Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Matchstick Men

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Red Right Hand
He went into a rich bookseller's shop,
Quoth he! we are both of one college,
For I myself sate like a cormorant once
Fast by the tree of knowledge.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge - The Devil's Thoughts

L.S. Lowry* - 'Where the viaduct looms like a bird of doom.'


I took a little walk to the edge of town recently. I went across the tracks, inadvisably following in the wake of some unknown force. A ghost, a god, a man, a guru? I haven't been able to ascertain its nature, but I know that its influence is insidious and relentless, and that it's coming for you next. I didn't have to travel far, it should be noted - a couple of clicks and I found myself in a place of closed roads and broken pavements. I could hear you still, far above, travelling the high road. I could just about make out the sound of your traffic over that of the shifting, cracking viaduct of our daily commute.

As I set out to recount this short, fearful journey, I am torn between giving a truthful account or fictionalising the events I witnessed. I have decided to leave the matter open to your interpretation, and simply to preamble my tale with this warning: Any ficitionalisation you perceive is designed to protect you from a grimmer truth.

The first things I noticed there were humming wires channeling secret threats from living room to living room, and twitching net curtains in the windows. Groups of men stood around fires on street corners. They seemed to share their knowledge through codes I could not read. The words they spoke to me were polite, and their directions always truthful as I followed the spectre past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stacks - but their eyes spoke of mistrust, and the whispers behind my back all sounded like a name (His? Or this disappearing land's?).

Next I came to a forum where actors played upon a stage - comedy or tragedy, I could not tell, but it was clearly scripted. It involved lies and counter-lies, frightful premonitions and light-hearted shrugging, insinuations, innuendo and intolerance. The audience played their part. They were to make an important decision at the end, to choose their own adventure. Both options too, it seemed to me, were already scripted, and neither would offer a satisfactory resolution. I suspect they knew this, but the absence of self-respect is fertile ground for self-loathing and self-deception. The worst of the rhetoric wasn't on the stage but on the far edges of the gathered audience - unheard, unheeded heckling. New groups arrived and others left. I followed some away from this hateful scene, through the ghettos and the barrio and the bowery and the slum, in search of the mysterious shadow.

As I trailed them, I watched arguments and fights break out between some of these groups. It seemed odd to me that they should argue at all, let alone fight. It was clear they had already chosen their favoured outcome and were not to be convinced otherwise. I realised then that they too were scripted, as were their fights, rehearsed in nightmares, in dreams, in heads and on TV screens. Armed only with arguments half-heard from the stage play, which they aped with immaterial inaccuracies, embellishments, and changes of tone, they were as unlikely to be convincing as they were to be convinced. I saw no agency, only microscopic cogs in a catastrophic plan, and I pushed on to find the director and designer of this spectacle.

Finally, I came to the dreadful scene that made me turn back. A body lay in the road around which a crowd had formed. I saw some men hurl abuse at it. I saw others repeat the nonchalant shrug of one of the play's characters. I saw men accused of murder who could not have committed it, and one excused of it before the blood had dried on his hands. I saw men shirk all responsibility, and one man take it all, unafraid. I saw competing groups engage in a tug-of-war with the body until some of the stage actors arrived and reclaimed it as their own, a bit player who would now serve well as a prop. There were mourners too, but true grief is too quiet to make a wire hum.

In my mind, there could be no mistake then that the phantom I'd pursued was the Devil himself, whose darling sin is pride that apes humility. I tried to speak out, but every sound from my mouth drew only ire from all sides. I left, in fear for my safety. Such is that fear that I nearly remained silent altogether, but I have chosen to tell you this tale, teacher, because you and I are the light that went out, down there. Be he ghost, god, man or guru, our absence is what he preys upon, replacing hope with fear. If we allow the wholesale substitution of mimicry for acting and of action for narrative, of soliloquy for dialogue and of fame for talent, of homogeneity for diversity and of popularity for purpose in our classrooms, the parts we don't reach can only grow. They will grow in the shadows of the viaduct we built, until they bring it down.

I came back to tell you this, and found him busy at work on us too. There, upon the viaduct, a stage is erected, and actors come and go upon it proffering false choices. A small crowd has already gathered, cheering and jeering on cue. Will you join them, or will you come back with me, down there below the viaduct, just a couple of clicks away, to start helping those who are lost find their way back?


This Way Up: But faith! he'll turn a corner jinkin, / An' cheat you yet!** 

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* L.S. Lowry sketching Stockport Viaduct, from Wellington steps. Copyright: Crispin Eurich. Contact The First Gallery, 1 Burnham Chase, Bitterne, Southampton SO18 5DG Tel. (02380) 462723 email: Margery@TheFirstGallery.com.
** Address to the Devil, Robert Burns, http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/address-to-the-devil, accessed 21/06/16. 

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