Monday, 29 June 2009

A Short Story: "The Big Pang Theory"

Like I told them, and keep telling them, it was all about the ‘pang’. It was like being whacked across the face with a shovel; or levelled with a beautifully, brutally-appointed southpaw punch. I could feel the heat of exploding blood on my neck, the cold of the night air, the crunch of bone as my face collapsed under a heavy weight. I smelled the terrible scraping of rubber on scorched ground, and I heard the ‘pang’. I felt a brief shudder of crushing disappointment, regret and fear that lasted perhaps a second... no longer. I thought about saying “Oh God!” but I didn’t get the time.

And after that? Nothing. Before that? Nothing. That’s all I can remember. The pang.

I keep hearing that my recollections, hallucinations, whatever you want to call them, are important and that I should do my best to remember as much as I possibly can. And I do try. But as time rollson, even the memory of that ‘pang’ event is growing nebulous. I sometimes experience a very faint sense that there must be more; like I used to have another important memory which I’ve since lost. I don’t think I’ll get it back, anyway, if it was ever there.

Does it have anything to do with the Earthists? Doubt it. Like everybody, I’ve seen the shadowy figures that sometimes walk, confused and directionless, among us. I’ve heard all the wacky stories and I’m up to speed with all the wild theories. I’ve read the Murdoch Files and I guess his fantastic thinking could carry some weight. Maybe some of us did come from another realm or dimension? Maybe it does have something to do with the Earthists, whoever or whatever they are? Maybe there is something ‘out there’? And maybe it’s connected to everything that is here in some weird and wonderful fashion?

I guess we’ll never know for sure. But I do know that my ‘pang’ experience is causing some considerable excitement. Nitzer, the leader of my research and interrogation team, reckons the memory I have of feeling blood on my neck is important. He thinks that because I felt the blood during the ‘pang’ but not after it, it could signify that I was once ‘alive’ – in the sense that Murdoch believes everybody was ‘alive’ in another place or dimension or something before arriving here. Imagine that! How could anybody have been somewhere else before coming here? Surely everyone has just always been here?

A lot of Murdoch’s claims are too barmy to take seriously, of course, and I don’t buy this image that everyone seems to have of him as some great visionary. But when I first heard about his theory of the ‘famell’ – that people in this other dimension of his are borne of other people and remain connected to them through some kind of brain glue – I had to stop and think. I haven’t told Nitzer this, but I once had some kind of vision in my brain that might have something to do
with all that. In this hallucination I was sat on the top of some wooden steps, looking out onto a small garden. I could see a silver-grey ball of liquid spinning slowly above the horizon like a
clumsy sun, with clear elastic strands of gooey stuff stretching from its circumference out to a spot at the back of everybody’s head. There were thousands of people, all being fed from this ball of sticky stuff and all sending sticky stuff back up to the great big ball. It was a snapshot of a work in progress, I think, some kind of ongoing process. It looked like a giant harvest. Anyway, the point is everybody was connected by glue and I wonder if Murdoch’s ‘famell’ stuff has anything to do with that?

But, hey, who cares right? I for one am in no rush to make contact with the miserable Earthists! They seem so dour and unhappy. Maybe they should stick to their own funny dimension – or wherever it is they come from – and stop coming to us?

I remember watching a small, white Earthist drift in and out of my dorm the other week. He was shimmering in and out of view all the timeso I couldn’t get a proper look at his face. Of course, I didn’t try to open communication with him - it’s just not fair on the poor creatures. His words of gibberish flashed briefly into my head, though, as Earthist words frequently do.

This is what he said: “Oh, I miss you so much!”

Anybody have any clue what that might mean? Tears were streaming down his face, the poor thing. Seriously, now. Who’d want to be an Earthist?

Sunday, 28 June 2009

The death of Joe Southard

On a Sunday night, precisely 78 years ago tonight, we lost the man who should have been my uncle Joe.

Joseph William Frederick Southard, at that time my paternal grandmother’s one and only, was a 21 year old buck with sharp looks, a sharp dress sense and a reasonable chance of making a few quid as a tarmac-layer in the particularly harsh recession of the early 1930s.

But whatever hopes, dreams and ambitions that young Joe might have had, they were all so cruelly snuffed out on this very Sunday in 1931, when Joe was drowned.

Newspaper reports from the time say his body was dredged out of the water and pronounced lifeless by a doctor. A boat had apparently capsized. There were two survivors from the small vessel – a pair of workers from a travelling circus that was in town at the time. Only Joe was unable to make it to the canal bank and safety.

My family, especially my elderly aunt and another aunt who has since passed away, are deeply suspicious. Joe was a very strong swimmer. How could be not have made it to ashore? They’re adamant, in fact, that Joe was murdered by these two circus men in cold blood: smashed across the head with an oar and bundled over the side into the cool water.

Could there have been an argument that got out of hand? Was Joe robbed? Who knows... but I’m trying to find out. And while I try to find dusty coroner’s reports in dusty corners of the National Archive, I can only speculate over what might have happened.

And I can only ask the same questions. Have I been cheated out of an uncle by these men? Was my father cheated out of a brother? Was my grandmother cheated out of her eldest son? Joe would have been 54 when I was born. He would have been 99 if he’d lived up to today.

Who are these circus men and what happened to them? Were they guilty of murder and where they ever brought to trial? Did they evade capture and live long lives? Did the events of June 28, 1931 weigh on their consciences? Or were they able to put the incident behind them and move on, living with a terrible secret into old age?

Yes, it was a very long time ago and nothing can escape the fact that Joe is dead. He won’t be coming back. But I, for one, would like to know what happened. In the complicated story of my father’s family, he has a chapter that’s worth recording. So I’m going to dig around a bit. It’s what the internet was made for.

And if Joe still exists out there somewhere in some kind of magical ghostly form, perhaps as a spirit or spark of universal consciousness or something, I do wonder if he has awareness that the nephew he was doomed never to meet is trying, at least a little, to cover his back.

Thinking of you today, Joseph William Frederick Southard.

December 21, 1909 to June 28, 1931.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Off the shoulder

Ten things you will always find on the side of a motorway.

1) A shard of exploded lorry tyre
2) Approx five yards of unravelled cassette tape
3) A solitary shoe
4) The opening page to what could be a juicy letter
5) A squashed crow
6) A rare and/or beautiful insect
7) A faded, empty bottle of Fanta
8) A large bolt or hexagonal nut
9) A scratched CD-R with nothing written on the label
10) Overstretched, sodden socks

Monday, 22 June 2009

A moonage daydream

Before girls and booze came along to distract me, I spent many a pre-teen evening staring into space. I was geekily obsessed, in a way that only a teenage boy could understand, with astronomy and spaceflight.

Where did it all begin? Well, I remember an infant school lesson about clouds. Cumulus, cirrus stratus, nimbulus... this new appreciation for the various different kinds of aerial fluff must surely have pointed my tiny head upwards?

Or would it have been Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind in 1969? My sleepy head was woken from its cushion on the floor next to the settee by Mum and Dad, determined that I should witness these live 4am pictures of an actual man actually stood on the actual moon! My five-year-old brain couldn't quite fathom what was going on, to be honest - and I think I was as much confused by the concept of live TV as I was with space travel. But I am blessed to be able to remember the ghostly image of the space-suited American on our telly, and my parents' obvious excitement, with photographic clarity. Every miniscule detail of that night is hard-wired into my head; right down to where my Dad was sat and what my Mum had to say about it all.

Other Apollo moon missions followed, and some of these were beamed to us, a gaggle of excitable junior schoolchildren, on our much-loved school telly. This beast of an object towered above our faces on cylindrical feet, and it had adjustable flappy shutters to shade the screen from sunlight. We were lined up in neat rows on plastic assembly chairs and told to keep quiet. Thus the lunar rover, the orange soil under the grey moondust, the silly game of golf by men in white helmets - all were lapped up by young boys and girls grateful to be let out of afternoon maths.

I collected cards with pictures of Gemini and Mercury space capsules on them from packets of tea. My Mum bought me a set of 'Outer Space' transfers, which I scratched into place inside a suitably space-themed picture album. I would spend hours sitting upside down on the settee, with my mum's hairdryer bits and pieces attached to my head and belly like some kind of Woolworth's space helmet, her curlers pushed together to assume a rocket-like shape, and pretend I was about to blast off on some great adventure.

The worlds of science fiction and science fact merged, and Dr Who's adventures became very real in my super-imaginative head. I lapped up programmes like 'Space 1999' and dreamed of becoming an astronaut myself. Urged on by my Mum, I wrote a hopeful letter to NASA: and some months (or possibly years?) later, I got a bumper parcel of leaflets, pictures and brochures in the mail from the US. It's quite possible that I was the first kid in Europe to see illustrations of a prototype space shuttle. My mum was well pleased with the generosity of Americans. "They're always good to kids," she'd say, possibly recalling her own experience with the G.I.s posted at County Ground, Exeter, during the Second World War.

I saw my first comet around 1975, when I was 11 years old. Kohoutek was faint but well-publicised on telly. Then came another one, very soon after. I don't remember its name, but it was brighter and easier to spot than the relative damp squib of its predecessor. The power of hype. This visitor to our skies had a beautiful tail which stretched some way toward the summer sunset when viewed from the back garden of our South Devon family home.

Within 12 months or so, I had learned my way around the sky and memorised the names and details of most of the major stars and constellations. I spent hours outdoors with my Observer Book of the Night Sky, patiently figuring out my Betelgeuses from my Arcturuses, aided by binoculars and a small telescope borrowed from my Dad's RAF souvenirs. I saw binary stars, star clusters, nebulae, moon craters and hundreds of meteors.

I bored anyone who'd pretend to listen with whatever piece of info I'd been able to pick up from The Sky At Night or The Guardian, who ran monthly star charts and observing tips. I quickly worked out how to track satellites as they streaked across the sky. I tried, but failed, to watch Skylab fall. But I did get to see the Apollo-Soyuz link-up, miles above my suburban home cul-de-sac.

Around the age of 13 or 14, Christmas was good to me. Santa brought me a decent telescope, with a tripod, which allowed me to gaze in wonder at Jupiter's four main satellites, study Saturn's rings, gape at Venus and Mercury and sketch the Ring nebula in Lyra and the Hercules globular star cluster. I patiently picked out faint asteroids, I collected magnetic extra-terrestrial samples with a rainwater-filtering process picked up from a book, and I saw a partial solar eclipse and a couple of lunar ones. And one wonderful weekend, I mithered my parents into driving me to the Royal Observatory in Herstmonceux, Sussex. A fine day out. All the way home, my head craned backwards to watch the stars and planets through the rear windscreen as we bobbed along the A303.

At school, I took an astro-navigation course with the school cadets. Give me a sky full of stars and I could, in theory, steer myself towards home if I found myself marooned on a dinghy off the 'Horn. In theory, I could land a stricken plane too. But that's another story...

From then on, I really got stuck in. I joined the local Astronomical Society. I contributed essays and observations to their periodical, 'Helios', I went on field trips to observatories, Stonehenge and the like, I wrote articles for the local press and I started to build my own rather more powerful telescope. I took an O'Level in Astronomy and scored a B. Not bad, since it had been all my own work - there was no science teacher qualified to teach me at my school.

It intensified. I joined the British Astronomical Association and aligned myself to both their Meteor section and their Venus group. I would go to lectures and talk with confidence about astronomical events with beardy scientists who clearly knew a hell of a lot more than me. I produced a few drawings of Jupiter's cloudbelts using my newly-built 6" reflector telescope. I started to grind mirrors for a second instrument, which would be used purely for photographic observations. Oh, yes. I was pretty hardcore into the astronomy and I had big plans to take it to a broader stage. This was massive fun. What could be more attractive than spending the night, alone, in a pitch black garden?

It was inevitable. Almost all at once I discovered girls, cigarettes, booze, David Bowie records, teenage chatter, New Wave and punk music, discos and gigs. I'd spend less nights looking up - far more falling down.

The telescope spent longer and longer under its protective blanket in the garage, my membership of the British Astronomical Association lapsed, and when meetings of the local astronomical society came around, they always seemed to clash with something far more important. I was Membership Secretary in name, but I was slipping away from membership myself.

Fast forward to today and I still know my way around the night sky - although my telescope has long since gone. But, give me news about a new comet and I'm out there, looking for it. Give me an eclipse and I'll plot a voyage to see it.

And, rest assured, I could still navigate us around the 'Horn if our lives depended on it.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Rothko... what a card.

Above my desk, fixed to a nail via a tiny blue paper clip, hangs a postcard reproduction of 'Untitled 1958-59' by Mark Rothko. It's a colourful piece, awash with reds, blues, violets and browns in the inimitable Rothko style. It's very wide, very mental and very typical of his work. I like it... a bit.

I know very little about Rothko other than he's American, very recognisable and stylised in his work, and that he killed himself. Hardly a qualified observer, am I? I shall have to watch one of the two documentaries about him that I downloaded shortly after visiting the exhibition of his gigantic works at the Tate Modern.

I liked seeing his paintings - but even more enjoyable was reading the little stories behind them. Cornerstone of the exhibition was the 'Four Seasons' series commissioned by the US beverage company, Seagram, to hang in their impressive New York restaurant. The small print on the walls of the Tate Modern informed me (and Wikipedia subsequently reminded me) that these vertically-hung slabs of red, orange, black and brown rectangles and rounded-squares took several months and many thousands of dollars to produce. I stared and stared and tried to imagine what his Seagram paymasters would have made of these finished pieces? And what would it have been like to dine within these gloomy and overbearing surroundings? Rothko later said of his work that he had wanted to create "something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room". Then he went that extra bit further and elected to keep the pictures for himself, returning the huge fee back to Seagram, telling them to shove it. He'd visited the restaurant space, thought carefully about what he was doing, and withdrawn from his own project.

In another, darkened corner of the Tate Modern stood a series of black-on-nearly-black square canvases. The lights were purposely low in this gallery, so all one could see was the eternal blackness, darkness and doom. I again read the small print to discover that these oppressively bleak boards were intended for a little chapel in Houston. In my mind's ear, I could imagine the glorious scene when Rothko handed them over to, presumably, a grateful little old church lady: "Thankyou so much, Mr Rothko, they're lovely. Um... they're a little dark, aren't they?"

I laughed out loud in the gallery as I thought of these irretrievably dark canvases blocking the light and sucking the soul out of that tiny chapel. They could hardly have refused his donation, could they? Then I wondered what Rothko himself would have made of this exhibition as a whole, complete with infra red photography and x-rays designed to lay bare the great artist's otherwise invisible brushwork.

He might have found it funny, he might have found it strange. Or he might have thrown an almighty big strop and burned the place down.

I do hope it's the latter. There's nothing more refreshing and inspiring than a properly grouchy curmudgeon.

As I never made it in to see Throbbing Gristle or S.C.U.M.

I thought I'd start this thing. This first one is kind of a test. It has no content to get worried about. If I were you, I'd worry more about the next one.

Signing out. For now.