I Can’t Recommend You Anything

I am bemused every time a stranger asks me to recommend them something to read. And that might sound like a severely infrequent occurrence, and it probably is for most people, but anyone with an online following has probably been asked this question once or twice. Multiply that number for anyone who reviews books. And add a few more to it when you get your own published.

It’s normal, natural.

David Bowie compiled a list of his favourite books and I immediately saved the link for monthly reference. I want to know which books David Foster Wallace loved. I want to know what Richard Ayoade and David Mitchell read before bed. I want to know because these are people I admire, people who I think would make smart and interesting choices. People I respect.

Conversely, sometimes I see book recommendations from people I follow on Twitter and I add it to my ignore pile. We’re not the same. If they loved it, it probably isn’t for me. It’s kind of an asshole thing to say but there are too many good books and not enough good days, so any process to whittle the choice down, however arbitrary, feels excusable.

I get it, though. I get why people who watch my videos might be interested in my recommendations. Maybe they relate to me. Maybe they, for whatever misguided reason, find me interesting. Maybe they have simply enjoyed my past recommendations – I do have great taste. But, by the same token, I’d never ask Richard Ayoade or David Mitchell to recommend a book to me, personally, because they have no idea who I am.

If someone asks me to recommend them a book, and they’re just an online handle with a tiny photo, then I can’t. I can’t adequately recommend them a book. I know nothing about them. When we recommend books to friends or family, we tailor those recommendations to the individual. If I read a book and I adore it, I won’t then recommend it to everyone I know. I’ll recommend it to specific people. Those who will get the most out of it. Interesting historical fiction? That’s for Jim. A digestible, philosophical perspective on life? That’s Myles. A funny picture book? Where’s Arun at? I can’t recommend you a book if I do not know you, I can simply regurgitate my own selfish preferences. My own, biased proclivity towards bitter, existential rambling from metaphysically tortured white men. And no one needs a signal boost on that shit.

So, I can tell you what I love. I do tell you what I love. I have. There are book videos on my channel talking about my favourite reads. There’s no secret information I’m keeping back. No hidden gems. But I can’t tell you what to read if I don’t know you. I think reading is a personal experience; every novel means something different to each person who reads it. Maybe you’re twelve. Maybe your issues are huge. Maybe you’re struggling with an abusive home life. Maybe you’re not, maybe you just like ponies and pokemon. Maybe you’re fifty and you love knitting or curling and still go clubbing on the weekends, which is perfectly fine, but you feel kind of down about the stigma attached to it and the looks you get. Maybe you’re thirty, you’re a passionate stockbroker with a baby on the way. Maybe you’re all or none of these people. I can’t just throw Knut Hamsun’s Hunger at you and hope for the best.

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When We Were Assholes: In Defence of Context

Our social climate is perpetually changing, whether it’s the trudge towards racial equality, LGBTQ+ rights, or the proliferation of the emoji, there’s a constant intangible evolution of the way we interact with and respond to one another. And this has never been more closely documented than within the last ten years, with the advent of social media.

The minutiae of the changes in political correctness can be traced in timelines. Personal timelines. Individual Twitter feeds trace the death of taboos. The birth of social justice. And the homogenisation of what we consider appropriate.

And this is a good thing. It’s a great thing that I don’t see hard F’s in friends timelines after 2012. But they were there before. They were definitely there before.

In light of the recent Tobuscus allegations, people have been highlighting multiple tweets he sent in 2008. For example:

CaptureAnd yeah, that’s abhorrent in 2016. But how was it eight years ago? How was it when all we had been exposed to was endless comedians throwing the topic around and only a sea of dodgy online forums to meet strangers in? It wasn’t great but, unfortunate as it may be, it was probably par for the course.

Here’s something absolutely fucking stupid I tweeted in 2011:

mmI didn’t really mean rape, did I? I meant rough sex with someone powerful I’m attracted to. But I’ve flippantly used the word rape, and none of the ~300 or so followers I had at the time batted an eyelid.

Yesterday I wrote a blog post called Have I Been Raped? which seriously discussed both my own experience with rape and the nature of witch hunts on social media. But I didn’t tweet it out. Why? Because I was worried there would be backlash for tweeting the word rape on a public forum, even in this legitimate context. I didn’t want to upset anyone. This is 2016. This is my 2016 perspective. The above tweet was 2011. The above tweet was my 2011 perspective.

Here’s another 2011 tweet from someone else who, in 2016, is considered a good guy and a vocal advocate of consent:

dumdedo10aBecause, guess what? Shit was different back then. Today, discussions around what is and what is not accepted can spread faster and garner more awareness than they ever have before. This is an exponential growth. Regardless of whether or not Toby is innocent or guilty, a terrible joke made by anyone in 2008 shouldn’t speak as a complex testament to their character in 2016, or maybe we’d all be assholes. I know I would.

Here’s another disgusting thing I tweeted, in 2010:

2Body shaming. Would I tweet the above today? No fucking way. Did I receive any backlash for tweeing it in 2010? No fucking way.

Things change. 

One of these developments is endlessly encouraging and one is a shackle to the past.

Now this post isn’t in defence of anyone or anything other than context. And, of course, some people have tweeted abhorrent shit in the past: revolting, racist, homophobic, misogynistic shit, and it wasn’t a weak joke. They genuinely believed it. Some still tweet it today, but most have learned to keep it private.  Especially those with an audience and something to lose. But some of us were just your nice, normal jerks living in 2010.

Full disclosure, here’s some more of my shitty rap sheet:

6This one isn’t particularly incriminating, it’s just not something I’d tweet now I’m followed by people who know me. And also gross.

1Casually tweeting about drug use.

3More body shaming and, again, also gross.

jk

This isn’t really slut shaming because, well, I’m there and with all the rest of my tweets it’s clearly not, but I’m also making a joke at the expense of teens responsible enough to get themselves tested.

I don’t really like the person from those tweets. She seems like an utter cunt. But she’s me. And I know the context, personally and culturally, so I can dismiss it. I’m sure that’s infinitely harder to do from an outsider’s perspective, but if you’re reading this you probably know me quite well. You know I’m an advocate for equality, for self-confidence, for inner beauty, and self-expression, whatever form that is, and fuck anyone who tells you otherwise. But I still tweeted that shit. I didn’t like my housemate so I took easy swipes at him. For two years all I did was drink and ‘party’ because I was depressed and I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing with my life, so that’s all I had to talk about. And I did. Online. Where you joined me in the future.

These days, almost our entire lives are uploaded. Every thought. Every mistake. Every collective and personal mistake. And as the timeline gets longer the past will become more and more warped.

A tweet does not a villain make, and our pasts do not define us – cultural guilt and the weight of history hanging heavy – we’re all moving forward together.

 

12 Great Single Location Movies

I have a predilection for single location movies for the same reason we believe we can hear better with our eyes closed. Whilst I enjoy the creativity necessary to combat the relative restrictions on narrative, I am more interested in how the parameters of single location movies often engender the necessity to rely on other areas, such as dialogue. I love all aspects of film, and I would say that my top fifty movies are perhaps more alike in tone than genre or execution but, for me, a well written picture is almost always going to supersede a triumph of cinematography or performance. And, just like closing your eyes to hear better, single location movies typically have to rely more heavily on dialogue, imaginative conceit, or characterisation.

Of course, there are also many terrible single location movies because they’re cheap and easy to make, which means budding filmmakers can dream up a simple variation on the ‘people locked in a room’ plot and knock it out in a few weeks: see Netflix’s Circle (2015) for the Nth example of this. But that’s just a blight on the device we’re all going to need to accept.

Sleuth (1972)

Sleuth 1

Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier star in Sleuth, based on the Anthony Shaffer play of the same name. And that should be enough to sell this movie to anyone but, for posterity, it’s about a theatre enthusiast who invites his wife’s lover over for the evening to enter into a potentially deadly battle of wits. Bonus: the film was remade in 2007 with Caine playing the role of Olivier (don’t watch the new one first).

Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Coherence (2013)

Coherence 1

Unlike Sleuth, the factual low-down on Coherence might actually put you off: Nicholas Brendon and some barely-knowns have a dinner party and something odd starts happening. However, Coherence has layers of intrigue. Without giving too much away, this isn’t a straight up get together: unusual events start to unfold and the cast have to decipher what’s happening, literally. The actors were only given details of specific points they had to include in each scene, leaving them to ad-lib the rest, uncovering the mystery with the audience. This could have resulted in something unusable but instead Coherence is an example of ‘people in a room working something out’ gone right.

Dir. James Ward Byrkit

Moon (2009)

Moon 1.jpg

Moon, the internet’s favourite movie, is an incredibly engaging story of Sam Rockwell’s life on the Moon. This film was never really underground, it even features the voice talents of Kevin Spacey, but it became championed online as this brilliant movie you may have missed to the point of parody. I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it, Sam Rockwell is superb, let’s move on.

Dir. Duncan Jones

Clue (1985)

Clue 1

Clue, infamous murder mystery Clue, is a ‘people in a room working something out’ movie, sure. But it’s the camp, 1985, Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd, epitome of ‘people in a room working something out’ movie. Plot: a group of strangers are invited to a mansion, given names relating to Cluedo characters, and a killer is among them. Who is it?!

The Sunset Limited (2011)

Sunset 1

This HBO movie, based on a Cormac McCarthy play, stars Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson as two strangers discussing suicide from the perspectives of a man with faith and a man without. On the surface we see the division between race, class, education, and beliefs, but ultimately it is simply a discussion of life between two men. This could have been cliché and redundant, but a simple glance at the names attached should assuage your doubts.

Dir: Tommy Lee Jones

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dog Day

Dog Day Afternoon (mildly incompetent nice guy holds up a bank) is arguably one of the best movies ever made. Pacino is at his most likeable, there’s comedy, there’s tension, there’s camaraderie, there’s love, there’s Attica! it’s just a beautiful melting pot of something for everyone whilst avoiding the disgusting tepid nature of compromise.

Dir. Sidney Lumet

The Man From Earth (2007)

Man

The Man From Earth presents one of the more interesting in-depth conversations in film: a man tells his friends, a group of professors from various areas of study, that he is immortal and has been around since the dawn of man. At first this is interpreted as a hypothetical and his task is to convince them, but as the evening unfolds the question as to whether or not he is telling the truth causes tensions to grow. This movie doesn’t fall down any of the potential traps for pretension that it sets up, and whilst I find myself sometimes wondering what it could have been in the hands of Kaufman or Linklater, Bixby’s simple approach navigates the topic elegantly and accessibly.

Dir. Richard Schenkman

12 Angry Men (1957)

12

12 Angry Men is another movie from this list which could just as easily be in a top ten of all time, and both are thanks to the incredible talents of Sidney Lumet. ‘Courtroom drama’ might not be the most enticing descriptive coupling, but this timeless reflection on the nature of innocence and the burden of proof provides hefty insight into the hypocrisy of men. This film is as important as it is compelling.

Dir. Sidney Lumet

Cube (1997)

cube

I saw Cube for the first time about fifteen years ago and it has stuck with me ever since. As a young teen, I obviously hadn’t been exposed to the amount of movies I have been today, and the premise was something surprising I hadn’t seen before. But even today, Cube maintains its position as one of the more accomplished and gripping single location mystery thrillers I’ve seen, and it’s certainly superior to the more recent ilk, such as Fermat’s Room. Synopsis: a group of strangers wake up in a complex system of cube-shaped rooms, some of which are booby-trapped. Together, they possess a set of skills necessary to escape, but will they work it out or turn on each other?

Dir. Vincenzo Natali

Carnage (2011)

carnage

Two sets of parents meet with the intention of maturely discussing an altercation their kids had at school, but throughout the course of the evening their behaviour gradually deteriorates into antagonistic and petty childishness. An incredible script and strong performances from an all-star cast (Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, and John C. Reilly) make Carnage a funny, astute observation of human behaviour.

Dir. Roman Polanski

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Breakfast

The Breakfast Club is infamous, spawning parodies and homages in a plethora of TV shows, movies, and comedies. It is the pinnacle of eighties teen films: the perfect recipe of Simple Minds, the Brat Pack, and John Hughes, this movie lives at the nostalgic heart of a generation. Today, endless teen movies take us through the tired, clichéd cafeteria breakdown of social stereotypes, but in 1985 The Breakfast Club gave us The Jock, The Princess, The Brain, The Basket Case and The Criminal in Saturday detention, and it was god-damn perfect.

Dir. John Hughes

My Dinner With Andre (1981)

Andre

It’s inconceivable that you haven’t already seen this movie, so I’ll keep it short: two men have dinner. Andre Gregory talks of the twists and turns of his past, regaling Wallace Shawn with wild stories, whilst Wallace questions Andre’s fulfilment and the logistics of his lifestyle.

Dir. Louis Malle

Feel free to send any single location movie recommendations to me @opheliadagger

 

Am I If I Don’t?

Most of my thoughts that don’t immediately lend themselves to a jocund, asinine YouTube video just get a quiet shrug; however, they occasionally persist, soaking up vital synaptic RAM. So, as I also consider the internet to be like my brain’s external hard drive, this is a great place to store the files that don’t fit anywhere else but can’t be deleted because of nostalgia, or because without them Adobe will stop working.

This might make me seem like an asshole but the truth often does that to people.

I consider myself to be many things but also very few. For example, I’m a feminist. I’m a feminist because I believe in equal rights for everyone. I’m all over big picture feminism, sure: rape culture is repugnant, slut shaming is hypocritical, etc. It frustrates me. It disgusts me. But am I a feminist? I don’t go to protests. I don’t make a point of actively supporting female creators or politicians. In fact, I read mostly men; all my favourite books are written by men. Most of my favourite films are directed by men, and I sincerely doubt a majority of them pass the Bechdel test. As someone who has frequently reviewed and recommended films online, I have received many requests along the lines of, ‘What are your favourite films by female directors?’ and rolled my eyes. My favourite films are my favourite films irrespective of the creator. Why do you want to know my favourite films directed by women? To me, with a passion that lies exclusively with film, recommending movies made by women is as arbitrary as recommending movies that feature the colour red. It’s not a genre or era. It’s just a happens to be.

And I know this isn’t the ‘right’ response. I understand why someone would make a ‘Favourite films directed by women’ list. I understand why they wouldn’t then make a ‘Favourite films directed by men’ list. It frustrates me that a ‘strong female character’ is still something to marvel over. I hate the MPDG. But outside of the fabric of the movie, it doesn’t interest me. Film is what interests me. And as a woman, I feel that sometimes these requests made to me aren’t authentic. They’re the judging yeah but… comments.

I’m giving films directed by women the exact same consideration as films directed by men. The same critical criteria. There are less films directed by women, yes, and that’s fucking frustrating but historically relevant and ever (albeit slowly) changing, but for me it still doesn’t constitute a category. There shouldn’t be a Best Female Director Academy Award. It could be argued that the Best Actress Academy Award should eventually be made redundant. We’re all only eagerly awaiting the real actor award anyway…

So, I’m a feminist by the definition of the word, but am I a feminist?

In the current US political storm, I’m supporting Bernie Sanders. I’m British, but I have the t-shirt. I agree with a lot of his policies, I’ve done the research, I think he’s a respectable guy. A good guy. But, conversely, I haven’t done much research into the other candidates. I simply think Hillary isn’t capable of leading a country and Trump has a lot of questionable ethics. But I’m ultimately ignorant, so I’m not going to go publicly trashing either of them. And I can’t even vote for Bernie, so do I support him?

I’m pro-animal rights. If I had one wish I’d eliminate animal cruelty, and everyone would send me death threats because it isn’t world peace. I get it. It would be a fucking dumb choice, but it’s also a hypothetical one so who gives a shit. I’m one of those assholes who can watch some human atrocity online and feel very little. Not because I don’t care, or from an inherent lack of empathy, but the detachment of the screen. The modern sickness. If it were to happen in front of me I’d be overwhelmed but video nasties are more common than reaction videos. Shit, video nasties spawn reaction videos, so we’re all comfortably numb. However, if I see the thumbnail for an animal cruelty video, I’ll cry. I’ll get angry. I’ll wish a slow, painful death upon the perpetrator, and fuck if that link isn’t staying blue. If I won the lottery I’d live on a farm with as many rescue dogs as possible. I eat only free range eggs. But that’s it. I’m not a huge meat eater, but I don’t know where a lot of the meat I do eat comes from. So, I’m pro-animal rights, but am I?

And that’s the thing with defining yourself, what are you if you don’t? Because if I’m only what I actively and overtly do, I am very few adjectives.

And I’m not even sure I want to be adjectives.

Gender & Me

I’m probably going to make a video about this because that’s where most people asking the questions will be, but for now I’ll talk about gender here so I can respond to any tweets and comments about it with a link instead of an irritated regurgitation when the question may be wholly innocent.

I am female. I wrote a book in which all three protagonists are male and, as an author, I used gender neutral initials instead of my name. WHY, WHY DID I DO THIS, AM I THE PATRIARCHY?! No, and there isn’t always a fight to eagerly masturbate over whilst using flimsy rhetoric spewed out from behind your anonymous online handle. I am a feminist but I am also disgusted with outrage culture. There are many valid battles to be had, but I see a plethora of smug, ill-considered attacks littering my online landscape every day (not against myself, but against other people), and I believe they undermine the real issues. They give something for the extremists on the other side of feminism (or racism, or LGBTQ+ rights, or classism, or, or, or…) to cite as an example of how absurd these social justice warriors are and, in doing so, they get to side step the real argument and dismiss ALL feminists as shrill man-haters.

If someone genuinely makes a mistake, or says something quickly and without thought which clearly isn’t meant to encompass their entire political or social beliefs, then sure, if you want to highlight that to them, do.

I made a video a few years ago which provides a great example. It’s a response to another video I saw which requested women make better content online. I saw the video and thought, hey, I’ll respond to this with something that’s a bit fun but also acknowledges that it was poorly worded. I’m smiling in it, I’m being theatrical. It’s not an angry attack nor is it something I spent much time on. But that’s not my point. In the video I say something like, ‘Just because I have a vagina doesn’t mean I can’t be funny,‘ or something, I can’t recall, but whatever I said I equate having a vagina with being a woman. It was never meant to represent my stance on gender vs sex, or the trans community. It was something ignorant that slipped out whilst I was trying to support another kind of equality. This was before there had been so much online discussion about what it means to be trans, so I wasn’t overtly aware of how offensive that might seem, whether I meant it that way or not. These days I’d never make such a comment by accident because I have an increased awareness due to proud, educational, and brave online voices. I’m aware of always being inclusive because I know a trans woman is a woman, to me there shouldn’t even be an argument. But when I made that video and someone highlighted my offensive statement, I was genuinely apologetic. I was trying to make a positive point and accidentally hurt a group of people. It wasn’t a snide attack hidden within a video, it was ignorance. And not the wilful kind.

I still remember receiving a lovely private message from someone quoting what I’d said and explaining the issue, and I replied apologising and discussing how it didn’t represent my views in any way. I also got some comments on the video along the same lines, and I replied to those too. But then there were angry comments, how dare you comments, and I had no time for those. And that’s my example. There’s a difference between someone who hasn’t had any experience with something, who accidentally alienates a group of people with an inadvertent lack of inclusivity, and someone who hatefully and wilfully discriminates. And maybe look, too. Maybe look to see if they’ve already been told ten times, if they’ve already apologised or explained they made a mistake.

Then there are the other breed. There are those who scour the internet, rubbing their hands together, analysing every tweet, looking for something to be loudly self-righteous about. Something to garner positive attention from those who blindly retweet any ‘injustice’ without research. These people are doing it because they love to hate, to be angry, to be loudly aggrieved by the perceived marginalisation of a group they don’t belong to. And they’re not helping anyone.

Educate someone who missteps, but battle against hate.

Anyway, I didn’t mean to turn this into an essay on the issues of uncoordinated groups of people arguing online. I meant to address the simple questions listed above. So I will.

– Three male protagonists??
Yep. Three male protagonists. Why? Because I wanted them all to be the same gender, for style and a cohesive theme, and women weren’t allowed to go to war. The novel spans from the 1930s to 2012. The first chapter with Bobby as a kid contrasts him with his father, who was in WWI. Later, as a teenager, Bobby has to negotiate his own feelings about WWII and the possibility of fighting. It’s that simple.

– Gender neutral initials?? (and other thoughts)
Yep. When I was writing When We Were Alive I didn’t think, ‘How would a man react?’ I just thought, ‘How would that character react?’ This is because I don’t personally associate with being female. I don’t associate with being male, either. I’m not confessing anything, there’s nothing to confess. The only strong associations I have with being female are based around my sexuality, e.g. I wear make up, but that’s part of my sexuality, and I don’t inherently feel that I’m in the wrong body. I know I am a female because I am lucky enough to feel right in my body. That’s it. If I was in a male body I would still be 90% me and I’d be gay. I just don’t know what being female is meant to mean, I don’t think it should immediately indicate anything specific, and neither should being male. I don’t understand gender themed interests. If someone said, ‘I like knitting, cooking, and flower arranging,’ there would probably be an assumption they were female. I don’t like any of those things. I don’t like football or cars or hunting, either. I like writing, art, comedy, video games, reading, and movies. The same as everyone else.

In the book I am currently writing, I have another three protagonists: two men and one woman. One of those characters originally had a name indicating they were a different gender. I changed the name, but changed nothing else. This is because their gender had no bearing on the thoughts they were having or their reactions to the situations they had been in so far. If I was writing a feminine character, or a character from a different time, of course I’d perhaps add nuances to their thoughts. I have supporting characters who are more stereotypically male or female, but the people I’m writing about in this new novel (so far) aren’t defined by gender, and therefore their name was arbitrary. If I’m writing a scene about two people having a conversation about time travel at a pub, whether or not they tick male or female when applying for jobs should be irrelevant.  Gender only comes into play when there is a situation, social or otherwise, that distinguishes them. E.g. walking down an alley at night, when being flirted with, needing to pee in a public place.  I guess the best way I can describe it is that inwardly I am just me, outwardly I am female. Alone I am me, in public I am female.

When I originally sent my MS to my publisher, before I signed with them, I used initials. This is my personal preference. Not because I think it matters, but because when I read a book I don’t want to know anything about the author. I want no preconceived notions. Black, white, male, female, poor, homophobic, I just want to read a book. If I love it, then I’m interested. Ultimately I could hate the author and love their writing, or love the author and hate their writing. To me it’s irrelevant. My personality, or how I present myself online, is not meant to represent what I write. There will always be crossovers, but online I’m this squeaky creature who acts like a tit but litters inane rambles with allusions to depression. When We Were Alive isn’t funny. It’s not my personality. It’s me exploring themes I care about. It frustrates me that an author bio was necessary to include on the back cover of my book as it goes against everything I would want as a reader. I also asked for my photo, the one at the top of this post, to be removed from the cover because I don’t want how old I look, or my hair style, or my clothes, or even my expression, to have any relation to whether or not someone reads the book or how they respond to it. I am not one person. None of us are a single person. We are all different people depending on the situation, who we are with, and a multitude of other influences that change over time. I was not trying to hide my gender, I was trying to be nothing more than a perfunctory, unobtrusive label affixed to a story.

Novel Excerpt

It’s been almost five years since I wrote my first book, but in 2015 I started writing book two, so here’s the opening chapter from my second novel, IKIWABIDKIWS. It’s a work in progress; I’m currently about half way through the story at 40,000 words, so everything is on track. I mean, I don’t have a job and my dog died, but everything is on track with the writing… apart from the chapter where I shoehorned in a dog death. I thought it might be interesting to document this early unedited draft – maybe it will go through a complete tonal shift, maybe I’ll correct my grammar, maybe it’ll end up as chapter thirteen – but whatever happens, here’s what it looks like now.

Noah
Chapter One
November 28th, 2014

The sound of some guy who committed suicide twice depositing quarters in a jukebox scratches at my unconscious. I recognise his voice from that movie where he isn’t allowed to love, and then I’m fully awake and it dawns on me I’m alive, really alive, and I sit up, sucking air into my throat like it’s the first time. I focus on breathing. Easing my lungs out of tornadoes. The distant groan of transit undulates through the wall from the bypass. I can just about see the cars streaking through rat-tail midnight drapes like hallucinogens. Capsules. Silver-tongued secrets speeding past at seventy miles an hour, and I’m reminded of their existence but never their wholeness. Their intermittent headlights illuminate invisible hairs on my body. I am different in the light.

When the weight of ten wasted years is a fish hook through your heart, nothing dances. Everything is impassive. Sobbing isn’t solace, it’s a device of decay. Sobbing keeps the time slowly ebbing away. Here, in The Dog Tunnels, time croaks, growling grudgingly forward. Ramshackle shop-fronts sag, clandestine and asthmatic with winter steam, inside hunchback terraces. An eczema of worn cobblestone streets runs broken bones through the thinning dockland outskirts. Sure, it’s a quaint enough midday tapestry, but by moonlight The Dogs is host to a skittish menagerie of broken, crippled creatures… I’m late, I should leave. The heaviness of dreams will disappear against the night.

Wrestling into my jacket, I pull my hood tight around my ears so I can be faceless in the dark. The fear I had when I first moved to this part of the city all too abruptly left me for another; the fear of having nothing to lose. I’m safe walking along these cobbled bones the same way the homeless are safe in their cracks. I’m a zero sum game. The last time I had something real to lose, something other than myself, was ninety-seven. It was the day after my thirteenth birthday. An antiques fair with James and his parents. I can’t remember James’ surname now, but I remember that day. It’s caustic; burned into me. I was paralysed and enraptured standing in a thin alley formed between wooden stalls. The rickety table in front of me was covered in vases and flutes, chipped bowls and figurines, dusty lamps and waxy candelabras, but it was the dull, tangy glow of amber that hypnotised me. Entombed in that tiny orb was a spider caught suspended and crumpled at sharp angles. I’m an arachnophobe, but I’m an arachnophobe the way people roll down windows to better view accidents on the motorway; I couldn’t look away. I don’t know if I felt the hands on my shoulders, or heard the words in my ear, but I must have because my tears began to merge with theirs. The stalls warp and fade around me now, and I am left with that tiny lump of amber which wasn’t, but was, the shard of glass inside Tommy’s brain. The shard of glass which had, the day after my thirteenth birthday, killed Tommy.

The air tonight is so fucking cold it’s scratching my skin. But I go anyway. I go because I’m the only one who will listen, and the idea of his talent seeping out of that room unheard and trickling into the docks kills me. He puts it out there. He says it aloud to the world but the world never listens. He has more courage than I do these days. Secreting words in notebooks, hiding them in creases and folds; that’s my life. And that’s the problem with success, the expectation stifles. An artist at eighteen created a hollow man at thirty. Sometimes I miss the fire… I’m sorry, Tommy. I’m trying.

The door to the Tooth and Penny screeches in pain with each body entering its gut. Hunching over as it screams for me, I melt into the crowd. The discomfort of my entry ricocheting around the pub tells Quentin I’m here. Smiling, his willow-limbs scuttle around me. A long hand reassures my back, another gives me a whiskey.
‘Noah!’
‘Q.’
‘You’re here!’ The grin cuts his cheeks and lights his eyes. All of him is in this moment.
‘I’m always here.’
‘You’re a good friend.’ I am not. ‘I read your book.’
‘And only twelve years after I wrote the fucker.’
‘It’s good.’
‘The right people read it, I got lucky.’
‘It won awards!’
‘There are a lot of awards to win.’
‘I’m not sure if I understood it.’
Then how can you think it was good? ‘Which part?’ The whiskey howled.
‘Everything you didn’t say.’
Ceci N’est Pas Une Personne,’ the whiskey whimpered. ‘I was eighteen. It was about a soldier and a prophet.’
‘And?’
‘If there wasn’t any more for you, Q, then there wasn’t any more.’
‘Why did you stop writing?’
I haven’t. ‘Because I had written.’
The smile softened. He took his whiskey in one.
‘How much of it was true?’
‘Most of the time travel.’
The moment happened again, ‘How much of it was true?’
‘You mean-’
‘I mean the resentment.’
I was angry when I wrote it. At everything. ‘I was eighteen, I felt everything.’
‘She’d be proud of you.’
She’d think I was a stranger. ‘She wasn’t the sort of person you could disappoint.’

I’m curled on a stool, relatively sober, but my bones crumple over one another with the weight of apathy. I’d be four inches taller if I ever straightened my spine. Quentin is on the makeshift stage, addressing the room like he’s purging art from a lung. His organs are a gallery of fears. Along the bar, gnarled fingers cradle a stout whiskey glass, ice barely remembered against the heat of palms. A napkin, folded into a soft origami crane, rests wet and sagging at the beak. Younger hands are nearer to me; the forefinger and thumb absently massaging a pale ring of skin. A trail of water meanders closer still, waltzing towards yet more hands anxiously padding curves against the condensation of a cold pint. I look down. My own knuckles are pronounced from constant popping and cracking but otherwise soft and unmarked. I don’t know the faces of these men holding their vigils, but their stories are poorly hidden. Clues on fingertips. Relationships lacing joints. None are listening to Quentin. His words are drowning in the dock.

Voicemail – 18/12/2015

Today was a beautiful day, for today I learned that my voicemails automatically delete themselves after a month.

For reasons inexplicable to me, I can not delete the voicemail notification on my phone without listening to my voicemail. I can delete all other notifications but this one. Which is particularly aggravating as I don’t like to listen to my voicemail. In fact, I have recently completely refused to do so, because any normally adjusted person would text me instead, any normally adjusted person would shirk the hassle of a voice to voice exchange at the first opportunity. As such, I can only deduce the voicemails are from cold callers, drunks, or, at the very least, from people I would not get along with – the sort of person who would pause in a public doorway – and therefore not something I should concern myself with. So, as you can imagine, this one obnoxious alert has been an unhealing wound in my technological landscape… until today.

Until today I had seven voicemails, all from numbers I do not recognise. But then, earlier today, I received a message from my service provider, ‘You have an unheard voicemail from 18/11/2015 which will be automatically deleted in 24 hours.’ Oh, true beauty! The unknown which haunts me is soon to disappear completely, and I may one day be free of both the psychological burden of mystery voicemail and the petulant symbol living in my icon bar. In twenty-four hours only six of my ghosts will remain. In two weeks they should all be gone! Oh boy. In the wake of this enlightenment I immediately wrapped Christmas lights around my tripod (in lieu of a tree) with glee (because it is almost Christmas). But, little did I know, darkness loomed.

In a cruel skirmish with fate, and shortly after the text from my service provider, I got a new voicemail. I. Got. A. New. Fucking. Voicemail. The month-long timer has been reset. Of course, the burden has been lessened, the albatross around my neck is more of a manageable sparrow now that I know this new voicemail will one day be eradicated like all those which came before it. Still, the notification mocks me. The notification mocks me as I google ‘ELI5 Boston Tea Party’, ‘Asda opening times’ and ‘condom challenge deaths’.

It mocks me even as I write this. The bastard.

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Foreskin

The first time I saw a foreskin (I think I just plagiarised that opening line from Dickens) I was in a big tree. Now, before you get too aroused at all these titillating details, I’ll point out that I was eight years old. Also the foreskin was probably about seven, but it’s hard to tell with those because they’re born old. Foreskins and scrotums are the Benjamin Buttons of the body (only they don’t get younger… so not at all like Benjamin Button). I’d also like to take this opportunity to point out that the foreskin was attached to a body. Luke’s body. Specifically it was attached to Luke’s penis.

A brief round up before we continue: As a child, I was in a big tree when I saw the safe, clean, anatomically correct, atheist foreskin of another child.

It was all consensual and unrelated to anything sexy. We had been building a den when Luke said, ‘Do you want to see something I can do?’ and I said, ‘What can you do?’ and he dropped his trousers, pulled something out of his pants, and squeezed just below the end of it. At this point in my life, I’m aware I saw the head of his flaccid penis come peeping out through his foreskin. But at the time I saw a mesh of garbled flesh, as though Luke had been in an accident, and whilst he had healed from the accident, he had healed poorly and misshapen. So I said, ‘Oh yeah,’ and we got back to building.

Scared While Playing Dead

My parents’ house has those little windows above the bedroom doors. Instead of normal, nice thick wall between door and ceiling, there’s glass. This utterly redundant window provided a prime viewing area for ghosts and monsters to watch me sleeping as a kid. I would stare at that window from my bed, gazing into the darkness of the hallway beyond, and all-but-know there was a shadowy face grinning down at me.

My mum eventually put a translucent floral decal on the window, but by this point I was eighteen and the monsters had transferred their voyeuristic tendencies to younger kids in the neighbourhood. Fourteen years too late, Mum.

Anyway. One day, when I was somewhere between the ages of five and nine, I was alone in my bedroom pretending to be dead. I’d turned my rocking horse onto its side and draped myself over it, eyes closed, dead. After cycling through a few different death positions, all involving the rocking horse (some, more elaborate deaths involving stretching between the upturned horse and my bed), I looked up from a particularly dramatic pose to see a face in the window. I screamed.

My father had stood on the laundry basket to spy on me in my room through the bastard window. The fear of seeing a face watching me, through glass, from eight feet high only barely masked my embarrassment at getting caught dying. Neither of us ever mentioned it.