Sunday, 5 February 2012

The cog

 In the inky black of pre-dawn I glimpsed, through gaps in the silhouettes of hedges, what I took for car headlamps, one slightly dimmer than the other, marking the meandering downhill course of the lane; perhaps belonging a driver who had taken a wrong turn on the main road. As the lights came closer I noticed their separate side-to-side motion. It was this, along with the absence of engine noise, that made me realise they belonged a pair of early-morning  cyclists, riding two abreast.

Both men greeted me as their bikes flashed passed – their brusque “Good mornings” delivered in the military tones of people who feel they are engaged in a serious business; one that places them on a superior plane of existence to slower-paced bystanders and pedestrians.

I watched them traverse the small tarmac car park of The Watermill Gift Shop, leaving behind a trail of fogged breath; falling into an uneasy single-file, whose order was decided at the last moment,  as they joined the flinty towpath in the direction of Lower Dent.

After they were gone I unlocked the door of the gift shop and disarmed the burglar alarm. For the next hour I worked in silence at the counter, beside the sleeping cash register.

The waxing December moon cast its pale luminescence impassively over the contents of the shop, moving with the imperceptible speed of a searchlight across a shallow wicker basket stocked with jars of homemade lemon curd; picking out the dimpled glaze on some rustic pottery; reflecting, as a brilliant white glare, off the glossy sheen of the postcards in their wire carousel.

The darkness was slowly diluted by the encroaching daylight, the leaden grey of the overcast morning weakening the glow of the reading lamp, that stood poised over the open accounts ledger. I rose from my chair and unlocked the antiquated machinery of the neutered mill, freeing the wooden wheel on the exterior, allowing it to turn uselessly with the current.  

Through I could not see them, I was aware of the excited chatter of the sparrows who had roosted between he paddles overnight, and who were now scattering like a handful of carelessly flung stones over the millrace, skimming the rapids (those strange worn boulders that break the surface and which a long time ago – long before I came here - were painted with white numerals, from one to eighteen, for some unknown purpose); the rag tag flock alighting where they always do, in the honeycombed depths of the immaculate privet hedges that border the gardens of a row of cottages on the opposite bank.

The churning of the water, caused by the protruding spokes of the wooden wheel digging beneath the surface, disturbed the trout who had waited out the darkness shoaled together in its shadow. They dispersed, like a fleet of submarines, into the wider course of the river, each one seeking its own territory.

The  creaks of the metal axle, that faithfully repeat with each revolution, broke the trance of the heron  who, since the first light of dawn, had been fixated on a daguerreotype of his own likeness, reflected in the still brown waters of the mill pond.  With great effort he took to the air, his laboured wing beats, fixing him on a lumbering flight path towards more secluded fishing grounds.  As he crossed the tree line, a pair of crows rose from an unkempt nest  in the upper branches, on a course to intercept.  

Here in this English backwater, beyond the sight of God – his tiny providence and his universal old testament rage - I have been entrusted with the worn mechanism that sets the day in motion.

Monday, 23 January 2012

How to wear a Stalabito


I know that you have a great interest in caves and rock formations. I hope that this article (which I cut out from one of the complimentary magazines in my hotel room) might inspire you to take an interest in dresses, and maybe even make you want to wear one.

~ Your Mother

The purpose of the Stalabito is to grant its wearer the off-kilter elegance of an abstract Art Deco sculpture, by presenting the lower half of the body as a meandering, unbalanced column. The desired effect is a graceful contrast between the apparently wayward posture of the legs (which is an illusion achieved by the design) and the air of poise and composure above the waist.

A Stalabito has several identifying features:  The hem of the gown, which flares slightly at the base, should connect perfectly with the ground without trailing on it. The garment tapers dramatically as it ascends towards the waist and so should be avoided by women with voluptuous figures. The internal structure, which give the dress its unusual shape, is made from  a series of hoops, spaced vertically, three to four inches apart and arranged like an uneven stack of dinner plates. The effect is to distort the profile of the lower body, which can be made to appear to be lean dramatically off the centre line, as if on the brink of toppling over. Inside the dress the legs retain their normal position and there is no discomfort. Typically Stalabitos are tailored from silken fabric, with abundant surface folds and tucks, imitating the stalagmite cave formations which are the inspiration for the design, and from which the garment’s name is derived.

Although Stalabitos first achieved mass popularity in Italy the design originates from Leoben, Austria, and is credited to a dressmaker called Joanie Renner who began making them in the 1930s. Under a European directive, authentic Stalabitos can only be purchased from one of three traditional dress shops in their town of origin. Dresses of this kind produced elsewhere in Europe are sold as “Stalabito-style.”

When a woman chooses to wear a Stalabito she deliberately imposes limitations upon herself and upon how others will perceive and interact with her. Because of this she should carefully consider the suitability of a such  a garment  for the social situations that she is likely to find herself in. The gown does not allow for movement of the lower body  in anything other than small, shuffling footsteps and so is usually worn with flat soled shoes. Walking more than a few paces  is not encouraged and the wearer should regard herself as a piece of ornamentation, decorating the room that she inhabits. If one is ordering a Stalabito for a specific occasion it is not considered bad etiquette to contact the host in advance and request information on the decor, so as to better blend-in.

Female guests at formal Italian balls will often wear Stalabitos during an early part of the evening, referred to as the convergenza, where they will converse in small, prearranged groups.  When the time comes to change into more conventional attire, the most important women will be ushered away in ones and twos to a nearby dressing area, with their exit from the ballroom discretely screened by well-dressed servants. Upon their return the next most important women will be taken away to change. This continues until the group metamorphosis is complete.

Another popular and more flamboyant method of achieving the same result is known as the cambiamento del costume. In this instance, large screens are placed around the women for them to change behind.  Again this occurs in order of seniority.    

In modern times pseudo-Stalabitos are available with clips and buttons that can be discretely fastened and unfastened to let out  additional material. thereby transforming it into a more conventional ball gown that allows for greater freedom of movement. These concessions to utility have brought the Stalabito back into vogue again.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The Cult of the Goldfish

 Since 1989 I have (along with my colleagues - Barbara Standish and Arlo Danziger - at The U.S treasury) overseen the Benefactor Dime program on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service. I last appeared before Congress on the 7th of July in 1990 to announce the closure of this program, resulting from a continual failure to meet its stated aims. On that date I also submitted proposals for recouping some of the substantial sums of money that have been invested in the project.  

I have returned to Congress, almost three years after my previous appearance, to formally declare that, as of November  1st , 1993, those Benefactor Dimes that remain in circulation will cease to be legal tender. I will also take this opportunity to summarize what I feel have been the failings of the project:

The Benefactor Dime Bill was proposed in 1978 by the senator John Rideman, with the intention of giving the American people a greater control over where their tax dollars were spent during a time of hardship and recession. The version of the Bill that passed in 1979 allowed a tax-paying individual to reclaim a single percentage of their payment to the IRS, on the condition that this was used to fund public-spirited causes and not for personal gain. This hand-back was given in the form of the bespoke coinage that are now widely referred to as Benefactor Dimes, but which appear in denominations ranging from a penny up to a 50 cent piece. To make these coins easily distinguishable from the formal US currency, they are unusually large and manufactured from thinner, lighter metal.

Despite these measures, over the years there has been a substantial number of incidences in which people, either through a genuine misunderstanding, or through a calculated attempt to defraud the US Government, have attempted to use Benefactor Dimes to purchase personal items. These include computers, cars and even flights abroad. Reports of such incidences have risen considerably over the past five years.   

Up until November 1st  of this year, the only place at which Benefactor Dimes can be deposited are in special collection boxes, placed in secure locations such as post offices and banks. Each box represents a locally-based social project or an approved charitable organisation. This, in theory, grants the taxpayer a range of options where they can see firsthand the effects of their donations.

The initial run of coins were stateless. This allowed highly motivated groups, in particular religious organisations,  to acquire large quantities from all over the US and then pool them into a general fund that they could channel into projects that they felt best suited their aims.  While this has since been addressed, there are many other issues that remain unresolved  and which have collectively brought about the premature end of the project:

During the minting process, the coins were coated in a hard wearing fish-based oil that was intended to act as an anti-counterfeiting measure. The effects of this oil coating are still being researched and debated. I  am one of a growing majority who believe that the sheer number of U.S. citizens who are reporting, on a regular basis, vivid, recurring dreams of goldfish, has exceeded a point where these night-time visions can be chalked down to mass hysteria. These dreams have been experienced by people from all races, social backgrounds and walks of life. I see people in this room today, both to the right and to the left of me who have been personally affected. In the past decade it has become common practice among those experiencing such dreams to throw Benefactor Dimes into goldfish ponds, in the mistaken belief that doing so will increase their personal wealth, or bring about some other positive outcome.

At this point I would like to draw to your attention to Millers Pond on Staten Island, New York, which has grossed in total $4.5 million in Benefactor Dimes. These are regularly removed from the pond by city workers and divided equally between local projects.  However, there have been ugly scenes in which members of charitable groups have attempted to liberate what they regard as money that rightfully belongs to their cause. This has resulted in several arrests and one accidental death. The pond is now under 24 hour armed guard.  

There has also been an increase in Robin Hood style theft in which supporters of one cause have conspired to steal Benefactor Dimes from another cause, that is seen as less worthy in their eyes. This step towards criminality by some of our most altruistic, community-minded citizens is surely one of the most disturbing, unintended consequences of the project.

The widespread misuse of Benefactor Dimes has been another issue. The coins are not covered by the same laws that protect the US currency.  They are commonly used as items of jewellery and have also been incorporated into works of modern art. When the investment banker Bob Dickson was arrested on charges of company fraud, investigators found a custom-made monopoly board game whose playing pieces and play-money were made from melted down Benefactor Dimes, which he obtained by offering 50 cents on the dollar. I would also have it noted that, in his office, he kept a small Goldfish pond that he used as a depository for Benefactor Dimes, and which he referred to as his fiscal karma bank.

There is also evidence of corporations exploiting legal loopholes to tap into funds of Benefactor Dimes and partly bankroll projects taking place in the private sector. The most extreme case has been the closure and demolition of The Pearl Blount Volunteers Hospital in Detroit in order to make way for commercial office space, a small part of which will be offered to charities at a slightly reduced rent.

Benefactor Dimes are also alleged to have been used in at least two sophisticated money laundering operations. I cannot go into the details of either of these cases, without prejudicing the outcomes of the respective trials.

Perhaps most disappointing of all has been the failure of the American people to act as responsible distributors of the nation’s wealth. We estimate that 37% of all Benefactor Dimes remain unspent. That’s an unthinkable amount of money rolling around in desk draws. Public rallies aimed at recouping some of this lost revenue have received minimal support. There is now very little chance of ever getting this money back.  

The only solid benefits that the Benefactor Dime has brought to the US is a slight increase in the number of pet shops and the rise of a financial cult, based around the worship of goldfish. Neither of these outcomes represent value to the U.S. taxpayer.  

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The inferred footballer

The inferred footballer 

It was at a fog-bound league match between the Dutch sides, FC OSS and Almere City FC, where I witnessed the final professional appearance of the Spanish defender, Tomas Anselmo. The game took place on a Sunday morning at the Mitsubishi Forklift Stadion in Almere. Anselmo was, of course, playing for OSS in his normal position of Centre Back. On this occasion the captain’s armband had been awarded to the team’s young striker – Karlens Yount – a muscular, endomorphic Frenchman with a quick temper. A week after the game, following a domestic incident that may, or may not, have been related to what took place on the pitch that day, Yount was charged with violently assaulting his girlfriend; a crime for which he served 11 months in jail.  

The passing of almost five years has conferred upon the OSS / Almere City match a legendary reputation that is entirely undeserved.  If anything the game is a curiosity, or perhaps a cautionary tale. These reservations have done nothing to deter a German television company from making documentary almost three times the length of the aborted match itself. Nor have they stymied a tide of  fact-light magazine articles speculating on the events of that day, most recently a meticulous 20 page analysis that appeared in the quarterly soccer journal - The Snow Globe.

If one were to take at face value the claims of those who say that they were in the crowd that day, then you would judge the match to have been very well attended.  As a confirmed spectator who was interviewed  after the game by a Nederland 2 news crew in the stadium car park, I can relate that the actual turnout was very low. I was also one of the few who remained in his seat for the game’s entire 41 minute duration. Throughout this time I felt a steady current of bodies brushing past me as they made their way towards the exits. Furthermore I can report that the overriding opinion of those who were present on the day, and who I spoke to in the aftermath, was that the whole thing had been a dangerous farce.

The seeds of the tragedy that was to occur had taken root in the peculiar weather of the region. Overnight a bank of thick fog had rolled in off the Markermeer - a shallow, 270 square mile, inland lake - and engulfed a portion of the city. This in itself was not unusual. Almere is often poetically referred to as “the city that forgets itself.” There are fanciful urban legends of whole buildings being swallowed up by fog and never seen again.
What was unusual on this day was that the fog did not disperse but rather continued to grow in  density. By the time the teams jogged out of the tunnel, visibility was limited to roughly 15 feet,  beyond which anything solid was robbed of detail and consistency, condensed by the suspended water vapour to a soupy silhouette. Those of us who had braved these conditions, in the absurd hope that we would still see a coherent football match, crowded the barriers. It was here that I gained my last view of Anselmo in the flesh, striding into the mist, being guided towards the centre circle by the repeated whistle blasts of the unseen referee.   

The atmosphere in the stadium was disquieting. We could not see the opposing supporters, whose disembodied chanting was disorientating and even somewhat menacing. As the match wore on and the crowds diminished the vocal support at both ends slowly ebbed away until it was nothing more than uncoordinated shouting. 

The game itself had become a metaphysical pursuit; a leap of faith for player and spectator alike. The participants were murky presences on the pitch. Sporadically a player would emerge from the gloom, apparently disorientated and bemused  to find themselves so close to the sidelines. Some would squint into the crowd as if attempting to ascertain from the fans’ colours at which end of the pitch they had arrived.
Only on three occasions did I catch sight of the ball. Twice it rolled out of the fog with nobody in pursuit, like a wayward piece of Day-Glo yellow wreckage, surreptitiously removing itself from the scene of a mysterious accident.

There were numerous collisions between players, unseen from the stands and mostly accidental. It is in one of these coming-togethers that Anselmo sustained the horrific injury that cost him his professional career. With whom he collided and in what circumstances are a matter of speculation. It will do no good here to lay bare the already over-examined theories for further scrutiny.

In the 37th minute of the game I saw a large, peculiar-shaped silhouette, a shade of grey darker than the fog. Later I rationalised that this must have been the two stretcher bearers carrying the badly wounded defender off the pitch. It is estimated that he had lain their in mute agony, drifting in and out of consciousness, for ten minutes before he was discovered by the Almere Forward - Derek Markham, who raised the alarm. Shortly afterwards the match officials finally saw sense and play was suspended.

In the stadium car park, myself and the television news crew who were interviewing me, were forced to shuffle aside for an ambulance. It was moving at a slow crawl through the fragmented crowd, employing blasts from its siren to disperse any meandering stragglers. Beyond the vehicle’s blacked-out windows, I inferred the presence of Tomas Anselmo. A few hours later, at the Flevoziekenhuis hospital, his right leg was amputated below the knee. 

Around the same time, a few streets away from the stadium, a family of four were killed when an articulated lorry ploughed into their car at as it crossed a junction.  The Markermeer fogs may not swallow entire buildings, but they can engulf both the lives and the livelihoods of men.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The vanishing colours of London

For the last 17 years of his life my grandfather worked at the Engelshoven Distillery, whose derelict shell can still be spotted, coarsely veiled by a half-kilometre of straggly hedgerow, just outside Nijmegen, on the road to Kleve. 

The whiskeys produced here were aged in natural indoor ponds, bedded with oak timbers. Every January, when the old logs were removed and burned, the employees would gather around the bonfires; each man or woman swallowed-up by an inner narrative that was informed partly by the potent fumes and partly by the peculiarly animated flames. 

The workers were encouraged by the distillery management to record for posterity their spontaneously conceived fictions that straddled the boundary between fever dreams and hallucinations. These were transcribed by the secretarial pool and eventually complied into an anthology that captured the imagination of the Dutch public and went on to become a best-seller across northern Europe, with subsequent volumes selling in progressively diminishing quantities.   

The stories that appear in this blog have been reproduced with the kind permission of Engleshoven PLC.

 The vanishing colours of London (By Daniel Bitterlich)

On the morning of Monday the 9th of February, 1998, I read in the back pages of The Telegraph, as a footnote to the main news, a brief paragraph mentioning that the long derelict Waitlings paint factory has been divested of its listed status by Tower Hamlets council. It was with this brazen flourish of bureaucracy that the shell of an historical metropolitan building was demoted in the eyes of the law to a corporeal afterimage on the London skyline, no longer regarded as a structure in its own right, but as extraneous rubble on a brown-field site primed for imminent redevelopment. 

The decision had been sealed by an uncontested vote at an open, yet obscurely advertised and poorly attended meeting, publicised a fortnight in advance by a hand-written white card on the notice board of the Bishops Lane branch library, and by an unobtrusive announcement in a local free newspaper with limited distribution. That, three weeks later, the demolition of the factory has yet to commence* is a mystery and can only be the result of some contractual technicality, or dispute between the site developer and the council. 

As an aside, Tower Hamlets council employed very similar underhand tactics when redeveloping the Victoria junction on Carnarvon Avenue. Prior to its ceremonial unveiling as the new gateway to East London – a bewildering labyrinth of traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and immense expanses of peculiarly-shaped pavement  - the site had been occupied by a large roundabout;  the surviving remnant of a former Royal Park. The grove of seven ancient oaks that occupied this traffic island were cited as the principle reason for its demolition. It was said that the age of the trees made them a falls risk and that that their roots were inflicting damage to the surface of the adjacent road. There was also some anti-youth sentiment stirred up against local teens who had allegedly been using the grove as a late night drinking spot. 

I have been a peripheral member of a largely ineffectual local protest group, with an itinerant membership, that campaigns on a broad range of community issues.  So far our victories have tended to arrive in the form of delays to proposed actions by local government or businesses that we consider to be undesirable. While the course of a battle occasionally swings in our favour, the definitive outcome of these wars turns against us with such unwavering regularity that one might think the little victories we have been granted were a form of appeasement, intended to foster a belief that all due consideration had been given to opposing viewpoints. 

It had been hoped by some in the group (myself included) that Waitlings might be granted a reprieve and thereafter enjoy a renaissance both as a museum of art and as a much-needed community space. In pursuit of that end we had enlisted the support of a number of well-known authors and artists known to reside in East London or have family roots in that part of the city. Unfortunately these tended to be of the sort whose presence in the media is so ubiquitous that they become part of the cultural wallpaper. Consequently their largely lacklustre championing of our cause did very little to broaden awareness. Though it hardly matters anymore I will speak up where they have failed to do so:

Waitlings was founded in 1919 but only rose to cultural significance in 1966 when the ailing business was taken over and extensively modernised by the New York Impressionist painter - Michael Naylor -a proponent of the Colour Field school who had turned his back on the American art scene and relocated to London (recognising the value of an established brand he kept the name).  Naylor, who was a keen interior designer, was known for decorating interior walls with swirls of colour whose visible brushstrokes created a low impact impasto. The overall effect of this method is to lend the impression that the boundaries of a room are still in the process of coalescing into a solid form. I recall being invited to a party at Naylor’s home in Dagenham where the pale blue and white walls of his lounge recalled, in abstract, the formation of low cloud on a spring day.

It is, at this point, that I must confess a personal attachment to Waitlings. I worked in the factory briefly, following the completion of a fine art degree at Goldsmiths, prior to obtaining a more lucrative position as a commercial artist for Porter & Beel.  I was installed in that part of the building in which new tones were developed  – a department whose hiring remit was to employ those who had seen the colours of life. Henceforth, I found myself sharing a crowded workspace with a diverse and argumentative repertoire of slumming aristocrats, former soldiers, criminals (both reformed and practicing), immigrants from far-flung corners of the world, housewives and grandmothers, aspiring writers, budding artists and down on their luck musicians. 

Great emphasis was placed on the inspiration behind  each new tone, which required justification by means of a detailed personal biography describing its origins. When it came to naming a new colour no indication was to be given of its shade. Instead it was to be described to the public in the form of a short sentence that reflected its mood and emotional roots.  

My sole achievement during a seven week tenure at Waitlings was a dusky shade of lilac that I christened “Helena’s dress at twilight” – as a tribute to my girlfriend who I was very much in love with and hoped to marry. A few years after we separated I read in the paper that, while wearing an unsuitable pair of high heels, she had tumbled from the open stairwell of a London bus and fatally cracked her head open on the curb of Shaftsbury Avenue. (I  have been unexpectedly re-acquainted with this tragedy twice since I first read of it: Once when, by some disquieting twist of fate, I stumbled drunkenly into the bedroom of a girl who I had become acquainted with only a few hours earlier, to find the walls decorated in the same colour that I had conceived one evening in the Summer of 1970. The second time, via a grainy, black and white press-cutting depicting a member of the Saint John’s Ambulance brigade cradling Helena’s bloodied curls, while surround by a small crowd of onlookers.)   

The colours developed at Waitlings (or in the parlance of the company – “Visualised”) were exhibited as 6x3 foot rectangles, painted directly onto the whitewashed interior walls of the factory. A broad corridor, lined with filing cabinets, on the third floor archived the precious documentation relating to the inspiration for each new tone. We had hoped that this data might play an instrumental role in the proposed Waitlings Museum of Art. To that end we had begun to copy the paperwork with a view to displaying it next to each paint swatch. It seems that this was a naively optimistic pre-emptive gesture on our parts. The factory will certainly be demolished over the coming weeks. The mural of recurring rectangles, whose obscure and poetic variations on the conventional colour palette stands as an abstract representation of the personal history of the Waitlings’ workforce, will soon be lost forever.

* Surely the point of this hastily conceived and covertly orchestrated action was to grant Mrs Frost and her cronies the element of surprise and allow the bulldozers time to move in before the protesters mobilised.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

A Rampant Reel

For the last 17 years of his life my grandfather worked at the Engelshoven Distillery, whose derelict shell can still be spotted, coarsely veiled by a half-kilometre of straggly hedgerow, just outside Nijmegen, on the road to Kleve. 

The whiskeys produced here were aged in natural indoor ponds, bedded with oak timbers. Every January, when the old logs were removed and burned, the employees would gather around the bonfires; each man or woman swallowed-up by an inner narrative that was informed partly by the potent fumes and partly by the peculiarly animated flames. 

The workers were encouraged by the distillery management to record for posterity their spontaneously conceived fictions that straddled the boundary between fever dreams and hallucinations. These were transcribed by the secretarial pool and eventually complied into an anthology that captured the imagination of the Dutch public and went on to become a best-seller across northern Europe, with subsequent volumes selling in progressively diminishing quantities.   

The stories that appear in this blog have been reproduced with the kind permission of Engleshoven PLC.

A Rampant Reel (by Derek Irwin)

The phrase “and they danced a rampant reel” appears, with the regularity of a sunrise, towards the end of each slender volume in an infinite library of romantic novels, penned by one Iris Laing. Laing’s fictional world, twice removed from the 20th century, is the province of highwaymen, dashing naval officers, and Lords who marry milkmaids and other symbols of the unwashed peasantry with such frequency that it is a wonder that the boundaries of class still endure. I suppose the overlying message the author wishes to impart to her readers is that there is no obstacle, be it physical or cultural, that cannot be overcome by love. 

The expression “a rampant reel” was intended as a chaste euphemism for coitus, although in my early youth, prior to my initiation into the poet’s shadow world of allusion and metaphor, I took it at face value. Having grown up in a village 40 miles from Dublin where communal singing was a commonplace evening activity and where there were often dances at the weekend, it seemed plausible to me that a newly minted couple might choose to celebrate a union forged from an arduous  succession of misunderstandings, fraught peril, enforced separation and contrived happenstance, with the catharsis of a spirited dance. My parents who were keen to avoid an embarrassing conversation that elaborated on the minutiae of the sexual act were more than willing to entertain my theory. 

The alliterative force of the “Rampant Reel” took root in my imagination. By a subconscious process of linear thought I conceived of an identically-named fishing apparatus, fashioned from a yoyo. In my daydreams I would skim this across the surface of Chalkie’s Pond, drawing forth from the murky depths one of the large pike who, mistaking the ripples for the passage of a frog or a small bird, would rise to swallow the bait only to be yanked from the waters by my well-timed backspin. In my more brazen fantasies I imagined that I possessed the skill to make my reel imitate the struggle of different species of animals, thereby enticing a more diverse array of quarry to my lure.  

The fantasy of the Rampant Reel took seed in the spring of 1948 and continued into Autumn, at which point the persistence of the idea at last forced itself into reality. On a shopping expedition into Dublin I took advantage of a deviation into Maximillian’s Ironmongers and convinced my mother to purchase for me one of the yoyos from a flimsy cardboard box on the counter. 

It was a poorly made toy, mass produced from an unnamed silver-coloured alloy that showed signs of tarnishing. The absence of any significant weight left it unbalanced and prone to veering to the right or left of a stable axis, generating a wobble that would rapidly escalate to a point where the yoyo was no longer able to ascend its string. In my father’s tool shed I painted the words “Rampant Reel” on both hemispheres  - an action that raised eyebrows among those who were familiar with the work of Laing, among them Father Cullen, who attempted unsuccessfully to remove it from my possession. Had he done so he would have disposed of it as he did with all confiscated items, throwing it with unerring accuracy onto an inaccessible wooden ledge 30 feet up the inner wall of the bell-tower of Saint Luke’s. 

One Sunday morning after church I cast my Rampant Reel across the still waters of Chalkie’s Pond. There was a moment before it inevitably sank, where it lay almost flat on one side as if indecisively measuring its weight against the density of the fluid that cushioned it. Almost immediately I felt a strong tug that drew the loop of string around my index finger painfully tight, while at the same time very nearly pulling me off my feet. As I attempted to free my trapped digit from the shrinking noose I perceived in the pond, in the vicinity of a buttress of Wading Elms, a disturbance which I took to be evidence of some Piscean struggle unfolding just below the surface. Seconds later I felt the line slacken. With a heavy heart I withdrew from below the waterline the severed chord, trailing through the duckweed like an injured snake.  

Monday, 2 January 2012

Djinn Quilt

For the last 17 years of his life my grandfather worked at the Engelshoven Distillery, whose derelict shell can still be spotted, coarsely veiled by a half-kilometre of straggly hedgerow, just outside Nijmegen, on the road to Kleve. 

The whiskeys produced here were aged in natural indoor ponds, bedded with oak timbers. Every January, when the old logs were removed and burned, the employees would gather around the bonfires; each man or woman swallowed-up by an inner narrative that was informed partly by the potent fumes and partly by the peculiarly animated flames. 

The workers were encouraged by the distillery management to record for posterity their spontaneously conceived fictions that straddled the boundary between fever dreams and hallucinations. These were transcribed by the secretarial pool and eventually complied into an anthology that captured the imagination of the Dutch public and went on to become a best-seller across northern Europe, with subsequent volumes selling in progressively diminishing quantities.   

The stories that appear in this blog have been reproduced with the kind permission of Engleshoven PLC.

Djinn Quilt (by Saskia Lammers)

In my youth I visited a town whose name translated from Arabic is ‘The Flower that Swallows the Desert.’ At present it lies in Oman, yet resides within the disputed territory between that country and the borders of The Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and so at moments in history has belonged to all of these nations, and to others whose names have vanished into antiquity, and which are seldom spoken outside the mumbling circles of scholars and theologians.  

The town falls along the migration pathway of a great many species of birds who leave its buildings spattered in droppings that exude a pungent odour. When the rains come in late summer, the seedpods mired in the dried on excreta  crack open; fine roots find purchase in the sheer mud-brick walls and the town erupts into a fragrant oasis. The wooden trellises that, for 11 months of the year, cap the roofs like barren church steeples, are engulfed by the rising tendrils of climbing roses. Within a few days the buildings appear to have gained ten feet in height. The thin curved thorns that guard the slender branches of these creepers are harvested and employed as needles in the weaving of djinn quilts, which are said to protect resting desert travellers from the attentions of demons and evil spirits.

The town is equally famed as the last known habitat of Poplin’s Moth, which is the size of a small owl and is known to attack men and livestock. For centuries its narcotizing venom, administered with brushstrokes from a pair of broadly feathered antennae, and absorbed by the nervous system through the skin, has been employed as a sleep draft. It is now used in hospitals as a surgical anaesthetic.

Another noted resident of the town is the Catbird – more widely known as the Giant Arabian Sparrow which is easily domesticated and can be trained to catch mice.

I arrived in that emerald of the desert by shared taxi, in the moist fug of a humid August afternoon. Then one morning, a week later, opened the shutters of my room to a blast of arid heat and saw the town wither before my eyes, shrinking once more back into the dry dust.