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A nice way to start the day: Child abuse.

We have new neighbours. Well, not neighbours exactly; they live opposite us, in the top flat of a three story building. Between us and them is our back garden and a small parking lot, about forty metres. Sometimes I see the two little children standing in their french doors, leaning against the metal bars that constitute a “balcony” and protect them from the tarmac thirty feet below. They look like little four-year-old prisoners, rattling the bars and pleading for freedom.

I have never seen the parents. But my god I have heard them. They may be forty metres, a carpark and a garden away, but if all my housemates were to surround me and scream in my ear at the tops of their voices with the aid of megaphones, it would be drowned out quite comfortably by the woman opposite, beyond the garden and the car park and forty metres, talking on her telephone.

The accent is thick, violent Nigerian. I’ve always quite liked the Nigerian accent, but I imagine this is how it sounds when a you’re locked in a concrete cell and a Boko Harem officer is torturing you for information. The mother is on the phone at the moment. It is 30 degrees, I can’t shut my windows for fear of melting. But my speakers are literally not loud enough to drown out her voice.

I hear them make phone calls, I hear them snore, I hear them shout at their kids, I hear them argue, I hear them shout at their kids some more, I hear them argue some more. I have never heard them have sex. It doesn’t sound like the happiest marriage.

This morning I woke up to the piercing sound of a child crying. The crying got louder and louder. There was also a thick, deep Nigerian male’s voice, shouting down the child. Then I heard a sudden thud. The crying ceased for a second before coming back louder than ever. Another thud. I could almost feel it all the way over here. The thudding sound proceeded to come every five or six seconds. Each time the crying would stop, before becoming back louder and louder.

“Shut up!” Howled the man at the child. He’s one to talk, I thought. The cunt.


August 25, 2016

London

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Anne Karoline II

The old man stretched his arms high in the air. As he filled his lungs and arched over the back of his chair he felt a satisfying click reverberate in his spine. He straightened up and brought his hands to rest in his lap.

‘Thank you,’ he said, without moving, his eyes still shut. A boy placed a ceramic bowl beside the old man and walked back along the small wooded jetty and into the trees.

His eyes still shut, the old man reached down and felt for the bowl. He lifted it to his mouth. As he drank he allowed the water to spill over the bowl and down his chin, cooling his skin as it ran down his neck and splashed onto his chest. He lowered the bowl to his lap, holding it with both hands. He opened his eyes. An endless expanse of earth-coloured water, the same colour as his leathery hands, opened up in front of him, calm and still.

A boat drifted into his line of sight. It was a large white boat. White as milk. Somehow impervious to the thick brown water. The hull curved up and out of the water excessively, almost comically, as if the boat had sailed straight out of a child’s imagination. The name of the boat was scrawled sky blue across the side in long looping letters: Anne Karoline II.

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Becoming Someone Else

On a boiling hot day in London I become Gabriel Garcia Marquez

July 19, 2016

London

It is hot. Distant sirens cause the thick hot air to pulsate around me. I have the curtains pulled shut to block out the heat, leaving just a small gap for light. The sirens pass, and the heat sits still and heavy, softening and blurring edges. I’m sucking on an ice cube. It cools my mouth and neck as drops of ice-water escape down my throat. It fails to refresh the  rest of me though. The rest of me is lethargic and weary from the heat. The rest of me wants to lie under the shade of a tree with my book. To fall asleep with my book led open on my chest and a hat over my eyes.

But I must write. It is more important, though I don’t know why. But how does anyone write in heat like this? How do people in hot countries get anything done?

I’m Gabriel Garcia Marquez, sat at my typewriter in the courtyard of my home in Cartagena. My linen shirt flaps in a gentle breeze. To my left is a chessboard and to my right is a parrot sat quietly on its perch. And writing is easy because I do it all the time, on these baking hot days – that is what I do.

This morning I ran 15km. The ache in my legs was acute. The heat was horrible. The sweat was ungodly. But I was Casey Neistat, the film-maker and vlogger who runs 10 to 12 miles every morning and who has ‘DO MORE’ and ‘Work Harder’ tattooed on his arm. I was pretty dizzy at one point, but I was Casey Neistat, who just gets stuff done and never complains, and so I got it done. I got it done.

Tomorrow morning I am going to get up real early, 5am, to write while the air is still cool and fresh. I’m going to be Ernest Hemingway in Havana. Strong and disciplined.

I do this all the time when I need a boost. I find energy in the inspiration of others. I find someone to aspire to in every situation. Is this normal? Do you do it too? Who have you been today?

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Bus Crash in Bolivia (part 2)

Bolivian families, fondlers and carcasses; caught between dream and reality at thirteen thousand feet

The older driver crouched and crawled under the bus. He grabbed his partner’s legs and tugged. The younger driver slid out. His cheeks were puffed out and he looked up at his partner, wide-eyes. The axle had dropped half an inch short of crushing his skull.

I looked around at all the relieved faces, and saw two guys looking over. They had the lighter skin, longer hair and a rigidly proud way of holding themselves that told me they were not Bolivian, but Argentinian.

‘Wow,’ one of them mouthed to me. They walked over.

‘Argentinos?’ I asked.

‘Sí. Ingles?’ I nodded. ‘They keep speaking Quechua, but I think they say to get back on the bus. They say they call for a replacement bus.’

We chatted to the Argentinians as we got back on the coach. They were the only other foreigners, and probably the only others who spoke a word of English.

Not everyone got back on the coach. Many of the Bolivians dragged their luggage off the coach and to the side of the road, and stuck their thumbs out to hitch a ride. Whole families, small kids and old grandmas, piled into the backs of pickup trucks, crushed in on top of livestock and luggage. It was 2am. Even on the bus it was freezing. On the back of a truck, with the biting mountain air, the cold must have been unbearable. How much of a rush were they in?

And yet more and more of them got off the coach to hitchhike. Bolivians, especially in the more rural mountainous areas, speak mainly in Quechua (the old language of the Inca empire). They use very few words to communicate. Much of their message is conveyed in complete silence. No one had spoken it, but they all seemed to have a common understanding of what was going on. They clearly knew something we didn’t. I looked around for help or understanding. There was hardly anyone left on the bus. A man and woman were just taking their luggage from the overhead space to go and hitch a ride, and I asked them in broken Spanish why everyone was getting off. They looked at each other, pretending not to understand me, said something to me in Quechua, and got off the coach. Further back the Argentinians were stood up, looking equally confused.

‘It’s not coming, is it,’ I said.

They shook their heads and we all got off the coach.

This was the only road through to the next city, Oruro, so buses or trucks came through every fifteen or twenty minutes. But they would each only take two or three people, and never us.

Eventually it was just us, the Argentinians, and one last Bolivian family of two adults and four kids. It had been a long time since anything had come round the corner. It was about 4am and my bones ached from the cold. I chain smoked in the vain hope it would warm me up. The Argentinians offered us some maté, which helped a little, not a lot.

I heard a rumbling, and a huge white coach came round the corner. The Bolivian family waved it down and we all ran over. We were completely ignored in favour of the family and we once again slinked back off to the side of the road. The Bolivian family were told to climb into the luggage compartment. A pitch black hole above the back wheels and below the passengers. As they climbed in, led flat, the father turned round and whistled at us.

‘Es el último,’ he said.

‘It is the last,’ said the Argentinians.

‘The last bus,’ said me and Gabriel.

I don’t know how he knew, but Bolivians seem to have a sixth sense for this sort of thing.

After a lot of begging, pleading, and thanks mainly to the Argentinians, the driver eventually let us on the bus.

We were lying on the floor in the isle. Gabriel was in front of me. I was trying desperately to get to sleep. To get some rest. I was sliding about on the floor. I was back in that space between dream and reality. A hand was on my knee. Gripping it firmly and sliding up my leg. I slapped it. It retreated. Gabriel can be pretty weird. I started dozing off again. The hand was back, again sliding up my leg. Firm.

‘Fuck off Gabe.’

‘Fuck you.’

‘Get off my leg man, I’m knackered, really need some sleep.’

‘I’m not on your leg.’

‘Shut up.’

‘I swear, I’m not.’

Dream or reality? I slapped the hand hard.

‘Fuck off! Fuck off!’ I said.

The hand retreated. I looked up but couldn’t see a thing on the pitch black bus. The hand didn’t come back, but I never did get any sleep.

When we were dropped in Oruro we were told we had to pay 60 bolivianos — for the pleasure of lying on the floor and being groped by a stranger in the dark. After a long argument, we eventually handed over 30 (still an extortionate price) and the driver put it straight in his back pocket.

As I was putting my wallet away and mulling over our misfortune, the drivers were opening the rear luggage compartment. Out slid the Bolivian family. In slid two muscular Bolivian men. Behind them, a third man wheeled up and laid out four large wooden pallets. Panting and grunting came from the men inside. Out of the darkness, falling onto the first wooden panel with a thud, came a fully skinned cow carcass, red and pink and purple. Three more followed, each thudding onto the wooden pallets below.

Maybe 30 bolivianos and a little groping wasn’t too bad after all. On the cold, winding, mountainous roads, better a mystery fondler than a skinned carcass rolling up against you — Only in Bolivia would you have to make that concession.

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Bus Crash in Bolivia (part 1)

Bolivian families, fondlers and carcasses; caught between dream and reality at thirteen thousand feet

Gabriel had been asleep about an hour. I could smell the half-sleep that lingers on all over-night coaches. The restlessness resonated. I was just nodding off. Listening to one last song on my iPod. The music bridging the gap between dream and reality as my consciousness weaved back and forth between the two.

‘I said to Hank Williams, how lonely does it get?

Hank Williams hasn’t answered me yet

But I can hear him coughing all night long.’

A crunch! A jolt! A drop! and suddenly we were floating on air. Dream or reality? I jerked upright. The floating sensation still felt like an effect of the dream-state at first, but it quickly became obvious that the front axle had completely lost drive. You could feel it — there was no steer at all. BANG!

Everyone was stood up and looking around in confusion. Like me, they all seemed to be wondering whether this was still a dream. Next to me, Gabriel was shouting swear-words at random — FUCK, CUNT, SHIT! — as if cursing profusely was his natural shock-reflex. He was staring out the window, but could see only darkness.

Overnight coaches always have two drivers, who take it in turns at the wheel. The one still had his hands glued to the wheel in shock, the other stood up, slowly turned around and spoke in the clear and defined Spanish that typifies the Bolivian way of speaking. However, he didn’t need to speak slow and I didn’t need to utilise my shameful Spanish to understand what he asked of us, for everyone immediately started to move off the bus.

Me and Gabriel were just three rows back, so two of the first to step off the coach. As we did so we looked at what lay in front of us, and then at each other. As we watched the other passengers get off, we saw each and every one of them pull the exact same expression we had. Evidently, whether you are English or Bolivian, when you are confronted with the reality of your helplessness, your eyes open wide, your brow wrinkles and a childlike glaze comes across your face.

The first twelve feet of the coach had gone clean through a metal road barrier — clearly a very ineffective road barrier, I might add. Another six feet further on from the nose of the bus was a cliff edge, and a 400 foot drop.

It was cold. We were probably 4,000 metres up. About three hours northwest of Súcre — on our way to La Paz. It was 1am. The air is thin in Bolivia because of the altitude and the cold cuts through your clothes and gets into your bones. The drivers were talking between themselves and ignoring everyone else. Me and Gabriel both had our heads bowed and hands in our pockets, kicking a rock back and forth to keep warm and pass the time.

The drivers eventually decided on a course of action. One of them got on the bus and came back out with a tool box and a jack. The jack was tiny. Really tiny. I wouldn’t trust it to lift a Ford Fiesta. They placed the jack under the front axle of the seventy person coach and began cranking it up. As the jack reached its full height and dug into the gravel it looked like a breadstick holding up an elephant. Everyone was staring at the two drivers, and the two drivers were staring at each other, silently deciding who should climb under the ten tonne coach. The younger of the two got down on his hands and knees and crawled under. Once in place, led on his back, the other passed him his tools one by one.

THUD! Everyone gasped. The breadstick had snapped. The jack had shot off to the side and the coach had dropped. The driver had disappeared. ‘FUCKING FUCK!’ shouted Gabriel, succinctly and elegantly summing up what everyone else was thinking. Then everyone was silent. It was cold.

***

Part two coming soon.

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Pasternak, Steiner and the consolation of memory.

This is a story I heard being told by George Steiner, the essayist and philosopher, in an interview for a Dutch TV series called “Of Beauty and Consolation”, in which they discuss the importance of memory. I thought it was a story that deserved to be retold.

***

1937, the Soviet Writers Congress. It was the worst year. One of the worst years. Bang in the middle of the Great Purge. People disappeared like flies everyday.

Boris Pasternak, the great writer, is told “if you speak they arrest you, and if you don’t speak they arrest you — for ironic insubordination. There are 2,000 people at the event. It is a three day event. Just off stage stands Zjdanov, the Stalinist killer.

Every speech for the three days is thanks to brother Stalin, thanks to Father Stalin, thanks to the Leninist-Stalinist new model of truth — and not a word from Pasternak.

On the third day his friends said, “look, they are going to arrest you anyway, maybe you should say something for the rest of us to carry with us.”

He was well over six feet, incredibly beautiful, and when Pasternak got up, everyone knew. You could hear the silence across Russia.

And he gives a number. It was the number of a certain Shakespeare sonnet — of which Pasternak had done a translation which the Russians say, with Pushkin, is one of their greatest texts.

Sonnet 30.

They say the Russian translation is as beautiful.

“When to the sweet session of silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past.”

And the two thousand people stood up, and they recited it by heart — the Pasternak translation.

It said everything. It said: you can’t touch us; You can’t destroy Shakespeare; You can’t destroy the Russian language; You can’t destroy the fact that we know by heart what Pasternak has given us.

And they didn’t arrest him.

Well, even if the sons of bitches do arrest you — it’s too late. The people already have your treasure with them.

***

It is one of my favourite anecdotes of all time. Watch the full interview here.

Flaubert and the life of solitude.

Is the life of a dog worth living for a whore like Madame Bovary?

“That whore Emma Bovary will live forever, and I am dying like a dog.”

So said Gustave Flaubert as he lay on his deathbed, dying of stomach cancer. It is tough to know whether he loved or despised Emma Bovary, but what can be certain is that he was well aware he had created something immortal, and that he recognised the sacrifice it had taken him to do so.

I have just finished reading Madame Bovary for the first time, and I must say, it’s a bit of a downer from the off. It is a book of disappointment and regret. Of vanity and materialism. Of boredom and unfulfilled desire. It is a book, primarily, about the stupidity of bourgeois life.

Our protagonist is the bored wife of a boring doctor in a provincial town near Rouen. Her desires and illusions are bred of unbearable discontent with the tedium of life. Flaubert retains a neutral tone throughout; he doesn’t tell you that this bourgeois life is tedious, he doesn’t tell you that the desires of Emma are idiotic — he shows you, so that you come to know it. To feel it.

This knowing and this feeling stuck with me throughout reading the novel. More than this, it came to stick with me when I wasn’t reading the novel. I came to question the tedium of everything around me, to question my pretentious and unrealistic dreams. It bummed me out. So I decided to read a little about  Flaubert himself, and how he wrote the book.

It turns out he had much the same problem while writing the book that I had reading it.

He had already written one novel, The Temptations of St. Anthony, but it remained unpublished, thanks to his friend and literary helper, Louis Bouilhet, who bluntly told him it wasn’t good enough. Instead Bouilhet told Flaubert about a local occurrence that could make a good, cool, realistic novel — this was the ‘Bovary’ story.

Flaubert despised bourgeois society, the dull, petty, materialistic, cliché-ridden ordinariness of it all — but with the ‘Bovary’ story, he aimed to portray it objectively, realistically, coolly. It took him five years. He restricted himself to a simple and routine life in Rouen, living with his mother and niece, dedicating his life to the craft of writing — striving not for adventure or love, but stylistic perfection.

Writing in such an objective way about beings he despised was often a torture to him. He despised these people. God, how he would hate me, I thought. Then I read that when questioned about the origins of Emma Bovary, he would reply ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi!’ She represented much of his own inner torment. His repressed desires. The desires he sacrificed for a life of solitude and dedication to his craft.

He didn’t act on his desires, Emma Bovary did. They took different paths; Emma ignored reality while Flaubert examined it. Two different was of dealing with a shared feeling of discontent with the world that they saw around them. Ultimately they both died slow and painful death. Flaubert lives on through his work, but then again, so does Emma Bovary. Who is to say which is the right path.