Pollution by Catherine Hennessey

I’m often asked when I started writing. But the important question is not when do writers start, but why.

My own reasons for writing, for setting down the story, are to a large extent selfish. With each story – and by story I mean anything I write – I am trying simply to work something out for myself. You, the reader, play no part here: this is a private matter.

I write about the things that trouble me. I write about the things that disturb me, the things that won’t let me alone, the things that are eating slowly into my brain at 3 in the morning, the things that unbalance my world. Sometimes these are things I’ve said or done; sometimes they’re things I’ve heard about or seen. Sometimes they’re only sentences, sometimes scenes, sometimes complete narratives. I carry these things around inside my head until I’m compelled to write them down to get rid of them. I sit down and begin.

I know where I’m going: I’m going toward that troubling moment, the unforgivable statement, the irreversible act that has been gnawing at me. That’s what’s coming at the end of the story, and my task is to write my way to that moment in a way that explains it completely to me. If I can set down these moments and make them whole within a context that explains the scene and characters whose behaviour I can forgive, then the moments become comprehensible to me. When I understand them, they lose their power to disturb. Then the anxieties subside and let me sleep. I really write to free myself.

Roxanna Robinson
If you invent the story, you’re the first to see how it ends
The New York Times 17th July 2000

sinking

In my teens in London, I inhabited a world of toyboys, tarts, porn merchants, and neo-fascist entrepreneurs – people who taught me that everyone has a ‘price’. Ultimately, individuals were no more than commodities to be purchased, used and sold on at will.

It was a twilight world of shabby boozers, stripclubs, and massage parlours which were staffed by young Afro-Caribbean girls (over time these would be replaced by petite Asian girls, and trafficked, big-boned women from Eastern Europe).

Here people were darlings, luvs, wooden tops or berks. And drinking was a major part of social interaction: starting on Saturday morning at half-ten or so and continuing through the course of the day, often into the next; Bacardi and coke, Vodka and lime, whiskey (usually Bells but occasionally Glenfiddich)and draught bitter.

It was a world of Nigels and Tonys and Antheas, all bright young things on the make, social posers. There were other layabouts like myself, too, some of them talented: artists, sculptors, poets, writers who lived in tatty one room rents and chain-smoked Senior Service and drank Hirondelle by the gallon.

There was, I recall, an air of unreality to everything then.

#

I lived two separate lives: I had done so since my fifteenth birthday. I had created two very different personas for myself. Two masks which I wore to deceive others. At school I was introspective, hesitant, sullen – but rebellious too, at times, and frequently punished because of that. I hated school; I hated the teachers. I played truant whenever I could, and instead of school I’d go to the cinema.

Then there was the other ‘me’, my street persona: the one who was a little flash, who dressed well, spoke well, but was cynical as hell. The one who was in the game to win!

Memory of those times is vague – as if glimpsed through age-misted glass. After leaving school at sixteen, I found a job and place to live which I could just afford. It seemed the world was all crisp November evenings then. I’d turn on the light in my shitty bedsit, read a book, beer amber in a glass near at hand. Or sit at my typewriter and strip my soul bare. I’d first started writing at seven or eight years of age. Building new worlds for me to inhabit. Day dreams on paper. Writing was my escape from this terrible world grinding on its axis.

My main typewriter was an Adler, a sort of ‘don’t come back again’ gift from my father. The first story I typed on it was an alternative history of world war two: the Nazis had found a way to regenerate the old Norse Gods and heroes, who in turn unleashed Götterdämmerung on the unsuspecting allies. Dark flights of imagination. Here there be demons – I typed the manuscript for ‘Summer births, Winter deaths’ on that same Adler, much later, and Tom Leary took a chance on me, saw something in the poetry –

#

Then I encountered Sphene for the first time. She worked in an antique shop, and it was mesmerizing to watch her there. The way she moved. Like there was silent music in her head flowing its rhythm into her limbs. The flick of a slender wrist. Then turning towards the light from the big windows to gather up a vase. Natural grace in her legs and hips. Moving as if she were weaving visions of past and future, this beautiful young witch – And I sensed she was playing a game; a game whose rules were unknown to me.

#

Later, although I’d only seen her that one time in the shop, my thoughts kept returning to Sphene. I think I was a little in love with her, or my idea of her. But then I was a creature of faddish passions: at around the age of thirteen I had seen a film that included a pair of twin sisters, fourteen or fifteen years old. I fell immediately, irretrievably in love with those two girls. I really did. I saw a second and third performance of the film that same day; couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the cinema to go home. Went back to the cinema every afternoon for a week to watch the film again; to watch my two girls.

#

Sphene had one of those young-old faces you see from time to time: a narrow face, you know? Delicate in a way – with those big brown eyes that never seemed to quite focus on anything she looked at. She was lean as a rake, too.

By chance I encountered her at the Arcade one Sunday afternoon. Keough was with me and he knew her well. They’d gone to school together, apparently.

She was playing the pinball machines. When it came to those machines, according to Keough, she was tops. The original pinball wizard. Or, Witch –

Keough said to me, ‘She’s part machine, man, all Meccano nuts and bolts, that’s why she’s so good at pinball; why she gets so many free goes!’

It seemed she spent her life in constant motion like one of those silver balls from the pinball machine, ringing bells and flashing lights, a smouldering cigarette in the corner of her mouth. She wore this huge green velvet hat and favoured old fashioned ankle length dresses. And she’d pay for one go on that damned machine but play all afternoon for free.

#

Sphene would turn up at parties like a late arriving shadow. She could move so quickly, make everyone else appear slow, lumbering. It was her way, but other women resented her for it. As if she were the perpetrator of all their individual misfortunes: their guilt, neurosis, what have you. As if it were all her responsibility. And Sphene’s outbursts of wild laughter at inappropriate times only made this situation worse. But she didn’t care.

#

She could talk, too, could Sphene. Words poured out of her like spilt liquid, and you’d have to wonder what was going on inside her head. You know? Keough told me that in her last year at school and without any prior warning she shaved her head.

Created quite a stir.

‘She had this thing tattooed on her skull,’ Keough said. ‘Honest to God, it looked terrible. She called it a sigil. And we all thought she’d finally lost the plot –

‘I asked her “What’s happening, Sphe? Why you got that ink on your head?”’

‘It’s for protection,’ she said. ‘It’s magic.’

‘You looked better with hair,’ he said.

According to Keough she seemed to consider this awhile, then said:

‘Last winter I saw these icicles dripping off the back gate frame. It was after that snow we had. Remember that? Well I watched them drip on the path which was all covered in snow. I broke one off. I don’t know why I did it, I just did. A long spiky spear of ice. Then I found myself writing with it in the snow. It was like something was driving me, I couldn’t control what I was writing. And what that icicle wrote was a warning – ’

‘What?’

‘I knew I had to act – to heed the warning.’

Her hair grew back over time, hiding the evidence of her magic.

#

Sometimes talking to her was like walking into a wall of white noise. Your brain’d reel under the weight of her words; like taking a wrong turn down a dead-end street.

In school one of her teacher’s said she had ‘cognitive disabilities’. But that man was a prat-and-a-half. She had powers, did Sphene. She could whisper to pinball machines and make them her friends. She could wish real hard for things and make them happen – just like real witches do!

#

I remember Keough’s birthday party over at Carpenter’s Park. Sphene arrived looking like a cheap tart: bright painted lips, so red they looked inflated, and dark blue mascara round her eyes like a feckin’ panda.

‘How’s it going?’ I asked her.

‘Okay,’ she replied. ‘But I have difficulty keeping the dead away. Their shadows steal into my bones when I’m alone at night – ’

I had this unexpected vision of black shapes on the wing, dark shadow birds with razor beaks, filled with crackling bone-heat. I felt strangely uneasy. She hadn’t even had a drink yet.

‘Would you like to fuck me?’ she asked. Just like that; straight out with it.

‘Yeah, I would Sphe. I’d like that very much…’

#

She could scar rooms with her presence, move like a ghost and see things no one else could see. She could also fuck like the Whore of Babylon.

#

Hobson Monk, raffish, one time bankrupt, divorcé, lived in this mansion of a house in Moorpark, not too far from the golf course. The place was full of antiques – like a feckin’ museum! Plush wall-to-wall carpeting. Hob owned the antiques shop where Sphene worked.

He said to me, ‘I know what it’s like when you’re young and just starting out. Tough, eh? Hard to make ends meet. When I left art school I was penniless. Ended up selling my backside at Piccadilly Circus, you know? The Chicken Rack, where all the young rent boys used to tout for business. That was my world, believe it or not.’

‘I had no idea…’

‘Why would you have? Selling my body to randy old queers, helped pay for my business. It was how I started out. Sex work. I gobbled off some very rich and famous people in my time. But don’t get me wrong, I’m heterosexual, you know? I had girlfriends back then, too. But they were for fun, the other was for money.’

‘I see.’

I had been invited unexpectedly to Hobson’s home that Saturday, the invitation delivered to me by Sphene. Of course, I’d met the man a number of times before in his shop. He was okay; down to earth. One of the good guys – except where money was concerned! Then he was an absolute tosser.

He invited me to one of his Saturday night parties. ‘But do come alone, yes,’ he said. ‘Alone people will see you as available.’

He said, ‘People tend to shag indiscriminately nowadays. However, discretion is everything. Take my little parties. Sexual deviants here, there and everywhere. What’s important is things that happen here, stay here. You know what I’m saying? I know lots of odd people, but they trust me. We maintain an illusion of probity. And that’s very important – you catch my drift? Silence is golden.’

‘Sure.’

‘If some old shirtlifter wants to have a quick fumble in your pants – well, what the hell. Either tell him “No thanks” or give him a price. You know what I mean? It’s no big deal.’

#

It was at Hobby’s parties I learned there are times when no matter what the position of your body your soul is on its knees.

#

I was young and slim and smooth. Desirable and androgynous, with a winning smile. A very old head on a very young body. And London was full of people with cash to burn.

#

One Friday afternoon in Ruislip, after a walk beside the Lido, a middle-aged vicar took me to his home and sodomised me on the marital bed. I lay, face buried in the pillows, watched over by a photograph of his wife who was visiting her sick sister in Croydon that weekend. When the vicar finally ejaculated up me, he recited the Lord’s Prayer in a whisper near my right ear. He had been ‘introduced’ to me at one of Hobson’s parties. He said his name was Colin, and that he’d fallen half-in-love with me. ‘Boys are for pleasure,’ he said to me. ‘My wife is a duty – ’

#

These men I met were generous. They had money enough to finance their lusts; their aching desire for young cock over-ruled common-sense. Pot-bellied most of them, middle-aged, greedy: their mouths would enclose flesh, sweetmeats, tasting like Faberge made edible. I was gorged upon in any number of cheap but discrete hotels. My life began to consist of nothing but these casual, random acts in dead bedrooms, where the silence dripped and crackled with orgasmic moans from old, half-parted lips.

#

A Surrey solicitor, in his luxury home, watched me in his hot tub, totally and unashamedly naked. I allowed him to ‘molest me’, to grope and pinch and squeeze. He believed me to be fifteen years old, hence underage. He persuaded me to suck his short fat cock. He paid me the equivalent of five months rent on my tatty bedsit.

#

Welcome to hell.

#

Then one day Hobson said to me, ‘We’re going to be married, Sphene and me. I asked her and she said yes – ’

‘Really?’ I felt like I’d just done a belly flop from the high diving board at the local swimming baths. ‘Congratulations.’ I drank vodka tonic and managed not to pull a face. ‘She’s quite a girl.’

‘She is, isn’t she?’

#

How old was Hob? Fifty? Sixty? Sphene was twenty years old. This was crazy.

‘He’s old enough to be your dad – older!’ I said to her a day or so later.

‘Age isn’t important,’ she said. ‘Not really.’

‘You love him then?’

‘Love?’ She looked puzzled. ‘Romantic love? Isn’t that something invented by men to keep women in their place? A form of bondage we’re expected to submit to? I like Hob. He’s done a lot for me. Helped educate me in the ways of the world. And he’s wealthy, too, of course. A rich man. So, yes, I’ll marry him. I can think of worse husbands to have – ’

#

Sitting upstairs on the bus after leaving Sphe, I gave an involuntary sigh. It was like I’d gone out looking for my pet parrot and found it dead and full of maggots. The stench of it reminded me of what once had lived. What I’d once held in my arms. A world so full of possibilities, now turned feckin’ sour.

An old man sitting a few seats away started talking to himself. After awhile he began to shout through the window at pedestrians on the pavement. It was peeing down outside.

I felt lost, totally lost, and wished I’d never met Sphe. I sat looking out the window at a blotch of colours, bright lights and a mess of blue-black sky, while the old man yelled ‘wankers’ over and over again at no one in particular.

#

Six weeks later, just before ‘the big wedding’, I travelled with my old portable typewriter back to Paris. My aim was to remain there for a couple of months, sort my head out, write some masterwork: an instant, international bestseller. We all have our dreams, don’t we? Eventually, I took a job in a small bistro – washing up, cleaning, that sort of thing. And I lived in this shabby shite-hole nearby, with views of a cobbled courtyard and the open air toilet at its centre.

After six grotty months, I quit the job and did some travelling: all over France to begin, then Belgium and Holland. Seeing the sights, doing the full tourist bit. It was okay.

My mother collected dolls and musical boxes, so in Holland I purchased a pair of dolls in national costume and a ‘musical’ windmill for her. I’d been away by then for over a year. I was running out of money. It was time to return and ‘face the music’.

#

Perhaps, deep down, I had some hope of seeing Sphene again? Perhaps, too, like Young Lochinvar, I had a dream, a fantasy of whisking her away ‘this young love of mine’.

But no. This was never to be.

Shortly after my return to London, I learned from Keough that Hobby had sold both home and business, and that he and Sphene had relocated to some island paradise in the Caribbean – there to live happily ever after.

I had always seen Sphene as a young woman with the devil on her shoulder, constantly fighting the darker side of her own nature. She had often spoken of her ‘place in the sun’. Well now, finally, she had it. And I was glad for her.

It goes without saying that I never saw Hobson or Sphene again. Although I do often wonder what became of them?

#

Shortly after that I met another, much older witch who lived in a house full of shadows and madness on Hampstead Heath. She, it was, took me to an outdoor Sabbat, my first; she, too, was charismatic and dynamic, and promised to teach me to grow beyond myself –

She was a very strict disciplinarian when it came to her craft, believed in the mystical properties of intense feeling, was a dedicated connoisseur of all pleasurable things. She taught me to see that fulfilling my own physical needs and desires was as important for my self development and growth as meditation or similar spiritual practices. She, as High Priestess, initiated me into her coven, with all its strange outbound rituals –

Sex was something that happened between us. We had sex with each other and with others, sometimes together and sometimes separately. She taught me that sex had spiritual dimensions and overtones, and I still firmly believe and experience that to this day.

I never again had to ‘sell myself’. But I did give myself freely to others, to people I wanted to ‘be with’. I did learn what it was to be ‘loved’ and to give love in return. And yes, my sexual tastes can be quite dark at times, some might say perverse – so feckin’ what? I am what I am. So enough.

Hüseyin Sahin

Like all obsessions, Ballard’s novel is occasionally boring and frequently ridiculous. The invariance of its intensity is not something the reviewer can easily suggest. Ballard is quite unlike anyone else; indeed, he seems to address a different – a disused – part of the reader’s brain. You finish the book with some bafflement and irritation. But this is only half the experience. You then sit around waiting for the novel to come and haunt you. And it does.

Martin Amis
Review of The Day of Creation by J. G. Ballard

The War Against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000

forest path

Of the laws we can deduce from the external world, one stands above all: the Law of Transience. Nothing is intended to last. The trees fall year by year, the mountains tumble, the galaxies burn out like tall tallow candles. Nothing is intended to last – except time. The blanket of the universe wears thin, but time endures. Time is a tower, an endless mine; time is monstrous. Time is the hero. Human and inhuman characters are pinned to time like butterflies to a card; yes, though the wings stay bright, flight is forgotten. Time, like an element which can be solid, liquid or gas, has three states. In the present, it is a flux we cannot seize. In the future, it is a veiling mist. In the past, it has solidified and become glazed; then we call it history. Then it can show us nothing but our own solemn faces; it is a treacherous mirror, reflecting only our limited truths. So much is it a part of man that objectivity is impossible; so neutral is it that it appears hostile.

Brian W. Aldiss
Galaxies Like Grains of Sand

Hover over the Fairy mounds

October 13, 2017

Ben Bulben

At night, particularly in November, lights often travel along these paths and hover over the sidhe [fairy mounds]. They sometimes move in formation. They may be all white, or they may be of different colours – ‘red, green, blue, yellow.’ A very old gentleman from Collrai, Co. Sligo… tells me that the lights move rapidly, and I have myself seen white lights moving at high speed up the side of Ben Bulben, a mountain renowned for this phenomenon. These lights have been known in Ireland since antiquity. In ‘The Colloquy with the Ancients’ Bodh Derg refers to Brugh na Boinne as ‘yonder brugh chequered with the many lights hard by you here.’ Such lights are not confined to marshy ground and so cannot be will o’ the wisps. They are genuine phenomena, but no scientific explanation has been found for them.

Peter Alderson Smith
W. B. Yeats and the Tribes of Danu

The moon is always female

October 8, 2017

The moon is always female and so
am I although often in this vale
of razorblades I have wished I could
put on and take off my sex like a dress
and why not? Do men always wear their sex
always? The priest, the doctor, the teacher
all tell us they come to their professions
neuter as clams and the truth is
when I work I am pure as an angel
tiger and clear is my eye and hot
my brain and silent all the whining
grunting piglets of the appetites.
For we were priests to the goddesses
to whom were fashioned the first altars
of clumsy stone on stone and leaping animal
in the wombdark caves, long before men
put on skirts and masks to scare babies.
For we were healers with herbs and poultices
with our milk and careful fingers
long before they began learning to cut up
the living by making jokes at corpses.
For we were making sounds from our throats
and lips to warn and encourage the helpless
young long before schools were built
to teach boys to obey and be bored and kill.

I wake in a strange slack empty bed
of a motel, shaking like dry leaves
the wind rips loose, and in my head
is bound a girl of twelve whose female
organs all but the numb womb are being
cut from her with a knife. Clitoridectomy,
whatever Latin name you call it, in a quarter
of the world’s girl children are so maimed
and I think of her and I cannot stop.
And I think of her and I cannot stop.

If you are a woman you feel the knife in the words.
If you are a man, then at age four or else
at twelve you are seized and held down
and your penis is cut off. You are left
your testicles but they are sewed to your
crotch. When your spouse buys you, you
are torn or cut open so that your precious
semen can be siphoned out, but of course
you feel nothing. But pain. But pain.

For the uses of men we have been butchered
and crippled and shut up and carved open
under the moon that swells and shines
and shrinks again into nothingness, pregnant
and then waning toward its little monthly
death. The moon is always female but the sun
is female only in lands where females
are let into the sun to run and climb.

A woman is screaming and I hear her.
A woman is bleeding and I see her
bleeding from the mouth, the womb, the breasts
in a fountain of dark blood of dismal
daily tedious sorrow quite palatable
to the taste of the mighty and taken for granted
that the bread of domesticity be baked
of our flesh, that the hearth be built
of our bones of animals kept for meat and milk,
that we open and lie under and weep.
I want to say over the names of my mothers
like the stones of a path I am climbing
rock by slippery rock into the mists.
Never even at knife point have I wanted
or been willing to be or become a man.
I want only to be myself and free.

I am waiting for the moon to rise. Here
I squat, the whole country with its steel
mills and its coal mines and its prisons
at my back and the continent tilting
up into mountains and torn by shining lakes
all behind me on this scythe of straw,
a sand bar cast on the ocean waves, and I
wait for the moon to rise red and heavy
in my eyes. Chilled, cranky, fearful
in the dark I wait and I am all the time
climbing slippery rocks in a mist while
far below the waves crash in the sea caves;
I am descending a stairway under the groaning
sea while the black waters buffet me
like rockweed to and fro.

I have swum the upper waters leaping
in dolphin’s skin for joy equally into the nec-
cessary air and the tumult of the powerful wave.
I am entering the chambers I have visited.
I have floated through them sleeping and sleep-
walking and waking, drowning in passion
festooned with green bladderwrack of misery.
I have wandered these chambers in the rock
where the moon freezes the air and all hair
is black or silver. Now I will tell you
what I have learned lying under the moon
naked as women do: now I will tell you
the changes of the high and lower moon.
Out of necessity’s hard stones we suck
what water we can and so we have survived,
women born of women. There is knowing
with the teeth as well as knowing with
the tongue and knowing with the fingertips
as well as knowing with words and with all
the fine flickering hungers of the brain.

Marge Piercy

full of harp-noises

August 11, 2017

They went in. Pine-needles are not easy to walk on, like a floor of red glass. It is not cool under them, a black scented life, full of ants, who work furiously and make no sound. Something ached in Carston, a regret for the cool brilliance of the wood they had left, the other side of the hills, on the edge of the sea. This one was full of harp-noises from a wind when there was none outside. He saw Picus ahead, a shadow shifting between trunk and trunk. Some kind of woodcraft he supposed, and said so to Felix who said sleepily: “Somebody’s blunt-faced bees, dipping under the thyme-spray”; a sentence which made things start living again. Would they never have enough of what they called life? There was no kind of track over the split vegetable grass. A place that made you wonder what sort of nothing went on there, year in year out.

Mary Butts
Armed with madness

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments. Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing…

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervour, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material…

The Diary, creating a vast tapestry, a web, exposing constantly the relation between past and present, weaving meticulously the invisible interaction, noting the repetitions of themes, developed in the sense of the totality of personality, this tale without beginning or end which encloses all things, and relates all things, as a strong antidote to the unrelatedness, incoherence and disintegration of the modern man. I could follow the inevitable pattern and obtain a large, panoramic view of character.

Anaïs Nin
On Writing

A journal

I got out this diary and read, as one always does read one’s own writing, with a kind of guilty intensity. I confess that the rough and random style of it, often so ungrammatical, and crying for a word altered, afflicted me somewhat. I am trying to tell whichever self it is that reads this hereafter that I can write very much better; and take no time over this; and forbid her to let the eye of man behold it. And now I may add my little compliment to the effect that it has a slapdash and vigour and sometimes hits an unexpected bull’s eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct and instant shots at my object, and thus have to lay hands on words, choose them and shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea. Moreover there looms ahead of me the shadow of some kind of form which a diary might attain to. I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously and scrupulously, in fiction. What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something loose knit and yet not slovenly, so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk, or capacious hold-all, in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life, and yet steady, tranquil compounds with the aloofness of a work of art. The main requisite, I think on re-reading my old volumes, is not to play the part of censor, but to write as the mood comes or of anything whatever; since I was curious to find how I went for things put in haphazard, and found the significance to lie where I never saw it at the time. But looseness quickly becomes slovenly. A little effort is needed to face a character or an incident which needs to be recorded. Nor can one let the pen write without guidance; for fear of becoming slack and untidy…

Virginia Woolf
Diary entry: April 20th, 1919

Poetry remakes and prolongs language; every poetic language begins by being a secret language, that is, the creation of a personal universe, of a completely closed world. The purest poetic act seems to re-create language from an inner experience that … reveals the essence of things.

Mircea Eliade
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy