Ten Rows of Teeth

“Characters you’ve created occasionally stop by to say hello, or try to hunt you down and eat you.” – Steven Hall


I sat in bed the other night, sipping a bottle of Nongfu Spring and reading over some old journals from my Vancouver days. Although I enjoyed that time in my life: sipping craft beer, strolling along the beach and exchanging ridiculously literal small talk with Canucks, I don’t actually miss Vancouver that much. Most of the travellers that I met there lamented the fact that they had moved to Canada to get on with their life but had just found themselves in the same dull routine they’d been trying to flee from: minimum wage jobs, drinking in the same bars, going to the movies to escape the crippling spiritual emptiness. It’s a lovely, beautiful city (albeit one punctured with many needle marks), it just never felt like home to me.

One of my favourite contemporary novels is The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall, a slipstream narrative that puts a fairly original spin on the old cliché about someone waking up with no memory of who they were the day before. The only clues that the protagonist has about his life are a breadcrumb trail of notes and packages that arrive, claiming to be from his past self, explaining that a predatory ‘conceptual fish’ has devoured his memories.

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In one of my journal entries, I wondered what would happen if I had woken up sans memories like the hero of RST (or Memento or Dark City or a dozen other stories); how would I feel about the guy from my past who writes down these little life notes? Would I like him? Would I understand his thought processes? What would I deduce about him just from the many pen scratches that he’s left behind in various colorful notebooks from hutong bookstores?

Well, the first thing I’d probably notice is that he complains a lot. Secondly, that he’s pretty bloody keen on writing. He’s lazy and procrastinatory, swimming in a sea of neuroses, but he enjoys life and makes quite a lot of strides towards his goals, sometimes doing breast stroke, sometimes doggy paddle. I don’t know what Amnesia Me would make of all this, but I kind of like the guy.

There was one thing I quite enjoyed about the lackluster TV adaptation of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 (and it is certainly not the way the date is written, nor is it the lead performance by People’s Choice nominee and surely-at-least-a-little-dead-inside James Franco). It was that whenever time traveller and very occasional actor James Franco tries to change anything in the past (usually with a sort of Shatner-esque dramatic flailing that many Americans often mistake for performance art), the past pushes back against him. Every time he tries to change something in the sixties, he is nearly run over or set on fire or shouted at*.

There’s one scene, if I remember correctly, where Empire-Award-nominated polymath James Franco is driving through the streets of Dallas searching for a lone gunman in a book depository,** shouting at no one in particular “We gotta be prepared, man! We’re going up against… The Past!” Then, BAM. Flat tire.

If I am ever likely to be assassinated, and somebody finds a magic cupboard that will send someone back with three years to adequately plan and execute a brilliant rescue attempt, please do not send the guy who failed to kill Tobey Maguire on three occasions.

In that Star Trek film I watched recently, the one when I had no voice but was still trying to swear at the telly for showing me a really long widescreen nineties TV episode about silly foreheads, the bad guy describes time as “the fire in which we all burn”.

Is the past really some kind of predator? One that swims around waiting to bite or burst into flames and ruin the day of Captain Picard or multiple-MTV-movie-award-nominee James Franco?

To be honest, I find the little packages from my past self kind of liberating. It’s fun to see what has changed in the year or almost-year since these journal entries, and what has stayed the same. It’s fun to see journeys taken and not taken, little predictions proven right or wrong. Hobos and junkies encountered and written about.

Maybe the past, or time in general, is against us or downright out to get us. But I rather doubt that it actually gives a shit about us. And I doubt we should give much of a shit about it. Except to occasionally read about it, see what we can learn from it, and then go shark hunting with a harpoon made of words.

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*Admittedly, the past doesn’t do all that much when he starts boning a Hitchcock blonde old enough to be his grandmother, but whatever.

**(this is a fantasy story after all)

There is Nothing For You at Huagong Station

“Please stand firm and hold the handrail.”


Slightly anxious about the forthcoming U.K. general election (mainly because the only thing most British people are good at is making stupid decisions really loudly), I hopped onto a rented bicycle and tried to out-pedal my woes. I had, as usual, no idea where I was going.

I rode out past Happy Valley subway station, following Line 7 for twenty minutes or so, through muddy puddles and past huge cement trucks that trundled towards me from the opposite direction. My journey along this part of the line was abruptly cut short. A huge blue fence blocked further access in every direction except the one I’d just travelled in. The only escape was Huagong metro station, and even that lay concealed within a stretch of blue Labyrinth.

A mysterious man in a deck chair marked the entrance. Whether he was paid to be there* or simply enjoys sitting in the rain outside fenced off subway stations remains unclear. He didn’t smile. When I made it into the bowels of the station, I found I was Huagong’s only customer (perhaps its only customer ever). You know those seventies movies where a white guy walks into some ‘ethnic’ bar and the music stops while all of the patrons turn in shock and anger. That’s pretty much what happened on this wet, grey day in the Jing.

The cleaner, an ancient Mervyn Peake character who had been dutifully polishing ticket barriers that no human would ever pass through, nearly dropped his cloth as he stared at me the entire time I was there. I expected him to start pointing, letting out an unearthly screech like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Seriously, the first and last thing I saw at Huagong was this dude’s uncomprehending bald head as he stood in exactly the same position, mouth open, damp rag hanging limply from his hand.

The only other people at the station were two security officers, one male, one female. Both wore expressions that said “wtf is this man doing in Huagong?”

With the knowledge and freedom of a man just passing through, and the optimism of one who hopes never to return, I took one last look at the station, said a silent and emotional farewell, and boarded the train for Hufangqiao.


*(Possibly by David Lynch or the ghost of Federico Fellini)

Seoul Searching

“Passengers for Incheon International Airport please use the train for Incheon Internationl Airport.”


I didn’t go to Seoul just to ‘look for my voice’ (see previous entry). I had arranged a trip anyway, it was just shitty timing that I had to arrive without being able to say anything. I shouldn’t really have gone travelling while I was so run-down, sounding like Jack Palance, but the flight was only an-hour-and-a-half.

The directions to the guesthouse weren’t quite up to snuff, I got lost on the subway and in the local area before asking some Korean hipsters for assistance. Let’s be honest though, getting lost was something I had a pretty good chance of doing even without a fuzzy frame of mind.

I climbed straight into a rickety bunk and fell asleep for three hours, briefly considering spending my whole trip there. In the evening I had something to eat and some more Chinese pills before exploring the part of the city that I’d already lost myself in. After a hot shower I was soon fast asleep again.

The following day, feeling quite a bit better, I wandered the streets of Gangnam*, visiting the packed Buddhist temple at Bonguensa and then the packed capitalist temple at the Coex centre, largest underground mall in Korea. I checked out the Coex Aquarium, where I saw 150 different species of shark (every single one of which freaked me the hell out).

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The nearby SM Town turned out to be a media museum devoted to the sort of pretty boy K-pop sensations that the gf and her friends are always gushing about. I became trapped in this candy floss dystopia until I could find somewhere to break into a 50,000 Won note for subway change. I can recommend the passionfruit ginger ale at the SM café for those with a sore throat.

What was left of my evening was spent eating sandwiches and planning the return journey. As always, I wish I could have seen more. But, as always, I was travelling on the cheap.


*(of ‘Style’ fame)

Voice & Echoes

“A wise man once said nothing.”


I lost my voice.

Maybe it was walking Line 7 in the rain (see previous entry), the peaks and troughs of Beijing weather leaving me vulnerable to the organic equivalent of ransomware.

Thing is, I like my voice. Whether I’m a writer or a drama teacher, my voice is my living.

Several years ago, when I first went searching for my writing voice, I did what everyone who’s looking for something is supposed to do: I armed myself with the right ammunition. I sought out allies. I looked for mentors. I sat with gurus. I went to readings of authors that I liked, and asked them how they got started.

For whatever reason, I found myself spending a lot of time in Soho, London. First at the bar of an art house cinema, outlining an urban fantasy project for an aspiring transmedia producer. Then at the Groucho Club and the BAFTA building, always at someone else’s expense (sometimes the transmedia producer; sometimes the writer Geoff Thompson, who became an early supporter. He told me to keep shouting at the cave walls and to follow whichever path offered the most echo).

This time I searched elsewhere. I dosed up on Chinese medicine. I shut the hell up as much as I could, speaking only during a Star Trek movie to explain raspily to the gf: Firstly, that a man was blowing up stars in order to redirect the gateway to a land of happiness. Secondly, that I had no idea why I was watching it; Thirdly, that it was indeed perfectly fine to turn it off and go for hot pot.

I polished up a spec script to send it to the producers of a Glaswegian web series.

Then I packed a bag and went to Korea for a few days.

I Walk The Line

“The fruits of idleness are more precious than the fruits of labour.” – Walter Benjamin


Some of my days in the Jing are (deliberately or otherwise) busy and exciting. Others are more like yesterday and today.

It rained like Vancouver the other night. Happy Valley, for whatever reason, suddenly burst to life and is currently full of sounds. A  traditional funeral procession passed through the puddles underneath my apartment building. I was woken this morning by a man shouting Mandarin numbers into a megaphone for reasons that elude me as usual. There’s a lot of music coming from the nearby park.

Yesterday I decided that I didn’t want to spend all of my downtime watching two short seasons of Eighties telly, so I set off (collar up against the elements) with the original intention of investigating what lies at the end of Line 4. I don’t know what there is at Biomedical Base subway station, but the name implies some real Resident Evil shit.

I dismissed a trip there as just too damned far in such shitty weather, so I ended up at some hipster joint outside Hufanqiao: a place that did nothing to dispel the Vancouver feeling.

I treeked through the drizzle along a fair chunk of Line 7 (my own back yard in Beijing terms). I saw bugger all. Absolutely sweet Football Assosciation. I think there was a 7-11 at one point, that was about it.

I basically did nothing all day, which can be a wonderful thing to do. It again reminded me of my Vancouver days, just walking and sipping coffees and wondering when the gf was going to get out of bed (this time without a time difference between us, she’s just lazy!)

Today is no more exciting. We’ve got the plumber in, which will hopefully go better than last time.* I’ve got to change some money at the bank and do other grown-up sort of things. I’ll probably have another coffee at some point.

I find it all quietly blissful… Apart from the megaphone, of course.


*See: https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2015/10/08/lost-in-google-translation/

Twenty Minutes into the Future

“Coming to you live and direct…”


Inspired by my recent virtual reality trip, I began a search for some decent science fiction and/or fantasy movies to watch; a search that almost instantly reached a nadir. I looked fruitlessly for David Cronenberg films on Chinese Netflix. I watched The Signal, a story that basically ‘borrowed’ from earlier (mostly nineties) sf movies, complete with Laurence Fishburne and plot-twist-you-saw-coming-from-at-least-as-far-back-as-1998. I then, with the deep sigh of someone who’d pretty much given up on life, watched Ghost Rider, a 120-minute phone call from the late Nicolas Cage. Yes, I’m aware that he’s not clinically dead.

Re-evaluating my life (and the life of science fiction cinema), I finally stumbled upon episodes of the 1980s cyberpunk series Max Headroom.

a few years ago, after shooting my final student film,* I turned to scriptwriting. For several intense months, I decided I’d be best suited to the kind of existence of that mad shut-in from Twin Peaks: the guy who just grows orchids and takes notes on other people’s lives and shouts at the people outside his constantly knocking door. Writing, despite the wisecracks and backbiting that I’m sure every would-be creative gets, became my full time job.

I spent my spare time watching and researching episodes of pretty much every science fiction and fantasy show I ever enjoyed as a kid, from nineties classics like Buffy and X Files to sixties oddities like Thunderbirds and The Avengers (McNee, not Marvel). I watched almost all of Star Trek: The Next Generation and far too much of eighties Doctor Who. I even sat through the inaugural episodes of Power Rangers, Reboot, Samurai Pizza Cats, and that really weird show where Ron Perlman lives in the sewer because Linda Hamilton won’t go out with him. I did, however, stay absolutely the hell away from both Space Precinct and Bill Shatner’s Tek War.

This was not idle viewing; this wasn’t even pleasurable. I took notes. I paid attention to each writing credit and I looked into each writer as much as I could, to see how they got started in scriptwriting. Some of these individual episodes stood the test of time. Others were about Japanese cats who delivered pizza.

It was a strange time.

Somehow Max Headroom passed me by. Set in a dystopian future ruled by television networks, the series is a spin-off of Channel Four’s bonkers chat show about celebrities being interviewed by a floating head (supposedly computer generated, but actually just a Canadian in a rubber mask).

I’ve seen enough TV to know that the original Channel Four pilot film is good. It’s shot by music video directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (who went on to make that awful ‘dark fairytale’ movie of Super Mario Bros**, but let’s not hold that against them). The pilot is good enough that it actually approaches brilliance in places: A smoky, neo noir vision of the very near future, a shoestring eighties Carpenter or Gilliam or maybe even Ridley Scott, brilliantly filmic (ironic for a story that revolves around a stolen and hella futuristic Betamax tape). Compared to the sort of garishly lit and costumed capering that Colin Baker was up to on the other channel at that time, this is almost modern art!

The always enjoyable American-born, Canadian-raised and British-trained Matt Frewer plays crusading journalist Edison Carter, determined to expose the secrets and lies of the oppressive networks, including a cover-up of the fact that a batch of new 3-second advertisements are so hyper-intense that they cause certain viewers to spontaneously combust! After an accident that his employers are keen to hush up, a computer whiz kid creates (for reasons that just about make sense) a computer generated version of Edison Carter’s head. This glitchy, sarcastic programme goes rogue and becomes the eponymous Max, named after the last thing that Carter saw before he lost consciousness: a barrier sign in a car park.

Edison’s British companion is played by Amanda Pays. The name may not be recognizable, but the face and hairdo may well be. She played Token British Girlfriend in a bunch of late eighties and early nineties stuff, having the great fortune of portraying Fox Mulder’s fawning, kinky, poorly-written ex crumpet in a mercifully brief X Files gig. You remember? The one who used to chortle haughtily over a strong cup of tea, say things like ‘naughty bugger’ and wistfully recall humping Duchovny atop Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s grave (presumably while he was turning in it). In fairness to Ms. Pays, her patchy performances are mostly down to other people’s piss poor writing.*** She would almost certainly be able to act her way out of a paper bag, assuming that the exit was clearly marked and someone had poked an Amanda Pays sized hole in it.

Two episodes in, the series (actually British, although it was shot specifically for an overseas audience) is about half as good as the film. Gone is the swearing, gore, Pythonesque humour, male nudity and pretty much all subtlety, presumably because American audiences don’t care for that sort of thing. There are nicer leather jackets and haircuts for the now-American cast, some poorly choreographed action sequences, a handful of racist and sexist jokes, and some intriguing near-future mullets. It’s watchable enough, but not quite the grounbreaking stuff I was hoping for.

Like a lot of sci-fi, this series is not only very slightly ahead of its time, it’s totally of its time: This is early MTV stuff. Shit couldn’t be more eighties if Cories Haim and Feldman turned up with a brick phone snorting a line of New Coke.

But, speaking as a dude sitting in a hazy neon metropolis at a time that a big American head is tweeting absolute gibberish, it’s kind of hard not to laugh.


*Tired of expending all of my energy trying to explain to teenage emos that no, picking up the wire that they’d left dangling in shot was not that difficult and yes, it actually did, cinematically, make quite a difference.

**A film that my Facebook friends will crucify me for taking a massive piss on, probably because they haven’t seen it since 1992. Seriously, I have shit out better mushroom kingdoms after a night of Yunnan hotpot!

***Has that X Files guy even been to England?

Driffield’s Bookcase (an Epilogue to The Anatomy of Melancholy)

“Never confuse where you are with where you are going.”

-Emir Manheim


In the past, when I’ve felt blue/down/angry, people’s always-helpful-and-never-knowingly-unappreciated advice has often extended to phrases like “try not to think about it” or “hmm, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned here”, or even “I’d keep those sort of opinions to yourself if I were you!”

More often than not, the people who actually cheer me up are people I’ve never met, sometimes people who’ve been dead for years: poets, writers, philosophers, artists.

My recent quest to detox from most of the human race through other people’s multimedia art proved fruitful. The world may still be the planetary equivalent of a reasonably amusing hobo who approaches you and mumbles some crazy shit that makes you chuckle, only to pull out a rusty hunting knife and go straight for the gonads, but maybe it’s always been that way.

A long time ago, the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates found himself standing in the sunny garden of his friend Democritus, the ‘laughing philosopher’. Something like the following scene unfolded:

FADE IN.

EXT. THRACIAN SUBURBS, 3RD CENTURY BCE – DAY

Hippocrates (tall, bearded, father-of-modern-medicine type) stands in a sunny Greek garden. His face suddenly turns sour as he sniffs the air suspiciously.

HIPPOCRATES (with distaste)
Hmm. Smells like entrails around here!

Following the intestinal scent, Hippocrates finds his friend sitting beneath a huge tree. Democritus (fat, pre-Socratic, father-of-atomic theory looking), has an open book in his nude lap and a big dopey Joker grin on his face. Strewn about him on the ground are the corpses of at least a dozen household animals.

HIPPOCRATES
Wtf, Democritus! Why do you sit naked under a shady bower, surrounded by the carcasses of many and several beasts? Do you hold these creatures in contempt or something, fam?

DEMOCRITUS
Nah, bro. I is doing science, innit. This book upon my knee is my own work. I am writing on madness and anatomy and that. I have anatomized these animals, all of which are dear to me, in order that my writings and researches may lead other men to avoid sitting upon the throne of atra bilis, known in English as melancholy.

HIPPOCRATES
I know what atra bilis is mate, for I am Greek also. But what is to be done about the smell, broheim?

FADE TO WHITE.

Flash forward a couple of epochs. Two score centuries, give or take.

1631. An English scholar by the name of Robert Burton, writing under the questionable (and possibly not-so-serious) pseudonym ‘Democritus Junior’ incorporates his own version of Hippocrates’s anecdote into what would become his only published work, a dense medical text on melancholy. Burton was an obsessive re-writer of his own work, and no less than five revisions of the book were published in his lifetime alone.

The text is described in the beginning (by a possibly unreliable source) as “A book once the favourite of the learned and the witty”, “the delight of the learned, the solace of the indolent, and the refuge of the uninformed”, which sounds like something quite a lot of people here in the 21st century should be reading.

Samuel Johnson supposedly once said that Burton’s work “was the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise.”*

By all accounts, Burton was quite the pleasant chap. A voracious reader. A devoted student of the world with a dark sense of humour. “Very merry, facete, and juvenile”, “the pleasantest, the most learned, and the most full of sterling sense.”

Anyone who has the word ‘learned’ attached to him that many times must be worth a read, surely?

FADE TO WHITE.

Let’s crash through another few centuries:

EXT. WEST PENDER STREET, VANCOUVER, CANADA – DAY

Benjamin (scrucify, clumsy, introverted but undeniably sexually attractive kind of guy) walks through the rain clutching an umbrella. He is at a point exactly equidistant from a secondhand bookshop and a little café run by a woman from Shanghai who makes excellent eggs Benedict.

BENJAMIN (inner monologue)
I swear, after going book shopping in Vancouver, that I will never complain about the price of paperbacks in Beijing ever again! Perhaps I’ll go to the library and see if they have anything by Alan Moore or Iain Sinclair.

CUT TO:

I walk in to pick up a hold in the Vancouver Public Library.** The book is London: City of Disappearances, a sprawling multi-author fusion of fact and fiction about England’s swinging capital.

One of the book’s ‘characters’ is the enigmatic bookseller Driffield, who spends his time sipping jet black coffees, loafing about in salmon pink jumpers and gathering research for his self-published guides to All The Secondhand and Antiquarian Bookshops in Britain; he tries to make money by renting himself out to writers as a character in their fictional stories. On one of Driff’s many bookcases sits a 17th Century medical textbook, which is where I first become aware of Robert Burton’s 2000 page tome The Anatomy of Melancholy: What it is; With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Medicinally, Historically, Opened and Cut Up. I clearly file it away somewhere in my brain in case the world becomes so depressing that I’ll want to steal any part of the catchy title for a blog project.

Ironically, for a book that he wrote mostly to relieve his own melancholy, the textbook apparently increased Burton’s malady to such a degree that he never recovered.

A similar fate may well have befallen the by-now-at-least-semi-fictional Driffield. Nobody is even sure of his current whereabouts, although rumours of his death may have been started by the mysterious book dealer himself.

FADE TO WHITE.

Onwards, further into the future:

INT. ANLILU SUBWAY STATION, BEIJING, CHINA – DAY

I hop onto Line 15 one chilly December evening, chatting to an interesting fella who was with the circus for ten years, and is now – after a decade of juggling and death defying stunts – ready to run away to Medical School. He’s now clowning around as a drama teacher, waiting for his scholarship to come through, studying Chinese medicine in his spare time. This guy is already a veritable fount of knowledge after pretty much teaching himself anatomy and physiology. I’m telling him about the time I myself wanted to run away from the circus of my life and join BBC medical dramas. As he talks about nerve endings and skin cells, and I talk about that red-headed surgeon from Holby City, something in the back of my mind reminds me that I still haven’t read any Robert Burton.

CUT TO:

Several months later. After visiting a couple of art galleries, having distilled the story of my day into a 3000 word mess on art and Batman, I forget to put a paperback of Lady Chatterley’s Lover into my rucksack. Dashing towards the subway as usual, I can’t bear the thought of a commute without a piece of literature, so I open my iBooks app and load up the Project Gutenberg version of The Anatomy of Melancholy.

By the time I have reached my destination, I’ve read nearly 50 pages. A few days later, as I write this, I have read nearly 200.

I’m only on chapter 2.

FADE OUT.


*Although he also stated that it was “perhaps, overloaded with quotation”, which I can now confirm is very much the fucking case! And so much Latin. Remember that anecdote about Walt Disney rejecting Aldous Huxley’s screenplay for Alice in Wonderland because he only understood every fourth word? Here uncle Walt would be clueless.

**In Canadian libraries, a book reservation is called a ‘hold’, presumably because the word ‘reservation’ was already in use for the awful stuff that the early settlers were doing to native Americans.