Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: other writings

Happy Tablets

Standing before the morning bathroom mirror, half-heartedly picking at the scab in my belly button,  I see a sack of entrails, knotted at the top, perched on two sticks. The knot resembles a head, with a face on the front. But I am made in the image of God, apparently.

Most times, in the mirror, I fail to recognise myself. In the mirror now I seem older than I am now. But in my dreams I am always younger than I am now, however old that may happen to be. When I was young, young people definitely looked older than young people look now. But old people now look younger than old people looked when I was young. When I was young, people who then were older than me already looked as old as they are now. But no one who now is older than me looks younger than I am now, though some people who now are younger than me already look older than I am now. Also, some people who now are older than me looked older than I am now when they were younger than I am now. Should I be looking older to myself than I look to myself, or younger? Should I be looking older, or younger, to others than I do to myself? What do “old” and “young” look like, anyway?

Old? There is no such beast. Only the curious but frightened child dipping into the dressing-up box of folded skin and swollen belly and slackening muscle and dry hair and brittle teeth.

Speaking of which, I shall now employ in their turn the means for the preservation of my skin, bowel, bladder, teeth, tongue, hair, face, armpits, finger nails, toe nails, hearing, eyes, eyesight, nose, back, prostate, heart and circulation, arthritic thumbs, right foot, general physical well being and general mental well being, by dint of, respectively, washing, defecating, urinating, brushing my teeth, flossing my teeth, applying Dr Tung’s Tongue Scraper, brushing my hair, shaving and applying aftershave, applying moisturiser, applying underarm deodorant, using the nail scissors, cleaning the ear wax from my hearing aids and putting them on, inserting eye drops, locating my glasses, using my nasal inhaler, taking ibuprofen, taking a prostate pill, taking blood pressure pills, taking green lipped mussel extract, doing my plantar fasciitis exercise, taking a multi-vitamin tablet and taking a happy tablet. Sometimes it takes me all day just to get up. Just as it is taking me all my lifetime to be born. Or to die. Being born, dying: same thing.

Yes, this life will be the death of me. But so also for the ant. And also for the ragged town pigeon. And also for the very small slug like thing in the garden for which I have no name.  And for everybody.

Everybody, verybody, erybody, rybody, ybody, body, ody, dy, y.

Everybody very body. Airy body, wry body. Why body? Body oddy. Die … Why?

Because it is his tiny destiny, of course. I top off my morning routine with the happy tablet.

Image174
I try to calculate how long I have been on the happy tablets. Four or five years, perhaps. Or is it four or five months? Hard to say. Four or five days? Longer than that, surely. But this uncertainty, of course, must be down to the effect of the tablets.

Do I feel any better on the happy tablets? Yes, of course. I think so. I understand that before I started on the tablets, I used to feel dreadful. I know that the tablets make you feel better. I can’t remember the feeling from before, but I know that it must have been dreadful; otherwise, why would I have started to take the tablets? And the tablets make you feel better, so how I feel now must be better than before. Not remembering the feeling from before must, of course, be down to the effect of the tablets. So although I have no real remembering of how it was before, I do not wish to return to how it was before, because that would certainly be dreadful.

So I do feel good now. This is good. I must be feeling good. I do not know from experience that how I feel now is good, but by definition it must be. But if I stop taking the tablets, I will feel dreadful, by definition. I do not know how that might feel, but I know that it would be dreadful.

So I think I like this, which is happening now. Or rather, I am not sure whether I like it or not. Perhaps I do not. Of course, this uncertainty must be down to the effect of the tablets. But whatever this is that I am experiencing, it must be liking, because the tablets make you like things. To like, but to be uncertain that one is liking, that is the effect, it seems. But if I were not taking the tablets, I would certainly not be liking this. Though I suppose that if I had never started taking the tablets, I would not appreciate the difference. I might really find it dreadful and think that I was liking it. Or, for that matter, really be liking it but thinking that I was finding it dreadful. Though come to think of it, having no point of comparison because of the effect of the tablets, I might be thinking that now. Or the opposite. In which case, why am I still taking the tablets?

So am I finding it dreadful? Or am I liking it?

Take, for example, this man one place ahead of us in the queue for the ferry. He is leant against his car door, treating himself to a snack of Irn Bru and haggis flavoured crisps. His sunglasses are perched on the dome of his receding hairline, whose full curve repeats, inverted, the full curve of his receding chin, which he has attempted to disguise by a tufty grey goatee. Soon, on the ferry, his wife will sit silently by his side, with her wordsearch book. But what exactly is so dreadful about that? Why do I imagine walking up to him and walloping him firmly in the face with a frying pan? Might I not be liking him instead? Maybe so.

Or take the tall, hatchet jawed man who approaches a monstrous plant in the roadside garden. (The plant is rheum.)

‘Is it rhubarb?’ asks his wife.

‘Rhubarb. Yes. I think it is. Yes.’ But as he comes closer he realises that he is mistaken. He now knows that it is not rhubarb, but he clings to the circumstance that it looks something like rhubarb.

‘Well, rhubarb family, anyway,’ he says, as a shot at settling the issue. In fact, he has not the slightest idea what the plant is, but he likes to be assertive in the expression of his opinions.

Is that weakness to be found dreadful? Or might it inspire fondness? Perhaps both.

Or take this next man who is limping painfully along the road, a few inches at each step, supporting his injured left foot by means of an upturned golf club that he has employed as an improvised walking stick. At my enquiry, he insists that he feels just fine, and hobbles on. There is something acutely and specifically tragic about his choice of a golf club. Is this merely dreadful, or does it also fascinate? Can something be truly dreadful that fails to fascinate? So if fascination means liking, does dreadful mean liking?

Or take this conversation in the hotel lounge:

X:         To be perfectly frank, the cuisine here has been a disaster. That chicken was a disgrace. God knows what they put on it. Didn’t even taste of chicken. Disaster. Wasn’t even any cabbage with it. I didn’t like it at all. They’re trying to be top end catering, but it hasn’t worked.

Y:         I’ve been thinking, maybe I should write their menus for them. (She gives a brittle laugh.)

X:         Disgraceful …

Z:         Has the man come back yet? I know he went off a few minutes ago. Shall I pop out and find him?

Y:         I expect he’ll be back.

X:         I’ll tell you a joke about a restaurant. This chap goes into a restaurant and he orders woast beef – he has a speech impediment you see – he orders woast beef with gwavy, cawwots and cabbage. No, that’s not it, not cabbage. I’ve got that wrong. I’ll remember it in a tick. What?

Z:         Just having a sort out, before he comes back. Now, leave that there. And leave that there. That needs sorting. Leave that one there and that one there. There, done. Done and dusted.

X:         Yes. Where was I? Try again. A man goes into a restaurant you see, but he has a speech impediment you see, so he says to the waiter, bwing me woast beef, gwavy, cawwots and bwoccoli.

Y:         Oh, bwoccoli! Very good. Bwoccoli. (Another laugh.)

Z:         Yes, but then a wasp appears you see, and the wasp is all over the food, so he tries to brush it away but it won’t go, and then to avoid it he goes under the table you see. Under the table. And when the waiter comes back, he says to the waiter, is that wasp away yet? And the waiter says … Wait, no, that’s still not right. Is that wasp away yet? No, that’s still wrong. Maybe it wasn’t a wasp. A bee? Anyway, you get the general idea. The old ones are the best ones.

Z:         He’s been quite a time. Shall I pop out and see?

What of this is to be dreaded? What is to like? What not to dread, and what not to like?

Do not the dreadful and the fascinating converge in the condition of absurdity? Does nature admit of the absurd? Evidently so: consider the ostrich. Is there a theology of absurdity? Evidently so: what could be more absurd than a visiting God who manages to get himself arrested and crucified?

Enough of that. Perhaps I really should stop taking the tablets. But I do not wish to stop because I know, at this moment, now, that stopping would feel dreadful, even if, after stopping, I would soon no longer know the difference. So it would be the immediate impact of stopping, not perhaps the longer term knowledge of dreadfulness – or the longer term knowledge of liking for that matter, because there would be no knowledge, no difference – it would be the immediate impact, the brief point of the knowing of the dreadfulness, no matter how quickly it might slide into liking, or into indifference, it would be that which would deter me from stopping taking the tablets.

If I were to stop, I could perhaps avoid the impact of the knowledge of renewed dreadfulness, however short lived, by reducing the dose gradually. I could take a tablet every other day for two weeks, then one every third day for three weeks, then one every fourth day for four weeks, and so on. Or I could take one every other day for a month, then every three days for three weeks, then every four days for two weeks … But the combinations of intervals and periods and dosages are far too many and complex to be enumerated here. In fact, their consideration might be so time consuming that I might abandon the planned downscaling in confusion and despair. Or in boredom. And I might even end up taking the final tablet after an interval of a year, or even longer. But if I didn’t take a tablet for a year or longer, would I still effectively be “taking the tablets”? Apparently so. A door is either open or closed. To be or not to be: that’s the question unceasingly … It’s a two-headed dog.

I peer more intently into the bathroom mirror. The knotted face lurches towards me, flaring and angry. I study it in detail and decide to extend my morning routine by the application of the hygienic nasal hair and eyebrow trimmer. I also decide that I will stop taking the happy tablets. Some time soon. Almost certainly.

Me and my moustache

The unexpected invitation to grow a moustache is an annunciation that should not be ignored. A moustache is a calling. There is something profoundly atavistic and mystical about the sudden and unvoiced conviction that it would be a proper and spiritual thing to allow wiry hairs to sprout like barbed wire in the no man’s land between nostril and upper lip. Though beardless since before the dawn of memory, I now feel that my sense of maleness and fullness of being require this addition, and I lay aside my shaver.

moustacheA few days’ growth, little more than extruded stubble, but already I am impressed to see that a new personality is layered onto the morning mirror. I turn my head, inclined a little, from side to side and allow my modified features to catch variously the daylight that filters through the bathroom blind. Reminds me of someone, but I can’t quite place him. His first appearance is somewhere between Captain Mainwaring (benevolent buffoon) and Alf Garnett (malevolent ditto), and on the whole, as I purse my lips and test out a range of facial expressions, I am quite taken with him. But as morning piles on morning, and as the growth begins to hint at a likely permanence, I notice that he proceeds to take on a less welcome aspect. He sneers at me when he thinks I’m not looking as I enter the bathroom. In fact, he seems positively antagonistic. There is something unpleasantly military about this stranger in my house. Where have I met him before? Who is he, and how can I have offended him?

Ah! Now I know him! I peg him in a uniform of Teutonic grey serge, circa 1920. Yes, he is an ageing oberstleutnant in a Freikorps unit of embittered veterans. Unable to adapt to the unaccustomed peace and to the national humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, he has enlisted under General Avalov-Bermondt, and looks towards revenge. Soon he will make preparations for the invasion of Latvia. He is also a vain and insistent rascal, and already he gesticulates from the bathroom mirror, demanding to be given a monocle.

In a few years, I suspect, he will move to Munich, write hollow earth pamphlets, and spit at Jews and gypsies in the street.

It’s no good. Tomorrow I must shave off my moustache and put him away forever.

Foreshortening

Glancing down over the back wall of the little station platform, I am appalled by the changed appearance of the “thirty” speed limit sign stencilled onto the road directly below. Gone are the familiar pert numerals within a neat oval, replaced by some gothic elongation, horribly steamrollered into a dead sausage in a most outrageous ratio of width to height, pulled beyond the limits of readability. What can have happened to it? Ah. This is how it really is.

thirty 2Much the same with time past, I guess. Some kids I have taught see time in two roughly equal parcels, Now and Olden Times. Now is anything within their living memory. Olden Times seem to begin (working backwards) roughly at the end of the 20th century and cover all events back to the birth pangs of the universe. Our foreshortening of previous centuries is always severe and misleading. At this distance the dead world looks trim and well proportioned, but walk up to it and you find that it is road kill, stretched and flattened out of all recognition, like Holbein’s skull.

In common with many, I have a morbid preference for a train seat facing the front, but as all the forwards seats are occupied today, I have no choice but to travel backwards. This is emphatically the wrong way, given that biologically we are made to face in one direction, namely towards the future. So now I am being catapulted backwards in time at a rapidly accelerating speed. But since time travellers are exempt from the rewind that affects their surroundings (never being reduced to babyhood or pre-existence), my brain is still working forwards, though it has to struggle against the impetus. The train is speeding up alarmingly; at this rate I will soon be back at the narrow end of perspective, wandering like an inept giant among the miniaturised scenes of my childhood.

rock drillAt the city of my destination, I find that there is nothing new to see at all. Indeed, some shops have become empty premises, reverting to the condition that preceded their opening. As I thought, this is very much time past. As the Art Gallery and Museum is unchanged, I am reduced to viewing some old favourites, in particular Epstein’s Rock Drill, whose robotic operator, perched in white over his monstrous black machine, welcomes me in his familiar, alienated manner. But of course this is a recent reconstruction of a radically modernist piece that was dismantled almost a century ago because of its unacceptable futurity. Though the drill is not reconstructed, but is a real drill – a found object, and an antique. As was Epstein’s original drill, not an antique at the time, though it would be now if it had survived. It occurs to me that the “new” drill might actually be a few years older than the “old” drill. So this is a backward looking recreation of a forward looking piece that has not survived, using an element that may be older than the original. Where exactly should I peg it on my time line?

I head back. On the ramp up to the station a very elderly man with a hard, white little beard is sheltering from the drizzle, unsmiling, as if living has little left to offer him. He holds on a pole a pink placard advertising Eyebrow Threading and Eyelash Extensions, perhaps in preparation for his imminent return to youthfulness by means of reincarnation.

My return train is already at the platform. As this is its terminus, will it proceed or reverse? Uncertain even as to which end the engine may be, I pick my seat. A fifty per cent chance, past or future. That’s fair. The train sways into movement. I have bet correctly, and am propelled towards the future, or rather back to the resumption of the present.

A few stations later, I am accosted by the oldest ticket inspector I have ever seen. His lack of height is amplified by a vicious stoop, and he proceeds like a nervous question mark. Maybe his expeditions through past and future and back again, repeated without mercy, have taken their toll on his metabolism; has he not been granted the time travellers’ immunity? He scrutinises my ticket, holding it an inch or two from his nose, and pronounces that I have offered him my outward half, not its return twin. This seems improbable, but when I ask if I might check the ticket myself, he presses it to his hollow chest and hobbles off with it, muttering that he will be back later. Which ticket was it, to past or future? And, given that they are not collected in at the barrier any more, what has happened to the other one? This is unsettling; I sense conspiracy. He does not return, and I conclude that he must be some variety of phantasm, an undead figment, a wobbling anomaly thrown up by the scraping time-plates.

At my home station it is still raining, just as it was when I started my journey. And, amazingly, my car is exactly where I left it. To my relief, I am back in the present moment. I retrieve my car keys and pick up where I left off.

Boundaries

boundaries
The “park” is less a park proper than a vast, levelled, uninterrupted area of urban grassland – what used to be known as a recreation ground. A playground and a sports cage occupy one end, and a pair of drooping goalposts the other. Along the far side a tractor pulling a mower spews out clouds of grass cuttings. At intervals a middle aged man appears on a motor scooter, riding up and down the turf for no apparent reason other than recreation. Under the relentless sun my two year old grandson and I kick a ball around inexpertly by a bench at the perimeter. There is no one else much about.

Except for an oddly thin young man walking rapidly inside the otherwise empty sports cage. He circulates the inner face of the wire compulsively, sometimes pausing at the corners as if to get his bearings. At present he is moving anti-clockwise. He keeps his head as close to the mesh as is manageable, holding his left hand with palm and fingers flat to blinker his eye, so that his field of vision is filled by the pattern of the wire. From time to time he reverses direction, changing hands. He does not venture out of the open exit, and he does not deviate inwards across the open tarmac. Nearby, two people who I take for his minders wait by a small white van.

I watch him for a while. He is engaged in the maintenance of his boundaries, checking the vital security of their closeness, reinforcing and repairing the borders of his known space. By so doing he allays, from moment to moment, the anxieties that threaten to overwhelm him, defends his sense of self against the horror of the vacuum. Good for him. I don’t blame him.

While I have been preoccupied in watching, my grandson has toddled off across the grass at an astonishing speed, heading for the enormous, empty heart of the sunlit plain. The inverted flower pot of his sun hat bobs to the rhythm of his running; his hands dangle decoratively, but his short legs shunt like pistons. His diminutive silhouette finally comes to a distant halt under a huge sky and turns to look back at me.

There are no obstacles or pitfalls, no discernible danger in the featureless field; no one else is anywhere near. The motor scooter man can no longer be seen, and the tiny tractor is still busy mowing on the far side. My grandson is free to run as extravagantly as he likes into the exhilarating openness. But I hear my voice shout out: “Kieran, don’t go too far!”

I am recalling him to his boundaries.

Fear and loathing at the local archives

The doors to the Archives:
Abandon Hope all ye who Enter Here

Even before the doors of the Archives are open, we’re all there, stood awkwardly outside with our mini-rucksacks and folders. Some of us appear critically infirm. One or two clearly wish to be considered by the world as characters, and have invested considerable effort in cultivating discreet but assertive eccentricities of dress or manner. Others, oblivious to anything outside the focus of their pet projects, betray in their behaviour that narrowed spatial awareness of the selfish elderly. Nearly all of us have white hair, or no hair at all.

Well, it’s a cheap day out: an oldie’s bus pass takes us from the Park and Ride, and we bring our flasks and a cheese sandwich for a lunchtime break. On the stroke of ten we file in, though we are not at all relaxed about it; there is an edginess in the air, a concealed, competitive panic in our movements as we claim our lockers, sign the sheet and jostle politely to book in with the archivist at the counter. This politeness is the tense, superficial, survivalist formality of a dying person sucking milk through a straw. Our urgency is the hurry of mortality; few of us seem much under seventy five, and we are single-mindedly anxious to pin down definitively our family histories before we ourselves become just another small part of them. We need to know who we are, before we become no one. And when the last ancestor is pinned to the tree, then we may close our eyes and sleep beneath it, as we deserve. Not that I am here to research my own genealogy, which puts me in a clear minority in this company. (As a matter of fact, I am studying the local military history of the period of the Napoleonic wars, though that is beside the point, and unlikely to interest you.)

On my way to the secure door of the reading room, I peel off a number of my fellow researchers who, with practised urgency, hunch down busily over microfilm readers, winding on their chosen reels with clear desperation. They peer over their glasses at the screens, eyes narrowed and teeth bared in rictus sneers of concentration. Already, a couple of them have accosted the archivist, whom they attempt to involve in the dead ends of their researches into the dead, concerning which they provide unnecessarily lengthy detail. The job of an archivist is demanding; listening skills are clearly a key qualification. The aged speechifiers do not seek solutions, though. Rather, they demand affirmation, a sign of solidarity, an indication that a fellow human being may be properly interested in the minutiae that have overwhelmed their own diminishing attention span.

In the reading room I claim my pre-ordered documents, and sharpen a pencil while the assistant unboxes them. When they arrive, it appears that there is a problem. As this deposit has never been fully catalogued, its numbers refer to bundles rather than to individual documents, and some of the bundles bear no numbers. The archivist and I try unsuccessfully to reconcile the unidentified bundles with the leather bound typescript catalogue that is supposed to reference them. I sense that I also am beginning to speechify, so I compromise graciously, and forego some bundles, which in any case appear to be worryingly fragile. The archivist is nervous about material like this being issued to tables. I suspect that she would prefer to ensure its preservation at all costs, even if this means that no-one ever reads it. Ever. But what if one of the untouchable bundles contains evidence that is key to my lines of enquiry?

Ancestral angst in the reading room

And the relation between those lines is problematic. It all begins with the catalogue system, and that is not coherent. A new searchable database does exist, but there is much material that it does not yet contain, and may never catch up with. Beyond that we must have recourse to the long shelves of old bound volumes, into which, between the wars, anaemic and bespectacled clerks attempted to list in numerical order the essentials of many thousands of pieces of faded paper, most of which have never been scrutinised since. These volumes are neither uniform nor consistent in their organisation or purpose, and there are suspicious gaps in their coverage. So where is the catalogue of catalogues, the meta-catalogue? There have been several attempts to compile over-arching subject indices, but these were sketchy at the time of their compilation, and have been made inadequate by the arrival of new acquisitions. There is, it seems, no central comprehensive overview, no catalogue of the catalogues of catalogues.

In the volume I am attempting to use, a well thumbed slip, pasted onto the first page, offers a Gestetnered apology for chaos:

“This actual collection was deposited in several stages. Some basic sorting had been undertaken in advance of deposit and this process was initially continued after the material arrived. The listing and indexing of some sections was also begun while additional records were also received, some of the latter actually relating to the sections already listed. These factors have inhibited a comprehensive sort of the collection and its archival arrangement.”

I chew at my pencil, haunted by the suspicion that at unknown intervals in the locked vaults may be entombed richly illuminating jewels of information, unobtainable anywhere else, but unlisted or misidentified, and so forever beyond access. My study may never be complete. The notion of completeness is always an ideal that withdraws, like a doorway in a dream. I know that. And it seems that, once again, I will have to downgrade. But at what point does my “complete” plunge so far that it falls into absolute incompleteness, and becomes worthless?

And in any case, what am I eventually going to do with all these accumulated pads of scribbled notes? I haven’t quite decided. In my more aspirational moments I imagine that I will complete a substantial and definitive volume, exhaustively footnoted and handsomely illustrated. Self-published at considerable expense, admittedly, but at least I will proudly present copies to a delegation of grateful local historians, and my name will be immortalised on Google.

Right now I need to make a decision about which bundle of crumbling papers to ask for next, but the archivist seems to have slipped out for coffee, and her assistant has been engaged by an elderly man sporting a lifelong collection of lapel badges, a single bicycle clip and a fresh spot of morning toothpaste on his chin, who is in full flow with regard to the vexed issue of copyright on a  photograph of a demolished fire station.

Let’s face it – this isn’t going to happen.

[From 101 Unrealised Projects, a stubbornly incomplete work in suspended progress.]

Beyond the border: nostalgia for the Communist world

The other day I came across some long forgotten colour slides from a visit to the Soviet Union in 1967, and tried scanning half a dozen that I had snapped while wandering around the bleak streets of northern Leningrad. The colours didn’t scan well, but greyscale suits these, and I like the flyspeck wear and tear too. They sit quite nicely alongside an unfinished short story that I once attempted in response to a disturbing dream of Eastern bloc nostalgia. Images and a bit of text are on a page here, or via the “Beyond the border” tab at the top.

With the historical collapse of state communism, the world of these images became inaccessible. It can never be reconstructed. Nostalgia for it is then all the more acute and urgent, as if for some vanished childhood, when we were poor but secure. It has receded into an Audenesque landscape of the soul, forever fascinating and comforting in its drab otherness. It is the world of our common innocence.

Seven Suicides: some Dead British Artists

My friend and colleague Shirley suggested the other day that I put online “Seven Suicides: some Dead British Artists”, my series of large pen and ink drawings and accompanying texts, which visualise the regrettable deaths of various 20thc British artists. These were exhibited briefly at St Peter’s Church in Wolverhampton in late 2007, and haven’t been seen since. So here they are (or use the tab at the top here). The names of the seven are on the flier for the show on the right here, and are among those in the tags below.

My comments on the critical neglect of Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde were written before the publication of  Roger Bristow’s 2010 joint biography and catalogue raisonee of the Two Roberts, The Last Bohemians. (Naff title, but a most excellent book.)

The failure of self-image

We all parade around with a picture inside our heads of how we think we look. It’s amusing to sit people-watching, and mind-read by decoding appearances, working backwards from the less impressive reality of the optimistic haircut and the too-young clothes. Amusing, that is, until you catch sight of yourself in the mirror …

The failure of self-image. We slip seamlessly from lamb to mutton, from Promethean to Quixotic, from the aspirational to the absurd.

On the other hand, it takes balls to wear skinny leggings, six inch heels and a plastic flower in your hair when you’re well over seventy, like the lady who has just walked into the supermarket café as I write. Respect, madam! Failures of self-image, we salute you! The absurd is always absurd, but it can take on a heroic dignity. At least we’re trying, even if our efforts fall short, as we know in our hearts that they will.

The gap between aspiration and absurdity: this is the space in which we all live.

(from 101 Unrealised Projects, a work possibly in progress)

The Expertiser Speaks

We enter the study by an oak door, solid with quality, fitted in brass, and lined by a heavy crimson velvet
curtain. The lighting is low but warm, giving the discreet suggestion of candlelight. The walls are mostly in shadow,
but a desk lamp casts a central pool of reflected yellow, streaked with smoke. The overall impression is of good
furniture polished to a rich patina, dark curtains, modest watercolours or engravings of traditional subjects but of
indisputable quality, heavy rugs on dark parquet, walls lined with leather-spined books, and a great deal of oak
panelling.

As we move hesitantly towards the softly lit desk, the seated figure of the Expertiser leans forward out of the
shadow and looks up to greet us with a slight but knowing smile. With an economical gesture of his right hand,
surprisingly heavy with rings, he proffers a chair, and we sit to face him across the desk. With a well manicured left
hand he lowers his briar pipe, setting it down gently into a hefty marble ashtray as a sign of deference. Of
indeterminate but patrician late middle age, his greyed hair is brushed neatly back, and shrewd but cruel eyes
look out over tortoiseshell rims. A modest russet-flecked tie is worn with a good but soft shirt (perhaps Austin
Reed), which, together with the Barbour cardigan, signal that he is at leisure. He might pass for a retired
politician, a senior civil servant, or the chairman of some established corporate concern, and indeed in his
other life he may be any or all of these. But here in the warm, chocolatey seclusion of the study, the proper
pursuit is philately, and other things are not spoken of.

Besides the lamp, ashtray and pipe, the broad desk top bears an array of items in more or less orderly confusion,
comprising a wallet of dark tobacco with a Bond Street imprint; a number of brass-rimmed magnifying glasses of
various strengths; philatelic handbooks, reference volumes and ancient auction catalogues, open awkwardly at
pertinent pages; a spiral-bound notebook; a little boxy gizmo that we recognise as an electric watermark detector;
three pairs of well sprung silver tweezers with spade or rounded ends; an antique Parker fountain pen; scattered
envelopes and transparent wallets; a well-thumbed “Instanta” perforation gauge; a Thirkell Position Finder (a
square slip of transparent plastic printed with a grid, half enclosed in its printed brown card case); an expensive
ultra violet light box, and a small paper bag containing a few mint imperials.

For the moment, the Expertiser says nothing. It would not be at all proper for him to voice his deepest thoughts,
but in any case, as we sit in silence to meet the scrutiny of his expert gaze, we know that we can
understand without the need for conversation. We can read it all in his eyes.

We understand that his signature on a committee’s certificate of genuineness can add tens of thousands to the
value of a disputed scrap of paper. Alternatively, we know that with a stroke of his pen he can eliminate the
equivalent of a small man’s lifetime savings, and not infrequently does. It is true that the Expertiser’s immediate
concern is with money, but it would be unworthy of us to assume that this is the limit of his interest. At heart
his concern is with that for which money is merely leverage – namely, power. But not personal power, for the
expertiser is driven by duty, and the power he is able to exert is entirely at the service of his paramount principle,
which is Order.

And what is that Order?

Any tuppeny-ha’penny stamp collector who strays beyond the tidy taxonomies of his familiar catalogue pages
inevitably finds himself staring into the formless void of swirling phenomena that is philatelic reality. Confronted by
this chaotic flux of paper scraps that defy proper pattern and category, of postmarks that aren’t what the book
says they are, of things-that-don’t-quite-fit and things-that-shouldn’t-be, he knows that he is peering into the pit
of hell, and that this is his punishment for the pigmy arrogance that led him to consider, in an unguarded moment,
that he might like to conduct a little “original research” of his own.

At this moment the tuppeny-ha’penny stamp collector passes painfully from innocence into experience, and
becomes – a philatelist. But if it is the function of the philatelist to create order from the chaos that he uncovers,
he is no different in that respect to all those who, in their own various ways, regulate their own various corners
of the Great Chaos with their own various theories, ideologies or scientific models. And among the fraternity of
philatelists, the Expertiser is simply the final arbiter. The Expertiser believes sincerely that because there is no God,
it is necessary to act for Him.

However, the methods of scientific enquiry that he employs can prove ambiguous, and it is therefore his axiom
that their results must never be allowed to damage the coherence of the current totality of philatelic
knowledge, which may be enlarged, reordered or otherwise modified, but must never be put in a position of
self-contradiction. So it is the Expertiser’s role to consider judiciously which particular slivers of an uncooperative
reality should be permitted to re-shape the whole. And it follows that on certain occasions, he is obliged, for
reasons of ethics, to leave a particular boat unrocked. There exists, for example, a “forgery”, declared as such by
the Expertiser’s considered signature, that, unknown to its disappointed owner, could have halved the market
price of its “unique” and undoubtedly genuine counterpart, creating a chain-effect of disturbance, had not the
Expertiser, with moral heroism, set aside his initial verdict in favour of the greater good. All quite different to
the simple notions of his work entertained by ignorant layfolk. But we may forgive the layfolk their ignorance,
for the Expertiser’s judgements are always made invisibly, in the oaken privacy of this study. He is, absolutely,
a wheel within wheels.

In everything his conscience is entirely clear. And, in this regard also, he might pass for a senior statesman, a
Whitehall mandarin, an organised crime boss or a captain of industry.

All this is understood between us in the space, at most, of a few seconds, in a pause between gestures. At last,
the Expertiser settles back, with a faintly audible scrunch of leather upholstery, poises his fingertips artfully but
without effort in a neat steeple just below his chin, raises his gaze a little above our eye level, as if in fond recall,
and starts to speak:

“Of course, I’m flattered by your interest. But you know, if truth be told, the actual details of my work are
technical 
and tedious to an extreme, and I doubt that they would be of interest to any save a minority of fellow
fanatics, those 
of us who spend our spare time embroidering our anoraks, so to speak …”

He chuckles. We join in, politely.

“But I imagine that you are primarily concerned with what they call ‘the human angle’, and on reflection I suppose
that a good many cases worthy of examination in this respect have come to my knowledge over the years,
though in 
some of them my personal involvement has been considerably, ah um, oblique. But I shall be more than
happy to
share them with you.

Where shall we begin?”


From Perforations. Tales from the dark side of philately, a never-to-be-finished novel.

Perforations is a portmanteau novel, a collection of intertwined short stories.
It is about: addiction, death, karma, metaphysical dread, redemption, Third World development, revolution, forgery and stamps.”

Roundabout safari

Roundabouts. Small but perfect islands, still jewels set in hostile, rushing rivers of metal and tarmac noise. Islands of silence, uninhabited, unvisited. How often, as you have swept off at the second exit, cursing the poor lane management of the driver in front, while catching momentary, parting glimpses of your sidewards fellow voyagers, each, like yourself, tight lipped and frozen darkly behind glass – how often have you not longed to explore, at your leisure, the strange topography of that grassy Eden, planted with two silver birches, a few shrubs like tired mounds of pubic hair, and a small placard sponsored by a local haulier – a topography of which you have been aware, as of an unsatisfactory vision in a dream, only from the corner of your eye?

Cease your motion, says the vision. Stop a while. Visit me. Find refuge here.

But there are no visitors. These are deserted islands. Cousins, in fact, to the desert islands in that peculiar genre of single column, quick gag cartoons, now probably encountered only in the cartoon museum, that are set on gentle, circular mounds with a single palm tree, against the horizon of a sea that is featureless, save for the occasional circling shark fin. But cartoon islands sustain, miraculously, two or three shipwrecked characters. (Seated woman glowering at edge of island, her back to standing man who leans casually against the palm tree as he addresses second woman: “My wife thinks I’m having an affair.”) So where are the Robinson Crusoes of our roundabouts, the astronauts who will land upon these inverted craters? Where are the actors to create situations in these open air theatres in the round, these amphitheatres of turf?

Their absence has been noted. The official mind has considered the emptiness of these spaces and has logged it as a source of social anxiety. And it has offered an improving solution: roundabout sculpture. As a genre, this has been properly neglected by the critics. It is produced, like much civic outdoor art, by artists you have never heard of, usually references some local industrial heritage in which the community is to be encouraged to take pride now that it is long and entirely gone, and is often financed by a distant European Union fund. As art pops up across the panoramas of the planning departments, our roundabouts now sprout industrial abstractions, spangled Pegasi, or rusting piles of steel that resemble abandoned rockets. Most of this is regrettable. None of it begins to compensate for the human absence.

For three decades until his death from pneumonia in 2007 at the age of 86, Josef Stawinoga, generally known as “Fred the Ring Road Tramp”, lived under canvas on a stretch of the grassy central reservation of the Wolverhampton ring road, where he busied himself each day sweeping up the leaves into neat piles under the overlooking trees. There are some interesting aspects to his story, not least his veneration as a holy man by the local Hindu and Sikh communities, and the urban legends that attached to him – had he been a guard in Hitler’s SS? Did he really have a huge stash of untouched pension money? And so on. But the essential point here is that Fred had colonised, if not a roundabout, at least a sizeable piece of virgin urban no man’s land, untrodden by any human boot since that of the engineers and landscapers who laid it out, and had claimed it as his habitation.

That this was setting a dangerous precedent was recognised shortly after Fred’s funeral by District Judge Shamim Quereshi, in imposing an exclusion order on Christopher Phillips, aged 26, who had been living in a tent on another section of the ring road with his partner whom he had assaulted while drunk and disorderly. Judge Quereshi defined the limit of the exclusion order as the outer edge of the road. “This is not going to be a tented ring road for people who have nowhere else to live,” he declared. “Only one tramp was allowed to do that, and he is now dead.” He added helpfully: “This will effectively make you homeless but you are homeless anyway.”

But these are only the pioneers, the first to hear the call of the last wild places on earth. Our roundabouts demand their explorers, their settlers, their dramatis personae. Had I the time, energy and sponsorship (which I have not), I would take steps immediately to organise a well equipped and substantial expedition, that would traverse England by foot from Newquay to Norfolk, planting its tents on each roundabout within its route. Photos would evidence these small triumphs, an enormously popular blog would record the team’s progress, and documentary rights would be sold to Channel Four.

So be brave, my imaginary crew, and take back the roundabouts of Albion! Carve your pathway through the mosaic of KFC wrappers and cracked plastic wheel trim, the flotsam and jetsam of a tired civilisation that decorate the outer shores of the chosen ground that will host your tents. Ascend the gentle but significant dome of turf that marks this as a real place, a locus that requires your genius – your mound, your castle, your keep, your finders keepers. Brush apart the corporate daffodils and plant firmly at their centre the flag of your new republic. The world will applaud.

(from 101 Unrealised Projects, a work still in progress)