Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Homunculus

The homunculus is crawling on the floor of the study, crawling toward the bookshelves perhaps, for books to chew on, crawling over well-waxed (albeit warped) boards. The homunculus has no particular purpose, and presently turns its attention to the desk, where the Father is working. The homunculus pulls itself up with webbed fingers, hooked over the desk’s handles, handles that clatter clangily; the homunculus, head awobble; the homunculus, lips all drooly. The homunculus is raised, one-handed, to sit on the Father’s lap, and utters neither squeak nor mewl, but flaps uncomprehending, veiny eyelids – as if to scoop up the words on paper, unless those tremors are external signs of inner cogitations: pondering the words trickling from pen, the pen’s mining of colour from the page. Meaning will be arrived at, in time. The homunculus reaches, web-fingered, for the page, and is gently raised from the Father’s lap, and then lowered to the floor, where it finds its feet, literally (plucking at toes), and then figuratively (waddling off). The homunculus has been walking some months now, but has yet to manage a sound that cannot be attributed to gastric processes. This homunculus isn’t the first attempt, and may not be the last; the materials were crude. It is capable of spindly-limbed locomotion, but the mouth is only a narrow slot, no teeth or tongue evident. The sound it makes, attempting to swallow, is gruesome. The homunculus is one year old.


The latest homunculus has been more successful; the ingredients were refined, transplanted swiftly, the utterances delivered with more confidence and fluency, having reconstructed the ancient accent, to reflect its musicality – its likely cadence and tonal glide. The homunculus has a clipped fringe, clipped too short, to correct mis-clippings when it wriggled beneath the sheers. The homunculus huffs when forming words; its hands twist-about, like birds adjusting their wings before settling in the nest. This only happens when no-one is watching, no-one who might slap it, to keep still. The homunculus is practising its name; its name the name of a general who subdued the lands of the East, and ceased the bloodfeuds of a dozen nations, their star now fallen. The homunculus understands more than it can express back, but not yet why it should or might do so. Does it, then, understand?

The whore behind glass twists expanses of pink flesh in a lazy parody of pre-orgasmic nerve-tingles. Her success with customers is largely dependent on a mathematical function of sobriety offset by remaining cash; expertise vis-à-vis seduction is comparatively insignificant. Her wink at potential customers is too fast when she does wink; it seems, instead, more of a spasm. The homunculus is the recipient of the wink; or at least, the present homunculus. The homunculus is surrounded by a group of male humans, who can be presumed to be indifferent to the presence of a homunculus in their midst, unless any of them happen to be homunculi, which cannot be ruled out. Does it feel special, for having been winked at? Chosen? The homunculus bloodless. The homunculus static. The homunculus, reflected, framed by the same frame that is the view of the whore. The homunculus superimposed on the whore. The homunculus shuddering.

The resemblance to a Rorschach test is striking; the symmetry of the involutions within the oval outline, for a start. Almost as if this image is a Rorschach test (or a maze – mazes are a familiar test, too), the shapes of words triggered by the symmetrical pattern, animate the lips of the face regarding the jar. The cross-section through the cerebrum reveals all the major structures are intact. Previous jars do not contain quite so elegant – or symmetrical – specimens. The homunculus is being shown its predecessors. There is an unoccupied container at the end of the row; “…you were more successful than anticipated…”


The girl has been waiting 25 years, a quarter-century, a generation, a mediaeval lifetime… and all for this? The girl is cold, her hair slightly curled from the damp; not details that factored in her imaginings. The girl has been shuffled between tutors, and elocution-specialists, and teachers, and has performed what is expected of her, and has watched the ways of others (others with girl-shapes, at least); watched how they pair off, and has come at last to her own moment of purpose: on a bridge, nightbreeze in hair & dress. Opposite her is the homunculus – the 8th or 10th in line (she lost track of his rambling biographical account & witticisms & anecdotes, and wasn’t exactly listening, though she nodded politely; just remarked that she’d never met someone with predecessors – a number after his name), and while it seems antiquated, pretentious even, she gives his pedigree the benefit of the doubt, and says Yes with lips, and Yes with hands, and Yes to herself inwardly; Yes, this is the end of her own waiting, for better or for worse; Yes.

[Scribbled wild-eyed & frantic on a stack of beer-mats, cross-legged & cackling on the floor of a pub in Amsterdam, during the Holland vs. Russia match, Summer 2008.]

Monday, 25 January 2010

VR: How to break a Home

How do we continue to live in the houses where someone has been Possessed? How do we trust the words safely sandwiched in the books neatly ranked on the shelf not to be replaced with your own name, when you idly open the book, and a hundred thousand others, in the Directory of Those Lost to Mediocrity and Missed Opportunity (Vol. I: Ab – Al)? What was it the Little One said, tugging at your sleeve? When will the mirrors start to bleed? Look closely – can you be sure the ceiling isn’t crawling with white spiders and millipedes; all those jittering pointillist pixels that superimpose themselves on any blank space we permit ourselves to examine? The knives in the drawer have already started to sing, to chorus, to be used. Yes, there is the ticking, ticking madness of the world we learn to fill from birth, but no-one sells greetings-cards consoling you for the madness of inviting strangers into your home, barely old enough to Trick or Treat, who want you to Sign Here, and Initial the 2nd page and 3rd through 9th pages Here, to drain your television’s grey-glassed fishtank – drain it of the tangerine-skinned people with moonstone smiles, and their lemon-yellow sofa, and replace it with a view of the sallow-skinned child in the second bedroom, upstairs right now, turning the television from an instrument for Seeing-Afar into an instrument for constant self-surveillance, and this, then, is the new madness: that you can never now un-imagine the time when the television ceased to take us far away, making all its bleatings and twitterings about the Beauty or Tragedy or enviable Normality of “There & Elsewhere” into Lies, damned Lies, when what it shows us (beneath cheap set-dressing, the Older One could have knocked up in Drama Class) is the same old room with the same old carriage-clock / porcelain birds / magazine rack / sofa paid-for by instalments – an irregular oblong carved out of space that has an Outside and an Inside, but neither is meaningful except as the antithesis of the other, making you question what you really paid for, what the mortgage is for, why you persist in these payments by instalments that by their very nature are a bridge from youth to balding / spreading middle-age. When will the child’s muteness break, and name the Unnameable thing? When will you stop seeing them on the landing, frozen, un-answering, and observe how their eyes follow you, as you move from side-to-side (choosing which way to pass), but observing also how their eyes seem to draw back in the sockets, retreating in fear from – You? Or is it the long and spreading shadow that merely attached itself to you, and now climbs the walls of the corridor behind your back? When will the trances stop, and why that time – that one time; one time only; really, please believe me – why did you slap him so hard across the face, to Stop Playing? This, then, is how a home is broken.

[After reading Marguerite Young; not so much a new influence, as a reminder of an old voice, it's almost reassuring to re-visit.]

Sunday, 24 January 2010

One Hundred of the Best Books I’ve Ever Read (Note, “Books”)

...in much the same order they came out of my head:

David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest
Jorge Luis Borges Labyrinths
Robertson Davies The Deptford Trilogy, esp. Fifth Business
Lawrence Durrell The Alexandria Quartet, esp. Clea
Herman Melville Moby Dick
David Berman Actual Air
Marguerite Young Miss McIntosh, My Darling
Henry Miller Tropic of Cancer
Marcel Proust A Recherche de Temps Perdue
Sigmund Freud The Interpretation of Dreams
Thomas Pynchon Gravity’s Rainbow
William T Vollmann You Bright and Risen Angels
Carson McCullers The Heart Is a Lonesome Hunter
Thomas Pynchon Against the Day
Thomas Pynchon The Crying of Lot 49
Jerome Rothenberg Poems for the Game of Silence
WG Sebald The Rings of Saturn
Jerome Rothenberg (ed.) Technicians of the Sacred
William T Vollmann Fathers and Crows (Seven Dreams, Volume II)
TS Eliot The Four Quartets

James Joyce Ulysses
Grant Morrison The Invisibles
Maya Deren Divine Horsemen
Naomi Klein The Shock Doctrine
Georges Perec Life, A User’s Manual
David Foster Wallace Brief Interviews...(1999)& Oblivion: Stories (2003)
William T Vollmann Rising Up and Rising Down (unabridged)
Armand Schwerner The Tablets
Jorge Luis Borges The Book of Sand
Rabindranath Tagore Stray Birds
Lawrence Durrell The Black Book
Lewis Carroll The Complete Alice (ill. Ralph Steadman)
André Breton The Magnetic Fields (w/ Phillippe Soupault)
Edgar Allen Poe Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Samuel Beckett 13 Texts for Nothing
Matthew Barney The Cremaster Cycle (ed. Nancy Spektor)
Mark Z Danielewski House of Leaves
Fyodor Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov
Plato The Symposium
Omar Khayyam Rubaiyat

Franz Kafka The Great Wall of China
Italo Calvino Invisible Cities
John Steinbeck Cannery Row
Vladimir Nabokov Ada
Douglas Coupland Life After God
Mervyn Peake Titus Groan & Gormenghast
David Foster Wallace Consider the Lobster: Essays
Thomas Pynchon Vineland
Kay Redfield Jamieson Touched with Fire // An Unquiet Mind
Martha Gellhorn The Face of War
William Shakespeare King Lear
Allen Ginsberg Howl and Other Poems
Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote
Neil Gaiman Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes
Alejo Carpentier The Lost Steps
Carson McCullers The Member of the Wedding
Michael McClure Rare Angel
Douglas Coupland Generation X
Donald Barthelme 40 Stories
William Gaddis The Recognitions

John Steinbeck East of Eden
William Shakespeare Hamlet
Grant Morrison Arkham Asylum
Helen DeWitt The Seventh Samurai
Michael Herr Dispatches
William L Shirer The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
Comte de Lautreamont Maldoror
Donald Harrington Some other Place, the Right Place
Ioan M Lewis Ecstatic Religion
Kenneth Patchen Collected Poems
??? Tao Te Ching
Jacques Lacan Ecrits
Don De Lillo Underworld
Andrei Makine Confessions of a Lapsed Standard-Bearer
Richard Brautigan Revenge of the Lawn (Collected Stories)
Bret Easton Ellis American Psycho
Douglas Coupland Microserfs
Roland Barthes Mythologies
Stephen King Different Seasons
RD Laing The Divided Self
John Fowles The Magus

Alice Oswald The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile
HP Lovecraft The Thing on the Doorstep & Weird Tales
Yukio Mishima Spring Snow & Runaway Horses
André Breton (ed.) The Anthology of Black Humour
Robert M Pirsig Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Daniel Clowes Ghostworld
David Sherwin If…
Charles Baudelaire The Spleen of Paris
Lawrence Ferlinghetti A Coney Island of the Mind
Lenny Bruce How to Make Friends and Influence People
Anais Nin The House of Incest
Haruki Murakami The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
Evelyn Waugh Brideshead Revisited
George Orwell 1984
Doris Lessing Briefing for a Descent into Hell
Iain Banks The Crow Road
Jeanette Winterson Gut Symmetries
Iain Banks The Bridge
Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm

Friday, 22 January 2010

Realpolitik # 1 (Today's Reading)

Currently reading "Best American Political Essays 2009" (ed. Matt Taibbi). Joseph Stiglitz is the best of the lot, on the 5 key policy changes that led to the 2008 crash, but I find myself racking my brains for how any of them could ever have been justified in any terms (economic... political... moral). Unless there were perceived hidden benefits (for the whole of society) to dismantling the various regulatory mechanisms (rather than just for Financiers), it strikes me that it must take an incredible amount of Denial (a bit like being a Holocaust Denier) to believe there wouldn't be economic catastrophe, frequently, and traceably (i.e. one can't use the "Bubbles Burst" argument). Presumably, the degree to which the policy makers are cushioned (by basic wealth, let alone connections to people who can offer legal protection) is unimaginable to the common man, but does this really impair consideration for the fate of the nation, e.g. when you allow the Ratings Agencies to be paid for by the people they rate?! It all makes me think that, deep down (or not so deep) the people in power basically want to widen the gap between rich and poor, stratify society, and ensure capital flows from public to private AMAP. Hohum.

I DO recommend, however, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Paul Collier). It's a slim, readable book that offers a plan for every criticism, and doesn't shirk from saying that democracy isn't a good thing in Resource-rich countries, until you've got good governance and infrastrusture. A genuinely optimistic book... unusual for me to be reading! Only thing he hasn't said yet (I'm 3/4 through) is how much this argument about malfunctioning democracy can be extended to a resource-rich country like, ooh, Britain, with its shameless pandering to the City.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

A Practical Guide to Surrealism (excerpt # 1)

Surrealism: A Tercet of Origin Myths

Some say the entrance to the Surreal was discovered by André Breton, on his expedition to the Tristes Tropiques, accompanying Claude Lévi-Strauss. (Picture him there, on the prow of the good ship Apollinaire, hair aflame in the salty air.) Marked by a series of vertilinear Vs carved on a trunk in the Amazon, the Surreal was still a physical place at this juncture, and rather liked the idea of people roaming around inside it, hunting / fishing / carrying little babies with their bubbles of drool, and invisible butterflies to catch. The Surreal would rarely be so pinpointable, thereafter.

Others maintain that Surrealism was a method for interrogating the very fabric of reality, devised by the Comte de Lautréamont, decades before, while contemplating the chance appearance of an umbrella and a sewing machine on his dissection table, during a session of Spring-cleaning in his chateau. Mesmerized by their hidden logic, he sank to the floor, and demanded that his manservant fetch him brioche and wine, as he contemplated their power over him. What was it, in the conceptual rhyme of this prosthetic skin, this machine for assembling such prostheses, in the very site of man’s unmaking / his re-making as a machine…? Could it be that, just as a pattern of musical notes captivates through consonance, the Comte had become sensitized to the music of concepts? Once we have caught the first melody in that strange mode, how can we not be captivated…?

Never let us forge–

(I’m sorry, I was interrupted)

Never let us forget, the Surrealism of André Breton, returned from the jungle, was a Surrealism “in the service of the revolution” – words that were stamped, military-style, on the front-page of each pamphlet he produced. What was the revolution, though, and what weapon might he have brought back from the jungle? Was it a weapon at all? Who would survive the Revolution? Whose backs would be against the wall?

Only one thing is clear to me, O my best beloved, in these days when young blades congregate on street corners, their lobster epaulettes glinting in the faint luminescence of the black sun, we have gone astray – badly, badly astray. The arts are astray that once conducted us to the secret music of words; that once allowed us to dissect and re-stitch meaning, simply by sounding, aloud.

Les Surrealistes!

See them striding down the boulevard! The sun glinting off their watch-chains, the emerald-eyed skulls on their canes! The spurs on their boots strike sparks! A mere glance at a lady breaks hearts! See the sun failing to glint off their bowler hats! See how André Breton’s mirrored codpiece flashes furious invitation to desperate duels! See Jacques Vaché who wears an udder the way a Scot wears a sporran! See Paul Eluard riding a tortoise with gilded shell, inherited from his godfather Joris, a German count! (Damnit, we’ll have to wait for Eluard…). Anyway –


Some say they arose as an elite to combat the BOURG; others that they were its own foremost agents, the deepest undercover, equipped with false memories, false faces, false trousers (that could be inflated rapidly, for a fast roll-away). What were they searching for, these gentlemen-explorers of the mind? Was it La Chose? Was it that strange figure from the heraldic universe, known only as La Femme Inconnue? Was it what the Greeks knew as Gnosis, seeking to penetrate the mystery-religions of the Near East? Was it the Deep Image itself… or was Agent EP & HD’s “Imagisme” a misprision of L’imagisme, referring to le mage (qui) jisme – the Hanged Man who achieves enlightenment even as his neck is broken – just as San Graal refers (as any schoolchild knows), to le sang réal, the Royal Blood…?!

One thing we do know: they owed allegiance to a king, they called Ubu, but further investigation by agents of the BOURG revealed that this Ubu was only a king as the King of Kings is a king, with his own private mythos, but no constitution, executive or legislative branch. No Miracle-Working – Demon-Expelling – Parabilizing – Crucifixion – Resurrection – Redemption for Ubu! No, his myth-cycle was one of Enchaining – Debraining – Cuckoldry – and then, and only then, Kingship, once he had shed all dignity, novelty, and held fast only to his rotundity.

(For all their revolutionary ideals, the Surrealistes are, in fact, sentimentalists. They despise the BOURG, but cherish the artiste manqué as much as the aristocrat déclassé. It’s the absurdity of their being stranded between Ideals that makes them seem so pitiful, as their monocles steam with shame. Perhaps, this particular day, LES SURREALISTES are paying a visit to Raymond Roussel, son of the Governor of Egypt, and a rather serious fellow who professes suicidal aspirations. Breton scoffs at this, whenever the subject comes up – “Suicide, my dear fellow, is an artistic solution second only to vanity-publishing; No, no, the surrealist does not die for his cause, he lives his cause.” Eluard and Soupault clink glasses, chortling. Nonetheless, Breton is always available day and night, should Roussel hail him on the speaking trumpet; a patron is a patron, you know, and he could do with a holiday at Roussel’s Locus Solus, if Raymond finally takes the hint and invites him…)

As it happens – nothing happens! The Surrealists are going nowhere at all! They merely stand on the boulevard, legs flung wide, elbows out like wings, as carriages swerve around them. Even as the sun sets over the Seine, and the Eiffel Horaire swings its shadow-dial over the rooftops of Paris, and around to 7 o’clock. Finally, they unthaw from their pose. It’s time to take a show at the Folie Bergeres. Time to visit Nadja…

[Christmas 2009]

Vanishing Ratios (Excerpt #1)

‘“………parents whose children are having troubles at school that can’t be attributed to drugs, to promiscuity, to any of the usual teen temptations…
‘“Whose children, you’d think, have no reason to fear persecution for their ethnicity, sexuality, physique, or intellect, but there was that time – wasn’t there? – they !snapped! and no-one expected it…
‘“Brothers and sisters freaked out by their sibling’s sporadic failure to recognize them as relatives, and yet speak to depths of their soul, looking right through them, and into them – from what they say, seeing depths they’d be reluctant to acknowledge, themselves…
‘“Adolescents who might be self-harming, in spite of parental precautions against razors and stationery and cutlery, even, being appropriated – and in spite of surveillance and warnings – and yet deny any knowledge of it when a fresh mark appears, and certainly don’t seem to be doing it for the attention…
‘“Once-proud homeowners whose furniture and ornaments and drapery and soft-furnishings are damaged by objects thrown or wrenched with more force than you’d think possible from their once-so-serene Little Ones…
‘“Not to mention, families whose pets can’t spend time in the same room as the child who once slept with said-pet at the foot of their bed, or dressed it up and pushed it about in a pram, and would never have harmed it – there’s no visible evidence they’ve done so, even now – but out it scarpers every time, yowling…
‘“Mothers and Fathers who can’t phrase it any better than that they’ve lost a child – something they only admit to themselves in the small hours of the morning – in spite of the fact they see the likeness of said-child everyday, over breakfast…
‘“The same Grown Adults who doubt that the child before them is their child; is a child at all, if anyone’s…
‘“Parents who pine for the days when they only suspected their teen was having under-age sex…
‘“Responsible and loving Mummies and Daddies who for the sake of their sanity would consider Electro-Convulsive Therapy, Prolonged Sensory Deprivation, or Insulin-Overload Shock Therapy, if the last were still available, before seriously contemplating what they’ve just been advised…
‘“Because, the fact is, they can’t get their heads around the advice to treat these problems animistically, not mechanistically…
‘“Good people, and smart people, and educated people, who are shocked that the kind of assistance they’re seeking, can actually be found in the phonebook…
‘“Full-time, stay-at-home parents who gave up their jobs to give all the care they could, but long ago passed the point of exploring pharmaceutical solutions, biting their nails and counting grey hairs through the recommended six-to-eight weeks, persisting, consulting the GP, only to introduce a new colour and shape of pill…
‘“Parents who are now seeking an Exorcist.
‘“That’s who we want to talk to.
‘“Any questions…?”’

– our Assignment, in the words of Dan Petro, head of R&D at 4fold Vision. I would have been sitting at the far end of the board-room table, as the most junior member of the Research team. The questions that follow concern Distribution; Marketing Spend; the Lead-Time for an Online Teaser Campaign. No questions about Health & Safety, oddly enough. The room’s blinds, that day, were angled at 45-degrees, admitting dull early-autumn light and barred shadows, across the board-room table. We could have been in any office in any building in the Capital’s Media District (the lack of suits hardly mitigating the dry professionalism). Whatever I imagined at the time, the words on the page bore as much relation to what I saw as… well, words on a page. Our Assignment: to research the turn to Spiritualists, Ritual Healers, Dispensers of Charms & Prayers, and (Yes…) Exorcists, among parents supposedly sane & ill-disposed to superstition, on behalf of their children & teens (similarly disposed, but less stable); to probe the credibility & telegenicity of interview subjects for a documentary on the phenomenon – of Possessions.

Right now, DP’s words are re-playing in the private viewing & editing suite of my brain, as the two of us – Interviewer & Research Assistant – clack-clack-clack and scuff-scuff-scuff up this suburban home’s garden-path to the first case of the day. I haven’t said anything yet, but I’ve got a good feeling this might be the first interview to make the cut; something about the eloquence of the mother, on the phone. This project on Possessions will have been my first assignment at 4fV, too; the first opportunity for something I’ve made to actually be seen, to be broadcast. 26 years old, but still taken for a work-experience minion by the Suits & Suitesses in the lift to the 9th floor. Still struggling with office small-talk & in-jokes when I’m among the Jeans & Cardigan people I call my colleagues. At home in the Capital, a couple of years now, but not quite a native. My first assignment as a researcher, with no expectation my involvement would continue beyond trawling local papers & online discussion groups – cold-calling spiritualist churches to ask about unusual requests from non-parishioners. It wouldn’t be accurate to say I surpassed myself, searching out cases of Spirit Possession – the problem was choosing between the dozens & dozens that presented themselves. Whether by luck or good judgment, I’ve been sent “on the trail” to assist with the interviews.

Introductions: for now, Ward works for me. Nominally, the interviewer I’m assisting is Miss Guinevere Shaw; not quite the “Voice of 4fV” (there are other interviewers and other voice-over artists) but the invisible star of a half-dozen previous documentaries: coaxing confessions from subjects, imbuing locations with dread or delight accordingly, and delivering appraisals of the lessons (or moral vacuum so indicated) with a maturity beyond her years. She’s never on camera, but you can see the gratitude in their eyes. One Broadsheet called her ‘the Voice of her Generation, authoritatively holding her elders to account.’ Black of hair (with dyed white streaks), and often black of humour, a fashionista of indeterminate age (“20-something-you-should-know-better-than-to-ask”), today she’s in the plainest of black jersey-dresses, with stockings irregularly striped (like an ice-core, drilled from the Arctic), and a long velvet ribbon, in lieu of necklace, from which depends a monocle – quaint enough to be impressive that she found such a thing, but (secretly) matching her prescription. The doorbell rings. We wait. We adjust our hair & smiles.

The Process: when you arrive at a home where someone is affected, you start making mental notes. This garden swing-seat is where we’ll do the interview… these stuffed toys are an emblem of lost innocence… these are the seasonal blossoms or bare branches, indicating the passage of time, or the hope of re-birth. Something I overheard our in-house Director telling an Editor: telegraph your punches. Here goes:

The street where they live – a few of the houses further up are having a lawn-sale; ’though not the house we’re heading for.

Plant-pots along the concrete path: a miniature kitchen garden. Better-kept than the neighbours’ own; among the thyme stalks, like skeletal trees, plastic soldiers posed in combat.

Movement behind the leaf-textured glass; a body condenses into being.

The lady of the house: bags under her eyes.

On the hallway ceiling: faint little squares where sellotape has been left behind, after decorations were pulled down.

Emerging from behind her feet, a long-haired cat, with a face like a pug. “Wilbur,” she says.

Souvenirs of holidays in the Mediterranean on the multi-compartmented shelves in the hall, too small for books or plates (I have no idea what such pieces of furniture are actually called. Is this what passes for a shrine these days…? These figurines, little lares et penates. The faces of the ancestors smirking from THE frames – )

The living room; immaculate, but cold; a full ashtray on the windowsill.

The lady of the house: each cigarette lit off the last.

VM: “She’ll be home in an hour.”

The dread in that phrase.


I’ve been left to stare about the living-room, and out the window, while Guin gets the child’s mother to open up, under the pre-text of helping her make tea, in the kitchen. The view takes in adjacent gardens, all with low fences between them, and a communal park beyond; the fences would stop a toddler, a small dog, a football, not much else. You can imagine conversations across the fence, in summer; splashing sounds from paddling pools. ((Not for the first time, I think how a quarter-of-a-century led up to this.)) As I remember it, my own childhood world was always circumscribed by a loop of road. Within this, were several rows of houses arranged along drives, where cars could roll sedately; the real periphery, though, was marked by the main road, with its barrier of fast cars that blurred past like Guillotine blades. There were tall trees beyond the road – and fields beyond that – but the way I thought of it, my world had a circular perimeter, which I made it my daily mission to patrol. Sometimes, it seemed, the full quota of people my young mind needed to make life a never-ending string of surprises, was contained within that tarmac horizon; still, something was out there. My imagination never conjured a specific threat from outside, nor made any plans to escape and explore Beyond the Road, but I took obsessive precautions in every neighbour’s house to Know the Exits in Case of Monster Attack.

Okay, this sounds more serious than it was – I simply rode laps on my bike, rising up the gentle incline at the end of our road, then curving around the outside of the park, past another row of detached houses, and then free-wheeling down the steep hill to screech to a near-halt at the bottom, then negotiate the cut-through that returned me to the road our house stood on. Whizzing downhill I jumped speed-humps (then, quaintly, called Sleeping Policemen) and Yee-Hawed like the Dukes of Hazzard on TV, whenever their Pontiac Firebird flew over some obstacle, as they escaped Boss Hogg, for some interchangeable reason that (as far as anyone could see) was only ever a pretext for the high-speed pursuit, and the Yee-Haws. Looking back on this, I guess that kids a generation-or-two before me might have yelled Kamikaze!!! – and, the generation before that, Geronimo. Right now, I’m too young to have any idea what the cri du jour is for kids at play – so far, I have neither kids nor god-kids.

Anyhow, point is, I was a proper kid. I climbed trees, fell out of trees; rode bikes, fell off bikes; came home with arms & legs camouflaged green & brown with smears of tree-bark; came home with knees grazed in a cross-hatched pattern, or calves (fascinatingly) opened in two glistening pink folds by broken glass hidden among the leaf litter & twigs. Every available waking hour was spent outside, and an incalculable number of the hours I should have been asleep, I spent reading books that sneaked me back outside, except even further afield, to a wilderness stitched together from the dense dark forests of Western Europe, the dawn-stained snowfields of Christmas mornings. In my dreams, I was often running from unseen people, perhaps even hordes of them… but in my best dreams, I could fly, and it was as easy as treading water, or (now I come to think of it) pedalling the wheels of a bike –


“………she was a normal girl. Normal, in that she was a bit shy until she decided you’re to be trusted, and… as you would expect she had some difficulty adapting to… You know, there were the kind of problems you can anticipate… but then, well, all the lying started – what I thought were lies, about where things had gone, and – Oh!”

The two of them return from the kitchen, mid-flow, bearing mugs of tea. Apparently, I’m the thing that’s startling, a stranger in the house, she’d almost forgotten was here. I’m standing by the window, fingers raking through the cat’s white fur, so I smile an apology, take a seat on the sofa, and Guin takes the place at the opposite end from me, closest to the high-backed armchair, where she’s sitting, the girl’s mother –

“Let’s get onto that a bit later [says Guin]. Don’t think of us as social-workers… and certainly not psychiatrists! Why don’t you just tell us what your daughter is like as if you’re talking to another parent at school…? How she used to be – how you expect her to be again.”

“Imaginative. That’s what everyone said. She used to speak Cat…

(A memory that made her smile fondly)

“………not just meiowing, the way most children would, but everything from a purring rumble to a yowl, and squinting too, and twitching her nose. She said that once she’d learned how to speak Bird, she’d make a phrasebook, so she could translate from Bird to Cat, so that Wilbur would stop eating them, and leaving pieces of bird on the kitchen step. [In a higher, breathier, imitation of a child’s voice – ] ‘“You can’t eat someone if you can speak their language”,’ she used to say. That was when she was 6 or so. It’s been a few years. I don’t know if she still does –


I can remember all my friends’ names (Christian, sur-, and nick-), if I try, and their faces, but I’m often told by Family that I boasted more often about having Animal Friends. Having a Dog Friend… and a Cat Friend… and a Lizard Friend… and Spider Friends, and a Pig Friend that gave birth to squealing triplets. We never had pets in the house; these were animals I met, and stayed in touch with in my imagination, updating whoever would listen about their adventures, as if I’d just received a letter from a pen-friend in some Third World country where there are lots of insects, and gross things to eat, and ghosts are everywhere you look / listen / smell. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that before I was born, I was The Goat, because I kicked relentlessly, and it delighted me endlessly, once I was at a precocious and encyclopaedia-devouring age (some would say I never left), to know and to be able to tell people: that We kids were Little Goats, and that boys (bay, bayim) were named after Turkish Knights from Crusader times, and that girls were Deers, although that was back when the word (gurles) referred to all children – equally grubby, unkempt, straggle-haired and sexless.

I was a proper kid: one of the last generation who could grow up without a TV in the bedroom, or computer games of any kind in the house, and not somehow feel myself the victim of some monstrous deprivation or child-abuse. Instead, I embarked on projects to dig tunnels between the houses, and to build treehouses, and actually did navigate the warren of tunnels among the spiky rosehip bushes, snapping spines to make a cavity where I could crouch and contemplate my secret world before being summoned by shouts that We’re going to explore the Haunted House now, are you coming…? I also fought the next-door neighbour regularly, in tumbling scraps on the patch of lawn between our houses; we never kept track of who lost or won. Still, I was sociable in my way: without being conscious of what I was doing, my games were about protecting the little village of my imagination; nesting in places that were all my own; and creating routes and lines of communication so that We-the-Children could get about our own world without having to use the routes laid out for us by adults, under their surveillance, and forbidden between certain hours.

A decade-or-more later, having left home a good few years, I stood in a Crop Circle one rainy midnight, and saw it as a map of a world much like the one I’d understood as a child. The main circle was the immediate horizon of daily experience, viewed from the family home. The narrow track connecting that circle to the next, smaller circle, was the route to school (from which we never strayed), which was, of course, its own self-contained world. Other circles and crescents and fork-like armatures extended from these; encoding other places we might never see the likes of, but that didn’t matter. Standing in the cornfield, I saw it as a schematic for Home, and felt the kind of deep nostalgia that can only come from being at a distance measured in interstellar units.


The interview went on for almost an hour in relative calm, punctuated by the pouring of cups of weak beige tea, and illustrated with an endless array of photo-albums. Wilbur pricked up his ears at mentions of his name, initially, but soon tired of these false alarms, and left his owner’s lap to study a sunbeam on the carpet as if it were a pool, in which he could fish for the flittering oval shapes cast by leaves. We learned that besides being the ambassador of Birdkind, the daughter had written diary entries about such unlikely subjects as her bedroom window: complaining about its banal and repetitive choice of view, and deriding its sycophantic tendency to want to look like anything except itself (the name she gave the window – Alyssa – suggested an encrypted jibe at some classmate, Guin surmised). The diary was returned to its place, carefully, although as it was taken from my hands, a few orange-coloured petals fell from some later, un-opened (perhaps unwritten) page, where a pressed flower must have been hidden, shedding them like passed minutes from the dwindling hour.

Her fridge-drawings were un-tacked, and brought into the living-room for our inspection, all of which revealed a moderately talented young artist in transition from planar, quasi-hieroglyphic representation to Quattrocento perspective (there seemed to be more than one vanishing point, creating an illusion that the scenery was free-floating, or un-moored from gravity). A running theme in the pictures – that Guin picked up on, before I managed to – was the poor fit between the various figures and their shadows… not to mention, in some cases, an apparent surplus of shadows (not that these resembled human figures by any stretch of their dimensions).

Other anecdotes blurred into one another: the one about the party dress that she wore to breakfast for a whole week after her fifth birthday, when the thrill of the presents and attention had worn off, and more of each was demanded; the party dress she threw away, after the nature of birthdays was explained, because ‘it didn’t work anymore’ like a broken toy. Lots of things were ‘broken’ in these stories. In autumn, the trees were broken; when it rained hard during July, summer was broken; boys were broken girls; when, for once, she was served chicken at a friend’s house – a meat ordinarily banned at home due to the hormones – she’d made the critical connection between meat and ‘broken animals’. For some reason, this was the last snippet the mother was able to proffer before she realized she couldn’t delay any longer. She had to tell us, in person, what we’d come to hear:

Her daughter was convinced she was surrounded by dead children.

Except that wasn’t it –

She could convince you, or anyone, they’re surrounded by dead children. That she says she sees –

Look around the room: the cat’s resting peacefully on the windowsill; the sunbeam that lit the floor (a parallelogram), has migrated to the wall (a narrow sliver of light). For all its neatness, the room’s peppered with the innocent traces of a child’s passing, subliminally nudging it from a “house” to a “home” (down between the sofa cushions, a stray hair-band … on the walls, framed photos & certificates… the lowest shelf of the bookcase, where the brightly coloured books are stacked haphazardly). At the other end of the sofa from where I’m sitting (too low for me, knees up like a gargoyle), Guin is poured over the side, one hand extending into the space between chairs, ready to bridge that gap, and take the hand of this woman, telling her story. Guin urges her to pinpoint the exact moment she knew, and reminds her she’s there for support. All through this, Guin’s hand remains hanging, though, palm up; half of a cantilevered bridge, never completed.

Okay. Things had gone missing – a few clothes here & there, that might have been hidden, to avoid wearing them, because they were itchy or ugly – one, for instance, was a green wool cardigan she never liked; plus, around the same time, several tins of food disappeared that could have been taken for Harvest Festival, or for a charity collection her year-group was participating in, at the time. On each occasion, her daughter had shrugged, and insisted I didn’t take it, which was disappointing because she must have taken food from the cupboard without asking, and didn’t want to be caught Not Asking Permission. (That First Commandment from all teachers…) Only once, when she was pressed on the hiding place of a more valuable item, a new pair of shoes, did she let slip, Maybe it was Them – before clamming up.

So. That’s when she first heard about her daughter’s new playmates. How they didn’t have names, because they didn’t have parents. These details were unnerving, but secondary to the consideration of her having imaginary friends in the first place. After all, this was regressive for her age – which was 10, going on 11 – but, again, not wholly unexpected, some kind of regression, given her circumstances. A week later, the mother had made the mistake of asking whether her playmates were still around, and been told: They are here, Mummy, but I know how bothered you are, that they won’t speak to you, so I told them I wouldn’t be able to play with them all the time, if they’re all right with that…

Then there was the writing on the wall… another thing she hadn’t done since she was 5; except, you’d have to have moved the sofa (the one I’m sitting on, right now) to finish that cryptic collection of joined-up half-words, only the trailing paraph of its final –y or –g visible when she first noticed it, something odd like, um: VALSHPAR DELGASHIC…? and then a lot of streaks & squiggles even less intelligible. There’s a faint discolouration where the letters have been erased, and also a divot where the graphite point of the pencil was driven into the wall, with enough force to snap it, splintering. The sofa is pushed close to the wall, as you might have noticed, and it’s also heavy. It doesn’t have casters, or wheels, but stubby wooden legs. It would have rucked up the carpet, or left an indentation when it was moved; that’s to say, assuming it was moved –

So, she had to ask. Not about the wall, or about the words, but about the children. About the parents they didn’t have. About how the parents had died, and so those children were never born, and now they’re here. About the ways they died, the ones who were buried alive in mud; the way they drowned, the ones who tried to cross the river at night, on their makeshift rafts… and the way they hung on, the ones who couldn’t afford treatments… and how none of this her girl should ever have known, not at her age. “It’s not that they died, or anything, it’s that they weren’t ever born”, she’ll say, in her singsong voice, and that’s what’s so mad – that it’s all so normal for her, as if she never knew any other world than this –

There were no secrets, after that… although this is the one time you wish there were, even with your own child – After the incident with the wall, she talked openly, but she made the room cold, when you saw her talking to them. Other children tend to look down, and drop their voices when they’re playing with an imaginary friend, but her eyes moved as she talked, as if she was following someone else’s movements, pausing to consider what they’d just said, and how to reply. She sucked the life out of the room – or they did, those invisible playmates of hers – they did it through her. She was their conduit to the material world.

Sometimes – you’ll notice this when you talk to her, assuming she takes to you – she seems to get more animated, when she talks about them; she’ll grow brighter, as if a spotlight or sunbeam had fallen on her alone, but that’s when you’ll notice how anxious you’ve become, and the set of your own face, worrying what it all means, and whether this is going to get worse, whatever “worse” could possibly entail…

…see, when you walk in on her talking to them, it’s like walking into a room where there’s a picture hanging on the wall – a room that’s been emptied of everything but this one picture that’s been ubiquitous in the room for so long; had become so much a part of the room that no-one thought to pack it. You step close, and take a look at it, and there she is, this young girl, 10-going-on-11. Head tilted as if listening to someone unseen; someone else behind glass, unreachable, or maybe someone on the same side of the glass as you –

This is when the doorbell rings.

(This excerpt is taken from the beginnning of VR, 2007-2010)

The Secret Librarians’ Afterhours Music Scene

Fan # 1: “This was the first year out of university. I was in a launderette in Earl’s Court. This guy walked in, a Canadian, and he sees my T-shirt. I’d actually screenprinted it myself a few years before, because I liked the artwork, and the band were way obscure, so it slightly blew my mind that he said ‘D’you like that band, or d’you just like the T-shirt?’ So we got talking, and he invited me around to his flat for a smoke – you know, for a joint; I don’t smoke-smoke – and after a while he puts on this record I’d never heard. The sound was incredible for something this old; I mean, the acoustics. I asked him how he got a hold of it, and if they used some kind of, like, analogue reverb unit – the way George Martin used a microphone inside a rotating cylinder – and he said, No… and he took a long slow draw on the joint, like he was choosing whether to tell me what he told me next, or maybe like he was just in awe of this music that took you right into the dripping caves of the unconscious, before he said They recorded it in one take, late one night… inside the blue whale. You know? There’s this lifesize, fibreglass model of a whale, hanging from the ceiling in the mammal section of the Natural History Museum. It’s like no other room sound there is: the echoes have this weird phasing effect, because the whole thing’s rocking slightly, and the walls are never in the same position by the time the soundwaves come back. Can you imagine that? They got congas, a harmonium, two guitarists, a bassist, and a guy operating the reel-to-reel. All inside the whale…’

Lou Reed: “Fact. After the Velvets split, there’s nothing else I wanted more than to get into the Afterhours Music Scene. Mainly to fuck off Cale, because they wouldn’t let him join, back in ’64, ’65 – but y’know, there’s nothing better than being in a room with a bunch of guys firing off ideas. No-one wants to be a solo artist, not really, even if you’re the biggest ego on the planet – and believe me, I know all about this – you have to have people you respect, so you can see it in their eyes when you come up with a better idea than them. That’s what I could dig about the Secret Librarians, the SLAMS, whatever you choose to call them. The French Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, he said, The reading of great literature is like a conversation with the great minds of history. Maybe he should have said, it’s like a great jam session…”

Lester Bangs (archive footage): “…pillaging the shelves, sticking a pin into the heart of culture, and pulling out the next line, whether it made sense or not; freaking out to the unholy beats rolling off those leatherbound shelves, rocking their leatherbound bodies in sweaty abandon, the same bodies hunched over issue desks in beige cardigans the next day, insomniac eye-circles rhymed with coffee-circles on covers of clothbound books, they sigh and take back from you, no clue to the way they hunched over monitors in the witching hour of the night before, shaking notes from the neck of a Gibson; a world away, a lifetime away, in the secret world of the stacks never seen by those who come to these places of Silence Please, to read but not to learn, to see but not to feel. Could these people be a myth? If they were before my time, their legend was enough, to know they once were, but please Gods of Noise, please let them not be a stoner’s dream. This was the prayer I sent up, going in search of the Secret Librarians’ Afterhours Music Scene…

Greil Marcus: “Honestly? No-one knows which came first. The Museum Scene, or the Library Scene. Lester gave them their names: SLAMS and SCAMS – the Secret Curators Scene. I did some research, though, and it turns out the British Library used to be based in the British Museum, until the 1970s. That explains a lot…

Lester Bangs: “…the Museum Underground, the MU, the Zen ‘mu’ – the unknown, the nothing, the never was; the unseen museum. The place they played, the place they gigged, the original of the originals, suggesting to the perma-stoned mind an endless regression of original scenes, each more obscure than the last, leaving no trace but the fact of influence…”

Malcolm MacLaren: “…which is b*ll*cks, of course, because any Londoner knows the Science Museum is a stone’s throw from the V&A. That’s where all the fabulous costumes came from. Imagine that: they didn’t have to make history, because all their stagewear, all their instruments, all their sets, were already in a museum. Rather takes off the pressure to be great, doesn’t it? Frees you up to do anything, to be anything. That’s where the idea for Sex came from – clothes that were already out of date, for people who knew they were meant to be remembered. All the ideology came later: the Scream in a Museum, the Situationist pranks; the SLAMS didn’t want anyone to know about it. My ideals were higher: if you can scream in a library after dark, or in the V&A, why not scream in Buckingham Palace? Naturally, it followed to have our own gang of sexy young highwaymen, playing music that sounded so out of date it was practically primitive. That’s where The Sex Pistols came from.”

Brian Eno: “All of this is available now. At your fingertips. The material on cassette, the material on reel-to-reel, even the albums recorded straight to wax cylinder, using an original Edison Calliogram – it’s all been digitized. Someone out there will zip the whole lot for you, and fileshare it in minutes, which is the beauty of the World Wide Web. It’s an extraordinarily rapid democratization of music that only a few decades ago was distributed hand-to-hand, user-to-user, dub-by-dub. Arguably, its dissemination is more consistent with the original project: to electrify literature, to compose spontaneous cut-ups of the great poets and writers of the past. On the other hand, there’s a part of me that enjoys the obscurity of it; the fact that less than 5% of the entire output was ever recorded. Memories of the few shows I ever saw that only come back if I compose a melody that I realize, as I play it, isn’t actually my own. What the new generation of fans forget is, the costumes were amazing, too. Roxy Music were always indebted to the Afterhours Music Scene for that. You can listen to the Japanese bootlegs, and the official remasters, and the cleaned-up sessions, but there’s no film footage of what they actually looked like. Only a few posed photos of chaps in Samurai bamboo armour. It’s as if there’s one corner of twentieth century musical history that isn’t a part of the digital universe. I’m actually grateful for that –

Ralf Hutter, Kraftwerk: “Also, the book – the material object – is a percussion instrument, for so many bands in the scene. So innovative! You have a very dry sound it makes that you can build from, by successive modulations, without the – how you say? – cultural luggage. This is what we took from the SpaterNachtBibliothekScene, when I first started playing with Florian, and later mit Kraftwerk. The book as schlagspiel. I think they would say something else, of course! Drums are not so good to play late at night – some reason like that. Still, we like the sounds they make –

Paul McCartney, Beatle: “It’s not us. I’d remember! John and Yoko really dug that scene, but John was more Spike Milligan than Finnegans Wake, y’know? I mean, can you imagine him having the patience to rap James Joyce over free jazz? Laurie Anderson maybe, but not John…

Blixa Bargeld, Einsturzende Neubaten / The Bad Seeds: “The guy in full armour, with the contact microphones between the plates so that when he dances...? And the one in his codpiece – literally using it as a percussion instrument? Hilarious. We had to top that with Neubaten. That’s why the cement mixer, onstage, jah…

Thurston Moore, Sonic Youth / Ecstatic Yod: “Some people say Jandek works as a Janitor in a factory. Some people say he’s a mental patient. Some people say he used to be a Philosophy Major, but he got into heroin, and met his band in rehab. All we know is, he’s made 60 records since 1978, when he burned all his novels, and he would have been 33, then. I’m not saying anything for certain, but when we spoke before the gig, he sure seemed to know a lot about the Dewey Decimal System…”

Steve O’Malley, Sunn O))): “People think we’re just about extreme bass frequencies, long beards, and camping around in black robes? But I’ll let you in on a secret: you have to use the venue as an instrument, and you have to choose your text; that’s when you transcend music. That’s when you unlock the interdimensional gates. Not a lot of people know this, but the Secret Librarians Afterhours Music Scene? The reason no-one’s admitted to being part of it, years after it all ended: they’re not on this plane anymore. They found the exact resonant frequencies that, when coupled with a recital of the Necronomicon of Abdul Al-Alhazred, literally disintegrated the reality boundary. Maybe they got swallowed by something unimaginable – maybe they found a way out. Our next project, we’re creating music that when played by enough people at the same time… well, you’ll see.”

Fan # 2: “You know the King’s Library? It’s basically a three storey-high steel and glass cube, at the heart of the new British Library. Thousands of books on each side. It seemed like the perfect place for the revival. Anyhow, we got in there about 2am, set up our equipment, and started riffing on passages from the Diamond Sutra. Crazy stuff. Then, following the style of the Old Masters, we each picked a book off the shelf, so as to create spontaneous exquisite corpses by chanting alternate verses. True story: the book I picked up, a note fell out. It simply said: To anyone who finds this – Rock On.”

Lester Bangs (archive footage): “…How old is the scene? How far back does it go? Were the Nazi book-burnings an attempt to suppress those secret late-night readings, set to the wild, decadent sounds of negro jazz musicians… or was the crackle of a hundred million pages in vast torchlit processions their uniquely German contribution to the scene, with its own esoteric roots in Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, and necrobibliomancy – the raising of the dead through the sounding of their sacred words, in spaces designed by philosopher-architects for their magico-acoustic properties? Had I just had too much Robitussin and Benzedrine…?”

[December 2009]

The Value of a Private Education

The Value of a Private School Education

You want to know about the process? In hindsight, I don’t think the process would have worked in an ordinary school. Then again, I’m fairly certain it wouldn’t have worked on an ordinary student. We had the fortune to want for neither.

(Granted, what I know about “ordinary schools” could be written on the back of a postage stamp – an expression not all that meaningful to the youth of today – but it’s true to say this wasn’t an ordinary school. The buildings pre-date the first colonies in the New World, and the architecture is, strictly speaking, Gothic – not neo-Gothic, let alone Edwardian-Gothic – simply, Gothic; steeple-fanged, with ogive windows to inculcate a monastic sensibility even when doing something irreligious as gazing idly out the window. There’s also the position on the higher ground above the river valley to consider: in the Autumn, the fog can turn the plateau into an island cut off from the world, assuming you don’t get to thinking the world’s been erased altogether. My point is, there’s a lot you could believe about the place, if you were suggestible. On the other hand, when the river floods in the Spring, you might wake up to see ducks waddling across the quadrangle. It’s not all Gothic.)

So, when I say “the process”, I don’t mean to be coy, but it’s important how we frame the subject matter. You might dismiss it out of hand if I gave it its familiar, idiomatic name. You have to understand, the process is effective because you’re dealing with potent neurotoxins. One of the school’s groundskeepers gave me the idea one day, when I encountered him uprooting a cluster of Fly Agaric, sprung up by the oak overshadowing the Science block. The ancient people, he said, used to eat these to commune with their ancestors; a schoolboy like you – well, a little less smart than you, perhaps – might just end up in the infirmary, puking his guts out. It’s all about what you expect. Hence the idea that I put to the others. The beauty of it, I said, is that no matter what happens, it’ll be a shock to the system, and if he believes he deserves it, all the more so. Why we didn’t worry about a fatality is beyond me.

(In other words, the school had a part to play in what happened. As a physical link to the distant past, our very surroundings primed us to think that – idea-wise – not everything from the distant past could be without foundation, either. That there can be ideas that take centuries to hatch; like the beetle that crawled from beneath the bandages of the mummified head, in the glass case in the Upper Library. The case itself was as old as its contents – a bequest from an Old Boy of the school, who happened to have been an explorer in the mid-19th century. We all saw the beetle crawling about in there, beneath the khaki-coloured misshapen ball that could have been a wasp’s nest or a tree’s withy, were it not for the glimpse of yellow teeth, still lodged in the lower jaw. It’s funny how the eyeless head in the case was more disturbing to me, those late nights researching the process, in the library, than the thought of what I was actually researching.)

Actually, there’s a very good reason why we didn’t expect a fatality. Why we collectively howled with laughter in the Junior Common Room, when the possibility of his dying – permanently – was raised by one of our number. We literally fell about laughing – someone perched on the edge of the Billiard table, fell off, and I had to cover up the fact that a small maggot of mucus had escaped my nose, along with the first burst of laughter. What if he dies? was the original question, and from someone more quickwitted than I, Weren’t you listening? We just bring him back… There was also, I suppose, a less good reason why we didn’t expect a fatality. Call it superstition, but a pupil had already died during the time we were at school – it was large enough that, statistically, it had to happen one year in ten, given the population size. The death was a sudden one, involving a car, driven at speed round a sharp corner, and blind, what with the thick bushes. Nothing sinister about that death. None of us were able to picture the Yearling in question, but we felt protected by statistics.

(I apologize if I’m being secretive about the other students involved. It’s not that I’m concerned what you’re going to do with the information, it’s just that I didn’t keep in touch with them. They ended up in The City, I’m guessing; “The City”, as opposed to merely “The Capital”, although – Yes – we’re all eyeball-deep in capitalism. The fact that we were able to go through with the process, from a practical / logistical standpoint, reveals a lot about the school; I mean, it’s that combination of vast amounts of money in the hands of teenagers, and the kind of arrogance or entitlement that lets you think you can do anything. The fact that at least one of us had a parent who could mislay a credit card, without noticing, has its own moral – maybe it wasn’t a sense of superiority to the rules, but a congenital fecklessness.)

Still, I have a lot of affection for the school; the stained glass windows, the worn steps outside the classrooms, the archaic traditions, and all. Filing into chapel each day, my favourite inscription, in stone scrollwork, was the one that reads Absentes Adsunt. It translates adequately as The Absent are Here, but it’s best in the Latin – the similarity of the phonemes underscores the paradox that to be nothing is still to be something, for those that remember; that Life is a hair’s breadth from Death, and I think it’s metonymic of that greater paradox that cuts to the heart of what it means to be human: that we’re the animal that thinks itself more than animal, precisely because it’s most self-aware. Then again, given what happened next, maybe the human condition isn’t Self-Awareness at all, but Denial.

(You have to understand, before you condemn us for going through with the process, we didn’t think of him as human. So much so, we didn’t even dignify him with an original nickname. Our nemesis we simply called “C***” and the name was unambiguous in its referent. His very existence and cuntishness overrode all our liberal sensibilities about using a term that implied contempt for the sex of which that orifice might be deemed metonymic. Because it’s not the only name of that musky and enticing fur-covered opening, for which we feel plenty of affection, when the bravado’s put aside; it’s just one of many names that even a teenage boy can use with a firm grasp on its nuances. The guy was such a c***, he made you call him a c***.)

Anyhow. If you want to be prosaic, the main ingredients are Datura Stramonium and Tetradotoxin. The first is a type of cucumber, if I remember correctly, indigenous to not-all-that-many-places, hence the need for a credit card, to pay for couriered delivery of the specimen. The second is the venom of the Puffer fish, although a near-identical molecule occurs naturally in several other species. As the Biology-expert among us, I was in charge of writing up a plausible request for the sample, on the grounds it was needed for research into its properties as a cardiac stimulant. Thing is, it’s not just about the chemicals. I’m not defending my actions by trying to persuade you he deserved it; I’m simply saying that’s how you get the best results. The third ingredient is (as my father would put it) a complete-and-utter tosser. Not someone like the poor guilty idiot who ran over that other kid, whose friends and family might want our kind of revenge, but someone whose prickishness stems from an ineradicable self-hatred: belittle and undermine everyone around you, so they won’t notice you’re an easy target yourself. That’s the third ingredient. Any others are just for the tourists.

(I’m not sure if it’s connected, but I haven’t been back to the school in years. It was ten years before I even visited the neighbouring town, because of the unpleasant coincidence that a friend whose family lived there, had been recovering from a freak accident that left him with 2nd degree burns over 80% of his body. That day was my first chance to recognize that most towns don’t have cobbled-streets, cafés that churn their own clotted cream, and a shop exclusively dedicated to dolls-house supplies.)

See, I’m not totally callous. During the preliminary research into the process, I wondered plenty of times what would happen to the victim, after the Tetradotoxin’s been administered. After all, there’s a risk that he wakes up on an autopsy table, or inside an oven at the crematorium, neither of which were concerns for traditional practitioners. The original technique hinged on the assumption that they wake up in a coffin. That’s the first shock, and if their mind doesn’t crack at that point, it’s what they see when they’re exhumed that seals the deal. So, going back to the plan, we were taking a double risk – that there wouldn’t be an autopsy, and there wouldn’t be a cremation. Eventually we realized the risks were too great. The best thing would be to dose him on Saturday afternoon, in his own room; wait until his heart-rate slowed to nothing, and then get him down to the cemetery, after dark, even if it meant disguising him as a drunk student being pushed in a shopping trolley. Mostly, we were concerned with how we were going to get out of school.

(Costumes, of course, are crucial to the ceremony. Naturally, everyone wants to be the Baron, which led to a discussion about who could afford the best costume, complete with top hat, sexton’s frock-coat, and a suitably ancient-looking spade. We’d certainly need the latter to actually dig the shallow grave to put him in, if we couldn’t find one conveniently left open. I pointed out that our victim wouldn’t have a clue whether or not the costumes were authentic; we just need to look suitably inhuman, and unidentifiable, in cemetery light. Our victim’s eyesight would be weakened by the hallucinogenic effects of the Datura already (administered by rubbing into the gums, shortly before you expect him to fully regain consciousness from the Tetradotoxin trance). That, and the guy was practically blind without his contacts. Some of the others used rubber masks, caricaturing politicians, with the eye and mouth holes cut raggedly so that they became deformed and unrecognizable. I ended up being the Baron, for our ceremony. I was the tallest, and skinniest. Probably still am…)

In the school photo that year, you could probably pick him out. He’s not the only one not-looking at the camera, but he’s definitely the only one not looking at anything in this world. We had him by the balls for the rest of the year. Not literally – that would be disgusting. We made sure he couldn’t tell anyone – we said his mouth would fill up with grave-worms if he tried, and the words would wriggle away on the page. Then we backed away from the grave, and left him in the cemetery, to find his own way back to school.

(I’m assuming you want to know about this because you’ve been wronged in some way? If you can call it an ingredient, the most important one is that structure of belief. You have to be immersed in a culture where you can believe in the power of the houngan, or boukor, or whatever, to bring you under their will. It’s no coincidence that the typical victims are hardened (but-not-exactly-successful) criminals; among people like that, superstition and credulity goes with the territory. Like the rest of us, our own victim remembered the myth of the year above us experimenting with a Tabloid Ouija board (the letters cut out of The Sun, and pasted on the underside of a desk-drawer). Because it was another year, we believed it was possible, but I think every group of First Years that passes through the school tries to make its own planchette – tries to make contact with the Other Side. (If you’re interested, there’s a whole mythology in place, involving the ghosts of consumptive orphans, and some other stuff about “The Levels”.) My theory is, we spontaneously invent a higher order that’s scarier and weirder than the one we’re trying to figure out – day by day, lesson by lesson – because if you can reconcile yourself with a Death that never ends, maybe you’ll get through the next five years at a school like ours.)

I regret that I didn’t take down more people’s numbers before I left. I regret that I had too much time on my hands that lazy summer before university, but never learned to play guitar. I regret we didn’t try to persuade him to serve any of us – because it would have felt a bit too much like fagging if we succeeded, and could have given away who we were, if it didn’t. Otherwise, I think I made the most of a privileged education. Regret-wise, though, I don’t think I’m missing anything else off that list.