Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Oh, Snickers.

I squinted at the early afternoon reflections shimmying their way across the Thames.

“London City looks very pretty in the sunshine,” I hummed in my head to the tune of something I’d once forgotten.

Despite being packaged up like a mule as I trudged through the Embankment underpass (which could have been mistaken for a passageway through the Andes if I’d cocked my head correctly), I was feeling pretty darn content with the world. Sweaty, yes, even ever-so-slightly smelly, but predominately content.

“Do you want me to take one of those?” Stu asked, because, fundamentally, he’s a nice guy.

“Nah, you’re alright,” I replied because, fundamentally, I’m a self-righteous git with a semi-martyr complex, but (hey) at least I’ve started to recognise that.

“You sure?” and on we went.

London buzzed with a near carnival exuberance: Whoops and cheers and rattling guitars and cockney geezahs standing on their front porches fag in one hand, can of Fosters in the other, dead pig spittling on the barbecue and endless, endless rotations of Eye of the Tiger, Keep on Running and (rather cruelly) Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide.

It was, of course, the London Marathon and, for once, I was caught up in the melee on purpose.

A combination of young and old thudded their way up the dual carriageway, under bridges, through purpose erected showers as the city adapted to their needs. Ramps that had been designed and built to allow access to other, higher/lower roads became vantage points for much needed support. Lampposts intended to provide light were adorned with mileage announcements.

Some ran with the suggestion of unbearable agony rooted into their hips, a stagger here, a grimace there, but they all kept on moving. Male or female, attached to a fake emu or wearing a neon orange wig it didn’t matter. Everyone was at least marginally fucked, but they kept running.

London finally seemed alive to me again. It might just have been the nice weather lightening my mood, but the city once again seemed to whisper sweet, sultry secrets into my ear.

It wasn’t so long ago that I walked from Brockley to Hampstead Heath and halfway back. On a grey February day, with the roads empty, with the buzz of televisions from behind closed windows being the most overbearing noise, when Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill were both dusted with unbroken white, it felt as though I was saying goodbye. I walked past old haunts, or places that resonated with moments of mine and London’s shared history, and I wondered if it might just be time to try my hand

After trudging on past various body parts, Stu and I eventually came to pause just East of Blackfriar’s Bridge. There we elbowed and politely excused our overburdened way to the roadside. Runner after runner wobbled or resolutely pushed their way past. A mass of sweaty bodies, burning heartrates, shouts, yells and pukes alongside the constant chit-chit-chit of a rapid fire telescopic digital cameras. Every neon white cap hurt my eyes, every red, blotchy face for a moment was familiar.

Eventually I said: “Hey, look! Here he comes!”

“Michael!” we yelled. “Hey! Yo! Michael! Mike! Yay! Go on, Michael! You can do it! Michael! For God’s sake, over here!”

From under the brim of his cap his eyes appeared to roll slightly, he raised an arm of acknowledgment and steadily pounded on.

I look at Stu. Stu looked at me. I gave a half-hearted shrug.

“We done now?” I asked.

“I reckon we’re done,” Stu concurred and we resumed our walk to St James’ Park and the finish line, because that’s all we had to do, in the end.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

JG Ballard: 1930-2009

“Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight o’clock, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperms crowding over the roofs of the abandoned department stores four hundred yards away on the east side of the lagoon. Even through the massive olive-green fronds the relentless power of the sun was tangible. The blunt refracted rays drummed against his bare chest and shoulders, drawing out the first sweat, and he put on a pair of heavy sunglasses to protect his eyes. The solar disc was no longer a well-defined sphere, but a wide expanding ellipse that fanned out across the eastern horizon like a colossal fire-ball, its reflection turning the dead leaden surface of the lagoon into a brilliant copper shield. By noon, less than four hours away, the water would seem to burn.”*

I’d planned to write something different this week. It was, probably, going to be about lager-sticky, darkened floors, jangly guitar riffs and sudden flashbacks to ten years ago, but then as I wasted time by lurking around the BBC News website on Sunday afternoon, still feeling a like a donkey had kicked my liver out during Stu’s stag do, I read that JG Ballard had died.

And suddenly silliness with too much weak-warm lager sloshing over the rims of compressible plastic pint pots no longer seemed important, relevant or even vaguely fucking interesting. Because Ballard was important, relevant and extremely interesting. He was important to me, he should have been important to you and he was important to literature with every subversive nod he made.

Besides, it felt serendipitous. Barely two hours earlier I’d found myself in an ever-so slightly Ballardian landscape. I’d been driving down the M40, back to the hub of London from the gentile neatly spired horizon of Oxford. The alcohol percentage rate of my blood may have been a little high given that my body had finally given up at four-thirty in the morning and the sun was blistering across the asphalt and metallic paints, shimmering as though tinted through water. I wanted to lower the sun-visor, but given that the damn thing had broken off in my hand the week before, couldn’t. Instead, I decided to leave the road whilst I could still see.

So, I sat outside the new Beaconsfield services, perched on the unblemished wooden picnic tables rubbing my inexplicably throbbing upper ribs and slurping at a mushed banana-based smoothie. The red canopies offered insufficient shelter to the half dozen people sunglassed up like a travelling mafia convention drinking bad coffee and stuffing themselves with fried chicken and chocolate dripped pastries. The automatic doors back inside sprung open like a bear trap whenever anyone got within two feet, but because they swung outwards rather than across they nearly collided with every scampering, piss-desperate urchin.

The picnic tables were around the back of the glass and steel glided complex, away from the ranks of parked indenti-kit cars, away from the odour of spilt diesel absorbing into the Shell forecourt and away from the dull roar of the crawling traffic that routinely trid to escape the city on a Friday night before being sucked back its vortex on a Sunday afternoon.

I stood up, flipping my empty bottle into an already over-flowing and over-ripe bin, and ambled over to the rickety pine viewing point. I looked out, viewed upon, the beige brown mud slopes like the discarded lesions from a motorised digger dropping down to the pond. “Danger!” The red sign howled. “Deep Water!” The pool looked as though a deer had died in it twice over the night before.

I sneered to myself. I wanted to go home, but for the time being that was impossible.

“Forgetting the Jaguar, I walked down the ramp and followed the trio as they set off for the underpass. The Paris express was leaving the station, passengers standing at the windows of the couchettes, their cars stacked on the transporter wagons at the rear of the train. I entered the tunnel as the wheels bit into the steel, a noise like pain through which the silver-lipped child walked and skipped.”

“...’They couldn’t believe that a madman with a rifle was walking into offices and shooting people dead. Their moral perception of evil was so eroded that it failed to warn them of danger. Places like Eden-Olympia are fertile ground for any messiah with a grudge. The Adolf Hitlers and Pol Pots of the future won’t walk out of the desert. They’ll emerge from shopping malls and corporate business parks.’”**

Ballard has often been called a science-fiction writer. More unusually, just as I switched the TV off on Monday evening I heard Jon Snow say 'Coming up, we’ll be asking Martin Amis whether JG Ballard was the last, great writer to be a product of the second world war.'

Both are true, yet neither are.

Ballard wrote science fiction in that he wrote about possible tomorrows and by that I mean literally tomorrow. He wasn’t interested in a far flung future of space ships, lasers and aliens, for him the future was happening now in amongst the concrete spires of the brutalist architecture, the artificiality of the lives lived indistinguishable from the fakery of film sets, the near-collapsing of prudish social barriers. The future was in our heads, yet Ballard’s head was dominated by the years he spent as a child in an internment camp in Shang-Hai.

He wrote so many things before anyone else. His second novel, The Drowned World, told of a land flooded due to the melting of the icecaps and of the people left in the upper levels of the submerged London department stores. This was a Global Warming novel in 1963, but still its primary concern was the mental fragility of the central characters.

Ballard wrote himself into both his past and our futures. This was helped by a large number of his leading men being called Jim, or James or Jamie or some other variation. Yet, he seemed unable to avoid either fictionalising the truth, or splicing fantasy with reality. Even with Empire of the Sun and the Kindness of Women he was adamant that they were no more than semi-autobiographical at a push, even though the latter featured a novelist whose wife died tragically young, who lived in Shepperton, who courted controversy with a novel about the erotic nature of car crashes and whose work about growing up in a Japanese internment camp was adapted by Steven Spielberg into a movie staring Christian Bale.
The lines had disappeared.

As I try to write about the edge of the possible end, about tension and hate and fear, back in March I wrote scenes about a protest march heavily dealt with by the police, where a man was accidentally killed and a woman slapped across the face on live broadcast camera. Whenever we turn the TV on we can never be sure whether we’re watching actors or real people acting out a fantasy of their own terrible imaginations of populist entertainment, as we appear to slip further into a world of instant media and pleasure, of celebratory politics, of wilfully harmful self-indulgence where the dead of the past can only growl in our ears it seems to me that we’re all living in Ballard’s head now.

“Below the bows of the Arrawa a child’s coffin moved on to the night stream. Its paper flowers were shaken loose by the wash of the landing craft carrying sailors from the American cruiser. The flowers formed a wavering garland around the coffin as it began its long journey to the estuary of the Yangtze, only to be swept back by the incoming tide among the quays and mud flats...”***

* The Drowned World
** Super-Cannes
*** Empire of the Sun

DavidMarstonWrites wholeheartedly recommends The Drowned World, The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, Empire of the Sun, The Kindness of Women, Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes and Millennium People. Go read.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009


I am frazzled.

My skin is red and rare, blotches have swollen to tender. Heat glows off my neck, pulsing like dying coals on a barbecue. On my forearms white flecks peel free and float off on the breeze.

It is, of course, entirely my own fault.

I was offered a squirt of the snot-green super-inflated Snowdonia service station sun screen, but I declined.

“I don’t usually burn,” I smugly jinxed myself.

I’m pretty certain of the exact moments it happened. We’d just heather-bashed, rock-slid and wall-jumped our way over a couple of kilometres of loose terrain having taken a slightly wrong angle off the side of the Rhinogs and chosen to cut the corner to get back on some sort of track.

Two kilometres that had taken us two hours to hump our way across.

Tough going.

We could have optioned to skip the final summit. Architect-Steve, who was carrying a bad hip and blisters, was adamant that he wasn’t going up the final peak. We could have just trudged back down to the car.

“Be a shame to not go up, since we’re here,” said Google-Steve.

“Time’s getting on.” Steph was diplomatic. “I don’t know what people’s schedules are.”

The deciding vote was mine.

“Sod it,” I muttered turning, “let’s go.”

A three hundred and sixty metres.


As quickly as possible.

The weather had been perfect all weekend – clean ocean skies, gentle winds – but at this point the sun suddenly decided to get over-enthusiastic. As we pelted up the near-sheer mud slide that was masquerading as a path I bent my head low to watch my footing and the handfuls of heather I grasped to keep my balance. We hit the hundred metre mark inside of ten minutes, but already I felt as though I was walking inside a microwave.

I caught the others up snatching a breather at two hundred metres and twenty-five minutes.

“Christ,” I spat, “I’m so unfit.”

“I dunno about that, Dave,” replied Google-Steve stroking my ego, “we’re going pretty fast.”

But by then sweat was gushing out of every pore, my breath was ragged, my chest thundered and unbeknown to me something was applying an iron to the back of my neck.
Getting to the top, though, is always worth it - that feeling of elation on forty-five minutes as though my feet were cushioned with air. Two photos quick photos of us and the view, three mouthfuls of water each and we headed back down in little more than a controlled skid.

So now I’m peeling. If I touch my nose fragments of self are lost. I’ll shed my damaged skin and rejuvenate freshly. I’ll heal.

It’d be useful, sometimes, if that’s how everything in life worked.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009


I arrived late, which is a trend that seems to be increasing as though I’m subconsciously adopting lost qualities. Thanks to my newly found unpunctual nature I was forced to sit on the back row like a potentially disruptive thirteen year old. The woman on the stage at the front of oversized angel white tent, the one with the reserved pronunciation that could cut ice, was already speaking, licking plaudits onto each member of the panel.

For a flustered, slightly sweaty moment I couldn’t remember what I was listening to. Fortunately, I’d just sat down on a flyer: The George Orwell Prize – 2009-1939, how do we avoid the political crisis after economic crash?* Orwell’s stern, told-you-so, moustached face glared back at me, his brow recently creased by my bum.

It wasn’t exactly cheery stuff. My fellow visitors to the Oxford Literary Festival were booked onto something far chirpier, but because as well as being perpetually late I’m regressing to the organisational skills of a carrot, I have for weeks consistently forgotten to remove my finger from whatever unsavoury action it was undertaking and book myself onto the right lecture. So, there I sat at the only one with any spaces left.

But with Will Hutton of the Observer was on the panel (along with some other people) it looked interesting enough, if not exactly a barrel of the proverbial laughs.

As they talked and debated amongst themselves the woman next to me was restless. She was in her sixties at least, probably seventies. Her air matched the tent yet it was styled better than some of the twenty year olds I work with. Her coat smelled of money; pseudo fur of some non-nature. Tickets for every single talk happening (even those occurring simultaneously) billowed out of her bag, including one for the talk I’d been unable to get into. I considered stealing it off her, but her blood red lipstick so tightly pursed scared me off.

The spring sunshine and the lunchtime pint or two made my consciousness light. There, within the clammy confines of the marquee I felt myself drifting up and out.

“There’s no longer sufficient political discourse.”

“There aren’t any sides to take anymore.”

“Mm,” I agreed, although also wondered what the anarchists I’d encountered the other weekend who’d preached forcible squatting would make of it all.

“Mama-ma! Mama-ma!” sang a song in the depths of my head and all I could think was that it’s a strange, old world. It’s a world where in the twenty-first century, in rural Shropshire cattle rustling is on a dramatic increase, where a gang has stolen five hundred pigs – to do what with? To hack ‘em up, and pass pork chops off to blokes in tatty tracksuits in pubs called the Coach and Horses? A more lucrative industry than DVD’s recorded from the cinema screen onto a camera phone? It’s a world where foreign secretaries’ husbands masturbate and pass the cost onto the tax payer, where politicians acknowledge climate change as a challenge and then fly personal armoured limos and a small fleet of helicopters across the Atlantic in the luggage hold of a jumbo jet, where prime ministers play hide and seek with chancellors, where a country in the sky may hold the mineral of the future.

Except, in that moment it seemed as though everything always stayed the same whilst giving the impression of limbering forward. It’s the little coincidences of life, the mutual adoration for an obscure record, the bumping into someone in a random pub, that tie everything together, but still I felt as though everything could be predicted.

That there weren’t enough surprises.

Questions came from the floor.

“In the early thirties, the time that the panel’s established most accurately reflects today, fascism wasn’t seen as a threat. Sure, Mussolini was in power, but Hitler was seen as an extremist on the margins. I’d like to know if the panel think there are any loonies on the fringes who were should be wary of today?”

Good question, I thought, sinking my way back down to earth.

“Well,” Hutton began, “to be honest, I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more activity from the BNP-“

“You weren’t here Tuesday,” interrupted the Oxford chair. “I would never have expected to hear such anti-Semitic views in the twenty-first century, in Oxford, um...” she corrected herself “...in Britain. ”

The woman next to me turned and her temple vibrated slightly with rage. I thought that if her lips pursed any further they might burst.

“No they fucking well didn’t,” she scorned under her breath, stood up and barged past me towards the exit.

“Huh,” I muttered, but deep down there was a little ripple of pleasant surprise. I never saw that coming and somehow that pleased me.

*: Probably worth mentioning that despite the bizarre number of times Orwell seems to crop up in this blog, he is far from my favourite author. I would, however, recommend to everyone Coming Up For Air, sixty years old this year and still completely relevant.