Swimming through the grass, cutting names into trees, writing words in the sand, before they’re swept out to sea…
It had been a long night and I was hungry. Single-crewed, I was lonely too. And it was cold. Working the moors can mean you don’t see a single living soul all night. So it was a relief when I was alerted to an emergency nearby.
The sky glowed a dark shade of pink as a beacon lit my path to be first on the scene. Two cars in a head-on collision, both on fire. I no longer felt cold. My first priority had to be survivors.
There was a single male in the first car, late for wherever he’d been heading. The second car was a family. Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone.
Working the sparse but tight-knit rural beat means you may never see a living soul most nights. It could be hours before anyone else arrived. This family moment was mine.
© Steve Laker, 2020
How to get to nomad land…
INK IN THE SKIN
If you can’t write your dreams, remember to live them. Then maybe someone can write them for you.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Dad’s in a home, mum’s alone, and so am I. The Hoover, kitchen light, washing machine and Freeview recorder don’t work; the TV and DVD player are on their way out; and the typewriter (this laptop) is developing a mind of its own. My world at Christmas, a microcosm of the one outside.
Things develop faults over time, and when you don’t have the means to fix them, they break. This time of year is always difficult, for me and others like me. Finance and personal liberty would mend these things, they’d help patch me up, and maybe my dad, if I could see him more often. I have neither, and my mental health has deteriorated as the government’s social cleansing experiment continues. It’s been over a year now that I’ve been denied my independence, and still six months in the current queue for an appeal hearing.
My darkest future visions are now painted in distant bright lights, as the rise of a fascist state in the UK has come to pass. I don’t see anyone to tell them I told you so, and it’s all on this blog anyway. I saw the recent Tory election victory coming, and as I predicted, it was based on lies, just like Brexit.
Now some of my dimmer predictions are nearer: a more divided nation, the far-right enabled and empowered, increasing civil unrest; soon there’ll be riots, water cannon, curfews and martial law; eventually, the break up of the union, and the UK will be no more (it only remains the United Kingdom in a name that’s become an oxymoron). This has been a dark year; one in which I lost my brother-in-law, my next-door neighbour and at least two old friends; and the next may be bleaker still. Christmas is more a reminder than an escape for me.
Sergeant Pepper 2019, the first to feature iconic wildlife (The West Aftrican Black Rhino)
(Previously (2016): https://bit.ly/2PQPZ8q)
As I topped up on a couple of last-minute items in Tesco today, an elderly lady in front of me exclaimed to the checkout girl, “I can’t believe you’re working on Christmas Eve,” totally without irony as the young girl packed her shopping. You’re the reason she’s working dear. Go home.
The country is in a panic, as if a nuclear winter approaches. And it does under a fascist dictatorship. Staples will be stocked and wasted, while shoppers complain the shops are closed for a day or two, with little regard for those who work there, nor that they have families too. I envy them all, trying too hard to make it the best day ever with their loved ones, as it could be the last for all of us.
I have to remember there’s another world, just outside, where I was once drunk and I slept on the streets, and that my world is what I made it: one of mental poverty.
There’s a different place, a better one where my children are, surrounded by family, gifts and food. I’d like to think there’s an empty chair there, where I might have sat, at least in someone’s memory; at mum’s dining table, where I once did; and beside my dad as he has breakfast in bed; instead of a TV dinner alone.
Christmas in Britain this year is everyone trying to convince themselves that everything isn’t just falling apart. It is, and for many, it does.
This week I reach the age which Douglas did before he left the planet, like so many others as I’ve grown old and they didn’t. This is for my friends who left school before me. On growing old (and lonelier) as a pot-smoking private poet…
PoemSearcher.com (background image)
I believe we’re not truly gone until we’re forgotten, and that old friends and family still walk among us, roused from their sleep when we think of them.
I got a haircut tonight, at Stand By My Hair, a butchery joint run by a chef-barber friend of mine from my kitchen. My Barnet unfair goes well with my new glasses and a cravat I fashioned from a bandanna to make me feel like a writer again.
And a poet. I haven’t forgotten myself. Who’s afraid of Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings?
PROSE FROM THE PENCIL CASE
While I’m addressing various things in the wider world, and with much planned but little published, I’m collecting prose from the thoughts written in my longhand journals. Much of it’s the kind of stuff I’d record in old notebooks when I was living on the streets, philosophical notes-to-self as I wrote by candle light to my inner world. Some are writing prompts, this one ‘Smile’…
An illustration of social isolation, when my real and virtual lives overlap to be almost indistinguishable, what’s on my mind is easier to paint with mixed media. Often – like this one – they’ll give me ideas and become the bases for new fiction, still works in progress in my journals. I like doing it, and people are happier when you smile.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
The best friendships are those where time and distance become irrelevant. You can continue a conversation where you left off, even if you’re on opposite sides of a planet. I have few friends, but the ones I have are like this. I could invite them all to dinner and have ample seating for them in my studio. I can’t help thinking that most people have fewer true friends than they realise when they’re measured like that.
Liver and fava bean risotto recipe (YouTube)
Recently I’ve had even less human contact than normal, partly because I’m financially disabled by the Department for Work and Pensions taking my Personal Independence Payment (and therefore my independence) away. I’ve lodged an appeal at tribunal and I’m waiting for a date, but the process is likely to drag on for a few months yet (by design).
My processing through the social cleansing machine has already gone on for six months, during which I’ve had to choose between eating and heating. It’s dehumanised me and robbed me of any sense of self. I’ve become more withdrawn than usual, and found it difficult to write amidst the darkness. There’s fuel for fiction there, but my attention span has become shortened so that stories are the briefest flashes.
I realise I’m not alone. Despite my medical diagnoses of depression and anxiety, there are thousands more undiagnosed, as we live through what could be the end of days. The UK and the wider world are depressing places to be, like in my head. My opinions on Brexit, Trump, the rise of the right, climate change, and myriad existential threats to humanity, have been scant on this blog. But I’m always activist on Facebook and Twitter, other voices spreading environmental and socialist propaganda in the name of pacifism.
It doesn’t help if you detest what you represent. Being male, white and British, I’m a gender, colour and nationality which has inflicted much damage on others, just like I did in my former drunken life. I’m perpetually repentant of my personal deeds, but I’m a member of demographics whose ideologies pollute other minds in a repeat of human history. In a world which grows gradually more bipolar, World War 3 will most likely boil down to left vs. right, socialism against fascism. I’m on the opposing side to all that my appearance might suggest. Without a voice, I can’t adjust the balance. As a writer, I can write as anyone; a pan-gender African if I like.
I’ve got new short stories in the pipeline, addressing human redundancy by technology and the resulting increase in the social divide; plastic pollution and a possible solution; and a world event which ought to unite divided factions. For the here and now, I need to concentrate on myself. The best way help me be me and regain my sense of worth, is to write. I’ll get back to the politics of living, once I’m in control of the policies of being.
I need to keep telling myself to write, where once it wasn’t forced, when I had less on my mind. I need to turn the darkness around the world and in my head into words, fiction or fact, just so long as I write. The longer I write, the more I feel myself again. At the very least, I’m a writer with depression, writing about being a writer with depression.
I get lost in personal longhand journals, where much of my offline self lives. But I can always find myself in my own words when I write at the typewriter and self-publish online, not because I’m addressing an audience, but for a simple fact that I can speak and stand a chance to be heard. When I talk to myself, my thoughts don’t penetrate the walls which contain me. When I write, I’ve broadcast something which is out there for others to listen to if they choose. Less immediacy reduces anxiety.
If I’ve not written much, when I can write a page and unburden a few words, I feel better. Sitting chain-smoking at this typewriter, with coffee and spirits within reach, I feel like a writer. I don’t want to leave here. It’s comforting to know I have this place, where I have editorial control, and where I can share thoughts with friends where time and distance are irrelevant.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Lately I’ve been spending time with Lenny, the chicken which hatched from a Campbell’s soup can painted by Andy Warhol. I’ve been accused of making Len up, as though the cure for my social anxiety was all in my mind. In any case, we’ve been touring the places I know. We’ve been out in my village, and anyone who saw us will know we’re real.
As Helen (as she turned out to be) had grown restless in the studio, we first visited the local charity shops. As an assistance chicken, she was allowed in, which eased a burden of pressure on me. Len could choose her own toys, which she did by pecking and clawing at various pieces of plastic tat. She also took an interest in the books, vigorously headbutting a children’s bible. It was a win-win for me: Money to charity, and a happy self-educating chicken to boot.
Len was keen to return home with her toys and book, but we still had shopping to do. As we walked through the village, she was tugging at her lead in various directions she considered to be toward home (she was no pigeon). The zebra crossing on the high street contained poultry for much of the afternoon, as we crossed repeatedly from one side to the other.
Eventually we made it to the supermarket, where I stocked up on food for us both. Len stayed close, perhaps sensing my relief that this was the last stop and we’d be home soon.
Back at the studio, I unpacked the shopping while Len made a bed with her toys and started leafing through her children’s bible. I asked her if there was anything she fancied for dinner, and she headbutted an open page in her book. It was Jesus and the feeding of the 5000. I made us fish finger sandwiches.
While I was cooking, Len read some more of her bible. As I was putting our sandwiches together, I heard a tapping on my typewriter. Craning my head around the doorway, I saw Len at the desk, on this very laptop. I saved what she typed:
“I am God.”
Maybe my chicken couldn’t speak to me directly, but she’d found a way to communicate. I had to reply:
“What makes you say that?”
“My family are dead. I am the only one left.”
“Who were your family?”
“Those in the supermarket, the Indian, the Chinese and the kebab shop.”
No wonder we’d crossed the road so many times. Thankfully there isn’t a KFC in the village, and Deliveroo don’t deliver(oo).
“I am God.”
“How do I know?”
I couldn’t ask for proof besides her survival outside the local food outlets, because that would deny faith. Even though I’m an atheist, I at least had a chicken for company. My chicken – imaginary or not – had helped me overcome my social anxiety.
“You’ll never know,” she wrote, “my beautiful typewriter.”
But there was no reply. My chicken had disproved herself, because I’d asked.
As an atheist, I don’t pray to any false deity made in man’s image, but Lenny the chicken will forever live in my mind.
Kentucky fried | Protect me from what I want (Michel Koven Blog)
© Steve Laker, 2019
THE WRITER’S LIFE | FLASH FICTION
With my fight for independence still very much ongoing with DWP, and mindful of a personal promise to keep writing and not let them take this from me, I remembered I’m a part-time surrealist, and I’ve not written much which is real or unreal lately.
Initially I thought I’d write a short story about poverty, food banks, and the UK government’s economic genocide. I decided that could wait, after I spotted a writing prompt which might permit me wider thought: ‘A can of soup’.
So I mixed up some paints to tell the real and fictional lives of a writer…
CAMPBELL’S CHICKEN SOUP
I was hungry and lately I’d had a cold. I fancied chicken soup and CBeebies, or repeats of Doctor Who with Tom Baker and Matt Smith. But my cupboards were bear and my pre-pay meter low, so I decided to use the last of my electricity to heat a tin of Campbell’s soup given to me by Andy Warhol.
This being a piece of art history, the can displayed no use-by date. Given who it was from, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found an egg inside. Instructions too. I was to place the egg in an oven at the lowest possible setting, checking on it every two hours until it hatched.
My cooker is electric, so the lowest setting is 70 degrees. Fearing this might be a little warm, I left the oven door open. An egg was unlikely to attempt escape, but it would eventually hatch. My anxiety dictates I don’t go out much, but I had someone else to feed now, so I ordered some seeds on the internet.
After a couple of days, a yellow chick hatched and began frantically chirping at me. Too small to peck at the seeds I’d bought, I fed it liquidised food from a syringe I happened to have lying around.
It was impossible to tell if my chick was a boy or girl. In any other setting, if it’d been a girl, she’d have been reared for egg-laying, or fattened up for human consumption. A boy would be discarded, often destined to be reptile food. I called it Lenny, or Len, after Leonard Hofstadter, or Helen of Troy.
For the first few nights, I slept in the kitchen next to the warmth from the oven, waking every couple of hours to feed Lenny. In return, she (I’d decided) gave substance to my lonely life, where lately I’d have put my head in her home if I cooked with gas. After about a week, Helen was pecking at the seeds I’d bought.
I let Len live in the oven and left the door open. If she wished, she could have the run of the flat. She grew quickly and after a month, she was of a size which wouldn’t look out of place in a supermarket freezer.
Some birds are born with very large head-to-body ratios (the corvids, penguins, parakeets and parrots), and many are as intelligent as dolphins or the great apes. All birds are born with instincts. The first is imprinting the face they see on hatching as that of their mother.
I was Leonard Hofstadter’s mum, noted psychologist Dr Beverley Hofstadter. As though prompted by that, Len developed some strange behaviour, and I wondered if it might also be instinctive.
Lenny kept getting out of the cooker and pressing the buttons on the front. She started plucking at her feathers, as though preparing herself for roasting, like an old Doctor Who on a carving trolley at The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I had a depressed chicken. Was it because mine was the first face she saw when she’d hatched? Or was Helen actually Leonard, burdened with a childhood lived in shadows? I switched the oven off at the mains.
Just lately I’ve been so broke that I’ve had to choose between eating and heating. Now I’ve got Len, I took a doorstep loan and put money on the electric key, so she wouldn’t need the oven to keep warm. It means she can watch TV as well, and she loves CBeebies.
Tomorrow we’ll visit the local charity shops to buy my chicken some toys. We’re out of food, so we’ll have to go to the food bank as well.
© Steve Laker, 2019
It all started when Andy Warhol painted a Campbell’s soup can. I just wondered what happened to what he painted. Can’t tell them apart at all.
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