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Underwater Chair

An underwater chair in a lake in Hilterfingen, Switzerland. Photograph by Samuel Hess. See more of Samuel’s work on his Flickr profile here.

See the chair in the lake. A foreign instrument unheralded and strange but after time was, like all things, accepted and became part of the sediment underneath the turquoise luminescence. A chalk coloured bed mixed with loose and heavy fragments of bedrock and the chair now belongs to the lake as much as the crumbled deposits and the bones of fish and hardened compressed foliage. Hidden memento of some angler past.

On the shore and present fishermen. Motionless and stark against the skyline. Behind them trees and colonial houses. Behind them tower mountains. Above and below birds of prey, freshwater stalkers, migratory geese continue their hollow cycles. Moss covered rocks gently warm to the touch in the white spring sunlight, bright and brilliant and yet the day was cold. In strange ways such as these nature can contrast, conflict.

Back to the fishermen. Some are old, some young; but all alone. Working in isolation, a solitary day shift. Where are the fish, they each think. They would ask one another, share their concerns but these men have strange traditions. They fear embarrassment and value pride, and as such these men do not ask for help. But regardless they continue to think, where are the fish? A lake such as this produces many fish. Sheepish looks follow anxious remarks lead to wild thoughts of sentient creatures that communicate and hide, driven away from here, from hooks and callous looks, to cooler and earthly depths of which we can never truly reach. Not truly.

Night approaches when the failed fishermen trudge back to the village in silence, darkened light then shadows consume the lake, and they all see the chair. The absurd placement of a once tangible object in this incomprehensible place initially humours them. Cast off and forgotten and considered less than worth. Later a starless night falls and subconscious minds wander to the contents of the lake. With its splintered, washed-away appearance the chair could not be placed anywhere else. 

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016

daisy mill blog

Abandoned buildings are fascinating. This photograph is by Flickr user Camera_Shy. See more stunning work in a variety of amazing, creepy, beautiful places at Mark’s website.

The glow of the beacon bathed his gaunt face in unnatural light. Exposing grey hairs and deep creases on his dirt crusted skin. At night the sky was a void, some black vortex which consumed sight and sound and stars and if the streetlights still illuminated streets at night like in his memories then they too would be consumed. But tonight was unlike other nights. A distant beacon, rebellious and pink pulsated in an act of defiance against the night’s sky. Illuminating Daisy’s tower. It looks beautiful. I’m coming Daisy, he whispered.

She was an idea of desperation that grew from seeds of loneliness. Immeasurable time spent on his own in darkness, what that can do to the senses and to a state of mind. There were times he questioned his existence, and if he were anything more than a shadow, or shallow breath on the wind. Yet shadows do not fear and shadows do not flee. The tower had been empty when he was a scavenger but that was several months ago and in the time that had passed Daisy blossomed despite the lack of light. Lack of light and of any other soul, sentient or otherwise, to hear him talk or curse like some lost and forgotten martyr. Daisy kept him here and when the beacon lit up the sky he cried. Tears reflecting the kaleidoscopic bliss. I am coming. A scavenger then but an explorer now, of dead and dying streets with a rucksack and a rifle.

Perhaps I can only see the light, was the answer to his own question, which had been: why has the beacon attracted no one else? Because this place is burnt and all the neighbours are dead, was another thought that crossed his mind. A preferable thought, but then why would Daisy return? He stopped himself: you don’t know if she is called Daisy, you don’t know if this person wants help. The light crunch of broken glass and dull echoes of his footsteps and the scent of must and rot. I must take care. 

Rusting supports and damp greased columns struggled for relevance in a redundant warehouse. Crystalline shards that could have been something beautiful once lay scattered on scorched granite beside a puddle of rainwater and motor oil. It was a dirty and degenerative place and the explorer knew this was the narrative for miles around. But morning arrives, and I am close, he thought, I am close. But this light is a curse, because I can see and I can be seen. Through the collapsed roof he saw the tower close all clad in brick and the letters seemed to speak to him and in the cold morning light he was scared. He could hear wild mongrels barking and fighting from below. Possibly a forgotten underground parking garage. He gripped the rifle. I must take care. I can protect her. Her name might not be Daisy but that’s what I will call her for now, until I know her real name, and even then I can still call her Daisy in my head. 

He still had the capacity to catch himself at the end of an internal conversation and with the stage set, props dead and rotting materials, he stopped now to think. What if she’s not alone? What if she doesn’t need help. He remained standing there for a minute. It was light now and he could hear birds. I had not thought of that, he said to himself quietly. I had not thought of it that way.

Bitch, he whispered bitterly. Bitch. He turned to go back (to what?) then wrestled himself back around. The tower was in front of him, above him, taller than he could have imagined. His ears were ringing and he prayed for silence but the dull barking grew nearer, less monosyllabic; inane dialogue of subconscious entities that were watching constant and clever. Fear took hold and with the rifle he crashed through a doorway and ran breathless up the tower staircase and at the top into an office with windows on every wall. The light here was unbearable and there was nowhere to hide, but why was he scared? There was no one in the room, no one but tables, chairs, cans and bottles, a stove still warm. 

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016

2666 part2

2666 is a postmodernist epic written by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Written in the years leading up to his death, the novel was published in 2004, released posthumously a year after Bolaño’s death, and for a relatively modern book it carries the weight and renown that Bolaño’s legacy demands.

Challenging the very definition of a novel and story-telling, 2666 is sprawling, vast, intimidating, overwhelming, and as such, it would be an farcical to attempt to cover how each part made me feel, in the space of one post. In addition, I feel much of the book may become more clearer (or more complex?) over time, much like peeling back layers of an onion, shielding one’s eyes in an attempt not to weep. So over the next couple of months I will share my thoughts on each part of Bolaño’s final statement on the subtle goods and inherent evils in the world, as he saw it.

the part about amalfitano template

Óscar Amalfitano is a Chilean professor at the University of Santa Teresa. Also, he is an expert on Benno von Archimboldi, and acted as a guide to the critics when they came to Mexico in Part 1. They did not think much of him at first…

The first impression the critics had of Amalfitano was mostly negative, perfectly in keeping with the mediocrity of the place…Espinoza and Pelletier saw him as a failed man, failed above all because he had lived and taught in Europe, who tried to protect himself with a veneer of toughness but whose innate gentleness gave him away in the act. But Norton’s impression was of a sad man whose life was ebbing swiftly away and who would rather do anything than serve them as guide to Santa Teresa.

But it was clear to them all that the Chilean professor was distant, not entirely functioning and present in his own mind. Something is affecting Amalfitano; inner turmoil, the effect of Santa Teresa, stress, a cry for help. Help.

“Amalfitano was here today,” said Pelletier.
In his opinion, the Chilean professor’s nerves were shot. Pelletier had invited him to take a dip in the pool. Since he didn’t have bathing trunks Pelletier had picked up a pair for him at the reception desk. Everything seemed to be going fine. But when Amalfitano got in the pool, he froze, as if he’d suddenly seen the devil. Then he sank. Before he went under, Pelletier remembered, he covered his mouth with both hands. In any case, he made no attempt to swim. Fortunately, Pelletier was there and it was easy to dive down and bring him back up to the surface. Then they each had a whiskey, and Amalfitano explained that it had been a long time since he swam.

And in Part 2 it becomes obvious that Amalfitano appears to be losing his mind. Madness is contagious. This line is uttered not once but twice in this chapter, and whether or not Amalfitano is crazy, or is going crazy, is certainly up for debate – but Amalfitano is at least aware enough to realise this fact for himself, as he struggles to cope in the spiralling hell of Mexican desert that is Santa Teresa.

I don’t know what I’m doing in Santa Teresa, Amalfitano said to himself after he’d been living in the city for a week. Don’t you? Don’t you really? he asked himself. Really I don’t, he said to himself, and that was as eloquent as he could be.

Amalfitano moved to Santa Teresa from Barcelona with his daughter Rosa, of whom he alone has raised since she was two. Her mother, and Amalfitano’s (ex?)wife Lola, walked out a long time ago, and Lola’s travels and letters to Amalfitano form the first half of Part 2. Already a healthy dose of ‘unhinged’ characters have appeared in 2666, and Lola certainly fits the bill. She has an obsession with a young poet whom she believes she can cure of his homosexuality. She seems to seek madness. We read of Lola’s bizarre relationship with the poet, with a truck driver named Larrazabal, her journey across Europe to cemeteries and insane asylums – although it’s worth mentioning that at all times I was sceptical of Lola’s exploits for she does not strike one as a reliable narrator. Lola’s quest and adoration for the poet is not without similarities to the critic’s search for Archimboldi in Part 1. Eventually Lola returns to Amalfitano and Rosa, but not for long – even more distant and somewhat clairvoyant, she leaves again and Amalfitano does not hear from her again, but he strongly suspects she is dead.

One afternoon while sorting through boxes of books Amalfitano discovers the Testamento geométrico, by Rafael Dieste, a book detailing complex geometry – ‘a subject that meant next to nothing to Amalfitano’. And he cannot remember for the life of him where he got this book, why he would have brought it back from Barcelona, and rather than let it go he allows the mystery to consume him.

At what point of utter obliviousness had he put it there? How could he have packed a book without noticing what he was doing? Had he planned to read it when he got to the north of Mexico? Had he planned to use it as the starting point for a desultory study of geometry? And if that was his plan, why had he forgotten the moment he arrived in this city rising up in the middle of nowhere? Had the book disappeared from his memory while he and his daughter were flying east to west? Or had it disappeared from his memory as he was waiting for his boxes of books to arrive, once he was in Santa Teresa? Had Dieste’s book vanished as a side effect of jet lag?

Unable to let go of this small perplexity Amalfitano becomes obsessed with Dieste’s book, and decides to hang it from the clothesline in his back garden, ‘leaving a geometry book hanging exposed to the elements to see if it learns something about real life’, transforming it into a Duchamp-inspired ‘readymade’. This is referenced neatly in Part 1 as the critics take an interest in the book one afternoon when having lunch at Amalfitano’s house.

Amalfitano watched them from the window, biting his lip, although the look on his face (just then at least) wasn’t of desperation or importance but of deep, boundless sadness.
When the critics showed the first sign of turning around, Amalfitano retreated, returning rapidly to the kitchen, where he pretended to be intent on making lunch.

And so the book transcends into something much more than a book. Subconsciously he draws triangles, he lists the names of philosophers and formulas. Supply+demand+magic. Perhaps hope that, left, to nature, the book can become, something more, a compass that can steer him out of troubled waters amid blood and mortal wounds and stench, something thus far his mind has been able to do. Like Amalfitano, the book is now rootless.

Amalfitano’s madness could all too easily be related on the deaths of the young women in Santa Teresa, yet the crimes are never explicitly spoken or thought about by Amalfitano. Strange, considering he has a young daughter who frequently goes out late into this city. If Amalfitano’s descent into madness is caused by the worry for his daughter’s safety in such a violent and dangerous place, then why does his response seem to be inaction? Is Amalfitano’s inaction his way of rationalising the things that are occurring in Santa Teresa, happening all around him? And soon a voice begins to speak to him (never a good sign). The voice(s) Amalfitano hears, portrayed to be his father’s, or possibly grandfather’s, asks him a series of questions that he can’t answer. Why are you here? What are you doing here? Are you a homosexual?

And you’ve also thought about your daughter, said the voice, and about the murders committed daily in this city, and about Baudelaire’s faggoty (I’m sorry) clouds, but you haven’t thought seriously about whether your hand is really a hand. That isn’t true, said Amalfitano, I have thought about it, I have. If you had thought about it, said the voice, you’d be dancing to the tune of a different piper. And Amalfitano was silent and he felt the silence was a kind of eugenics. He looked at his watch. It was four in the morning.

Because unlike Amalfitano, the voice does speak of the murders in Santa Teresa. Which made me think that when the voice considers them, perhaps this is the only way Amalfitano can confront the fear he has been trying to suppress. Is it Amalfitano’s subconscious? Perhaps berating himself for not taking Rosa and himself the hell away from Santa Teresa? The voice could have a point – why, when Amalfitano has a 17 year old daughter, who goes out and stays out late like young girls do, does he not take action, in a city where such heinous and unstoppable crimes are being carried out? Or does he feel like there is no escape? That the problems lie not just in Santa Teresa?

The son of the University of Santa Teresa’s Dean Guerra, Marco Antonio Guerra spends some time with Amalfitano towards the end of Part 2, and together the critics suspect the two of being gay, but later decidethe bond between the Chilean professor and the dean’s son was more socratic than homosexual, and this is some way put their minds at ease, since the three of them had grown inexplicably fond of Amalfitano’. Young Marco Antonio is full of youthful and privileged arrogance but displays menacing aggression and perversely admits to Amalfitano of purposely getting into fights at bars against homophobes, whom he seems to try and bait, to elicit combat. Violence is everywhere in this city. I did like this quote that he tells Amalfitano very close to the end of Part 2, however.

“I used to read everything, Professor, I read all the time. Now all I read is poetry. Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game. I don’t know if you follow me, Professor. Only poetry – and let me be clear, only some of it – is good for you, only poetry isn’t shit.”

I can’t help but feel this is a playful jab at literature, and maybe even self-reference. Because to me, Bolaño’s prose is poetry. It ebbs and flows. The Part About Amalfitano is so wonderfully intrinsic compared to Part 1, and despite the ongoing themes of darkness and insanity and violence, it remains remarkably calm for the most part. On first read it may seem meandering and inconsequential, but subsequent visits reveal so much more. I regard Amalfitano as a man almost at peace with his descent into madness. As if it has caught him in its tendrils and hope is lost. But perhaps there is a way he can save his daughter Rosa, more of whom we will see in Part 3.

josh_marcotte

Josh Marcotte is a photographer from San Jose, California. I was fascinated by some of his recent work dealing with themes of abandonment and urban decay, but Josh has a plethora of other great galleries over on his site, www.lostsanjose.com, which is highly worth a visit.

The squatter woke and lay still on the sofa, his chest rising and falling under a stained sheet. Some noise from outside had interrupted his sleep but as he lay there he heard nothing else to worry him. Still he could not fall back to sleep so he got up and went to the window to look outside.

With caution he pulled the curtain, heavy with damp, back an inch and ever so slightly the room brightened, but it was still dark and it was still gloomy. It was mid-morning. The neighbourhood was in disarray. The world outside was loud and unpredictable. Cars with growling engines queued up outside as people walked past. The window from which he watched the street was almost entirely covered by thick bracken from the front garden that had gone untended for months, and yet he was knelt under the windowsill, peeking out like a hunted animal. No one had seen him enter, and no one would see him leave.

Later he sat in the hallway reading old newspapers and flyers for local eateries and manifestos of the district politicians that had piled up on the mat beneath the letterbox, while happily eating cold beans out of a tin with a fork found in the kitchen. When he was done he entered the adjoining room across from the living room where he had slept. It was stripped bare but from observing scrapes and indentations on the wooden floor he judged it had been a dining room. The front facing window was more exposed in here so he crawled, creeping at a low elevation. Slowly he raised his head and took an alternative view of the street. Now it was quieter. It was after midday but the sun was hidden behind cloud and he reckoned it would rain soon. Cars passed infrequent and at slow speeds. He watched the street and he watched the rusted Chevy Impala in the driveway.

In the driveway the Impala sat. It had seen better days but a stylish ride once, for sure. From the 60s or the 70s at a guess. He wasn’t a car enthusiast by any means – he did not have the practicality to keep a car well maintained. Naturally he’d owned a few vehicles in his time but they were exactly that, a vehicle, to him merely a method of transport, nothing fancy or fast and not something to affect him deeply, as others sometimes form a bond, an inexplicable source of gratification whilst driving, the vehicle a vessel for the spirit. But this Impala, it caught his eye when he passed through the cul-de-sac, not only due to its state of disrepair (and thus stirring the squatter’s interest in the potential availability of the house), but because his older brother had driven an Impala for a few years, and it reminded him of his brother, and of home, and he could almost smell the wax that his brother would apply generously, every weekend, and as it sat there in the sun, the Impala would smell glorious.

The Impala was less than a foot above the driveway, its flat tires long deflated. Tall strands of unkept grass were springing up over the bricks in front of the house but underneath the Impala were weeds, yellowed and browned. The Impala had not moved in a long time. There was some conflict over the nature of abandonment of the property, for beside the Impala was a beautiful hedgerow of blooming flowers. It had more colour than the rest of the street entirely. This had worried him, but he monitored the house, and he was careful, and he reasoned that rainfall had been high and the seeds had been sewn a long time ago.

Sitting on the other side of the window pane the squatter considered the strangeness of the contrast between the blooming plants and the rusting Impala. How strange it is, he thought, how some objects in this world react differently, when left to their own devices. Some things flourish where others will struggle. Some things survive, others wither and die. Some bloom, others rust. He considered the house he was in. Was it blooming, or was it rusting. With the squatter inside it was a home. It was providing him some warmth, some shelter, some protection. Without the squatter what would it be? A shell, cold, dark and empty.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016

2666 part1

2666 is a postmodernist epic written by the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. Written in the years leading up to his death, the novel was published in 2004, released posthumously a year after Bolaño’s death, and for a relatively modern book it carries the weight and renown that Bolaño’s legacy demands.

Challenging the very definition of a novel and story-telling, 2666 is sprawling, vast, intimidating, overwhelming, and as such, it would be farcical to attempt to cover how each part made me feel, in the space of one post. In addition, I feel much of the book may become more clearer (or more complex?) over time, much like peeling back layers of an onion, shielding one’s eyes in an attempt not to weep. So in coming weeks I intend to cover each part of Bolaño’s final statement on the subtle goods and inherent evils in the world, as he saw it.

the part about the critics

2666 is apocalyptic, dark, complex. For a long time I have wanted to read this book but its length, among other factors, has pushed it back. But in December 2015 I finally started (and finished) 2666, and it matched, surpassed and shattered my expectations all at once. But The Part about the Critics was an…interesting opening that did not comply with my assumptions for the book; at least, not at first. Part 1 consists of a mere 159 pages, but those pages are strewn with feverish ideas and a dark foreboding.

As the title of the chapter might suggest, Bolaño introduces us to a group of European literary critics: Jean-Claude Pelletier of Paris, Manuel Espinoza of Madrid, Liz Norton of London, and Piero Morini of Rome. These four academics share an expertise is one particular author, the German Benno von Archimboldi, an elusive, seemingly introverted figure largely unknown by most of Europe. But these critics meet, and their shared passion for Archimboldi leads them to form a fiercely loyal clique in which they frequently talk on the phone and travel together to meet at conferences and literary gathering across Europe.

Initially the relative mundanity of literary academia shouldn’t be as compelling as it is – but it is compelling. We are given a glimpse into the world of the critics. We hear the Archimboldi-obsessed critics compare the author to the greats of German literature, the likes of Mann and Goethe, yet we are never really given a reason as to why, nor any evidence of his literary accomplishments. They are possessive of Archimboldi. They regard other critics outside of their group as inferior, below them, and that they are the defining rule on Archimboldi. Note, that all four critics are not German themselves.

The Bremen German literature conference was highly eventful. Pelletier, backed by Morini and Espinoza, went on the attack like Napoleon at Jena, assaulting the unsuspecting German Archimboldi scholars, and the downed flags of Pohl, Schwartz, and Borchmeyer were soon routed to the cafés and taverns of Bremen. The young German professors participating in the event were bewildered at first and then took the side of Pelletier and his friends, albeit cautiously. The audience, consisting mostly of university students who had traveled from Göttingen by train or in vans, was also won over by Pelletier’s fiery and uncompromising interpretations, throwing caution to the winds and enthusiastically yielding to the festive, Dionysian vision of ultimate carnival (or penultimate carnival) exegesis upheld by Pelletier and Espinoza. Two days later, Schwartz and his minions counterattacked. They compared Archimboldi to Heinrich Böll. They spoke of suffering. They compared Archimboldi to Günter Grass. They spoke of civic duty. Borchmeyer even compared Archimboldi to Friedrich Dürrenmatt and spoke of humor, which seemed to Morini the height of gall. Then Liz Norton appeared, heaven-sent, and demolished the counterattack like a Desaix, like a Lannes, a blond Amazon who spoke excellent German, if anything too rapidly, and who expounded on Grimmelshausen and Gryphius and many others, including Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus.

I feel there is the possibility of self-reference, in terms of Bolaño and the cult of Archimboldi – maybe Bolaño is poking fun at himself, and academic satire is rife in this first chapter – but at this stage I know relatively little about Bolaño’s career and work; indeed, 2666 is my first experience of the Chilean author, but it won’t be the last.

The academic friendship between the critics grows into something much stronger as time passes, especially between Norton, Pelletier and Espinoza, the three of whom become entangled in a bizarre sexual relationship, of which there is no jealousy between the two men, rather an enhanced form of camaraderie and a shared love for Norton.

What I adore is the dark and unsettling tone the chapter has – a feat especially impressive because I still can’t put my finger on what, or why, this is. Yes, there are outbursts of violence and disturbing dreams towards the end of the chapter, but the sense of ill-feeling comes well before all that. A steadily increasing and menacing threat of violence, of a descent in madness. Finally it comes to a head, in a brutal and sudden attack by Espinoza and Pelletier on a cab driver, with Norton looking on.

When they stopped kicking him they were sunk for a few seconds in the strangest calm of their lives. It was as if they’d finally had the ménage à trois they’d so often dreamed of.

As mentioned violence is present in the traumatic dreams, or nightmares, that haunt the critics, particularly in, but not limited to, Santa Teresa. Part 1 may not share the blunt and descriptive brutality of Part 4, but violence is visible throughout, from the mentally unstable artist Edwin Johns (who cuts off his own hand in the name of art and money), to the brawling ‘war’ between taxi drivers and bouncers in Mexico City. Violence begins to cloud the minds of the critics, bringing both subtle and hard eruptions of disagreement and confrontation. Indications of darker times ahead.

How the hell did no one notice this? wondered Pelletier. Norton had never seen a toilet in such bad shape. Some eight inches were missing. Under the white porcelain was a red substance, like brick wafers spread with plaster. The missing piece was in the shape of a half-moon. It looked as if someone had ripped it off with a hammer. Or as if someone had picked up another person who was already on the floor and smashed that person’s head against the toilet, thought Norton.

The catalyst for the change is the search for Archimboldi. Through anecdotes and visits, the critics manage to pin down the author in a Mexican city named Santa Teresa (…the place, the sprawling city in the desert, could be seen as something authentic, something full of local color, more evidence of the often terrible richness of the human landscape…) and they all agree to fly out to Mexico in the hopes of finally meeting their revered writer. Interestingly, at the last minute, Morini (who is permanently wheelchair bound due to an accident earlier in his life) chooses not to travel; perhaps he anticipates a change in the normally (once?) civil Espinoza and Pelletier, and fears things can only get worse in Santa Teresa.

They were convinced the city was growing by the second. On the far edge of Santa Teresa, they saw flocks of black vultures, watchful, walking through barren fields, birds that here were called turkey vultures, and also turkey buzzards. Where there were vultures, they noted, there were no other birds. They drank tequila and beer and ate tacos at a motel on the Santa Teresa-Caborca highway, at outdoor tables with a view. The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.

The critics are well-versed in Archimboldi’s work, but are seemingly out of their depth in the actual hunt for the elusive writer. In Santa Teresa, their behaviour and states of mind become increasingly chaotic as they struggle to rationalise their environment. In Santa Teresa, even intelligent people can be easily lost. The critics obsess over finding Archimboldi, but instead they find – Santa Teresa? Standing on the precipice of a void, unfathomable to such an extent that they will never comprehend it without losing their sanity.

These people are crazy, said Espinoza and Pelletier. But Norton thought something strange was going on, on the street, on the terrace, in the hotel rooms, even in Mexico City with those unreal taxi drivers and doormen, unreal or at least logically ungraspable, and even in Europe something strange had been happening, something she didn’t understand, at the Paris airport where the three of them had met, and maybe before, with Morini and his refusal to accompany them…And something strange was going on even with Archimboldi and everything Archimboldi had written, and with Norton, unrecognizable to herself…

 

crete fraser douglas

Photography by Fraser Douglas, a freelance photographer from Scotland. A beach on the island of Crete, and there are many more stunning images of beautiful landscapes at fraserdouglas.com

The morning was warm and close when they woke but the sky remained covered by thick cloud that cast unenviable gloom, a dull light, over the land. The prevailing wind was weak and thus today there was no cooling respite from the heat, and the wonderful scent they had become accustomed that would roll in from the Mediterranean, was absent. Visibility was, more or less, unaffected; the horizon was as always obscured by a haze caused by heat or strangled intentions.

And the group found themselves subdued in a strange way, all four of them under a spell of lethargy and not entirely without fear, hungover in their hotel room. After some time they shrugged it off, laughing: it’s lack of sleep! These late nights, our dark conversations and debates, accompanied by cigars and the local liquor, researching forgotten civilisations and irrelevant gods and mythology where there were no treasures left to be found. Not here, in the hills or mountains, the gorges and ravines, not here or anywhere. Let’s rest today. We have a few days left. This day felt strange, they all agreed but she, the sole female of the group, with a sense of obligation to achieve something during the trip, left the room as the others slept. Stepping carefully between beer bottles and filled ashtrays she slipped out the room and looked back through the gloom at the rest of them, sleeping on their backs with their faces to the ceiling. The darkened room was like a crypt, and she remembered to put the sign on the door warning ‘do not disturb’.

The lobby was filled with people milling around, indecisive and unsettled, as if waiting for the clouds to dissipate. Before leaving the resort she asked the concierge to recommend a quiet location on the coast. He told her there were many places on the coast that would be quiet, but he questioned her desire to leave the resort. The weather, according to the concierge, did not bode well. ‘Today is not so good’ he admitted with a tired smile, ‘but tomorrow – tomorrow is better.’

She ignored the concierge and walked out of the resort towards the coast. On her way down to the beach she noted there was little traffic. Few pedestrians walking the roads. One elderly man in a stained white shirt was leading a horse ahead of her, but she soon caught up as they walked slowly. It became clear that the horse had a limp, and as she passed the nomadic pair, the horse’s ears twitched and she saw the creature was missing its right eye. The horse nickered as she accelerated away and when she reached the beach she looked back for the man and the maimed horse but they were nowhere to be seen.

On the beach she observed forgotten towels covering sun beds. A collection of withered umbrellas, opened and closed, stood idle like cocktail decorations. She took off her shoes but the sand was coarse, rough on the soles of her feet, and she moved slowly, approaching the water but unprepared to go in. Across the water there was distant land. She knew it was all connected but it looked like a different place entirely. Was it better across there, across the water? Was it easier. A sharp crack echoed across the beach. It came from the road, but there was no sign of movement, no sign of disturbance, and yet the sound reverberated across the beach and back again. A ripple of anxiety and self-doubt. The beach felt unsafe and she wanted to go back, but she stayed where she was, amongst the obsolete sun beds, looking across the water.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016

 

24459306840_89c43ce54a_o (1)

Photography provided by Flickr user ~Craig~. See more of his work here

I am tired. Every morning this week has been early, every night late. Yet here I am again, looking miserably between a pile of sub-standard work and an endless to-do list. The light outside my window begins to fade and I note the time, eight o’clock in the evening. That gives me a fifteen hour window, I think to myself. A portfolio of my work, a collection and evidence of the hard graft of the three months prior, is required to be completed and submitted at eleven hundred hours the following morning.

At first glance you might have observed a young man with calm demeanour, sat at a desk, cradling a cup of coffee. Working with diligence in a measured and methodical manner, the approaching deadline nothing but an unavoidable formality. Sadly this was not the case. I don’t know if that speaks more about your ability to read a situation, or said man’s ability to hide his emotions.. Either way, a facade.

Listen, the night went like this: I stared at the screen of the laptop, repeated the clicking, dragging, typing, printing. Mindless repetition. On occasion looking to my side and crossing a task out with a slash of blue biro, momentarily satisfied, only to add to the list minutes later. I’d swing my wide casement window open, pushing back the net curtains to let the night in. The air woke me, the cigarette brought clarity and focus. Blowing smoke out into the night. The housemates would smell the smoke had they been awake, but they were not awake, and I was, so I smoked, and I worked, and I smoked, and I worked. Music played on shuffle through the tin of laptop speakers and it sounded forgotten, nothing genres thrown together. The soundtrack of stress. And time, time passed inconsistent. Glances at the watch bringing increasingly disturbing updates accompanied by a quickened heartbeat, or palpitations. The laptop became my world, a screen with four corners and within flashed lines and numbers, shades of atmosphere and occupation. Specks of nothing that distorted and manipulated the focus of my gaze. I became blind, finally, and decided a trip to the off-license was needed.

Just a two minute walk down the hill. I was saddened but unsurprised that it was two in the morning. The street was quiet, the neon sign beckoned, reflecting luminous green off wet grass and puddles in the pavement. BR40. Ambiguous shop name. Hasan greets me. The kindness is appreciated. Maybe he sees the anxiety, the stress in me. Or maybe he is always like this? An automaton leering with fixed grin at whoever stumbles off the cold streets this time of night looking for alcohol or tobacco or a microwaveable snack to continue the party or complete the night. Energy drinks and chocolate and a pack of marlboro lights please, Hasan.

I wandered back to my front door, staring up in a trance at the bright and beautiful stars. Peaceful, nearly. Stumbling into my bedroom I cannot see my desk. I cannot see the four walls. As if the freshness of the night was a drug and had tuned my senses onto some other frequency far from here, for instead of my room I saw a shed in the snow, barely visible under the gloom of an industrial wall light, sat adjacent to a larger and more ominous building that hummed in the silence of the forest. All around stalks of grass and other plants reached through the thin white covering and in the surrounding darkness there was something else, and although I could sense it I could not see it, hidden by the inescapable blanket of night.

I flick the ceiling light on, the room returns, as does sight of that desk, that pile of notes and cardboard, that laptop still buzzing furiously, those papers and drawings strewn over the walls and floors and even covering my bed now, confirming that there was still work to do and therefore there would be no sleep.

Later I fell asleep at the desk, sat up, pen in hand. Not for long, but enough to feel guilty for it. Work continues to be churned out but the process is slow and it is painful. Later I showered, I put on fresh clothes. In an attempt to mask my tiredness – but it was there on my face, for all to see. Much later I had more coffee, a slice of toast. What I needed more than anything was sleep, that or assurance, and comfort.

Now – finally – I wonder through the halls of the studio, portfolio in hand. Heavier than you would believe. I wait for my printing to be completed. The anxiety, the panic, the nausea gone. Replaced with a numbness and a heavy sense of dejection. Small talk is difficult, more so than usual. I make the easy decision to leave now. Undeniably lighter I walk out and observe the day in a new light. A bus unloads dozens of students who walk up the university steps to a new day. A new day. The bus roars off and I follow, dizzy in wake of its fumes, sloping back up the hill and longing for my bed. To sleep, to rest, to forget.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016

 

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Photography by Andrea Di Giola, an Italian photographer who achieves a wonderful sense of scale in his work. Find more of his work on his Facebook page, and his Flickr page

“I write for a new age spiritual magazine. Spiritual”, I emphasised, “not religious. Although honestly there isn’t a great deal of difference anymore. Change through positive thinking and all that bullshit. We cover similar themes, probably target the same demographic.”
“Is there still appeal for that kind of thing?” She spoke with interest but her eyes were looking elsewhere.
“I don’t really care. I get paid either way.”

The fog in the town was bizarre. It arrived the day before I did. There was no wind to shift it and no temperature change to dissipate it, but to linger for the time it did was puzzling. When I recall that first week, I remember uncertainty and a vague apprehension; all life muffled and still, a vacuum. There was nothing to talk about but there was nothing else to talk about. I held a few token, informal interviews with locals at bars, in shops, but they gave me little – all amicable, all distracted – I could get nothing out of them. Studying maps of the town and reading articles on the internet I put together a file. But after a few days I grew bored and began walking the town, unable to see further than three feet in front of me. Cars rolled past slowly with full beams gliding through. In the mist it could have been anywhere in the world.

“I can’t make an objective judgement of this place while it is covered. I’ll stay until the fog clears. They say it can’t stick around for much longer; it’s a meteorological anomaly.”
“Your article. Will it be ready?” Far away the editor spoke.
“It’ll be done when it’s done. Besides no one is waiting for it.” But the call cut out and I’m not sure he heard me.

The days grew long or the nights short, under dull illumination of street lights that appeared miles above the sidewalks like uninterested stationary spacecraft. A disillusioned creator observing a malfunctioning purgatory. I saw little to suggest there was anything wrong with this town, but looking back, the fog was the only thing I and the people of the town spoke about in those initial weeks. It’s all we saw. Looking out of every window would yield the exact same view. A grey wall in slow but constant motion, motives unknown.

Nothing rose above the blanket of fog but for the tallest fir trees, and the spire of the Catholic church on the hill. The spire invisible to those on the ground, those on the ground invisible to the spire. Forgotten or otherwise gone. The fog had simply masked the problems of the town, because nothing could continue until it left. The usual problems with the drugs, the unemployment, the high crime, the social tensions, all of these things were put on hold. As if for a time they were all the same, the townsfolk, all in the same standing, one of shared uncertainty.

One night in the spire at the top of the church I stood with the reverend and we conversed about religion and the fading influence of the church in present times. He was tired and spoke with little enthusiasm and told me that it was not so much that the church was weaker, but that the faith of the people, in these trying times, was at an all time low. Lacking faith in the economy, faith in justice, faith in political manifestos. Faith in one another.

We looked out across a grey sea and I saw the stars for the first time in months. Beneath the veil, headlights from speeding cars outlined the routes in and out of the town. Sometimes it looked like all the cars were travelling in the same direction, out and away, escaping from the town as the centre around us became darker.
I asked him when he believed the fog would clear.
“What makes you think it ever will?”

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016

invisible ink

Brian McDonald is an award winning American author and screenwriter, having taught classes on screenwriting and the art of storytelling at several major studios such as Pixar and Disney. He has released books containing his knowledge, his teachings of the craft, one of which, Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide To Building Stores That Resonate, is the focus of this post. He also regularly posts analysis and criticism of popular films on his ‘Invisible Ink’ blog (http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/).

McDonald’s angle is this; there is much, more more to storytelling than what is said, or written, by the author, or screenwriter. Dialogue and description only goes so far. ‘Invisible ink’, as McDonald calls it, is just as important. A structure beneath the surface of the story, perhaps not immediately noticeable when present, but jarring and distracting when it is ignored, or not given enough consideration.

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Often when I listen to how people evaluate stories, I hear them talk about dialogue. When they talk about “the script” for a film, they are often talking about the dialogue. Or when they mention how well a book is written, they most often mean the way the words are put together – the beauty of a sentence. These are all forms of “visible ink”. This term refers to writing that is readily “seen” by the reader or viewer, who often mistakes these words on the page as the only writing the storyteller is doing. But how events in a story are ordered is also writing. What events should occur in a story to make the teller’s point is also writing. Why a character behaves in a particular way is also writing. These are all forms of “invisible ink”, so called because they are not easily spotted by a reader, viewer, or listener of a story. Invisible ink does, however, have a profound impact on a story.

McDonald draws on a wide and varied range of popular films, plays, TV shows and books to illustrate his points Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Twilight Zone, Casablanca, The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz and many more are referenced.

With any writing guides (or indeed, any advice for pretty much any topic, ever) it’s worth noting that this is not a strict blueprint that must be followed and if ignored, your story will fail! because of course, there are no concrete rules to writing stories. What McDonald strives to get across, is that certain aspects of story can be too easily overlooked, and in the majority of cases, this can lead to a weak theme (or armature, as McDonald likes to use), unreliable characters, unsatisfying endings and the like. With the rise in postmodernist literature, standard narratives are experimented on and played with, many techniques I like to read and enjoy deploying myself. But you’d be surprised how many books which you would consider as unorthodox still play by a lot of the ‘rules’, and how different aspects like ‘ritual pain’ and ‘personal hell’ are present in films that on first glance are nothing alike.

What does it mean to tell the truth when writing fiction? For one thing, it is not about facts. Storytellers are not concerned with facts, just truth. Sometimes facts can even get in the way of the truth. When you are watching a horror movie and you know that the girl in the tank top and panties shouldn’t go into the basement alone, and you know she has other options, but she goes into the basement anyway – that’s a lie. It only happened because the storytellers wanted it to happen, but not because it was a logical thing a reasonable person would do. On the other hand, if the girl does everything you would do, and is even a little smarter but the monster gets her anyway – now that’s scary.

The final chapter contains the screenplay for McDonald’s award-winning short film WHITE FACE, a satirical documentary style affair (mockumentary? I’ve never used that word before but it seems apt) in which several clowns are filmed and interviewed in America, living lives as doctors, engineers, old people; basically, as members of society. It deals with racism, and the prejudice these clowns face in the real world, our world. It’s incredibly well written, and is still used today by businesses as a diversity-training tool.

I didn’t find too much in this book that I would call groundbreaking. But I did catch myself nodding in agreement frequently (no, I really did), because a lot of what McDonald writes makes senseMcDonald’s insight into storytelling is refreshingly sharp and accessible and he teaches you valid and simple points in an effortless way. It’s a short read because it doesn’t need to be long. McDonald makes a point, reinforces it with a myriad of references. And you find yourself thinking – yeah, okay, that makes sense. Writing stories clearly comes naturally to him. Just like Invisible Ink, a good story doesn’t necessarily need to be complex.

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Photography by Austrian street photographer Dragan. Recently he has taken some fantastic shots around London, see more of his work on his flickr page, www.flickr.com/photos/draganbrankovic/

Something on the street glowed. He waited until the light faded and as the street darkened still something glowed. It didn’t flicker; it was not fire light. With caution he approached, to investigate. It was the entrance to an old underground station and it was lit up, not by flames but electrical light. Artificial lighting. He ventured inside and it was quiet and empty. He saw ticket booths unoccupied, the shutters pulled down. A cool breeze scattered debris, consisting of leaves and litter and paper, off the street and around the lobby and underneath the barriers, which he was able to push past with little resistance.

It was a station he had known well, he realised, its location revealed to him on tiled walls in the once familiar Johnstone typeface. He approached a pair of frozen escalators, half expecting them to continue their churning cycle without warning, but they remained still. With trepidation he descended, one step at a time, glancing back every few steps, and at one point stopped to look at advertisements on the sides of each escalator, that never interested him in the past but now displayed immortalised shows and books and bank accounts that would remain until the paper they rested on faded irreversibly and disintegrated into dust.

He considered his last visit here, probably sometime last year, and the people who he might have seen at this station. All the faces he would see pass, hundreds every minute, in the opposite direction, each on a different path, with different thoughts, different aspirations, different points of views, different comfort zones and straining points, different hopes, different dreams, different fantasies and different fears. Exchanged glances with eye contact which burns an image in your brain that is kept for how long? a second, an hour, a day? And overhearing all those conversations, singular quotes taken out of context, and wondering where they would have led, even those in different languages, imaging the subject of dialogue based on facial animations or tone or animated gesticulations.

As his thoughts drifted between the past and the present he could hear the voices, the distant murmur of noise that can only exist in large quantities of people, echoing through the marble walls and floors, sometimes near too, sometimes so close he thought he could feel breath on his ears. Walls reverberated. Tremored around him. He went deeper. Continuing through the tunnels, the air stale with a scent that lingered, harsh on the senses. It was warm down here. Artificial warmth. Something long lost to his world, different to real warmth of the sun or the warmth of flames or the warmth of bodies. Everything shone under the incandescent and unnatural brightness of the humming spotlights.

He reached a platform that curved out of view to his left and to his right, and the shadows cast by the flickering tube lighting above moved, grew darker and more defined, until they were no longer shadows but malevolent shapes. He walked to the end of the platform and peered into the darkness of the tunnel for a long time, and he thought he could see the shapes begin to form. He thought he could see bones and eyes and stunted children stuffing their mouths with dirt.

Dropping down onto the tracks he touched the steel that was cold and worn, turning his hand black and oily. He heard a voice from deeper in the tunnel and this time he couldn’t be sure it was a memory. When his thoughts cleared and he finally asked himself the question, why is the power on? – there was a click followed by a silent void and he was left alone in darkness.

© Nicholas J. Parr, 2016