Category Archives: Issue Seventeen
EXCUSE ME GHOST
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.
One of the most iconic amateur films of the last century was Abraham Zapruder’s footage of the JFK assassination. At only 26.6 seconds it has grown to become a visual touchstone of 1960s America, speculated on in thousands of newspaper articles, books, documentaries and YouTube videos. It also became Exhibit 885 in the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination, where individual frames of the film were published in black and white. The peculiar stutter of the footage has the quality of a hallucination, where the eye is carried along by the motorcade towards the final shot: an eruption of blood against the green knoll. This fatal splash of colour, known as the ‘kill frame’, lingers long after JFK’s disappearance below the triple underpass. The film’s brevity suggests an afterlife, where the jolt of the screen appears to extend itself beyond the final frame, where the glow of baseball-green above the President’s head invites a replay. The desire to rewatch the film, as so many historians, journalists and conspiracy theorists have done since 1975, when the footage was first shown on Good Night America, has not only to do with the spectacle of violence but the disbelief that JFK’s youthful promise could be crushed in half a minute.
Although Zapruder’s footage was described by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1979 as ‘the best available photographic evidence’, there were numerous other amateur films of the event. Immediately following the assassination these were seized by the police as evidence and kept from the public. The most revealing are from bystanders Tina Towner, Robert Hughes and Orville Nix. Thirteen-year-old Tina Towner captured three seconds of footage as JFK’s car turned into Elm Street, while Robert Hughes’s footage shows the motorcade approaching the Texas School Book Depository after turning into Houston Street. Orville Nix had a more direct view from across Dealey Plaza and his film captures JFK moments before the fatal shot. These fragments act as jigsaw pieces that flicker at the edges of the Zapruder footage.
The former-detective Colin McLaren is one of the many conspiracy theorists who have been drawn to the film over the years. His book JFK: The Smoking Gun (2013) advances a compelling narrative about the potential role of secret service agent George Hickey. McLaren’s argument is interesting in that it differs from the notion of a large-scale criminal conspiracy by the CIA, Mafia, KGB, Fidel Castro or Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. Rather, it is a theory of incompetence in handling firearms. In the Zapruder footage Hickey is shown turning 250 degrees. He looks to his left and then to his right, back at the Book Depository. He then turns towards JFK, grabbing his AR-15 rifle. With the rifle poised, Hickey is shown stumbling backwards before the fatal shot. In a secret service report compiled by Chief James Rowley, Hickey’s supervisor Agent Roberts is said to have shouted ‘be careful’ with that rifle. Agent Youngblood, also a member of the team, said that he ‘observed Hickey in the Presidential follow-up car poised on the car with the AR-15 rifle.’ Hickey was the newest and most inexperienced member of the secret service team and on the day of the assassination he was on sniper duty. Seated in an unstable squat position, he was unable to operate the rifle from a moving car while also turning 250 degrees. After Hickey stumbles backwards the footage zooms in on JFK and the agent’s movements are left to take place off screen. McLaren believes that Hickey may have been the accidental assassin.
In an interview for the Paris Review in 1992, Adam Begley asked the novelist Don DeLillo about his fascination with the Zapruder footage. DeLillo responded more generally. ‘Film allows us to examine ourselves in ways earlier societies could not – examine ourselves, imitate ourselves, extend ourselves, reshape our reality. It permeates our lives, this double vision, and also detaches us, turns some of us into actors doing walk-throughs.’ These walk-throughs are abundant on YouTube, where Zapruder’s film has been cannibalised and reborn in distortions of the original. You can watch the film in slow motion, frame by frame, ‘stabilised and enhanced’, and in the many computer reconstructions there is an uncanny resemblance to the graphics of the popular videogame Grand Theft Auto. In DeLillo’s novel Underworld he anticipates digital excess when the character Miles watches the footage at varying speeds on a wall of televisions as part of an art installation. ‘Different phases of the sequence showed on different screens and the spectator’s eye could jump from Zapruder 239 back to 185, and down to the headshot, and over to the opening frames… there were a hundred images running at once.’
J.G Ballard’s experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition also draws on the Zapruder film in a chapter called ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’. Ballard’s story highlights the media spectacle generated from the film, where the tone is of a sports commentator providing a recap. ‘The starting point was the Texas Book Depository, where all bets were placed in the Presidential race… Kennedy went downhill rapidly.’ For Ballard the Zapruder film acts an indictment of celebrity culture, where JFK’s death is ‘exhibited’ for entertainment like jolts at a demolition derby. The wide dissemination of stills from the film resulted in JFK becoming a multiple, forever in a race towards the underpass.
Every time we see JFK flinch at the first gunshot it is as though we are watching a mime, a test-film. We wait for reality to erupt but the sound never arrives and we are left to fill it in. There is a correlation in television and radio production called the ‘wild-track’, where every silence is distinctive and unique. On the ‘wild-track’ the sound prior to the silence is left to gather within it, to allow an imprint of past sound.
In Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book Silence: A Christian History (2013), he introduces the idea of a divine ‘wild-track’, where religious piety and mysticism generate distinctive silences. When the Virgin Mary appeared to the village of Knock in the rural west of Ireland, in August 1879, fourteen people witnessed her remain uncharacteristically mute. At Lourdes, in France, 1858, she had announced ‘I am the Immaculate Conception,’ and at Marpingen, Germany, 1876, she was heard to say ‘I am the Immaculately Conceived.’ But three years later at Knock, she remained silent. The Virgin’s Knock appearance is one of the few from the nineteenth century to have gained official recognition from the Vatican, confirmed by a visit from Pope John Paul II on the vision’s centenary in 1979. Being recognised by the church invited only more distinctive silences, where the pious were invited to pray at the pilgrimage site and contemplate the original appearance.
Like the Virgin’s appearance at Knock, JFK’s death on the Zapruder film is always silent. He appears again and again during the replay but his death is never truly heard. Even when sound is added by dikwerf, happydog500, and many others on YouTube, the obvious disjunction makes the film’s original silence even greater. In the silent-film era, there was a peculiar and short-lived phenomenon known as silent-film opera. William Nigh directed a silent-film of the popular comic opera Mignon in 1915, and during screenings audiences were left to fill in their own ‘silent music.’ They had to imagine or recall the sound of an orchestra and voice. In doing so, this silent-music was individual, creating multiple unheard soundtracks for the film. The source for Mignon was Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795), where the protagonist is a pathetic figure. In the operatic adaptation, Mignon delivers one of Goethe’s most famous lyrics: ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ (‘Only he who knows what longing is’). It must have been a disorienting experience to watch the character sing a lyric about longing in silence. In Nigh’s film, the audience gathered in the dark cinema, would have seen Mignon crying out to be free from behind the screen. When Cecil B. DeMille’s silent-film opera Carmen was shown in 1915, there was an attempt to sync music through the use of gramophones and pianos. But the result was a disjunctive mess like that perpetrated by YouTubers adding sound to the Zapruder film. Cinema’s ability to ‘imitate ourselves’ and ‘reshape our reality’, as DeLillo suggests, also had an impact on the development of twentieth century opera. The modernist composer Paul Hindemith, like DeLillo, foresaw film’s ability to become an endless replay. His opera Hin und zurück (There and Back, 1927) imitates film in that it runs forward and then in reverse, telling a beginning to end narrative, only to proceed backwards again.wisata bandung
In 2007 I attended a lunchtime concert of John Cage’s notoriously silent composition 4’33” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. A young musician in a yellow felt-hat shifted restlessly on a bench in front of an upright piano. The keys were exposed although he never fingered them. Towards the end of the performance he began to jerk his head back slightly, which brought laughter from the dozen of us gathered around him. Although the musician’s enthusiasm for the composition was unmistakable, the piece was missing any subtlety between action and tension. At the first performance of the piece in 1952, however, pianist David Tudor’s understated gestures left the audience spellbound. Tudor’s lack of action created the drama. In a large concert hall in Woodstock, New York, he opened the piano lid and sat still for thirty seconds. He then closed and opened the lid again twice at specific intervals in the score. When the piece ended, he simply walked offstage.
Cage gave a lecture on his compositional process in 1951 where he said: ‘Silence cannot be heard in terms of pitch or harmony: it is heard in terms of time length.’ 4’33”s seemingly empty time span is in fact a theatrical ‘wild-track’, where sound and silence develop a call and response. Within the silence of the piece, the before and after sounds, outside the time-block, are gathered inside. Incidental noises such as the whisper of audiences or the squirm of a musician’s trousers, also enter the time-block to create an interchangeability between silence and sound. If we think again of religion, Cage’s emphasis on silence as a time-block is like in the Gospel According to Matthew, where Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is described as lasting forty days and forty nights. This specification of time is a poetic approximation. Christ, if we accept Matthew’s account, would surely not have been in the wilderness for exactly that time. Rather the time-block of forty days and nights serves to mark out a distinctive silence. If we imagine Christ’s temptation to have taken place in the desert, as it does in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), the call and response between Christ and Satan is the rupture of an inner silence, of Christ’s torment. Silence here is a ‘negative theology’ because there is no word, no logos. Instead, words must come from outside. In the early development of the Christian Church negative theologies of silence were based on understanding the divine as something that God was not, rather than what he is. This approach to divinity is also seen in Matthew when Christ replies to Satan’s taunts through quotations from the Old Testament, or Tanakh, which leaves Satan in silence.
On the morning of JFK’s state funeral on November 25, 1963, Russell Baker wrote in The New York Times that despite the one million people who lined the funeral procession, ‘silence was pervasive.’ Not since the remembrances in 1919 of the untold numbers who died in the First World War was there such a significant public silence. Fifty years after Abraham Zapruder stood on top of the concrete pedestal along Elm Street, steadied with the help of his receptionist Marilyn Sitzman, his film has become one of the most significant scraps of evidence to illuminate a historical moment that can never be heard. The film’s silence captures something of the mute crowds on the morning of the funeral, a veil placed over the promise of America’s post-war idyll. Out of this silence, long before the babel of YouTube, came the widespread paranoia about government and a loss of trust in the news media. It prefigured the ever-growing conspiracy theories that continue to surround the attack of September 11. The overwhelming public suspicion that accompanied the Warren Commission’s report laid the groundwork for the hostile reaction to the 9/11 Commission Report in 2002. Just as the Zapruder film has been pored over for decades, footage of Building 7’s collapse has generated multiple theories that it was the result of a controlled demolition. Rather than being solely the result of crash damage, the theories suggest that explosives were installed inside the buildings in advance. The shocking footage of September 11, however, always includes sound. From the many news cameras and amateur films available, it is possible to hear the roar of United Airlines Flight 175 as it hits the South Tower and the horror of its collapse 56 minutes later.
But with JFK’s death on the Zapruder film we are left to listen in vain for the steady burr of the motorcade, the half-cock of George Hickey’s rifle, and the sound of a fatal gunshot that is forever withheld.
The Road Ahead
*Slow starter too. I was 30, in 2012, when I booked my first lesson. Thirty is milestone time. Change time. Time to focus. To make decisions. What do you actually want to do with your life? Get married? Have kids? Maybe. Not currently an option though. What else then? I want to write. I want to make theatre. I want to make theatre that I can tour around rural parts of Britain in an orange VW camper van. The year before I had taken a one-woman show to the Brighton Fringe. In my head, the show was portable: a fold-up table; two fold-up chairs; a couple of washing racks; a CD player; a large wicker washing basket; feather duster; costume; loads of Royal Wedding china and a suitcase full of linen. Easy. At London Bridge station, I caused havoc with my overloaded and uncontrollable luggage trolley. On the way back, all of the luggage trolleys had been removed for maintenance and I was forced to summon a station mobility trailer to take me to the cab rank.
*No no Katrin! – you too close to park cars! Enter Bakir. My Bosnian driving instructor. Katrin watch kerb! I had heard plenty of horror stories from friends about their creepy racist sexist boring mean sometimes pervy driving instructors. Bakir is none of these things. He is tall – huge in fact, more landscape than man – he is thoughtful, he is intelligent and he is hilarious. Aaaah, I hate traffic, Katrin! I wish I can take out my eye, throw through sunroof, see problem ahead. Then put eye back in.
*Early on, I learn that I love manoeuvres. Anything where the car is moving very slowly and there is plenty of jiggery-pokery steering and mirror-looking to do. I like parking. I like reversing into a bay. I can pull up close to the kerb no problem. I creep like an expert. I love stopping at lights. I hate hate hate going above 20 miles an hour. Hate it. I hate roundabouts. I hate cyclists. I hate other vehicles. I particularly hate hills. Since I was small, my night-mind has played host to frequent anxiety dreams about driving. The landscapes differ but the core ingredients are the same. I am a non-driver. There is a car. There is a steep hill. There is an unspecified emergency. I must drive the car down the hill. I wake up sweating. In the day time I fear rollercoasters, log-flumes and skiing. The horror of giving in to physics – careering down, down, down – speed building up and up and up… the looming possibility of a crash. Inevitable maiming. Death. But in car, you have brakes, Katrin. I know, I know Bakir – it’s an irrational fear. Then you must get over it – driving is freedom. Life skill. Driving is rite of passage. But a car is a potential death machine Bakir – right? Drive defensively – that was my grandad’s advice, which he gave to me – along with money for lessons – when I was 17. Drive as if everyone else is drunk or having a heart attack at the wheel. As if everyone else is a total idiot. Ah Katrin! You only find occasional person having heart attack or on drugs or drinking at wheel. You must not assume this is all people, Katrin! My grandad loved driving. He was always off in the car with my grandma – sometimes for a reason, sometimes for a holiday. Sometimes they would just go for a run. For fun. My grandma never learned to drive, so when my grandad’s dimming eyesight forced him to stop, their world closed up. No more nipping to Boots’ in Brighouse. Or Sheila’s Café in Ripponden. Or Kershaws’ Garden Centre to look at the plants. No more jaunts up the Dales or holidays in Arnside. No more trips to East Riddlesden Hall where the cradle rocks unaided – so it’s said – every Christmas. In the context of the greater good it was for the best. Having taken to driving almost exclusively in the middle of the road, my grandad had become the very hazard he warned of. But handing over his license was the beginning of the end. The car was his freedom. Then it was gone. NO NO Katrin you TOO FAR in middle road. Why you not trust me Katrin? Why you not do what I say? I meant to learn. I really did. My friend Rachel passed her test at school. She took a group of us on her maiden motorway voyage to see The Rocky Horror Show in Manchester. We crammed into her mum’s car wearing corsets and lab coats and impossible shoes. Apart from Rachel – she wore flats. During university and the years that followed, one by one, everyone learned to drive – apart from me. It became a long-running joke. As our 20s wore on non-driving became – along with irregular vegetarianism – part of my identity. Impractical. Head in the clouds. Artsy. Theatre maker. Can’t drive. I live in London. I’d protest. There’s no need. Which was true. Or was it an indication of some deep-seated psychological lack – an issue with taking responsibility? Growing up? Getting on in the world?
*Bakir talks all the time. I love to play with stuffed animal – oh Katrin! If people can see me they think I am insane. I make all kinds of voices for animal. I need to concentrate, Bakir. It is my job to distract you Katrin. Imagine you are real-life driving. There is always distraction. Other person in car. Radio. Kids…
*You know Katrin, I am with my daughter alone last week four hours. I am going mad. I realise my wife she must have very strong mind. She is doing it every day. I am going mad in four hours. But isn’t it nice Bakir – you know – to see your daughter growing up? Isn’t it fascinating? Katrin children grow up slow – not fast like hamster. Is…well… little bit boring. This looking after children is hardest job.
*It takes me three years to learn to drive. I keep stopping. The first stop comes three months in when Bakir announces that he is moving to Germany to drive busses. Money better there, Katrin. Is ok Katrin, you will find other instructor. In fact – I give you phone number – Zeno. He is instructor – you have lessons with him. I try a lesson with Zeno but it’s not the same. Zeno is very serious. It will never work. Then my grandad dies and I am at home a lot. Then I am working flat out on a show. The world turns. Six months later, I get a phone call. Bakir is back. I miss family. Plus money for driving bus in Germany. Not so good actually, Katrin. I start again – sort of – but I can’t do regular lessons. I have lost momentum. Life keeps intervening. My grandma dies. I am home again a lot. Then working out of London a lot. I am skint. The world turns.
*I finally resume proper lessons in March 2015. Bakir forces me to book my test. You need deadline. Otherwise you never do it. There is a goal. A schedule. A plan. And we go further now. Beyond the little roads of Lambeth – to Dulwich to New Cross to Mitcham in Surrey to study area of test centre, Katrin. We take on dual carriageways, flyovers – we negotiate enormous three-lane, five-exit roundabouts. We go at 30, 40, 50 miles an hour. More gaz, Katrin, more gaz! That’s it – now you driving! How does it feel? It feels good, actually. Out of my comfort zone for sure, but good.
*I am driving – carefully – through Peckham Rye. Other cars overtake me. Everyone here is breaking the speed limit, Bakir. I am driving at the speed limit. They are not. They are bad people, Katrin. Do you always drive at the speed limit? No comment.
*One day – in the glorious sunshine – we stop at the top of a hill in Dulwich to admire the view. I ask Bakir what he would do for work if he were back home. To be honest, Katrin. I would probably be criminal. How come? I have friend. He has PhD but he is waiter in restaurant. There is no work. Sure – there is work day to day. But not work that allow you to plan, save, build future for family. So you work in dock, you take little thing from shipments – not a lot, but… you sell it on. That way you can do more than survive. Here it is not like that. Here is so many opportunity. You can train, get course. You can learn anything if you want to. Here is paradise. Looking out at the sun shining down upon London, at the green of the parks and the unmarked blue of the sky, I agree. Here, indeed, is paradise.
*Do you like animal, Katrin? Yeah – I guess. Not all of them. I like cats… Horses. I like animal. If I could live all time alone with animal then I will do this. Wouldn’t you get lonely? Without people? No. I am not fan of people. Animal you can trust. People can do terrible thing. I never feel this way. Then I live through war. I am 13 when it start. Horrible things. So many dead people. People with bits of them missing. Things people do. Turn on each other for nothing. I do not think people automatically good, Katrin… Now get ready – dual carriageway coming up. Dual carriageway. Motorway. Highway. Freeway. America. Land of the free. Land of the automobile. Me at the wheel. Top down. Hair whip blown straight back shining in the perfect sun with the straight road ahead. East west on a road trip. Get your kicks on Route 66. Chicago, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona. Boom bang a bang Santa Monica California and we’re there. Road well travelled. Dream of a road trip. Dream of a dream. Katrin, slow down – you over speed limit!
*My mum passed her test first time. My dad passed his second time. It took my friend Becky nine attempts.
*We drive – Bakir and I – down a little industrial road with flat higgledy warehouses and workshops. Giant lorries are loading and unloading. A queue of crashed, burnt out, broken-looking cars decorates the stretch of grass verge at the entrance to the test centre. Perhaps it is a warning. Like heads on stakes in olden times. Through the gates there is a Portacabin. Behind, a large cordoned area patterned with traffic cones like an urban gymkhana. A solitary motorcyclist weaves in and out. Inside the Portacabin the examiners are waiting. One is – tall, slim, handsome. Bakir whispers: He is good looking, no? How you say – hot? Maybe you get him, Katrin! I say I would prefer someone old and un-hot. In that case you want Jack. He very old. Very un-hot. I say yes, Jack sounds good. Ah but he is toughest examiner, Katrin – always pushing into hardest parts of test area. In that case, I do not want Jack.
*I do not get Jack. I get ‘Carl’. Carl refuses eye contact. Carl does not shake my proffered hand. Carl is largely silent. Although he says the word ‘regret’ I can tell that Carl is delighted to inform me that I have failed. Not in minute two – as I thought – but in fact, Katharine, at the very end. Turning right – back into the test centre – I had hesitated. This constituted – I felt – a serious error of judgement. At least I made Carl feel. Although a part of me is hacked off – because driving tests are heinously expensive – most of me is delighted that I will have a little more time with Bakir.
*If you could have fast car, Katrin, what you have? I’d have a yellow Lamborghini. If you have yellow Lamborghini Katrin, one weekend, you give me and I drive around in it whole weekend. I cancel lessons. Everything. But you’ll speed, Bakir. You’ll drive like a loon down narrow roads with parked cars on either side. No no Katrin. True I am used to doing this when I am young but now I am family man. Isn’t it?
*When I finally pass my test a few months later, Bakir drives me home in celebration. We talk about writing, theatre, stories. Dreams. Katrin, did I ever tell you my dream? No. If I win lottery I will buy island. And I will take with me lots of women and I will marry them all and make population for the island. That is going to cause problems Bakir. There will be a lot of in-breeding. Plus it is weird. No Katrin, why weird? My dream is not weird. Anyway, what is your dream? I say: I don’t know. Then I say: Well. I would like to write something brilliant. What about, Katrin? History? Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe a play. Maybe a story. I give you a story, Katrin. There are 12 kings and they each have island in a galaxy… Why are they all kings, Bakir? What about queens? You interrupt my story. There are 12 kings. And they all happy on their own island in galaxy. But then one of them want more land more space. And they fighting each other. There is war. Why is there always a war? Is nature of kings. Anyway. War is going on for long time. But is all fine in end because new king comes from another galaxy planning to conquer their islands and extend empire. This king is alien king. And suddenly 12 kings have common enemy. And they join together to defeat alien king. And everyone ok. There. That is my story. I make it for you. You can have story. I thank Bakir for the story. And he drops me off on the Kennington Road.
*I don’t see Bakir again for a year. The fourth of June, 2016. I am jogging along Lambeth Walk and a car emblazoned with a driving school logo passes me. I catch a glimpse of Bakir from the side as he disappears up the road. Later I send him a WhatsApp message. The two blue ticks tell me he’s read it. But he never replies.
…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)[/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.