It seems no-one will ever read my coming of age in the 70s in agricultural society in Wales novel 'The Oracle Dai Bando'. Do you think maybe limiting the potential audience to male Welsh farmers in their sixties was a marketing error?
Myself back in the day (cricket has always been 'my thing', man, I've got a flare for it - geddit?)
There won't be much blogging action here for a while because I am full on with the Campaign Choirs oral history project and writing our book 'Singing for our lives', which is due for publication next May. Follow our progress
For the next six months or so most of my blogging is likely to be on the Singing For Our Lives website. We've found a supportive publisher, HammerOn Press and we're writing 'Singing for our lives: stories from the street choirs'. Check out the S4OL site and follow our progress as we transcribe more than 40 interviews from ten plus street choirs from across Britain. We'll share some of the stories - and our own discoveries and mis/adventures as we got. Who are we? The Campaign Choirs Writing Collective - myself, Jenny Patient and Lotte Reimer, ably supported by Pete North and Gavin Brown. Se you over at S4OL
Cor Cochion Caerdydd in action in - er - Caerdydd, wrth cwrs! Gyda Nye Bevan ag Lotte Reimer
Climate justice and the meaning of life
On 8th May, five people were together fined £10,000 and ordered to pay courts costs of £525 for taking non-violent direct action to save lives and mitigate environmental harms. In April activists from Reclaim the Power and Earth First! locked-on to machinery and blocked a road to close Ffos-y-frân opencast coalmine in south Wales for a single day. Andrea Brock, 31, Crispin Field, 22, Rick Felgate, 24, Kim Turner, 24, and Alice Shipsey, 60, appeared before Magistrates in Merthyr Tydfil charged with aggravated trespass. During their action the activists dressed as dead canaries, conjuring the birds historically used in deep coal mines to indicate the presence of poisonous gas. Their point was that coal from Ffos-y-frân is poisoning the environment and the atmosphere with similarly toxic gases.
Scaling the harms
Beginning production in 2008, Ffos-y-frân has produced around 6.5 million tonnes of coal to date. When burned to generate electricity this amount of coal produces almost 15 million tonnes of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, the principal driver of climate change. In addition to this global harm, Anne Harris of the Coal Action Network highlights the local impact: ‘Ffos-y-frân is covering local people's homes in dust that residents are breathing in every day. Earlier this year, a United Nations special rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes called for an independent investigation into the potential health impacts of the mine.’ Covering 367 hectares, Ffos-y-Frân is also a monstrous blot on the landscape, recreating the grim visage of the industrial revolution in an area trying to recover and reinvent itself after an epoch of unfettered exploitation.
Between the local and global, the mine is harming people at the regional scale too. Anne Harris again: ‘Ffos-y-frân's main customer has been Aberthaw power station. Aberthaw is the dirtiest power station in the UK in terms of Nitrogen Oxides produced. In the first half of 2016, the plant emitted 11,003 tonnes of NOx, almost four times the 4,800 tonnes permitted [annually] under European Union Industrial Emissions Directive limits. The UK government has allowed RWE npower to breach EU air quality regulations at Aberthaw, and a September 2016 ruling by the European Court of Justice said this was unlawful.’
Earlier this year a report by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace calculated that ‘pollution from Aberthaw is responsible for curtailing the lives of 67 people in Wales every year’. Plumes of NOx and particle pollution from the plant also spread over swathes of southern England, Ireland and as far as France, resulting in 400 premature deaths per year. In addition to the moral injustice, the report calculates that the annual cost of the premature deaths from Aberthaw’s pollution totals £226.4m. Yet, as recently as January 2016, RWE npower received a public subsidy of £27m to continue operating the plant.
Turning the clocks back
Commenting on the magistrates’ decision in Merthyr Tydfil, local resident Chris Austin of the United Valley’s Action Group said: ‘It was a travesty of justice to say the least. They were hammered in court to send a message to all potential environmental activists that, if they take direct action, they will be crippled financially. They wanted to appeal, but magistrates warned that if they came before the court again they’d most probably get a criminal record, a fine, costs, and still be subject to a compensation claim. So, Hobson’s choice!’ Two of the activists were in tears, shocked at the amount of money they had to find, and frustrated that they had to pay compensation to the mining company which is the real criminal.’ Facing a personal fine of £2,000 plus a share of the court costs Andrea Brock said: ‘Ffos-y-frân showcases the failures of environmental regulation in the UK and the court’s decision favours corporate power over public interests.’
Times have certainly changed for environmental and climate justice. In 2008, which we can consider simultaneously as a just a few years ago and also ‘in another lifetime’, a jury cleared six Greenpeace activists of causing criminal damage to the now defunct Kingsnorth power station. The activists scaled a 200 metre high chimney at the dual-fired coal and oil power station on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent and were accused of causing damage to the tune of £30,000. Their lawyers successfully employed climate change as a defence. At the time, environmentalists took the ‘Kingsnorth Six’ verdict to be a watershed moment. The size of the fine imposed by magistrates in Merthyr Tydfil is evidence of a historical reverse that defies rationality and is unjust. The law may not be favouring corporate power over public interest methodically, but it is certainly doing so morally.
We should not be surprised. Recent manifestations of the same reversal include last year’s election as US President of climate change denier Donald Trump who intends to scrap his country’s Environmental Protection Agency, the Brexit vote in Britain that seems certain to weaken environmental regulation and so sustain deadly anachronisms like Aberthaw, and the axing of the Department of Energy and Climate Change by Theresa May as one of her first moves on becoming Prime Minister following David Cameron’s political self-immolation with his ‘greenest government ever’ pledge ringing forever hollow in the ear of history.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes a complex but vital distinction between justice and equity. Although equity is just, it is not identical to legal justice. It is the rectification of legal justice because the law is inevitably always a general statement which can never cover specific case. Moreover, the general or majority view of justice changes over time. Expressions of equity serve to effect changes in the law, attempting to keep it up to date as minority causes become majority societal values. Thus, for Aristotle, equity is the superior virtue.
‘We will be back!’
For the last ten years, opponents of Ffos-y-frân have employed every means possible, from petitions and citizenly protest through legal challenges to non-violent direct action to stop coal mining. Opposition has brought together climate activists and local environmental justice groups, who have understood and taken on board each other’s issues. Together this alliance staged climate camps near the Merthyr Tydfil mine in 2009, 2010 and again just last year. In 2017 some 200 red-clad activists, led by a Welsh dragon breathing smoke, occupied the mine and halted production for the day. On that occasion, the mining consortium, Miller Argent, conceded to the mass of the protest and no arrests were made. Undeterred by the continual opposition that they have faced, however, Miller Argent continue their mining operations under the increasingly preposterous banner of ‘land reclamation’. Indeed, the consortium is appealing against Caerphilly Council’s 2015 decision to refuse them planning permission for an adjacent opencast mine, Nant Llesg, which would operate on a similarly deleterious scale.
Reacting to the hefty fine imposed on their Ffos-y-frân action, Reclaim the Power and Earth First! have declared their defiant intention: ‘We will be back!’ Speaking in Merthyr Tydfil, Rick Felgate expressed the collective commitment to continue the struggle: ‘The decision shows that Miller Argent and the wider establishment are clearly alarmed by the growing resistance. We cannot be deterred and this only shows the urgency of our movement to escalate.’
In the wake of COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, ethicist Dale Jamieson marks the demise of effective governmental action on global climate change. In his book ‘Reason in Dark Times’, Jamieson notes that our maladies significantly predate Trump, Brexit and May: ‘Our failure to prevent or even respond significantly (to climate change) reflects the impoverishment of our systems of practical reason, the paralysis of our politics, and the limits of our cognitive and affective capacities.’ Jamieson concludes that: ‘Despite the unprecedented nature of the challenge, human life will have meaning as long as people take up the burden.’
According to Jamieson’s comprehensive analysis, taking up the climate change burden is a Sisyphean task. Not putting any sort of fine point on it, he decides that: ‘Climate change is occurring and is effectively irreversible on timescale that are meaningful to us.’ While many Reclaim the Power and Earth First! activists will disagree with this analysis and continue to hold out hope for the future, the course of action indicated by Jamieson is identical to their view. Taking up the burden means either accepting that taking such an action in itself invests life with meaning – as Albert Camus concludes ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy’ – or else taking such action will actually contribute to the mitigation climate change.
In either case, taking up the environmental burden is exactly what the courageous and creative activists were doing at FFos-y-frân. Anne Harris sums up the ongoing challenge: ‘For the sake of the people living next to Ffos-y-frân and Nant Llesg, coal mining needs to stop - for all of us breathing the toxic fumes from Aberthaw power station. And it must be shut for those living in the Global South, the people most affected by climate change: we must end our addiction to coal now.’ Crispin Field voices the collective wisdom of the environmental direct action networks: ‘We need a diversity of tactics to stop fossil fuel industries.’ Even more than achieving that goal, perhaps, taking action on various fronts also invests meaning with vitality and joy. And it keeps the pressure on legal justice to bend towards equity.
To help the five activist pay the £10,000 penalty, you can donate:
Yesterday I sang in Aberystwyth Arts Centre with Cor Gobaith at a screening of 'The War Show' to raise money for Aberaid. The film is a devastating account of the conflict in Syria seen through the eyes of an initially idealistic group of young friends. The audience were generous in giving some money to support Aberaid's work with Syrian - and other - refugees.
Afterwards, I watched 'Demain' (Tomorrow) wherein another friendship group, this time French filmmakers, fly around the planet to confront their fears about environmental destruction by finding lots of examples of people doing good things with food, energy, economy... But, after 40 years of familiarity with and active support for projects like these, I found the film hard to watch as the world heads so massively in the opposite direction:
The UK government has all but killed off the department for Environment and Climate Change and on the very day of Demain's film's screening began the process of leaving the EU (and likely ditching its legislation protecting the environment from corporate greed); In the US, the Trump administration is similarly determined to kill off the Environmental Protection Agency and it is ditching its commitment to even inadequate climate change mitigation. Even locally, the film highlighted contradiction after contradiction for me: increasing numbers of new cars with one occupant clogging our roads in Ceredigion (and just about everywhere else in the UK, no?); virtually no provision for safe cycling in our town; Tesco opening in the wake of initiatives like Transition Town Aberystwyth failing due to lack of public support...
I deliberately mentioned the film-makers flying around the world to make their film as a response to catastrophic climate change because artistic responses to environmental crises that do not explore their own perpetuation of those crises - if not significantly on a material basis then at least conceptually - is not good enough. We need to tell stories very differently - to be the change we want to see. I don't meant ultra earnestly, but rather with a new creative ethic that is truly radical - engaged, disobedient, disruptive... (Vanda Shiva touched on this in the film). And the same goes for academic responses: engage, research with not experiment on, care and exercise it, take risks, speak truth to power, teach everyone - do it different!
Some of the idealistic friends in The War Show were imprisoned, some tortured, some killed. This morning Russian troops oversaw the evacuation of the last freedom fighters from Homs, the Syrian city of revolutionary hope. On any significant scale, it seems, the bad guys are winning across the earth.
It's fantastic that the Wales One World film festival brings such timely, thought-provoking world cinema to our town - even if I do get depressed as much by the optimistic films as the the apocalyptic ones!
Lulu (unmasked) who lived but her boyfriend who adored her was murdered
The most shocking thing about Mohamed Jabaly’s film Ambulance is that it didn’t shock me. With a hand-held video camera, Jabaly rides with the crew of a small battered ambulance during the ‘Gaza War’ of 2014. A misnomer, the Gaza War was an Israeli military operation directed against Palestinian civilians living in the Gaza Strip. In Ambulance we hear Palestinians whose homes have been hit by missiles discussing the warning phone calls that they get from the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) in advance of the strikes. Sometimes a family has one minute to get out of their home, sometimes the calls are fake, and sometimes a house is hit with no warning at all. The Israeli government’s rationale for these strikes is revenge against Gaza’s Hamas government. Three Israeli teenagers had been murdered by Hamas members, and the aftermath sparks this one-sided conflict which the Israelis also dub ‘Operation Protective Edge’. Terms like defence and protective may be poor translations from the Hebrew. More likely, they are deliberately chosen in order to try to mask military aggression.
But none of this politics is recorded in Ambulance. People in the film refer to the two sides in the conflict as ‘the parties’, expressing their hopes that they will negotiate a ceasefire. As homes are bombed and people are crushed beneath concrete rubble, nowhere in the film do we see Hamas or anyone else bearing arms. Come to that, we don’t see the IDF either, only the grim aftermath of their missiles attacks. Civilian bodies coated in cement dust and blood-stained may be the defining image of conflict in Gaza and, indeed, in urban areas beyond Palestine this century, and this awful familiar repeats and repeats throughout Ambulance. Here are desperate people, sometimes listening intently for the sound of survivors in the rubble, sometimes howling over the loss of a loved one. Ambulance is like watching a TV news clip on a loop but without the stock warning from the anchor person: ‘You may find these images upsetting’. Or you may have seen it all before so often that you have become immunised and so are prone to actually nodding off. Destruction and carnage seem, after all, to be the norm for Palestinians over a generation as a nation is relentlessly strangled out of existence while the world mostly whistles tunelessly and averts its still vaguely embarrassed gaze.
At first Mohamed Jabaly appears to foist himself and his camera onto the ambulance crew. They decline to respond when he asks them to comment on film about the destroyed homes that they are called to. They look away from the camera and mumble. Later, we are told that the driver, a respected veteran of the service, rings Jabaly to ask him to return to the crew. At that point, Jabaly had returned to his family, from whom he conceals his filming and the danger he puts himself in. On its next tour of duty the ambulance serves as a rescue vehicle, evacuating people from danger areas and delivering them to relative safety. The crew manage to pack an extraordinary number of people into their minibus-sized ambulance. At this point in the conflict the border with Egypt is closed. Jabaly films the Egyptians and Palestinians with Egtyptian residence permits who are stuck at the checkpoint: ‘Smile, you’re in Gaza,’ says one young woman, exhibiting the stoicism and irony that are vital survival strategies for Arabs in this place.
The people who appear in Ambulance make very frequent reference to Allah, praising their God and thanking him. Here, they do not appear to be employing irony, however. A Christian experiencing what these people are going through might be expected to lament: ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ Bombed, crushed and bleeding, Palestinians Muslims hail Allah as their Guardian. For me this was hard to fathom, as was the dry humour in the ambulance, particularly in some baffling dialogues between Jabaly and his heroic friend the driver. For the crew of the ambulance are all commonplace heroes, ordinary men just getting on with doing their impossible job. There is little cinematic artifice in Ambulance and it is not the methodological feat of Emad Burnat’s staggering Five Broken Cameras wherein art becomes political resistance. At one point as the ambulance crew check out a building for injured people or bodies, the camera settles on a rabbit hunkered in the debris. The visual incongruity is lacerating. In the final scene, a time-lapse shot over a shattered neighbourhood fading to black in the twilight, all we have witnessed in frenetic video footage is placed in a slightly wider, temporarily calmer geography. And, just for a moment, the audience finally has time to reflect. Filming as a personal coping strategy, Mohamed Jabaly tells the audience: ‘I want to wake up to a new day without panicking.’ If Ambulance doesn’t shock us, we might ask ourselves how that new day will ever dawn.
To start off it was just an insane idea that came to Canaan Holmes while he was hanging about waiting for his one-day replacement passport to be issued. Four hours plus in a city that was more grim than grime, if you take his meaning, post-industrial but unwittingly post-ironic too: same-old-shit shops as everywhere else, global coffee franchises and fast-food outlets galore, mobile phone retailers, etcetera, but all with bespoke period decors and phoney in-house cultures. And all as depressing as hell. CTV-monitored, security guarded, sanitised, family-friendly, routine and habit-forming: dissatisfaction guaranteed.
There were loads of people waiting around in the same boat as Canaan. The same or worse. Much worse. Worst off of all were the folk who lived in the foreboding shadow of the fortress building that was the passport office, though there was abundant signage forbidding precisely that. The boat that lot were in was definitely a sinking ship. It was early January in a bleak landscape scoured by chill winds, hammered by merciless rains and random storms of thunder-snow.
‘No time to be sleeping rough,’ Canaan muttered to himself as he passed by the refugees camped out in their soggy blankets and cardboard, covered by tattered tarps and flapping plastic. But they had no choice, did they: the stateless and unwanted, detritus; seeking temporary residence visas, work permits, passports - bureaucratic permissions to live in the past.
Mooching around some poncey department store, set up to ‘channel the authentic Victorian street’, at least according to its own Basque-popping promo porn, Canaan was more concerned with his own plight than anyone else’s. Truth be told, he was just looking for a clean and warm khazi to take a dump. Then, he bumped into a bloke he’d met on his way to the passport office at sparrow-fart this morning. They’d empathised with each other over the rip-off cost of parking in the recommended multi-storey, and the bloke seemed a decent cove. He’d told Canaan that the company with the passport franchise had a majority shareholding in the car-park chain, and Canaan didn’t doubt it for a second.
‘Oi oi, Saveloy,’ the bloke greeted him when they met again in a faux ‘Tailor’s Row’ of the department store. ‘Killing time?’
Daft yeah, but - light bulb moment - not such a bad idea.
In the four hours that he himself had been killing time, Canaan had spent a small fortune in aimless consumption. He’d drunk ‘genuine barista’ coffees he didn’t want - and which tasted so piss-weak he didn’t anyway drink – served, of course, by students forced to affect Italian accents to earn their less than living wages. He’d eaten cheese-topped fusion food he had no appetite for that would take a week’s hard exercise in the gym to burn off – if he was so minded, which he knew straight off he wouldn’t be. And he’d bought cheap sweatshop clothes that he’d never wear - ‘styled for the future’ and stitched by children who didn’t have one. All, in fact, goods that did him no pocking good at all. Worse still, he’d walked about five miles, got soaked through on the legs where the rain ran off his coat onto his trousers and was chilled to the bone. For Canaan, the last straw was that he’d spent his precious time in places he hated, turning his hard-earned moolah over to chain outlets that were probably all owned by the same tax-avoiding trans-temporal mega-corp with offices in an off-planet past. What had happened to the spirit of enterprise in the here and now, to home-grown firms and local businessmen with faces that you knew?
Several times, Canaan found himself back in sight of the passport office. It seemed to act like some awful giant magnet with its growing shanty town and pitiable queues of hopeless hopeful refugees. Many of the attendees still wore the clothes they’d travelled in from their different times in an infinite variety of futures that had all turned out substantively the same. Even when tattered and torn, some of the exotically styled garments in strange fabrics kept themselves incongruously clean and bright. You had to admire human ingenuity, Canaan thought, as he hummed along to a tune playing in his head.
How do I work this?
Once Canaan had had time to think about it and then look into a bit, the daft quickly become an exercise in the deft. He returned to Grimville and smartly scouted the area, doing some sums on people and what they were spending while they hung about. He found out what they needed and wanted, where they went and so on. After that, he never looked back and stayed on in the city. Skilfully, if Canaan did say it himself, and he did, he negotiated a dirt cheap lease on a huge disused industrial building within spitting distance of the passport office, converted it for bugger-all money, mainly using criminally cheap skilled labour drawn from the constantly lengthening queue outside the passport office – not just plumbers, sparkies and plasterers with advanced skill-sets, but architects, engineers, designers… Whenever they were from, one thing the refugees had in common was that they were all prepared to work for very little wedge. Cheap people were good business, Canaan thought. As it turned out, they were good for business too.
Even having only the necessary passing contact with his workers, Canaan unavoidably picked up something of their plight. Most were refugees who had suffered persecution in their own times as the stresses and strains of variants of ecological collapse came to bear on human populations. In the grip of droughts, floods, famine, mass migrations and warfare, people were targeted for being different. Same as it ever was. In harsh struggles for diminishing available living space, people faced violent discrimination because of their race, religion, green political views or ‘sexual deviation’, as one of his waiters phrased it to Canaan. In most of the futures these people had fled from, women were persecuted just because they were women. The blame for Mother Earth being pocked-up fell on them every time. What all these refugees wanted was to become asylum seekers. It didn’t seem much of an ambition to Canaan, but if they managed to get an application for asylum registered, it meant that they existed at least: they were officially here; marking time.
Into the silent water.
Not that existence and being here meant very much in material terms. The state paid some asylum speakers a pittance, too little to survive on. They found a very few families accommodation, opening up condemned buildings in wretched no-go areas, dank, dismal and dangerous. Not many time-travellers even got that far, though, so Canaan’s workers told him. First, they had to survive the people smugglers and their wormholes. Actually, in many cases that Canaan was told of, the smugglers didn’t have access to a wormhole at all. They simply took the refugees’ valuables, used them for sex, beat the shit out of them, and left them stranded and more vulnerable than ever in their own space-times. Either that or they took pity on them and put them out of their misery permanently. Then, there were the pitiable souls whom the smugglers consigned to fractured and flawed wormholes. Those people were lucky if they died. It was quite common, though, for part or parts of a body to turn up in this space-time still alive - at least by some strained definition of medical ethics. The remainder of ‘the survivor’ was presumed to be sometime else. The scientific wisdom was they these bereft parts were best put down and incinerated as quickly as possible.
Like everyone else of his time, Canaan couldn’t take another media image of half a child’s agonised face, crying out and reaching out a disembodied hand.
Even if the refugees arrived in this present in one piece, it was clear to Canaan that the system was designed to obstruct and frustrate them. Proving persecution was made ever more difficult, his workers said. The authorities kept raising the bar and, if that didn’t work, moving the goal posts. Family member killed? Immediate family? Just one? Tortured? Any lasting physical harm? Can you work? Raped? How many men? Repeatedly? Evidence? Reliable witnesses? Film records?
Then, quotas were put on refugees from certain times in a growing list of the most troubled futures so that they were prohibited from applying for asylum no matter what they would suffer.
On occasion, Canaan realised that someone working for him was an illegal immigrant. Lowest of the low. If one of this type was caught by the authorities, it meant incarceration and beating in one of the ‘Rescheduling Sanctuaries’ followed by deportation. But only once it was adjudged that the illegal immigrant had worked off the price of the passage ‘home’, back to whatever dreadful misery they had temporarily escaped. And that meant very hard labour, scraping the dregs of coal from the stygian depths of exhausted and hazardous mines. Many did not survive. The Sanctuaries were places so harsh and insanitary that the authorities had forbidden inspection by any of the inter-temporal agencies.
Establishing an Einstein-Rosen bridge was an expensive business that required secrecy and high security. To maximise efficiency, the authorities waited until there was ‘a batch’ of illegals to send back to a specific moment in a particular future. It was legend among Canaan’s workers that there was only actually one official bridge and it terminated in a future at a time they called ‘Inferno’: the end of days.
Into the blue again.
The illegals who found themselves in a Sanctuary were the fortunate ones, however. On the outside, it was open season on them for the burgeoning number of community Preservation Patrols. Most of the volunteers on Patrol hated illegals with a brutal passion, regarding them as vermin to be exterminated. Bonus: they didn’t exist, so how could they come to any harm? How could they disappear if they were never here? Or die when they were not even born yet? Patrollers didn’t care much about race, religion, political viewpoint or sexual proclivity. Everyone was pretty much equal in this persecution. Anyway, the race of people from the future measured against contemporary prejudices was not at all easy to discern: the spectrum had shifted. Their religions were mainly unheard of in the here and now, their politics made no sense, and their sexualities were ubiquitously disgusting. Women were still singled out for especially brutal hatred, of course. What was done to them redefined both constituents of the term victimless crime. Then, most Patrols didn’t actually discriminate between illegal immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers anyway: ‘All the pocking same.’ It could have been their motto. But it wasn’t. That was ‘People Awake!’ The authorities didn’t so much turn a blind-eye to the Preservation Patrols as tip them the wink.
Canaan didn’t mind illegal immigrants, though.
He just paid them less.
Business was business. And some of the professionals from among the refugees even advised him for free. One, a woman who helped him massively with the interior décor and furnishings, ‘the ambiance’, she called it, told him they were just happy to have the chance to be themselves again for a moment, to feel human, valued.
‘When you flee home in fear of your family’s lives, you don’t expect life to be easy in a past-time. But we did not expect to be reviled, spat upon, called leeches. We are seven moons outside that passport office, moved on by police who are so rude and not so gentle, sneaking back like thieves in the night because there is nowhere else for us to go. Not even back to the ruin, carnage and rape of our lost cities. We are in limbo, which is another kind of hell.’
‘Claret,’ Canaan wondered, ‘for the curtains?’
‘It is a welcoming colour,’ she assured him, ‘it will bring comfort.’
Here comes the twister.
To be honest, Canaan had expected the clientele of Killing Time – he’d registered the name – to be mainly people like himself, indigenous and often indignant citizens forced to be in Grimville for the day: people paying through the nose for a replacement passport, either because they’d lost theirs or, in the majority of cases, had found out on the eve of a vital trip back in time that it had run out. No one visited the future, obviously, not tourists anyway. ‘Things have only been better’ was the motto of the cheapest and most popular global travel agent, AllsWells. The passport office didn’t notify anyone about expiry, even though that would surely have been easy-peasy given all the data they had on everyone. And you couldn’t renew your passport online. You had to make a rocking-horse shit scarce appointment at the passport office and turn up in person with your completed forms – available only from selected Post Office franchise outlets – and three anachronistic little portrait photos, unsmiling, from a photo-booth. If, that is, you could still find one outside of a museum. No wonder the photos were unsmiling! Hadn’t the passport office heard of the digital images or the internet?
Course they had.
All this shit was just a way to part Joe Public from a substantial chunk of wedge: state bureaucracy as monopoly income generator.
‘Bastard genius,’ Canaan reckoned.
They’d even started issuing passports for five years rather than ten and, surely deliberately, made the expiry date only readable electronically by themselves. No small print, nothing discernible for the passport holder. Good enough with technology when it suited them, see.
Canaan paid ‘retainers’ to a number of the staff from the passport office, especially the security people on the door. They frisked everyone, confiscating dangerous items such as plastic water bottles and the odd tube of hand sanitizer as well as anything judged to be a ‘future artefact’. Sponsored by Canaan, they routinely referred punters to Killing Time:
‘Nice place, everything you need, can’t go wrong.’
At your civil service.
Turned out that would-be members of Canaan’s club weren’t just his one-day pissed off peers, though. Soon he was selling month long and then quarterly memberships to the richer of the refugees, middle-class professionals: doctors, lawyers, former bankers and politicians. Naturally, his contemporaries didn’t want to share space as well as time with the likes of the refugees. So, Canaan got his refugee labour to build a soundproof petition wall between the ‘Today’ and ‘Tardis’ lounges, set up separate entrances, and that all worked very well indeed.
‘’You should keep your Tardis Lounge minimalist,’ his interior designers advised, ‘or better yet primitivist. People from these futures are often easily overwhelmed by luxury, particularly anything suggesting profligacy.’
‘Primitivist sounds okay,’ Canaan said, thinking of the material savings.
‘When most of us come from,’ the designer told him, ‘artefacts from this time are generally viewed with horror: your cars, your aeroplanes, your butcher’s cleavers and steak knives… We view these much as you would view the murder weapons used by serial killers.’
If she was taking the piss, Canaan didn’t mind, because her good advice was still rendered free of charge.
Having set up his place in living-room styles with many discreet little nooks and cosy corners, Canaan served tea, coffee, alcohol, snacks and, by and by, full meals to the punters on both sides of the wall. Different menus, obviously. For the longer term members who could pay the extra he installed showers and, later, a laundry service – that is, a refugee woman who worked for peanuts, a cheap-as-cheese automatic washing machine, tumble drier, iron and ironing board. Not all of this lot were adverse to a bit of luxury. Even devastated futures fostered elites. Of course, he guaranteed the punters that the water heating was bio-fuelled and that the power for services came from solar panels. Given the soaring cost of shale gas as the last reserves were fracked from deep down in the far corners of the Earth, these were the cheapest options anyway. So, Bob’s your uncle.
And, as it happened, Canaan actually had had an Uncle Bob.
Refugee numbers continued to increase, people’s needs just kept multiplying, and Canaan kept extending and expanding his operation to meet them.
Under the rocks and stones.
The first time he discovered someone selling Freeze in his club, he’d hit the pocking roof. He had the guy kicked out and banned him for life. But then he had another little ponder. He went out into the city and found the guy. He wasn’t a refugee but, like Canaan, a businessman whose enterprise centred on the wretched space around the passport office and the needs of those forced wait for its invisible cogs to grind. It was Canaan’s first bit of franchising, selling the guy exclusive rights to the drug trade in Killing Time. A few months later they linked up with a refugee who knew the ropes and set up genuine futuristic Oblivion Den in one wing of the vast building.
Then, Canaan went in as a partner on a massage parlour cum brothel…
‘Come brothel!’ His own little joke to himself.
An ageing local tart proposed the deal to him and he supplied the cash for her to set it up tastefully in a distant wing of his sprawling building, consulting the refugee interior designer again for just the price of a decent meal. Canaan left it to his savvy partner to staff the brothel with refugee women, desperate for money to feed themselves and their families. Without a leg to stand on, so to speak, they didn’t dare complain about terms and conditions. They had nowhere to turn except over. ‘Let’s keep it straight,’ he told his partner. ‘Just women. No unnatural proclivities. At least till we find out feet.’
The brothel business flourished. Punters from the Today lounge couldn’t resist a taste of tomorrow, however bitter. Women with the saddest eyes attracted the most custom.
Canaan’s next venture was into what he termed ‘passport and visa support services’: forgery, at the end of the day. He found a bloke who could do all sorts, a real artist as long as you kept him off the piss, and another with shady connections inside the Ministry of State for Refugees and Immigration, known ubiquitously as ‘Misery’. Canaan bought a state-of-the-art computer system, 3-D printer, a decent camera, a scanner, a photocopier, some other state-of-the-art electronic gear and they were away.
Canaan’s business was booming and, for him, time flew.
Then, he was rumbled by Misery. At least he thought must be Misery. A woman came into Killing Time, paid an annual membership for the Today lounge, a first which was guaranteed to get Canaan’s attention so that he made an appearance. Then, she ordered a Scotch on the rocks and requested a quiet word.
‘Just a minute of your precious, Mister Holmes.’
They adjourned to Canaan’s office. The woman was as non-descript beige, grey and shapeless as Canaan could imagine, so much so that he had trouble remembering what she looked like even while she was talking to him. Turned out they knew all about his business – the illegal labour, the cash in hand, the drugs, the tarts… The lot. And they knew about the document forging. Just as Canaan’s stomach clenched cold as the ice in the whisky glass that he kept his eyes fixed upon; just when he thought he might literally shit himself, the woman cut to the chase.
‘None of your ventures are really our concern, Mister Holmes. We’re not the Police or the Revenue. And we’re actually rather grateful for your extra-mural services on immigration issues.’
‘Indeed. Your qualification for work permits, residence, citizenship – i.e. that people can pay through the nose – is ahead of the curve, very much what we’d like to do ourselves if it weren’t for some rather tedious residual legislation on human rights and so forth.’
‘So, you don’t mind the rich ones coming back, then?’
‘Indeed, no. Not as long as we know exactly who we’re getting and where they’re going to be. We like to keep tabs. Indeed, we have to. History is becoming increasingly complex, Mister Holmes. We have woven a tangled web with our timelines. You cannot imagine.’
Canaan could not.
‘So,’ the woman continued, ‘we would like you to share that data with us. And, please, do keep it accurate. You appreciate by now, I’m sure, that we’d know if you tried to hide anything from us, anything at all.’
She finished her whisky, wiped the glass with a plain white handkerchief and put it down on the desk between them with a deliberate slowness.
‘So, rather than close you down, Canaan – may I call you Canaan, the way? – we’d like you to grow your operations and process more applications. We can help with resources, of course, if you need a cash advance or access to particular skills or information. So, we’ll – er – ‘refer’’, she wiggled her fingers, ghostly speech-marks in the air, ‘a few more refugees to you right away and then, perforce, increase the flow.’
Letting the days go by.
And that’s how it went on for a good while. And it was good. Periodically, there were anti-immigrant mob-jobs that sometimes ended up as riots. Canaan fitted shutters to Killing Time and cleaned up selling lager and doughnuts from his newly acquired kiosk. To counter the mob-jobs, the peacenik types staged occasional ‘Harmony Not Time-Hate’ demos where Canaan’s kiosk ‘made a mint’ – his pun – selling herb teas and carob bars. He did very well out of all of it, thank you very much. Canaan didn’t see the woman again, but a succession of non-descript characters turned up fairly regularly with cash to pay for the documentation of those they referred to him, passing him the next batch of names and dates for refugees they were prepared to admit through the backdoor. In turn, Canaan shared with them the names of the refugees who came to him direct. Usually within the hour, he received a phone call approving his submitted list. Only two of his own applicants were rejected and they did not anyway return to Killing Time.
Then, one day out of the blue, actually out of the sombre grey of January day much like the one on which he’d first come to this city and had his bright idea, Canaan received another visit from the woman. Only when she spoke was he aware that it was her. She looked younger, but then Canaan had no idea how old he’d thought she was in the first place. Her Scotch on the rocks was delivered by Canaan’s youthful but very competent refugee barman. The boy hardly looked eighteen and had no papers, but he was charming, efficient and spoke the ‘ancient tongue’, as he called it, perfectly. Needless to say, he also came very cheap.
Unobtrusively, Canaan and his visitor again retired to his office.
‘It works every which way,’ the woman told Canaan when they’d drawn the blinds, switched on the angle-poise lamp and seated themselves at his desk. ‘Some we want in, some we let hang around to distract attention, to give activists and the media something to whine and grind about, some we send back,’ she paused, sipped her drink. ‘And some we reject on a permanent basis.’
Canaan wondered whether he’d caught her meaning but, when he dared fleeting contact with her colourless eyes, there was no doubting it.
‘Al-Armists?’ he asked, recalling what he heard in the media.
‘Lovely catch-all term.’
‘Why here?’ he asked. ‘Why don’t you…’
‘We’ll provide the asset, of course,’ the woman said, ‘unless you…’
‘Of course not!’ Canaan said, horrified and involuntarily jerking back in his leather swivel chair. But then he had a very quick muse as she was draining her glass.
‘Between you and me, how much would you pay this – er – asset?’
Considering for a moment, the woman pursed her lips and then quietly named a ‘ballpark figure’.
‘Could you provide training?’ Canaan asked.
‘Get rid of your barman,’ the woman instructed as she rose to leave, slipping her whisky glass into her bag.
My God, what have I done?
The training took place while Canaan was ostensibly on holiday, a week in the sun, leaving his Freeze-dealing associate in charge of the club. Of course, the ageing tart kept her one sharp eye on him, and the forger watched them both. No flies on Canaan. And no problem with getting enough of a suntan to allay any suspicions either, not where he ended up, even if he certainly wasn’t about to be lying on any beach.
‘It’s like working in an abattoir,’ his instructor told him. ‘The first one, the first week…’ He pulled a face, waggled an iffy hand in front of Canaan. ‘But you get used to it, see. You always have to remember, they’re not supposed to be here at all: it’s not right. You’re just, like, winding the clock back or something. So, after a bit, you can do it while you’re thinking of something else: it don’t even register. Me, I often find I’m whistling while I work.’
The first one, done there and then in the desert, was as appalling and sickening as Canaan had feared. He got through it, though. And the next. And by the time he was back home and did his first rejection completely solo he was, if not relaxed about it, at least calm: detached. He planned methodically, of course, acted mechanically, and carried on with life undisturbed: no nightmares, no shakes, no guilt. A strict rule of just one small brandy beforehand, a ritual of another large one when it was done and everything cleared up, the unfortunate referral scrupulously disposed of, and that saw him right. He was a bit shaken when he had to do his first female visa rejection, but he got used to that too. Canaan didn’t whistle, but he did have the same old song playing in his head.
Time isn't holding us.
Canaan put up a cheery neon sign on the front of his club. It featured the name Killing Time under a red-lit clock, a classic analogue alarm clock with twin bells atop, the hands frozen at three minutes to midnight. The clock was shot through with an arrow that flashed alternate blue and white, Canaan’s own idea.
Time isn't after us.
One very drunken night, Canaan blabbed to his Freeze-dealing associate, almost a mate by then. Still in control at some level, his blabbing was only in the abstract but…
‘There’s some who’d get off on that,’ his confidante said, ‘pay good money.’
Canaan thought nothing of it. At least not until he’d sobered up and his hangover had passed but then… Another lightbulb moment: two birds with one stone, so to speak. The next time some non-entity dropped off his lists – ‘careful not to mix them up, mind’ – Canaan asked to see the woman.
Then he waited.
A couple of weeks later, she dropped into the club, arriving late, just before closing time. She ordered her customary whisky and went with him to his office while the staff locked the doors and cleared up in the lounges.
‘Absolutely not,’ she said when he made his proposal, but Canaan had been scheming.
‘The way I see it, if we choose very carefully together, not only do I get to make an extra bob or two…’
‘A very great deal of bob.’
‘But you get something over the – er – oddballs who go for this sort of thing that would make them yours for life. Even now, they’d do anything to keep it quiet, out of the media. Way I heard it, there’s some influential people in – and behind – the Preservation Patrols and the mob-jobs.’
Am I right? Am I wrong?
Almost a month later, when he’d almost given up on the idea, he got word from the courier who delivered his twin lists. It came in the form of a name, whispered into his ear.
‘Pocking hell!’ Canaan gasped softly, instantly recognising the name he’d heard but hardly believing it.
‘He hates immigrants with a passion,’ the courier confided, ‘even though he’s obviously…’
‘Ours not to reason why.’
What a to-do.
But, once more in the rapid spiral of his new life, Canaan got used to doing the occasional special rejection job. It became part of his odd routine, from cups of tea and toasted sandwiches, through tarts and Oblivion, to fake passports and supplying snuff movies for the state to blackmail bad bastard with. If indeed they were the state. Even though it wasn’t frequent, the income from the special rejection jobs – big money taken from both quarters - dwarfed that from all his other ventures and side-lines. One man’s Misery, Canaan thought.
‘Hot snuff,’ he quipped to himself, chugging back his ritual double brandy and using an antique Zippo Crusader lighter to fire up a rare Partagás cigar that had been made by slaves on a corporate plantation island in one post socialist future.
And that gave him another bright idea.
With the number of refugees pegging it from hunger, disease and exposure always on the up, Canaan looked into taking over the local crematorium. Cashing in on the payment from the state for each ‘vagrant cremation’ made good business sense. They quickly realised that they’d set the rate too high and reneged, but by then Canaan was locked in for twenty-five years of over-the-odds subsidy. Easy money as long as the refugees kept coming. And kept dying. Neither proposition seemed in any doubt. Having ‘the crem’ also made Canaan’s more lucrative ventures easier. So he bought the place from some gaunt old codger who was persuaded by a series of incidents and accidents that he wanted to retire. Canaan got the business for a song.
Where is that large automobile?
Canaan got the electric hearse thrown in. The old codger looked as if he might not live long enough to cash the cheque anyway. The crem de la crème, as Canaan thought of it, humming to himself, was the icing on his cake.
Not all his special visa rejections went out on ‘the hotline’, though. On occasion, Canaan would get an alert and the remains would be taken off his hands. In these special cases, Canaan was told, the Al-Armist’s remains – however ruined - would be sent back to key moments in particular futures. As Canaan understood it, the time they were sent back to was not always their own. Whether the strategy was designed to deter or encourage Al-Armists from travelling back was open to question.
‘Ours not to reason why.’
Canaan didn’t make any marketing association between Killing Time and the crem, of course. Billing it as ‘A Killing Time Company’ or something like that would have been crass. Instead, Canaan called it ‘The Checkout’ and themed it like an early supermarket. Canaan chose The Checkout’s prime marketing slogan from the tune that played constantly in his head. It was both counter-intuitive and perfect.
Once in a lifetime.
‘You’ve come so very far so quickly, Canaan,’ the woman congratulated him when she made a surprise visit on the evening that Killing Time celebrated its fifth birthday. ‘You have become a model citizen.’
They clinked their Scotch and brandy glasses together.
‘I pocking love this time,’ Canaan admitted, a tear unbidden in his eye.
Just over one year later the interior designer turned up in the Tardis and asked to see Canaan. She was with his former barman. The young man, even thinner now and with sunken-eyes, gave a blank-faced nod of acknowledgement before, clearly reluctant, leaving Canaan alone with the woman. She too was emaciated.
‘As it happens,’ Canaan began when they’d occupied a booth in a quiet corner, ‘I’m considering a new venture, which will mean refurbishing…’
‘We know what you do here,’ the designer said, locking her eyes on his.
‘My business…’ Canaan began.
‘We know all of it.’
‘I…’ But she closed her eyes and waved aside whatever he’d been going to say.
‘My son,’ she said, ‘the boy I came with today here…’
‘I didn’t know…’
‘He needs money.’
‘He needs a certain amount of money very soon or he will not survive. He must get out, away from this time.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t just…’
She mentioned a figure: a substantial sum.
‘Trying to blackmail me would be a bad idea,’ Canaan said.
‘I am not doing that.’
‘I will not sell myself in that way,’ the designer interrupted, raising her eyes to the ceiling and, Canaan knew, meaning the brothel upstairs.
‘I have only one thing left to sell,’ she went on, ‘you understand?’
‘But I can’t…’
‘I think you can,’ she said, ‘you know people. Someone like me, a leech: a woman. They will pay well, yes?’
‘Maybe,’ Canaan admitted, ‘but…’
‘An Al-Armist leader too.’
‘You would be helping me.’
Canaan looked at the woman, looked away, and looked down at his new expensive watch, a cheeky present to himself. He drummed two fingers lightly on the watch-glass.
‘I would be grateful,’ the woman said.
Every which way, same as it ever will be.
Here's another story that Interzone didn't like - what do I have to do?
"Ultimately there are as many ways for theatre to matter as there are types of theatre – and these days there are lots. From the sweepingly grand blockbuster-style big shows you find in the West End or at the National Theatre, to the intimacy of experimental work in small hot rooms at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, or the excitement of wandering up a set of stairs at the back of a pub and not knowing what you’ll find at the top. Theatre, like all good art, can be an exercise in escapism or empathy, an adventure or food for the soul, or all of them – you might laugh, you might cry, but either way you’re sharing something with strangers, and in an increasingly divided world that feels important."
Does theatre matter? by Lauren Mooney
Theatre is irrelevant to activism., though, that's for sure: get serious!
"In my heart, I long for an independent Wales: I want a country that is not shackled to a political system that barely registers its existence, and indeed an English left that pays it little attention, except to treat it as voting fodder or to express exasperation when it hasn’t voted in a way that holds the rest of the UK back from its most rightwing urges. Wales has been marginalised and even humiliated by Westminster politics, and it deserves better. In turn, Westminster deserves to be rejected by the Welsh."
I love this quote from Ellie Mae O'Hagan's article 'It’s time for Wales to start talking about independence'
I am he as you are he as you are me, and we are all together
What's going on?
A story, essay, lyric or rhyme with no reason almost every day...