A Touch of Silk

“Oh, you come back again, right?”

“Uh, yeah. Unintentionally.”


 

I believe in the power of signs. If I see something, anything really, that I feel could be interpreted as a sign or portent leading me somewhere, I tend to follow it. I’m aware that it’s a dubious practice. Life is a random series of uncontrollable events, and some have accused me of outright insanity for trying to impose a narrative structure on anything as chaotic as my own human life. Nevertheless, when I saw a (very literal) sign that said:

“GO TO SILK STREET”

I thought, “Sure, why the hell not.”

Back in my salad days of substance abuse and Bacchinalian excess, I used to hang out with a brilliant but troubled young poet. We used to chat pseudo-philosophy, exchange pub physics Judo moves, read work to each other; all that sort of rakish, no-homo, lower middle class kind of stuff. I’ve still no idea if I was Dante to his Virgil or if it was the other way round, but either way the  seven circles of Northampton’s Abington Street was pretty much our oyster. We were often greeted at the Penny Whistle with a weak grin and a “You guys, again?”

One night we visited a strip club. My poet friend correctly pointed out that every bloke should visit a strip club at least once so they can have at least an inkling of what it’s like to be constantly harassed by attractive women who just want your money but won’t actually stoop to petty theft. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was a perfect training ground for Beijing’s legendary Silk Street market.

Everyone here speaks a single, perfectly-rehearsed sentence of  English. Like doe-eyed, heavily accented automata programmed to say things like “Hi, you want suit?” or “Hey, you really want tablecloth, right?” or, in the case of one poor bastard in a toy shop whose job seems to be sitting behind a spinning, whirring neon something for who knows how many hours a day, “Hello… uh… UFO?”

If Daedalus, master craftsman of the ancient world, had fallen through a tear in the space/time continuum and found himself in modern China, perhaps he would have been set the task of designing this place (possibly with the devious assistance of HH Holmes), before being exiled to a little tea shop somewhere deep inside.

The entrance itself warns of the labyrinthine horrors within, like the psychic barriers of Cirith Ungol: A  Hall of Fame displaying huge photos of Christine LeGarde, George H.W. Bush (who’s face appears spattered with a mysterious creamy white substance), and other people described simply as ‘Celebrated Businessman’ or ‘Formerly Estonia First Lady’. Whether these people ever solved the unicursal mystery and lived to tell the tale is undocumented, but I would not be surprised to find a spend Belgian ex-Prime Minister quietly touting Mao t-shirts somewhere inside.

A display case promising ‘High Quality Goods’ stands tellingly empty. This is a Kafka story. An Escher painting. A Quay Brothers film. One of those Christopher Priest novels where the geography just doesn’t add up.

I lasted twenty minutes before confessing all of my earthly sins to a complete stranger, pulling the ripcord on my wax wings and riding the thermals to the nearest coffee shop. I sat shivering over a very strong Americano at a table overlooking others entering Silk Street, soon to abandon all hope.

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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?