All Come to Look for America
‘Let me tell you the truth. The truth is what is. And what should be is a fantasy, a terrible, terrible lie that someone gave the people long ago.’
– Lenny Bruce
Simon and Garfunkel stood beneath a pale spotlight on the darkened stage of the David Letterman show.
It was a YouTube video of a 2003 performance, posted by a friend on Facebook. They were about to embark on their reunion tour, and were making the publicity rounds. The plaintive strains of Simon’s guitar began, and they sang the first lines of ‘America.’
Without warning, I burst into tears. Desperate weeping that felt like I was dying. And on the line ‘All come to look for America….’ I realised why. I’ve been looking for America all my life, but it’s not there anymore. This was in 2011, long before Bernie Sanders used the song in a campaign ad for his presidential run.
After awhile, I left my room and walked down the carpeted hallway of my university residence hall to the kitchen, looking for conversation. I shared flat with three Europeans: an international relations major from the Netherlands, and business majors from Germany and Belarus. Sometimes we gathered in the kitchen for an impromptu breakfast or dinner. When we first met, after they’d heard my American accent, they seemed tentative, hesitant. Once they learned I was a liberal who supports President Obama, they blurted out the question that had obviously been nagging at them: We really like America, and we’re friends of the Americans, but what is going on over there?
‘I have no idea’, I told them. ‘I wish I knew’.
America was supposed to mean something. At the founding, we declared that meaning, those values to which we were committing ourselves as a nation: equality, freedom, justice, domestic tranquillity and ensuring the general welfare of our people. But as Tony Judt points out in Ill Fares the Land, money seems to have become so important to us that we have stopped asking the questions essential to a good society, indeed to the American ideal:
‘For thirty years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit
of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes
whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose. We know
what things cost but have no idea what they are worth. We no
longer ask of a judicial ruling or a legislative act: is it good?
Is it fair? Is it just? Is it right? Will it help bring about a better
society or a better world?’
Perhaps enshrining in the Constitution the assertion that slaves did not count as full people was a clue to our priorities. Perhaps excluding mention of slavery as an abomination in the Declaration of Independence was another. Perhaps that willingness to suspend our commitment to liberty when money was involved was a declaration of our true values. In the last 100 years at least, money has certainly become the rubric by which we direct our lives, our pursuits and our goals, the means by which we reckon success, even human value. I don’t know. I just know that somehow, somewhere, we went desperately off course. We’re sick at heart, and I don’t know quite how it happened or how it can be fixed.
What happened to my America?
‘Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping. ‘I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why’…
I left my hometown in Connecticut and moved to New York City in 1987, principally to attend university, but in retrospect I realize it was to look for America, the one I’d read about in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and Leaves of Grass.
I found some of it there. I found, generally speaking, a commitment to equality and the welfare of the people. New Yorkers believed in paying their fair share, gave money to homeless people, and were happy to contribute taxes for free lunches and milk for low-income children. But I also found a sense of transience to the friendships, people always looking past their dinner companions in search of something better, a disturbing importance placed on beauty, and a dedication to the pursuit of money and all the things it could buy.
Many New Yorkers were self-involved and only skimmed the surface of much of what they did, never looking for or seeming to want anything deeper. My then-boyfriend Stephen asked another friend to help us carry a couch he’d just bought up the stairs of our flat. She told him to call Man With a Van.
The good friends I did make found themselves equally disillusioned with the city, and struck out west for Los Angeles, in their own search, I suppose, for America. They urged me to join them, but I thought, if I’m looking for America, the last place I’ll find it is in L.A.
After the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the drumbeat for war began, and the United States invaded Afghanistan. Most New Yorkers I knew were against it. We thought there had been enough killing, and we couldn’t see how carpet-bombing Afghanistan would help capture Osama Bin Laden. We also reckoned it had more to do with the pipeline a consortium of American oil companies wanted to run through Afghanistan than it did with Osama Bin Laden.
Is this one of the things that has eroded my America? The proliferation of foreign wars? President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned in his farewell speech of the growing power of the military-industrial complex, and the pursuit of profit that would lead the industrial sector to foment military action in order to sell weapons and make money:
‘The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government…we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist’.
Money has become the central pursuit of American life. Americans are bombarded with advertisements in their homes, on street signs, on passing buses, at toll booths, even in schools. There is a kind of frenzy of buying in American life. Money has become more important than nutrition. Study after study wrings its hands over the obesity epidemic. The main culprit is identified as fast food, and it’s true that Americans consume vast quantities of it, but the studies omit the reason for this. Money has become more important than health care. Some 52 million Americans lacked health insurance in 2010, up from 38 million in 2001. I wrote a story for the Times Herald-Record in New York about a man called Andrew Pacini. He had advanced pancreatic cancer and couldn’t get treatment because he was made redundant when he became so sick he could no longer work. He lost the health insurance he’d had through his job. Medicaid then wouldn’t cover the treatment because he’d worked the previous year, which is how income is means-tested for benefit, and therefore he did not qualify. He died.
‘Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike. They’ve all come to look for America’.
I moved to Savannah, Ga. on the last day of 2001, still looking for America. I had warm memories of the South from childhood, visiting our people summers in Virginia, days running with cousins through the grass in their vast back yard, everyone brown and dopey from the sun, catching fireflies at dusk.
I found some of it there. Southerners were gregarious and interested in you and what you were doing, and charitable to a fault when a neighbour had a crisis. I saw flyers tacked up in Waffle House for fish fries and Poker Run fundraisers for locals in need – a toddler who needed a heart transplant, a woman battling cancer.
I had to walk home from work one night because I had a flat tire and no auto club insurance. When I got to work the next morning, the mayor was kneeling before my car changing the tire. As he worked and we chatted, the mayor pro team drove up and got out to help. I encountered the famous Southern eccentricity (the kind that prompted Julia Sugarbaker to say on Designing Women, ‘This is the South, and we’re proud of our crazy people. We don’t hide them in the attic. We bring ‘em right down to the living room and show ‘em off.’)
I heard about a woman who used to have a pet alligator, but he got out of the car at church. I met a man named Reds Helmey, a retired Marine paratrooper who on 11 January 1969 hijacked a plane to Cuba to assassinate Fidel Castro. He spent three months in a Cuban prison and then returned to the U.S. for trial. After a week-long proceeding, the jury acquitted him after 15 minutes of deliberation. He was reinstated in the Marines at his full rank and later given an honourable discharge. Strangely, we became friends. But I also met people who were in favour of the war in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, even though their young sons and husbands were going in disproportionate numbers. I met a man who tried to preach to me. I told him I was agnostic. He asked me, ‘If you don’t believe in God, how do you keep from killing people? I saw Confederate battle flags displayed in the windows of pickup trucks, often above a rifle or shotgun. I saw a bumper sticker that said: ‘Union 1, Confederacy 0. Halftime’. I watched a Vietnam veteran named Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in the war, lose his U.S. Senate re-election bid to Republican Saxby Chambliss. When I met Cleland for an interview just before the election, I watched his aides lift him from his unassuming Honda into a wheelchair, and I offered my left hand because he had no right hand to shake. Cleland lost the election a week later after Chambliss ran TV ads calling him a traitor for his Senate votes against homeland security legislation.
And I saw a people who, collectively, in their politics, were shockingly unwilling to help thy neighbour. This is a difference that Divine Magnetic Lands author Timothy O’Grady noticed when he moved to Ireland in 1973: ‘I found something else that I’d seen little of in America…the idea that chaos and helplessness are never far away from anyone, that they just take you as a strong wind takes a tree, and that their victims are to be commiserated with rather than scorned’.
Americans don’t want to think they can’t take care of their families. Maybe it’s easier to believe that if somebody is poor it’s their own fault than it is to admit that the American Dream is not working. Americans don’t like bad news. Can part of this lack of empathy be traced to the Calvinist roots of much of our religion? The idea of the ‘elect’, saved or not from birth, no matter what you do, so that good works don’t matter? Can that idea have permeated our sense of society and made us feel we have no responsibility to help one another? Maybe it’s why we’re also so cavalier about starting wars.
In 1861, Walter Bagehot wrote, ‘The fact is, Americans are a wholly untried people…they have never been tested by any great difficulty, any great danger, any great calamity…they have never been called upon for any sustained effort, any serious sacrifices, any prolonged endurance. They do not know, therefore, -- nor do we – the possible reach of their virtues and their powers, nor the possible range of their vices and their weaknesses’.
This remains essentially true. Unlike Europe, we do not know as a people the suffering of war. We have not fought a war on our own soil since the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, and even that war was fought almost exclusively in the South. With the two notable exceptions of Pearl Harbour and the terrorist attacks of 11 September, we have not experienced attacks on our own soil. Those events, while horrifying, were singular occurrences, and do not approximate the sustained, grinding violence of, for instance, the Thirty Years War or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
We have sent our men to fight on other continents, and when they came home we wanted them to forget about it and move on. World War II veterans have a reputation for not talking about their war experiences. When I interviewed five veterans for a profile in the Savannah Morning News, I asked one of them why he had never talked about the war before. As it turned out, it was because nobody ever asked.
‘It was like nobody was interested, really’, said Ed Abernathy, who was 19 when he and the 1st Marine Division landed at Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942. ‘I think they didn't want to know, and they were afraid of what they would hear’. Abernathy told me what his mother, his wife, his children didn’t want to know, that the only baths he got were in leech-infested waters; that he got scabies; that his skin peeled off in sheets; that his best friend was shot and killed right in front of him; that he’d bayoneted Japanese soldiers and still saw their vacant eyes looking at him in his dreams.
Nobody until me had asked him for these stories.
‘Let us be lovers, we'll marry our fortunes together. I’ve got some real estate here in my bag’.
Many people are also still labouring under the delusion that if you work hard, you will become rich. This is usually bunk, but they believe it. Perhaps they don’t want to raise taxes on the rich because they think one day they might be rich and will have to pay those taxes themselves. But more than that, I think, they want to identify with the rich, or rather, they want the rich to identify with them. We idolize wealth in America; it is our national pastime and our religion. Wealth is good, so under our ideology, the wealthy are good. We want them to like us, to accept us, because we want to be like them.
If the American writer and political analyst Thomas Frank is correct, fundamentalism plays a large part in conservatives’ success co-opting the votes of workers against their own interests. To understand this, I think, we must look back to before the founding. Religious refugees arrived in the American colonies from England, from the Netherlands, from Germany and other places to practice their religions without the persecution they faced in their homelands. To avoid that persecution, they enshrined religious tolerance in law. As a result, with a few shocking exceptions, religious pluralism was allowed to develop essentially unchecked.
In one obvious sense, this is a good thing. But I believe the downside to this was that these new Americans quickly forgot about the consequences of religious fervour. With no institutional memory of the Thirty Years War and countless other conflicts, a certain percentage of the population grew more and more extremist, until the evangelical movement began and flourished. We are dealing with the consequences of it today.
It has surely been destructive, not only domestically but internationally as well. One of the most fraught examples, and the one with some of the gravest consequences, is the influence evangelical opinion has had on the shaping of U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict as evangelicals support Israel in an attempt to bring on Armageddon. I posed this question to Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the Church at the University of Oxford, in an interview I did with him while a journalist at the Times Herald-Record.
His response: ‘You said it’.. He sent me an article he’d written on the subject, ‘The end of days: a self-fulfilling prophecy’, which appeared in a number of European newspapers (but notably, he pointed out, not many U.S. papers):
‘This ideology makes it very difficult for countless Americans to hear the case of the people of Palestine…Donald Rumsfeld talked darkly of "old Europe". If he wants to find the real old Europe, he should look to the American Midwest. Perhaps the UK, whose English, Scots and Ulster Protestantism was the fountainhead of so much of American culture and identity, may prove to be the vital intermediary between two worlds. We need some intermediary, before, in mutual misunderstanding and growing ill will, we all bring on our own version of the Last Days’.
‘All come to look for America…all come to look for America’.
In September 2011 I moved to Scotland – as in the case with my move to New York City, principally to study, but also probably looking for something I couldn’t find in America. Indeed, I have found some of it. A lot of things that still exist in Great Britain – shops closed on Sunday mornings and on holidays – used to exist in the States but are long gone now. A friend of mine who moved to London from Savannah six years ago remarked shortly after arriving that Britain is like the States used to be in the 1970s. Britain certainly has its problems, and it’s becoming more like the States and will become even more so if the National Health Service ‘reforms’ being pushed by the present conservative government are enacted, but that’s another discussion.
It makes me happy that I’ve found much of what I was looking for here, but it also makes me sad, because it means that while America has been talking about providing for the welfare of the people, other countries have been quietly going about the task of doing it.
I’m sad, too, because there is much that I love about America. A leisurely walk up Fifth Avenue towards the Met sets my heart racing, anticipating the wonders I will see in the museum and the people-watching I will enjoy in Central Park afterwards. A gentle breeze rustling Spanish moss amidst a canopy of live oaks in Savannah makes my heart ache with the beauty of it. The music -- Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Champion Jack Dupree, Louis Prima -- feels like the sins and joys of our people laid bare. We are boisterous and enthusiastic and, until recently, almost boundlessly optimistic.
The ideas on which America were founded have never been fully realized, but there were times when we were on our way. Now, though, it seems as though we’ve strayed so far from the path, I don’t see how we can find our way back.
Perhaps I’ll never find my America. The thought of that breaks my heart, but then again, I’m American. I ought to be used to it.
A film by Max Wallis in association with Harper's Bazaar.
I sometimes forget it’s there. My lip piercing. I’ve had it for years and I’ve never taken it out. It feels a part of me now, so sometimes I forget until other people notice.
Oh, the nurse says, oh, you’ll have to take that out. You need to wear a mouth guard, so you’ll have to take that out.
And I was taken by surprise, because sometimes I forget.
I’d rather not, I say. If I don’t have to, I’d rather not.
Well, says the doctor, I don’t mind. It’s up to you. If it gets dislodged, it gets dislodged. I don’t care. It’s up to you.
Fine, I say. I’ll leave it in.
And the nurse stands there, blinking. She holds a cup out to me, looking plaintive, like she’s begging in the street. It’s as if the exchange with the doctor hadn’t happened.
No? she says.
No, I say, shaking my head. I’ll leave it in, it’s fine.
OK, she says and shrugs, but gives me a look.
The doctor begins to tell me what the procedure will involve, and halfway through the other nurse exclaims in surprise.
She’s leaving it in?
The doctor stops mid-sentence. He’d forgotten about it. It no longer mattered to him.
What? he says. What was that?
He gets no response and shrugs. He struggles with words, having lost his train of thought.
The other nurse mumbles – So she’s not taking it out?
I turn back to the doctor who’s started his speech again.
I nod and nod. Yes. Of course. Yes, I understand.
But I don’t. Not really. I thought about what the nurse had told me, the one who greeted me at reception. She’d sat down with me and ran me through the procedure. Most people find it easier, she said, if they concentrate on their breathing. Just deep breaths, and think about something else. Or count, just keep counting. Those are the people that get through it well.
And I nod. Yes, yes, of course.
It’s unpleasant, she said. It’s not what you want to do, is it? It’s like putting your fingers down your throat. It’s not what you want to do. So yes, it isn’t pleasant, but you just concentrate on your breathing.
They said I did well. Afterwards, that’s what they said. But it didn’t feel that way. I was close to panic. Breathing, I thought, I need to concentrate on my breathing, when all I wanted to do was rip that tube out of my mouth. I was gagging and retching. Like when you throw up and there’s nothing there. I tried to imagine what he was seeing. I wished I could see. Maybe I should have asked. But the room was set up so that I couldn’t see. It’s not every day you get to look inside your body. I was curious. But I was stuck there, retching and burping and dribbling.
Keep your cheek down, she says, keep your cheek down on the pillow. We don’t want you choking on your saliva. But my body is tense. It’s hard to relax into the pillow. It’s strange to feel this helpless. It’s a straightforward procedure. They’re professionals, and it’s all for my own good, all to help me get better. I try to think of that as I burp and shake and my eyes water.
But instead I thought of torture. I thought of force-feeding hunger strikers. I thought of animals in labs. I thought how lucky I was I didn’t have to pay for this. I thought how interesting it must be to be able to see inside other people’s bellies. But maybe the doctor is bored of it by now. Just another stomach, just another duodenum.
EYES OF OTHERS – NIGHTWALKING – DIGITAL EP – DOWNLOADABLE
Release Date: 6th November 2015 Label: Label Fandango Format: Digital
Not afraid to explore the grey areas, Eyes of Others dives into the darker and more convoluted side of human relationships. Sometimes uneasy, sometimes romantic, this new set of songs presents regular glimpses of idiosyncratic grooves meeting pure pop melodies, as it journeys from shadow to light, from light to shadow, with effortless style.
Support slots with the likes of Rose Elinor Dougall (The Pipettes) and Withered Hand have proved very popular whilst drawing comparisons to New Order, Ultravox and Radio Dept. Previous track Back Into The Blue received heavyweight remix treatment from Huntleys + Palmers' Hi & Saberhägen earlier this year. Expect a remix EP to follow with re-workings from FOUND, Mila Dietrich and Sordid Sound System.
"Low-slung electronic lushness with lasting hooks of lyrical tenderness and ebullient bursts to make you blush. Surreal and sublime....I once saw him twerk." - Michael Pedersen (Neu Reekie!)
'Streamlined electronica. Great!' - Vic Galloway (BBC Radio Scotland, BBC 6 Music)
‘An aural delight.’ The Ransom Note Magazine.
Next gig: January 8th at the Old Blue Last, London (Special guest to 'Disorder').
Anniversaries torment me. The associations can make my head spin, my heart beat too fast and my mind tired. I don’t know if this gets worse as you get older? Maybe it does as you’re more aware of time. Sometimes I don’t even know that a certain date has passed and knocked me out without realising.
Since my daughter’s birth, from April to August, I have relived her early months. These were difficult. I thought I would lose her. I knew something was wrong, but not what they were saying it was. Her first birthday, she was perfect, unscathed: I was a mess. I clung to the memory of her birth which was beautiful and tried to banish the lack of support in the weeks after. Every day a new trigger, jumping at the doorbell, dreading the phone ringing bought back how frightened I had felt that they might take her.
Her second year, we had storms, big crashing lightning and torrential rain. Electricity lit the night skies and trees fell. I admit I love them. I love the cold rain on hot skin in those summer storms, the release from my head as the pressure before the storm oppresses and squeezes behind my eyes.
I’m not even sure if I was living through those times to be honest. The burden in my head had become unbearable, needed uncoiling and taken away. As the storm began, I forgot the neighbours. We’d only lived there four months and I hadn’t spoken to them anyway; it was 3am and the trees were bending in the stormy rain. As I looked out, the whole garden lit up blue with a crash and I saw a spot, right in the middle that begged me to go out and lie with the Earth.
I padded out; the grass and soil between my toes and just lay down, feeling the rain freeze my skin, soak and tangle my hair into the grass. My nightdress clung to my body and sculpted me into the ground.
I was pulled further into the Earth; I imagined dying, being buried, feeling the enclosed space of a coffin, hearing the soil hit the lid. I’d imagined this many times at my lowest point. I heard myself knocking, asking to be let out, my voice whispering ‘I still have things to do’. But then I remembered the last two years; the pain, the secrets and punishment: my daughter being taken.
I wrote words in the wet grass: 'failure', 'let down', 'fake'. The forks of light above me lit up my body, the house loomed oppressively over me, the house full of everything and everybody I love, frightening me with the responsibility. A house that so far had looked like a crooked house, a house of mirrors, left me out of balance and distorted wherever I looked. The floors sloped, the doors didn’t shut, the stairs had a bend in them that would one day floor me. My demons didn’t hide, spying arrogantly, sitting at my laptop, poking their head through the kitchen window, demanding my attention.
I looked at the next flash and something touched my face, a mother’s hand stroking my cheek, saying we all make mistakes. Things end. Perfection is impossible. I looked again at myself stretched out in mud and grass covered in goosebumps, shivering and saw what this body had done; given life, pleasure, got me out of bed, got me to places where I had good memories. I saw my nightdress clinging to me, filthy and becoming a second skin. I heard my mum say it would need running through with cold water before washing now. My parents. I thought of the people asleep in the house that needed me. I remembered my daughter was alive and it was my doing, my fight that I had won. I remembered my son 'high-fiving' me and saying ‘we are getting our mum back’ when I stopped the anti depressants.
Who knows if I cried, my face was bathed in rain, electricity and noise. It felt like empowerment. Who on earth would remember me now? As a woman who stopped smiling at the end, got drunk and mouthy if under pressure. A networking corpse on twitter, the account long sitting there after I’m gone, revealing that I’d be listening to The Smiths and everyone who didn’t know me saying, ‘no wonder’.
5TH MAY 2015: Hammer & Tongue Hackney, THE BOOK CLUB.
7TH MAY 2015: Poetry Goes POP! The Dogstar.
29TH MAY 2015: The Anti-Slam Apocalypse (National Final) THE LAST WORD FESTIVAL
meditations on identity and belonging make a unique and very
satisfying investigation into the those aspects of life we sometimes
take for granted.
In search of my mother
I jumped on a plane into the unknown
followed the route my mother flew
and looked out the window and wondered if she
thought of what she left behind
or into the future flying blind
towards some distant star
that migrant birds are guided by.
From London to Toronto to Winnipeg,
a day of travelling to find meaning to
my years of roaming; flying back in time
to a place eight hours behind
to find the beginning of my journey.
I land in the evening with all that I have
a stomach filled with caged birds and despair
thinking what the hell was I doing here.
A stranger greets me. ‘You must be Jenny’s son,’
and I cry within to be called somebody’s child.
She smiles and coos with excitement
‘Oh my God, you look so much like her.’
I forget for a while as the birds in my stomach rest upon their perch.
She’s like a magpie this friend of my mother
hoarding the fragility of my being
trying to put together
the fragments of a mother and son story.
We’re driving through districts
where neon lights glow above shop windows
where people drive on the wrong side of the road
where traffic lights hang high in the sky.
We’re driving for miles across a flattened sepia scene
no hills no valleys no nothing, flat as the eyes can see.
We’re driving into a neighbourhood
where streets are wider than football pitches
where drivers are polite to each other
where everywhere is green quiet and clean
and the only noise I hear is the humming of the air conditioner
and the continuing cooing of this woman, ‘I can’t wait to see Jenny’s face.’
We arrive and we’re told to go in the basement
in England their cold dark damp places,
in Winnipeg they’re another world
with a bar, drinks cabinet, pool table,
sofas, and a large TV.
‘She’s here,’ our host announces causing a fluttering of movement
and the birds within begin their flight again.
They close the door.
I hear her voice, I start to cry.
I hear her footsteps, so beautiful, so light.
The door opens and I see her silhouette
I see her walk down the stairs,
I see her and she sees me.
She cries out, ‘My son, my son.’
My mother, sister and I return to the place I was born
speak through aged houses,
tall, confined, conspiring
clandestine in their closeness.
Peeling paint work, boarded windows
they still live between alleyways;
rumours and gossips and tall tales
that drove her away, memories
that speak into my mother’s ears.
Tree lined streets whisper of our arrival.
Houses paired up, lean into each other
knowingly watching us,
observing our every move as
we walk along wider roads
my elder sister rubs past walls
releases forbidden genies.
She shudders as it all rushes back
and she wishes to go home as mother stands
listening to the past murmured on the wind.
Filmpoem Festival Dunbar August 2013:
Film Shown during performance titled MALIN by Alastair Cook.
Angels rest in swollen ponds.
Women in burned furs strut on stage.
While cameras flash, everything undulates.
The light is so warm
it’s like being blown up
and the sea’s metal waves
gleam and gleam.
The gods are near.
Here there is no wonder, for all
And the light shines.
Batman is a game where we go into the spare room and lock the door and strip to our knickers. One girl lies on the bed and the other girl balances on the windowsill with a blanket around her shoulder like a cape and whispers Batman. Then the windowsill girl jumps onto the bed so that the blanket-cape billows and we both rub our crotches together until we get a feeling that we can't explain – a tingling, a happy pop low in our bellies. I do not know who made up this game. I do not know why it is called Batman. We like the game and we play it a lot.
We play other games, like Schoolteacher and Shopkeeper, but we're just killing time until we can play Batman again. I do know and don't know what we are doing. I have heard some words in the playground but I don’t know if those words are right for the Batman game. I wonder what sort of games other people play. There are a lot of locked doors in the world and something must be going on behind them.
One of the Batman Girls has freckles across her nose and gold studs in her earlobes. Her mother makes pottery and they have a kiln in their garden shed. Another Batman Girl lives above a pub and has a pet goat; sometimes we walk the goat in the industrial park but it just chews its rope until we have to go back. Another has only a mum and not a dad, and another has ballet lessons on Saturdays. Only two girls ever play Batman at once. I do not know whether they play it with each other or only with me.
At school I am a brain. When the teacher gives us work to do I race my best friend to see who can finish first. I am better at English but she is better at Art and Maths, and I don’t understand how she can be good at both those things as they seem like opposites to me. My best friend is not one of the Batman Girls. She has three older sisters and once she accidentally walked in on the eldest sister in the shower. Her sister had hair down there. We puzzle over this for a long time. One night my best friend sleeps over and I lean over the top bunk so that my hair hangs over my face and my heart throbs in my throat and I tell her about the Batman game. She rolls over and puts the covers over her head until I stop talking.
When I move schools I tell everyone at my old school that I kiss boys at the new school. I tell everyone at the new school that I kissed boys at my old school.
After university I move in with my girlfriend. During a pre-dawn confession I laugh about the Batman game. She is envious: there were no other children on her street, and she had to learn everything from Science class. I wonder whether it's better to learn things from books or to feel them with your own skin. Sometimes I think I skipped a chapter.
One of the Batman Girls adds me as a friend on Facebook. My profile says 'Kirsty Logan is in a relationship with Susie McConnell'. Susie is definitely not a boy's name. I fear that the Batman Girl will think that I was always secretly gay, that I had constructed the game on purpose, and that I had tricked her. That the game somehow made me this way. That perhaps she is secretly that way too.
I deny her friend request.
Magpie in Tesque, New Mexico.
Recorded exclusively for The Undertow Review in December 2013.
1988. It began in the cellar. In secret. Undercover. Two boys. Something in my pathology can't let go. It stays with me – tattooed real in dragons blood - into the cortex. Why do I fixate? Two boys, naked, play things of the gods, playthings for each other. Something in me sought that, and spent decades recoiling. Too melodramatic. Why that melodrama? Surround yourself in private loathing. The mind now a room with walls inked in questions. Why do I fixate? Sensorium touched too soon, perhaps? Affection is no laughing matter: we never kissed, we stripped naked and took from each other our physical lust. Something in me disassociated. So melodramatic but true nonetheless. Purely physical, no emotion: meet in secret in the bedroom, in the woods, in the cellar – my story – a clichéd gay movie. Yet it split me in two. We met in secret for decades. In lust. No emotion. Did I then become dissociated from emotion? Sexuality purely a physical need. Sex purely a physical act. I could seek it anywhere – man, woman – what did it matter. Something in me attached to this memory, hooked, obsessed, was driven mad by what had past and could not be brought into line with the present. The first shock to my neurology of my homosexuality, still ricochets throughout me. Even now, I am still coming to terms with the aftershock of that stunted game of homo-affection.
Mercury terrified me. I can't quite place it. In the news there was talks of
AIDS. Freddy dying. Something in me picked that up – the young radio wave tuned
quickly. Something in Freddy terrified me. His seemed creepy. Freddy Mercury
was a witch, with long bony fingers, bright buck teeth, silver studded in a
jump suit, long thin black hair, pinning for his mothers forgiveness: Bohemian
Rhapsody. Something in that song terrified me. I associated with him. I knew of
his homosexuality but it was some dark
mystery, something wrong with him. Sharp, skeletal face with those buck teeth,
something in him terrified me. I asked my mother: 'Do I have AIDS?” Terrified
at the possibility. Something in me
fixated on that. I projected onto Freddy Mercy my own fear at eight years old.
I had AIDS. I was Freddy Mercury’s doppelgänger. I played with the boy in the
cellar. I had AIDS. Eight years old. Queer.
The obligatory trauma story. The trauma centre. The trauma complex. The heart of McGuire. The sexual heart. What seems to be the problem? Loving family + comfortable upbringing + safe suburban lives (too safe) + spoiled little puke + dyslexic neurology + clandestine homo-erotics with sallow skinned boy = A boy not man enough to handle experience. To touch upon an emotion not mature enough to be understood, the delicate fruit picked too early, touched too soon by eroticisms early fancy. Surely this is simply an overreaction lasting nearly two decades? The ego can't let go. The mind can't expand. The obligatory trauma story. The lines write themselves. I snivel into a metaphorical handkerchief weakling tears. Intellectually deficient and unable to cope with the emotional fall out of intense impact on the sensorium.
'A mammies boy' – that's what I was. Soft with it too. Something in me remains the child. The naive cutie reigns. Something in me is childish. Yes. Something of the child remains in me, in the cellar. I can't see clearly. Emotionally immature. Intellectually deficient. Literally, not equipped to deal with the heart of the matter.
Secrets haunt us. Every life is haunted by its specific tarot pack of secrets, silences, private turmoil, that could destabilise the life configuration, as we know it. I can only talk from my vantage point. The secrets that haunt me. Haunt is too melodramatic. Too Victorian-ghost-story. The secrets didn't haunt me, they exploded in my face like a suicide bomber in a busy public space. Again, too melodramatic, too modern. The truth is these secrets did not reveal themselves one by one in quick succession. Secrecy gradually revealed itself as a condition of experience, over time; I felt a unique kind of attachment to secrecy. I felt my secrecy was sovereign, other people harboured no secrets. Secrecy was my private domain – until – no haunting, no explosion – the brief sliding open of a drawer.
I have a trinity of secrets. A holy trinity. Can you tell I was raised (ruined) in a Catholic school? Confessional? We shut ourselves in darkened boxes and tell our secrets to cloaked Fathers, we tell our secrets to tell us who we are. Holy Trinity. 'For everything that is hidden will eventually be brought into the open, and every secret should be brought to the light, anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand - Mark 4:22-23'
There are more secrets than this Holy Trinity. But these three mark the trajectory of my emotional station. They shaped it. Guided it. Tattooed it real in the cortex. Not all are my secrets, mind. Am I right to discuss the secrets of others? Who may not want them revealed? Who may wish the private integrity of personal space? Yet here come, all loud, Bolshoi, brash, and brazen, trapped in childhood, psychologically perhaps only eight years old, readying to tear down power structures. What is needed is radical honesty. An air which listens and understands. In this light I will disguise the secrets themselves as other secrets.
We can generalise about 'the world of secrets' the 'private lives' of secrets, the conspiracy of silence later. Right now, come down into the cellar, undress, let's wrap each other in linen sheets, skin to skin, cheek to cheek. So the next door neighbour was one, the all-consuming hush-hush, decades spent tapping on walls, meeting in rooms, retraining the emotion, unleashing the physicality. Secondly, though least important perhaps, I tried on my mothers underwear, luxuriating in the mirror, posed, kinking my leg, putting on her make-up, rock hard erection bulging through the skin tight body warmer. The third secret, the clincher, the irony cast irony that confirmed the life for of secrecy throughout reality. One day I had been cross dressing in my mothers underwear, I put them back in her top draw, hiding them deeper, least she suspect someone was ruffling amongst them, and in this concealing a secret was itself revealed, a letter. My secret sexuality and clandestine behaviour had led me to discover another secret doubly life changing. The letter read as once desperate and candid, the hypothetical letter, written to a child, who had never known its parents. The child who had been adopted decades earlier. I put the letter back calmly. I could not contain this secret. I revealed it outright. I balked to account. I wanted to know the life of the hidden thing. I wanted it out, out, out!
And so secrecy became a life long obsession. Not my own. But others. The darker, private lives we never concede, never confess. Perhaps seeing the world as secrecy and dark only served to make the world seem secret and dark. Perhaps it wasn't. But I was convinced, in grandiose delusion, that the world was in such an apparent mess was because of the life of unrevealed secrets doing their rounds. Everyone skirting the issue, avoiding eye contact, moving on to another subject.
The irony is, I too conceal more than I reveal here, the secrets run bone deep, blood rich into the pathology. They do not even touch the edge of myself. There is so much left unsaid. There is so much to move on from. Like a child growing up to realise the secrets were really not that important, it was the act of concealing itself, revealed a lack of trust between people. One to another. What secrets now are taking place, I wonder, in behind cellar doors, in the minds of strangers, what set of private markers set their life trajectory with their personal riches. Is the Goddess Jana, the Goddess of secrecy and privacy, harbouring our secrets inside of us, to suck the energy from our ability to live our lives? We look to our secrets to tell us who we are.
"Don't come running from the prairie wait until my aim is steady"
After we are born, we still do not see ourselves separate from the rest of the world. We exist for a while, in a state of one-ness in which we do not know ‘am’ – only ‘is’. Until we learn to separate ourselves from the world. With this split, all other dualities enter. We no longer understand ‘is’ without ‘am’, black without white, hot without cold. When we reach the end of our life, (once again,) our perception of the difference between ourselves and the world disappears. So while our vocabulary for this change usually suggests a departure, is it not right here that we actually truly enter the world, completing our human existence?
When you draw the last part of a circle, you arrive at its beginning.
Zen monks employ a circle as the symbol expressing the nature of things, the truth of life. The circle they draw with a single thick brush stroke always retains a small opening at the top, between where they start drawing it against the clock, and finish drawing it just before they arrive at twelve o’clock again.
This opening is where we stand. First, we face East, where we see the beginning of the circle. We have just departed from something we now see in front of us. We keep moving and face South. We see in front of us an expanse, and a border. The biggest part of our lives, we spend our time exploring this expanse and filling it with things, constantly seeing the border in the background, until one day, we face West.
Here, we see something that may remind us of the border that has been our daily background, or of something else we have seen a long time ago, facing East. We may begin to sense that we are close to the nature of things, close to the truth. And finally, we face North. Here, we have found our right position as a puzzle piece in the circle and completed its previously interrupted brushstroke. What we now see before us is an expanse without a border. A place where, once again, ‘is’ exists without ‘am’, everything without nothing, nothing without everything. Where black and white, hot and cold, big and small, for their lack of existence, are negative values that, added up, dissolve into an infinite positive sum. This is our value.
10 Minutes of Sky.
I pass the cookies and get changed as I have to hurry to my first class at one a clock. Although today, the sky is cloudy, and I can’t listen to my pulse-and speed accelerating running and getting-to-work-as-fast-as-possible playlist. Instead, I try to catch the heart piercing lyrics of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen while cars thunder past me, idle shoppers and other cyclists drive me mental on the narrow pavement. I am so absorbed, I almost crash into the sinking barriers by a train crossing as they come down. But as usual, I am surprised by my own last minute manoeuvres and make it to Juso in one piece. Albeit tired, and struggling to focus on the content of my own prepared lessons. After the first class, I go to the post office to pay a bill and the combini for lunch: Salad. Onigiri. Sugar free chocolate. COFFEE. BLACK. The usual fare.
When I get back, I have twenty minutes before the first students for my infant class come in with their mothers. I take my futon cover, brought to school for the kids’ playroom to teach “sleep” and “wake up”, and put it outside on the big roof terrace. I put my suit jacket on my teacher’s chair, take my i-pod and alarm clock from my bag in the office, open the big window in my room, and jump out.
Ten thousand things. One sky. Ten thousand chores. One little space of emptiness. But emptiness, no matter how small, absorbs everything. And everything, no matter how big, fits into emptiness. And the last minute of the day will come. And the manager will say, let’s empty the bin. And once again, I can get up from my office chair, sit down on my bicycle, and lie down in my bed. And try to dissolve the day’s ten thousand things into the black emptiness of sleep.
Beauty - A Place to Jump
I’m pining for time to digest and write down the things I see, hear, perceive. Give me time to make beauty out of the world around me. I don’t have time. I’m just another wheel in the machine, just another part of its ugliness. Spinning, spinning, spinning, spinning money. A minuscule portion for myself, the lion share for the company president with his multiple international residences and stern looking bodyguards. Who always gives the same speech and never ever smiles or makes a single joke. Mr Kusunoki. I’m spinning money in his name. Spinning money on the corporate treadmill. I need to jump off, but right now, the abyss is gaping next to me. I have to find a safer spot to jump off. And soon. I will be sick. I need freedom. At least pieces of it. To cleanse myself of the weekly dirt. To digest and process and effectively turn ugliness into beauty.
Christian Livermore's first novel 'And God Watched' is forthcoming from Freight Books in 2017. It has been short-listed for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom First Novel award and the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition and the AWP Prize for the Novel. She holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of St Andrews. She was also a featured contributor in the 2014 BBC Radio Scotland documentary 'The Walking Dead,' presented by A.L. Kennedy, which examined belief in revenants in Scotland from the Middle Ages through to the Reformation. Before coming to St Andrews she worked for ten years as a journalist.
Max Wallis is a writer and model who has collaborated with Jack Wills, Mr Porter and more. He has been published widely and was shortlisted for the Polari First Book Prize for his debut pamphlet, Modern Love (Flipped Eye press). He has received two rounds of Arts Council funding and writes freelance for various publications. He is currently finishing his debut novel.
Eyes Of Others is the solo project of the Edinburgh-based electronic artist John Bryden. New EP - Nightwalking - was recorded at Glasgow’s top creative hub Green Door Studio, with co-production from Stuart Evans (Sordid Sound System, Golden Teacher and Happy Meals). The EP was released on November 6th via Label Fandango.
Melanie Hayden is a poet and writer living in London. Her passions include music, film, literature and feminism. She is currently working on her first collection of poetry that aims to portray the darker side of humanity with humour and edge. She blogs at http://black-hearted-love.blogspot.co.uk/
Paula Varjack is a writer, film-maker and performance artist who studied at Goldsmiths University, London Film School and The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Her work explores social dynamics; subtext, our relationship with cities, and cultural identity. She is trained in stage management, film-making and performance so enjoys working across and combining the disciplines; performance, theatre, documentary and spoken word. She has performed at numerous arts festivals and cultural spaces including: Glastonbury Festival, Berlin International Literature Festival, Vault Festival, Chelsea Theatre, The Victoria & Albert Museum, Richmix, Wilton's Music Hall, Battersea Arts Centre, The Southbank Centre, Círculo de Bellas Artes, Musicbox Lisbon, Es Balluard Museum of Contemporary Art, The Photographer's Gallery and The Tate London.
Roy McFarlane was born in Birmingham of Jamaican parentage and spent most of his years living in Wolverhampton. He has held the role of Birmingham’s Poet Laureate and Starbucks’ Poet in Residence. Roy’s writing has appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Out of Bounds (Bloodaxe 2012) and he is the writer and editor of Celebrate Wha? (Smokestack 2011). A regular on the stage, he performs in festivals and theatres and is always looking for a natural high on words.
JL Williams was born in New Jersey and studied at Wellesley College and on the MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.
She is particularly interested in cross-form work and has collaborated with artists, musicians and filmmakers. She was awarded a grant from the Scottish Arts Council for a poetry collaboration entitled chiaroscuro pentimenti with composer Martin Parker and artist Anna Chapman, and the Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary from the Scottish Arts Trust.
In 2009 she journeyed to the Aeolian Isles to write a collection inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses, Condition of Fire (Shearsman Books, 2011). Her new poetry collection is called, Locust and Marlin (Shearsman, 2014).
Kirsty Logan is a Glasgow-based award-winning writer. Her fiction has been featured in literary magazines and anthologies all over the world; broadcast on BBC Radio 4, displayed in galleries, and translated into French, Japanese and Spanish. She is also the literary editor for The List. Kirsty has received fellowships from Hawthornden Castle and Brownsbank Cottage, and was the first writer-in-residence at West Dean College. Her first book The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014, Salt) has already been shortlisted for the Saboteur Awards, and her second book The Gracekeepers will be published in 2015 by Harvill Secker in the U.K, Hogath in the U.S and Random House in Canada.
Vanessa Ferdinand is a musician from Georgia currently doing her PhD in Language Evolution at Edinburgh University. Classically trained on viola, she played sousaphone in her high school marching band, and piano poorly in a jazz band. During college, she lived in a derelict home (that once belonged to REM) and was awarded two accordions for cleaning out a neighbours’ garage, which she later played in the indie rock band, Reason. She studied West African hand percussion under Dr. Arvin Scott and Arabic classical percussion under Ali Jihad Racy and Souhail Kaspar. In 2004, she moved to Marrakech to learn Arabic and became apprentice luthier to Si Omar Ahmadouch. Her love of American folk music crystallized later, while living in Amsterdam, and she made her first banjo in the workshop of friend and fellow musician Sean Little. She began singing with banjo at Cafe Mezrab and has since played gigs in Japan; Iceland, New Mexico, and stranger places in between. Her début album The Magpie was cut in a box room in Edinburgh., and one track involves a duet with her pet parakeet Billy.
McGuire is a 31 year old thin Glaswegian man, touch giddy in the head, sometimes poet of mangled form and dirty prose; sporadic drummer, drunk grammarian, painter with crayons, lover, hater, learner, teacher, pedestrian, provocateur, wanderer, confronter of shadows, irritating whiner. He has produced a collection of poetry and short stories: Riddle With Errors (Clydeside Press) and Everybody lie down and no one gets hurt, (Red Squirrel Press). He is currently working on a third collection, combing both poetry and short stories. He was a finalist in the BBC Fringe Festival Slam 2013, and performs monthly around Scotland and the UK.
Kirsten Norrie is a Scottish writer and artist. As a musician she has supported The Fall, Arthur Brown and Arlo Guthrie, performed internationally as well as being featured on BBC Radio 3 Late Junction and The Verb. Her third album Horse Sweat Chandelier is released October 2013. MacGillivray's poetry has been published in ASLS New Scottish Writing and Magma; her art criticism in Performance Research and several editions of Art Monthly. She has performed alongside writers such as Alan Moore, Don Paterson, Brian Catling and Iain Sinclair. Her first collection, Last Wolf of Scotland will be published in October 2013 and treads a fine line between surreal reality and imaginative abstraction, in order to trace the violence through which national mythologies are forged and perpetuated, from the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands to the piratical showmanship of the wild west. Her latest book 'The Nine of Diamonds: Surrorial Mordantless' will be published by Bloodaxe in 2016.
Anna Sanner is a German writer, teacher and translator in Japan. She graduated from Stirling University with a BA in Japanese Studies, and then from a Masters in Interpreting/Translation, University of Bath. She has lived in Candada, Hawaii, U.K and Spain training in Aikido, Karate, Zen and Ulitarianism for many years. She likes seals; Jackie Chan and Haruki Murakami.