The Girl of Disquiet

Automat
Automat, Edward Hopper (1927)

Earlier this year, I moved to Lisbon for a spring sojourn because I’m no longer bound by geography to earn a living. From living in the Tuscan hills to the Atlantic Ocean, I romanticise and decay with indecision, but transport my mind and body to beautiful places.

It was sheer chance that led me to spend time with Gabriela. Like many associations in the modern era, I contacted her long before we first met. With life now reduced to a game of cards, I found myself chatting to an introverted soul; one who took esoteric selfies and expressed bizarre reactionary views.

We chatted intermittently in the weeks before I left London. I forget that at times – my early characterisation of a moody intellectual unable to fit in. Her grainy self-portraits complemented this narrative. From the comfort of my phone, I found myself forming judgements on the little messages hidden inside each picture.

For there were peculiarities with Gabriela long before I moved to Portugal. Such as why did a beautiful, well-educated Jewish-Brazilian girl have no friends in the city? It might be innately sexist of me, but I always assume that women have more friends than men.

“You don’t know me. I’m a horrible person,” she told me one evening long after we first met. I have always remembered the brutality of those words – the mean-spirited emptiness.

During that conversation, I encouraged her to download the Meetup’s app so she could meet like-minded people. From coding courses to gluten free spaghetti lessons – you can find a group for it.

“You need to go every day, every week for people to remember you…it’s easier to make friends that way”, I implored to her on What’s App.

It was an all too regular topic of conversation looking back. Gabriela eventually found one that she liked – an open mic night – and I hope she still goes.

*

After arriving in Lisbon and meeting her in a Restauradores coffee shop, I met a surprisingly upbeat girl (who could never get to the grips with my Scottish accent) who wanted to see music and lights.

With her Bambi chestnut eyes and effervescent glamour, Gabriela’s phone should have been singing with social invites. It made no sense to me why she spent most of her life on her own.

Only for reasons I could never fully understand, she had a childish hostility to Portuguese people, who didn’t like her because she was Brazilian, or they ‘were all stupid’. Then you had the simplistic admiration for Donald Trump and negative social attitudes that would inevitably upset a young urban crowd if she ever publicly expressed them.

I often wondered if her strange views proved to be a barrier to making new friends – it must be lonely and isolating if your outlook on life does not confer to a common consensus.

*

Gabriela’s Jewish faith was enormously important to her, and she regularly attended the city’s two synagogues until she unwisely got involved with two senior members, whom only had lust in their hearts.

She also used to talk about the SS commander Adolf Eichmann’s biography almost every time I saw her. It sounded like a depressing exercise to me, but as a secular Scottish man with no religious heritage, I could never emotionally gauge in her tribal sense of persecution.

If nothing else, Gabriela had the courage of her convictions and would openly criticise something she didn’t like without hesitation.

*

With insomnia causing her to stay awake until 4 am and her days regularly starting long after midday, Gabriela lived a mostly solitary life in libraries and restaurants. She had moved to Portugal to study Edward Hopper as part of an opaque PHD project and previously graduated as a psychologist in Brazil.

But I noticed she never expressed any love or admiration for the American painter, let alone any other artist or art form. That troubled me. I quickly developed an uneasy feeling there were other forces in play when it came to her studies.

*

As I shifted my belongings across the city from the Alfama district to the buzzy cobbled romance of Santa Catarina, I would randomly meet up with Gabriela about once a week. Like many people in Portugal going out for drinks was not part of her vocabulary – she abstained from alcohol most nights.

Over plates of steamed cod and grilled chicken, we regularly spoke about her desire for friends and the nocturnal sleepiness of Lisbon. She loved the city’s soul grooves but found it immensely boring. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, there’s an isolationist romance about living in Portugal’s capital – it feels far removed from the rest of Europe.

Unable to leave the country unless she goes back to Brazil, her loneliness was further compounded by her academic isolation. Gabriela had no peers, colleagues or even classes to attend as part of her library-based studies.

She did have flatmates in her Graca-based apartment, but they provided no companionship at all. Identifying that everyone needs peers as friends, I once suggested that she got a bar job or something. “My father would be ashamed of me,” she stridently told me. “He’s not paying me to work in a restaurant, but to expand and explore my mind”.

I half-suspected her documentary filmmaker father, whom she loved deeply and cited frequently, may have been an overdue influence on her academic career. As I never once detected any ambition from her to teach or write about American realism after she graduated. It didn’t seem to matter, either way, to be honest.

She seemed trapped in her father’s image, a loving daughter exercising his benevolent wishes in a fairy tale land, forever dining alone like one of Hopper’s paintings.

*

I last saw Gabriela walking around the Pantheon complex in the Graca neighbourhood, which I belatedly moved too in April. She said she would miss me at the time but randomly unfollowed me on Instagram a month later.

It must be obvious by now that we had nothing in common. I’m not even sure if she liked me, but in the absence of like-minded friends, we filled the void together. Sitting amongst the city’s jacaranda trees and art nouveau kiosks, just waiting for something to happen.

8.08am to Hendon Central

Sitting amongst the cheery chatter of keyboards in north London, I wonder why I’m so fixated on matters outwith my control. My mind rattles around like a broken trolley, swerving and spiralling in different directions. I feel like I don’t make any decisions of my own.

Juggling two books and a barren phone, I wake up earlier now and go on the tube. Reading about an outsider artist from Chicago and the perils of hypervigilance, I rattle past 1930s suburbs in the sunshine. Its a non-linear journey with no tangible end in sight.

Alas, change is always partial and always by degree. Like what did people do in offices before they sent emails to one another? I need to be far grander in my ambitions than merely taking up space. I want to live passionately and make huge, spectacular mistakes.

Nothing will change unless I make mistakes.

The Big Suit

Typecast again after another audition, I looked powerful and resolute as I caught myself in the mirror. I was the man for all things. You can trust a man in a suit. He has authority and purpose.

A blonde Russian beauty made eyes with me at Bank station; a petite Indian business woman looked twice at Moorgate, and a man in his early thirties asked me directions to Aldgate East.

It was a power trip compared to my life in trainers. But the suit betrayed what I was really thinking. I don’t know what I’m doing here. Living in the centre of the empire and dressing up like I’m a king.

Keep it in the ground

London

I think most people write because they don’t want to sleepwalk through life. Writing is a means of keeping memories alive. If you don’t record, paint or obsessively photograph or film every living moment, then why are you even here?

I write to stay alive as you forget what matters otherwise. That’s the one thing that scares me the most. Not being able to remember my stories for better or worse. I also want to keep a record of my changing. I am always changing.

School years are easy to remember if your parents keep hold of your jotters, paintings and teacher reports. Thereafter you have landmark birthdays with complementing photographs, graduation days and long hot summers doing nothing at all. Memories feel more tangible when your everyday life is administered year by year.

Only now I find months and years morph anonymously into a cloudy void. This year doesn’t feel any different than the previous four. I’m sure plenty of things have happened, but for some reason I barely notice the difference. Perhaps amnesia has set in prematurely because I’ve lived in the same flatshare for five years. Working as a freelance copywriter chasing unpaid invoices and ignoring recruiters is a repetitive trade at times.

East London Bedroom

Living as a layman in East London doesn’t provide much visual stimulation either. I’m sure the past few years would have been more memorable if I had gone backpacking in Chile or married a blonde jazz singer in Melbourne.

Alas, when I wake up in the morning there is no orchestral soundtrack accompanying my footsteps to the bathroom. My laptop screensaver is the same as the year before. Pulling open my black Primark curtains I see the same tattered plastic bag swinging from the communal birch tree every day.

Blogging provides a subjective personal history, and it’s a necessary one if you want to join up the dots. Skipped behind my bookcase lies a collection of diaries and notebooks I have curated over the years. With literary quotes squashed in the margins, I keep filling them out and dumping them alongside their older colleagues. A scrapheap of memories no one will ever read.

If I am lucky enough to have a family of my own, they’ll eventually be boxed and kept upstairs in an oak wooden loft. Maybe they’ll be sparingly reopened for an old quote or a nostalgic rummage through the past. Only to be put back in their place again, a handwritten contract with a young man that no longer exists.

Aberdeenshire Pictish Symbol

Before I longed for a written legacy I remember being assigned a primary school project to recreate the standing stones of the Picts (an ancient warrior tribe in northern Scotland). The Romans called them the ‘Painted People’ because of their elaborate monstrous tattoos embroidered on their chests. On building Hadrian’s Wall in 128 AD, the Romans essentially formed an ideological frontier that stated civilisation lay down south.

Just like the Picts, we express our stories in equally vivid and complex ways, but I don’t think any of my A.I descendants will be recreating any of my blog tales.

Electromagnetic Pulse

My skipped diaries are physical reminders of my narcissistic desire to be exhibited just like the Picts. While stone circles remain visible, our digital archives could easily be wiped out by a nuclear inspired electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

Electrical magnetic storms have the ability to destroy our civilisation just like fire pulped the ancient scrolls of Alexandria Library. A world without Wi-Fi would be nasty, brutish and short. Don’t try and order a pizza on your iPhone when it happens.

Internet Dsytopia

Bit rot – the slow deterioration of data software such as floppy discs may render our digital civilisation useless to future historians. Cloud-based services are worthless if technology moves so fast that you can’t even open them. Unlike calfskin vellum’s and hardback books our collective knowledge requires constant software upgrades just to remain accessible.

Augmented Reality

While it probably isn’t a tragedy if my ex-girlfriends emails are unable to be read by future generations. I still want to keep them alive somehow. By taking one glance at them you hear the voice of another person, someone still alive but lost forever.

Writing to me is one of the greatest human inventions, holding us all together, providing an emotional bond with the dead, living and unborn.

Biblioteca

Change is the one constant on a writer’s journey to the recycle bin. It doesn’t matter how eloquent your thoughts are in the twenty-first century, all it takes is a server failure and your life’s works will become robot.txt.

If I wanted to preserve this blog it would be wiser to print it off and laminate it for safe keeping. Your future memory palace is more likely to be sourced from handwritten notebooks than your Facebook archives.

All this superlative technology and ancient rock symbols carved with a chisel will out last us all.

Sounds on my pillow

Dozing on my pillow, I wake up and have thirty minutes to spare. Outside the pneumatic groan of the 394 bus trails past on route towards Hackney Downs. My phone is buzzing with messages and the second alarm is just about to go off.

It’s noisy outside and the estate is getting ready for work.

Housewives are chattering outside my balcony and packs of kids in woolly hats are going to school. Local drivers are in the hunt for a parking spot. Downstairs a coarse man nursing a semi-circle of ill-health is effing and blinding like a complete utter cunt.

My alarm is now vibrating on a cold sheet of cotton.

Surrounded by grim tower blocks and dazzling towers of chrome and glass, I prepare for eight hours of home working. Gone are the crashing bells of Venezia and waking up to gondola men whooshing past at dawn.

Ole! Ole! Ole!

Only a few months ago, I lived in that strange dream across the water. This provides some comfort as my body swivels on a chair and switches on a bright electronic light.

Arnold Circus

Arnold Circus Des BlenkinsoppAuthor’s Note

Life is not supposed to be confined to one place and living in an N1 council estate, I sometimes long to move on and write about something new. If that turns out to be case, then it certainly won’t be in Arnold Circus, but you’ll have to keep reading to find out why. This place I prefer to keep to myself. Until then I hereby present a re-published story about a fairytale council estate in Shoreditch.

***

For most Londoners I know, the term ‘ex-council’ is a pejorative expressed with a wry shrug. Cheek by jowl people live in council estates under the loving supervision of private landlords. It’s a necessity rather than a choice, and if you don’t like it, then move to Leeds.

Everyone dreams about their ideal home and as a self-declared dreamer and social climber, I’d love a two-bedroom flat in Arnold Circus. Designed by Victorian philanthropists for the respectful working-classes, Arnold Circus is one of the most beautiful council estates in England.

Arnold Circus Lady Aga

With its red brick tenements individually named after villages on the River Thames and connected by leafy boulevards that extend from a central communal bandstand, Arnold Circus is like a painting fashioned from the rubble of dismantled slums.

Arnold Circus Andrea Vail

This Victorian model village has a fairytale quality that surpasses anything you may find in richer neighbourhoods. What is inspiring is how street design and architecture can improve people’s lives. It’s like every footstep you make has been accounted for on a map.

Home to thousands of social tenants and a few private professionals, I will never rent, let alone, own a flat in Arnold Circus. But for while I still live in East London it will remain my favourite conduit – a gateway to better things.

Arnold Circus Bandstand

With the rich green canopies sheltering bourgeois dog walkers and teen gangs, it feels like my footsteps become brush strokes whenever I walk through here. Like I’m subconsciously taking part in someone else’s painting. A snapshot of consciousness amidst the overgrown ferns and rising Plane trees.

Arnold Circus is a bona fide masterpiece in urban planning, and all I am is a passing visitor, a solitary figure traversing on foot.

Some days I walk

30th January 2014

On closing my flat door in Hoxton, I go down three flights of ex-council stairs and head towards the Regent’s Canal. I’ve left early for a change and the estate has been rinsed clean. It’s raining again and I will arrive in Farringdon with mucky wet jeans…

Walking in London gives me a sense of freedom and independence. Perhaps it’s a consequence of never learning to drive that I place an enormous faith in my legs to get me everywhere. From tramping along rustic Scottish cliffs as a teenager to commuting alongside millions in Farringdon, I walk in order to survive.

Usually I have white buds in my ears when I leave the flat, they help block out the grey streets around me. Elegiac feels are the perfect companion for a winter stroll, but I put them aside for now. I’ve been listening to Harvest Moon by Neil Young on repeat – it has a romantic hazy melancholy that I like.

The old waterway has changed quite significantly since I was last here. A shrill metallic drilling breaks up the silence from across the waterway. They are constructing a new social housing estate to replace the one they flattened last year – a thirty year circle of growth, stagnation, and decay.

On my way northwards I pass underneath curved Georgian bridges while listening to the lonely cry of mallards. Creeping gothic ivy spills over from millionaire homes and smoke-shacked barges bellow out charred peat. It’s a good deal romantic on the towpath.

Charging up a leaf-soaked hill I arrive opposite an Islington primary school. The canal has gone now and I must get a move on. Streaming with traffic I join an invisible cast of commuters and increase my walking speed. A crush of red buses drive past and workers run towards Angel looking for shelter.

Walking away from station towards Farringdon, I spot St Paul’s Cathedral and the Shard looking bleached and sad in the distance. My journey is nearly over now and I’m running out of time. I am lucky that I can walk to work unlike many others. My legs take me everywhere – that’s what they do.

On approaching glass revolving doors in Hatton Garden, I sense something is missing from my journey. It’s only taken me thirty minutes and I have everything I need, but deep down walking can only take you so far.

Old Man Lost In Shoreditch

One balmy afternoon in Shoreditch I encountered a bald grey man in his early seventies wandering along Old Street. Unkempt with his peppercorn stubble and rotund paunch, the elder asked me for directions to London Bridge. We were standing outside a false Mexican restaurant. El Paso – whatever that means. And with the northern line only five minutes away I directed him towards Old Street station and he replied ‘thanks mate, nobody here gives a shit’. Like a Lowry matchstick he shuffled into the distance and I was immediately struck by how incongruous the old man looked.

In Shoreditch everyone is under 35 and riding a bike in the sunshine. Nobody old lives or works here. Unlike other cities or municipalities, there is no natural spreading out of decades. East London is almost entirely populated by millenials. Saplings without roots they have colonised Shoreditch to such an extent that an old man asking for directions now looks out of place.

And then I realised that his world is over: the trains, factories and pints of ale – this has gone forever and technology is now ascendant, whirling over tiny filaments invisibly beneath the soil. Wires that aren’t even wires – it breeds ambivalence among those sharing the very same air.

Quarter of a Century

Glasgow is a city with a brooding gothic soul. A city I once wrote about regularly, even if it was just the banality of routine. With its violence menace, religious iconography and twee bourgeois sensibility, Glasgow captured my imagination at a particular period in time. Back when I described the insignificant truth of this solitary journey to the cinema on a cold weekday evening. A melancholy love letter so to speak. I had just turned twenty-five. 

Tuesday, 10th January 2006

Moth to a Flame

I go the cinema when I’m bored and lonely. It all begins with an over familiar route through the West End and after several twists and turns I will magically stride through Garnethill down towards the largest cinema building on Planet Earth.

The beginning of the journey is arguably the most comfortable upon the eye, it is invariably dark and rectangle shades of affluent light can be seen frozen behind coloured glass. I walk across the Byres Road up towards Great Gibson Street, where mercenary cranes hang over an underdeveloped patch of soil; it is a docile but rapidly changing stretch of road.

The sharp gradient tightens the muscles on both of my legs and I have reached the peak of the road, where in sudden twist of fate I feel compelled to go down the hill towards Gibson Street. I used to live around here, the car park is still a muddy disgrace, littered with crass aluminium shells and alien sized craters. The park dominates the area, it is a spooky place and lit only by a curved silver moon; its iron gates lie open but I dare not enter.

I stride past fancy Lebanese and Scottish restaurants, it is an ordinary night but they both appear full of people. I cross over the gentle river, there are no grebes or mallards to be seen and only now do I start to accelerate towards my destination. I twist past two Protestant churches and a cold young fox lying dead in the leaves. The road ahead is empty and without a soul, it appears darker now, the motorway is within walking distance.

I head towards Charing Cross, it is very quiet and all the cars have gone. It is not the right time but I prefer to take to the skies than walk alongside them. I adjust my legs and walk over an arched granite causeway; it elevates me above the carnage of the roads and provides access to the mysterious ways of Garnethill.

I am in the city now, there something sinister about this place, something threatening, although my mind is playing tricks on me. It is dark right now and no one is here. The street is awash with neat green lawns and vacancy signs, there are places to stay on my left, while to my right there are scattered bins and graffiti strewn fire exits.

I walk ominously closer and there is a Catholic Church approaching, which is separated by yew, rowan and a piercing iron fence. This secretive place of worship performs mass in Latin and the priest is kept hidden behind a secret silver veil. The church is small but intimidating and I don’t think it likes me at all. I walk on alone and without a God, the winter air is biting my cheeks, my hands are beginning to get cold now.

I walk towards the famous art school and admire its subtle and decorative style, there are no students in the nearby eighties lounge. I am almost there now and feel like a distant stranger, people are on the move down below me, there is a collection of buckfast and vodka sitting alongside a corrugated steel gate. The streets are colliding into one, there are cars passing by me, it is now sparkling with light and the silence has gone.

Something Unspoken

Despite feeling under pressure to earn a serious living, my desire to write has never fully gone away. It doesn’t matter how much I try to disregard my former love affair as a whimsical self-indulgence, I continually struggle to cope with a desire to be creative. What remains is a simmering frustration at how I have let my writing habits slip.

Gone are the days of when I would scribble thoughts, proverbs and sensations into a notebook or spend hours sitting in front of a blank screen hoping I could conjure up a sentence or two. Writing for me is partly fuelled by my desire to see my own stream of consciousness appear on screen. The physical sensation of articulating private thoughts to create an aesthetic spectacle is something I have always loved to do.

This creative process is not static and can be magically conjured up in a letter, email, blog, tweet or even an online conversation with a like minded friend. The danger with the transient nature of modern communications is that any prose will be lost at the time of delivery and there will never be an effective method of preserving the CCTV of the mind. In truth I don’t think I’ll ever have a recognised calling because my writing style, flaws and personality have never truly aligned themselves to a commercial medium.

In the past I had kept various online journals and last year I closed them because I felt they could be potentially damaging to my future relationships and career. Burying my desire to write and subsequently not being able to find a suitable medium to express myself creatively, I found myself frustrated and increasingly agitated at not doing anything other than working and indulging in leisure activities such as going to the cinema or watching football.

Perhaps I’ve grown out of the routine of documenting my thoughts but I do regret the loss of a daily creative stimulus. The naive joy of confession is something I find strangely comforting and in moments of silent anguish, I continue to pine for that late night tapping sensation.