Further to Outlandish

Some afterthoughts on the recent ‘Onlandish Inlandish Outlandish’ essay

My re-viewing of ‘Solaris’ was a lockdown choice at a point where I had finished Netflix. Both versions of the film have preoccupied me for years and this time round I continued to appreciate the suggestion that bereavement or loss can generate an intense yearning that may induce hallucination and this apparition, from the point of view of the bereaved subject, is real. The psychology of this phenomenon is long understood and is used to explain the fact that a great range of experiences that are preposterous to some are credible to others. The psychologised interpretation is benign to the degree that it is implied that the subject is the passive witness to the unusual phenomena: the subject is ‘seeing things’ but the things are actuated by psychological operations that cannot be detected by the subject.

The psychology is partially explanatory but the physiology is entirely mysterious: a very strong desire can somehow reconfigure perception to a degree whereby everyday perception is overridden. What are the neurochemical pathways and subsequent optical modifications involved here? I have no idea.

If it is the case that desire can never be satisfied then it may also be the case that this state of affairs is sufficiently destabilising to warrant banishment from consciousness. But there is always leakage. And this may contribute to the incubation of magical thinking wherein not only will desire be satisfied but the mind will strive to give material existence to whatever is desired.

It is at points like this that I tend to introduce a raft of examples that would give context to my claims. The examples in this instance would be of the many types of magicality that persist in a post-magical world. Rather than retread that territory and then fail to return to the starting point I will just submit my view that the ultimate objective of all thought is to give material existence to its figments. May all my dreams come true. I would like a big cake. Ah – there it is! I would like more trees in my road. Ah – see how shady they are!

Outlandish Inlandish Onlandish

I wrote a novel in 1988, called ‘A Diet of Holes’. It featured a man the objects in whose dreams would appear on the pillow beside him in the morning. Initially it was just pound coins but it escalated to the point where cascades of random items would pile up around his sleeping form.

I interviewed the prolific science fiction writer Michael Moorcock for something or other some years ago and was keen to ask him about his four-book series ‘The Dancers at the End of Time’ in which a group of eccentric immortals uses power rings to conjure into existence just about anything that takes their fancy. I wondered if he did not find this device so flexible that it would neutralise any event that took place in the fictions. How were you able to get round that? I enquired. He stiffened very slightly and replied, crisply, “Experience.”

¶¶¶¶¶¶

Outlandish Inlandish Onlandish

“He’ll never die – he costs too much.” I said this to myself but I was imagining that I was saying it to my daughters. Neither of them was present at the time. I was referring to the possible fate of George Clooney who, only halfway through ‘The Midnight Sky’ on Netflix, was attempting to retrieve a suitcase of vital technology from a cabin module that was rapidly sinking beneath a wasteland of melting Antarctic ice. It was a well designed jeopardy, almost too well designed. If he got the case he would drown in icy water for sure, thereby abandoning the eight year old girl who was accompanying him on their fraught pilgrimage from one frozen place to another. But, of course, he didn’t perish and he saved the tech. I mean, he was also the director and you don’t kill off your lead, especially when it’s you.

I imagined I was George Clooney directing the scene where he loses the little girl in the snow storm that cut visibility to a couple of meters and wolves were circling and George has this rifle apparently made of bone like the guy had in Cronenberg’s ‘Existenz’ (1999). I remember the gun more than the rest of that film possibly because the rendering of the various VR worlds was quite lame, as if Cronenberg, for once in a career full of cysts, gristle and bursting body parts, had climbed on the wagon a little late. The gun was bone so you could smuggle it through metal detectors. It shot teeth.

First of all I would equip the young actress with a tracking device concealed beneath her anorak then I would provide three runners with tracker receivers and radios and despatch them in a crescent around the girl but just outside the visibility range. Before each shot, one of the assistants, stationed by the camera, would do a radio check in the course of which each runner would confirm that they have a tracker signal from the actress.

That’s not quite right. It would be me, as the director, not an assistant, calling the radio check. The reason is I feel fatherly towards girls of that age because my daughters were once that age. I felt and feel fatherly at all their ages, I should add.

After each shot I would tell the runners to converge on the actress to see she was bearing up okay. There would be a chaperone there anyway but they would stay behind the camera.

The thing is, however, that at no point in the scene I’m referring to are the girl and Clooney visible at the same time. Clooney runs about in the snow storm shouting at wolves then realises he can no longer see the girl. So the girl could spend that time in her trailer, keeping warm, along with the chaperone. At no point does she walk out of shot into the swirling white-out.

But that’s how I would do it, anyway. In the film the little girl only speaks about six words but when I, in my role as George Clooney, go on Graham Norton with her to promote the film, Caolinn Springall, who is 7, would prove to be charmingly and unstoppably chatty, much to the benign amusement of the host and assembled guests. From time to time I would be seen smiling fondly, paternally and with a hint of proud surprise. I’m not sure how you pronounce her first name but obviously I would have found out in the course of the casting.

The thing is, however, that at the end of the film she disappears anyway. Not in the snow or anything but because she is a figment of George Clooney’s imagination that he had conjured in order to get him through the chill task of taking tech from one frozenarse installation to another. Which, again, is lame. Seen it all before. So when he nearly loses her in the snow storm and almost falls into deathly sleep in the snow it’s control over the figment that he is losing rather than someone’s real daughter.
If you want to do this figment stuff and not be lazy then you could pick up some tips from George Clooney, who plays Chris Kelvin in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Solaris’ (2003) and encounters, to his initial delight and astonishment, on board an orbiting space station, his dead wife Rheya, played by Natascha McElhone whom I saw walking along in Brick Lane once but did not approach in order to assert that “I love what you do”. The stark uncanniness of the situation doesn’t stop Kelvin from becoming increasingly enchanted by the figment, which is generated by incomprehensible forces radiating from the water-covered planet around which Kelvin’s space craft is orbiting.
If Soderbergh’s work was overly legible, a view held by some, then a more substantially credentialed, elusive and earlier version of Stanislaw Lem’s original novel was made by Tarkovsky in 1972. At almost twice the length it drifts in and out of the ponderous but it got there 20 years earlier and has fuelled my thinking on the figment ever since. Lem, I was amused to discover, thought both versions sucked. He “never really liked Tarkovsky’s version” and despite never actually seeing Soderbergh’s film wrote “…to my best knowledge, the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space… As Solaris’ author I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled “Solaris” and not “Love in Outer Space”. (Wikipedia re both versions.) Kelvin gets over his astonishment and finds that if you fire your figment into deep space in a capsule in order to annihilate her she will reappear a few hours later as if nothing had happened. Which, in a sense, is very much the case. The haunted Kelvin then decides that getting back the wife who had, in the real world, committed suicide ten years ago, could be quite agreeable, especially if you can overlook the fact that you know perfectly well she is a figment, somehow condensed from the probings of an intelligent planet into your unconscious while you sleep.

Rheya, however, develops a tentative autonomy which takes the form of a frustrated introversion:

I do remember doing things but I don’t remember being there. I don’t remember experiencing those things…These strange thoughts keep coming into my mind and I don’t know where they’re coming from.

Strip out the genre trappings and ‘Solaris’ becomes a treatise on invasive, unwanted, unwelcome thoughts, experienced by many and, I would venture to say, all people. The especially perturbed hosts to these invaders may on occasion report to doctors and therapists who might, it is hoped, help to dispel or at least cauterise the vile inbursting outbursts. In the absence of sage counselling some of the sufferers from unwanted thoughts will feel colonised. The thoughts are so unlike them that they must be disowned, at which point a question of relocation arises. The thoughts are not a sign of madness. The thoughts are demonic. The thoughts are messages from those we have angered or betrayed. They are beamed by extra-terrestrials, they come from God. Such thoughts, experienced as alien and inescapable marauders, may be thought of as symptomatic of the inhabiting of a culture in which a proliferation of fragments exerts an attritional pressure on unitary identity. As the shell grows ever thinner so it becomes crazed, in the ceramicist’s sense of being covered in fine cracks. Traffic flows both ways: from the outside to the inside and vice versa. Rheya, located in Kelvin, not beside him, is experienced by him as a person in the world. She, however, becomes the receptacle for Kelvin’s recollections of her past. They aren’t her memories, they couldn’t be. They’re what Kelvin unconsciously injects into his phantasmal mannequin. Although she’s not real, Rheya presents as the porous and benighted emissary of a burgeoning crazedness. Ideally, from Kelvin’s point of view, she wouldn’t be so fussy – she would embrace his memories of her as if they were her own and the couple could resume their relationship, presumably at a point before she committed suicide. It occurs to me that all Kelvin has to do is remember her remembering that all her memories are her own. Problem solved. But perhaps Kelvin isn’t psychopathic enough to go the whole hog. In Kelvin’s case, there is an urgency born of protracted and perhaps uncompleted mourning. There is nothing he would like better than for his wife to rise from the dead. He knows it’s mad. But he will overlook this. His wife, however, in her capacity as a figment, acquires qualities that no figment should or could. She starts to think for herself. Rheya’s acquisition of what we are initially asked to regard as independent thought prompts a consideration of the Tibetan tulpa – the ultimate expression of expression or, if you prefer, the ultimate extension of the logic of expression. The early scriptures of Tibetan Buddhism advise that a holy person could envisage another living thing, perhaps human or humanoid or homunculus, and then, over a long period, intensify that act of imagining to the point where they might become familiar with every detailed physical aspect of that being and then push and push and finally endow that vivid vision with actual materiality, so that you could touch it, talk with it, have it as a companion, recognise that it is a true tulpa, or in current parlance a ‘thoughtform’. In the parlance of sceptics, an ‘imaginary friend’. If such activities strain credulity then their cultural power, and the power of their western ilk, endures and will be found to inform many everyday adventures in books, films and fictions; all sorts of actors and characters in those works; many varieties of vision, delusion and hallucination; any number of hauntings, enchantments and abductions; myriad yearnings, longings and cravings and pinings and mournings. Countless conjurations and invocations can be regarded as having as their engine an embedded, ancient, insistent and unstanchable conviction – a wish, really –  that proper cogitation can be actualised – it is a process of manufacture, one that might feature birth or resurrection or replication. In your dreams. So Rheya sits on the end of the bed and tells Kelvin about her troubling mental life. Only a while ago she had no mental life: her thoughts were channelled into her spectral yet material being by an unthoughtful Kelvin who didn’t know he was doing it. She was a bewitching prosthetic serving to actuate a bereaved husband’s attempt to forestall closure. She also has, of course, a prophylactic function, that of deferring Kelvin’s knowledge of the fact that the dead don’t come back. If Kelvin gets too close to her she may slip back inside him and undo the whole charade. If he doesn’t get close enough to her he runs the risk of becoming overly objective and effectively killing her off.      
That a pallid, enervated person could be in any way attractive is puzzling. Is death warmed up your idea of fun? Most would say no. On the other hand the withholding of emotion and emotional expression has long been found irresistible in many quarters. In ‘Ex Machina’ (Garland, 2014) Caleb, (Domhnall Gleeson), finds himself drawn to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a female robot equipped with sophisticated AI. Ava’s designer is using Caleb in an elaborate Turing test that dispenses with the non-visibility of the artificial intelligence and instead confronts Caleb with complete evidence of its artificiality.   .
Ava: Would you like to know how old I am? Caleb: Sure. Ava: I’m one. Caleb: One what? One year or one day? Ava: One. As is the way in guy-fucks-robot movies, fascination is steadily supplanted by ruminations on acquisition and enslavement. These latter are not made explicit. Deckard (Harrison Ford), for example, in ‘Blade Runner’ (Scott, 1982), never says of the replicant Rachael (Sean Young) “I’ve always wanted to fuck a robot.” Caleb never says to Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the millionaire scientist who made Ava the woman she isn’t, “She’s so like the real thing, I really want to fuck her.” (Nathan is already fucking Kyoko, an early model with less advanced sentience than Ava.) At the level of plot the male leads are increasingly drawn to the humanoids but somehow we are led to empathise with the men on the basis that, well, these gadgets are lovely to look at and will always listen uncritically to what I have to say. And you can keep them in a clean, dry cupboard.
 

Deckard: Remember when you were six? You and your brother snuck into an empty building through a basement window. You were going to play doctor. He showed you his, but when it got to be your turn you chickened and ran; you remember that? You ever tell anybody that? Your mother, Tyrell, anybody? Remember the spider that lived outside your window? Orange body, green legs. Watched her build a web all summer, then one day there’s a big egg in it. The egg hatched…

RachaelThe egg hatched…

DeckardYeah…

Rachael…and a hundred baby spiders came out… and they ate her.

DeckardImplants. Those aren’t your memories, they’re somebody else’s. They’re Tyrell’s niece’s.

Deckard[he sees that she’s deeply hurt by the implication]  O.K., bad joke… I made a bad joke. You’re not a replicant. Go home, O.K.? No, really – I’m sorry, go home.

Valerie Solanas, in the SCUM Manifesto (1968), observed that a man will ‘swim a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there’ll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.’ This may partially explain the malleability of romantic lead Caleb. Several areas of Ava’s body are attractive, it must be said, but you can see through her lower trunk to the room on the other side. In that trunk-space are cables, actuators and artificial muscles. You couldn’t say that you didn’t know what you were getting. The ‘friendly pussy’ is not in evidence but Ava has a pretty face and, in terms of contours if not contents, a beach body. She cannot, however, be compared to the replicant Rachael in Blade Runner who is entirely organic with no artificial parts other than her suite of other people’s memories. But Ava does not share Rachael’s melancholy and, although Caleb doesn’t quite get this, Ava understands that he needs to be understood. Harrison Ford’s Deckard is content to overlook the fact that everything Rachael remembers derives from the niece of her designer and drives off with her in a flying car at the end of the movie. Caleb falls in love, notwithstanding the anatomical cut-away aspects of Ava’s limbs and midriff.

The inscrutable woman possessed of an elusive, even absent, interiority is, when constituted in a particular way in either arthouse or horror films, always a figment. In ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ (Resnais, 1961) most of the cast lack the conventional signs of interiority and it’s nothing to do with bad acting. They gaze into the middle distance, move very few facial muscles and are immaculately groomed. Their passions and objectives are unreadable. If we were to declare that they are impenetrable then we would be saying, at the risk of stating the obvious, that they cannot be penetrated. And this, in turn, makes them both challenging and attractive. If it could also be said that they seem half-dead then we might wish to revitalise them. There are limits to this: if it is clear that the person is, for example, very ill, in the medical sense, then there will be no charm attached to the situation. That sort of illness is simply not good enough. It’s too specific. Tuberculosis maybe, but nothing that involves rot. Zombies are undeniably riveting but the brides of Dracula are also enticing.

The film elegantly considers a three-line premise: a man, ‘X’, (Giorgio Albertazzi) approaches a woman, ‘A’, (Delphine Seyrig) at a magnificent hotel and tells her that they met a year ago in Marienbad, where they had an affair and agreed to meet a year later. A denies ever meeting or knowing X. He tries to convince her but is consistently rejected.

A – What room? I’ve never been in any room with you. X – But you don’t want to remember. You’re afraid.
One view of this protracted enigma sees X as a gaslighting pest. It is even possible, but unlikely, that it is his persistence that drives A to the distraction that makes her remote and undemonstrative. It is hard not to see her putting up with him by politely minimising her transactional presence. The guests at the hotel are all similarly dazed, however, which weakens the gaslighter proposition. A’s protestations may genuinely indicate either an impaired memory or a condition in which the hotel is a place of pervasive entrancement akin to that in the Hotel California where “You can check-out any time you like, But you can never leave!” If these circumstances are the case then the film becomes a study of a kind of psychic refuge in which memory can be allowed to deteriorate in order to facilitate the management of multitudes that are malign as distinct from enriching. A side effect of this strategy might be the intermittent emergence of invasive thoughts. Rheya, A, Ava and Rachael have differing degrees of embodiment and autonomy but you can imagine their being imagined rather than actually enfleshed. They are tulpas and if you get it right they will let you do any sex thing you want. You can even use them as arm-candy that will not assert, at the end of the day, that they are tired. What’s not to crave? Certainly in the films cited the men, especially Caleb, are variously thwarted or have to work hard but those are just trappings. At the conclusion of a feature-length tease you can boil off the plot and character stuff and go full Tibetan. Implicit in this formula is that the duration of a feature film, say 100 minutes, is all you need to make your dreams come true. Granted, this is to mix up levels but it’s quicker than meditating in a cave. Mira, the cyborg female in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017) has a shell that is realistically fleshlike, encasing robotic limbs and inner organs but driven by her own human brain. She has, in fact, full human lineage but as a result of extensive physical damage sustained in a cyberterrorist attack she is used as a platform for an innovative cyborg attack model that employs a human brain rather than artificial intelligence. In common with her more passive aforementioned sisters her condition is an outcome of the dreams of men.
 
     

Conveniently for all who would wish to take advantage of her, Mira, like Rheya and A and Rachael, has an imperfect memory. She tells her cyborg colleague that

It feels like there’s always this thick fog over my memory…I don’t remember much. Just fragments. Bits and pieces.

In order that troubling thoughts about predatory necrophilic masculinism do not contaminate an engagement with the generally science fictional nature of cyborg narratives, a slow tease strategy is often deployed wherein the foregrounding of a fascination with robotics and replicants enables the connoisseurial savouring of futurescapes while suppressing darker ruminations.

This have your cake but critique it strategy is seen to good effect in the 1975 and 2004 versions of ‘The Stepford Wives’. Both versions indict the capture, commodification and sexual enslavement of compliant wives by their spouses yet both feature protracted episodes during which the accessibility of an ever ready fuckpiece is seen to be even more gratifying than a fast car.

The older version, directed by Bryan Forbes, at 115 minutes, plays the tease at length and holds off the stabbing of newly robotised and erstwhile dissident Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) by her disillusioned non-robotised friend Joanna (Katharine Ross) until the 98th minute, while the lighter, less sedate 93 minute Frank Oz (2004) version places the first significant robot Wife malfunction at just under 25 minutes.

These incidents precipitate random, repetitive, deranged and unwifely behaviour as the ladies’ circuits buzz, spark and burn out. The covert celebration of the advantages of wifely docility is muffled by plotting which clearly signals that all will not be well and, it should be said, is brought to an abrupt conclusion with a satisying and comedic critique of the imperial males.

The erotics, the enslavement and mastery, the themes of futurephobic anxiety and incomplete recall characterise many cyborg/replicant movies but it is the amnesia that has a special currency. In the course of the current (April 2021) covid-19 national lockdown, memory malfunction, attention deficit, ‘brain fog’ and confusion have been widely reported in the UK and beyond by those who have had to endure their own or unusually limited company for the last several months. The lack of incident (for those without covid), the flattened psychic topography, the smoothing of time have all exposed a simultaneously restless and listless populace to the usual atomised attention-seeking cultural radiation that is pretty much the weather in the mediated world but is currently adulterated by the natural inclination of our own attention to register as much activity as possible. This otherwise vital aptitude, when deprived of any hierarchies of importance to attend to, will hop and hop and hop from one thing to the next then the next then the next.

The term ‘attention deficit’ is slightly confusing insofar as it is the ability to pay sustained attention that is compromised, not the amount of attention that is available. In our waking hours attention is ever present. It needs somewhere to go, however, and will go there willy-nilly.

It seems likely that in such conditions the identification of events that merit recollection is undermined by the proliferation of countless incidents of apparently equal importance. Amnesia prevails as well as an attendant anxiety precipitated by our falling prey to thoughts and responses that are usually held in check by matters that genuinely do require our full attention.

 

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Flight & Fight

Some of the aeronautical terms used below can be examined in greater and probably more reliable detail by clicking on the links provided.
Back in the early 80s I was writing a TV screenplay about the USAF in East Anglia. I drove, for the purposes of research, to the Duxford Air Show to look at the Lockheed SR-71 ‘Blackbird‘ stealth plane, a long-range strategic reconnaissance aircraft which had recently come out of hiding. Having marvelled at the sleek, black, radar-invisible craft parked beside a hangar and guarded by machine-gun toting US airmen in blue grey uniforms with white silk cravats, I was drawn back to the main runway when it was announced that the Harrier jump jet would shortly pay a visit. This is the one that can land by descending vertically and can even hover, using the downward vectored thrust of its movable jet nozzles, while delivering death from above.    
The V/STOL (vertical/short takeoff and landing) configuration makes runways, even aircraft carriers, redundant. Air show crowds are pleased by its versatility and its availability for anthropomorphic projection. The latter is apparent in the cries of pleasure that accompanied the fawning behaviour of the jet as it hurtled into view, skidded to a halt in the sky, hovered 30 feet above our heads then dipped its nose up and down several times, as if waving or bowing to us, who were its supreme and fearsome masters. One could imagine, on another day, above another country, the same manoeuvre being seen as a form of taunting.
The Harrier’s dark enchantment is due in part to its special relationship with what is known in aeronautics as relaxed stability. The term describes an aircraft’s tendency to change its attitude and angle of bank of its own accord. If it drifts from its path it will begin to move from side to side in relation to the path, gradually moving further off course with each excursion.  

This can be corrected with controls that influence the three ways a craft can move in the air: pitch, yaw and roll. Pitch refers to an up or down movement of the nose or tail; yaw is a side to side to side movement of the nose and roll (or bank) is said to occur when the plane rotates around its longitudinal axis – the line that passes through the plane from nose to tail. There are two other types of stability: positive stability when the aircraft will maintain its attitude without constant control input and will eventually return to its intended position if its path is disturbed, and neutral stability when the craft will not return to its trimmed setting without control input, but will swing from side to side without moving further and further off course. All of which suggests, reasonably enough, that you don’t want relaxed stability in any aircraft – it should be designed out at the offset. There are, however, situations in which a form of instability is considered highly desirable. Certain military craft are deliberately designed with inherent instability and equipped with flight control computers to compensate. Such craft will instantly lose stability if computer control is suspended. What would appear to be a form of designer recklessness actually brings the great advantages of being able to change direction with minimal intervention of the flight surfaces (the flaps, elevators, rudder etc). Responsiveness is increased and the craft can manoeuvre in dramatic and unpredictable ways. It will confound and frustrate its enemies by tossing itself around in the air.

 

It is hard to resist the thought that these ideas, and the terms in which they are expressed, could be fruitfully applied to certain contemporary social situations. The nature of stability, for example, is not just a matter of personal psychology but an effect of the ideologies that compete to secure a dominant definition of the concept. One man’s stability is another’s death-in-life. In the 60s, for example, stability was what your parents craved and you despised. Their ‘small “c” conservatism’ – a symptom of what was, in part, a widely dispersed postwar posttraumatic stress disorder – made them, in your view at least, unable to change direction without considerable forewarning and persuasion. Your view, consonant with the aeronautical theories with which you were not familiar, was that their stability would lead to their undoing. It had no flexibility insofar as it would guide its adherents further and further into inaction then rigidity. The aeronautical version is much the same: stability is synonymous with the maintaining of a set position but implicit in this condition is its own decay.

Those enchanted by the revolutionary tone of the 60s (including the Editor in Chief of this journal) believed that all this must be put behind them by means of the active pursuit of instability. Where Rimbaud, in 1871, recommended the ‘long, prodigious, and rational disordering of all the senses’ and was probably appreciated at the time by a relatively small number of Bohemians and Decadents, the youth of the 60s energetically took up the project in significant numbers. This was not a self-correcting fly-by-wire enterprise – for many it involved a comprehensive cutting loose from constraints, a vigorous immersion in experiences previously insulated by taboo, and an indifference to the straight and narrow.  
This erraticised adventurousness piqued unattended and dormant appetites and prompted the emergence of desires people didn’t know they had. Thus it was, with the passage of time, that those who espoused a new anti-materialism and, to a greater or lesser extent, turned on and/or tuned in and/or dropped out, came to be regarded as excitingly needy by the manufacturers of such goods as clothes, records and posters. The Mad Men themselves, we are beguilingly informed, were able to navigate the haze of their own substance abuse in order to strategise the manufacture of desire for less folksy items such as cigarettes and saloon cars.
Instability, with its basis in relaxed impulse control, acquired a perverse reliability as advertisers refused to see in it a frustrating elusiveness but instead found ways to exploit it as a resource. Timothy Leary, after all, had suggested that ‘To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness, chaotic, confused vulnerability (in order) to inform yourself.’ And it sounded good at the time, I have to say. But on the heels of voluntarily induced chaos and vulnerability came a complex of operations that succeeded in commandeering these states and repurposing them in such a way that they served the interests of authority rather than facilitating critical insight into it. ‘Cash from Chaos’, as Malcolm McLaren would observe some years later.
The link between adventurous instability and the adventurer had been weakened, enabling the emergence of a fertile ground for a form of instant messaging. Manoeuvrability was found to be as exploitable as immobility and came to be seen as manipulability. The scene was set in such a way that Guattari would write ‘A certain type of subjectivity, which I would call capitalistic, is poised to overtake the whole planet; an equalised subjectivity, with standardised fantasies and massive consumption of infantilising reassurances. It causes every kind of passivity, degeneration of democratic values, collective racist impulses. Today it is massively secreted by the media, community centres, and alleged cultural institutions.’ Writing in 1985, Guattari uses the phrase ‘is poised to overtake the whole planet’ predictively. In 2014 his acute assertions seem simply descriptive.
A conception of the uses of instability forged within military aeronautics emerged at the same time as the commercial appropriation of 60s open-mindedness (the Hawker Siddeley Harrier V/STOL made its first flight in 1967 and the Russian equivalent, the Yakovlev Yak-38 strike fighter, in 1971) and became an aspect of an array of counter-intuitive ideas that normalised the production of dissident energies by aligning them with consumerism.

The new instability was characterised by individuals easily knocked off course and prone to erratic behaviour. They were also highly responsive, able to react efficiently to rapid state changes and capable of high-volume decision making in short time periods. Affinities between stock market traders, military personnel and ‘accomplished shoppers’ became apparent, as did a willingness to obey orders.

The latter quality has proved useful when the latent pathology of this malleability is presented as a psychiatric issue. Fortunately the reshaping of psychotherapy under capitalism has produced a treatment based on the issuing of orders rather than a consideration of such tiresome matters as the unconscious. What you do, right, is simply tell the patient to think differently. It’s the patient’s ideas that are the problem. Change them and the patient is relieved of their problem. You have to go at least six times, mind you. These things can’t be done overnight. Cognitive behavioural therapy – why worry when you could be at work not worrying? It’s probably more sophisticated than that, but not a lot more.

So we are all soldiers now. A militarised technology contributes to a militarised psychology in which the unforeseeable is preferred to the reliable. The unforeseeable, apparently patternless, can be patterned. You want fighting men and women who will instantly obey orders, highly defined individuals who are careless, unattached, impetuous and obligated. With their yaws muzzled and their pitches perfected their disorder is a small price to pay for order.

17.12.2013

Mortem Post

An actor friend called Matthew Scurfield was a member of the repertory theatre company in Barrow-in-Furness. At one point in the play, which was a period piece, he was required to march on stage, stand before an expectant throng of actors and deliver a mighty and important speech. Matthew strode to his final position, stood with his back to the audience and gathered his cape around him. He then drew himself up majestically and extended his arms wide, holding on to the wings of the cape. He was bollock naked. Thus disarrayed he delivered the entire speech. The actors could not possibly be seen to react. He could have killed somebody.

In 1982, towards the end of a performance of ‘Circus Lumiere’, Lumiere & Son’s most popular show, the five male performers, at the behest of Pamela the Ringmistress, enter the ring in their underpants in order to reenact their days as wild men in the jungles of Brazil. The uncouthness that they displayed before their discovery by Pamela, who had civilised them then launched them as circus performers, was made evident in the way they fought incessantly among themselves. This flashback sequence was punctuated by snap blackouts, during which the performers would assume fresh tableaux comprising complicated interlocking stacks of grappling bodies. For the effect to work properly, the audience must not see the performers changing position and the performers must move at top speed in the dark in order to be discovered ‘magically’ reassembled when the lights snap back on. On one occasion I hastened to my next position – a manoeuvre that had been rehearsed many times – and sensed that I was a tiny bit late. I dived into the pile of bodies just as the lights came up. I found that I was sitting on George Yiasoumi’s face. There then ensued a bout of uncontrollable behaviour that will be the subject of this post.

Similar behaviour can be easily located in such arcana as any Jim Carrey Blooper compilation on YouTube. His ‘Liar Liar’ bloopers will be found instructive in this respect. In the footage Carrey is seen pursuing two slightly different paths. Characteristically working at a maniacally elevated pitch he displays an impatience to achieve the results that the overall film project is designed to deliver. Some of the bloopers are simple errors based on bumping into the scenery or getting the lines wrong and they precipitate fits of giggling in all the actors present in the scene.

In these situations Carrey is rarely content simply to fail. He picks up on his initial mistake and runs it through a few more gears before giving up in order that a fresh take may be taken. He will land on a rather small error, which could easily be ignored, and instantly extend it, as if the end result of the extension represented the real nature of the original mistake. His fellow actors usually crack up and, as a result, perhaps Carrey gets a preview of the effectiveness of his comic persona. If this is the case then what the other actors and crew give the star is not an endorsement of the work in progress but an acknowledgment of the tension generated by that work. The cracking up demonstrates that the actors are tense and are pleased to experience relief from that tension. That they are tense simply indicates that they are professionals – they wish to optimise the presentation of their skills come what may and their attention is monopolised by acts of concentration, memorisation, collaboration and, importantly, surrender to the qualities of the character they are portraying. Carrey is also often seen – at least in the blooper reels – to subvert/ undermine/increase tension (possibly constructively) and show off as he deliberately strays off script to deliver gags and pull faces that make him and most of his colleagues snort explosively or bray with delight. It’s debatable who is the more tense and therefore has a greater need for the release, Carrey or those working with him.

Carrey, in other words, enjoys corpsing and making others corpse. The term derives, it is thought, from the mischievous practice of trying to make a corpse, to be precise an actor playing a corpse, laugh when they should not even be seen to breathe. The risk here would be that corpsing is very contagious and may well reduce the least hardy of the company to helpless giggles as well. From the corpse’s point of view, then, the ideal position in which to play dead would be one in which you are facing upstage, away from the audience.

Corpsing is odd. It is a forbidden delight, with which audiences eagerly connive. Up to a point. Beyond that point it suddenly looks too easy. The corpsing actors start to feel uncomfortable, despite their being enwrapped and entrapped in the greatest of comforts. The audience suddenly senses that, as far as they are concerned, a few seconds of abandon is quite sufficient. They’d like to get back to the script now please. But why did they succumb in the first place? You pay a lot of money to go to the theatre, why would you be so delighted by the abrupt and thoroughly disenchanting collapse of the whole point of the evening out? Or, why would you appreciate the inclusion of blooper outtakes on your box sets? Why do TV shows based solely on collections of bloopers draw dependably respectable figures? It has been observed elsewhere in this publication that actors demonstrate to non-actors that it is possible to act. This disclosure can be taken as an endorsement of the practice of pretending – when the occasion seems to demand it – to be other than you are. It can also support the more offensive notion that all behaviour is performance.

Whether this makes actual actors seem more or less skilled is open to question. It is, nevertheless, salutary to witness actors at work, especially since most of the time we are sufficiently seduced by the performance willingly to sideline the obtrusive sense that it is a performance. In other words, performances can be credible. And this is good to know. The other side of the coin would feature uneasiness about the whole performance enterprise. If theatre or film performance and everyday performance are comparable in some way then non-actors could be prey to breaks in continuity on a par with those suffered by thespians. Professional corpsing is clearly a breakdown of some sort and may be seen as having its equivalent in everyday social life. Some non-actors can act, in everyday life, better than other non-actors but both parties will experience occasions when they turn in a bad performance. For many this will not be an issue. It happens – move on. However, both professionals and non-actors carry within them the possibility of the flawed and therefore detectable and therefore non-credible performance. While non-actors do not corpse – their performance errors tend not to occur in front of large, attentive and formally arranged audiences or highly focused groups of fellow actors and technical crews – they will regard corpsing as significant rather than trivial. Having suggested above that it is reassuring to know that the act of everyday acting may produce credible (if not authentic) behaviour, the more sweeping suggestion – that all behaviour is performance – may precipitate considerable anxiety.

Death stalks these proceedings. Comedians ‘die’ on stage, Monty Python built a sketch around the ‘the Killer Joke’ which was killingly funny and some of us ‘almost die laughing’. If the experience isn’t actually terminal we may nevertheless find it ‘sidesplitting’ or ‘cry with laughter’ or ‘piss ourselves’. The latter actually happens, of course, but people rarely die laughing, despite their assertions that they did.

The laughter business is fraught with danger. Almost by definition laughter is out of control and intense laughter threatens to lead us to a point from which we might have difficulty returning. I’m not suggesting that this is what anyone thinks when they burst out laughing but our colloquialisms do suggest that laughter is not simply restricted to things that we find humorous. I wrote recently about delirious, frightened or horrified laughter in the post ‘Murder in the Dark’. Given that we’re not going to die laughing there still remains within the corpse and the snort more than wholesome, disruptive fun.

The processes that comprise an actor’s preparation do not explain satisfactorily what it is that actors actually do. Somehow they create space within themselves for characters other than their own – that’s pretty clear. One wonders what happens to the actor’s own character when they submit to one that has been constructed in the rehearsal process. In the case of demonic possession the subject is held to be eclipsed or erased by the immigrant evil spirit. The rehearsal process demedievalises this setup, transforming a spectacular event into a series of measured operations.

Romantic misconceptions about method acting not only serve to assure audiences of the authenticity of performances but encourage the idea that the actor dies nightly and is resurrected within the terms of the script. It’s easy to form the impression that accomplished actors move beyond impersonation to almost complete submission to character.

If submission were complete then the actor wouldn’t exist, she would walk offstage, get a National Insurance number and look for something to do with her life. If submission were complete then the actor – like the stereotypical schizophrenic who thinks he’s Napoleon and is disappointed at the lack of respect he receives – would not be able to follow the script, so diverted would he be by the myriad possibilities of interaction with those around him whom he would assume are real people. Notwithstanding the purportedly awe inspiring capacity of some film actors to maintain character between takes, the idea that they forget who they are and only remember the character is silly. They need who they are because so much of what they do on stage or before the camera is technical. They need to stand in prescribed places most of the time and they need to know when the other person’s speech ends so that they don’t interrupt them when they respond. Etc. So this whole submission thing is just not a useful idea. They just submit a bit. Some more than others.

Even so, we are used to thinking that the better they are, the more they have submitted. Perhaps the notion of absorption is more versatile – it could describe a state in which both technical and character requirements are simultaneously maintained in focus. This makes the job sound more difficult yet it does suggest a multi-tasking the components of which are at odds with each other and could not confidently be described as complementary. And this in turn is consistent with a precariousness in which the actor’s condition is vulnerable to breaking down, splitting apart and being defined by neither of its disengaged parts. Suddenly, just because the on-stage drawing room doorknob comes off in your hand, you are between worlds and discombobulated, a zombie with a body but no character.

But they recover. In rehearsal they recover every few minutes. When the director says “Can we stop there for a moment?” the actors jump off the bus, hang around in the bus station with the director then just jump straight back on the bus when everyone is ready. The building of character is an act of composition and the actor is required to hold the character in a state of composure but this can be relinquished when it is appropriate to do so. However, when it is knocked off balance without warning then decomposition can follow, rather than the straightforward on and off the bus that is typical of rehearsal. The world of the actor in a scripted play is both thoroughly stable and teetering at the point of imbalance.

In his remarkable book ‘Boo! Culture, Experience and the Startle Reflex’, Ronald C. Simons presents a detailed study of the latah phenomenon. In Malaysia and Indonesia there are individuals who react to a sudden noise far more violently than others. Simons explains that ‘Latahs do everything that hyperstartling people do elsewhere. They may strike out at objects or others, assume overlearned defensive postures, or say improper or idiosyncratically stereotyped things…The disruption of ongoing attentional processes is for them more extreme. After a series of startles, a latah‘s speech and behaviour may become quite disorganised. In addition, after being startled some latahs experience strong attention-capture, focusing on salient aspects of their perceptual fields and narrowing and locking attention on them. Latahs may call out the names of what they see or repeat or approximate sounds they have just heard. They may match movements of objects or other persons with movements of their own bodies. As with persons whose attention has been captured generally, latahs will sometimes obey imperiously given commands.’

Latahs or their non-Malaysian and Indonesian equivalents are found in many societies. They may not have the special status afforded them in these regions but the precariousness of their composure is much the same. They will ‘jump out of their skin’ and not be able to get back where they belong for minutes at a time. During this time their capacity to direct their own behaviour is spectacularly diminished to the point where they will be compulsively obedient or repetitive. They are, in a sense, ‘anybody’s’. While corpsing actors cannot be described in these florid terms, there is a similarity in the abruptness of the shift from composure to disarray in both latah and corpsing actor. Actors may be, in the particular sense I have suggested, fragile, but only when they are acting. In the case of the latah it is as if their entire being, or their sense of being, will only cohere if they are never startled.

The video clip demonstrates that the non-latah peers of the latah individual tend to tease the latah, sometimes mercilessly, in order to precipitate what is clearly regarded as an hilarious performance, available on demand and unticketed.

Now let’s look at Andrea…

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Undomain

David Lynch’s ‘Inland Empire’ (2006) is three hours and twelve minutes long. The first hour is inspiring, the next frustrating, the third (on a second viewing) tragic and beautiful. Back in March 2007 I wanted, after 90 mins, to run from the cinema but felt I couldn’t because I like Lynch’s work so very much. A few months later I found on two excellent blogs two excellent essays about the film: ‘Something got out from inside the story – Lynch’s Unhome Videos’ in k-punk here and the second, ‘Inland Empire’, in the blog ‘American Stranger‘. (The essay was removed from the latter site some time ago but I am grateful to traxus4420 for kindly sending me a copy. However, on revisiting Strength Weekly for a major refurb after ten years, I found, alas, that the copy had vanished. I’ll keep looking for it).

k-punk observes that the film ‘often seems like a series of dream sequences floating free of any ostensible reality, a dreaming without a dreamer (as all dreams really are) – no frame is secure, all attempts at embedding fail.’ The protracted absence of ‘a dreamer’ may explain why the movie exhausts at a first viewing. Girded for a revisit as a result of receiving illumination from the aforementioned essays, I bought the DVD and determined to go back down those dark, scratchy corridors in order to put myself in the picture.

It’s good that there are people in the world who will synopsise movies with labyrinthine and intractable plots in order that the rest of us may clarify just exactly what it was we just saw. Such exactitude is only notional in this case but a robust public service is delivered by Wikipedia here and provides succour and encouragement for the return match, as does fourfour’s wry frame assembly here, (scroll right down when you get there). which serialises the consternation that envelops each of Laura Dern’s three characters throughout the movie.

The Wiki plot summary is thorough but a further order of compression may prove more workable. Laura Dern’s character, the actress Nikki, is preparing for a role in a new film. The film is not as new as it seems, it’s a remake of an earlier Polish movie whose male and female leads were murdered. The film is cursed. Something gets out from inside the story or, as American Stranger has it, ‘the staged events of the film shoot bleed into the apparently actual events of the actors’ lives…it rapidly becomes uncertain which of the two ‘worlds’ contains the other.’ As a consequence of this osmosis and confusion, Sue – the character in Nikki’s new movie – stumbles into Nikki’s world and Nikki gets lost in the world of the enchanted script. Further down the line, in Hour 2, elements of the original film also draw Nikki in, to the extent that she (or Sue) finds herself, from time to time, in Poland, embroiled in a murder scenario. Hour 3 sees Sue, who has become a hooker, dying from a stab wound among homeless people at Hollywood and Vine. When she is dead, the director of Nikki’s film calls ‘Cut!’ and Nikki gets up. She wanders into a cinema where she sees Sue on screen, acting in the film she has just been working on.

Hour 2 is fairly gruelling insofar as standard physics, geography and history are out the window. But as k-punk remarks ‘…the space involved is ontological, rather than merely physical.’ Hour 2 is not fantasy in any genre sense, nor can it be domesticated with reference to the unfolding of any psychological pathology within the protagonists. If madness is at hand it’s an effect of the shadow of an old, old reality that, some would contend, predates the individual’s acquisition of language. Take away that acquisition and where’s the physics that would keep the geography in the right history?

If Lynch is not toying with the psychic Jurassic then there is another way of categorising the effect he delivers: the films are, of course, ‘dream-like’ and, in this instance, ‘nightmarish’. It seems an obvious thing to say, and the terms are usually scattershot across arts commentary as if they explained something. They usually explain little and constitute a classic passing of the critical buck. Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ (1977) was more deserving of the terms insofar as people, objects and events in the scenario could be understood to stand for other less palatable ideas and urges, even if the act of interpretation itself was not a straightforward and convenient translation. The film is often described as Lynch’s ‘most personal’, suggesting that the dreamer himself is close at hand. If this is the case then the film has passed through him and can be passed through him. The absence of the dreamer, the absence of a conventional script, the low ‘strange object’ count (no severed ears, no babies made out of skinned lamb’s heads etc) place ‘Inland Empire’ adjacent to but not in Dreamland. Recalling k-punk’s description of the film as ‘a series of dream sequences floating free of any ostensible reality’ – the possibility arises that these are sequences that are more urgent than the urgently personal, their resemblance to dreams and nightmares is misleading, they are certainly unhome and uncanny but of the waking world.

Whatever – Lynch presents a take on a Place without Time and a Time without Place. Even he, according to reports, resorted to a degree of intuitivised jumblism on IE, starting the shoot without a script and delivering dialogue to the actors on a nightly basis. This is, literally, self-defeating and, no doubt, precisely what was required. It’s not that artistry must be defeated, however, it is applied later, after the contents have surfaced and must then be seized and shaped.

The movie depicts magical processes at work, insofar as ritual acts of concentration and refinement – as practised in rehearsal and discussion – are seen to dilute the barriers between categories of experience to the point where thought and desire actually reshape the world. Anecdote supports this magicality at many stages of the fiction-making process – writers are familiar with the conjuring of versions of their fictions into their everyday lives. Crudely – write a novel about someone breaking their leg and halfway through the first draft you sprain your ankle. (Note to young writers: this only happens now and again.) Not really magic but certainly a product of focused invocation.

A less debilitating aspect of fiction-making is seen in the business of affairs between directors, actresses and actors. There’s nothing like a collectively organised art-form for facilitating alliances and dalliances. Affairs spring up on film sets and in theatres as if there were something in the water. Attractive and usually young humans not only fondle each other in love scenes in a thoroughly professional way you understand but have often been led by their training to believe that the cultivation and maintenance of strong emotions (those which are relevant to the project in hand) outside of rehearsal and performance can only intensify and enhance performance. It’s probably true.

Similarly, given the great sense of responsibility, interdependency and attendant tension felt by directors and actors working on a project, directors and actresses/actors tend to fall in love. It’s a special kinda love, though, and not to be confused – as it often is – with setting up or settling down together.

We cannot, however, refrain from observing that Laura Dern, having worked on ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) with Kyle MacLachlan – an actor often seen as Lynch’s on-screen alter ego – subsequently stepped out with him for four years.

We should also recall Lynch’s own relationship with BV star Isabella Rossellini and remind ourselves that Rossellini’s father was Roberto and her mother Ingrid Bergman. If physics, geography and history are removed from these genealogies then we may find support for the presence of a pervading psychoanalytical fantasy of generational transfusion wherein intimacy with daughters secures intimacy with their fathers and vice versa. 

The vice versa, in this case, would secure intimacy for the father with the daughter if the surrogate son were the prime physical agent. Much as film scripts may appear to transmit the genius of their writers, the empassioned claustrophobias of rehearsal give rise to the sexualisation of transmissions that may actually be more concerned with the acquisition of skills.

To attribute magical power to a film script because it contributes to showbiz romances is, however, needlessly whimsical. Notwithstanding the tiresome ‘excitement’ surrounding ‘the Scottish play’ (wherein awful things happen to actors performing ‘Macbeth’) (here, if you must), at the end of the day a bunch of people sit around and concentrate on a sheaf of pages, applying their various skills and sharing developmental aspirations. A reality is suggested then consolidated. The resemblance to magic is structural only.

Seen in these workaday terms, the phenomenon of ‘fiction leakage’ seems rather ordinary and predictable. In the case of ‘Inland Empire’, though, there wasn’t a script, despite the film being about scripts, and the pages came, one learns, in small instalments. Nor was there ‘character development’, that staple of the respectable fiction. In IE it’s location, location, location.

Laura Dern’s characters have a hard time whoever they are and wherever they are. This is because the geography is so fucked up. Dern herself is widely reported as not having a clue why she was where she was, in the course of the filming.

The spaces which constantly spook her are more than enough to be getting on with; character development is superfluous in these flared-out, migrained video hallways.

 

A reductive reading – not necessarily a bad thing – would see the spooking spaces as mental states inhabited by one person with three aspects (Nikki, Sue, the hooker). A slightly more expansive reading would posit a realm in which narcissism and restricted capacities for empathy enable the subject to experience others merely as elements of herself. These are psychologically wholesome readings insofar as they aspire to produce psychological wholes from psychological holes. They are conservative, however, and feel a bit old hat. Lynch has been there and done that (‘Lost Highway’ (1997) and ‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001)).

Anyway, things have moved on since the days of character development – the physics has changed. The artistry purportedly implicit in the gradual unfolding of character has been replaced by speedy teleportation. In LH and MD the shifts are shocking but they merely bisect the films. In IE shifts occur every few minutes.

IE is uncanny because the uncanny is premised on the familiar. What, then, is it that we recognise in all this punishing, protracted discontinuity? Dern’s characters struggle to escape places in which everything is in between, nothing is homely, nowhere is anywhere for very long, all is fiction and fictions contaminate all that they touch, including other fictions. If dependable identity is one such fiction then one of its functions is to innoculate the badge holder against less reliable badges. If you lose your immunity then other fictions become interchangeable, they have more in common than they have distinctions. If you lose your immunity you are both locked out and engulfed. You can’t get back home, even though there are doors and corridors that lead there. Immuno-deficient, you are entranced by anything that pops up and defenceless as it spits you out.

American Stranger says “Perhaps this is Lynch’s vision of how our world must end – ‘our world’ as a hyperreal, self-absorbed Inland Empire where everything is merely an advertisement in empty performance for everything else, an ultrasaturated luxury market poised for collapse into its outside.” A world of strident, heeby-jeeby micro-worlds choc-a-bloc with seductors and bullies, sugar highs and grinding lows, the cold sweat of homelessness and undomain.

As she dies in the street, ‘the hooker’ is told a story by another vagrant street girl. The girl tells the hooker about her friend whose vagina wall has a hole torn in it that leads to her intestine. System walls are breached. The systems work well when properly separated but once breached: contamination, fever, the long walks of the undead, ever between stations.

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Over the Road

Between the ages of nine and eighteen I lived with my parents in a leafy road in a nice house and played with the kids from our road and the road round the corner. My friend Hugh’s sister Anna went to school with Rosemary who lived opposite their house with her parents who were quite old and grey and dour. The father was a bank manager. Rosemary didn’t come out to play much and when she did she was hesitant and awkward. Hugh and I paid her little attention.

Some years later I had been commissioned to write a feature film for television but they never made it but that’s not why I mentioned it. My parents were away for the summer so I returned to my schoolboy home and used the small room at the front upstairs that used to be the railway room as a study. I had a view across our front garden to the house opposite which was partially obscured by tall evergreens and firs. I had gathered from my mother that when Rosemary’s parents had died they left the house to Rosemary so she sold it, moved out from round the corner and bought the one opposite our house. It was a similar size to her childhood house and had a long garden.

I thought it was odd that someone would wish to live so close to their childhood home. My mother told me that Rosemary did not have a job but did quite a lot of work in her garden. It was clear she must have inherited quite a sizeable sum from her funless parents. My mother also said that the adult Rosemary was painfully shy but also, on occasion, very chatty. My mother was also very chatty, a skill she had honed in the course of entertaining the scientist colleagues who would visit our house from time to time as they passed through the country.

Eiry, my mother, would greet Rosemary cheerily in the street and sometimes they would stop to chat. Eventually, and I’m not sure quite how this came about, Rosemary would come to our door and ring on the bell and Eiry would answer and invite Rosemary in. Rosemary would always decline but seemed happy to chat, standing in the porch while my mother stood on the doorstep.

This was the situation I found when I returned after several years to my old bedroom and the railway room and set up my typewriter on a table and looked out over to Rosemary’s new house – the house that was new to me because years ago she used to live round the corner.

The trees were by this time, of course, taller and thicker than they’d been when I was living at home and going to school. And I hadn’t spoken to Rosemary for over twenty years. I knew she liked to chat and I kept my eye on the house in case she came out.

One day I spotted her working in the front garden. I went downstairs and walked onto the lawn on my side, pretending to inspect things. When she looked up I called out ‘Rosemary! Hello! It’s David!’ I wasn’t sure just how disinclined to socialise she might be. Would she scuttle back into the dark house? No. She greeted me pleasantly and told me that Eiry had told her I’d be working in the family home. We marvelled at how much time had passed and that we were meeting again and how were we and what was I doing and I didn’t ask what she was doing because I knew she didn’t work and to press beyond that didn’t seem right.

She was in her early forties like me, probably the same age, in fact. Her hair was straight to her shoulders and cut with a fringe. She wore a heavy pullover, a long full skirt and wellington boots. We chatted for a while. I wondered what the inside of her large house was like but I was sure I would never find out. It would have been nice to invite her over for a cup of tea but that too felt presumptuous.

I thought her life must have been strange and lonely – shaped by girlhood incarceration with her severe, unbending parents until they died at which point perhaps she had little spirit left with which to try again for a lost youth. I didn’t even know how long she had been in the new house although, on reflection, this would have been easy to ask compared with the array of straightforwardly nosey enquiries I was steadily stockpiling.

In these leafy streets not every house is pleasant. Not, at least, to the eye of one who in his youth was puzzled and fascinated by the ones with gravel front gardens delineated by lengths of black-painted diamond-spiked chain suspended between sets of creosoted fence posts. And there were, it soon became apparent, two sorts of trees you could grow in such a front garden. There were the trees of life, which shed their leaves consonant with the seasons, variously presenting buds, flowers, young leaves, full leaves in crown array, those leaves going golden or going brown and falling, bare wet branches, bark, boles, stumps, the fists of pollard, even sightly cankers.

And then there were the trees of death and shadow, that towered and towered, the yews with their red jelly bumbo berries, the spruce, the leylandii, all with dense sticks, not a sound, no nests, utterly unclimbable, if you trim them they retaliate with the scorched look, if you put your hand in them it comes back smeared with black dust or damp paste, they stop you looking at the lace curtains even if these are not obscured with poisonous clattery laurel.

Every third house bore some of these blights, even those of families with kids. Parents in those days, of course, were much older. They were crouched and stooped and spoke unclearly. Sometimes it got to the kids and closed them down, as with Rosemary, but for several of them, mostly brothers and sisters, they were merely constrained in their efforts at socialising. Glen and Raine, for example, were rarely seen but this may have been a class problem informed by parental disdain for playing in the street. The street was every bit as good as the garden and a close second to the fields and streams five minutes away at the town’s edge.

When I say class, we were all middle class round there but you had snooty, chummy, irascible, genial, loony and from a kid point of view as analysed later by the same kid grown up at least two of these might as well have been class distinctions. Not loony because loonies had their own unstratified class and, down our road, they pretty much left you alone without giving you attitude. Dotty Dennis, for example, found young boys pleasing and would have liked them to play in his shed, he said, but young boys were not taken with the notion and regarded the frail septuagenarian, who actually did wear a dirty macintosh, with unwavering disdain.

The most mysterious house, owned by the Lethbridges, was barely visible from the road, being surrounded on three sides by dense, tangled undergrowth that occupied, on one side, an area as large as the house itself. It was possible, therefore, to make Colonel Fawcett-like forays from the corner of the Lethbridge Jungle adjacent to the Orbells’ American-style unfenced front lawn, straight into the heart of darkness strangled by plants whose name I never knew and to this day do not. They weren’t exotic, just your everyday roamers, randomers and vagrants that must be closely surveilled if they are not to choke proper garden flora. But the clambering here was of the highest standard and one of the few times in my life that I have been surrounded on all sides with no room to turn by bushes. As we cracked and snapped our way down we glimpsed the Lethbridge house from time to time through the knotted vines and ducked down into the shadows. Their rooms contained furniture, appliances, washing up liquid and so forth but we never glimpsed any members of the family. They had a car which was sometimes parked on the gravel sometimes not. We saw no kids. We thrust our way right alongside the house, on into the untamed reaches of the lower garden, finally breaking through the final hedge into the playing field that stretched across to the railway lines carrying trains to Liverpool Street, Kings Cross and Bedford.

I never saw Rosemary’s back garden when I was a boy, partly because I didn’t want to look. It would have been easy to peer into it from the playing field – it was right next to the Orbell’s on the other side – but there was something not forbidding so much as unappetising about those cross-hatched glooms. I could also have walked round to the cul de sac at the back of Rosemary’s new house and made my way to the hedge there to see if her gardening style had moved on from her parents’ sombre planting. It would be hard to do this casually, however.

I spotted Rosemary in her front garden again and waved. She came to her gate in her usual outfit plus gardening gloves. We started to chat from either side of the road, how was my writing going, how was the garden. Somehow we moved on to what we were reading. This was clearly a subject not suited to discussion in slightly raised voices. Rosemary crossed the road. I moved forward to my gate. She was keen on thrillers, it turned out. American. Hardboiled. Noir. Dime, even.

My ascription to my neighbour of a taste for Trollope or Mrs Gaskell, neither of whom I had ever read and was therefore employing, albeit in my imaginings, speciously, was crumbling at speed. Woolrich – had I? McCoy is good. I recalled The Deadly Percheron. Had she? Oh yes, she loved Bardin. Then one of us brought up The Name of the Rose. Rosemary had enjoyed it but then there had always been much more experiment with thrillers and crime novels in Europe. The Erasers? Well, no, I hadn’t got round to that but I did like Jealousy.

Rosemary said she would bring some books over if I was interested. That would be great. Most of mine are in London I’m afraid.

The next day Rosemary came all the way to the front door and rang the bell. She had about five books with her. One was ‘Catastrophe – the Strange Stories of Dino Buzzati’. Another was Cornell Woolrich’s noir thriller ‘Deadline at Dawn’. I read most of them before I had to go back to London. I haven’t seen Rosemary for maybe thirty years. I’ve gone back to my home town now and again and strolled down my old street and hoped I might see Rosemary in her front garden. I didn’t like to knock in order to find out if she was in. This seemed a bit presumptuous.