eyes behind the ghastly stick, and they look frighteningly familiar” (Source: Little Comets’ Lyric Blog).

I guess I’ve included the quote because I think the politics have become more direct in this album and it’s interesting to flesh out the backstory here. Sure, there have been plenty of ‘northern’ bands before, but rarely have I listened to a pop or indie band who engage with their politics so directly and so articulately (usually this space is reserved for punk or rock – Manic Street Preachers of course, representing a ‘marginalised’ Welsh perspective). Aside from lyrical content, you’ve got the usual pleasures of Little Comets harmonies, shredding guitar licks and bouncy rhythms. ‘My Boy William’ is wonderful live, the way it builds up and everyone following the drum rhythm. ‘Little Italy’ is great fun too, with its cascading melodies (liiiittalll iiiitaaalllyyyyy I reeAAd heeEre) and syncopated rhythm. It’s true, on this album (especially on ‘Salt’), the songs are very up and down, rarely straightforward and often lines are lyrically and melodically convoluted; this isn’t a criticism but more a reflection of what seems to be a desire to push the formulaic boundaries of pop, to infuse guitar chords with lush vocal harmonies and ringing percussion. To represent detailed, difficult subjects in pop is never going to be easy, but Little Comets nail it in their own unique, beautiful way. Look forward to seeing them again live next year!

Favourite tracks: ‘Don’t Fool Yourself’, ‘Little Italy’, ‘The Blur, the Line & the Thickest of Onions’.

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The Maccabees, Marks to Prove It

Well, to be honest I never would’ve thought I’d be including The Maccabees on my 2015 albums of the year. Over the last few years, I haven’t spared much thought for the band other than as another soundtrack to the general indie trend of the last ten years: a band mentioned frequently in NME perhaps, soundtracking lovelorn scenes in movies, but nothing particularly distinct other than in their creation of twee indie pop. However, one night after work I was lying on the floor recovering from a terrible shift with the radio on, listening to X-Posure With John Kennedy on what used to be XFM. The Maccabees were talking through their new album and playing the songs, and I was pleasantly surprised by how intriguing the sound was, as well as how articulate the band were in talking through the writing process and the stories behind the songs. I guess the next day I went out and bought the album. It definitely sounds a long way away from ‘Toothpaste Kisses’, though the added kazoos and varied percussion doesn’t spoil the simple joy of good plain songwriting. The songs have a weight to them, a grander atmosphere, especially the weird dissonance on the likes of ‘River Song’. ‘Silence’, however, is quietly beautiful, drifting along soft piano notes, subdued vocals and a somewhat eerie sample of an answering machine voice.

Where once you would recommend The Maccabees mostly to fans of The Mystery Jets, Pigeon Detectives or Futureheads, this album feels much more grownup, darker somehow, wilder and expansive. The lyrics vary in subject from the gentrification of London’s Elephant & Castle (the band’s hometown) to heartbreak (‘When you’re scared and lost / Don’t let it all build up’) and well, happiness (‘Something Like Happiness’). It’s refreshing to have a song that does just feel like at times like a gentle old ode to joy: ‘If you love them / Go and tell them’. ‘Marks to Prove It’, the opening track, feels confident and bouncy, with a sharp riff and assured vocals. It would fit in with a fast pop set from The Futureheads, but the rallying battle cry that precedes Orlando Weeks’ voice announces something slightly stranger, a record with new edge.

Favourite tracks: ‘Silence’, ‘River Song’, ‘Something Like Happiness’.

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Tame Impala, Currents 

I was introduced to Tame Impala mostly from one of the chefs at work playing it in the kitchen on Sunday mornings, and weirdly enough his psychedelic brand of synth pop seems appropriate preparation for a day serving Sunday roasts to hungover customers. It’s the swelling bass and brilliant synths that really catch you, the smooth falsetto and tingling production. You can tell Kevin Parker is a dream at studio magic, with flawless instrumental arrangement that makes for a sound that could be big or chilled, depending on how you play it. There’s some dark keyboard drama, there’s a lovelorn anthem (‘Eventually’) and what might tenuously be described as weird disco funk. For some reason (maybe all the synths, gossamer vocals and vintage-sounding guitars?) has a ‘bedroom-made’ feeling, but with a much slicker production than the DIY element might suggest. Some songs sound like they belong on a long, atmospheric train journey across a space desert; others sound like they’d fit on the cuts of drama interspersing a video game. There’s a dreaminess to songs like ‘Yes I’m Changing’, but a more radio-friendly funkiness to the likes of ‘The Less I Know the Better’, or even ‘Love/Paranoia’, with its silky beats and finger clicks. As the album progresses, the theme of heartbreak starts to really solidify and I guess that’s the overriding drive of the songs – a heartbreak that slows and stifles, morphs between introspection and the temptation of mild bombast.

Favourite tracks: ‘Yes I’m Changing’, ‘The Less I Know the Better’, ‘Love/Paranoia’.

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Stornoway, Bonxie

This was a lovely album to enjoy in spring, from the hopeful folksiness to the cute origami bird on the cover. I guess it got me through that period of hell in my life that was finals. I would go on walks around Kelvindale where all the cherry blossoms were, listening to the soft acoustic licks and all the soothing bird sound effects. It’s an album to enjoy by the sea perhaps, full of a sort of longing. There’s the noise of distant foghorns, the rolling harp-like guitar and sparkling xylophone over the drifting shimmer of a wave-like cymbal. This is probably my favourite Stornaway album, or at least equal to the debut, Beachcomber’s Windowsill because of its more folksy atmosphere, its immersion in nature — the sense of being lost, deliciously lost by the edge of the ocean. ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’ especially boasts a shanty-like chorus which adds to the nautical theme and sort of swells up like you’re caught at sea, singing along irrevocably. Melodies build up to climaxes and fall back down into subdued, slower choruses, as if the speaker tries to articulate something about his surroundings (the beautiful environment) but fails to express them entirely. Sweet, comforting guitar licks glide us through (e.g., the start of ‘Sing With Our Senses’). Vocals are never aggressive, only sometimes shrill and generally soothing – like a bird’s? Apparently over 20 types of bird donated their song to the album, and let’s not forget that singer Brian Briggs is a Dr. of Ornithology! It’s just a lovely escapist sort of album, reminding you of seaside holidays from years ago, that childlike ability to sink into your surroundings and find wonder in a leaf, a taste of salt air, a bird call.

Favourite tracks:  ‘The Road You Didn’t Take’, ‘We Were Giants’, ‘Between the Saltmarsh and the Sea’.

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Swim Deep, Mothers

It seems everyone has been describing this album as Swim Deep’s foray into psych-pop. You only have to take a glance at the warping colour bleed of the cover art to pick up those vibes. The honey sweet guitar pop of Where the Heaven Are We has morphed into something heavier, more saturated. There are so many influences, but I suppose you could start with psychedelic music, house and kraut rock. Lots of bursting, colourful synths. It reminds me of The Horrors’ Primary Colours, not only because it’s a ‘change-around’ album, but also the subdued, atmospheric reworking of prior image and musical style. Songs like ‘Honey’ and ‘The Sea’ from their debut album were chilled and loose with catchy melodies, and while Mothers retains the catchy melodies, its style has tightened up a bit. The instrumental elements are more complex; songs open up a multilayered world rather than the silver stream of a simple pop tune. ‘To My Brother’ has an epic quality, building up to the chorus with some extravagance – weirdly, the sort of mistiness of the vocals and quirky synths remind me of Seal. I’m not sure why, or whether that’s even an accurate comparison, but the link just popped into my head. I love the way critics have compared ‘Namaste’ to discordant game show music, which obviously fits in with the 1990s vibes of the video. All that beige, those glasses, the sense of mania reflected in the music! It’s more mature maybe, but still fun.

Favourite tracks: ‘To My Brother’, ‘Namaste’, ‘Imagination’.

A few others…

  • Beach House, Thank Your Lucky Stars (two albums in one year, ‘nuff said)
  • Florence & the Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful 
  • The Libertines, Anthems for Doomed Youth (listening to it to drag up the old nostalgia of discovering the first albums, for the lovely production and Doherty vocals on ‘You’re My Waterloo’ and Carl Barat’s very English swagger).
  • Prides, The Way Back Up (Stewart Brock has come a fair way since Drive-By Argument (big up a band from Ayr!) but the wide, electronic sound of Prides has its heart in the original synthiness of Drive-By Argument which developed into more distinctly electronic side-project, Midnight Lion. Obvious comparisons are to Chvrches, but maybe also a bit of Daft Punk. Radio-friendly but I’d imagine really big and energetic live, plus whenever I hear them I get sweet teenage nostalgia for Drive-By Argument).
  • Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell 
  • Years & Years, Communion (sparkly EDM pop with plenty of pluck, from a band whose singer starred in Skins and Stuart Murdoch’s indie flick, God Help the Girl).

The Melancholy of Lana Del Rey

Source: Vogue Australia
Source: Vogue Australia

 I even enjoy dying in the character who is dying.

— Franz Kafka

Every time I close my eyes,
It’s like a dark paradise

There’s something apocalyptic about a Blood Moon. The sense of waste and transient beauty, light and life shedding away. The moon takes its thirty-year delayed menstruation; red cloud wisps over its shining face like clots of blood being pulled across a pool of silver. Somewhere out there, lovers are lying in lush paradise, staring up at this white eye opened by god; far away, drowned in stars. A voice swirls like smoke over soft, shimmery guitar. It’s the eclipse, sometime about now, then, yesterday, and I am or I was listening to Lana Del Rey.

Honeymoon, then going back to Dark Paradise. Insomnia in the space between night and day; between one universe and another, always afloat in claustrophobia. Returning to this song again and again, its repetition, invoking the familiar sadness and masochism that Lana dreamt up only a few years ago, you’re surrounded by an eternal world of neon palms, boulevards dripped in milky dusk, the sickly excess of tequila sunrise against soaring choruses and stripped-back lyrics. In a way, you fall or sink into Lana Del Rey’s music. Like Kubla Kahn, the eponymous Chinese emperor of Coleridge’s opium-provoked fragment poem, you are sucked dreamily into the sultry visual world of dark objects, consumer heaven, the young and beautiful place of honeydew where you are invited to drink ‘the milk of paradise’. Lana’s swooning melodies charm over time, drawing you into an atmosphere of narcotised darkness which evokes a silent movie – even as the interplay between sound and image is as crucial a set of semiotics as anything Roland Barthes might analyse. You could fall back into the darkness, be seduced by the languid timeless sigh which slides over memories, nostalgia for lost evenings, red dresses and cigarettes, lost girls pressed up against bad boys in clubs, feeling like their whole existence is just a vision, propelling their electric bodies on and on as if in tune to Freud’s death drive.

Much of Lana’s music is about desire: the kind of desire that doesn’t leave you cut-up on the kitchen floor in crude emotion (a la Natalie Imbruglia, ‘Torn’), but passes through that place in the heart of culture that falls into absence and darkness. The secret hollow of modernity. It makes sense that she sung the sultry standout track for Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 The Great Gatsby adaptation, ‘Young and Beautiful’. Del Rey’s America is so Art Deco, from the typeface of her new album, to her obsession with cars and jazz and girls called Carmen, the fragile magic of Hollywood glamour which often bleeds at the seams. Lana returns to that dull wound and picks at it, indifferently, till it’s fresh again – a more ethereal thing that transcends the rotting body of America’s culture. Sex, violence, money, power, charisma; they all blur together in Lana’s fixated, addictive lyrics. In her performance, she already knows the irrelevance of authenticity; it makes her internet-immune, a kind of perfect. Nobody can critique her, because she’s always one step ahead. Despite the success of Lady Gaga, who wears her gender performativity on her sleeve, American culture remains obsessed with the cult of authenticity. Lana has been attacked for ‘making up’ the stories portrayed in her songs, the easy-love lifestyle she presents; for having plastic surgery and performing under an alias that nods more to Hollywood mythology than the girl-next-door vibes of her real name, Elizabeth Grant. Remember James Frey, the ‘man who rewrote his life’ and was subsequently attacked by Oprah when she discovered he’d fabricated and exaggerated a hefty chunk of his memoir of drug addiction? Lana, like James Frey, like Hemingway, is interested in the interplay between real life and fantasy, performance and authenticity; importantly, however, she shows how real life is itself played out and realised through the lens of mediated fantasy. Her songs betray a Baudrillardian ecstasy of communication, simulacra and simulations, updated for an age where the past is showered with the longed-for shroud of Hollywood glamour, where the present is fragmented, split across the Internet (where Lana first made her success, sensation).

***

Isn’t it lovely when somebody makes albums that really feel like art? From Born to Die’s glamorous sadness draped in an American flag, to the monochrome somnolence of Ultraviolence (produced, appropriately, by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys), each of Lana Del Rey’s records captures a persona, but one which shifts and gathers nuance in the filters of crooning choruses and soft guitars, the distinctive colour charts of an album cover. Born to Die: pastel blues and palm trees, red lips and smoky eyes; the glossy, time-travelling Americana of her short film Tropico (2013), whose flashy symbolism mixes purity with moral pollution, the Garden of Eden with unicorns and gangsters. Ultraviolence: black and white, the spare sex of sorrow. Her latest offering, Honeymoon, sinks deliciously a familiar aura of daydreams, heartache and a sense of mesmerising stasis captured in Lana’s recital of ‘Burnt Norton’ from T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, which evokes an abstracted and absent conception of time, slipping away into endlessly echoing, impossible memory…

Footfalls echo in the memory. Sound effects; quiet sirens, the soft familiar crackle of static, reminding us of the temporal duration, the space of presence that opens up with each play of the song, then closes again in silence – but always there, always there waiting in possibility, for the next click, the next play. Down the passage which we did not take. 

In the album sleeve, the white printed lyrics to ‘High By the Beach’ flicker and disappear in the yellow-gold light of a glossy photo depicting a tree-lined avenue. Lana Del Rey songs always paint little vignettes of stories, but her characters frequently disappear from view, their situations dreamlike, slanted towards death but never reaching conclusion. Like any avant-garde novel worth its salt, Lana Del Rey’s music often bears a slightly creepy, unsettling quality, a sense of never being quite finished, a sense of repetition, frustration and surrealist reality. While she can master a good pop tune, Lana never gives us that self-satisfied pomp and narrative closure of a Taylor Swift song; there is an almost uncanny quality to her musical arrangements: the drifting melodies, tinges of trip hop, strings, rippling snares and minimal beats. Literary references abound: from that iconic reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in Tropico, to the album title Ultraviolence (alluding to the random acts of ‘ultra-violence which the teenage protagonist of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange is addicted to) and all that sinister seduction of ‘Carmen’: ‘It’s alarming, honestly, how charming she can be’, in a nod to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. In ‘Ride’ she references the sexual plight of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois, drifting through life by ‘relying on the kindness of strangers’; in a way, Blanche is a perfect Lana Del Rey heroine. Not only is she a ‘fallen woman’ but she is also an alcoholic, guzzling bourbon and symbolically-charged cherry soda (My pussy tastes like Pepsi-Cola, / My eyes are wide like cherry pies – ‘Cola’), and longs to die in a most extravagant way, conflicted by her desire for purity and her sexual appetite: first, she will eat an ‘unwashed grape’ (the poisoned fruit of Eden, the rotten core of carnal pleasure) then be ‘buried at sea sewn up in a clean white sack and dropped overboard—at noon—in the blaze of summer—and into an ocean as blue as my first lover’s eyes!’.

Southern belle; Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Eliza Kazan's film adapation of Streetcar
Southern belle; Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois in Eliza Kazan’s film adapation of Streetcar

***

My baby lives in shades of blue
Blue eyes and jazz and attitude

Well New Orleans – the setting of A Streetcar Named Desire – is a city rich enough in jazz and attitude, especially in the 1940s. In a way, all of Del Rey’s characters are caught up on the deathward drive of streetcars named desire, only her streetcars have morphed into getaway vehicles and limousines, or else the rides of suburban rockstars: I spend my whole life driving in cars with boys / Riding around town, drinking in the white noise. The white noise? The ever-present static reality of radio and television, life flickering on amidst its background hum and rush. It’s an edgier version of Lorde’s ‘400 Luxe’, a delicate, pulsing tribute to the romance of small-town time wasting on roads where the houses don’t change:

We’re never done with killing time
Can I kill it with you?
Till our veins run red and…blue
We come around here all the time
Got a lot to not do, let me kill it with you

You pick me up and take me home again
Head out the window again
We’re hollow like the bottles that we drain
You drape your wrist over the steering wheel
Moses can drive from here
We might be hollow, but we’re brave

On the subject of heroines, Lana is constantly critiqued for her portrayal of women; namely, her ensemble of doomed and lovelorn characters who lavish over their hopeless agony and fail to resist the anonymous bad boys which recur in her songs. Yet there is an irony to this critique, because critics seem to forget that it is a woman who is pulling the strings over all these puppets. Lana slips in and out of her roles as easily as she slips between haunting, orchestral notes. She is always in control, her voice brilliant as smoky quartz crystal, even as she sings about being out of control. There is a litheness to her performance that indicates the strength of her fiction: Lana is like a novelist, fabricating a shadow world which shows up the underbelly of American culture, from its Golden Age of 1950s glamour to the fractured present, where alcohol and club culture meet the melting pixel pot of the Internet. I wish I was dead already, she can say in a Guardian interview, incanting it like a spell, letting Twitter fall on its knees with spits and stirs of protest and loathing. Prostitutes, gangsters, trailer trash alcoholics. These people, these liminal figures on the margins of society – stereotypes, yes, but vivid ones nonetheless – are the lifeblood of Lana’s music and as she renders them, they have emotional depth, a soulless soul, unlike hiphop’s deadpan delivery of gangster vocabulary. As her voice swells to a pitch we realise that Lana has already dismissed something as ‘crude’ as identity politics, embracing instead the freedom land of the seventies, free because America, land of opportunity (for white women, at least) had then opened up a new lifestyle, a new kind of being. There is power in being a sad girl, nasal and depressed but somehow free, as in the paean to glamorous dishevelment, ‘Cruel World’ (from Ultraviolence):  I like my candy and your heroin, / And I’m so happy, so happy now you’re gone. / Put my little red party dress on, / Everybody knows that I’m a mess, I’m crazy … ‘Cause you’re young, you’re wild, you’re free, / You’re dancing circles around me. There’s that cliché of Americana: being young and wild and free – think of Bruce Springsteen’s celebration of wild youth – and again, Lana places her voice in the hullabaloo of this tornado of deathly ecstasy, making herself the static one in the centre, languishing over her candy and heroine while everyone else dances circles around her.

05

***

‘I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo’ — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. 

Hiphop melancholia, narco-swing, vintage pop; whatever you wanna call it, Lana always kinda slips the net. Its her characters, her musical and metaphorical landscapes that draw you in. In a way, her songs are just as literary as any old poem.

Crying tears of gold, like lemonade. Here we are on ‘Ultraviolence’, drowning in violins and vats of sadness, relishing the salt taste and thinking of the ocean. The ocean haunts Honeymoon too. It’s there in the California blues, the ‘blue nail polish’ that’s her ‘favourite colour’ and ‘favourite tone of song’ in ‘The Blackest Day’, the sultry ice cream gleam of ‘Salvatore’ which glides in and out of languid Italian and consumable nouns (cacciatore, limousines), perhaps like a narcotised, Sinatra-style swing version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘By the Way’ (the bit where they seem to throw a demented grocery list at you). Shady blue, summer rain, sparkling lights; it’s a beautiful snowflake of a song, catching its glitter in the strings and the la-da-da-da-daaaas which fall around you, soft and sad yet somehow delectable. The ocean is the darling of the suicidal American woman: it is the world’s womb, the waves that embrace desire, the space of endless multitude, escape from restrictive culture. In ‘Dark Paradise’, the singer is lying in the ocean singing your song – is this a meta statement, one persona talking back to the distant maker? All of Lana’s heroines are looking for that dark paradise; that refrain, But I wish I was dead. Think of Edna in Kate Chopin’s 1899 (later banned) novel of sexual awakening, The Awakening: Chopin’s impressionistic purple prose isn’t so far from the poetic melodrama of Lana’s lovelorn world: ‘The voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamouring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude’. Chopin’s onomatopoeic prose chimes with Lana’s frequent use of sound effects, from the Fourth of July fireworks which open ‘National Anthem’ to the glitchy blips of ‘Video Games’ and twinkling bird sounds of the Hollywood hills in ‘Is This Happiness’…Expressions of desire flicker with the imagined bliss of paradise.

Source: https://unlockingkeyes.files.wordpress.com

In the conclusion to The Awakening, Edna steps out into the ocean, never to return, remembering as the horizon catches her eyes the sounds and scents of her childhood: the simple ‘hum of bees’ and ‘musky odour of pinks’ which fill the air narcotically. Walking into the ocean as Lana’s heroine writhes on her bed and balcony, longing to just get high by the beach, longing for that preserved moment of perfect stasis, the endless waves, the endless boulevard leading to a distant horizon of fathomless dark glass, tall buildings rising up amidst pink flamingoes like surrealist paintings. Haze of smoke, daytime closing.

***

There is a passage from Don DeLillo’s debut novel, Americana (1971) which David Foster Wallace happened to underline in his copy of the book:

“David, I truly love you and hate you. I love you because you’re a beautiful thing and a good boy. You’re more innocent than a field mouse and I don’t believe you have any evil in you, if that’s possible. And I hate you because you’re sick. Illness at a certain point inspires pity. Beyond that point it becomes hateful. It becomes very much like a personal insult. One wishes to destroy the sickness by destroying the patient. You’re such a lovable cliché, my love, and I do hope you’re found the centre of your sin”.

A ‘lovable cliché’: the sort of thing Lana embraces, makes raw and coats in her voice of smoke and silk. The antithesis of beauty and disgust, love and hate; how our attempts to disinfect the one from the other are doomed to fail. Culture is a contradiction. In Americana, the protagonist David Bell is a TV executive who finds himself deeply apathetic, despite being attractive, sharp and popular with the ladies. He frequently articulates his experiences, his life at large, as if they were a film. He becomes obsessed with finding meaning, embarking on a Kerouac-esque quest at getting to the nitty-gritty of America’s heart of darkness, but this documentary gets messed up in his attempts to re-stage and re-enact events from his past. I guess it’s true that the novel is all about unattainable desire, whether this is desire for meaning, personal fulfilment or something more carnal – the search for the centre of your sin which could easily be a Lana lyric. What’s more, this pathological fixation of DeLillo’s David Bell to some extent parallels Del Rey’s obsession with the silver screen version of America; the photography of Honeymoon’s cover even resembles a sexier version of the Penguin cover for Americana:

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Lanadelreycapa

While Del Rey’s female characters languish in their statically trapped daydreams of love and violence and Hollywood glamour, DeLillo’s version of Americana is largely embodied in the road myth and its cult of masculinity:

There is a motel in the heart of every man. Where the highway begins to dominate the landscape, beyond limits of a large and reduplicating city, near a major point of arrival and departure: this is most likely where it stands….Men hold this motel firmly in their hearts; here flows the dream of the confluence of travel and sex.

This kind of commentary permeates the book, often arriving at a kind of religious, anthropological rapture which lacks the self-consciousness of DeLillo’s later novel White Noise, but provides a rambling cultural landmark that paves the way towards the sort of position Del Rey occupies in the mainstream. The Beats, protesting consumerism even as they gorged on apple pie; Bret Easton Ellis, with his deeply despairing coterie of psychopathic, serial-killer yuppies and sexually-violent, chronically-bored L.A teenagers; Lana Del Rey, voicing the glorious wastage of our postmodern wasteland, our beaten bodies and minds, voicing her vision through scenes of sun-drenched nostalgia which evoke a beautiful and terrible America, made glossy and pure through stars and stripes, a delicate riff; drifts of strings, jazz, Instagram filters. That golden period where love suffuses with the candy-flavoured stuff of daydreams, movies: Honeymoon. The whole album renders a narrow reality of the past and present: it’s pastel-shaded afternoons lost to the call of the ocean, sad ballads of frustrated love (I lost myself when I lost you), electro blues; it’s The Blackest Day, with Billie Holliday, palm trees and prescription pills, throwing up the lilac and cinnamon-scented ash of society’s ills – emotional debris, disconnection, slowing tempos, the hullabaloo of static thrills.

Screen cap from Tropico (2013). Source: popoptiq.com
Screen cap from Tropico (2013). Source: popoptiq.com