The Famennian Age Extinction Last night I saw the Famennian Age Extinction in an off-licence in Camberwell Green. It was dressed in hospital sandals and soiled hospital slacks. Holding a leather hospital bag under one arm. Shouting EXCUSE ME GHOST. And leaping on to the counter. Wrestling with the shopkeeper over a bottle of iced tea. I've heard the Famennian Age Extinction works in that infested tiki bar we’re banned from on Peckham Road. The one with the rotten, tin-roofed restrooms. Where the bouncers wear beach shirts. Sitting on box crates. Looking mournfully into pre-mixed mojitos. While maggots squeeze themselves out of the walls. And this morning I am waiting for you beside the newsagents. Looking for dropped scratch cards and cigarette ends. Shouting at the passing cars and buses. And lately when I’m near you I lose my sense of balance. And my taste in music. And I want to enumerate everything and try to make a sense of it with you. I want to hold you like coffee beans. And like cold spaghetti. Cupping my hands. Yesterday I left work early to vote for the Famennian Age Extinction. At a polling station on Benhill Road. Under a dripping ceiling. In a collapsing pool hall. Eventually I was escorted off the premises by security. Holding each of my shoulders. Blood running down my face. Ballots rattling inside their boxes as though they were alive. And if I had to describe the Famennian Age Extinction I would say that it was like a family of snout moths. Living in the bricks. Communicating to one another by vibrating their wings. And it was like that Methodist church on Grovesnor Terrace. Where we would sing on weekday mornings. Sneaking secret sips of whisky between recitals. Waiting drunkenly for the complimentary food. Later I am walking with you towards Brixton. Above the buried river. Along the Effra Road. And I keep looking over at you. Watching you avoid boxes of sweet and sour ribs. Taking double steps over drain covers. And you seem happy. Swinging a black plastic cornershop bag full of beers. And I need you for your tenderness. And for your criminality. And your body. And I need you for your road safety. And most nights I spend hours blindly dialling numbers on my telephone. Hoping to get through to the Famennian Age Extinction. Hear its panting voice. And worried laughter. Because each night the phone rings once and then hangs up. And I am never quick enough to answer it. Though I know that it is the Famennian Age Extinction. Calling from some lonely far away apartment. Its bony fingers trembling above the keys. And when I'm near you my heart feels like a bag of water. And when I try to speak to you I feel as though there aren't any words. Or that if there are words then I do not know them. That they must be sad and elaborate and exhausting to use. Then we are in the basement of a family restaurant. The owners are laying down ash trays and lighting candles. Pouring wine. Unbundling lottery tickets folded full of cocaine. And I like you most when you are tired. When you forget you are wearing glasses. Then attempt to rub your eyes. Your fingers tapping against the glass. And I like you least by escalators and automatic doors. And early yesterday morning I went into my local cafe and ordered a Famennian Age Extinction. I sat on a round wooden table by the window. Drinking noisily. Undoing my shoelaces. Slowly taking off all my clothes. I thought the Famennian Age Extinction was delicious. And so I said so. Loudly. And to no one. Then I looked around the cafe and everyone was applauding. People were approaching me. Gesturing happily at my tattoos. Also the Famennian Age Extinction was a lot like that dog we looked after, while your housemate was in prison. The way it would sit and stare in the living room mirror for hours. And it was like the flat we shared above that crumbling, rat-ridden pub on Southampton Way. Before it was condemned by the council. And boarded up by the fire brigade. And I am kissing you under an advertisement for kitchen surface cleaner. By a bus shelter on Rye Lane. And if you were a building you would be built out of lemon slices and dry ice. And I can't talk to you for any time without checking that I still have my teeth. Quietly running my hands around inside my mouth. Sometimes I check my kidneys are there too. Squeezing my sides. Later I am driving home and I can see the Famennian Age Extinction in the windshield mirror. Sitting on the backseat. Leering distastefully. I begin to play with the radio dials. Acting preoccupied. And the Famennian Age Extinction watches me the entire journey. Making grunting noises. Slowly polishing its glasses with a piece of cloth. But I would say my favourite part of you is your patience. Also your capacity for class A drugs. And I want to lie under you like blankets. And like goat willow leaves and artificial snow. I want to feature regularly in your dreams. But never as myself. Only ever as a symbol of something more important. Speaking in a different accent. Shaking my long, transparent-looking hair. Then I'm on the pavement outside your father's house and I pause to warm my hands against something descending from the sky. It is the Famennian Age Extinction. Hunched like a bird. Glowing hot. Spreading its arms in welcome. Shivering with excitement and pride. Hibernating during the Tournaisian Age I am in a pub on Camberwell Church Street holding a half-drunk glass of ale. I am practising hibernating. Hibernating is something I can conjure at will. You are wearing your trench coat. And your extraterrestrial brooches. Dragging a screeching bar stool across the room. Cursing to yourself under your breath. Gesturing obscenely at the bartender. When I met you this morning on Kimpton Road you were overflowing with love. Parked with three wheels on the pavement. Looking like you had crashed. I was holding potted plants and vodka. Itching my beard. Climbing into the passenger seat of your car. I didn't want to tell you at the time but I was hibernating. Drumming on the dashboard. Taking deep breaths. Trying not to show it on my face. Hibernating was first invented in the Tournaisian Age. Three hundred and fifty million years ago. It was invented by bored and hungover animals in Camberwell Green. Burying themselves beneath Camberwell New Road. Below the barbers and photocopier repair shops on Denmark Hill. Looking solemn. And uncertain. And waiting for something to happen. We were swerving through Peckham this morning when you kissed my ear. Told me you had found some sort of inner calm. That it had happened on the tube. Suddenly. At 7am. While pressed against commuters. Somewhere underground, between Oval and Kennington. Then together we drove to the Old Kent Road. And I was hibernating in the front of your car. We were taking hungover circles around the roundabout at Elephant and Castle. Scrolling through radio static on the car stereo. Waiting for paranormal signals. Later I climbed out to get you cigarettes and paracetamol. Holding my jacket closed against the cold. When I looked back at the car I could see that you were smiling. Tilting your head and laughing. As though you were listening to a joke. And when I’m hibernating I feel a constant connection to the distant past. I can walk through Camberwell Green amongst the drunk and strung-out animals of the Tournaisian Age. See them laid out in elaborate death assemblages on the road. Their strange bodies attached to shop front windows. Looking like boot soles and blossomed lilies. And if I’m waiting at a pelican crossing I like to get down on my knees and rummage around for them in the ground. Upturning chicken wings and takeaway boxes. Scouring the drains and cracks and the braille warnings in the concrete. But anyway, in the pub, I am lifting a fallen bar stool. Picking up shards of glass. You are snorting something underneath the table. The bartender is suggesting that we leave. And as I stand up I can feel every blood cell and hormone in my body. And I feel in love with everybody in the room. I can see the love rising off of people like steam. And looking around the pub is like peering through cloudy glass or filthy water. Later we are hiding from community support officers behind a freight trolley on Milkwell Yard. Below the barred amber prison windows of a cafe. Passing an inky bottle of tonic wine between us. Pulling our coat sleeves up over our hands. And hibernating is like always living in the past. Feeling everything as if it had already happened. I can taste the tonic wine before it reaches my mouth. Hear the soft drizzling sound of it leaving the bottle. And when I'm feeling nauseous with all that lurching precognition it helps to look at you. At the cracks and scratches in your eyes. Which are the colour of moldavite. And also at your teeth, appearing and disappearing behind your lips. Like icebergs. And that was how I felt yesterday when you answered the door. You were tying your bathrobe shut. And yawning. Making stretching motions with your neck. I had been outside for hours. Gently knocking. Barely making a sound. All day I was full of quiet nerves and anticipation. Pacing the pubs on Camberwell Church Street. Pulling hibernation on and off like clothes. Inside your kitchen I held a cup of longjing tea. And also a can of super-strength lager. You were hanging coloured cloths over the windows. Lighting candles. Explaining about the Tournaisian Age. How all the animals had been short of breath. Then, to demonstrate. You sat close against me. Clutching your lungs. And as you spoke your blood was thrumming around your body. And last night you were dosing out drops of acid. Dripping it onto strangers. Their hands outstretched towards you. Dangling like arcade claw machines. And as you dribbled the acid, you'd tell each person a little about the Tournaisian Age. How in the Tournaisian Age the world was run by whelks and limpets. How all the lobe-finned fish disappeared. And then you took me onto that precarious balcony and we stood and looked out over Nunhead Cemetery. Watching the flimsy looking birds being thrown around by the wind. Catching in the trees like litter. You were telling me about a time you went picking rose hips. Wearing rawhide shoes. Walking over pine leaves. Beside a river that smelt of medicine. And you said that sometimes being alive can feel like living locked inside a suitcase. Then you made a gesture with both of your thumbs. As though there was a suitcase there in front of us. And you were unbuckling it. The international encyclopaedia of dogs Recently I’ve been waking up and believing I am living in the Ante-Nicene Period. And early Christians are riding these monstrous animals in red, thundering dust clouds across the continents. I would say that it is something I am concerned about. Stirling is my lover and my employer and my best friend. We’ve worked on encyclopaedias before. When I reach my hands through her hair and brush her nose against my lips I feel as though I am falling. Marriage is an agreement to indulge in the profound. I’m not married to Stirling but if I was I would ache to tell her something profound. I can lie there for hours and get nervous about large animals. I feel the weight of every large, living thing that has ever been stacked up against me. It can be unbearable but I think it helps to talk it out. Stirling has hair the colour of amaranthus blossom and eyes like amber indicators blinking on a wet road. We have business meetings in our kitchenette. The two of us in socks and dressing gowns and soaking hair and the eggs applauding in the pan. The first book we ever made together was a guide to common urban lichens. It was Stirling’s idea. Stirling has all the best ideas. That summer, I spent a lot of time in the rain photographing lichens. Lichens are beautiful but difficult to empathise with. Stirling has a way of looking at me that makes me feel lost. The Late Pleistocene Era is a major source of anxiety for me. It was a time when humans were regularly eaten by large animals and glaciers were rising out of the ground like teeth. I walked with Stirling for a mile over pale parmelia and we moved as though we were floating. This book hopes to cover all the common urban lichens known to the northern hemisphere. It is intended as a guide. My favourite part of Stirling’s body is her mouth. My favourite part of Stirling’s mind is the part of her mind dedicated to her mouth. I have learnt to live in this dirty city without wonder. When I am out pacing in the evenings under the lobaria and the caloplaca I can sense the enormity and indignity and impossibility of life. Stirling has toenails like red bottle caps and she is always right. I drift in and out of these fantasies of panic. The worst are focused on the Ante-Nicene Period. And early Christians are drinking saltwater and eating snakes and climbing into people’s windows. This book is dedicated to common urban lichens. And to Stirling. I think things are getting better. We have strategy meetings in the shower or the bath. Stirling says the hot water helps to draw her ideas to the surface. It’s not extinction that terrifies me but inheritance. After the Silurian extinction bony fish took over the oceans. It makes me sick to think they didn’t know what they were doing. For the last three months we have been working on a new book. It was Stirling’s idea. It is called the international encyclopaedia of dogs. I’ve been breaking into people’s houses at night and taking pictures of their dogs. Lately, I’ve been trying to think of life as a breathing exercise. As a mechanical process tending towards calm. Stirling has these little bumps under the skin behind her neck and it is where her love for me is held. We roll our fingers over them together in the mornings and ask god to make them bigger. Dogs are easy to understand but difficult to photograph. This book is dedicated to the English otter hound which was bred to rescue the English fishing industry from the undeterrable English otter. This book is also dedicated to Stirling. I would say my biggest worry is being eaten by a large animal. Stirling has skin the texture of sow thistle seeds and lips like two orange segments drifting in shallow water. I can’t know everything about it. We’ve been to see dog acrobatics in the basement of Euston Station. We’ve attended wolfhound wrestling and chow-chow races and we’ve wept though Labrador choirs singing in the Royal Albert Hall. Stirling has a right to me how the fossil record has a right to bones. If I stand up too quickly I get packs of Dandie Dinmont terriers howling in my ears. During the Late Pleistocene Era our ancestors first evolved to smile. The Late Pleistocene Era is also known as the Smiling Era. At that time smiling was an expression of deep anxiety and dread. This book hopes to introduce the reader to every internationally recognised breed of dog. It is available in braille. I would lead Stirling through a congregation of dogs and Anatolian shepherd dogs and Canadian Eskimo dogs and stumpy tail cattle dogs would part around us in a wriggling tide. It’s not like there is a history of happiness. I’ve got Stirling now and she’s like a cloud of powder paint moving over naked bodies. I’ve got Stirling now and I can look her up as though she were organised in layers. I would like some sort of colour testimony of everything. It would be like a safari park where all the animals have been replaced with dogs. As it happens we are waiting on Stirling’s new idea. Stirling has every new idea. I feel entitled to a life of careful ecstasy. I have ancestors with reckless, skinless bodies and ancestors with flowering appendices and ancestors who lived blind in the microscopic dark and conjured their own estimations of the world. Stirling’s new idea will be bound in softwood. It will be printed on glossy paper. We are like two expectant parents, hoping for an encyclopaedia. Stirling has teeth as white as wild white currant berries and a talent for talking business. Honestly it is impossible to describe anything using words. I should state my love for Stirling in terms of potassium ions and the direction of magnetic north. Statistically, I am more likely to be killed by a motor vehicle than a large animal. Motor vehicles are our modern-day large animals. When Stirling’s new idea arrives we will clutch it in our arms and run screaming into the ocean. We will sit it on our knees and marvel at its tender independence. I have no way of knowing what is best. The most vivid memories I have are from the Ante-Nicene Period and I am a young man and Stirling is there, in the sunlight, on the grey dunes, speaking to something buried under the sand.  


I drove past Fung’s a few days ago. Of course, it isn’t Fung’s now. It’s an empty building surrounded by weeds, an ugly breezeblock shell. There’s plywood over the sliding doors, and a spindly tree, or maybe an enormous weed, waving from the roof. The carpark contains a single shopping trolley, once painted green. I slowed the car, but there wasn’t much to see. Even the sign has come off. I remembered when we erected those letters, me and Ranjeet, with Leena below: banging them up there one by one to spell F, FU, FUN, FUNG, FUNG’S. Perhaps they rotted and fell down like that, one at a time, beginning at the end. Undoing the name. It hasn’t been Fung’s for 15 years, but what other name could it have? Every place needs a name, or else it’s just dead space. Of course, it was dead space before it was Fung’s. Merely a different type of dead space. Somewhere that affected life and was all the more dead for trying. And now it’s reverted to dead space again, and this time it’s properly dead. But between those stretches of dead space, there was a period of time – it wasn’t much more than two months – when there was a flowering of wonderment. I lived through the glory days. I drove past Fung’s, and then left it behind. I could have stopped, but what would have been the point? You can stop, but you can’t go back.


Mr Fung took over the Superway when I’d been working there for five months. He assembled all staff outside the walk-in meat fridge and delivered a short speech. ‘I want to achieve big changes here,’ he beamed. He was dressed in a Superway shirt and slip-on carpet shoes. ‘I want to make this store a beacon. A true retail experience.

No-one reacted. The shelf-stackers glowered. The only sound was the slow clack-clack of gum. ‘We start today,’ he announced the next morning. I was getting ready on the deli counter, pulling on my sanitised gloves. ‘The deli counter is closed,’ he said. ‘No customer access from aisles ten to 14. I want to move some things around. Things are going to look a bit different.’ We exchanged puzzled glances. A doss, we imagined. But Mr Fung had other ideas. The first thing he wanted us to do was drag the deli counter out so it protruded at right angles from the wall. It required ten members of staff to shift. In order to make space for this we had to reposition several aisles, which meant first removing all the products from the shelves. ‘Stack them up against the back wall,’ said Mr Fung. ‘Customers will still want to buy these things, so let’s try to create an orderly new zone.’ But that wasn’t easy. At nine, the doors opened, and customers began filtering in. They were quite confused. The supermarket looked like a construction site. ‘We apologise for inconvenience,’ announced Mr Fung with a microphone at intervals throughout the morning, ‘several aisles are temporarily closed as part of Superway’s reorganisation. Feel free to look for the products you desire along the wall at the back of the store. Things will be back to normal soon, enjoy your Superway experience.’ ‘I want to get some biscuits,’ a customer told me, gesturing bad-temperedly down the 12th aisle. Access was blocked by a barricade of trolleys we’d erected where the shelving began, and members of staff were ferrying products to the growing heap by the wall. ‘This aisle’s closed today,’ I said. ‘Everything’s getting moved around.’ ‘Why is this happening?’ asked another. ‘It’s impossible to find anything.’ ‘Sorry, you’ll have to look in that pile,’ was all I could suggest. ‘Good work,’ said Mr Fung at the end of the day. The automatic doors were closed and the checkout assistants were cashing up. ‘We’ve made a good start. You’ve all done well. Things look a lot less linear now.’ He nodded approvingly down the shop floor, where aisles ten to 14 had once stood. The symmetry of the aisles had gone. Aisles ten and 11 were positioned at right angles, and 12 and 13 protruded diagonally, creating a confusion of planes. ‘That’s just the beginning,’ he declared. Over the course of the following week, under Mr Fung’s direction, we systematically disordered the remaining aisles, starting with aisles five to nine, then aisles one to four, and finally the various counters. By Saturday, the shop floor was unrecognisable. Some of the aisles led to dead ends, and the positioning of others created small rooms to which access could only be gained through a narrow gap between shelves. Us staffers wandered these new lanes, trying to make sense of what we’d done. The experience was disorientating. It was like a badly designed labyrinth. ‘Excellent,’ said Mr Fung. We were gathered around him in a semi-circle, eating the chocolate ice-cream bars he’d handed out in appreciation of our efforts. ‘I think this creates a much more interesting space. This will be a retail experience. Next week’s job is getting products back on shelves. We can’t expect our customers to root round in that pile forever.’ He grinned, and gave an exaggerated wink. None of us knew what to make of it. On Monday morning, Mr Fung explained his plans for reorganising the products. ‘We’ll mix things up a bit,’ he said. He was wearing a shiny purple suit and casually tossing a tangerine from one hand to the other. ‘Customers develop patterns, you know. They buy the same things time and time again. They adopt certain habits. That’s not good for retail diversity. That’s not good for business.’ He wandered over to the mountain of products heaped chaotically at the back, and gazed at it intently. ‘Stack these according to taste,’ he said. ‘Salty things starting from the right hand side, spicy in the middle, sweet at the far left. There will obviously be some crossover zones, sweet and spicy being the most obvious example. Any questions about taste classification, ask me. Right, let’s get started.’ No-one moved, or said a word. We were dumbfounded. Mr Fung regarded this inertia, then drew back the sleeve of his jacket and consulted his watch. ‘It’s four minutes past seven,’ he said. ‘We’re open for business in two hours time. By eight fifty-five, I want to see this Superway divided into those three declared zones: salty, spicy and sweet. It’s a big job, what are you waiting for? Let’s go!And with this, he flung the tangerine directly at Tony, the surly 18 year-old who usually worked at the fish counter. The fruit plumped into Tony’s chest, and splatted softly on the floor. Tony stared in disbelief. ‘Let’s go!yelled Mr Fung again. There was no disagreeing with that. The task was enormous, and ridiculous. There was no way we’d have finished it by nine. But it turned out that didn’t really matter, because barely half an hour later, Mr Fung made another announcement. ‘Okay, change of plan,’ he cried, bounding down the aisle. ‘I’ve been rethinking our marketing strategy. This division of products won’t work. It’s too simplistic. Customers won’t like it. They’ll think we’re patronising them. I’ve also brainstormed a number of products that may present some difficulties – fall through the net, as it were.’ He consulted a clipboard. ‘Yeast, for example. So, what we’ll do instead is this: stack everything alphabetically. ‘Do what?’ someone asked in disbelief. ‘Start with the A products at the far left – almonds, anchovies, aniseed, aspirin – and work our way through the Bs and the Cs all the way down to Z. If we have any products beginning with Z. It’s possible we don’t. This, I believe, is the most logical way to order the store. It will also be educational for junior customers. Any questions?’ Wasim, a balding shelf-stacker with a large Adam’s apple and watery eyes, spoke up doubtfully. ‘Are fruit and veg included in this? Do we put apples between… uh, aniseed and… uh, aspirin?’ ‘Fruit and veg are exempt for now. I’ve other plans for them.’ ‘How about refrigerated goods?’ asked a grave-faced Slovakian girl called Leena. ‘For now, refrigerated goods will fall under category F, for Frozen. Or perhaps under I for Icy, I’m not sure. Please consult me further on this when you get towards the end of the Es.’ So we set to work. There were cynics amongst us. ‘No fucking way is this going to work,’ said Ranjeet, my fellow deli-counter worker, in his habitually put-upon tone. ‘I’ve worked in enough supermarkets, and I’ve never seen anything fucking like this. This is not how supermarkets go.’ ‘This is not how most supermarkets go,’ said Mr Fung. He was standing behind us, holding an economy tin of butter beans. His soft-soled shoes meant you couldn’t hear him coming. Ranjeet and I both stepped back, eyeing the tin nervously. ‘This, however, is not most supermarkets. This is a retail experience. In time, you will learn this,’ He gave Ranjeet’s arm an encouraging slap. Ranjeet looked even more unhappy. When the clock went nine the doors were still closed, and I could see the faces of customers peering through the tinted glass. ‘We’re only on D,’ Wasim explained when Mr Fung came back to take stock. ‘We have to keep rearranging it all. We find another thing that starts with B, and we have to slide the other products down.’ ‘We can’t get this done. Not with customers in. I mean, no fucking way,’ said Ranjeet. ‘Okay, I’m taking a managerial decision,’ announced Mr Fung. ‘The store will not open today. We are closed for re-categorisation. Things will be back to normal soon, we apologise for inconvenience caused, but this is an important part of Superway’s reorganisation.’ He pointed at me. ‘Go out and tell them this. Be polite but firm. Don’t let them bully you. And then write a sign and stick it on the door.’ ‘Sorry, we’re not open today,’ I said to the people waiting outside. I only opened the door halfway in case one of them tried to squeeze through. ‘We’re closed for re-categorisation. Things will be back to normal soon and we apologise for any inconvenience. It’s an important part of Superway’s reorganisation.’ ‘What’s going on in there?’ asked an old woman I recognised. ‘Why have you done that with the aisles?’ ‘This is ridiculous,’ said someone else. I gave them an apologetic smile and slipped back inside. ‘You can’t close a store down like this, man,’ hissed Ranjeet disbelievingly, as we sifted through the product mountain for things starting with E. ‘That’s not how supermarkets work. It’s just not something you can do.’ But, as we were starting to discover, Mr Fung could. When we opened up again two days later, the Alphabetisation was complete. Walking the aisles, already disordered, or ‘de-linearised’ as Mr Fung termed it, was a strange and bewildering experience. It went against every retail convention we’d ever known. The various sections were demarked by capital letters painted on cardboard in Superway’s trademark lime green. Fish-counter Tony had painted the letters, and his calligraphy skills weren’t good. The letters were drippy and badly composed. ‘We’ll get proper signs made up,’ said Mr Fung when Leena complained they looked unprofessional. ‘This is just a stop-gap, you know. Nothing is permanent. The important thing is to see what works. We learn by a process of trial and error. This store is a living experiment.’ But dissent was growing in certain quarters. There were those amongst the staff who objected to living experiments, or experiments of any kind at all. The staff were an unexperimental bunch, an assortment of cynics, school dropouts, slackers and hard-working recent immigrants; for some this was essential employment for sending money home to their families, while others had nothing to spend their wages on but weed. If anything united us, it was the unquestioned assumption that employment in a Superway store could never turn out to be anything but a monotonous repetition of tasks. In other words steady, non-challenging work, with no sudden shocks or surprises. And most of us quite liked it that way. There was a certain comfort in boredom. Living experiments weren’t in the job description. The first to jump ship were Gabby and Nicole, two best friends who worked on the tills, and whose names I could never get the right way round. They were attractive in a dull kind of way, but clearly had what Mr Fung later termed a ‘low imagination threshold’. I assume the changes simply freaked them out. They didn’t turn up for work one morning, and soon afterwards they were joined by Mike, who worked in the unloading bay, and a chubby stoner called Doff who suffered from a bad skin condition. From that point on, the Superway experienced a slow haemorrhaging of labour. Mr Fung didn’t appear to mind, and never made any attempt to recruit extra staff. ‘This is what we call a streamlining process,’ he said, in one of his morning meetings, when Wasim pointed out the fact we no longer had any security guards. ‘This store is downsizing. Re-evaluating. And anyway, we don’t really need security at present.’ This was true. The doors had been closed for a week while other changes were implemented. Mr Fung had ordered carpets to be laid down the length of each aisle, to give the shop-floor a ‘more tactile feel,’ and drapes to be hung from the ceiling to make the place ‘cosy.’ Following his emotive tirade against the strip-lights which made the store ‘like one of those places you identify corpses,’ we had also spent several days fitting incandescent bulbs and rigging up paper shades to diffuse their glare. It did not matter to Mr Fung that none of us were qualified to rewire electric lights. He provided overalls, directing the proceedings from a swivel chair he had wheeled from his office to the middle of the store. Occasionally he leapt up from this throne to patrol the evolving aisles, stopping now and then to scribble notes in his pad. His ideas changed rapidly and without warning, and it wasn’t unusual for a team to spend an entire morning on one task, only to dismantle it after lunch. But Mr Fung was exuberant. His enthusiasm was boundless. And the more his detractors fell away, the more his strange zeal came to affect those of us who remained. ‘He’s out of his tree. He’s wrong in the head,’ said Ranjeet one evening after work, after he had spent the whole day painting the trolleys green to make them look ‘less like cages.’ ‘I’m telling you, man, it’s too fucking weird. If it goes on like this much longer, I’m getting out.’ But I could tell that – like most who remained, who weathered the desertions in our ranks and stayed to work at the Superway through its various incarnations – he was secretly fascinated. Already, in those early days, I think a few of us were starting to see Mr Fung for what he really was. A retail visionary. He took me aside a few mornings later, the moment I got to work. I don’t know why he singled me out, but he appeared to have it planned. He was wearing a different suit that day, a slightly louder shade of purple, along with a truly hideous veined purple tie. ‘What’s your usual position in this store?’ he asked. ‘I mean, before.’ ‘I normally work at the deli counter.’ ‘Deli’, he muttered, as if he hadn’t thought of that. He looked confused and worried for a second. But then his face brightened again. He had taken me by the elbow, and was guiding me towards the front of the store, where the sliding doors were. ‘Well you won’t be at the deli any more. In fact, we may not even have a deli. I want you to be in charge of organising the garden.’ ‘The garden?’ I asked, confused. ‘Tell me, when a customer enters a supermarket, any supermarket, in any country, what is the first thing he sees?’ ‘Newspapers. Magazines. Fruit and veg.’ ‘Correct. And why does he see fruit and veg?’ ‘Because it’s green and fresh. It makes the place feel healthy.’ ‘Exactly, yes. Green and fresh. And this Superway store will adhere to that principle. There are some conventions that can’t be changed. However, they can be improved, re-imagined. Where does fruit and veg come from?’ ‘Where does it come from? Lots of places.’ ‘I’m speaking fundamentally,’ he said, snapping his fingers impatiently. ‘Does it come from a factory? Out of a tin?’ ‘Uh, from trees, bushes, the ground…’ ‘Exactly right,’ beamed Mr Fung. We had reached the fruit and veg shelves now – they were empty, having been bare for a week, with only a few root vegetables and wilted stalks to show what they had been before – where he gestured expansively. ‘You think our customers want to see these green, fresh things on those plastic shelves, in those temperature-controlled compartments, under those glaring lights?’ I shook my head. He was staring at me. I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. He unfolded several sheets of paper covered in diagrams. ‘These,’ he said proudly, holding them before me, ‘are my plans for Fruit Eden.’ I stared at the paper. It was incomprehensible. ‘Fruit Eden?’ I asked uncertainly. ‘That is how it will be known. The concept is based, loosely, on the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.’ I studied the papers in more detail. The plans looked entirely improbable. From what I could tell from the ‘artist’s impression’, oranges, apples, bananas and melons were clustered together in some sort of steaming tropical forest. There was a meadow of salad leaves, a kind of Japanese rock garden bristling with herbs, and what appeared to be a waterfall cascading down one of the walls. ‘This is only provisional,’ Mr Fung said, as if sensing my doubt. ‘The exact details of the plans may change in the execution.’ ‘And I’m in charge of this?’ I asked. ‘I’m giving you full control.’ ‘And how… how do I make this stuff?’ ‘It’s up to you to implement the vision in the way you see fit. I’ve been watching you work. I trust your abilities. You must use all materials at your disposal, and hand-pick a small team of assistants from amongst the staff. It is my intention that Fruit Eden will be one of this store’s greatest assets, a true retail experience. You have two weeks to complete the project, after which time the doors will reopen to the public. Any questions?’ Dumbly, I just shook my head. I didn’t know what else to do. For my team I selected Leena, because I liked her seriousness, Ranjeet, to get him off painting trolleys, and a Kurdish guy I barely knew called Kaseem, because I liked his face. I also picked surly Tony, who, against all expectations, had stuck it out against Mr Fung’s occasional tangerine assaults, and appeared surprisingly unfazed by the store’s gradual slide into madness. Tony seemed a good solid type, and proved to be useful when it came to hammer-work and heavy lifting. We had our first meeting later that day, smoked a pack of cigarettes between us, cordoned off the proposed work area, and dragged the old shelves into storage. That afternoon, using the expense account Mr Fung had given us, I ordered 20 bags of concrete, five rolls of Astroturf, ten tarpaulins, 30 metres of hose, 12 bags of soil and 12 bags of fertiliser. The next morning, Ranjeet and I drove to the nearby garden centre in a home delivery van to load up with ivy, ferns, assorted creepers and vines, a dozen rubber plants, ten banana trees, and as many potted herbs as we could stuff into the racks. We spent whatever money was left on orchids and Venus fly-traps. The bill ran into the thousands. Fruit Eden evolved haphazardly. We had no idea what we were doing. Tony and Kaseem had both had previous jobs on building sites, so all the concrete and structural work was their responsibility. By the end of the fourth day, they had constructed two large ponds and a monstrous concrete feature, which was supposed to look like rocks for the cascading waterfall. Ranjeet and I tried to get it working, running hosepipes up the wall, but the water came out in a pathetic trickle so we decided to cut shelves into it and turn it into ‘Citrus Rock’, which would display lemons, limes and oranges and be festooned with bougainvillea. Instead of a waterfall, we had to settle for a couple of dribbling fountains. The concrete ponds we filled with water lilies, on which could be balanced little plastic signs informing customers of important price reductions. The five of us came to enjoy a minor celebrity status in the store. Select groups of the other employees were engaged on several notable side-projects, but most were still slugging away at the seemingly endless re-categorisation of products. Mr Fung had since had doubts about the Alphabetisation system, and for three days had become obsessed with what he called ‘Full Product Spectrum,’ or, sometimes, ‘Consumer Rainbow.’ His new idea was to display everything according to colour. The left-hand side of the store would be red, and then orangey-red products would give way to an orange section, which would blend seamlessly into yellows, following the colour spectrum through greens, blues and purples into blacks, against the right-hand wall. Or at least, this was the idea. It didn’t prove popular. The prospect of taking all the products off the shelves again and putting them back in yet another order caused a minor rebellion amongst the staff. There was a rash of further walk-outs. At first people refused to get involved, and when they did, they did the job badly, so it was less a Consumer Rainbow than a mish-mash of different colour patches, the result of which sent Mr Fung into a rage. It was the first time, I think, that anyone had seen him angry. He stormed off into the loading bay, muttering furiously to himself, and remained in there for several minutes. When he came back, to the amazement of everyone, he publically recanted. ‘I’ve brainstormed the Full Colour Spectrum, and concluded the concept will not be adopted by this Superway store. After careful consideration, I’ve decided the rainbow effect may well prove distressing to some customers. There are certain psychological effects that cannot fully be predicted – people getting angry in the reds, or nauseous in the yellows. Aisles of unbroken grey might create depression. In light of these potential risks, the process of re-Alphabetisation will begin forthwith.’ Critics of Mr Fung used this speech as evidence that he lacked overall vision, that he was growing confused and indecisive. His supporters said it showed that he was listening to his workers’ concerns, that he was not the maverick egotist his detractors made him out to be. Further rifts began to grow among what remained of the staff, from which those of us employed on Fruit Eden were happily exempt. We were working on a higher project, something with grandeur and scale. We didn’t need to involve ourselves in these petty intrigues. Our exclusivity didn’t make us popular, however: there were rumours we were being paid more, that we enjoyed special privileges. By the end of two weeks, our Fruit Eden looked like a half-built theme park. We asked for more time. We were given four days. We worked flat-out for the whole period, staying after work until ten or ten-thirty to finish laying Astroturf, spreading fertiliser over the beds, pressing flowers into the moist soil. Tony really took to this. He had never planted anything before. Gradually, unbelievably, the project came together. Mr Fung sat in his swivel chair, checking his charts and eyeing our work, until we finally put down our tools and left at the end of the night. In all the time I worked for him, I never saw Mr Fung leave the store. There were rumours that he slept in his office on a bed made of packing crates, but these stories were never confirmed, because no-one had ever been in there. On the morning of the grand opening, we stocked the shelves with produce. In several areas we had borrowed from Mr Fung’s Full Product Spectrum concept, and Leena had created gorgeous displays of fresh fruit. Citrus Rock was spectacular, rising from lemon-yellow at the bottom, through diffusive grapefruit tones, into topmost shades of deep blood orange-red. It looked like a thermometer about to burst. Other fruit was clustered together into something that loosely resembled the original tropical jungle plans, bananas, pineapples and melons displayed in a glistening forest of green leaves. The herb garden looked pretty shabby, but I was confident it would improve with nurturing. Leena’s main addition to the project was the creation of the ‘Lettuce Meadow,’ an expanse of salad leaves arranged across a wide sloping area, access to which could be gained by a narrow wooden bridge. The last things to go in were several industrial humidifiers, which had raised the cost of the project by another few thousand pounds. They covered the area in a fine mist. It was like being in a tropical greenhouse. The disadvantage of the humidifiers was that anyone entering Fruit Eden got soaked to the skin in seconds, but we planned to supply waterproof ponchos for customers to use free of charge. Mr Fung announced the grand opening over the loudspeakers. Today, he said, was the culmination not only of the Fruit Eden project, but the ‘re-imagining’ process that had taken place across the whole store, from the Alphabetisation of the shelves to Fish World and the Frozen North, right through to the bloody spectacle of Meat Zone. He congratulated all remaining staff, those of us who had stuck it out, who had not shied away from experimentation or faltered at new ideas. Tomorrow, he declared, the doors would reopen, and ‘a new supermarket paradigm’ would at last be unleashed on the world. Mr Fung popped a bottle of Cava, and raised his plastic glass to Fruit Eden. The humidifiers steamed up the glasses on his face, mist condensed on his forehead. We watched him, anxiously, for an opinion. He appeared absolutely delighted, almost childishly happy. After a short opening ceremony, in which Mr Fung had donned a poncho, crossed the bridge over Lettuce Meadow, plucked an apple from the Tree of Knowledge – this, surprisingly, was Tony’s inspiration, an ungainly concrete construction enwrapped by a serpent made of painted hosepipes – and taken a ceremonial bite, the staff were encouraged to spend time wandering around the store, in order to familiarise ourselves with new developments. I stuck with my team, each of us swigging from a mini bottle of white wine, which Mr Fung had distributed from a loaded trolley. We saw the Frozen North, the icy bunker that comprised the new frozen foods department, and had a look at Fish World, which was unpleasant. We sat down on the sofas, armchairs and chaises longues that had appeared halfway along some of the aisles, to provide ‘calm spots’ whenever customers grew fatigued. We explored the bewildering labyrinth of shelves, which had changed shape four or five times since I had last been involved, and made even more disorientating by the erection of screens and the hanging of curtains, all part of Mr Fung’s self-declared ‘war on linearity.’ ‘What about security?’ Wasim had asked several weeks before. ‘Security?’ said Mr Fung, as if he scorned the word. ‘I mean, CCTV cameras and stuff. How will they see the shoplifters now? There are blind spots everywhere, all over the store.’ Wasim, despite his permanent expression of fear intermingled with doubt, was one of those loyal employees who had stuck it out. In response, Mr Fung had told a surprising story. ‘After the revolutions in France, the government redesigned Paris. All the new roads were built in straight lines, a bit like conventional supermarkets. Do you know why? To give cannons a clear line of fire. That’s the same principle behind security cameras. To give them a clear line of fire, to eliminate blind spots.’ The assembled staff were puzzled and impressed. At times like these, I had the sense that Mr Fung was hinting at something that went beyond new retail experiences and supermarket paradigms. As if he was revealing something hidden. ‘Do we want to create that sort of store?’ Mr Fung went on. ‘A supermarket founded on the fear of the very people it serves?’ ‘But what about the shoplifters?’ asked Wasim, standing with his mouth slightly open. To this, Mr Fung had said nothing. We finished our mini bottles of wine, and pushed Tony around in one of the trolleys that Ranjeet had painted green. We practised locating products under the Alphabetisation system, in preparation for the opening next day. It wasn’t as straightforward as it sounded. At first it was hard to guess, for example, whether a bar of milk chocolate would appear under C for chocolate, M for milk chocolate, or even B for bar. People had told Mr Fung of these concerns. He’d called them ‘teething problems.’ My team wandered off. It was dark outside. All the lights were blazing in the store. I kissed Leena when we were alone, in one of the rooms created by the positioning of aisles. It was a hasty, clumsy thing, and both of us laughed afterwards. We were surrounded by L-products: lager, lard, lasagne sheets, lemonade, lipstick, Listerine, lollipops. I tried to sit her in her own shelf space, between leashes and leggings. ‘This is one of Mr Fung’s blind spots,’ I said, putting my lips against her neck. I don’t know if she got the reference. I thought it would seem embarrassing later, but it never did. We resumed trading the next morning. The doors to reality opened. The reopening hadn’t been advertised, so it took a long time before any customers actually came. Mr Fung greeted them at the door. He was wearing his purple suit, with a pink bougainvillea flower in the lapel. He shook their hands, welcomed them to the store, and personally handed them a shopping basket or matched them up with a trolley. ‘Take your time,’ he said. ‘Make yourself at home.’ The customers entered cautiously, with a look of trepidation. The first thing they encountered was Fruit Eden. The humidifiers were on full blast, and before long the condensation built up and dripped from the ceiling like rain, which we hadn’t anticipated. We had to hand out umbrellas to go with the waterproof ponchos. Despite these protections, few of the customers actually ventured over the bridge that spanned Lettuce Meadow. They were not adventurous. Some took lemons from Citrus Rock, but to get to the ruby grapefruit and blood oranges they had to climb 12 feet up a ladder, and none attempted that. They dithered at the edges and stared. They wiped perspiration from their foreheads. ‘It looks nice, I guess,’ one man said. But nobody else said anything. From there, they entered into the aisles, following the alphabet. Tony’s sloppy letter signs had been replaced with smarter ones, printed in the Superway green on plastic notices, but they still seemed to find the system confusing. They constantly had to ask where things were. They seemed upset by the lack of straight lines, and half the little rooms remained unexplored. They came upon darkly watchful employees positioned at every junction, staring at them to see how they reacted. The wheels of their trolleys caught on the carpets. Some of them got hopelessly lost. They kept knocking things off the shelves. There was growing irritation. At the end of the day, when the last of them had found their way back and been ushered out, the sales on the tills were disappointing. We’d received 16 complaints, with one man threatening to sue over slipping on the wet floor at Fruit Eden. Comments included ‘disorientating’, ‘nightmarish and Kafkaesque’, ‘an impossible environment to shop in’, and ‘a revolting joke’. This last was a comment about Meat Zone, which seemed to have caused quite a stir. ‘Teething problems,’ said Mr Fung, in his subsequent debriefing. We were gathered around the tills, passing round the packet of rich tea biscuits he had handed out. ‘Of course it takes time for new ideas to filter through to the public. They have never seen anything like this before. They are overwhelmed. The more revolutionary the concept, the harder it is to comprehend.’ He appeared defiant and upbeat, hopping round energetically and beaming at us all. He assured us that sales would pick up, that customers would come flocking before long. At the end of the first week, as customer footfall increased slightly, Mr Fung was still confident enough to initiate a new rota system he called ‘Staff Switcheroo’. The idea, he explained, was to counter monotony creeping in as we all settled down to our regular jobs, now that the excitement of the reorganisation was over. He didn’t want us to grow despondent. He didn’t want a workforce of automatons, he said. Throughout the day, at intervals of between 15 minutes and two hours, an announcement would be broadcast overhead: ‘All staff switch, all staff switch, with immediate effect. Thank you.’ Upon hearing this, all employees would immediately move to a new position: check-out staff would turn into shelf stackers, shelf stackers would man Fish World, Fish World servers would collect trolleys, trolley attendants would rush to the loading bay. We all carried laminated sheets that told us the order of duties. We did a trial run before opening, and everything went pretty smoothly. But when the customers were in, the changeovers quickly became chaotic. People would complain about shop attendants charging off in the middle of helping them track down some product beginning with J, sometimes leaving halfway through a sentence. An elderly woman was almost knocked over in the rush to get through the aisles. ‘Things will settle down,’ said Mr Fung. ‘After a few weeks, Switcheroo will become so effortless and natural you can do it blindfolded.’ He frowned, thinking for a moment, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d whipped out blindfolds there and then. But he turned away. At the end of that month, Mr Fung’s smile no longer came so easy. His feet had lost their bounce. Things were going badly wrong, despite the reassurances and pep talks he gave us in the morning meetings, which even some of his loyal supporters had started to call propaganda. Sales, which had initially picked up following that first ‘teething’ week were steadily falling. We took less every trading day. Our regular customers had deserted us. New customers came once, sometimes even twice, but not again. The only regulars we managed to attract were a collection of mad old tramps, who came to put their feet up on the chaises longues or wander the aisles for the afternoon, smiling happily to themselves, picking things up and putting them down again. Either it’s a tribute to Mr Fung’s inclusiveness, his generous soul, that he didn’t have those tramps thrown out, or a mark of his desperation. Employees continued to fall by the wayside. Even those who Mr Fung had inspired, those who had initially glimpsed his bright new dawn. We were down to a skeleton staff. Me, Ranjeet, Tony, Wasim, Leena and a score of irregulars. Kaseem had quietly vanished a week ago. And then Tony quit as well. He said he had to study for exams, but I lost all respect for him. ‘You’re not going to quit, are you?’ I asked Ranjeet one day, after he’d been bitching about the long hours and the fact we were still on the minimum wage. ‘Quit?’ he said. ‘I don’t quit, man. I’m not quitting smoking, and I’m not quitting Fung’s.’ This, I think, was the first time that anyone had called it this. Out loud, at any rate. Perhaps we’d all begun to give it this name in our minds long ago. He was right: it wasn’t Superway now. It was Fung’s. There could be no other name. I still kissed Leena from time to time. On the bridge over Lettuce Meadow, or in the chaos of the Switcheroo. She’d write a single letter on the back of a receipt and we’d meet in the Gs or the Ks or the Ns, rush through the motions of a brief, fumbled tryst, and then hurry back to our duties. But Fung’s plunged deeper into problems by the day. It was like being on a sinking ship. We’d practically gutted and rebuilt the place in a couple of inspired weeks, and now our deficiencies in design, planning, construction, engineering, electronics, hydraulics and everything else were becoming alarmingly apparent. Fish World stank. Almost no-one could enter. The Frozen North was in crisis. There was some problem with temperature control, and ice now covered the walls and floor, with icicles starting to grow down from the ceiling. Chisels had to be provided to hack away rock-hard sausages that had become imbedded in the walls, like prehistoric hunters. Meat Zone was another liability. Children had run howling from the sight. There was blood seeping through one of the walls, and no-one could work out where it was coming from. By the end of a fortnight, it was clear that even Fruit Eden was failing. Digging out wilted produce and getting fresh stuff onto shelves proved to be a laborious business, and with the staff shortage and the constant Switcheroos the job wasn’t done properly. The area was nearly impossible to clean. Decomposing matter built up in the cracks. The bright hues of Citrus Rock slowly faded from yellow to brown, and Lettuce Meadow turned into a sodden swamp. Dark shadows of damp appeared on the walls, and the humidifiers had to be decommissioned. There were fruit flies circling, despite the Venus fly-traps. The worst thing was the change in Mr Fung. We watched as his energy drained away, with occasional resurgences of zeal, the fervour repossessing him, sometimes for hours at a time, and then dissipating again. The vigorous speeches became less frequent. He no longer threw things at people. He spent more time sitting in his swivel chair, gazing at the slow train-wreck of his store, turning circles with his feet. Just going round and round. We all waited for the next big idea, the next doomed, inspirational scheme to get things moving, to turn things around, to check the steady rot. We would have gone along with it, too, we who stayed with him to the end. We would have followed any fresh, crazed vision, even if – perhaps especially if – we knew it could only fail. It would have been worth it, just to see the old eagerness filling him again, his face lighting up like a fridge when it’s thrown open. But after a point, the big ideas stopped coming. It happened one day shortly after closing, when the tills were being emptied of their miserable takings, the lights switched off in the grottoes of Fruit Eden. It was Wasim who opened the doors, apprehending that the two men outside, the two men with the suits and the briefcase, were not customers arriving late but a portent of something else. Something composed and official. They were both tall, clean and middle-aged, with the kinds of haircuts tall, clean, middle-aged people have. They looked like the sort of people who know the names of motorways and listen to traffic reports. They asked to see the manager. We led them towards the office. I could see their eyes flicking around as we navigated them through the aisles, but the expressions on their faces never altered. I was the one who opened the door, and I tried to see if there was a bed made of packing crates in there, but all I could see was a neat desk, with files, folders and a calculator arranged on it. Mr Fung received the men with a calm, acceptant smile. He shook their hands and stepped aside to let them through, then closed the door. There was something embarrassing about the glimpse I had of him, just before the office door closed. He suddenly looked ridiculous, smiling away in an ugly purple suit that was slightly too large, a wilted bougainvillea in the lapel. I felt a rush of shame. ‘That’s it. He’s in the shit now,’ said Ranjeet, half an hour later. The office door was still closed. None of us had left. ‘Why? Why do you say that?’ demanded Leena. She was sitting on my knee. It wasn’t very comfortable; she was a bony girl. ‘I reckon they’re the guys who own the franchise. They’re the guys from Superway.’ He was sitting at a cash register and smoking, knocking the ash into one of the empty drawers. The two men left after an hour and a half. When their car had gone, the carpark was empty. We waited for another 15 minutes to see if Mr Fung would come out, but he stayed in his office. It didn’t seem right to disturb him. The next morning, he made a short speech. This Superway store was closing, he said. He was stepping down as manager. It was not economically viable. He hoped it would reopen under different management, so we could keep our jobs. He was sorry things hadn’t worked out. And he wished he could give us some severance pay, to last until things were back to normal, but there was no money available. ‘That’s it?’ said Wasim. His Adam’s apple went up and down. I thought he was about to cry. ‘Yes. That’s it,’ said Mr Fung. ‘What about everything we’ve done?’ demanded Ranjeet furiously. ‘There’s nothing more to do,’ said Mr Fung. ‘This store is prefect, in every way.’ He smiled sadly. ‘I’m very, very proud.’ The doors didn’t open that day. Or ever again, for that matter. I don’t know if Superway planned to reopen under new management, to wipe away everything we’d done and return things to the way they were, but with the economic situation and the general pattern of closures nationwide, I suppose the odds were pretty much against it. I’m glad, of course, it has been this way. I’m glad that nothing came after. Given that the Superway brand itself went bust about a year later, laying off thousands of staff across the country, it might seem, to a fantasist, almost a vindication. But history has no jurisdiction to vindicate men like Mr Fung. He needs no-one’s approval. He’s beyond it. It was Ranjeet who suggested it, though he said it as a joke. It was me who took the idea up and made us follow it through. We got to work that afternoon, the last afternoon we spent at Fung’s, cutting the letters from balsawood with a hacksaw in the car-park. We painted them lime green with the paint that Tony had used for his letter signs. Then we got a ladder and climbed onto the flat, gravelled roof. It was hard to get the old sign off, but we managed it with a mallet and a crowbar. There was no risk in cutting the wires, because the electricity had been disconnected earlier that day. Under our feet, the fruit flies were swarming over the rot of Fruit Eden; the Frozen North was melting now, loosening its grip on the sausages. We sent the Superway sign crashing down in three broken pieces to the concrete below. Leena let out a scream and jumped around. There was no-one else to applaud or cheer. No-one to witness the final switcheroo. We banged the letters into place with ten-inch nails, right into the wall. F, FU, FUN, FUNG, FUNG’S. There was no way to light them up, of course, but they stood out brightly, lime green on grey-black. Then we went to find Mr Fung. He stood there for a long time, looking at the sign. There was no expression on his face at all. He wiped his glasses, put them back on, and nodded his approval. Leena laughed. So did Ranjeet. Myself and Mr Fung remained silent. Finally we followed him inside, back into the unilluminated store. ‘Take what you want,’ was the last thing he said. ‘Anything. It’s all yours.’ But we didn’t really feel like taking much, in the end. I never saw Wasim again. I imagine he’s doing okay. I hung out with Ranjeet for a while, but we started to annoy each other, and after I went to university we lost all contact. All we talked about was Fung’s, and when there wasn’t anything else about Fung’s left to talk about, we didn’t have much to say. I saw Leena on and off that summer. She got a job in a family greengrocer’s. I have no idea what became of her. She was the first girl who let me touch her breasts. And where did Mr Fung go then? What’s he doing now? I’ve asked around. No-one seems to know. He wasn’t the kind of man you keep in touch with. Was he married? Did he have a family? Where did he even come from? No-one seems to know that either. Sometimes I wish I’d talked to him, asked him more questions. The story of Mr Fung’s Superway has since become a textbook case of mismanagement at a senior level, of doomed market strategy. It is studied in business studies seminars, held up as an extreme example of how a franchise can go badly wrong if chains of command are not adhered to and oversight not maintained. CEOs talk about ‘doing a Fung.’ Consumer watchdogs use it to explain the collapse of accountability structures. Health and safety panels do slideshows about it, pointing out the lack of fire extinguishers and flagrant disregard for safety signs. Those little men, those little women. I can only pity them. I know how it really was. I lived through the glory days. * I drove past Fung’s a few days ago. Of course, it isn’t Fung’s now. I drove past Fung’s, and then left it behind. I could have stopped, but what would have been the point? You can stop, but you can’t go back.      


I am happy staying put; not joining in. But your sun-stroked face keeps peeping around the corner of the day room: eyes locked, that fierce smile, your whole heaving body beckoning me to better worlds down the ancient stairway. The attic is not the softest of homes, but it is humble, so I can brag. Perhaps one day I’ll make it down that way. I can almost smell the meats burning early in red mornings, imagine you all rushing round the kitchen in a dance, dodging each other’s jaunting elbows; tucking in each loose end, your work-day clothing thick as a board. Ten years from now you’ll find me up here, wrapped in paisley blue, sniffing at the sewn-up edge of the family quilt. Why don’t you shine me up and take me out to market; rinse the odour from my oatmeal mouth. I only liked the times you came to check on me when you bought a warm cup of something, otherwise it was a bore.  

On the 343

In 2012, the number 343 bus caught fire outside my bedroom window in southeast London. Caught fire might be misleading. Rather, it exploded, rattling my windows, waking me up, and drawing most of the neighbors – or at least those who did not have to go off to work at 8am – out into the street to look. I knew the 343 bus well – it was my route to the supermarket, to my girlfriend’s house, to the cinema, the pub, the park. I, along with my fellow neighbors, rode it almost every day. It was, I thought, ‘my’ bus. So it was strange to walk outside in my pyjamas and slippers that early March morning and join the gaping sodality as the big red bus burned before our eyes. No one was injured – that much we could tell. The ambulance was off to the side, the paramedics idle. Nor were the fire brigade in any big hurry to do much about it. ‘Best to let it burn itself out,’ one of them told me as his colleagues languidly sprayed the flames. Slowly, the big red vehicle disintegrated in front of my eyes. Untitled6 I’m not sure what was more bizarre: the burning bus itself of the pictures of the burning bus – my burning bus – on news sites, in the paper, on TV. The police were not treating the incident as suspicious, which struck me as odd. Not that I suspected terrorism – not at all. But still, a burning bus, or rather an exploding bus, struck me as incredibly suspicious. A robbery of sorts. That was our local bus, I felt like shouting. And now it’s gone, without so much as a police investigation. Untitled5 I’ve since moved out of that house, but I still live in the same area, and I still ride the 343 every now and then. Recently, after visiting a friend near London Bridge I decided to ride it home – something that I hadn’t done in some time. It was a rainy afternoon. Blustery. The bus was nearly full. The windows had fogged up. It would be a long journey, but I didn’t mind. The 343 is one of those circuitous buses. It traverses few main thoroughfares, choosing to snake down the suburban roads, the backstreets, all the way from City Hall to New Cross Gate. This can be explained by the fact that the 343 wasn’t always the 343. Before the route was sold to Abellio – a Dutch transport company, one of the handful of private corporations in charge of London’s various bus routes – it was known as the P3, one of those single-deckers meant to shuttle pensioners and schoolchildren from door, to shop, to door. When Abellio bought the line, they expanded the service. Now it’s one of the least efficient bus routes in all of London,among the ten worst performing in the whole city. Untitled4 The bus halted in traffic at Elephant and Castle. I rubbed the fog off the front window to see the large construction site just beyond the old shopping centre. This used to be home to the Heygate Estate, which was demolished last year. A few cranes swayed in the wind. A man sipped a cappuccino outside one of the refurbished shipping containers at the new Boxpark. I had no right to get romantic about the Heygate – it was a hellish, rusk-hulk of a ruin. But this too felt bleak. Just beside the Boxpark was a large digital picture of the world to come: the new development was to be called Elephant Park, and flats were officially for sale. Old London burnt up, purified by fire, making way for the boxy corporate design of condos and flats, soon to be home to white-collar workers, low-level execs, those trying to get a rung on the property ladder. A bastion of healthy living: a gym, rooftop gardens, a children’s play area – residents’ access only. Untitled3 Untitled2 Eventually the Walworth Road unjammed, and the bus turned on to one of the small roads heading south. Ads for Elephant Park continued for another half-mile or so: large, digital illustrations of the bright, white redevelopment scheme. But the advertisements disappeared as soon as we reached the Aylesbury Estate, where a good number of passengers alighted. I was always fascinated by the Aylesbury when I passed it on this bus: I knew it as one of the most ‘notorious’ estates, not to mention the largest social housing project in Europe, a great grey city unto itself, where Tony Blair made his first speech as Prime Minister, promising to bring prosperity to Britain’s ‘forgotten people’. But I recognised it from somewhere else, too. Television. That old Channel 4 ident, in which a camera pans slowly out on to one of the balconies, surveying the bleak ruin as a large number 4 arranges itself in the centre of the screen. The estate doesn’t really look like this, of course. The Channel 4 film crew brought along a few props when they filmed this little clip: plastic bags, wet washing lines and empty lager cans were placed in the shot for effect. The satellite dishes dotting the windows were added later, in post-production. Untitled1The bus carried on past Burgess Park, through the strange residential area between the Walworth Road and the Old Kent Road. We passed rows of old Victorian terraces, a few smaller estates and a handful of new Elephant Park-style condominiums. But as we rode, I noticed something strange. Something was missing from my journey. The announcements – that was it: the bland, computerised female voice that announced each stop had ceased. The journey felt somehow empty without her. But why? I’d always found it a bit strange, that voice. A bit OK Computerish. Fitter. Happier. More productive. Strange, too, to know that its provenance is a real person, and not a digital automaton – a computer program with RP pronunciation – as I once thought it was. Her name is Emma Hignett. Born in Durham, Emma gave up her dream of being a dancer when she was in her 20s and decided to pursue a job in radio, instead. People had always complimented her on her voice, and she found success as a traffic reporter somewhere up north. Eventually, she moved on to a co-hosting slot on Capital Gold’s breakfast show in London. But her big breakthrough, of course, was the London buses. The iBus electronic system came into effect in 2006, mapping and tracking the thousands of buses that drive up, down, across and around London every day. TFL wanted a female voice to announce each stop, and after a brief search, they came across Hignett’s perfectly unthreatening mechanical-staccato voice. Today, she occupies a space in the collective consciousness of most bus-travelling Londoners. Think about the way you hear her voice whenever you walk past a familiar bus stop. Aldwych, alight here for Royal Courts of Justice. Is it tragic that the woman who dreamt of making art with her body – being a dancer – ended up as a disembodied voice? And not just that, but the voice of a new, technologically advanced London – a floating geist of corporate hegemony. Something about her tone, those dulcet recitations – perfect for the type of corporate advertising that would come to be her bread and butter – paired surprisingly well with Elephant Park, those digitised images of corporate architecture. As the bus pulled over to my stop, I imagined the future residents of Elephant Park (as well as the future residents of the new development on the road just around the corner from my house, where the 343 burned to bits that day four years ago) all speaking in her voice. Walking in their parks. Swimming in their indoor pools. Enjoying glasses of white wine on their balconies. And I wondered where my former neighbours would end up. The old men and women who came outside to look at the burning bus that day. Perhaps they’re set to go the way of the buses. ‘Best to let it burn itself out,’ the fireman said to me that day. ‘No point in fighting it.’  

Camera Obscura

A pinhole camera is a simple device: light passes through an aperture into a box, and an inverted image of the outside is projected on to the opposite wall. Build-your-own kits are sold as novelties, although they are not that novel (indeed, their charm is precisely their quaintness; they vibe old-school, authentic, real). The history of the pinhole camera, written in the margins of the histories of art, science and epistemology, stretches all the way back to the fifth century BC, when the Chinese philosopher Mi To first described one. He called it a ‘locked treasure room’. Locked, presumably, not just because it is an enclosed space, but because the images it generates – fugitive, flickering, ephemeral – are so tantalisingly ungraspable. It was Nicéphore Niépce, in post-Revolutionary France, who first unlocked the treasure room when he invented a process for fixing the images produced by a camera obscura, capturing them on a glass plate coated with Bitumen of Judea. He called it heliography. His sometime collaborator, sometime rival, Louis Daguerre, who continued refining the process after Niépce’s sudden death from a brain haemorrhage in 1833, preferred the word photography, which was already being used in English to refer to the parallel research being conducted by Henry Fox Talbot. Sun-writing, light-writing – both terms elegantly gloss the means by which a photographic image is produced: light rays bounce off an object in the world and on to a photosensitive surface, passing through an aperture to focus them. ‘Photography you are the shadow / Of the sun / Which is its beauty’, wrote Apollinaire. The (analogue) photographic image is a trace; it is, therefore, indexical, physically linked to the thing it depicts. In that respect, of course, it is quite unlike writing – at least the kind of writing you’re reading here, alphabetic writing: a word after all is merely a set of squiggles and scratches with a purely conventional connection to the thing it signifies. But like writing, photography is a means of making the impermanent permanent, and the absent present. On my wall hangs a photograph of Bob Dylan in 1965. He’s at a press conference, sitting behind a table. (The oversized lightbulb on the table makes the scene immediately recognizable to even the casual Dylanologist; it features in the opening scenes of Don’t Look Back.) Sitting across the table is a journalist, and behind her a row of photographers. But the photographer who took this particular shot was standing behind the table, behind Dylan. He’s said something to capture his attention, because Dylan has twisted round in his seat to face him. His cigarette is between his lips and his eyebrows are raised, with a slightly quizzical air. Every time I look at the photograph there is a moment where the 50 years between then and now collapse. It’s partly because of the cans: slung round Dylan’s neck they give him a curiously contemporary look. (If the history of the headphone through much of the 20th century describes the pursuit of inconspicuousness, culminating in the invention of the earbud, fashion historians of the future will surely point to unnecessarily oversized circumaural headphones as one of the distinguishing features of early 21st-century style, doubtless identifying it as part of the same nostalgic craving for the paraphernalia of analogue culture that has resurrected the pinhole camera.) But it’s not just because of the cans. It’s the peculiar gift of photography to bring past and present, here and there, into immediate contact. The photographer, manipulating lights and mirrors, a master of optics, is a kind of magician who specialises in one trick, generating the illusion of presence. The photographer in question was my father, who had worked on Fleet Street before founding his own photographic agency. As a child I wasn’t allowed in his darkroom, but I often imagine him there – happily absorbed in his task, pulling the photo from the stop bath and dunking it in the fixer, surrounded by bottles of developer, stabiliser and toner. ‘Fixer’, ‘stabiliser’, ‘stop bath’ – the language of the darkroom hints at the Sisyphean metaphysical struggle played out there: the struggle to arrest the flux of time. Photography is the art of stabilisation. If my father became a photographer for any reason other than the possibility of earning a good living, I think it was precisely because the photographer is an agent of stability, and his childhood in Central Europe had been characterized by a perilous instability. Deported to the Gulag in 1940 following the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland, by the end of the war most of his family were dead, victims of either Stalinist terror or Nazi genocide His home town had disappeared. Not physically, you understand – the fabric of the city survived, more or less, the buildings, the statues and graves, but the Polish city of Lwów (born only a few years before my father – until 1918 it had been the Habsburg town of Lemberg) was now the Soviet municipality of Lvov (today it is Lviv, in Western Ukraine). He arrived in London as a refugee, with no direction home, and set about making a new life and a new family. Photography was a part of that process: scrupulously every family event was caught on film. Arguments raged every December about the Christmas card family photo, seen by my sister and me as the height of tackiness, a compound of triviality and pretension. In most of those photos, I am scowling, resentful – only now do I realise that the need to record, to register, to archive was born of traumatic loss. I would like to ask my father about why he first became interested in photography, and what shibboleth made Dylan turn around (presumably he just said ‘Dylan’, loudly, but in my imaginary reconstructions of that moment something more significant is said). But I can’t ask him anything any more, because he has gone – not physically, you understand. He is not dead. But he has advanced Alzheimer’s. It came hugger-mugger into his life, into our lives, and before we recognized it had already made itself at home, rearranging the furniture and turfing us out on to unfamiliar streets. Alzheimer’s trick is the opposite of photography’s – it makes the present absent. Someone is there, but not there. It unfixes. It dissolves. Writing in 1978, Susan Sontag remarked that in the 20th century cancer had replaced TB as the disease of reference: ‘For as long as its cause was not understood and the ministrations of doctors remained so ineffective, TB was thought to be an insidious, implacable theft of a life. Now it is cancer’s turn to be the disease that doesn’t knock before it enters, cancer that fills the role of an illness experienced as a ruthless, secret invasion – a role that it will keep until, one day, its etiology becomes as clear and its treatment as effective as those of TB have become.’ In the almost 40 years since Sontag first published Illness as Metaphor, the mysteries of cancer have not, alas, been dissipated: decades of medical research have neither fully clarified its etiology nor led to the development of particularly effective treatments. But it has not kept its role as the epitomic illness either, its place usurped by dementia. This is not a matter of prevalence, of course, but of metaphorical potency. Dementia, of which the best-known symptom is memory loss, can easily be turned into a vehicle for thinking about specific contemporary concerns surrounding digital amnesia and the erosion of historical consciousness in the internet age. But the metaphorical resonance of an illness is not just a function of its symptoms, but is indexed more fundamentally to its mysteriousness. Cancer is still mysterious, but dementia more mysterious still. Living with cancer is living with mystery; living with dementia, a patient or sufferer, is living in mystery. A couple of months ago I was asked to write an article about Alzheimer’s as part of a fundraising drive. I think it was supposed to be about the lived experience of watching someone you love suffer, about the weariness, the fever and the fret. About the almost (if you’re lucky) irreparable damage Alzheimer’s can do to your relationships with other family members who have different assumptions, beliefs and coping strategies. About the way in which Alzheimer’s robs not just sufferers but carers of their ability to remember, to remember that people living with advanced dementia were once young and strong and dauntless. Remembering that is difficult, but it also helps you be kind and patient, and at the moment kindness and patience are the only things anyone can offer. I think I was being asked to write about that, about emotion. I couldn’t do it. I could riff here on the way in which the Alzheimer’s cyclone transports everyone involved to a world where language is a busted flush, but that would be disingenuous. I couldn’t write that article not because it’s beyond language, but because it’s beyond me at the moment. So I substituted cultural history for emotional excavation, used intellection as an anodyne. I spent a morning at the library, I looked things up, I joined the dots. A person with Alzheimer’s is unable to do that. They can’t use knowledge to buffer immediate experience. A person with Alzheimer’s is – among other things – unable to remember newly learned information. I imagine their mind like the camera obscura, topsy-turvy images flickering across the walls, fugitive and strange. They have lost the ability to stabilise those images, catalogue them, archive them. Their minds are locked treasure rooms.                

Turnspit Tykes

I know every dog owner thinks theirs is special – but my cairn terrier really is. So monstrously wilful is this outrageous beast, so magnificently unconcerned with pleasing anyone but his fat furry self, that I often have to resort to brioche-based bribery just to get him out of the front door. Given this, the idea of working dogs has always tickled me – Wilf’s ancestors allegedly had gainful employment flushing out foxes, rats and rabbits, but in the three long years we’ve spent together he’s caught but a single, terrified mouse (apparently as much to his own surprise as ours, given the speed at which he then abandoned the poor rodent). Like me, he’s happiest in the kitchen, so when I discovered that dogs were once a vital part of the British culinary armoury, I fancied I might finally have found the career to save him from a life of wanton idleness. Ill-suited to the vocation of a chef thanks to their lack of opposable thumbs, gastronomic discrimination and the most basic self-discipline, in the 16th and 17th centuries, canines were  instead put to work turning spits. Lowly as it may sound, this was one of the most important – if least skilled – jobs in the prosperous early modern household. Before the invention of the hot-air oven in the 19th century, meat was commonly roasted over an open fire; a method which, according to historian Bee Wilson, yields unusually succulent, flavourful results – but such pleasures come at a price. Unlike an oven, you can’t just stick the meat in and walk away. Fire is a capricious mistress, and the joint must be rotated constantly in order to ensure even cooking. Up until Tudor times this job would have been performed by humans – generally small boys selected for their strength and their high boredom threshold (or perhaps, desperation) who laboured in cramped alcoves at each side of the fireplace, sometimes behind a wet bale of hay to protect them from the heat. Indeed, so stiflingly hot and smoky was this backbreaking work that they often toiled half-naked, covered in grime, soot and blisters – nevertheless Wilson notes in her book Consider the Fork that this was considered an appropriate occupation for the offspring of the poor as late as the 18th century. It wasn't changing attitudes to child protection that did these unlucky infants out of a job, but a growing recognition that dumb animals were simply more biddable, and could be imprisoned in a treadmill for hours at a time without complaint. These wooden wheels were usually mounted on a wall above the fireplace, connected to the spit by a pulley system and, to maximise efficiency the dogs would often work in pairs, with one resting while the other ran. A few cooks preferred geese, which were said to be able to run up to 12 hours a day without pause, and be less troublesome to boot. Dogs were certainly considered to have more stamina than their human equivalents however. John Caius (eponymous founder of Cambridge college) boasted in 1570 that the ‘turnespetes… so diligently took to their business that not drudge or scullion can do the feat more cunningly’. So cunningly, in fact, that they became a popular metaphor for the virtues of honest labour – one political satire of the early 18th century even casts them in the role of proud upholders of the social hierarchy, so content with their humble lot that when an agitator attempts to whip them into a strike, railing against their submissive acceptance of human tyranny, they pay him no heed, preferring to quietly enjoy their bones. Tellingly, when petted by the cook, the ‘smooth submissive cur’ quickly forgets his principles and:

…licked his lips, and wagged his tail Was overjoyed he should prevail Such favour to obtain.

Among the rest he went to play, Was put into the wheel next day, He turned and ate as well as they, And never speeched again.

According to the Swedish zoologist Carl Linnaeus, dogs were often rewarded for their work with ‘a taste of the steak’, but a taste clearly wasn’t sufficient given the numerous accounts of dogs attempting to shirk their duties. A Welsh travel journal published at the tail end of the 18th century describes how at an inn in Newcastle Emlyn which employed the services of a turnspit, ‘great care is taken that this animal does not observe the cook approach the larder; if he does he immediately hides himself for the remainder of the day, and the guest must be content with more humble fare than intended.’ The little dogs were often taken to church on Sundays – not out of any concern for their sooty souls, but to be used as foot warmers – and one popular tall tale claimed that, at any mention of Ezekiel and his wheel, the turnspits would make as one for the door. Such a reaction is understandable when one learns hot cinders were often tossed in to the treadmill to encourage the exhausted dog to run, prompting a contemporary animal lover to compare the turnspit to Ixion, ancient King of the Lapiths, condemned by Zeus to roll unceasingly through the underworld on a fiery wheel for the murder of his father-in-law. Given the labour involved, Wilf seems temperamentally unsuited to life as a turnspit, yet physically I suspect he might be ideal. Although on the Continent they used any old mongrel for the task, in their heartland, the British Isles, the animals favoured for the purpose were a distinctive type, drolly termed by that noted wag Linnaeus canis vertigus, or dizzy dog, and cited by Darwin as an example of selective breeding. So prized were good turnspits that there are records of an early Philadelphia inn keeper importing them from England to toil in his basement kitchen. They certainly weren’t valued for their beauty: turnspits were ‘long-bodied, crooked-legged, ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them’ according to the Victorian naturalist Edward Jesse, though the only surviving example, imprisoned within a glass case at the Abergavenny Museum, looks like a cross between a miniature dachshund and a meerkat, with a curious curved spine that might well be the result of crimes against taxidermy rather than animal welfare. Historian Jan Bondeson is of the opinion that they would more often have resembled the modern Glen of Imaal terrier, or possibly a Welsh corgi. (Wilf, I note, does not look entirely dissimilar to the former.) [caption id="attachment_4021" align="aligncenter" width="500"]'The Old Dogwheel' at the Castle of St Briavel, Gloucestershire, illustrated in E.F. King, Ten Thousand Wonderful Things (1890) 'The Old Dogwheel' at the Castle of St Briavel, Gloucestershire, illustrated in E.F. King, Ten Thousand Wonderful Things (1890)[/caption] This is mere conjecture, however, because, although common throughout the British Isles in the 18th century, by 1850 the turnspit dog had become a curiosity, and by the Great War, the breed had disappeared completely. A technological, rather than ethical shift seems to have been responsible for their demise: an American campaign for a ban on turnspits in the 1870s succeeded in changing public attitudes to the use of these dogs, but had unintended consequences when animal rights activists discovered goats, donkeys and even African American children had replaced them in kitchens unable to afford more modern equipment. Such concern for animal welfare was unusual in a period when few could afford to keep an idle pet for their own amusement, and dogs were considered little more than a cheap utensil, to be used, abused, and then discarded once a more efficient alternative came along. Given the importance of spit-roasted meat to British cooking, the appearance of the automated spit turner at the end of the 16th century must have seemed like a culinary miracle, and as the technology improved in the 17th and 18th centuries, these mechanical jacks moved from luxury purchase to culinary necessity. Though there are records of turnspit dogs operating into the early 1900s, in many cases they were retained for their rarity value – there’s some evidence the last of their kind were even hired out as attractions. With its unfortunate looks, and understandably ‘morose’ temperament, however, the breed was never going to make the transition to favoured pet. Queen Victoria is said to have kept three retired ‘turnspit tykes’ at Windsor for her amusement, but this particular royal fad didn’t catch on with her subjects, and the distinctive, bandy-legged beast quietly breathed its exhausted last just as the 20th century was getting into its stride. The real sadness is not that this poor, put-upon creature has been rendered obsolete by a machine, but that it was so little valued in its time that it's almost as if it never existed at all. Few who enjoyed the fruits of its labours troubled to record the brief life and times of the turnspit – but let us hope they at least threw Wilf's ancestors the odd bone.

Once Upon A Tide

‘Once upon a Tide’ is a variable, restless, shifting narrative. Turns of phrase, stage directions, and lines of dialogue from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11) are randomly, repeatedly, and somewhat enigmatically recombined within a close, tense, ship-bound setting reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer (1910), or The Shadow-Line (1916). On the deck of a ship off the shore of an island, two interlocutors are closely observed by a narrator who remains hidden from view.

Not quite a short story, not quite a stage play, ‘Once upon a Tide’ is just one of those moments in literature when time ... stands ... still. When plot advances by simply refusing to budge. One of those waiting times, slack tides, great hollows within which heat intensifies, cold deepens, night thickens, fevers rage, or the sun continues its relentless blaze. Tension builds, and still nothing happens; neither the sight of a sail on the horizon nor the slightest breath of wind. It is within these long stillnesses that sailors’ yarns unravel. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), the entirety of Marlow’s tale is recounted in one evening whilst sitting utterly still on the deck of a ship moored on the Thames. In the pitch dark and the heavy night air of the river, the narrator strains to discern meaning: ‘I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips...’. 

In fiction, these long feverish pauses eventually break. In a variable text, however, we may hover forever within the tense and nuanced relation between reading, listening, watching, and waiting for the sentence, the word, the clue...

What tide is this – spring, slack, or neap? And what of this ship – charmed, safely in harbour, or bound sadly home? Are the interlocutors slight, strong, or old? Are they mariners, travellers, or strangers? Where are they from exactly? And what on earth – or sea – are they talking about?

To each of these questions there are endless answers.

There is no logical reason to cause Conrad-esque characters to speak Shakespearian dialogue. The compulsion to do so is born of reading and re-reading sea stories across genres and across centuries. The reader of ‘Once Upon a Tide’ is encouraged to do the same – read and re-read, aloud if possible.

The controls at the bottom of the narrative allow the reader to read the text more quickly, more slowly, to stop the text from shifting, or to move on to a new permutation of this sea-sorrow, to suffer a sea change into something rich and strange. 

Back to 'Once Upon a Tide'.

Rufus Emmanuel

Rufus Emmanuel is the name of a nasty little creep I met at a party. He’s nine years old, small for his age, tastelessly dressed, and he responds to everything I say with, ‘Really? That seems unlikely.’ The most interesting thing about Rufus Emmanuel is his dad, who is also called Rufus Emmanuel.

Rufus Emmanuel senior is someone I’d really like to be like – and to like me. Because he’s someone who cares about the future. His computer is made entirely from renewable sources. All his bags are reused. He never does anything in the short term that he, or anyone, might regret in the long term. Which is why it seems to me one of life’s great cruel ironies, of which pessimists tell us the world is full, that Rufus Emmanuel’s single direct contribution to the future, his son, should be such a nasty little creep.

Rufus junior and I were the dregs of a party that should have ended hours ago, but that he couldn’t leave because his dad was still talking – to my friend Cissy – and that I couldn’t leave because I’d promised Cissy’s fiancé, John Leviathan, that I’d accompany her home – which is a euphemistic way of saying I’d make sure that no-one else accompanied her home. Cissy has a tendency to fall in love with herself when she drinks, with the double effect that she expects to be propositioned at least once, and will forgive herself for saying yes once, at least. Sometimes Cissy has been known to be accompanied home by crowds. It occurs to me that she’d happily settle for just Rufus senior tonight, if I weren’t around to act as a sort of portable, detached (and thus unwelcome) conscience, which sets up a nice contrast between her and me, because I don’t seem to be able to get anywhere with Rufus junior.     

Rufus is standing next to the buffet table spearing the remains of the food with a used cocktail stick. He is grinning so widely that spit sometimes drips from his underlip, but never quite lets go. I can’t imagine why it would hang around, and yet here I am. He greets my approach with the offer of a massively punctured olive, which I eat without knowing whether this is a rite of passage or a prank or a bit of both. Then he announces: ‘You should never wear orange.’ To which I respond defensively: ‘Lots of people here like this dress.’ To which he responds: ‘Really? That seems unlikely.’ To which I almost respond by kicking him hard in the shin, but instead I take a second horribly savaged olive and eat it slowly with a look of defiance. ‘You should never eat in public,’ he says.

I send a panicked glance across the room to Cissy, who callously turns her back to me and laughs ecstatically at a joke I know she can’t really have liked, because, 1: she never gets jokes, and 2: Rufus senior doesn’t get the point of them. I catch a glimpse of his confused face over her chiffoned shoulder, but he doesn’t stop talking to her about the endless reusability of bags, or whatever it is he’s talking about. Either it doesn’t matter to him to be understood, or he hasn’t quite understood that she doesn’t understand. Either way it doesn’t bode well for a long-term relationship. But neither has been put off yet, and they’ve been talking for hours. I find myself feeling impatient for their disillusionment with one another, like a vindictive God watching the universe and knowing the plot. I turn back to Rufus junior and venture an ice breaker.

‘Do you like phones?’ I say, holding out mine as an example of what I mean. ‘Why don’t you have an iPhone?’ he says, with a sixth sense for a sore point (it exploded). But he takes the phone anyway and starts to fiddle around with it, commenting every now and again on the silliness of a photo or the idiocy of an app, though without seeming to be conscious of me at all. It’s as if he isn’t criticising me but the phone, and I’m happy to have found a way of entertaining him at no further cost to my ego. I remind myself that I like myself in orange. When I look back across the room, Cissy is laughing uproariously at something I’m sure she shouldn’t be laughing at, and leaning in towards Rufus senior, whose glasses are misting. When I turn back to Rufus junior, I find that he’s disappeared, but that there’s a new folder on my phone called ‘Shit’, which I can’t open. I wonder vaguely whether it contains my unconscious.

When I look back across the room Cissy and Rufus have also left, which perhaps proves that people only exist while I’m looking at them, and that if I turned quickly I might potentially catch life out in its eternal game of filling my visual field with stuff, but maybe it also proves that I’m a bad friend. I decide that the best thing to do about this second discovery is to let John Leviathan know and plead forgiveness. I open my Contacts and find it empty, except for the mysterious personage, ‘Sucker’, whose number is apparently, 999. I go to my text message folder and find it empty too, except for a new one from my friend Tod Sarassen asking me whether I know that someone with the initials RE is posting vicious things about me on Twitter. I say, ‘No … But Cissy has pulled (again) – what shall I do?’

Tod doesn’t reply to this, perhaps because it isn’t an interesting question, because the only thing I can do is retire with my tail between my legs. The question becomes interesting later, though, when I arrive at midnight at John’s front door, after a post-party nightcap and a lot of brooding. John answers the door in goggles because he is in the process of glue-gunning together a matchstick sculpture of Cissy that he plans to present to her on their wedding day. It’s life-size, but otherwise completely unlike her in every way, just as Cissy is herself completely unlike the person he imagines he is about to marry. It occurs to me that it would be just as insensitive (for different but related reasons) to tell him at this point that the sculpture isn’t Cissy as to tell him that Cissy isn’t Cissy, as he knows her, so I decide to help him with his wedding preparations instead, by making a matchstick sculpture of their first child. When I last used a glue gun I glued my hands together, but there are no such complications this time, perhaps because I know to point the gun away from myself – and also perhaps because I am turning away from myself metaphorically: pointing the gun of attentiveness towards John and his child.

In the morning (which I awake to on John’s pull-out sofa bed), it strikes me that what seemed kind in the moment may not have been kind in the long term. I start to think in the way Rufus Emmanuel senior likes to do, in terms of future futures. But I can’t think what to do with the information I have. In the absence of a good plan about how to explain matters (including not just Cissy’s disappearance last night (which may mean nothing of course) but all her disappearances in the company of men she likes (which probably cumulatively mean something)), I decide to help myself to some coffee and to check my emails on John’s MacBook Pro. The password is ‘Cissy’ (I have to guess because John is asleep), and the wallpaper is a picture of a vegetable that looks curiously like Cissy. When I open my inbox, though, I’m immediately distracted from all thoughts of John’s crisis by one of my own. The glue gun of attention is pointing at me, again, after all, because this is what Rufus Emmanuel junior says:

Dear X,

Hello again. Don’t ask me how I know all this: you should assume that I have good evidence, because I do – why else would I embarrass myself by emailing you? These are the things I know:

1)      That you stole your boss’s car.

2)      That you were an accomplice in a diamond heist.

3)      That you impersonated your colleague, Carmen Haze.

4)      That you spied on the cultural theorist, Gio Calvetti.

5)      That you stole a cat from Nicholas Larensen.

6)      That you drink more than you should.

I want £500 for my silence.

Best wishes (not really),


Panicking, I wonder who can possibly have told him my secrets. It couldn’t be Tod because Tod is loyal, for all his faults, and it couldn’t be John, although Tod tells him everything, because John is the sort of person who makes sculptures of people he likes. The sort of fame that interests him is laudatory. The only person who knows everything who would be likely to talk is Cissy, who is probably cuddled up next to Rufus Emmanuel senior right now.

Cissy agrees to have a drink at 5. She peers out at me from her furs with little shiny eyes that catch the remains of the late January light. ‘So I told him your secrets, so what?’ she says, adding by way of explanation, ‘Rufus and I are in love.’ ‘Let’s leave aside the fact that people who are in love tell one another their own secrets rather than other people’s,’ I say, ‘What interests me is whether Rufus has spoken to Rufus.’ She looks confused, and proceeds with her own story. ‘Rufus and I left the party at around 10, and couldn’t find any taxis, so we decided to break into his friend’s house (which was nearby) and swim naked in his pool. Rufus said his friend wouldn’t mind – that he would understand if he saw me. Rufus said he has never seen anyone so beautiful or met anyone with as interesting a slant on life as me. He said (while we were swimming) that it had never occurred to him before that being so eco-friendly was in fact quite funny, although not in a way that detracted from what he was doing at all. He said he would chuckle now when he reused his bags, but would still reuse his bags, so the environment wouldn’t miss out. He said I had brought laughter into a life that had seemed too full of serious things. He said I reminded him of laughter and should always wear yellow, the colour of laughter. Incidentally, he also said at that point that you should never wear orange.’

Cissy says she can’t stay out any longer because she’s meeting Rufus for more naked swimming at midnight and needs a catnap. She yawns felinely, and leaves. I pay the bill, and wonder how I’m going to manage to stomach paying £500, bearing in mind that this £40 cocktail bill (for just four cocktails!) is making me uneasy – or maybe that’s my conscience. It occurs to me that one of the downsides of being a chaperone is that you’re automatically complicit in the things you witness, whether because you agree to throw in your lot with someone else, whatever they’re up to, or because you promise someone to intervene if things go wrong. If you’re the second sort of chaperone, and you don’t intervene when things go wrong, you’re as foolhardy as the chaperone who agrees to take responsibility for whatever happens to happen – like Christ, but without God on your side, if things then go wrong for you. You have the opportunity not to take responsibility for a bad thing, having originally decided to be the more responsible sort of chaperone who doesn’t go along with everything, and you blow it, and no one is on your side. It certainly feels as though no one is on my side now, and I want to blame this on the Cissy and Rufus situation, although, in a way, what’s potentially messing up my life is incidental to what’s making theirs beautiful – as incidental as Rufus junior seems to be to Rufus senior, bearing in mind that he must have made his own way home…

Tod says he’ll meet me for a drink at 4 tomorrow, though he’s busy so he won’t be able to stay long, and in the meantime I brood. I check Twitter for the ‘vicious’ posts, and am vaguely relieved to find that RE doesn’t divulge anything incriminating, though sad to find, that, apparently, I have numerous bizarre Beckettian mannerisms – e.g. I tell all my stories backwards, I walk off in the middle of sentences (my own and other people’s), I march continuously to the accompaniment of a soft ‘rum-pum-pum’ sound I make conspicuously by puffing out my lips whenever I’m not talking (when I’m talking, my feet ad lib), and I cower and cry a little bit whenever I hear my name.

‘X,’ Tod says the next day, ‘you need to stop worrying about this. No one is going to believe a nine-year-old, especially if his so-called ‘evidence’ is Cissy’s pillow talk. Cissy isn’t even supposed to be engaging in pillow talk with anyone but John, and, believe me, she and Rufus will want to keep this whole thing a secret.’ ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but it doesn’t matter whether RE is credible on an objective level. This isn’t a court of law. The problem is that he’s threatening to spread rumours about me online that are true, and spectacular, so people will want to believe them – and anyway, no one will know that the initials ‘RE’ refer to a nasty little nine-year-old with a chip on his shoulder because his dad sometimes forgets about him. He could tweet all this tomorrow and I’d be out of my job.’ ‘You’re being melodramatic,’ says Tod. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘but somewhere between my melodrama and your massive underestimation of the seriousness of this situation, is how I should be feeling.’  

After I’ve left Tod (at 7ish), I go back to John’s to continue work on my sculpture of his firstborn. John pours me a whisky when I arrive (he already has one himself), and we each fall into a workmanlike meditative silence, exchanging words only when one of us needs to use the glue gun or replenish our whisky. While I work, I wonder how to tell the man whose future I’m helping to design that he may not have the future he wants, and also wondering whether I should feel guilty about all the stealing I’m being accused of – and that I’m guilty of, if not about. The only thing on RE’s list that I didn’t do is steal Nicholas Larensen’s cat. It was Tod’s cat, that Nicholas Larensen stole, and we were just reclaiming it.

At around 10, John looks over at my sculpture and says with fatherly wonder, ‘It’s a she.’ ‘Her name’s Ophelia,’ I say, ‘She’s let down by all the people she loves, but she has amazing dignity.’ ‘That’s nice,’ says John, “Ophelia Leviathan’ sounds quite good too [I disagree with him about that] … Well, I’m going to bed now. If you want to carry on, make sure you switch off the glue gun when you’ve finished with it, because it doesn’t like to overheat.’ I carry on working until midnight, and then just sit there until 3, or maybe 4, staring at Ophelia’s tragic features, whispering (a little drunkenly because I’ve had about half a bottle of whisky): ‘I’m sorry, Ophelia, I’m sorry about everything. I know I shouldn’t steal or lie, but I’m not sorry I made you. You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve made.’

When I wake up I’ve glued my hands together (again), though the glue gun’s turned off – it must have been its dying last ooze. Anyway, I decide that this means I’ve become self-preoccupied (again), and should be focussing more on others, so I make John a cup of coffee and a bacon sandwich and take them upstairs to his room. John is so nice that he says ‘thank you’ although he’s in shock. The copy of today’s Times that he’s reading in bed on his MacBook Air (he has two computers) is in the process of informing him that his fiancé is a member of a gang of delinquents called ‘The Pool Crashers’ who wander drunkenly from one mansion to another in Mayfair in search of swimming pools. Few bother to swim when they find them, but some do; there’s a picture of a loving couple swimming naked in a pool belonging to one of Prince Harry’s school friends. John immediately recognises Cissy from a swarm of freckles on her thigh. He doesn’t know Rufus Emmanuel by appearance (though he happens to be reading his book – called Green Futures), but he’s seen enough to start to feel sick. I tell him that Cissy and Rufus probably aren’t pool crashers themselves: they’ve just crashed a pool crashing party, by the looks of it. He nods as if that sounds sensible, and bolts to the ensuite to be sick.

Because it sounds like he’ll be in there for a while, and because it would be especially insensitive of me to leave him alone right now (though I’m a little bored), I decide to check my emails quickly. I’ve only just logged in and found a new email from Rufus junior in my inbox, when someone rings the doorbell. I assume it’s Cissy, and it is, and she doesn’t seem particularly happy to find me at John’s at 8 in the morning in yesterday’s clothes, but nor does she bother to question my explanation (i.e. I’m here to glue together her daughter.) After this brief exchange, she more or less ignores me, probably because she’s mentally preparing to announce to John when he emerges from the bathroom that she’s in love with RE senior. ‘I’m in love with Rufus Emmanuel,’ she says, when her fiancé appears, green, from the bathroom – a metaphor for the Rufusian future, unbeknown to himself (or itself.) ‘What?!’ he says, ‘that little prick who’s been bullying X?’ ‘No, of course not,’ says Cissy, with some impatience, ‘and I’m sure X is being melodramatic about that. What I mean is, I’m in love with someone else.’ ‘Me too!’ says John, and he points wildly at the sculpture of Ophelia I’ve been working on all night. I experience a weird quiver of maternal protectiveness, but not for long, because John has spotted his mistake. ‘I mean I’m in love with this someone else,’ he says, pointing at his sculpture of Cissy. ‘Its me!’ says Cissy. ‘What I’m saying, though,’ says John, ‘is that she isnt you!’ ‘But she is!’ says Cissy, ‘You’ve made a whole sculpture of me out of matchsticks! I love you!’ she adds, incongruously from my perspective. ‘I love you!’ says John, equally incongruously, and they embrace.

When I’m back at my office computer (at 9.30ish), I’m surprised to find – having skimmed RE’s ‘urgent’ request for a meeting at 4 – an email from Tod, advising me briefly to: ‘Just pay him.’ ‘Why the change of tack?’ I write back. ‘Because he has to be bluffing,’ Tod replies after a minute or so, ‘There’s no way he’ll cash the cheque. He just wants to humiliate you.’ ‘How do you know?’ I shoot back. ‘I don’t; it’s an informed guess,’ he writes, ‘You’re a fun person to wind up – you’re melodramatic.’ ‘Thanks,’ I say, and add: ‘BTW, John and Cissy suddenly seem to be a unit again.’ ‘I know,’ he says, ‘I just got a text from John. Go figure!’ He then proceeds to ‘figure’: ‘It’s something to do with a sort of voluntary mutual delusion. John thinks Cissy’s someone his experience teaches him she’ll never be, and she’s prepared to believe in his ideal, despite knowing herself.’ ‘That sounds likely,’ I say, accommodatingly, while reflecting that Tod has become cynical about love since Nicholas Larensen stole his cat. 

I’m quarter of an hour late for my meeting with Rufus Emmanuel junior, because, I explain to him, ‘I’m much in demand at work.’ ‘That seems unlikely,’ he snipes. I toy with the idea of asking him, ‘Why would you think that I’m not in demand?’ but hesitate for the same reason that I haven’t asked John or Tod to help me open the ‘Shit’ folder on my phone. ‘Anyway,’ I say, ‘This is your cheque for £500. Now maybe you’ll leave me alone.’ ‘It’ll be a pleasure to leave you alone,’ he says, which suddenly makes me nostalgic in advance for his negative attention – a convoluted matter of looking ahead to the inability to look anywhere but back, at something that makes me miserable anyway. So I rack my brains for a question that’ll keep the conversation going. ‘I’m curious,’ I say, not altogether truthfully, ‘as to why you only wanted £500.’ ‘Ah’, he says, ‘Because you wouldn’t have been able to afford anything else, judging by your clothes, accent and manners, and because a £500 deduction from a monthly wage that just about covers rent, meals and a bit of drinking is bound to be inconvenient in a really close-to-the-nerve way. I mentally see you preparing your daily repast of boiled cabbage, lentils and gradually diminishing pasta, and it makes me smile with my heart.’ It’s at this point more or less exactly that I realise that RE isn’t bluffing at all.

A few days later, £500 disappears from my bank account. My first thought is to ask John for a loan, but I already owe him £3,000 – and more if you count all the whisky and the damage I did to his first glue gun (when I first glued my hands together.) My second thought is to ask Cissy and/or Tod, but I can’t imagine either saying yes, though both are rich, so I give up. It’s also a few days after my meeting with Rufus junior, that I’m reminded of his peculiar sounding phrase, ‘makes me smile with my heart’ – and remember that it comes from the song, ‘My Funny Valentine’, which makes me wonder whether all his viciousness might be a kind of confused declaration of love. After all, that song could be pretty vicious in the hands of a sociopath – ‘Your looks are laughable/Unphotographable’ etc. It’s the sort of thing I imagine him saying unaffectionately, apropos of nothing. It’s a little like telling someone they should never eat in public. Maybe he imagines that we’re soulmates because my history of theft makes me a sociopath. But he’s completely wrong about that. Theft is just something I get up to when I’m drunk, when it seems like an entirely harmless and inexpensive (indeed, potentially the opposite) way of spending time. The nostalgia (this time real-time) that the memory of my drunken thieving arouses in me is a welcome reminder that whatever RE’s motives may have been, the end-result is that I have no drinking money and am sitting here eating cabbage, lentils and diminishing (not real-time) pasta, because of him.

I’m solemnly eating cabbage, lentils and a few forlorn twists of fusilli on Valentine’s day – which may seem like a nice day to some people, but not to anyone who’s halfway through the desert of a month of pennilessness – when an email pings into my inbox from ‘Rufus Emmanuel’, and, in spite of myself, I smile with my heart. But, as it turns out, my heart has jumped the gun in this instance, because – before I read the email – my eye is caught by the paraphernalia of status: the ‘Professor’ ahead of the name, the Oxford College (namely, Crispsmith College – I didn’t know it existed!), and the link to a flamboyant advertisement for Rufus Emmanuel’s new book. It strikes me as tautological to give Green Futures a green cover, but then, tbf, what other colour could it be? Even white would seem subversive of the message. Anyway, the email says:

Dear X (if I may),

I’m emailing you on Valentine’s Day to tell you that I love you. When you first glanced across at me at the party the other day, my heart melted, and so did all my elaborate theories about the future (thankfully, the book is published), because the only possible future I could imagine was one with you – though I didn’t (and still don’t) know how you feel about me, or what our combined futures might look like – although I think I can safely say that they’d (may I say ‘they’ll’?) be somewhat more attractive than Rufus Emmanuel junior, poor fellow. I often wonder what you’re doing, bearing in mind your history of adventure, as described to me by our mutual friend, Cissy. I associate you with the colour orange, not just because of your dress at the party, but because orange (for me anyway) is the colour of adventure. You should always wear orange.

All My Very Best wishes (really),


Völuspá: The Seeress’s Prophecy

A Preface to the Poem

'Völuspá' compresses the whole of the Norse vision of the universe’s history and future into its 60-odd short stanzas. It is narrated by a seeress, or Völva, who is requested by Odin to share her memories and prophecies with humankind, ‘Heimdall’s young’. She begins with a version of the creation story, and tells us of the great war between the Aesir and the Vanir that ended with the Vanir’s deification. She then looks forward to Ragnarok, and the death of the Gods, then beyond that to the purified world’s rebirth.

We don’t know when the poem was written. It is quoted extensively in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (1220), a kind of manual for writing Skaldic verse, and appears in the collection of poems known as the Poetic Edda, the earliest manuscript of which dates from the 1270s, but it is much older, and the stories are older still. It is generally thought to have been a minstrel poem that was passed down through the centuries by word of mouth. The catalogue of the dwarves that begins in the 10th stanza, an important source of names for the characters in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books – Gandalf means Wand-Elf – probably comes from another poem entirely, and some translators leave it out. I think it’s one of the best bits. 

Most translators of 'Völuspá' have sought conscientiously to decode the Norse rather than attempt to capture the poetic spirit of the original. In the Norse the lines are short, dense and heavily alliterative. They have a very distinctive, muscular music, which I’ve tried to imitate in my translation. I’ve also tried to make the poem easier to understand by making the names of the characters consistent. In my version, at the least, it should be clearer who is doing what to whom and when.


Völuspá: The Seeress's Prophecy

Silence, god-blessed,
Heimdall’s young.
All-father requests
My ancient memories.

Giants raised me,
Years before Man,
Before the ash-clasped
Worlds were nine. 

Before Ymir,
Or ocean moved,
Earth was not nor sky,
nor green – Gap gaped. 

Odin, Vili and Ve
Fashioned Midgard,
Then sun warmed halls,
The grass sprung sunward.

Sol and Mani circled,
Grasped crank and spun,
Both seeking home,
Innocent of power.

The Gods in council
Named Night’s children:
Morning, Noon,
Afternoon, Eve. 

At Idavoll they gathered,
Built temples in wood,
Smelted iron, wrought gold,
Carved tongs and tools. 

They played at tables
In meadows for joy,
(Until three maids came
From cold Jotunheim).

The sacrosanct Gods
Created the Dwarves,
From Brimir’s blood
And bone of Blain.

(Mighty Motsognir was made
To lead them, next Durin,
Then others, manlike,
Dwellers in the earth:

Newmoon, Darkmoon,
North, South, East, West,
Sneakthief, Slumberer,
Old One, Meadwolf,

Bombur, Nori,
Bivor, Bavor,
An, Anar,
Wind-Elf, Thrain, 

Vigg, Wand-Elf,
Thekk, Thorin,
Thror, Vit, Lit,
Regin, Rathsvith,

Corpse, Counsel,
Fundin, Sviur,
Fili, Kili,
Hannar, Frar, 

Heptili, Hornbori,
Aurvang, Fraeg,
Foundling, Nali,

Then Dvalin’s line,
Folk of Lofar,
Who sought the loamfield
Of Iorovellir: 

Draupnir, Dolgthrasir,
Greyhair, Hill-River,
Skirvir, Firvir,
Floodplain, Glow, 

Fialar, Frosty,
Yngvi, Elf, Skafid,
Finn and Betrayer –
None are forgotten.) 

Odin and his brothers –
Merciful Aesir –
Went into the World,
And found Ash and Elm. 

Odin gave them breath,
Vili reason, Ve beauty,
Ask and Embla making,
Mankind’s begetters. 

Loam-soaked world-ash,
Keeper of Mimir’s well,
Created dew and rain.

From the pool
The three maids entered:
Fated, Becoming, Must-be –
Runesmiths, law-givers.

Then came the first war,
Freya of the Vanir
Spear-stabbed at Valhall,
Her body burned thrice. 

Three times reborn,
She lives still,
Seer, mind-meddler,
Goddess of witches. 

The Vanir sought redress.
The Gods sat in council:
What gifts could they bestow?
Godhood. Nothing less. 

All-father’s spear
Had started the war,
But the Aesir fortress
Had by battle-magic fallen. 

Frey was promised to Od,
Od promised new walls.
The walls stood high,
But Od – Od was killed.

Thor, Od’s smiter,
Was accused of treachery.
Oaths had been broken,
A binding compact fouled. 


Heimdall’s horn is hidden,
Beneath the holy tree,
In the well where Odin pledged
Body eye for spirit eye. 

He found me, Old One.
‘I know,’ I told him,
‘Your eye’s in Mimir’s well.
I know everything.’ 

He gave me rings and necklaces,
In return for prophesy.
So I saw into all worlds
And described my vision: 

Valkyries riding to Valhall,
Skuld and Skogul;
Gunn, Hild, Gondul,

I saw Baldr,
The blood-stained god,
And over the plain
The mistletoe. 

From that fair plant
Came the fatal shaft.
But Odin’s son, newborn,
Killed Baldr’s slayer. 

Vali would not wash
Till Hod was destroyed.
In her fen-halls Frigg
Wept for Valhalla. 

Vali made ropes
From Loki’s son’s guts
And bound the trickster
Under boiling springs.

I saw Loki,
Loathsome, evil-loving,
With unhappy Sigyn,
In the poisoned grove. 

From the east,
Through venom-steeped valleys
Creeps Slid, Cutting-River,
All daggers and swords. 

In northern Nidavellir
Stands Sindri’s hall;
In Onkolnir
The hall of Dwarf Brimir. 

Sleet-Cold hall holds
The shore of death.
Its roof drips venom,
Snakes wind round its walls. 

In Slid wade oathbreakers,
Outlaws, cheats,
Nidhogg sucks their blood,
A wolf tears their flesh. 

In Ironwood a crone
Nurses her wolf-brood,
One of whom
Will swallow the sun. 

Fenrir will feast
On the fallen,
Summer sun blackens,
The Great Winter comes. 

Eggther of Ironwood
Strums his harp,
While in the ravenwood
Fjalar’s crow wakes giants. 

The cock Gullinkambi
Rouses Odin’s Slain
As soot-red Fjalar
Crows under Earth. 

Hel’s hound Garm howls,
His bonds will snap.
Death comes for the Gods
At Ragnarok. 

Brother kills brother,
Sons betray their kin:
Axe-age, sword-age,
Wind-age, wolf-age. 

Water spirits dance
As destiny burns.
Heimdall sounds the horn.
Odin sounds out Mimir. 

The world-ash groans
As Fenrir breaks loose.
All-father heeds Mimir,
But the wolf will slay both. 

How fare the Gods?
How fare the Elves?
The Dwarves, mountain-masters,
Feel tremors in the stone. 

Hel’s hound Garm howls,
His bonds will break.
Death comes for the Gods
At Ragnarok. 

Here comes Hrym’s corpse-ship
Over serpent-churned waves.
The pale eagle hymns:
Its beak will rend the dead. 

A ship comes from the East
Bearing agents of death,
Devils’ sons, wolf-followers,
Loki among them. 

Surt, the fire-giant
Brings harm of branches,
His sun-sword sunders rocks,
Warriors speed Hel-ward. 

Now Frigg’s second sorrow:
Odin meets the wolf,
While Frey battles Surt.
All-father falls. 

Then Vidar, Odin’s son,
Plunges blade into Fenrir,
Silencing the scavenger,
Avenging One-Eye’s death. 

Earth’s warden, Thor,
Grapples with the snake.
But poisoned by its breath,
Nine paces back he sinks. 

Sun blackens, Earth crumbles,
Stars tumble from heaven,
Fire laps the Ash,
Flames lick the sky. 


Another green Earth
Will rise from the sea.
I see eagles over fells,
Sporting for fish. 

At Idavoll, the Gods meet,
And talk of the serpent,
Their former strength,
And the Wise One’s runes. 

On the grass, roundabout,
Are the tables of gold
At which they played
So long ago. 

Crops will grow unseeded;
Ills healed, Baldr returns
To live at Valhalla,
Shrine to the slaughter-Gods. 

Vili will cast the blooded runes
And the sons of brothers,
Baldr and Hod,
Will live with the Wind. 

I see a sun-bright hall,
Gold-thatched at Gimle,
Where the Gods will pass
Their days in pleasure. 

The black dragon flies,
Over dark-of-moon hills,
Bearing corpses to Hel.
Where I must go too.

Making Of

Jon’s initial plan is to smear a teddy bear with dog food and drag it through the streets of Kilyos. The town is full of stray dogs, so he hopes that by the time we get back out into the countryside we’ll have a comet’s tail of mongrels chasing after our two cars. We’ve come to Kilyos to help him make a film for an art show he’s putting on in London. The film will be only be 30 seconds long, like a car ad, and it will also have the glossiness of a car ad, except for the frantic dogs. There are six of us in the crew – me, Jon, Jesse, Samara, Ali and Mihda – plus Esteban, Mihda’s dog. Esteban is theoretically still a puppy, but he’s already so huge that when he treads on your foot it feels like he might have broken a few of your toes. Apparently his breed was developed to hunt wild boar. His white coat matches the colour of Mihda’s dad’s car, a four-wheel-drive Porsche Cayenne, and whenever we leave him on his own even for a second he gets into the driver’s seat and sits up with his paws on the wheel looking like ­­Rick Ross. Esteban is not here to act in the film. But he’s not just a shark-eyed mascot either. We think of him as key grip.

Kilyos, a resort about 15 miles north of the centre of Istanbul, has had most of the life sucked out of it by the local mafia. The satellite dishes on the roofs here are so brown with rust that they make me think of oversized forest mushrooms. We find that there isn’t nearly enough manoeuvrability on these little streets to do our Pied Piper act, and also the dogs are already so well fed that they may not have much interest in our meaty decoy, so instead we just eat some spinach börek and then carry on to Gümüsdere Beach. On the way, alongside the cabbage fields and cemeteries and go-kart tracks, there are fences which have repeating patterns of blobby holes cut out of their struts, as if eaten away by some meticulous weevil. Jesse explains that the wood must be the interstices from a type of automated woodwork called CNC, so these struts are like the leftover dough that you guiltily cram in your mouth after you’ve stamped out a dozen heart-shaped biscuits. There are also so many strays by the side of the road that when we pass a few cows for the first time there is a terrifying moment when I take them for gigantic horned mastiffs.

After a while we come to a stretch of beach that looks about right to Jon, but all the beach resorts here are privately run, so they all have gates, and the gates here are locked. They do look a bit rickety, but there’s a CCTV camera nearby, and Jon doesn’t want to do anything that might get us arrested. Ali goes to speak to some old men in a café nearby, and they tell him that the guardian of the gate is somebody called Mr Hasan in the village. I was excited to come on this trip because Jon said we’d have to pay a lot of bribes and I’d never paid a bribe before. Surely, I think, Mr Hasan will be our first bribe. But when we eventually track his son, he tells us that he can’t unlock the gate for us but we’re very welcome to break in if we want. I wonder if there’s any chance we might be permitted to bribe him anyway, just for the experience.

After Jon has wrenched the gates open, we have the beach to ourselves. The row of holiday homes further up the slope are all identical in their architecture but in various stages of dilapidation, so from the rear they remind me of one of those anti-drug posters showing the slow decline of a meth user. We’d hoped we might be able to swim for a while, but the grey sea is far too cold. The Bosphorus has a one-way system that changes direction every 12 hours, and by the time we leave so many ships will be queuing up on the horizon that they look like a manufactured coastline. Jesse, Samara and I walk up the beach to look for some stray dogs. Our progress is slowed a little by Samara’s scavenging. Her art is full of creases, furrows, and stains, so she’s finding a lot of treasure on the beach that she wants to take home with her. In this briny wind, everything erodes at the speed of a time-lapse video, so the half-buried tarpaulins and plastic buckets look as if they’ve been here since the Hittite era. Eventually, we do come across three fairly photogenic strays, but just as we’re making our first shy advances with a bag of sliced sausage, two teenagers from the riding school nearby come cantering across the beach, and the dogs go straight for their horses. They really seem to think they have a shot at taking both horses down like cheetahs against gazelles.

We don’t have a hope of catching up. So we’ve failed to assemble a cast of unknowns. But of course our star has been right in front of us all this time. As a test, we tie a length of twine to the teddy bear and dangle it in front of Esteban to see if he’s interested. The teddy bear has a disconcertingly Lolita-type posture and when squeezed sings ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ Esteban is interested. Esteban is very interested. Esteban is so interested that it soon becomes clear that wrestling the teddy bear out of Esteban’s mouth between takes will constitute a full time job for at least one member of the crew (I remember reading that the same was true of Jack Nicholson during the filming of The Departed). Afterwards, I grope the muddy bear again, hoping to hear a slurred and atonal rendition of its little song, like a damaged robot’s, but evidently it’s been traumatised into silence.

Jon has a shouldermount for his camera, but the spring is too weak, so whenever he tries to use it the camera lolls around like a concussion patient. Instead, he’s going to steady the camera by hand. Since I have nothing in particular to do, I join him on the cargo bed of the second car, from which he’ll be filming the action. The sun is setting, and we are entering what’s called the Golden Hour, that divine burnishment which has inspired filmmakers with its fugitive beauty since the very advent of Technicolor: perfect conditions, in other words, to get a few takes of a big dog running after a cuddly toy. Communicating with walkie-talkies between the two cars, we begin filming. The teddy bear is dragged at high speeds behind the Porsche like Hector’s body behind the chariot of Achilles. With three bodies in independent motion, this feels like something between exceptionally complex stuntwork and a total farce. Esteban seems to be having the time of his life, presumably assuming that this entire game has been arranged for his benefit. I find myself wishing that being a novelist involved a bit less sitting alone in small rooms and a bit more riding in the backs of pick-up trucks at high speeds.

By the time the dog finally tires, Jon has come to accept that we aren’t going to get the smooth 30-second take he was hoping for. But he’s got quite a few shorter takes he can edit together. As we’re packing up the equipment, we see that at least one other party has taken advantage of the gate we left open. A guy in one of those stubby, top-heavy delivery vans has driven on to the beach and is now attempting to do donuts on the sand. It’s like watching Esteban practising pirouettes. After a while the guy gets out of his car for a cigarette, so Jesse and I decide to go over to say hello to him. It’s only when we’re within a few paces that I realise I’m still carrying the filthy, ruined teddy bear on its noose of twine like some sort of avant-garde handbag. The guy looks at the bear and then looks at me. I look back at him. Nobody says anything.