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 heroic mistakes.

Nothing will change otherwise. Nothing will change at all.

The Big Suit

Typecast again after another audition, I walked home across the river through a vision of high capital. I looked powerful and resolute as I caught myself in the mirror, approximately one inch taller at 6ft 4″. 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 petit Indian businesswoman 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 hid the truth. It 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.

The Prince and the Writer

Astrological ClockBooking my flight to Venice last September had none of the usual fanfare. No shiny guidebook from Waterstones, no ‘going local’ through disruptive technologies or Spritz cocktails. This was a a clandestine mission lasting less than 36 hours. After a deeply frustrating summer and a broken fairytale pulling my strings, I threw the dice and gambled on Venezia.

Arriving at Marco Polo Airport at noon, I had the afternoon to work out the route to hotel. Armed only with a rucksack, I repeatedly told myself this was not a holiday, I couldn’t contemplate doing anything fun.

Chopping along the lagoon waters at breakneck speed, I sat next to a brash American family as cormorants sped past us on the aquatic highway. Young romantic couples on mini-breaks took selfies, and a Dutch family hawked up guttural consonants throughout our sea-bound journey.

Everyone else on the vaporetto boat was decked in holiday attire and carrying bulging suitcases. I felt considerably out of place as we pulled up at St. Marks Square. Battling amongst a swarm of visitors I marched towards an astrological clock with sweat trickling down my back. Much to my dismay, patches the size of Venice were already starting to develop.

Still blisteringly hot in early September, I checked into my one-star hotel and was curtly directed to my box room upstairs, where I had to squeeze past a monstrous boiler just to get inside. Collapsing onto my rickety single frame it immediately began to squeak – immediately I knew this was going to be a long night and the bloodsucking mosquitoes made sure of that. Such was the sense of decay at the hotel, I could have mysteriously died and my body would have lay undiscovered for about 25 years.

Calle-dei-FabbriMy interview took place a few days before the Scottish independence referendum and I felt incredibly tense refreshing Twitter for new polls. The #indyref certainly contributed towards a heightened sense of anxiety, one which crystalised my entire summer and fed into my Venetian journey.

Meanwhile I had to get this job whether Scotland became an independent state or not, and finding the office was proving difficult. Navigating a densely packed medieval warren and trying to pinpoint a tiny calle is not easy as a tourist.

With the lagoon heat saturating my energy, I kept on getting as far as Rialto fish market and nervously backtracking to my hotel exhausted and hungry. My interview was at 11am and not being able to find the ofifce would hardly have been a ringing endorsement of my intelligence. Even with my spatial awareness deficiencies, I simply had to find the office after coming all this way.

After dining in a backstreet tattoria close to St. Mark Square, I coughed up for my pizza and returned to my upstairs hovel. Darkness had pulled its cloak over the lagoon and there was a tangible switch in atmosphere, a balmy restlessness of knives and spoons entwining in lobster restaurants.

Lying on my creaky bed frame, I conceded to my overheated melancholy and purchased £10 phone data, which triggered multiple What’s App conversations.

Venice NightMy first message came from an eccentric Croatian guy called Matej who had been communicating intermittently with me on Skype for months. Highly intelligent with superb colloquial English, Matej told me about the job and encouraged me to apply for the role, but pleaded with me not to mention him at all.

I never knew what to make of the veiled secrecy. Being a straight laced, north European my instinct is to apply for jobs the traditional way and let emails take care of the rest.Things are done differently in Venice as I soon found out.

Matej aggressively pleaded with me to meet him at Rialto Bridge saying “I’ll be really pissed with you if you don’t come!” On Skype chat he always appeared to be a shape-shifting chameleon, and had a bizarre penchant for self-publicity. His alter ego Facebook page left me wondering exactly what ‘Matej’ I was going to meet that evening.

He was also a domineering figure and clearly enjoyed playing games with people. Luckily I liked him, but I was suspicious and nervous too. I always appreciated his sense of humour. However, I didn’t know what to make of him, or what his motivation might be for inviting me to apply.

Unsure whether it was a good idea to meet him beforehand, I left the hotel and entered the darkness with mosquitoes famishing my wrists. Guided by spooky gas lamps and painted arrows, I arrived at Rialto Bridge teaming with flashing cameras and selfie sticks.

Matej was standing there on the lower steps, a skinny flamboyant man with a rib hugging t-shirt, and we shook hands and both silently observed a hitherto internet character morphing into life.

Matej stressed we couldn’t hang around Rialto in case somebody saw us. Venice is a tiny island and you bump into acquaintances every day. As a stranger in a foreign land, I blindly followed him down a series of calles past a fifteenth century monastery, which had been serenely converted into a beautiful hospital. In hushed tones he made it clear we couldn’t be seen talking in public, as far everyone in the office knew, we weren’t aware of one another’s existence.

Along the way I learned a Swedish guy was being considered for the job as well. Matej’s plan to parachute me into the office was suddenly in jeopardy. I felt threatened by this development too. Suddenly this trip was no longer an inauguration, and I could end up flying back to London with nothing.

Arriving at a backstreet tenement in Castello, I was introduced to three people in a gloomy Hopper-esque kitchen. Accepting one of their beers, Matej explained how the owner ran the office like a saloon bar and that I needed “to tell them how you can make the company lots of bookings without spending any money.”

Then somewhat depressingly he lamented company’s lack of bookings, much to the annoyance of his roommates, who were clearly all too familiar with this angst ridden tale.

After discussing the Scotland’s exit from the UK, I said my farewells and headed back to the hotel following the yellow arrows. Mataj’s cloak and dagger tactics had been a great help and I warmly reassured him I would stonewall him at tomorrow’s interview.

With the office directions firmly embedded in my head I was confident I could find the place and get through this final, final round. Like everything else you need to throw the dice for extraordinary things to happen. I had lost enough in the proceeding months.

I flew over to live three weeks later.

calle-dei-boteri

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 voicemails is a repetitive trade at times.

East London Bedroom

An inconspicuous lifestyle 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 got married to 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.

Grand Central Station

If it wasn’t for my blog then I wouldn’t be able to trace anything at all. Blogging provides a highly subjective recorded history, but a necessary one if you want to join up the dots. For example I can’t honestly remember when I flew over to New York for an OK Cupid date (yes that’s right).

If I scroll back I can remember arriving in Grand Central Station. It was unseasonally hot and I was jet lagged for the first time. Walking around I remember the towering sense of civilisation, meeting Nicole, queuing outside MOMA together and buying Mexican beers in a Harlem grocery store. But the timing of this otherwise memorable trip escapes me. It could have happened anytime in the last three years. Now that’s what you call experiencing life on a big scale.

Notebook

From red ochre cave paintings in southern France to tweeting rubbish about football, there is something incredibly human about keeping a record. Skipped behind my bookcase lies a collection of diaries and notebooks I have curated over the years. With literary quotes squashed in the margins justifying their existence, 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 written bond with a young man that no longer exists.

In addition to my dusty notebook skip, I keep shoeboxes full of old letters, gifts and Valentine’s Day cards underneath my bed. Occasionally I take a look at them, but I haven’t checked them or my ex-girlfriends emails for over a decade. I know I will never look at them again. But I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of them either. A skip or recycle bin makes no difference to me. Deep down I want someone to read my stories when I’m not here.

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 128AD, the Romans essentially formed an ideological frontier that stated civilisation lay down south – roads, aqueducts, fortresses.

Northward bound was a land of mist, barbarians and Pictish standing stones. The same stone circles I tried to recreate with my Dad’s chisel. Looking back it was one of my all-time favourite school projects, bashing away at a lump of rock in a bitterly cold garage. I’ve resoundingly failed to experience the same sense of joy in working ever since.

Artifical Intelligence

A large number of Pictish stone circles have survived in Scotland. Whatever messages the Picts were to trying convey I cannot fathom even now, but their recorded history remains accessible even today. Like the Picts we too express our own stories in equally vivid and complex ways, but assuming there will still be an inhabitable planet 2000 years from now, I don’t think any of my A.I descendants will be recreating my stories on an interstellar spaceship.

Electromagnetic Pulse

In some respects 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 if a magnetic dystopia were ever to take place. 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 also renders our digital civilisation useless to future historians. Cloud based services are not worth anything if technology moves so fast that you can’t even open them. Unlike calfskin vellums and hardback books accessible in public libraries today, our collective knowledge requires constant software upgrades just to stay alive.

Augmented Reality

My stories are unlikely to be remembered by anyone and that’s assuming I’m fortunate enough to have children or grandchildren interested in genealogy. My WordPress subscription has to surely expire at some point. What happens if the software company goes bust or evolves into an augmented reality server projecting to a visually attuned audience?

Email

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 and grand your thoughts are in the twenty-first century, all it takes is an epic server upgrade and your life stories will become robot.txt. You see that’s the progressive irony of our digital revolution. No amount of technology can save your words, especially anything stored on an electro-powered server.

A memory palace is more likely to be derived from handwritten notebooks than your Facebook archives. If I want to preserve this particular record it would be wiser to print it off and laminate it for safe keeping. But even my words will fail to outlast the stone circles of an ancient Caledonian tribe. That’s real power if you ask me. All this superlative technology spinning in the sky, and ancient rock symbols carved with a chisel in the ground 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 water taxis and 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, Shoreditch but you’ll have to keep reading to find out why. This place I prefer to keep to myself. I do hope this will mean something to someone one day though. 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 move here and 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 and fascinating council estates in Britain.

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 real-time 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 London’s richer neighbourhoods. What is really 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. Indeed there aren’t many council estates registered by English Heritage for their special historic interest.

Still 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 Arnold Circus. 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 on Upper Street and increase my walking speed. A crush of red buses float 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 other people. My legs take me everywhere – that’s what they do.

Just on approaching those glass revolving doors on a wet Thursday morning, 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.

New Year’s Day

With a grilled index finger from overusing What’s App, I descend upon Hoxton Street in pursuit of breakfast. My first of a calendar year and it’s driech outside (a foul and miserable day) just like the guttural Scottish adjective. The flat has become a festive zoo for the past five days – a stampede of doors, oven baking and rich Dutch chatter.

You get little privacy and my tolerance is questionable, but I do enjoy listening to unknown vowels and consonants. What on earth are they talking about? Are they talking about me?

Unable to find out I walk past hungover dwellers in grey designer coats and find myself inside a mock French cafe. Ordering a grilled ham croissant and salad, I write out a series of aspirations for 2014: run 30-35 minutes (3 times a week), 25 push ups per day, keep a diary, write for a NYC webzine, eat less chocolate, wear more fashionable clothes and immerse myself in Atlantic magazines.

Usually I want to explore the world but I can’t find any enthusiasm to go anywhere.

Writing lists is a constant of mine and one I keep throughout the year. It’s comforting and reassuring to still have goals. Maybe our desire in keeping notes is that handwriting is like simultaneously drawing.

More honest than our everyday lives shared with strangers. The pains we go to hide the truth and grudging compromises we make in the spirit of forgiveness.

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.