Here’s the first chapter of a novel I’ve been writing for several millennia.  Its working title is ‘Leuka’, which is the name of the main character – or MC as Nanowrimo folk call it.  These people are scarily jargon-y, full of acronyms and abbreviations and expressions I can’t understand.  What is a ‘plot bunny’, for example?  I think we should be told.  Anyway, here it is.  Please read and comment:

Chapter 1 – Brown

Gene Rummy

There were 47 couples on the dance-floor that night. He had counted them all – or rather, not counted, exactly but ‘seen’ them in that way that autistic people do. Not that Leon was exactly autistic; he was far too connected; too engaged with other people, too emotional and simpatico. Leuka was watching him as he observed the dancers: in a moment he would notice her looking and would turn and mirror her smile, and perhaps they would dance. Twist. Or perhaps he would object that they would mess up the DNA of the dance floor and so they would have to wait for another couple to retire. Stick.

Leuka sighed.

‘What’s the matter?’ He turned to her now, a look of concern on his face – but suddenly, it felt ridiculous to explain. ‘Shall we dance?’ she said, and instead of arguing, he took her hand and let her lead him onto the floor where she supposed they made 48 couples now.

Twist – and bust.

That night in bed she lay and thought about the spiral of DNA; how a baby grows from a little knot inside, a knot tied, as it were, between seed and egg and how the wobbly ladders of DNA start to form inside the cage, to twist and climb and twirl and expand until the imprint of that person is everywhere – on every lip, every finger, every toe, on the nose and eyeball and intestines and hairs and everything. And once the knot is tied, it all starts to grow: not just the arms and legs but the stomach and buttocks and ribs and eyeballs and vagina and everything! It grows not by fits and starts but slowly, stealthily; secretly in the darkness of the womb. The eyes! She blinked as the pages of her book were going out of focus and tried to imagine the eyes growing – the jelly and the eyelids and retina and wide-open pupils, open wide in wonder at its growing world. She blinked again; there was an eyelash in her eye and she rolled her finger inside the eyelid to get it out. There it was, tiny like – what was it the poet said? the spine of a tiny fragile animal. Imagine, if just one tiny part of that tiny body failed to grow – just think of the problems that would cause! She wondered if there were children whose eyes or stomachs or hearts refused to expand at the same rate as the rest of them, and what would happen.

She thought about Leon’s eyes. They were large and brown; she thought they were brown, though she rarely noticed the colour of people’s eyes; like Maria’s, which were green. Leon thought that odd, but she couldn’t account for it. Perhaps she was too aware of the soul? ‘Thy face in mine eye, thine in mine appears.’ That poem had been read out at their wedding. She thought about their wedding tree, the one they’d been given and had planted in the garden of that house where they’d been married, as they had no garden of their own. She wondered how much it had grown. One day they would have to go back and look, maybe take a cutting. Once they were settled. If they ever were, if they could ever stop wandering and find a place of their own.

Leuka’s first word was hernia, or so she liked to tell people; though in reality it was more likely her seventh or her tenth or her twenty-first. The news was on in that cold bare vicarage where they lodged with the vicar and his wife while Luke was a curate. It would have been the radio news, and out came the sentence: President Truman has had treatment for a hernia. And in all that welter of words Leuka Farrell picked out just one, held it to her lips, swallowed – and repeated it. Hernia. Hernia-hernia-hernia. Hernia-her-her-hernia. She repeated it over and over, and once she had digested it, she put it next to other words, piling them up, laying them end to end like bricks.

Hernia-book. Look-hernia-look-book. Look-a-book.

Look-a-book was her first phrase – probably. Leon always said it’s a matter of interpretation and the parents decide which of the child’s indigestible sounds is actually their first word. What is a word, after all? In later years Leuka was to bang her head against the study of morphology which asks precisely that – and, like most philosophies, gives no answers.

In the beginning was the word.

Then Luke got his first parish, in a different part of London. The church was at one end of the street, the school which was Leuka’s eventual destination, at the other. The vicarage was a huge dark house at the back of the church and down the path between the two, came and went the flapping, crow-black figure of her father.

Leuka was just three when May was born; this tiny reminder of what she herself had once been. Squat and square with a frown below a fringe, Leuka’s dark hair contrasted with her sister’s almost white-blonde wisps. Looking over the cradle at the tiny scrap within in a yellow cellular blanket, she could not believe she herself had ever been so small.

Later when Ivy was born she felt the same sense of exclamation at how tiny she was. And yet how much Ivy had grown just from a knot; a globule no bigger than a gob of spit, spiralling outwards in 47 different ways.

Books and their worlds, their languages. How these are reality to her, how the ‘real world is pale.

Leuka’s name was an oddity. She had been named for a Danish ancestor of Luke’s, but by some blunder the two vowels had been swapped round on the birth certificate. Luke and Jeanne, ever-timid in the face of authority, baulked at the idea of complaining and, rather than cause their child problems in later life, they adapted their spelling to the mistake. No-one in England knew any different, anyway. When she got older, Leuka tired of explaining it and developed a sort of telegraphic answer to questions: ‘Danish ancestry – name spelled wrong on birth certificate’, as though that were her telegram to the world. But she secretly enjoyed the frequent puns on her name and eventually came up with a few of her own, leukaemia being her favourite, at least until Grandma Trentham succumbed to that particular scourge.

They lived in the church, or so the children at school thought; Leuka liked to indulge them with tales of sleeping in the pews and eating round the altar: washing in the font. It all hung together. From a young age Leuka was able to walk down the one-end street to school on her own, her mother’s waving figure growing smaller and the school gates growing larger with every step. At school she chatted to her friends in a dialect Jeanne couldn’t understand; at home she reverted to her native tongue; and in church she spoke an altogether more ancient language: the language of God. You couldn’t use the school tongue in church: once her Sunday School teacher Mrs Kimber who was about a hundred years old and wore a hat like a ripe tomato, told them they must never ever say Cor blimey because it meant God blind me and one day God might think you meant it. Leuka did not believe her.

The church and vicarage were built of the same Victorian red-brick – consubstantial, she might have called them, if she’d known the word. Luke had taken Holy Orders a few years earlier and this broken, cold relic of Victorian glory was his reward. As a child Leuka was obscurely aware of her parents’ struggles and tried with her childish strength to fill the gap, always aware of falling far short. On Sundays the church was dusty and cold and the organ piped a high-up, out-of-reach tune. The sparse congregation all sat in the same place and wore the same hats and coats every week. Old-style coats and hats. Leuka sang the hymns without looking at the book. She was very bored by church, especially evensong and Matins: she was beginning to chafe at having to go to church in a smart suit three times a day. In evensong she would ask during the Nunc Dimittis, ‘Why aren’t we going?’

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…

At school the milk comes every day, a child-size bottle for each of them. They can hear the clinking in the corridor, and then the milkman comes in and puts the crate up on top of the cupboard to sit until break-time. Leuka doesn’t like cream on her milk but Jeanne smacks her lips whenever she has it. It’s to make up for the war, when they didn’t have any and the milk was like water. One wet Monday, when they would have to stay indoors for break, a boy bangs into the cupboard and rocks it. For a moment the whole class holds its breath, even the teacher – and before anyone can stop it, the milk crate comes crashing down from the top of the cupboard; the bottles smash and the milk leaps out of them and spreads everywhere like soft, white fire.

In assembly the headmaster is called Mr Harvey and he calls the reception class ‘the titches’. He is huge and has a big voice which travels all the way to the bottom of the hall and back again.

There are games at the end of the year. Leuka likes spontaneous games but is wary of organised ones, sensing that she will somehow fail. The games she likes best are the ones she is in charge of; but with these games the teachers are in charge.obscure rules everyone else seems to understand without being told

There is a race. Leuka finds herself entered for this, though she doesn’t understand why: she doesn’t know what a race is. She is standing in a field in front of some white lines: the lines are like a stave of music, and to either side of her are other girls of her own age. They all seem to know what to do and they are all looking determined. They all have shorts on, shorts which they knew where to find, and matching t-shirts and plimsolls and socks. Leuka stands looking into the distance; then she goes into a dream. Somewhere in the distance a whistle blows, but she pays it no attention, just weaves it somewhere into the story of her dream. When she comes to, all the other girls have run off into the distance, their heels like little grace-notes skipping between the lines – and now, like the sound ‘coming on’, she can hear the roar of the crowd cheering – and all of a sudden, the realisation clicks into place: you are in this too. And slowly, belatedly, she picks up her feet and starts to run. She gathers speed and runs between the lines as she has seen the other girls do, all the way to where the teachers are waiting in the distance – and when she gets there the tape is lying forgotten on the floor, all the other girls are being congratulated, and Leuka looks up at the faces. But no-one sees. Back in the classroom, they are all given prizes – red or blue balls. All except Leuka. She goes round the room asking each of them if they will share with her, but no-one will. she doesn’t et the prize

Soon they are going to move house. Leuka begs to be able to see the new place and is eventually allowed to ride in a parishioner’s black Humber, all the way round the terrible North Circular Road. She is warned over and over that she will be sick and so she is determined not to be, no matter how nauseous the exhaust-fumes make her. At first she examines the car, exclaiming at its little indicator lights which flip out like tiny aircraft wings, but after a while she grows bored and stares out of the window at the lorries and cars.

‘There’s our friend again,’ says her father.

‘Oh, do you know him?’ asks Leuka, surprised. She has long since learned that not all adults in the world know each other.

The men laugh. ‘No,’ says the man who is driving, ‘we just call him that because we keep overtaking each other.’

Though she doesn’t like them laughing at her, she is interested in them using words in that sideways smiling kind of way, not really meaning what they should.

When they get to the new house it is bare and cold but Leuka doesn’t mind because it is so empty and unused. She runs all over it, taking possession of its bare rooms, its echoing floors and its dusty attic. The attic is intriguing: their other house hasn’t got one, and Luke says it’s where the servants would have lived ‘in the old days.’ The garden is very big and overgrown but the man who let them in says they will ‘strip it’. Leuka thinks that would be a sad thing to do. There’s a garage as well, at the back, though Jeanne and Luke don’t have a car yet. She wants to know which room will be hers. Luke says they’ll have to see, though the room at the top of the stairs at the back will be his and Jeanne’s and it will be decorated ‘by the parish’ along with the hall and stairs and the front downstairs study.

On the journey back Leuka dozes and then wakes while the traffic jerks around the North Circular once more. She arrives home in triumph, having taken possession of the house ahead of her mother and sister.

It’s an age before they move, and when they do the house is still bare and empty though some parts have been decorated and there are carpets on the stairs and landing. Leuka shows May all over it and while the removal men bring in the furniture they play in the wild, overgrown garden. That night when they go to sleep they can see the planes coming in to land one by one through the bare windows.

Kirk out

Cold, Clubbers, Clobber and Syriza

What a horrid cold and wet time was had by all, standing at the Clock Tower in the wind and rain to get people to support Syriza.  As I cycled into town, the wind at my back serving only to remind me what hard work it was going to be coming home, I thought ‘Why am I doing this?  Why am I giving up two hours of my Sunday to stand in town freezing my fingers and tingling my toes?

I’ll be honest – I hate being cold and wet.  Some people don’t seem to mind it: I’m constantly astonished by how many brave souls you see confronting the elements in the most basic of outfits.  I’m not even talking about clubbers here – clubbers are a whole new level of crazy in this regard – I just mean ordinary shoppers who face a day like today in only a hoodie or a thin jacket.  Whereas I, in thick jumper, scarf, cagoul, hat and gloves, shivered for an hour and a half and then I’d had enough.

Maybe it’s cars that make people behave like this?  If you just step outside your house and into a warm car, and thence into a warm shopping-centre spending minimal time on the street I guess it’s hardly worthwhile getting togged up for the cold and wet.  Whereas some of us slogged home into a fierce wind getting extremely wet but arriving home with a warm glow of self-righteousness.

And yet in spite of the cold it was encouraging to see how many people stopped to sign the petition and have a chat.  The level of support for Syriza was very gratifying, especially since at the beginning we were wondering how aware of the situation people were.  Yet many of them stopped, appended signatures and took stickers and left some left messages of support.

I think people in general should get a medal for doing these things in the name of democracy.  We should celebrate those who, like Mags of the Green Party, tramp the streets to give out leaflets or stand on freezing corners with cold petitions – or just get out and talk to people about issues they are concerned with.  It’s good to know that there are still people prepared to brave the elements in order to campaign for the things they believe in.


Kirk out

Is Your Life Boring?

Lots of people think their life is boring.  I used to think my life was boring – not in terms of day-t0-day conversation but in terms of material for writing.  I used to think I’d have to dream up some exciting life-events in order to write a memoir or transform my experience into fiction, otherwise it’d just be dull.  So I’d try to beef things up a bit; make everything more exciting: turn a mild accident into a life-threatening condition; a birth into a near-miscarriage or a kitchen mishap into a complete disaster.  To some extent this is what writers do; they heighten experience and make it more dramatic: but lately I’m starting to re-evaluate my thinking here.  Because when Thingy – the husband who cannot be named – started his whole gender-thing, as well as all the problems and hassles it gave me, it also gave me something sensational to write about.  For once I could write from experience about something eye-catching and dramatic; something unusual and exciting that had happened in my life.  And so I did: I put it in my memoir and I wrote a couple of short stories – and I got the Mslexia blog residency.

So far so good.  But I’m starting to question whether I really needed that sensational material – or whether what I really needed was the confidence to think that my life was actually interesting just as it was.  Because I truly believe that all lives are interesting.

‘Pfft!’ you may think.  ‘That’s all very well for a writer, but what if you work in a dead-end job, stacking shelves in a supermarket?  What if you can’t afford to go out at night and your only entertainment is terrestrial TV?’

Well – I guess I’ve done my fair share of dead-end jobs.  The worst one was working in the airport shops – not even the duty free ones, just the boring land-side ones, where arrogant businessmen and demanding models were my customers and I had to work twelve-hour shifts and stand for most of that time.  It was horrid.  At least if you work behind a bar or in a regular shop you get your regular customers and you can have a chat, but at Heathrow you hardly ever see the same person twice.  Though we did have a rather flirty businessman who came through every week on his way to the States.

But I digress.  The thing is, I’ve actually managed to make that job sound interesting because of the people I met and the things I saw.  But say I was stacking shelves – well, I’ve never stacked shelves, so I don’t know for sure, but I guess you’d be working with people and you could talk to them and maybe talk to the customers and notice things around you like which products sell out faster than others.  The trouble with being a drone is that nobody wants your opinion on anything – so I guess the good thing about being a writer is that you get to give your opinion on just about anything that passes through your mind.

This is turning out to be a very rambling post and i’m not sure that I’m reaching any conclusion.  Somebody tell me what I mean, please!

Kirk out

Harry Potter and the Dramatic Present

Does anyone else listen to ‘In Our Time’ on Radio 4?

It’s a programme about historical figures who have had an effect on our own times, and although I find Melvyn Bragg as irritating as the next person, sometimes the topics are interesting so I keep the radio on after ‘Today’ has finished.  And yet all too often I end up turning it off in sheer irritation.  Why?  One reason only – and that is, because his guests will insist on using the dramatic present.

And what is the dramatic present? I hear you cry.  Well, it’s the use of the present tense to make a story seem more immediate and compelling – as though it’s happening now, rather than in the past.  A good writer – or storyteller – can use this to great effect.  Shakespeare does it in a number of places, such as here where Ophelia is describing Hamlet’s madness, shifting between past and present as she sinks into the story and pulls herself out again:

“He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being: that done, he lets me go . . ..”
(Ophelia in Act One, scene 1 of Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

That is what I call a good use of the dramatic present.  Not that it is necessary to use it in order to involve the reader in a story: I may be wrong, but in the entire HP series I don’t think J K Rowling once uses the dramatic present – and yet nothing could be more thrilling, more tense and more involving than these novels.  (Although I suppose you could say Harry does get some dramatic presents: the sword of Griffyndor, the cursed locket, the snitch with writing on it, the invisibility cloak…)  But whether it’s Harry Potter in the past or Ophelia in the present, these are worth a million academics going on about how Paracelsus is born in such and such, grows up in such a place and does this, that and the other.  All that does is to dull the mind; it’s like jargon, a knee-jerk use of language as a kind of shorthand for actually bothering to describe something effectively.  I wish they’d stop it.

A lot of historical programmes are annoying, now I come to think of it.  I find Simon Schama very irritating, and as for that woman who does the stuff about the Tudors, Lucy Worsley, I find her simpering, smirking flirtation with the camera utterly unbearable to watch – which is a pity because I suspect that without it, the programmes might be quite interesting…

Kirk out

Do They Or Don’t They Shoot Horses?

There’s been a lot of debate over on the Mslexia blog about how people should respond to trans partners.  It seems to be split between those who think the trans person has a right to self-determination and that others should just accept it, and those who sympathise more with the partner.

I guess this is fairly typical when things happen with couples.  When a couple breaks up (not that we are) their friends usually line up on one side or the other.  A similar thing has happened with a number of couples we know – and often you can end up not seeing one partner at all.  On the other hand, I know some couples who have managed to stay friends and even come to parties and dinners together as if they were still a couple.

Anyway, I’m really pleased that so many people have taken the time to comment on this thread and I hope it continues.  Even hostile and critical comments are good in a way though at the time they are hard to read.

I’m also pleased some of you have taken the time to comment on my story ‘They Shoot Horses.’  What do you think of the title?  It has been suggested that as a reference to the film it’s misleading, but I want to keep it because I think what I’m doing is a modern ‘take’ on the film.

If you haven’t seen it, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ is set in the ‘thirties when dance marathons were a kind of cruel lottery for desperate people.  In my story reality TV is also a chance for the poor and desperate to break out of their situation – but it’s a kind of Kafkaesque scenario because the queue never comes to an end.  They keep hoping it will, but there’s always another twist, always another corner to turn.  Maybe I need to make that a bit clearer?

Comments welcome.

Kirk out

They Shoot Horses – Final Instalment

I’ve enjoyed reading your comments about this, so keep them coming and let me know what you think of the ending.  For instalments one to three, please scroll down.


A minute or two later the lights stop flickering and stay on; and straight away the queue halts, the shouting begins and Q-runners charge up and down yelling ‘Who goes home?’ The rest of us find a spot to sleep and get out food, drinks, blankets; whatever we need. I find a patch on the steps of the arcade and lay out my sleeping-bag. I spin out my evening ritual for as long as I can; slowly getting out my sandwiches, my water-bottle, my reading-book, my diary and pillow, and when all that’s done I sit on the pillow, trying to get comfortable before I order my cocoa. The night-time negotiations are still going on around me, and will continue for a while. It’s hard to find a Q-runner you can trust: the best way is to pay something in advance and the rest in the morning, so that they don’t abscond. Q-runners are supposed to be monitored, but that’s a joke: prices are rising all the time and if a runner absconds there’s nothing you can do. But if one of us doesn’t pay up, we’re history.

When it’s all over I make a start on my sandwiches and pop across to the vendor to get my evening cocoa. Then I settle down and get out my phone.

During the first week or two, I actually had visitors; real flesh-and-blood people dropping by to wish me well, to bring me food or presents. But it’s been a while now; and each day it gets harder to stay on. You start to feel like everyone’s forgotten you – and so I look forward all the more to my messages. I settle as comfortably as I can, take a sip from the cocoa and swipe my inbox. As I thought, two of the three calls are junk, but the third is from Julie. Julie! My heart gives a little skip as I swipe the icon, and there she is, smiling and waving: I smile and wave too, even though I know she’s just a group of pixels. Underneath there’s a tiny captcha: it’s only two words but I play them over and over.

Nearly there!

Julie was always crazy-optimistic.

The bars and restaurants are lighting up and people are moving: office workers going home after a drink, couples coming out for the night. In an hour or so the clubs will wake up and the muffled heart of dance-trance will beat under our feet. I can feel it when I lie down like the thump of an insane idea: boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom, boom-boom-boom. Friday nights are the worst: we get kicked, pissed on and even vomited over. I send up a prayer of thanks that today is Monday.

The evening passes: people eat, drink, read, play games or watch the Screens. As I’m finishing my cocoa the siren goes off loud enough to pierce your ears. Ten o’clock. My sleeping-bag feels thinner every day, the closer it gets to winter.

I curl up as small as I can on the steps. There’s a heating-vent, so I shuffle closer to that; then I lay my head on my pillow and try to sleep. Maybe tomorrow we’ll catch a glimpse of the Studio. Maybe I could even get in! Just think – tomorrow night I could be sleeping in the corridor! I wriggle a little to stop the steps cutting into my ribs, and hope for a better night. The screens are softly crooning; trying to sell us Sweet Dreams as we go to sleep…

They Shoot Horses – Part 3

Here’s part three of this dystopian short story.  If you missed parts one and two then scroll down to find them.  And please leave me your comments below.

I drift off for a moment in the quiet – but then a shout wakes me up: we’re moving again, and if I don’t shift I’ll lose my place. I walk a dozen paces and now I’m in sight of a Screen once more: with a sigh I put my case down and sit on it. I finish my sandwiches and lob the wrapper at the nearest rubbish-chute. We stay here for a long time: I’m tired, but even closing my eyes feels like a rare privilege.

Soon it’ll be dark. The evenings are the worst time – during the day you can kid yourself that life has some kind of purpose and that you’re headed somewhere, albeit slowly and painfully. But the evenings are when I miss home the most; I miss my kitchen and my living-room and my cat. I wonder who’s living there now. I hope they’re looking after the place. I miss my friends, too. Sometimes I look at the stray cats who scavenge in our rubbish-chutes, and my heart contracts. I would give them my scraps but if you get caught, they throw you out and shoot the cat for good measure. Stray pets are vermin now.

Feeling bored, I take out my phone to have a quick peek. 3 new calls, it says – and I feel suddenly happy. In the end, it’s those small things that keep you going. But I must save this treat for later: so I put the phone away and glance up at the sky. It’s dusk now, and tinged with an echo of sunset. As soon as it’s properly dark the queue will stop; and then I’ll look at my messages.

Sometimes I pretend that dinner is a three-course meal with wine: some days I dream up a whole menu and imagine the security guards are waiters and I’m snapping my fingers at the nearest one and saying ‘A bottle of the ’42 Merlot!’ Then I find my neighbour staring at me, wondering why I’m chuckling. In reality dinner is another pack of damp sandwiches. After dinner I have my treat of the day; a cup of cocoa from the vendors. It’s not as good as the stuff I could get from a Q-runner, but it’s not bad. I never could go to sleep without a hot drink.

Everyone’s glancing up at the flickering street-lights. When they come on properly we’ll stop moving; then the shouting will start, as those that can afford it yell for a Q-runner to sleep here while they go home. It’s not cheap, but at least they can sleep in their own beds.

I wish I could.

Oops, Mr Wordsworth, Where’s Me Daffodils?

Oh dear oh dear oh dear.  Red faces all round this morning – and why? I hear you cry.  Well, I checked into one of my follower’s blogs – whenever anyone starts to follow me, I always take a look at their blog, partly because I want to reciprocate and partly because I like to know who my followers are – and lo, it came to pass that a lot of this blogger’s posts were in Hindi.  Now, my Hindi is fairly minimal.  I used to know some of the letters and to recognise the major vowels, but even that knowledge has gone now, so I headed for the one post that was in English.  It was a poem.

Oh, dear.  I thought.  It’s not a very good poem.  They really shouldn’t use this archaic language: they should try to speak in their own voice and in modern language.  I was totally unimpressed by the poem – and then when I got to the bottom I found it was written by one William Wordsworth.  Now, the question is this: was I justified, within the context of my expectations (ie that it was a poem by the blogger) in not recognising a great poem?  Or is it that I am incapable of recognising great poetry when I see it?  Or, alternatively, does the recognition of greatness depend largely on the context in which you read it?

That said, it is true that some of Wordsworth’s output was utter tosh, but I’m not sure this applies to the poem under consideration, A Night Piece:

To be sure, it’s not the greatest thing he ever wrote: no brilliant imagery flashes upon the inward eye, but what is true is that I failed to read this poem with the attention I would have given it, had I known it was by Wordsworth.  And there’s the rub, isn’t it?  Unless you already know it’s worth the effort, you don’t pay close attention.  And that is why it is so hard for poets who don’t fit the zeitgeist or who don’t immediately leap out and grab ya.  Because to appreciate most poetry you have to pay attention: close attention.  You have to pay a lot of attention, and that’s true whether you’re reading it off the page or listening to a performance.  However, a performance is a much better way of getting your work across as a poet, because you can bring out the rhythm, the rhymes, the intonation etc etc and if you’re any good at it you can get people listening and keep them listening.

On the other hand when I went to hear Ted Hughes read, everyone was listening just as hard as they could, and he was crap.

By which I mean he was crap at reading his own work, not that his work was crap.

Kirk out

They Shoot Horses – Second Instalment

My pocket vibrates. I could take a look, but checking my phone is all I’ve got for a social life, so I save it for the evenings. I got a lot of messages at first but now they’ve dropped off: there are only so many times you can say ‘good luck’, after all. So I leave the phone where it is.

Sometimes when I think of the past, I see it like a film; one long, uncut strip of celluloid, winding all the way from the opening credits right up to the scene I’m in now. And as I rewind and watch the film of my life I can’t help wishing I could edit out all the bad bits. I wish I was the director as well as the star; I wish I could yell Cut! and get rid of all the pain and the disappointment, leaving them coiled on the floor like the curls of hair when I used to get a haircut. I wish I could do the same with this queue, too: just snip out whole loops and cut to the chase: to my big scene when I’m in the studio and standing in front of the camera. Because right now, the closest I get to a camera is when some queue-tourist comes along to film us all: something to take home and show the family; to look at and tell themselves, maybe next year…

The queue-tourists are the only people sadder than we are: I guess that’s some consolation. Now a movement ripples through the line like food through the belly of a snake. I pick up my bag and wait for the movement to reach me: I wonder if it’s a real one this time. I can see the people ahead shuffling forward a few yards, but by the alchemy of queues, all the space gets gradually squeezed out; and when it reaches me, there’s only room to take one pace forward. One! I measure the step like a Roman soldier and put down my bag with a sigh.

There were Romans here once. Led by Claudius, they stammered their way up from Kent and smashed the local armies; then they built city walls and drains and a temple. There’s not much of it left now; it’s all broken up, just a few chunks left like teeth in a crone’s mouth. Now all we’ve got is a ragged town with the monorail running through the middle like a line through a careless piece of homework.

It must have been just after the war when they put up the first Screen. Just for a while, they said, to cheer people up. But they never took it down, and before we knew it, every town in the country had its own Screen; loud and bright, sweet-smelling and seductive. They slapped our first one on top of the Roman baths. Before long there was one on every street corner; and then they started to seep into our homes. The Screens were wired right into the walls, so there was no need to switch them on or boot them. You couldn’t switch them off either; but no-one told you that. All new homes had Screens fitted as standard and some dispensed with windows altogether. Why bother with grey skies when you can have Kilimanjaro? Who wants to see the street when you can have the Sea of Tranquillity?

But there were side-effects which no-one could have predicted. There was no longer any need for journalists, as the Street-Brothers recorded ‘life as it happened’. There were no longer any film-stars or musicians either; and no need for the unemployed to stand in line at the Job Satellite: for the two had been neatly fused into one and both problems solved by The Queue.

There were some refuseniks of course: there always are. Some people wouldn’t have a Screen in their home at all, like old Mrs Briggs who lived opposite us. But these people soon died and the rest eventually caved, because if you didn’t have a Screen nothing else worked: not the kettle or the fridge or the washing-machine or the central heating or the music centre. It was the latest unmissable deal: a holistic and totally compliant house.

We’ve shuffled forwards a few yards now and I’ve fetched up outside Deb-E-nams. There are a load of drones jiggling about in the window; one of them looks very smug in the latest smart-suit with built-in Screen. ‘A must-have for all executives,’ the label says.

I’m hungry now, so I open my ever-chill bag and take out a limp sandwich. I still have a few packs left, but once they’re gone I’ll have no option but to buy. It’s not finding food that’s the problem: there are burger stands, sweet booths and vendors who work the queues, and if you need anything else you can use a Qrunner. No, it’s the cost. I’ve tried to budget for everything I might need, but it’s impossible because you never know how much things are going to be. Prices go up all the time, and what can we do? We’re the ultimate captive market.

As I bite into my soggy sandwich, I realise we’ve hit a Blind Spot. There aren’t many left now of these spots where you can’t see the Screens and they can’t see you; so I make the most of it. These are the only few moments of quiet I get in the day: and it’s only now that you realise just how loud the adverts are. The ‘Q-people’ get more adverts than everyone else: ads for the booths, the burger-bars, the shops and the Q-runners. I feel sorry for the runners, though: they’re the only people here more desperate than we are.

They Shoot Horses

I thought we’d have a story today.  This the beginning of one of my stories set in a vaguely futuristic age when TV is the only game in town.

They Shoot Horses


Queue is not a remotely adequate word – but it will have to do. I had never seen anything like this queue, though I could have queued for England at one time: I mean, when you add it all up – the Post Office, the airport, the bus-stop, the doctor’s, the taxi-rank – it can seem like your whole life is just one long line. But this queue is like a fourth dimension; it winds around the city, coiling in and out and squeezing it like a giant snake. I felt like Jonah inside the whale, only instead of a whale it was a vast boa constrictor which strangled the city in its coils. I had no idea where I was; time after time I thought we were close, but then we shuffled round a corner and I could see the queue stretching away into the distance.

Nobody spoke, and after a while I gave up trying to make conversation. Some people would smile at you but most wouldn’t: we weren’t people to them, just competition. Some of the younger women tried to be pally, but I knew they were just after information. Most of us kept to ourselves.

There was no need for supervision, although a few guards stood here and there with machine-guns dangling off their shoulders. But mostly the queue policed itself: any pushing or shoving was dealt with pronto by throwing the pusher out and sending them to the back of the queue. When you think of what most of us had sacrificed in order to be here, it just wasn’t worth it.

The hardest thing was to keep yourself busy. There were screens every few yards to entertain us, but more and more of the ‘entertainment’ was adverts. So I kept occupied by singing in my head and running through my lines to make sure I had them straight. I could do this for hours, even though I knew I’d probably never get to see a camera or say my few lines to a waiting world. Like everyone else I stayed. We stayed because there was nothing else. Queuing was all we had.

It gave you plenty of time to think. In the first few days I was impatient: stamping my feet and checking my watch – but after a while I gave it up. It wasn’t that it was futile: it’s futile to get impatient in a traffic jam – but here it was more than futile; it was out of place, irrelevant. Impatience lost all meaning in the queue.

I keep active. First thing in the morning, I do some exercise – jogging on the spot, stretching, twisting and touching my toes. My neighbours used to laugh at me but now they don’t. Sometimes they even join in and while it lasts we’re almost friends.

Then I have breakfast. I take a long time over this, even though it’s only water and bread or a few biscuits. And then the day begins.

During the long hours when the queue doesn’t move at all, I start to question everything. How did I get here? Where did it all start? Where am I going? – the questions go round and round, and I don’t find any answers. But it takes me back to a time before the queue, and that’s a good thing. Because when the queue stays put for hour after hour like a sleeping snake and you can’t help looking ahead every minute to see if it’s shifting, and it isn’t; when you start to feel like you’re stuck here outside Lew-S forever with all the shoppers looking down on you like the gods surveying the damned – that’s when you want to jack it all in. And that’s why you must remember.

You must remember what it was like before the queue.