Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Marie's Place Is Empty

Originally published by the New Statesman

I walk along Fatemi Avenue in Tehran amid the swirling dust of a gathering electrical storm, the tulip-shaped towers of the Hotel Laleh swimming in a heat haze over honking afternoon traffic. I muster a smile for the doormen in peaked caps and gold lanyard and stroll purposefully into the foyer, freezing after a few steps and looking around me. For ten days this visit has loomed over my annual trip to the Iranian capital like the black flower of the hotel itself; now that I’m here, I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing.

The glamorous trappings of the lobby haven’t changed in seven years: an enormous art deco chandelier still forms an inverted pyramid of light over tables and chairs, the former dressed with red and white flowers, the latter upholstered with mock Gucci embroidery and occupied by a mix of bemused tourists and bored looking businessmen. There’s an unmanned grand piano, a bronze statue of Hafez’s tomb, a marble reception hung with mandatory portraits of the ayatollahs, eyes narrowed as though scanning the lobby for licentious behaviour.

I spot a receptionist studying me with interest, and in a split second convince myself that this is the same man who checked Marie in the night she arrived in 2005; who cracked a joke about Rupert Murdoch when she mentioned the Sunday Times, and who managed not to stare at her eye patch the way I had when I’d met her at the taxi rank ten minutes earlier. Suddenly self conscious, I turn and walk into the lobby, sit and order a pot of tea, aware only after the waiter has departed that I’m seated at our old table; that opposite me – to paraphrase a popular Iranian saying – Marie’s place is empty.

I’d been in Tehran for three months when Marie Colvin arrived to cover the presidential elections for the Sunday Times. I’d somehow wrangled work as home news editor of a national English-language newspaper despite my abysmal Farsi, a job that entailed rewriting largely unintelligible newswires on earthquakes and plane crashes (so many earthquakes and plane crashes), and righteous affirmations of Iran’s nuclear program. They were exciting and unsettling days: exciting because I was finally doing what everyone back home would see as ‘real journalism’ after years of travel writing and reviewing; unsettling because I felt like a fraud, and not just because of my second-rate Farsi.

I’d realised on arrival that I didn’t have the character of a news journalist; that I lacked the cynical swagger and the deadline in the blood. I wrote the occasional whimsical piece for publications back home – a story on underground poetry clubs for the New Statesman, another on coffee shop youth culture for the BBC – but when I pitched similar human interest efforts to the Sunday Times (a paper whose foreign editor had called me at Heathrow to express his happiness at having someone ‘on the ground’), they were turned down, and I was encouraged instead to put together something on the forthcoming elections. I didn’t have a mobile, so the foreign desk kept calling my grandmother’s house, where I was staying, only to have her bark insensibly down the phone until either party hung up or I realised what was happening and jumped on the line.

Still, as the first round approached I managed to write something on the elections – a few hundred words towing the widely accepted wisdom that former president and remade liberal Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would sweep to victory (he had recently appeared on a Time magazine cover with the headline ‘Iran’s Next President’). I wrote it under the pseudonym Ali Bandari, something I told the Sunday Times would ensure against a conflict of interests with my own paper, though it was actually because I’d been refused a journalist’s visa, and could be arrested if my name was discovered in foreign publications.

Rafsanjani found himself vying for the second round against Tehran’s mayor, a hardliner called Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose rare appearances in the international press had been as a caricature spouting semi-comical quotes about cutting off hands and strangling democracy. The story acquired an extra page and the Sunday Times sent in the cavalry – hence my meeting Marie Colvin at the Hotel Laleh that June evening, attempting to sound fluent as I bantered with her taxi driver and ordered a pot of tea at what would become our regular table.

She asked my opinion on what might happen at the ballots; I swallowed my pride over the first story (‘Rafsanjani’s seemingly full-blooded independence looks set to propel him to victory,’ says Ali Bandari), and told her what people were now saying in the office: that Ahmadinejad had a real chance of winning. That while Rafsanjani had been measuring his head for the crown and receiving the international media at his palatial Tehran offices, Ahmadinejad had been touring the provinces in a beat up orange bus, speaking in mosques and emphasising to the common people that it wasn’t just their right to vote, it was their Islamic duty. It had also become clear that he was Ayatollah Khamenei’s choice for president; beyond that, little else seemed to matter.

We had three days before Marie needed to file the story, days I spent almost entirely in the office, sometimes empty save for the caretaker’s son who careered around the floor in a plastic pedal car, crashing into desks and upturning chairs. I blackened my fingers flipping through back issues of the paper in enormous bound folders, filled notebooks with background on the candidates – details of Rafsanjani’s two terms as president between 1989 and 1997, of Ahmadinejad’s possible role in the American hostage crisis of 1979. When I did leave the office, it was to visit disparate parts of the capital and conduct interviews with potential voters – from wizened merchants hunched over sacks of dates and dried limes in the downtown bazaar, to Gucci-draped Persian princesses drifting around uptown shopping malls, headscarves serving as little more than hammocks for their dyed and dreadlocked hair.

At the end of each day I’d hop in a battered cab to the Hotel Laleh, euphoric and exhausted, arms laden with bundles of printed and photocopied paper, feet wincing with blisters. Marie and I would face each other over our usual table, a pot of tea between us, and I’d fill the gaps in her story, providing political context and local colour that her schedule of rigorously enforced press conferences left her unable to pursue. Once done with business we’d settle into our chairs and exchange war stories – hers filled with snipers and hostages, mine with ski resorts and secluded city bars. If she found my situation comical then she didn’t let on; she seemed impressed by my diligence, and implied that I might have a promising career at the Sunday Times, news she dropped into the conversation without realising that it caused the entire lobby to begin tilting beneath my feet.

That Friday morning I took my Iranian passport to the Tajrish mosque and purpled my finger with a vote for Rafsanjani. The results began filtering in the following afternoon, a day I spent glued to my computer, newswires piling up beside me as I refreshed the online vote count and watched Ahmadinejad snake closer to victory. Every hour I called the Laleh to update Marie, her smoke-stained phone voice instilling in my mind a timeless picture of the journalist’s hotel room: curtains closed, ashtrays overflowing, papers strewn over an unmade bed.

By the time I arrived at the hotel that evening Ahmadinejad’s victory had been announced, Marie’s story filed and her taxi to the airport booked. We drank a celebratory pot of tea, the piano occupied for the first and only time by a young man fiddling Persian flourishes into schmaltzy 1980s ballads. Afterwards she walked me to reception, shook my hand and gave me her card, scribbling her personal email on the back and encouraging me to drop her a line when I got back to London. “If you get back to London,” she said, winking to imply that she knew only too well how hard it would be to tear myself away.

I decided to walk back to my grandmother’s house that night. The streets were quiet after days ringing with protests and street parties and the names of candidates screamed from passing cars. The city seemed to have admitted defeat, to have folded in on itself to regard this latest development from a fearful distance. Yet I found myself smiling as I walked, swinging my steps in time to a piano ballad and greedily dismantling a bar of chocolate given to me in parting by Marie – a woman who had helped me find in three days what had previously eluded me for three months. Who had stopped me from feeling like a fraud.

Behind me, the dusk sky was scattered with bats, and the funereal towers of the Hotel Laleh receded for the last time, or so I thought.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Squirrels (Parts I & II)


A few years ago, two friends and I began renting a house at the top of Brixton Hill. It wasn’t a glamorous house – there’d been a hypodermic syringe sitting on a mantelpiece when the estate agent had shown us round (an ornament she made a heroic effort to ignore) – but it was big: a massive kitchen, large living room, creepy basement, a garden, and four bedrooms split between three of us, though our third was a lawyer caught up in a big case abroad, and couldn’t have spent more than a month in the house that whole year.

Best of all was my third-floor garret, separated from the rest of the house by two sets of doors and comprising a bedroom, a bathroom and a small office that I turned into a music studio. My housemate Will was using his own bedroom as a design workshop, yet entire days would go by without us bumping into each other; half the time I didn’t even know if there was anyone else in the building. I remember thinking from day one that it was the closest thing to an ideal living situation I’d ever encountered in London, and wondering how long it would be before something broke the spell.

The answer came a few weeks into our stay, when I woke one night to the sound of scurrying in the loft space a few feet above my head. As the veteran of more than one drawn-out campaign against domestic rodents, I knew from the noise that these weren’t house mice – there was an awful implication of mass to the bodies I heard scampering over floorboards and burrowing into boxes, and I felt sure I could discern the sound of claws scraping along exposed pipes.

The following morning I called our landlady and told her there were rats in the attic. There was a pause, then a sad sigh. They weren’t rats, she said, they were squirrels. They’d found their way in the previous summer via an overhanging branch, after which she’d had pest control in to lay traps, blocked up all the holes and trimmed back the trees, hoping that would be the end of it. She said she’d send someone over, and apologised for any inconvenience in the meantime.

A couple of days later the Rentokil guy showed up. He was a sinister sort, speaking slowly and with an emotional blankness that I assumed could only have come from prolonged exposure to the suffering of small animals with expressive eyes. Access to the loft was via a ceiling hatch in the corridor that joined my garret with the stairs leading back to the rest of the house; I waited anxiously while he poked around up there with a flashlight, returning a few minutes later to tell me that he was going to set up a few guillotine boxes. “Only thing big enough to take out squirrels,” he said. He asked me to guess what he used to bait them, and I told him I didn’t know. He produced a Topic bar from his overalls. “Squirrels can’t get enough of these things,” he said, unwrapping and biting into it in a way that was deeply unsettling. “Developed quite a taste for them myself, over the years.”

He told me that the traps went off with a loud bang, and that I’d probably be better off sleeping elsewhere for a week or so. I didn’t tell him that I’d vacated my own room that first night, and had since been sleeping on a nest of sofa cushions on the living room floor. Over the coming days I spent as little time as possible in the garret – I continued to work in my studio, but seemed incapable of listening to music for more than a few seconds without becoming convinced I could hear tiny claws skittering somewhere in the mix. I’d pause the track and sit waiting for a bang and a terrible scream, but there was only silence. On a couple of occasions the Rentokil guy returned to dispose of bodies that he carried out the attic and down the stairs in bin liners; once I heard him chuckling to himself as he poked around in the carnage above me. Yet in all that time I saw and heard nothing more of the squirrels themselves. The whole unpleasant episode, it seemed, might yet come to a close without my having to stare into the abyss itself.

Until the morning of my birthday, a weekday on which I crawled back into the house around 7am after a night spent celebrating with a girl I was seeing. I remember the feeling of contentment as I walked back up the hill, the first commuters filing on to public transport like condemned men and women while the rising sun set clouds alight. I remember stopping to pick up a box of cereal and eating two bowls at the kitchen table before sinking into the sofa cushions for what I felt sure would be a long and conclusive sleep, only to wake, no more than an hour later, to the sound of a man screaming.

I ran into the kitchen in time to find Will closing the door to the garden behind him, his morning cigarette still unlit in his fingers, his eyes wild and head shaking slowly. He told me not to go outside. I asked why, and he said because it was my birthday, and no one should start their birthday looking at something like that. I stepped around him, opened the back door and walked out into the garden, and saw something that even now I struggle to describe, despite the fact that I only have to close my eyes for a moment to see it printed against the black canvas of my subconscious.

It was half a squirrel. More than half a squirrel, perhaps, but certainly not 75%. Nor by calling it half a squirrel do I mean to suggest that it was neatly bisected along some obvious biological fault line – I wasn’t looking at the front end of a squirrel, nor the rear end. There was a front and a hind leg remaining, but they were both on the same side; the other side was a cross-section of bones and burst organs hanging in pink and blue ribbons. There was no tail, but there was a head, and the black eyes were open. The trail of blood told a horrifying story: the animal must have somehow worked its way side-on into one of those grisly guillotines, losing limbs and organs in the process, expending the last of its life force crawling out of the loft before either climbing or falling down the tree into the garden.

I’m not sure how long I’d been staring before I became aware of Will behind me, cigarette in one hand, bin liner in the other. He told me to go back to bed, that he’d sort out the mess. I didn’t argue. I picked up a card and a present from the kitchen table as I passed through, gathered my duvet from the living room and moved back into my bedroom. I never heard another squirrel scurrying around the attic, the Rentokil man never came to pick up the last of his traps, and I’ve never been able to look at a Topic bar since.


That was nearly four years ago. I’m still at the top of Brixton Hill, living alone in a one-bed flat in a big white block that under cover of night you might convincingly pass off as ‘art deco’. A nice enough place – clean and bright, glorious views of Telford bus garage, the 24-hour engine sound of which is a great balm to my tinnitus. I’m not here much – the place is a holding pen of sorts, a white pod in which to sleep and eat, to check emails and recharge appliances between days spent making music in a Soho studio. It’s not often that I find myself stuck in the flat with time to kill, but when I do, I tend to go walking in Brockwell Park, and that’s exactly what happened last Sunday evening.

The sun was setting by the time I arrived, but the heat of the day still lingered on the lawns; picnickers remained scattered around piles of crisp packets and empty cider bottles, parents sat gazing as their babies stumbled after butterflies, young couples lay entwined in each other's arms, drunk on desire. I’d bought a coffee en route, and I sipped it on a hill overlooking the city skyline, which shimmered against a canvas of electric yellow cloud. I thought how calm and stately those towers seemed, and wondered what my preference for viewing London from a distance said about the potential imbalance of the active and contemplative parts of my life. After half an hour or so, a cool breeze picking up and the hills clearing of people, I stood and began making my way home.

That was when I saw the squirrel, a crumpled pile of fur at the base of a big tree lining the path. Not a baby squirrel, but certainly no more than a kid – small paws undeveloped, body no wider than a belt. He lay motionless on his stomach, back twisted awkwardly and rear end elevated in a way that suggested a nose-dive towards the earth. I stepped closer, noticed simultaneously that his fur was crawling with lice and that his little chest was rising and falling so faintly as to be almost imperceptible in the gathering shadow. My mind turned over a dozen different instructions on what to do when discovering the victim of a violent accident, none of which seemed applicable to squirrels. With a single hand I gathered his body in my fingers, attempted gently to lift him from the ground, at which point his front legs began stretching uselessly, paws clawing at the grass, his breathing quickening though his eyes remained closed.

I called my brother, a doctor with a garden and a great deal of empathy, and he told me, as I feared he would, that the humane thing to do would be to end its misery. He warned against breaking its neck with my hands for fear of bad dreams if it went wrong. He asked if I had a spade to hand; I told him I did not. He suggested finding a large rock with which crush its skull, and I said I’d have a look, hanging up and sitting back down beside the squirrel. I couldn’t recall seeing any large rocks in my years walking Brockwell Park, and I didn’t intend to leave the thing to start looking now. I took a moment to focus my thoughts, glanced around the park to make sure I wasn’t being watched, reached over and took the squirrel’s head in my fingers.

At that moment I heard squeaking from high in the tree above me, and looking up I saw another squirrel, no larger than this one, frantically crying out as he skittered over branches. I stood and watched, certain I was about to witness a second plummeting squirrel turned into a twisted pile of limbs. His ability to cling to the tree was untrained – I couldn’t shake the image of the pair of them breaking out of the nest without parental permission – and more than once I watched him lose his footing and skid perilously close to the edge of the branch, all the while emitting a terrible babyish whimper filled with what sounded like familial loss. When I knelt back over the injured squirrel, his eyes were open, and he was making a wet, drawn out whine of his own, breaths that sounded like broken bricks being dragged along a broken road.

At that point I did what seemed the only thing left available to me: I took out my phone and began searching online for nearby animal hospitals. I got some advice from a lady who ran a charity in Croydon, left a message with a man who operated a volunteer animal ambulance in east London, listened to a recorded summary of the weekday opening hours of a rescue centre in Beckenham. Finally it occurred to me to call the RSPCA, the receptionist at which said they’d send an ambulance to my flat if I could find a box to carry the squirrel home in. I hung up and made a quick circuit of the few remaining picnic parties in close vicinity; none had any boxes, nor did the bins yield anything but sauce-encrusted takeaway cartons. I returned to the squirrel, removed my jumper, lifted him gently into it, and began walking over the darkening earth in the direction of home.

The world we passed through seemed created entirely for the occasion. Heavy shadows lay over the residential streets leading away from the park, yet the sky remained a sort of powdery blue, the clouds faded pink, no longer electrified at the edges by the sun, which had long ago set, but all the more beautiful for it. I pointed this out to the squirrel, who I had named Shen; I told him that the thing about sunsets, with their solar pyrotechnics and ceremonial stages of apocalypse, was that they were constantly changing – perhaps that was what made them so powerful, I said, the compressed span of their cosmic collapse instilling in us a sense of what our own lives probably look like in timelapse. But this thing that followed – this pale blue sky, these pink clouds – seemed in its majestic calm to imply something endless and peaceful following the firework shows that our little lives comprise.

It wasn’t easy to tell amid the shadows how much of this was going in. Shen remained slumped against the folds of my jumper, his front legs splayed at the same awkward angle they’d occupied in the park, his eyes closed. I gave him a gentle poke and saw his head shift, his little paws clutching empty air, and I sped up a little. I kept talking as we approached the flat; I told Shen about the building, which I felt no qualms describing as ‘art deco’ given the cover of darkness, and I apologised in advance for the mess – I’d not known I’d be having guests, I said. I told him not to expect anything grand; I explained about the studio in Soho, and how this was just a holding cell, a place to sleep and eat and recharge appliances. The usual spiel. If he was judging me, he managed not to show it.

Back in the flat I laid his broken body down on the living room floor, noticing as I did so that the jumper he rested on was already seething with lice. I set to work with a pair of scissors and a small cardboard box snatched from the recycling bin outside, padded the thing out with an old T-shirt and scattered a few raisins at the head end in an attempt to make it feel more like a luxury squirrel carriage than an IKEA squirrel coffin. I laid Shen inside – his breathing was almost imperceptible now – and carried the box out on to the balcony, where we sat looking south over Streatham. I apologised for the scaffolding, cursed the ongoing renovation work, pointed out Telford bus garage and made passing reference to its soothing qualities for a tinnitus sufferer. Just small talk. There was so much I really wanted to say – how I knew about life sometimes feeling like a crap carnival act, the garish colours and sad jokes, everyone dancing like puppets in an attempt to convince themselves that the days made some sort of sense. I wanted to tell him that everything would be fine if only he could get back into his tree, find a spot where he could see the sky unencumbered by buildings, and sit watching the clouds drift awhile. I wanted to tell him to fight. I wanted to tell him to live.

“There’s so much left for you to do,” I began.

At that moment the buzzer went. I paused, gave his head a parting stroke, then carried the box downstairs and out into the car park, where I found the ambulance driver standing beside his vehicle. My heart sank a little at the sight of his white van – part of me had been expecting a team of nurses and a gurney, an on-the-spot defibrillation before the thing screamed off towards the hospital, sirens wailing. As it was, the man smiled patiently – a kindly, middle-aged face, bushy moustache – and took the box that I held out to him. He peered inside, looked back at me with a sad expression. “Looks like he’s fallen out of the nest,” he said. “Probably not much we can do.”

I followed him to the rear of the van, where he placed the box carefully on one of a number of shelves, most occupied by similar-sized boxes, before locking up and heading back to the driver’s seat. He passed an envelope through the window, told me about the importance of donations, and thanked me for caring about animals as he started the engine. I waited until the van had turned out on to the street before walking back to my flat and out on to the balcony, where I sat a while longer watching the pink clouds strung over Streatham like a choir of Renaissance angels, the engines of Telford bus garage tuning up as though for a requiem about to begin.

Monday, 2 September 2013


He is there, my father, and I am here. Me on the balcony, collar up against the morning breeze, hands clinging to a cup of anaemic French tea; he hunched over the dining table of our diminutive apartment, surrounded by inverted kiwi skins and shards of consumed croissants, baguettes of varying freshness stacked like logs in an antiquated timber town. He catches my eye through the balcony doors that I’ve drawn for privacy, and I smile to signify that I’m nearly done writing; he looks away, half shaking his head to let me know that I’m frittering away time I should be spending in the overgrown garden, a can of weedkiller in one hand, secateurs in the other.

In recent weeks I’ve taken great care to overuse the words ‘working on my father’s flat’ when describing this trip to friends – a phrase I like to think conjures up images of the pair of us paint-speckled and halfway up ladders, tool belts clinking authoritatively as we tend to leaking roofs or disappear beneath sinks to repair plumbing. Instead we’ve spent our time thus far sipping tea in socks and shorts, my father flipping through a procession of nature shows and soap operas in search of a football game, me absently turning pages in the current affairs magazines that I buy as many times a year as I travel by plane.

We left yesterday morning from Luton Airport, the long-term car park of which staged a scene tinged with the sort of manic near-disaster that I remember from the start of so many childhood holidays. We’d wasted half an hour crawling around banks of parked cars without finding a space, the stereo relentlessly skipping a CD of Iranian sitar music until I leaned over and switched it off, leaving the air pregnant with panic and my father’s muffled curses. By the time a spot appeared we had just twenty minutes to make the gate, bundling bags from the boot and sprinting to a dilapidated plastic bus shelter that rattled in the dawn wind.

“It’s like a bus stop in the African desert,” grumbled my father, a comment that made me wince when he repeated it to a family of holidaymakers who joined us moments later. When the bus finally arrived I muscled Dad through the middle doors to stop him verbally abusing the driver, then took a seat a few rows back from him, watching as he gazed with weary resignation at the procession of hangars and cheap hotels. I thought of the packet of shortbread in his jacket pocket, the parking reference scribbled hastily on the back of his hand, and as passengers accumulated and he disappeared behind squabbling teenagers and sleepy couples I experienced a sense of my father’s fragility such as I’d known when we’d parted on London buses, and I’d been forced to watch through the window as he crossed the street and disappeared like any other human being into the midday crowd.


As the sun sets on our first full day my father drives us to a nearby cliff walk skirting a number of isolated beaches and rocky inlets, the volcanic nature of which has led to me noting on our rental site that the area is affectionately known as the ‘black pearl of the Mediterranean’, a name I may well have made up, or subconsciously lifted from a pirate movie.

I’ve spent the afternoon working in the garden to the downstairs flat, pulling up small colonies of daisy headed weeds that have gathered since last summer and hacking at hedgerows with rusty secateurs, and as we drive I pick at cuts, burns and blisters on my hands while gazing out the window at the passing resort. I see couples idling on benches with ice creams, children like baby chicks cycling behind their mother’s bike, shell coloured stucco apartments with names like La Grande Conque and Palais De La Mer. As we hover at traffic lights I hear the whistling masts of boats bobbing in the harbour like plastic birds, the mosquito whine of a distant moped, and it occurs to me that this is just another French beach town with no discerning characteristics save its successful embodiment of so many types and tropes: the nightly din of a dozen different backing tape singers competing for listeners in harbourside bars, the rattle of rollercoasters in the eyesore amusement park, its scaffold-clad Adrenaline tower looming over the surrounding countryside like the gallows of some giant race. It’s a place that smells of ice cream and sun cream, of cigarettes and underage sex, a washed out stereotype no different from the semi-abstract beach resorts of Persona or Betty Blue – a canvas of the unbearably mundane, and a backdrop for seismic emotional shifts.

It takes my father fifteen minutes of parking and reparking the rental car before he’s satisfied that it isn’t going to be towed, stolen or start rolling towards the cliffs. I leave him to it, crossing to a wooden fence barring the drop to the sea and looking out at a spine-like rock formation snaking towards a large boulder painted white by seagulls. My father eventually jogs into view, huffing and puffing and holding on to his baseball cap lest it blow away in the wind, and we begin following the cliff path, pausing at breaks in the fence to peer down into small coves where women lay topless in the last of the afternoon sun, heat-swollen paperbacks abandoned beside them.

I think I’ve been hoping for a revelatory conversation, or at least a single moment of insight like that which followed my maternal grandfather’s funeral, when Dad had whisked me from the community hall wake – where I’d been avoiding triangular sandwiches and sad displays of gardening trophies and trying to forget my eulogy – and driven me to West Bay, where he walked me down the pier and related an old Iranian maxim as the sun set over the sea. “Life is like a tightly tangled ball of wool,” he’d said. “At the beginning is nothing, and at the end is nothing.”

No such insights colour our walk today. At one point my father notes how everything you love in this life ultimately leaves you, but he is referring to a pair of sunglasses he sat on earlier in the afternoon. The only other revelation comes courtesy of a story about a boat journey he and his Iranian friend Mehdi had once taken to Sète, the market town now creeping into view on the horizon. The water had been so choppy, he says, that he’d suddenly and unexpectedly vomited on to the shoulder of a man standing on the lower deck as they’d been docking. The man hadn’t noticed, but my father had felt guilty enough to present himself at the exit, explain what had happened and apologise. The man had apparently taken the news in his stride. If there is a moral to this story, I fail to grasp it.

At some point I mention that I fancy a beer, and my father says that there’s nothing stopping us having one at the cluster of bars lining the Plage du Môle, a stretch of sand another ten minutes along the coast. Suddenly it seems that this is the purpose of our walk: I picture my father and I pausing to sip our demis a few feet from the mane of the Mediterranean as the setting sun torches the sky, and my heart lightens as we turn the corner on to the promenade of Le Môle, its central square peppered with shirtless men playing boules amid small dust storms, cigarettes hanging from their lips.

I leave my father to find a toilet while I scour the strip for an establishment unlikely to offend him, settling on an innocuous terrace bar playing ignorable French pop and with only a handful of customers. I’m in the process of ordering beers when he arrives, stopping me with a frown and a flap of his hand and insisting that he wants nothing to drink. The waitress shrugs, smiles and walks away.

Very little of what is said over the following few minutes resembles conventional father-son bonding – Dad describes in detail the poor hygiene of the public toilet he’s just visited, and passes comment on a spot flaring over my left eyebrow – and during lulls in conversation the music that had appeared so inoffensive on arrival seems to rise in pitch and volume, driven suddenly by a pair of duelling electric guitars that perforate the air. I watch my father clock his surroundings with the same grim resignation with which he’d gazed out of the airport bus window the previous morning, and understand all too well what a bad idea it had been to expect him to relax in so alien an environment.

The waitress arrives with my beer and a bill for €2.90, and my father grudgingly hands over a five, inspecting the change with a look of resentment before pocketing the lot. By the time we begin arguing over the tip there’s a weary inevitability about the situation, as though we’re speaking lines in an unsuccessful play that neither of us wants to be part of, getting the final scene out the way so we can disappear out the back door as the curtain falls and a few hands clap, grab our coats and point our cars home. I barely look up when my father finally throws his hands in the air, standing with a scrape of his chair and striding off towards the shops. In his absence I sit and watch the shore rush and recede, struggling to find something resembling refreshment in the beer I’d wanted so badly, but tasting only chemicals and a ghost note like the stale smell of the store room in the off-licence I’d worked in one summer.

Ten minutes later, my glass drained, I rise and walk back along the promenade, where I find my father waiting at the head of the path and determined to act as though nothing has happened. Perhaps it hasn’t. He barely stops talking all the way back to the car – about a woman in the boulangerie that he offended that morning, about a toilet roll holder he needs to replace in flat 50, about his broken sunglasses – and I give as enthusiastic a series of responses as I can muster. I know from experience that the sadness will pass: that half an hour from now I’ll be holding on to it through pride alone, and half an hour after that it’ll be forgotten, and I’ll be seated on the balcony with a book and a glass of wine, glancing between paragraphs at my father on the couch, headphones on and eyes closed, hands manipulating the dials on his radio like a blind man scanning brail.


The following afternoon I’m woken by the sound of my name being called from a distance. I sit up blinking and shirtless on the baking sand of the Plage Richelieu, squinting through the heat haze to see my father staggering towards me, his dark shirt and trousers lending him the appearance of a mythical fugitive, a bearer of apocalyptic news. The pre-season beach is almost deserted: save the wash of the shore and the rustle of dune grass the only sound is a faint hammering from a nearby bar being assembled in anticipation of the coming holidays.

My father, when he arrives, is breathless with the exertion of his walk. After a few moments panting on his back he strips down to his swimming trunks and passes me a carrier bag containing oranges, sun cream and a bottle of Kronenbourg from the case we picked up at the supermarket that afternoon. This last item is a thoughtful gesture – a veiled apology, I assume, for our squabble at the bar the previous day – but the green glass is getting warmer by the minute, and I turn it down with some excuse about a headache from the sun. If he’s offended, he doesn’t show it.

He reaches for the lotion and applies it to his face, arms and chest before asking me to attend to his back, and as I do so he airs the frustration of his failed attempt to replace the faulty toilet roll holder. It’s a monologue riddled with curses for the block’s live-in handyman, who Dad believes is stealing everything from cutlery to condiments and sabotaging appliances that he knows he’ll be paid to replace. I refrain from venturing an opinion, focusing instead on my father’s back, imagining how the contours and continents of this boundless map of his being have shifted over the decades.

The lotion applied, he stands and steps into his heavy black shoes – their backs folded down like Frankenstein slippers – and begins weaving an unsteady path towards the sea. In the far distance, so faint as to seem painted against the sky, the snow-capped Pyrenees line the horizon, and as I watch my father’s slow progress across the deserted beach I imagine him as an elderly king from Ferdowsi’s Persian epic the Shahnameh, stripped of his material wealth and worldly cares and making his way gratefully to the shores of Paradise after a life filled with battles and betrayals. I watch him step out of his shoes and walk slowly into the ocean, the silver water rising to his waist before he dives beneath the surface, a series of concentric ripples the only evidence that he was ever there. I look down beside me at the pile of his things: his coiled leather belt, his tattered three-day-old newspaper, the peel of his orange. And there, balanced on top like a grave ornament, his reading glasses, their lenses already obscured by sand shifting in the mistral wind.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

First Words

Originally published by the Quietus, photography by Spencer Murphy,
from The Abyss Gazes Into You

In the departure lounge of Gatwick’s north terminal, surrounded by slipstreaming tails of tourists, gleaming shopfronts and billboard images of unattainable wealth and beauty, stands an old and lonely-looking silver fountain. The fountain – which long ago ran dry – is shaped like a cone of paper tapering upwards to a point, and appears to be bolted together from strips of sheet metal. The thing is an eyesore, a semi-comical temple to total uselessness in an arena otherwise devoted to an awkward mix of luxury and efficiency, and the authorities have done their best to shield it from view with beds of plastic plants.

When a rare trip abroad leads me to Gatwick, as it did yesterday, I always find my way to the first floor balcony, and for a few moments it feels as though the clamour ceases, the hordes of sugar-rushing kids, sleepy couples and bleary-eyed businessmen falling into shadow as a single spotlight illuminates that fountain. Graffiti disappears from its sides, water begins flowing once more from its peak, and there, chasing each other around its base in tie-dyed T-shirts and ill-fitting Doc Martens boots, are my friend Spencer and I. It’s 1991. We’re twelve years old, and about to embark on what will be the best holiday of my childhood, if not my life: a Christmas with Spencer’s family in Orlando.

The memory is as unreliable as memory itself – I’m sure our first attempts at tie-dying didn’t occur until 1992, and I know that I didn’t own a pair of DMs on that trip because I was constantly pestering Spencer to lend me his – but as a source of sweet sorrow it is beyond compare, and so I leave it unaltered. Yesterday, however, I found myself contemplating for the first time an eerie similarity between the memory and the fountain that serves as its catalyst: I realised that both could be seen as obstacles to the increasingly rapid current of progress.

As I queued for the plane with two hundred passengers all projecting into the portal of their phones, I sensed how large the future loomed, the vacuum at its centre sucking all presence out of the present and making an irrelevance of the past. I thought back to interviews I’d conducted for Google’s Think Quarterly magazine in the months before I gave up writing – Ray Kurzweil on the merging of man and machine, Peter Diamandis on the dream of establishing a human outpost on Mars – and felt both the optimism and unease that the evolution of technology inspires: optimism that things can only get better; unease that the things we love, perhaps even life itself, may soon be rendered obsolete.

It was a conundrum alluded to in a note I’d posted two weeks earlier to explain why I was leaving Facebook. I suggested that while we might one day end up evolving into beings of pure energy, discarding our mortal frames and exploring inner and outer space in harmony, between now and that time I saw only a diminishing of life into a sort of reality television show, a dismantling of everything I loved about the culture of contemplation and reflection. I hated where all this reductionism was taking us – hated how willingly advocates of Twitter defended the art of having to bite size their sentiments and convert their emotions into information. I hated how memes and gifs were being seen as safe alternatives to expressing something in one’s own voice, and how every new revelation of increased speed and decreased size was hailed as an improvement – SoundCloud enabling users to skip to the drop of a song before deciding if it was worth a listen, Vine attempting to revolutionise the sharing of video by offering just six seconds in which to blow audiences’ minds.

On Twitter, of all places, I found myself airing my fears in a series of pretentious sounding tweets. ‘The less space we have to define ourselves individually,’ I wrote, ‘the less of ourselves there will be to define.’ Also: ‘The more we come to rely on technology to define the parameters of the human narrative, the less human we become.’ Needless to say I had significantly fewer followers by the time I got to point three.

Yesterday, as my plane banked over Genoa, I came across a more articulate summary in the words of Don DeLillo, from a letter to Jonathan Franzen, reproduced in a 1996 essay by the latter on the threat to literature: ‘If serious reading dwindles to near nothing,’ DeLillo wrote, ‘it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word “identity” has reached an end.’

The question of why I stopped writing two years ago is a painful one to pose and a difficult one to answer, but I trace the root of the problem back to my days studying journalism in Cardiff in 2001. I’d finished an undergraduate degree in English the previous summer and passed subsequent months living in Peckham Rye and doing entry level editorial work for Time Out. They were intoxicating days – filled with the swirling sounds and colours of a new city seen through young eyes, the excitement of a job that felt like a labour of love. I walked Peckham Rye Common each morning before work and peered up into various trees, attempting to decode their divine potential and decide in which the young William Blake had seen his angels. I felt the shimmering presence of a grand narrative being written in the moments between moments, and when I watched the World Trade Centre collapse with dozens of weeping Time Outers in the sixth floor television department – when I sprinted down six flights of stairs and out into the street and stared up incredulously into the blue sky over Tottenham Court Road – it seemed as though a prelude had come to a close.

Less than two weeks later, in my first lecture at Cardiff, I sat with a few hundred aspiring journalists, pens poised over unmarked pads as a man called Mike Ungersma took the stage and told us, in no uncertain terms, that we were no different. Our event, he said, may seem to be the defining moment of modern history, but so had the events that defined any number of past generations; the reunification of Germany, the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbour. I wrote it down without believing it – images of the second plane still screamed from newsstands, footage of the collapse still roared on TV screens, and I still found myself waking from dreams in which I was stumbling around the streets of lower Manhattan at dawn, desperately trying to alert cops and commuters to the impending tragedy but being brushed aside like a bum, ignored and verbally abused until finally I looked up and saw the first plane cleaving through the pale sky.

So began the attempt to remake myself in the image of a serious journalist, to steel myself for a life spent reporting on the reshaping of a world that had been atomized before my eyes. But therein lay the problem: political implications were of no greater interest to me in the dust cloud than they were before the towers fell. I wanted to write about the people waving shirts from 101st floor windows, not US foreign policy and its radicalizing effect on the hijackers. In 2005, after three years of juggling reviews, short stories and music journalism, I took the plunge and headed to Tehran for a three-month stint as home news editor of an English-language daily and to report on the presidential election for the Sunday Times. I’d not been to Iran for more than twenty years, and from the moment I touched down I sensed something awakening in my DNA, the unraveling of a story that I began typing in furious two-hour sittings each morning before work in the kitchen of my grandmother’s house, the floor littered with the husks of dead cockroaches.

It soon became clear that I was writing a novel, a fictionalized account of my days spent trying to look useful in midtown newspaper offices, my farcical attempts at pitching human interest stories by phone to the no nonsense Sunday Times foreign desk (illegal raves by the Caspian Sea, underground poetry clubs), who barked back that they wanted election stuff only. Who was this Ahmadinejad guy who had unexpectedly made it through to a second round run-off? Had he actually said that he planned to cut the hands off those who wanted democracy in Iran? Did he really have a chance of winning? I would invariably hang up itching to get back to my book, which was evolving into the tale of a young man tracing the story of his estranged father and uncovering, in a nod to Blake, evidence of a world behind the one we see with our eyes.

I returned to the UK with a handful of newspaper cuttings and a manuscript entitled The White World. The opening pages won a national novel writing competition hosted by the Telegraph, which saw me and four other winners taken to lunch at a French restaurant in Pimlico, where we were courted by an array of competing literary agents who smiled and refreshed our wine glasses when they weren’t glaring at each other over the table. Yet none were interested in The White World after reading more than the first few chapters; it was too personal, they said, too obvious an attempt at catharsis, as first novels tended to be. I couldn’t argue with that, but nor could I shake the feeling that what was being rejected wasn’t my first novel so much as my personal understanding of fiction as it applied to me.

So I found myself in something of a creative no-man’s land in the months and years after Iran, having seemingly proved myself incapable of writing either objective journalism or fiction that wasn’t warped by the magnetic pole of personal history. I continued going through the motions – I was still working at Time Out, where I began editing guidebooks to fill the hole in my bank account and distract myself from the breakup of my relationship with fiction. I still wrote articles and reviews, even the occasional short story, but creative expression came increasingly in the form of the electronic music that I produced in my bedroom. When a series of lucky breaks in 2010 saw tracks from my first album aired on national radio and synced to television shows, I saw it as an opportunity to bow out of journalism, leave Peckham Rye and set up as a music producer in a Brixton flat. On the rare occasions when I returned to the Common and searched the sky for some sense of narrative, I got nothing. Blake’s angels were silent, and the only world that existed was the one that I could see with my own eyes.

Reaction to my denouncement of Twitter in a series of tweets was understandably incredulous. Among those who leapt to defend social media was a writer friend who noted that every generation had its emerging literary technologies and attendant naysayers – that presumably the advent of the telegram had seen scores of people throwing out their arms in despair at the death of the handwritten letter. I understood this – recognized in it more than a hint of Mike Ungersma’s insistence that we not let September 11th’s cinematic pyrotechnics distract us from the fact that it was just another historical event. But if I didn’t entirely agree with my critics, nor did I willingly engage in debate: as with my valedictory missive to Facebook, I was simply making excuses as I backed out the door. The atmosphere at the party I left, once I was safely out on the street, was none of my concern.

The truth was that I wanted to be alone. I had been forced to admit in recent weeks that I was sliding into depression, and I wanted to understand why. In some ways I had little to be sad about: in three years my music had led to a degree of recognition I’d not found in a decade of writing. I was selling respectable amounts of records without ties to a label or manager; I had traded my home studio for a rented one in Soho, and begun writing tracks for film and television; I had completed a second album that nearly killed me, but which had been well received by my 9,000 plus followers on Facebook, from whom I received daily messages of encouragement and support.

But it wasn’t enough. Out on the street, the lights of the party receding behind me, Jon Hopkins’ Abandon Window on loop on my headphones, I finally saw that the narrative I’d been mourning was one I had written myself, and which had died the moment I stopped writing. Putting pen to paper had its own countless ways of making me miserable, but it also served as a foundation for what I considered a life lived in full, allowing me to reflect and make sense of (if not understand) what seemed the ultimate conundrum of human existence: how to live a finite life in an infinite universe. It’s a question to which there may be no real answer, but it’s one that I personally need to be asking every day, even if my words are flung like stones into space, like the astronauts in Vonnegut’s The Sirens Of Titan, who find ‘what had already been found in abundance on Earth: a nightmare of meaningless without end.’

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I’m going to start writing again. That these are the first words, and that I hope there will be many more. With a music career to (sort of) pay the rent, I can finally concentrate on writing the personal, cathartic stuff that matters the most, but which I always felt pressured to avoid. Which isn’t to say that I intend to write without restraint; I still consider myself a stickler for clarity and relevance, and a judicious self-editor, even if it may not be apparent in this initial outpouring. Nor would I dream of opening with an image as personal as the fountain at Gatwick without somehow bringing the whole thing full circle and artfully referring to it in my conclusion, to the extent that I have one. So here goes.

Spencer and I are still close friends – I’d say best friends, which sounds odd coming from a 34-year-old man, but there you have it. Our lives ran very much in parallel during those formative Stand By Me years – rarely a weekend went by that we weren’t round each others’ houses writing comics, building forest forts, abandoning ouija boards halfway through due to sudden, plummeting fear. We watched horror films day and night, attempted to make our own five-minute masterpieces of the macabre with my dad’s VCR camera, my brother and baby sister in supporting roles. We shared our first drinks together, our first drugs together, the details of our first encounters with girls together. When we went our separate ways after school – me to study English at Cambridge, Spencer to pursue photography at Falmouth – we did so with the same obsessions tattooed under our skin; each time we met over subsequent years, it seemed that the ink had spread to form identical butterflying Rorschach patterns, that our various battles with the slings and arrows of adult life were scored by the same strange music.

Spencer is a respected portrait photographer now. Barely a week goes by that he doesn’t snap some A-list celebrity for a major newspaper or magazine, every one rendered with a haunted gaze – a melancholic, other-worldly expression that is unique to Spencer’s work, and which has made him the toast of picture editors the world over. Yet for all his achievements – the international travel, the industry awards, the high profile shows and works acquired by major galleries – I’ve never seen Spencer so excited as when he was putting together a personal edit of landscapes and portraits from across the years, the pictures compiled on his website under the heading The Abyss Gazes Into You.

Last week I found myself in the unusual but enjoyable position of interviewing Spencer for an arts blog that was interested in the background to the project. We met in the Phoenix Artists Club in Soho, squeezed ourselves into a corner beneath walls hung with signed programs of musicals from years gone by. We spoke about Spencer’s introduction to photography; his first encounter with his mother’s camera, his first set of black-and-white photos developed in the school darkroom – pictures of hot air balloons, my baby sister, an inevitable pair of Doc Martens boots. We spoke about his documentary phase at Falmouth, his ability to coax haunting expressions from celebrities not known for their introspective sides, his insistence on using film in a digital age. Finally we spoke about the Abyss project, which Spencer explained at length, the thoughtful pauses in his answers filled with show tunes blasting from the bar stereo when I listened back on the Dictaphone that evening. He described a process almost out of his hands – how over the years he would flip through images shot for a range of personal and commercial projects and simply know that one or another had captured something sublime, hinted at something beautiful and terrifying behind everyday life. In collecting together this otherwise unrelated series of photographs – a frozen clump of dead birds, a portrait of a young BMXer, an abandoned airfield – Spencer was beginning to outline a world that he had always believed existed beyond the material veil. It was an imperfect process, and one he would be adding to for the rest of his life without hope of closure or completion, but it was also life itself, and without it, existence could have only limited meaning.

As a prism for viewing the creative process it couldn’t be more applicable to my own work. Those unexpected doorways on to the divine correspond exactly to the moments between moments that I found myself struggling to make sense of in my writing, and which ceased appearing to me when I swapped pen and paper for the warm numbness of social media, allowing it to convince me of the pointlessness of searching for personal identity when we were, after all, a single hive mind happening simultaneously. Perhaps we are, and perhaps the future really is racing towards us faster than ever, rising up in a great wave to bulldoze everything before it; at the very least, I can’t imagine it will be long before it erases our metal fountain. But in writing these words, even if no one else reads them, I feel I’m doing everything in my power to ensure that in some sense, in some place no more or less real than the table I’m sitting at now, Spencer and I will always be chasing each other around its base in our tie-dyed T-shirts and DM boots. It’s an imperfect process, but it’s the only one I know. These are my windows on to the world beyond this one: the traces we leave behind as evolving human beings, so flawed and so far from true enlightenment, finding love and learning to live on our own terms, in our own time, our world shrinking around us even as the universe expands on all sides.

Sestri-Levante, Italy, 9th July 2013

View more of Spencer Murphy's work at