‘Not everyone wants to be Prime Minister?! ‘

Type On Paper by Adam Highland, directed by Tallulah Sheffield

Writer’s block feels agonising. It feels like there is someone watching your every word, critiquing everything you almost say.

For Ben (Kriss Dillon) , the hero of Adam Higland’s first play Type On Paper, there is. It’s Miles (Edward Green) , the slightly smarmy, ambitious, up and coming MP who is the hero of Ben’s first play. Which is about….something. Ben’s not sure. Probably a leadership election. And Miles’ chief of staff,, who is very important.

At first the play consists mostly of interactions between Ben and Miles, as Miles, a figment of Ben’s imagination albeit an extremely critical one with a greater access to Ben’s subconscious.

Ben is a thirty something English graduate with a first from Cambridge who does something with data aggregation that he doesn’t even want to discuss with his subconscious. He’s funny, but slightly too self deprecating. He’s never had a proper girlfriend, because of something to do with tennis, and he want his play to be seen by millions of people. Not thousands, millions. He wants Miles to know that.

Miles is the son of a much loved Labour MP who is a solid backbencher, known in some circles but not that widely. He’s reluctant to join the fray for party leader but also desperately wants to be party leader. He’d make a very good leader of the opposition, he knows that.

Sophie (Helen Percival) is Miles’ chief of staff. She used to work for his father and she is keeping everything together in Miles’ office, dealing with a somewhat useless and overwrought speech writer (Ben, who has written himself into the play) and putting up with her own life and it’s own problems. Cheerfully.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Percival’s excellent grasp of slapstick in the opening scenes, as she has to run in to the beginning of successive drafts of Ben’s play to make a series of revelations which Miles then tells Ben aren’t interesting enough. In many ways her performance is the heart of an excellent play.

Dillon and Green are also superb, playing off each other and playing up the similarities between their characters at the same time. Everyone forgets, when in an audience, how difficult it is to direct and act farce without something going wrong: Tallulah Sheffield’s direction should be commended for how effortless this makes it seem.

Finally, Adam Highland’s script merges the comic with the deeply melancholy, and causes the audience to feel deeply for all three characters, even the two imaginary ones. What could be rendered as wry or artistically bleak becomes both moving and ultimately somewhat hopeful in a manner which should be commended.

Type on Paper is on at the Tabard Theatre until August 3rd. Tickets available here: http://tabardtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/type-on-paper/

Full cast:

Ben: Kriss Dillon

Miles: Edward Green

Sophie: Helen Percival

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Fiction: A chamber in Hautdesert

(A very long time ago I wrote a story in the voice of Bertilak’s wife in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which later evolved into a very different novel I am currently shopping around.

I’m probably going to never actually try to traditionally publish the short story, but I thought it was worth putting up with a pay what you can tip jar

If you enjoy it, and can pay, I would greatly appreciate a donation via one of the following:

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I do what they ask of me, and play the part that she requests. And my husband- I call him my husband for she prefers to think of us as like them, I don’t know why- visits me from time to time, mostly to see her, and I am the dutiful wife at the same feast again and again.

She wishes us to appear a most accurate facsimile of rulers, and since she is now old, or no longer wishes to play my part (the childless matriarch being a beautifully crafted role which she has now perfected).

So, I must suffice. Her illusions are not complete- my husband, although I call him by the male pronoun and speak of him as a man- is neither a man, nor a person, nor a god but that which was there before, fashioned into the shape of a man, I suppose.

So accustomed to behaving as one that were I to attack him, to lash out in a rare moment of power and tell him to… return to that he once was, the poor thing would scarcely comprehend. He is a shadow of her perfect illusion, the trickery she plays on them, of which we are a part.

I think I know why she prefers us to behave like them. We are dull to her games, we do what we are asked, and serve, and are dutiful. When she asks us to ape them, to assume their drab lives, she is hoping that she might achieve for a duration of time what I have seen in glimpses.

When she returns, and they are caught, like my poor husband’s quarry, her power seems manifest, she is beyond her age (which I do not know, but to estimate it feels as though it would be unwise. Very unwise)

Just before that moment, when she is toying with them, she lives for the game. She watches them be trapped, and their futile efforts to escape, and loves their belief that they are free, and can preserve this.

That is why we live in this… tableau, and I am beautiful each evening, and when they visit they think that she is my elderly lady in waiting. And why she is that, for if they saw her as anything else, they would not fight and she would lose the pleasure.

She tells me that I am more important than a doll like figure at the head of the table. She soothes and cajoles, since I am obliged to affect dissatisfaction.

In truth, I feel nothing, perhaps more than my husband, perhaps enough curiosity or boredom to be fashioning this narrative, and to be speaking to you, my dear. She tells me that soon there will be a different type of guest, not those merely left to my husband, or to her wiles in the lands outside.

(We are seldom allowed outside, for the forest is hers, not that it is much of a forest, and few would wish to walk in it. I looked on the maps of the castle, another of her passions, once, and they showed what seem to be my orchards, given to me as a wedding present. But I cannot see them outside, nor do I care enough to ask).

I do not entirely believe her, and I do not mind my position as a moving statue.

If I were romantic, which I am not, I would cherish dreams. But I am warm, and clothed, and since I am not (and perhaps never was) like them I do not need sustenance.

So I am content, I suppose, and I watch their pursuits. I dress, and I simper, and weave, and amuse myself, and that is all I require for the moment.

My husband was absent for an unusually long time. The feasts ceased, since she does not want an imperfect illusion, and I have been left to myself. She is seldom in my quarters, although probably in the castle. I have become accustomed to languishing, accustomed to myself.

I take pleasure- or something like pleasure- in dressing each morning, alone, and feeling each garment, then myself. My underclothes, my bodice, my dress, my headdress and the decoration on my skirts, my belt… it pleases me, and I have a sense of being, of existing outside the game. But truly I appreciate the tricks, for this dress, these stockings, all I own is a product of it.

I do not get lonely. Nor do I tire of this place. It is… a relief no longer to dance attendance. It will be a short respite, I know that, but it is valued. The seasons are changing, it is less cold and soon I may leave the castle. For very little time, when I am attended properly, but I may. And maybe she is telling the truth about my importance.

My husband has been instructing me, as has she. Apparently in the months alone I have become slothful, sullen, not what they need. My silence, and occasional smiles, are enough at the feast, but I am to be witty and gay. They walk with me, and attempt to teach me jests, ways of replying, and how to move round words to obscure their meaning. He tries to assist her in this, but normally merely responds to hers, shows me the desired affect of my conduct. I am supposed to be improving. She is not sure quite how I decreased so much in power, although I can see her pleasure as she attempts to form me.

The same type of excitement as before she traps them.

Perhaps I am not a mere instrument, but another that feeds her excitement. Either way, she must hide her power before they arrive. And I am almost ready.

I have been shown books which contain the ladies I must imitate, in which they flirt and engage, and I have a role other than duty. I must be purposefully undutiful, if I understand correctly. But it is not my purpose to understand.

My husband was absent for a little while again, but this time I was not left at my leisure, the illusion must be maintained. So I have stood at the top of the feasts, and challenged his companions to bring back still more exotic prizes, and courted their favours and declined their advances.

It is now a relief that my husband is back. Her quarry is arriving soon, and we must be ready.

I have been bade prepare for my purpose, and she is hiding herself away. Sometimes she comes to my quarters with final touches for my persona, other times she tells me to rest. I am enjoying the return to blank obedience, the tedium of being an object. For it will not last, and I will soon be exhausted.

I don’t seem to share her excitement, much as I might like to do so.

The youth arrived tonight, dwarfed by my husband, and exhausted after his journey. I needed to do very little, so grateful was he for his bed, fire and food. The feasts are more interesting when there is a genuine guest, so I can see her temptation. But not this one. He was intoxicated by the end, and my husband (I assume) pretended intoxication. But I am not. My husband will be gone by the time I wake, and I have been told to sleep before following my instructions.

The youth is elegant, uninterested, and the kind who would crack completely were he to glimpse her. He acts properly, from what I have read and been told, and I can see why she wants him. I longed to touch him for much of our interview, not because I want to act out my role in full but to see whether I could feel his certainty.

He knows he is right, and I am to prove him wrong.

I long for the satisfaction of that, for when I finally did touch him I felt the force of his belief, and I wanted it to be mine. It was not the fragile force of which she talks so gleefully, hope, because he was unaware that there was a reason to abandon hope, but something stronger.

I understood him, and her at the same instant, and I think he saw that, for he was frightened and withdrew from me. I left, and he joined us and made merry, and this evening as I departed the feast, she congratulated me. Which just shows that this one is unusual, since they do not normally require skill, or none more than hers.

This morning I awake him again, and there is the look in his eyes I have seen in those of the others, but only for a second. Then he is whole again, and he engages in trifles with me, and regards my banter with him as a gentle form of the sports he enjoys.

He is less tired, but his resolve is sapping.

It is stronger than it could be.

Is this because she has left him untouched, or he is in some way remarkable? I do not know.

He is afraid. He tries to talk of fear to me, but I profess not to understand it. I do for a moment, when I touch him again, but I cannot explain that to him. For then he would lose immediately, and we want to beat him.

I want to beat him. I am being entrusted with the moment at which the look of fear turns to defeat, even without his knowledge, and I yearn for it.

It will deprive me of my games, and I will gain and lose tomorrow.

He will not know until later.

And he recoils less today, feeling that he is surer of his ground, and knows how to cope, and it is as though he is regaining something, and there is a last surge before his defeat, and although he will not admit this, to me or to himself, he is proud of the fact that he masters his situation.

I have become, briefly, attached to him.

I have felt his fear and his pride.

Although she will feel it more when he is crushed, I do not want to lose it completely. But I shall in due time, and tomorrow I shall rise for what is in truth the end of his story.

**************

It was of course easy, and I shall not know for sure for another day. But I felt him, and he has lost something. He struggled, briefly, and I charmed him, for the first time truly, and it was something like I had not felt before, and beautiful.

She has not come to see me, and I am puzzled. Maybe she is waiting for the power, although I am afraid that may be mine.

Or that I have more power than I did several days ago, or yesterday, and it is because of him.

He is mine, now.

I have anointed him, I have blessed him and I desire him.

Not in the way that I have been implying, but to be mine.

Now I understand truly why she wishes for us to act like them, for I have controlled one of them and it was glorious.

I feel like my mistress, and I feel the power which is invested in me, and it is changing me. Were I truly like one of them I would be afraid, but I am curious.

True, there was a certain sadness in taking my leave of him, but not that great a sadness, for this was greater than any youth, and he was only the vessel for it.

Just as, I suppose, I am but a vessel for the power now, and biding time.

****************

He has lost, and he knows it, and I know now I cannot find her, the crone, and my husband has gone, returned to a form she gave him before, faced himself, and I feel his defeat as well. I feel all their defeats, even hers?

I pace the castle looking for her, as I have for many days. I walked downstairs, and attempted to assume the position she gave me before, for the feasts, until the folly of this struck me, and I abandoned it.

***************

Now I walk outside, and again the seasons have changed, although I have not noticed time in my ecstasy.

There are fruits and flowers on the trees.

She is not coming back. I know this place is neither hers, nor my husband’s.

I know that it is mine, and for the present moment I am content.

©️ Inigo Purcell, 2007-2019, all rights reserved.

Fiction: Candle of Arras

(I used to write in a very different manner than I do now, so I have decided to finally put up some old pieces. This is about July 27/July 28 1794 from the point of view of one man in Paris. You may recognise him.

Content note: If you are squeamish or not in a state in which you can read violence, or indeed intense failure, be careful with this one. It contains a suicide attempt, the Terror, and a lot of despair. If you can’t read French the story should still make sense without it.

This is part of the stuff I am never going to try and publish traditionally commercially, I think, so if you like it enough to tip I would greatly appreciate a donation through one of the following:
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Pain. A sharp pain above his eyes. Makes it nigh on impossible to read. He perseveres, the unfamiliar alphabet swimming before him. Finally he lays it aside.

Queen Elisabeth of England never knew his woes, he fears.

He remembers the priest who advised him in his youth to read the Ancients at times of stress, like Queen Elizabeth.

It used to work, but not now. Were their republics like this? He wonders…
He straightens his cuffs. Were he to glance in a mirror he’d see… he knows what he would see. A thin, almost skeletal man of thirty six, dressed in the fashions of a decade before with flickering eyes. Pale and ill looking, abstracted most of the time, with a slight stoop. No longer the eager boy from Arras of a decade… no, half a decade before.

“ Don’t like people very much, Max, do you?” someone had told him. “I love The People” had been his reply. “There don’t seem to be many real ones left” being his true opinion.

People, of the sort you with whom you speak and who you know: were there any now? The other eager boys who so recently had thronged Paris. And the men, the ones who governed, where were they? Mirabeau: dead.

The Girondins, the men of whom his younger self had been in awe, denounced by him. How many friends had he killed? None. How many warrants had he signed? Countless.

Not friends but comrades, fellow sufferers, they were no more. He thinks of his companions. A cripple, and

another eager boy, who sprawls against the fire place.

Poor Antoine, he thinks, poor Georges. Georges will not survive, and nor will he.
Antoine is young and believes. The hours and guilt have not yet drained Antoine’s brow as they have his own.
He almost withdraws his pity: Georges-Jacques had been alive in the way that Antoine was now, with all his foolish vigour. But Georges-Jacques believed…less.
Georges, crippled, fervent Georges will give in, die here, give up, he suspects. And he and Georges are so alike. Oh, to have a sword upon which one might fall. He permits himself a smile, he is being flippant. Now is not a time for flippancy. Once again he avoids the mirror, to see how out of place that smile looks, how desperate. He closes his eyes, lifts his spectacles and presses his fingers against them, hoping it will relieve the pain. It won’t, he knows this, but the blackness is almost comforting for a moment, then ceases to be. He removes his fingertips, eyes still closed. He wishes the blackness would be comforting.

A hand on his shoulder, light. Someone speaking,
“Maxime, tu es bien? Ca va?” a pause “Maximilien, tu es…”
He scarcely recognises his name, it takes a moment for it to register. Antoine’s face looking down upon him
“Oui, Antoine, seulement fatigué”
And he sees how tired the boy is, how the enthusiasm is still there, but fighting to remain. Perhaps this is merciful, it will be preserved. No, it will be destroyed, but all at once rather than the gradual process.
“Seulment?” Antoine asks him, forcing a smile.
“Mais si fatigué, mon cheri. Et toi?”
“Bien, un peu… es-tu ennervé?
“Non.”
“Excité?”
“Non.”
“Serons-nous saufs”
“Antoine, je regrette…”
“Rien. Je mourai pour toi”
“Avec, Antoine. Avec.”
He touches the boy’s hand, smiles at him. Does not want to think of the idea that he is dying for this, dying for having killed his friends, killed his supporters, and seeking to purge a France that would never be clean. And the people, who now clamour for his blood. He gets up, walks across the room
“Tu vas prier?”
“Non, Antoine” (for there would be no point).

He pulls open a drawer. There is a crash, and Antoine starts out the door. He closes his eyes again. Antoine returns, awkward, confidence diminished. He does not look at him.

“C’était Georges?”
“Oui”
“Il est…?”
“Non”
“Pourquoi?” he wonders aloud. Why do they all choose to fall? Is it symbolic, or a failure of the rational mind through despair?

Antoine is looking at him. Puzzled, and he does not know what to say. He was about to show the contents of the drawer, but seeing the look on the boy’s face, he cannot. Poor Antoine, unable to abandon hope, and deprived of any reason for it.

Antoine is at the fireplace again, feigning boredom and playing with the flowers on the mantle. Head rested on his forearm, trying to look stoic, Roman.

“Tu veux parler, Antoine?”

The boy turns to him, hopeful. Shakes his head, and approaches him, laughing.

“Parler de…?”
“Je vois.”

And it’s true that he does not know what to say to the youth, who wants to be comforted, and does want to die for this. He’s almost disgusted, not with the youth, but with this. It triggers a response which Antoine mistakes for emotion, upset, and this causes the boy to come closer and grip his shoulders.

“Sera bien. Et nous serons biens. Vraiment. Et la Revolution, il suvivra”. Now emotion almost does overcome him, and to hide himself he grips Antoine’s own shoulders in a brief embrace. (hiding his face upon one of them and closing his eyes. Patting Antoine on the shoulder, clasping his hand again and stepping away. He wants to rest. Sitting again, not quite knowing how this exhaustion has overcome him, but almost satisfied because it has dulled the pain)

Time passes. After a while he goes to the drawer again. Antoine is playing bored again, scanning the book he cast aside earlier, but failing to turn the pages. He opens the drawer, takes it out, and sits again. He wishes he’d been more able for this sort of thing, for the mechanics of loading it elude him. The cartridges, although sealed, spills powder upon the cuffs of his coat. He brushes it away, but it leaves a slight stain, has somehow seeped into the silk. He brushes them again, he’s fond of the coat and would like it to remain intact, it was his before…
Aware of his own ridiculousness he recommences the struggle, and succeeds. He lays it upon the table in front of him, realises that he should wait, and indeed is in no hurry to use it. Antoine is still pretending to be bored, occasionally struck by elation and hope and plans, but mostly relying on the veneer of boredom, of pretending to be numb.

“Pauvre Antoine!” he murmurs.
“Quoi?”
He pretends to have not heard, and in answer to the query a second time says “Rien”, smiling at the boy again. Antoine returns his smile, nervous, and finally turns a page. Still they wait.

He must have fallen asleep, but now he can hear the commotion for which he’s been waiting. Near, but surprisingly slow. The sounds of an uncertain crowd, stopping occasionally, uneasy. Voices rise above it, seeking to take control. A young voice, again and again. And it is so frustratingly slow he finds himself supporting the young man, just so that everything might hurry up.
The heat, which he had not noticed before, somehow absent… it has become oppressive. Again he straightens his sleeves. He touches the metal in front of him, looks across at Antoine, whose mood evades him. Tired, upset, bored? He cannot tell and he has always been able to tell before. He picks it up, places it in his lap, and realises that he cannot yet, that it would be unfair to the boy. But wouldn’t everything? Yes. Still he hesitates.

The commotion has finally reached a steady level. And it begins to hurry. He removes his attentions from his thoughts, is pulled away from them. The noise is nearer, more certain. Louder. He closes his eyes. Louder again. His hand tightens around the handle.

The young voice is nearer him now. He opens his eyes, turns round. A boy of twenty coming through the door, flanked by the crowd. Fervent, certain and strangely beautiful. Holding a musket.. Saying:
“Vous êtes un traiteur, je serai…”

But he ceases to hear and says, very quietly:
“Tu es le traiteur”

He raises the musket in his own hands to his face, pulls the trigger. Sees the fuse burning white. Pain. Blood cascades onto him, through his beautiful coat. He can feel it seeping through his clothes, uncomfortably cold against his shoulder. Oh god, the pain. And the darkness.

When there is light again, he is lying upon the desk. He looks down, the blood has begun to harden, blacken. The silk of his coat is ruined. The pain again, so much greater than before. Makes it hard to focus, harder and… why is he conscious?

The room behind him, the men from earlier, Antoine with his hands bound, sitting, despondent. Are they talking? He cannot tell. He tries to speak, emits only a groan. His head is somehow constrained. He raises his hand to his jaw and feels…blood-stained paper and a bloody pulp underneath. He must have shot it off. Oh, if they would leave him to the blackness!
There is paper near him, he can write. Surely he can write? He gestures.
The young man and another step back, confer. The young man shakes his head at the other. They sit down.

He lies there, wishing for the dark again. It doesn’t come and yet he cannot follow, doesn’t know what is happening. People move, talk but he does not know what they are saying.

They begin to leave. Antoine files past him, stops. Antoine’s eyes, red from… exhaustion. He extends his arm, grips the boys elbow, and the boy grimaces a smile. And is led out. Finally the blackness comes again.

He is upon another table in what he presumes is a cell. He does not know the time, and cannot concentrate enough to see a window. It shall happen at noon, and it is now… just pain.
Pain again.
They don’t change the bandage, only add to it. The bleeding keeps persisting.
Everything hurts, outside the darkness.

They tell him to get up. His hands are bound, for of course he is a terrible physical threat.
As, of course, all half starved, wounded weaklings of five foot two are.
They lead him to have his hair cut. He sits. They cut it at the nape of his neck. The bandage makes it difficult. He is led to a cart.
He stands in it.
Antoine is there.
Georges, now conscious, now horribly conscious, in one in front of them.
His brother is here somewhere. There are others, but he does not remember them, or they do not matter.
Philippe was more successful than him, but should be here.

They progress slowly through the city. He cannot ascertain whether this is deliberate, and does not try very hard. He can make the time pass, the pain does this enough. There are crowds, but there are always crowds.

They reach the gallows in silence. He waits. There is a queue. He is before Antoine and several people behind Georges.
They wait.
Georges is carried onto the scaffold. It makes sense. Because of his paralysis he proves difficult to steady.
Men are sent to find a plank. They tie Georges to it.

It takes a long time, and all the while poor Georges is quiet. Dignified, but no-one notices.

It is now his turn. He mounts the scaffold, glancing back at the boy, who remains stoic. Impressive to reach this far in such a fashion. He nods to Sanson, deprived, of course, of a last request.
He sees the blade. Dear god…
He lays his head down. Sanson murmurs with his assistants. The bandage will get in the way. It is torn away…

And he lets out a scream scarcely human, and the blood gushes forth, and it splashes his eyes and blinds him, but not completely.
And as he screams he sees.

People.
Screaming, but with joy in their case.

©️ Inigo Purcell, 2006-2019. All rights reserved.

If equal affection could not be/ Let the more loving one be me.

Dark Sublime: A Comedy about Space. And Time.

Written by Michael Dennis, directed by Andrew Keates. Trafalgar Studios.

https://trafalgarentertainment.com/shows/dark-sublime/

Dark Sublime is a play of a thousand small turning points. The first that I noticed was the moment when Marianne (Marina Sirtis) decides that her unexpected fan, Oli (Kwaku Mills) , whom she has invited to interview her as, well, an act of kindness because she is feeling low, is indeed a nice lad and surprisingly together and thoroughly deserves her opening a bottle of champagne, turning off the mic, and her deciding to tell him all of her best theatrical anecdotes.

Marianne is an actress who was in the low budget science fiction series “Dark Sublime” which ran from 1978-1981 on ITV at teatime. She is somewhat surprised that to a 21 year old gay man who works in Waterstones she is, apparently, Beyonce. Or, in fact, more exciting than Beyonce.

(She’s very flattered, just puzzled. Kwaku Mills excellently and endearingly plays Oli as vibrating with excitement every time he is in her presence, even when they are having a row or she has had a vicious fight with her oldest friend in front of him. His attitude shifts, subtly but he is always completely honoured to be in the same room as her. It’s very beautiful acting that is both intense and subtle).

For Marianne, Dark Sublime is a job that she did thirty five years ago and paid, in her words, “Paid the mortgage. Well, it paid part of the mortgage.”

For Oli it is possibly the greatest thing in the world, and she was the best thing in it.

(It is genuinely delightful to see a play in which both of those things are treated as inherently true, and things that actually matter.

It is also possibly the only West End show to be fully invested in the considerable value of being able to get free, or reduced price, damp proofing, and somewhat melancholy about the fact that nice, intense twenty one year olds obsessed with a cult late 1970s ITV science fiction show do not appreciate just how much damp proofing costs. While aware that a world in which they did would be both impossible, and a less good world than the one in which we live).

Kate (Jacqueline King), Marianne’s best friend of forty years, is delighted to have a new, pretty, younger, sensible girlfriend. She is touchingly oblivious to how much it hurts Marianne whenever she says that having a fan is stupid, and will just go to her head and be a disaster. At the very least, she is that early in the play.

It also features glimpses of Dark Sublime itself, rendered as Blake 7 or Gerry Anderson’s Space 1999 with a West End budget and featuring, eventually, the sparkliest dress and boots I have ever seen. Which would be worth the ticket price alone.

It is deeply erudite, deeply funny and a deeply moving play. It is live theatre at it’s very best, a beautiful, weird, collaborative work which is temporary and only exists briefly. You can only see it until August 3rd, at Trafalgar Studios.

If you can, you should go and see it.

Note: irritatingly I left my programme on the bus home so I cannot remember either of Sophie Ward’s character’s names. Which is mortifying, as she was excellent as both.

Edited to add: I remembered it! But managed to lose my programme *again* the second time I saw it. She’s still very good, as is the play!

Full cast:

Marianne Hogg/Ragana: Marina Sirtis

Kate/The Empress: Jacqueline King

Oli/Vel: Kwaku Mills

Voice of the Computer: Mark Gatiss

Commander Vykar/Bob Fraser: Simon Thorpe

Suzanne /Jaylin : Sophie Ward.

Prime Minister Johnson

Sadly, not a book but in fact real. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, July 2019)

This is usually a book blog. However, I thought, given the gravity of Britain’s current political situation, both nationally and internationally, it might be worth using whatever platform I have to say something. Which turns out to be a sort of calm fury.

I do, of course, think he’s terrible. I was working a job that involved data entry the day he was elected Mayor of London, and we all kept checking to see the results, which were incredibly slow. And an awful lot of quiet, polite Londoners really didn’t want him to be Mayor of London. For really, really good reasons. Basically the same ones as now. He’s deeply untrustworthy, entirely fake, tries things to make his name or prospects even if they plunge other people into disaster, even if they plunge hundreds or thousands of other people into disaster. He is utterly reckless and utterly vain.

He managed to skip the election this time. I am slightly worried that he might make a habit of that. Which has historically gone rather badly.

I’m not trying to do a He Who Must Not Be Named Thing up there, by the way. It’s just that so much of him is ersatz branding, and I don’t think it’s a good thing to buy into that. I think we should call him Prime Minister Johnson, because that sounds dull, and functional, and has the pleasant benefit of being entirely civil and accurate. It doesn’t sound posh or man of the people-ish. Or indeed funny. It just sounds dull. He wouldn’t like that.

It is obviously really, really bad that an unelected utter fraud with a history of dishonesty has been made Prime Minister without an election. Pretty dire, in fact.

(I’m trying not to joke or swear here, in this post, because I feel more in control with a steady tone and not losing my temper. Lots of people get a high and feeling of power from performative anger, and that is not innately a bad thing, but I am not one or them. Anger, for me, is loss of control and with Prime Minister Johnson in charge I really don’t want to cede any more of that than I can spare).

We all know he doesn’t mind ridicule. Plays on it, in fact, because it’s a cover for being unpleasant and it means that he is the rare person for whom we should assume malice instead of incompetence. Well, actually, we should assume both. It probably is both most of the time.

And we all know that his base doesn’t mind the fact that he’s a liar. It plays into the idea that he’s a bit of a rogue, rather than a deeply unpleasant man who has become Prime Minister and is now our second unelected Prime Minister in a row.

I do think he, and his base, might mind if he’s thought of as boring. Evil, or at the very least intensely malicious, but also boringly so. The banality of evil is not just a phrase, it’s a very apt description of how shocked Hannah Arendt was when she realised that most of the people who had caused the deaths of six million Jews were both evil and fundamentally dull. That they weren’t charismatic, hypnotic villains everyone was helpless to avoid. They were human, and evil and dull.

I’m not saying it’s a direct comparison. I do think it’s worth considering, just as a phrase. And in terms of how we conceive of evil, and in terms of how we counter it. If we just acknowledge it’s there and evil and dull and that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need stopping. It’s just tackling dry rot rather than zombie hordes. (And, sadly, exactly as unglamorous as that sounds)

And I think, given the severity of everything concerned, that the stopping and thinking about what we do, as people trying to hold onto a functioning society, might be quite important. Really important.

I do think it’s worth noting that there are two things that are true, in part, and people will say and it’s worth thinking about when you say them and how helpful they are.

The first is “people have survived bad things before”. This is true. By nature of the continued existence of the human race, some people have at some time survived everything adverse that has happened. Survive exists as a verb and survivor as a noun. Survivor is a pretty common noun, actually, and it has very rarely been attached to the notion of things that do not happen. It doesn’t tend to get attached to remotely pleasant things, except in jest, and apart from when it is literally the only or principle action of which you are capable of performing (at which point it is vital to survive, and to focus on that ) survival as an aim is a pretty low bar.

The second is the flip side, the focus on all the people who won’t survive and the sheer dreadfulness of this all. It’s cathartic, but it’s often a deeply callous act to get catharsis from saying this if, among your audience, are the most vulnerable. Which there often are because being vulnerable to ill fortune or malice does not actually stop people from being intelligent, or politically aware, or good citizens, or afraid. It’s not very helpful to make those people more afraid. They’re dealing with enough. With the business of survival.

I don’t really have a solution. I don’t think any of us do, really, which is another scary thing about this. I mean, we have had a dreadful prime minister for three years who is rubbish at solutions, and now we have a worse one and we can’t think of one either. Or we can but we can’t make it solid.

Which is important, figuring out the last stage. Not daydreaming about a clever logic puzzle of an ideal Brexit, or hoping the grown ups will step in. Thinking before the action, and then the action being considered.

Which I know does sound dull. But at least isn’t evil.

‘Well, that’s a mercy. But I still won’t be back.’

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand (Open Road Integrated Media, New York, 2015)

(I am cheating slightly and publishing this post before midnight so that it counts as a fourth post for June. Come back in about two hours and it will be a full post.)

(ETA: This took a lot more than two hours, didn’t it? Sorry.)

Wylding Hall is an excellent novel. The first time I read it in the middle of the night while feeling a bit odd. Now I read it in daylight.

In fact, the horror in Wylding Hall takes place in bright sunlight. In the lovely sunny days we’ve been having recently. In the sense of unreality they can bring when you’re really, really focused.

Windhollow Faire, a folk rock group in the late sixties have had a fairly successful album, followed by a personal tragedy. Their manager, as he puts it “the elder statesman at all of twenty-three” manages to get hold of a dilapidated mansion in Hampshire for them to lay down a second album. It’s near a prehistoric burial mound. The house is very, very old. They’re all very young and intense and, most pronouncedly in the case of Julian, the lead singer , prone to both thinking too much and not really thinking things through.

You know from the very beginning that something bad happened to Julian. He disappeared that summer, after that one haunting album.

You know this because the book is told in the voices of the rest of the band, taking part in something like a deep dive oral history (or possibly a documentary-cameras are mentioned) forty years later. Talking about stuff that they’ve never really talked about since. Or let themselved think about, even.

I mean, Ashton, the bassist (the calmest, the most cynical, the least romantic of the surviving band) says this. At the start of being interviewed:

You take the A-31 to Farnham, then it’s pretty much nothing but winding lanes and little villages. Used to be, anyway. Heart of Hampshire, Wind of the Willows landscapes. One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Probably all developed and paved over now; I’ve never had the heart to go back.

No? Well, that’s a mercy. But I still won’t be back.

I can still remember the first glimpse I had of Wylding Hall. There was no signpost, only a great boulder with the name carved on it—must have been five hundred years old. Absolutely ancient. The road between the hedgerows was so narrow that the branches poked in the windows on both sides, like they wanted to grab us. One scratched my cheek so badly it left a scar—see there?

Horror so often works on disgust,

Wylding Hall works on terrible beauty. More than that, the deeply seated worry that we might sometimes need terrible beauty.

Wylding Hall is not just the name of the place. Wylding Hall is also the name of the album that came out of it.

Something really terrible and really scary happened there. They also made a truly great album.

‘So much as gladness that some end might be.’

Childe Roland to The Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning

I don’t have much of a visual imagination. Nor indeed do I have much of a visual memory. The latter is annoying when it comes to trying to find places if I’ve only been once before, and the former is probably the reason I am terrible at those logic puzzles where you have to spot something subtly wrong with a picture.

Largely, it doesn’t affect very much in my life and mostly only comes up if people discuss memorising things. I have a good auditory memory, and aural imagination, and I sometimes worry if I got better at remembering visual things it would mean taking a hit on the aural, which I prefer.

One side effect of this is that I only picture things from fiction, or poetry, quite rarely so I tend to think of a description that can make me picture things vividly as some kind of literary superpower. Raymond Chandler has it, as do a couple of other authors.

Today’s text doesn’t quite have that quality, in part because of the dreamlike nature of it, but is one of the texts I can picture fairly vividly. It is Robert Browning’s 1855 poem ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. (Poem linked there, as it is long)

The poem narrates how the titular Roland approaches what might be the end of a quest, which is filled with nameless destruction and dread. The same quest has clearly killed the other members of ‘The Band’ who have also set out on the quest, some of whom Roland recalls vividly by name and appearance, and some he does not. Throughout the poem, Roland seems to dread whatever the terrifying thing in the Tower is, and, in equal measure, dread that he will be the person to complete the quest when others, seemingly more worthy, did not.
I’ve been thinking about the poem in the light of world building, and the kind of world building which I like. I really, really like Childe Roland because everything in it is just there, without much explanation. Browning famously claimed that the poem came to him in a dream, and as I said before, it is dreamlike. The world Roland is in, his emotions and his fears all just seem obvious, they way things do in dreams even if they make no logical sense.

The poem opens with Roland doubting the first thing he’s told, the directions to the Tower itself

‘My first thought was, he lied in every word,
That hoary cripple, with malicious eye’.

There is no reason given for why the man giving directions might lie, what benefit lying about the presence of the Dark Tower might give him, but it establishes just how uncertain and terrifying everything is. Roland spends a good while meditating on the idea that the strange old man is a liar, for about three stanzas, before eventually following his directions because he sees no other option:

‘…Yet acquiescingly
I did turn as he pointed: neither pride
Nor hope rekindling at the end descried,
So much as gladness that some end might be.’

I think one of the things that I love about this poem, tonally, is that sense that there are no good options. One of the things that comes through, overwhelmingly, is Roland’s exhaustion and resignation. The poem is, obviously, a dramatic monologue, and dramatic monologues are famously the home of unreliable narrators (especially Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues), but Roland’s unreliability is mostly just his own self-recrimination. We only see Childe Roland through his own eyes, and they are determined to paint a somewhat unflattering picture. Even his title, Childe Roland, indicating a man from a noble family who was not a knight, is something that he tells the reader in the final stanza of the poem, when he switches from the first person to narrating his actions as though from the third person.

Roland’s own fear, and shame, and disgrace are very real to him, though, so real that he thinks they must be obvious to all around him. He assumes that there will, automatically, be an audience for him reaching the tower, even if he fails, even if he dies. The quest, and the tower, and the implicit doom in both of them are things he has convinced himself are so important and so real that he cannot conceive the world without them.

We hear, briefly, of his ‘one night’s disgrace’ but are not told what it is. It seems to be linked with one of the other doomed questers:

‘ Not it! I fancied Cuthbert’s reddening face
Beneath its garniture of curly gold,
Dear fellow, till I almost felt him fold
An arm in mine to fix me to the place,
That way he us’d. Alas, one night’s disgrace!
Out went my heart’s new fire and left it cold.’

There’s a suggestion of some kind of erotic context, especially, I think, because of the move from the visual, slightly feminised description of Cuthbert to the sensation of the physical contact with him, but there’s not much. We know that ‘one night’s disgrace’ is real to Roland, we know that misfortune has probably fallen Cuthbert, but nothing else.

(Sidebar: I know that the novel The Book of Lost Things has a queer reading of Childe Roland in it, and I presume quite a lot of people have read this stanza in particular as homoerotic, but the last time I had to write about the Song of Roland no one seemed to have written an academic article about the homoeroticism of it. If someone could do that, in a form that is citeable, that would be great. I’m not a Victorianist, I just dabble in Victorianism for fun and I currently need to finish a medieval article before being tempted into new territory, but it would be extremely useful. Indeed, if this article already exists and I just didn’t find it when I last had to write about the poem in 2015, or it didn’t exist in 2015 but does now, please let me know).

I intended to talk more about the visual descriptions in the poem than the mood, but I haven’t much. They are very good, though, glimpses of a sort of greyish decay which imitated Roland’s dread.

A sudden little river cross’d my path
As unexpected as a serpent comes.
No sluggish tide congenial to the glooms;
This, as it froth’d by, might have been a bath
For the fiend’s glowing hoof—to see the wrath
Of its black eddy bespate with flakes and spumes.

So petty yet so spiteful All along,
Low scrubby alders kneel’d down over it;
Drench’d willows flung them headlong in a fit
Of mute despair, a suicidal throng:
The river which had done them all the wrong,
Whate’er that was, roll’d by, deterr’d no whit.

It’s striking, too, that along with his general dread of absolute doom, there’s far more specific fears about his journey that Roland expresses. He is afraid of hearing a bat, of stepping on a corpse unwittingly. His abstract disgrace and fear become whittled down to something far more specific, the fear of touching something unexpected in the dark, the fear of being startled.

It is, as you might have gathered from all this, a superb poem about fear. It’s also, though, a rather good poem about heroism. Despite all of Roland’s fears and regrets he does reach the dark tower, he does blow his horn, and he faces the unknown thing which we can only imagine.

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