Lunchtime, Ukraine International Airlines

We are high in the sky, not far from Chernobyl, as the three-eyed crow flies. I am staring out of the window, wondering how a landscape so unremittingly flat and dull could be known as steppe, when lunch arrives in a lurid yellow rectangular box. While I doubt that the presentation of food is high on the agenda of any airline’s economy class hospitality division, Ukraine International Airlines’ policy in this regard arouses immediate suspicion. One half of the top panel of the box has a viewing window cut into it, but this is of little use given that whatever it is intended to reveal is sulking in a steaming wrap of tinfoil. The contents of the other half, meanwhile, are sequestered in darkness. The airline has not presented the food badly; it has done its utmost to conceal it altogether. This is not promising. ‘Bon appétit!’ urges the box in gaudy blue lettering, while its confederate, the paper cup, chimes in with ‘Enjoy!’ I’ve a feeling that the three of us might not get on.

It is clear from attempting to remove the white-hot tinfoil that the main course has just been microwaved. Some use the verb ‘to nuke’ for this method of cooking, and never has it seemed more apposite than when dining in a fallout zone. But hang on a second – isn’t tinfoil supposed to make microwaves blow up? I must be wrong. Perhaps my meal has literally been nuked: fusion cuisine. The first course bears a superficial resemblance to omelette and chips with broccoli. The portion is minuscule; several half-lives ago, presumably, it was adequate. The omelette is a homogenous mass of, who can say, rubbery-plastic or plasticky-rubber? I commit it resentfully to my stomach. It is the closest thing I have ever eaten to strange matter, the hypothetical substance of oddly uniform density that some quack scientists predicted the world would turn into if the CERN experiments were allowed to go ahead. I glance out of the window. The world looks the same as before. Scant relief. (more…)


In the analysis and discussion of recent events in England, many have struggled to identify causes, and provide explanations and understandings of behaviour that most hardly recognise. This frustrating search for meaning has seen media outlets, politicians, and by extension ‘the public’, develop a vocabulary for the situation, a slowly consensual (among those who comment, at any rate) set of words for things that have proven difficult to describe.

Who was doing these things? The BBC used the word ‘protestors’ from Saturday evening, when the first gathering of people became violent, up until sometime on Tuesday, after the worst of the violence seemed over.  Then ‘rioters’ or ‘looters’ became the norm (as it was throughout with many other media outlets), delegitimising the perpetrators, rendering them, correctly, unjustified. Most blamed things on ‘youths’, describing, roughly, those between 14 and about 20 who seemed to form the core of the violence. The insistent degrading of the word ‘youth’ in the shocked rhetoric of commentary served to extinguish its inherent sprightliness. (more…)

Assange in the Eighteenth Century

In a Virginia court room, away from the press, the US government is embarking on a grand jury investigation into the affaire WikiLeaks. Having learned from its mistake — storing classified data in a networked archive accessible to millions — it has resolved to take secrecy seriously. No one could say for sure that this particular grand jury hearing was actually about WikiLeaks and its éminence grise, Julian Assange, until the end of April. Confirmation came when a man in Boston, Massachusetts was subpoena’d to appear in a proceeding that would involve the 1917 Espionage Act: a law modelled on British legislation passed before the First World War. The absurdity of the whole thing, the spectacle of an administration falling over itself to prosecute someone, anyone, with a rule-book drawn up while filing cabinets were the cutting edge of bureaucratic technology, puts the question of official secrecy back on the table. (more…)

Ex Libris

There’s a dirty little game to pass the time in libraries. It takes two or more participants, an interest in foreign spines and a nose for the obscure. One player shuffles off for a stroll in the stacks – the darker and dustier, the better. They return, sometime later, with a long, punctuated number, or a list of several. The other takes the paper, follows its codes around the library, and returns even later with a grin and a new found love of the works of Robert Fuchs and Carl August Titz.

It would be difficult to play this game in Kensal Rise library. Romantic nooks are in short supply. Illicit liaisons, book-based or otherwise, are impossible. But mainly, it would be difficult to play because there are very few books. The library is sparsely populated in every sense, though the day’s papers, a few computers and a dedicated children’s section add a little colour. For more than two decades, councils have been trying to close   it, and since 2004, it has been a stated objective, outlined in the ‘Vision for Brent’ of that year. It seems the time has come. (more…)

On Orford Ness

Late September on the coast of Suffolk, with the sky curdling into low cloud. From the mainland pier, Orford Ness is a low flat slate-grey spit, tapering to a wire of horizon at each end. Between here and there, the narrow channel of the River Ore sweeps southwest down the coast to the North Sea, bearing a few fishing smacks and weekend motorboats whose prows point into the tide. Across the water, on the skyline: a lighthouse; a distant array of reticulated radio-masts; a cluster of concrete barrows like brutalist burial mounds. A union flag is drooping on its pole at the end of the quay. (more…)

Rush Hour, Nairobi

Nairobi is often described as the hub of East Africa, but if there’s a wheel attached to it, there’s no way it can be revolving. Not at the moment, at least. I am sitting in three lanes of traffic on a downhill dirt slope approaching the Parklands roundabout, a chaotic junction just to the north of the Central Business District, over which a Chinese-constructed flyover is slowly taking shape. To call it a roundabout in its current state would accord it a sense of movement and regulation that the scene of mayhem in front of me defiantly resists. A slipway to my left peters out into a mire of wet concrete, an unfinished overpass juts precariously into the sky, and, in the epicentre of it all, a monstrous engine judders back and forth in the red earth, oblivious to the jostling cars that swarm around it. “Bear with us – we are building for the future!” announces a flaking, hand-painted sign on a low wall which looks like it’s been there for years. It’s dwarfed by a billboard which urges the melee of motorists below to ‘insure their assets against political violence and terrorism’. The huge accompanying image of a burning car with a rejoicing rebel gunman beside it does little to calm my nerves.  It’s rush hour in Nairobi, and I’m still getting used to it.


The Whole Package

I’m writing this 30 yards from the Red Sea, sat on a sun lounger in Sharm el-Sheikh. It’s the first week of 2011, and I’m surrounded by British people, bar one young Egyptian man who sells massages and another who sells camel rides. Across the water is Saudi Arabia. If I look hard enough, I convince myself that I can see it.

I’ve paid £520 pounds to be here. That’s inclusive of flights, airport transfer, in-flight meals, seven days’ accommodation, unlimited food and drink (though all but ‘local’ alcohol comes at a supplement) and use of various gym, games and pool facilities for the duration. The deal amazes me, though it’s unexceptional.

The resort is viciously tacky. Life-size plastic Santa Clauses jostle with inflatable snowmen for floor space, while cotton wool stands in for the snow that we left in England. Marble floors and terracotta paint, neon light and insistent Christmas classics on the stereo make a Lynchian netherworld, where it’s always time to celebrate but no one feels inclined. I half expect canned laughter. (more…)

On Writing and Not Writing

For as long as I have wanted to be a writer, I have been on the verge of giving up writing. In the last five years alone, I have made time not to write: a collaborative prose ramble around London’s Victorian cemeteries, a play about sex, bombs and Dresden, a comic novel about coaxing coachloads of American teenagers around Europe, a slim, elegant study of Cleopatra’s Needle, one short story about a nineteenth-century rubbish dump in Essex and another on gate-crashing West End theatres, an elegiac film about the resurgence of the far-right in Rome, a villanelle on the catacombs of Santa Cecilia on the Via Appia, where I once joined a tour led by an irreverent Filipino friar, a pair of sonnets on Samuel Pepys’s fondness for parmesan, and any number of quasi-metaphysical poems inspired by stuttering relationships (the one about a runaway bicycle, the one about a snowed-in Peugeot, the one about hand-me-down kitchen utensils).

I have become an expert in the fine art of not writing. Anybody can play the busy fool for a morning or two, but it takes practice to tread water in the shallows of idleness until Friday afternoon and then muster the chutzpah to shut up shop for the weekend. The sheets need hanging and the coffee brewing and the bill paying. The news keeps rolling. And the legs, quite naturally, always want stretching. The supermarket aisles are calmer during the day, the food fresher if bought daily. Wordier pastimes, like skating between puns or diving into the dictionary for etymologies, can almost feel like work. I blame a four-year research degree (the blame game is a fail-proof ruse for squandering twenty minutes), which tricked me into forgetting that there could be any kind of research that didn’t already feel like a pastiche. A familiar, sickly sense of inefficiency used to creep up on me at lunchtime, but I can now conjure chores and diversions to last a whole day, and it’s normally not until late in the afternoon that I begin to detect some of the less elaborate palms and passes from my extensive repertoire of self-deception.

Here, since making lists is one of the most satisfying strategies for deferring writing, is another list that will give you an idea of the scenic route I took towards this piece: I set aside today to write it, but made sure to lay down the foundations for not doing so by staying out until four this morning, which meant waking on a friend’s sofa after eleven for a couple of hours of badinage and reading aloud Catullus, after which it seemed only natural to nip out together for a bacon sandwich, which necessitated a restorative tramp on Hampstead Heath, which stretched into an improvised pilgrimage to Keats’s house, where we decided to devise an alternative route back, which threw up an interesting Victorian Gothic church in Gospel Oak, where we lingered with the verger for ten minutes under the guise of architectural tourism. We made it back as our conversation turned to my forthcoming trip to Ireland, which provided an excellent opportunity for three performances of The Wild Rover in a makeshift arrangement for voice and guitar. I reached the British Library café at twenty to four this afternoon, immediately setting up a wireless connection to spend forty-five minutes indulging some of the potentially infinite digressions afforded by my platoon of social media accounts. The building closes in five minutes. Tant pis. It is Sunday.

It was Sunday. Monday went somewhere and it is now Tuesday afternoon, which means that my self-imposed deadline has slipped by and I’m now not writing this piece when I should not be writing something else. It’s at this point that the more diverting reasons for not writing give way to their malevolent cousins: rumination, self-chastisement, doubts and regrets, encroaching exhaustion, physical tics (such as twisting my hair into small dreadlocks that I tear out with grim satisfaction) and, eventually, a pervasive, frightening nausea, that only has one genuine remedy. And that remedy is writing.

A writer is someone who writes. A friend of mine once told me that a poet he knew had taped that motto above her desk, and the next day I copied it carefully in black ink on the first page of a new A4-sized notebook. The format seemed unwieldy and though I wrote one page in it about a dismal, sodden walk to Alexandra Palace, the other pages are inevitably still blank. For though it pains me to write it, it is just possible that I am a writer – where a writer is someone who writes very little, who goes to great lengths to avoid writing, who finds writing lonely, worrying, and even terrifying, but for whom all these things are preferable to a future that involves no writing. For me, giving this up takes place in an immediate future that always sounds ironic – where I am about to knock coffee over the keyboard, where I am on the verge of defenestrating the computer – but it never washes up in the remote future. There is, at this moment, no conceivable future perfect of my having abandoned writing, no imaginable time when I will have junked it.

Not writing leaves plenty of time for not reading. In this separate discipline, in which I count myself a hardy competitor, one of my long-running schemes has been not reading the works of Ezra Pound. In famous lines from ‘The Lake Isle’, Pound asks the gods to lend him ‘a little tobacco-shop / Or install me in any profession / Save this damn’d profession of writing’.  ‘Damn’d profession’ works so well because it knows how vulnerable the idea of a professional writer is and yet insists on it, as if repeatedly professing to be a writer were as fundamental to being one as, say, making a daily commute to the blank page or scrabbling for ways to turn words into money. All of the contributors to The Junket would, I think, profess to be writers in one way or another: we all work with words and we all want to write. But then work, or sluggishness, or other types of responsibility often derail our resolve. The Junket is first and foremost a forum in which we can nudge each other into writing.

The Junket has no default flavour. It will be flibrigo, powsidie, a hotch-potch or pish-pash, mondongo or mulligan, and the contributors are free to lob in whichever ingredients they fancy. It will strive to catch some of the delightful absurdity of daily life, with its irrepressible idiosyncrasies and its ordinary preposterousness. And of course, its sympathies lie with the diversion over the destination: the sixty-six emails exchanged while naming The Junket loop and jink to take in military insignia, equestrian jargon, Yorick and The New Yorker, anarchists on bicycles, and Vaucanson’s crapping clockwork duck. But it is now Wednesday morning, the first deadline overshot by two days, and no-one has filed any copy.

In a letter to Leigh Hunt in May 1817, John Keats wrote that composing Endymion felt like ‘a continual uphill Journeying’. ‘John Keats alias Junkets’, he signed off, as if to remind us that, however tortuous it may be to find oneself writing, writing itself has that rich and strange ability to disguise the graft of its making behind the impish mischief it continues to make. Just so, the idea of a junket, of an unabashed bean-feast carried off on somebody else’s time and money, craftily conceals its own more functional linguistic heritage. For, as the OED suggests, in spite of its ‘somewhat obscure history’, junket finds ways to reach back to the Pontine marshes south-east of Rome, to their fenland yield of juncus or rushes, to the medieval juncata, the rush-basket for catching and carrying fish, and to the creamy juncade or jonquette, the cheese named for the basket it was prepared in. If from there it becomes a sweetmeat or kickshaw, if it spreads to merrymaking and banqueting and more capricious jaunting, then it seems appropriate to let it represent what The Junket should aspire to: modest materials that are worked with care, before taking on an errant, boisterous life.

Thomas Marks