Inch Forward To A Metric Language

In Tom Sharpe’s grotesque yet hilarious novel The Throwback, the protagonist Lockhart must find his natural father and, in order to fully meet the terms of his grandfather’s will, flog the man to within an inch of his life. With a suspect at hand and gagged, the officiators of the will begin to debate the practical meaning of the will’s instructions.

‘An inch of life,’ said Dr Magrew, ‘leaves us in fact two inches to play with, one before death and one after.’

After much humorous discussion, the solution is reached, and a crime scene outline is drawn on the wall around the soon-to-be victim, at the precise distance of one inch from the body.

‘Lockhart, my boy, you may go ahead and flog the wall up to the pencil line and you will have flogged the man to within an inch of his life.’

An inch of his life. Don’t give an inch. To inch our way forward. Inch by inch. In these metric times, though time itself is not yet that, perhaps these Imperial nouns and verbs should give way to their modern, metric descendants.

Lockhart must thrash the man to within a centimetre of his life, never giving a centimetre. A centimetre is shorter than an inch, we have short-changed our language, diminished the story, perhaps we should have used an exact conversion. We 2.54-centimetre our way forward to a solution, 2.54-centimetres by 2.54-centimetres. Taking the definition of a metre from the 17th General Conference on Weights and Measures, we can even say that Lockhart must flog his father to within 0.0254 of the distance travelled by light in a vacuum during the time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.

Completely modern and scientific language. Progress. On second thoughts, maybe not.

Perfect Pitch

There’s a tragic symmetry to the receptions that greet both ends of a housing project – fêted inauguration, fated implosion. The violent end becomes a spectator sport suffused with blood-lust, a way of forgetting the collective embarrassment. Anything goes in a crowd.

Hope was there at the beginning, as too were financial constraints, the convenience of easy solutions and relief of an imminent end – all cast aside by a willingness to believe, or self-deceive. Then that hope became Hype, and the belief lost all sense of self and together they spawned hubris.

High-concept sketches nonchalantly scrawled in thick, black crayon were the kindling, and when elaborated in structurally-benign balsa wood models the metaphorical became literal. Each artwork came wrapped in seductive writing that spun a carefully-calibrated narrative – a soothing emollient to smooth over the rough spots of groupthought.

Others demand more, and are given it. The full graphical arsenal is deployed – artists’ impressions of gleaming buildings, sweeping pathways and impeccable grass. Perhaps followed by CGI visualisations that take the viewer on an effortless stroll through the estate, a beatific vision of the life they could lead. On day one the idyll might exist. But for how long will it remain? The odds are not favourable. What is more, there is non-virtual footage that insists on proving the point. But that comes later, at the end, and too late, it should be there at the beginning, a counterpoint to the utopian propaganda.

So, let the city-planners see more – the ghost of buildings-future. Let them watch the rough-and-tumble of reality played out over time, and do it virtually, without ever risking a brick. Hand over these pitch-perfect images to a crack team of the clumsy and disinterested, the careless and vindictive, and the demolition man and graffiti artist, then wait.

The first thing to go? The cartoonish weather of a perfect yellow disk on uniform blue – almost perverse to include it for buildings in the UK, even the ugliest place can be bleached to freshness by an intense, summer’s sun. The true test of the building’s character is found in the desolation of a thunderstorm or underneath the chromatic monotony of clouds – variations on a theme of grey – to which the blocks of flats match perfectly to create senses as muted as the palette.

Fast-forward through time, through the daily wear and tear of existence, and opening-day show homes are forgotten. Their once blindingly-white walls are now a dulled and off-putting cream, persistently stained with brown streaks of the rusty rainwater forever dribbling from the porous gutters. Green moss sprouts here and there, adding an organic trim, but one that’s sadly unwelcome. Within the reaches of idle hands – for he’s here too – urban murals have occupied the inviting blank canvas of off-white wall and in turn this erstwhile art has itself been defaced by the encrypted squiggles of tag graffiti.

On the other side of the wall a hooded figure sets his back to the dysfunctional CCTV camera and unleashes a stinking, liquid Slinky down the cracked, concrete steps of the stairwell. Its progress is caught in freeze-frame by the half-hearted fluorescent lights, which seem to be forever on the verge of getting going, but don’t. Come the evening the remaining strands of piss will have frozen and sent an elderly resident tumbling in the darkness, the lights by then given up. Skull split and leaking, his blood will add a welcome touch of colour to the forgettable shade of concrete. The steps it seems, though half-crumbled, remain hard enough to break both bone and brain. They’ll break more than that yet.

In the outdoor gloom, the three healthy children propelling the roundabout at gleeful speeds have been replaced man-for-man by older, more sullen sorts who insist on keeping a stationary, furtive council on the rusting, circular steelwork. Of the three swings adjacent, only one remains operational. One dangles forlornly at half mast, and the last is no longer what it was, its seat long-since propelled through a nearby window. The window, too, is no longer that, but mottled chipboard.

Fast forward now. Show more and scratch. Fast forward. Play. Forward, we, go, backward.

Yellow-hatted men have taken to assaulting the tower blocks with probing drills so as to infiltrate these concrete skeletons with mile upon mile of cable. It must be hooked up, every room, every corridor, every shaft must be connected, the building must be riddled with power. And then the lights go on and it’s a derby. The crowd gasps and cheers even as the dust rushes towards them. Eyes shut, lights out now and everybody home. Brush off the evidence and awake to euphoric hangover, then think.

Clear the rubble and begin again. Eyes open, brew the tea and whistle. A perfect pitch.

The Final Word

FREE FICTION! FREE FICTION! FREE FICTION! Now that I have grabbed your attention in a most indecorous manner, I would actually like to offer you some free fiction.  Mine, as it happens. Some time ago I wrote about a piece of innovative fiction that I submitted to a competition run by Diagram Magazine. Now that the competition has run its course, I’m making my story available here for everyone to download via the link just below.

The Final Word by Andrew Cookson

The story is called The Final Word and could be described as an intellectual, satirical detective story, presented through non-standard narrative means. I would love to hear your feedback, either as a comment below or via email here. To give you a taste, here is the first page.

THE FINAL WORD

You know what advice I’d give to people, if I could, one piece of advice so that they’d never be convicted of a crime? Don’t do anything out of the ordinary. And that’s it. If you have a daily routine, stick to it. Religiously. That way there’s nothing to explain. That’s my advice – never, ever leave yourself with something to explain.

J. Smith, on his release from prison, after spending 40 years inside for a crime he did not commit.

You know what makes an epistolary novel unbelievable? When none of the letters go missing. I wish I lived in a world like that. And why do we only see the relevant letters? If you want to show a person’s life through their letters, why don’t we see them all? The utility bills, the flyers for delivery pizza firms, letters addressed to previous tenants and the rest. Just imagine now, doing the same with the modern day equivalent – a novel told through an exchange of emails. A festival of badly-written notes, carelessly devoid of grammar, baffling and patchy capitalisation, unspellchecked spelling, all bookended by an awkard and often incongruous approach to personal formality. Not to mention the deluge of spam from online casinos and drug vendors. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea after all.

C. Johnson, prominent literary critic and neophyte blogger.

The Theft of Art as Satire

Metal left out in the open air is fair game it seems – electricity cables on the railway tracks, copper roof cladding, public works of art – the theft of any of them reprehensible, but it’s the last which hurts the most. The financial considerations aside, we know that the cables and the roof can be replaced, yet once Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture Two Forms (Divided Circle) was stolen, melted down and sent through the cruel diode of entropy, we know something special and intangible has been lost forever.

Two Forms (Divided Circle) by Barbara Hepworth

Two Forms (Divided Circle) in happier times.

The theft of public art is the theft of old family photographs, of heirloom jewellery and holiday knickknacks, and the theft of these items is more than the theft of the object alone, it’s the theft of our memories and our private heritage. You might say that if these items are valued only for the memories they represent, then why isn’t the memory alone sufficient?

Memories require prompts if they are not to dissipate into hazy recollections of once-had experiences, and and even if they didn’t, the recall is sweetened by the tangibility of these physical prompts. Where the theft of an heirloom marks the loss of private heritage, that of a public work of art threatens our shared heritage.

There’s little sense that can be made of it; as pointless to ask the petty thief why he doesn’t respect the privacy of the homeowner, as it is the art thief about his conscience. Our concerns are sadly orthogonal to theirs.

Any of these losses are upsetting then, but the only solace I can take, the only reinterpretation of those acts that might yield something of value, is to say: what if we view the theft of art as an act of political satire and an opportunity to reflect?

That there have been economic troubles recently hardly seems worth repeating, it’s been the backdrop to our news for five years now. What is newsworthy is that the economy continues to stumble – any slight rise is followed shortly thereafter by another lumbering, ungainly fall. The possibility of a full and complete recovery in the near future hardly seems plausible. Rather the question is, what will be the next contagion?

As a remedy, we’ve witnessed a regime of austerity and cuts to public finances, cuts which are at least as politically motivated as they are economically so. To give some indication, roughly 4.5% will be cut from the Arts Council England budget between 2013/2014 & 2014/2015, and certain councils, such as Westminster City, are cutting their arts budget completely!

Of course, some financial reality must be allowed to intrude, but what we must not permit is for this reduced budget to become the status quo, a baseline which is viewed as always open to further and further reduction, on the purported basis that it’s not important and not worth protecting.

To know the value provided by funding of the arts, we need merely remember the generous patronage provided by the House of Medici who inspired and sustained the Renaissance. My mention of this cultural outpouring from several centuries ago is no accident. We are blessed today with a dazzling wealth of music, art, theatre and literature provided by the masters of old. Da Vinci, Beethoven, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Picasso, Shostakovich, Brecht, Camus and the rest – we can not rely on past glories; we must not indefinitely draw down on this resource and make no contribution of our own.

Society today is the beneficiary of all societies past. To be stingy in funding art, or to refuse to fund it at all, is a selfish act, not just for today but for future generations. That which we leave behind, or fail to leave, tells a story about us as a society and culture, and we have only one chance to write this postcard to the future, which says “Here is our contribution to the project of humanity, please enjoy!”

The thing with art, the one constant of it, true whatever the form or genre, is that there exists no reliable method of selecting a priori only those potential artworks that will come to be deemed astounding in the future. Moreover, the only way to guarantee that there will be any art in the category is to produce lots of art. To say nothing of the fact that art should represent the full spectrum of experience today and not just a single stratum.

A final thought: whatever money was paid to finance the composition of music in the time of Beethoven, is surely more than justified by his music alone, when we consider the pleasure it has brought to the many millions of listeners in the following 200 years. That’s the context, and the timescales, in which we must approach this subject.

To return to the present day, the theft of art by criminals is in fact a piece of performance art all of itself, a horrifying piece of political satire, one that is to witness and relive. The disrespect shown by the thieves towards art mirrors that of our government. They both are chipping away at our past heritage and preventing the formation of new.

Though it can feel like we’re powerless to stop either of them, as long as the arguments in favour of the arts and its funding continue to be made, perhaps we can halt the slide and, one day soon, reverse it. Otherwise, though there’ll always be a philistine element in society – those ungrateful, uncultured few – the danger is that we, the rest of society, will sink to join them.