Chat Histories

Red head

I believe we are living in a time of great wonder. On trying to capture this sentiment, I have been trying and failing to write a story, one I may never finish, but I felt the inspiration behind this journey is worth sharing. Even if nobody is reading – this is my blog after all.

Chat Histories is a digital love story set in two continents and features a precocious red lipped actress, careerist millennial and a fruity Baptist daughter from the American South. I met two, slept with one, kissed the other, and became surreally fictionalised by another.

What started off as a throwaway message on my smartphone at Luton Airport blossomed into a series of remarkable stories – a collection of romantic illusions only made possible by new technology. The virtual world of chat is a logged history of friendship you never intended to write. From defying time and space in Grand Central Station to serendipitously becoming a theatre character in Cambridge, I can only marvel at the untold possibilities of underwater cables.

Green Light

On trying to capture the essence of virtual consciousness, I have been wrestling with potential storylines for some time now. Alas my fear, or inability, to write compelling dialogue has prevented me from moving beyond this blog. In truth I don’t even know where to start. Without a proper storyline you can get lost in a picturesque maze and I find the creative process very humbling.

As like all bloggers I consider myself to be far more intelligent than I actually am. Chat Histories is almost certainly rooted in accidental hubris. When writing in the cloud, I feel wittier, sharper and more gregarious than I might appear otherwise. Sometimes I wonder if I’m a better person online than IRL.

Some would argue we’re all more virtuous and smarter on social media anyway. Greater peer recognition gives us a dopamine rush we don’t usually receive in our everyday lives. The dichotomy of real and online lives has always fascinated me, especially as the great unborn (with their foetus scans on Facebook) won’t be able to tell the difference.

And what we are experiencing now is going to be romanticised for centuries to come; a first-time generational experience like when Kerouac travelled incredible distances in the early fifties. Overcoming time and space like never before, the Route 66 experience can only be imitated by future generations now.

What Kerouac et al went through can never be repeated in the purest sense. No hitchhiking selfies were uploaded on Instagram in 1949. All counter-culture movements, often through no fault of their own, become a pastiche of themselves in future years.

Cables

Like the Beats accelerating across a vast continent at great speeds, our newly wired world has been transformed beyond recognition. Chat Histories is my failed attempt to capture the magic of the virtual world. An unwritten tale about an ordinary life transformed by our fresh ability to write and share instantaneously.

Our constant flicker might seem surreal and highly narcissistic in years to come but it’s happening and you only get one chance. Meanwhile Chat Histories may never be published but I compose tweets and messages everyday in hope of finding something better. There are pitfalls of course, but would we ever want to go back?

Maybe websites will live on after you are dead

Glasgow’s Necropolis certainly knows how to look after the dead. Many of the city’s richest merchants, landed families and ecclesiastical figures are buried there. Scotland’s most iconic graveyard is full of broken down tombs and while visiting footsteps will cause more damage, it seems fitting that the living should take precedence over the dead. Many of the chiselled obituaries have now been wiped clean by the inevitable crushing of time and those who pass away are usually forgotten about within a generation.

Not that I want to speculate about my demise but I will inevitably perish in the twenty-first century and my existence will be erased from memory in the twenty-second. Sounds harsh but how many flowers are left at the gravestones of those who passed away in 1892? Nobody really recalls their Great-Great-Great Granddad who enlisted to fight in the Boer War as a callow youth. Likewise no one will remember a blogging Scotsman who worked in online web content during the first half of the twenty-first century.

Graves like memories are not supposed to last and even the grandest tombs end up being mossed over without a trace. Overlooking the soot-stained Glasgow Cathedral, the opulent neo-classical tombs of the Necropolis were originally inspired by Ancient Greece and now lie smashed open by Victorian grave diggers and cider swilling tramps. Their inhabitant’s identity erased from memory after centuries of neglect. Unsurprising really as the vast majority of dead people are of no interest to anyone apart from amateur genealogists or school children tracing graves as part of their history project.

Crumbling like bits of cheese over time, graves are metaphors for life itself and yet traditional cemeteries are undergoing a technological revolution. Quick Response (QR) codes are going to be installed in graveyards allowing visitors to scan headstones for online biographies of dead people. Unlike in the past, where graves collapse over time, embedded QR codes could potentially revolutionise the cemetery experience.

Costing a mere £300, QR codes will provide the dead with a Wiki style biography that will include images, videos and tributes from family and friends. By scanning a smartphone, the life story of the newly buried can be downloaded within seconds – outlining their birthplace, nationality, mutual friends and tagged Facebook photos from a flat warming party in the 01’s. A remarkable development that will ensure even the dead will become stars and constellations in this new virtual world.

Our souls may perish but our life stories will live on thanks to modern technology. Checking in for what must seem like an eternity, no one will be mourning this blogger in the twenty-second century, but I am now confident that my data will live forever. Six feet under and yet better connected than ever before.

Blink

Kindred spirits are often romanticised in modern culture, but Blink is a little more surrealist in tone. A character play set in a world just like our own, Jonah and Sophie talk about a voyeuristic love story and one fitting of a society obsessed with making connections.

Written by English playwright Phil Porter, Blink addresses how virtuality has become the next phase of evolution; a world in which you can fall madly in love with complete strangers before even making a call. An online commune of language, love and dreams created entirely with words and grainy pixels – a fantasy world where you write all the rules.

Running at the Ed Fringe throughout August, Blink relies on two protagonists – an impish northern nerd Jonah (Harry McEntire), who somewhat unconvincingly emerges from a Presbyterian boot camp with a flair for voyeurism. Meanwhile the wonderfully gifted Sophie (Rosie Wyatt) has been looking after her dying father and loses her job in a software company for a perceived ‘lack of visibility’.

It this lack of visibility that crystallises the essence of Phil Porter’s play, where Jonah follows Sophie (with her loving consent) on a webcam and they both take solace from their weird and childlike sense of isolation. It is something they cannot necessarily touch but can only feel. They inhabit a world in where virtual souls find love in the anonymity of strangers.

For you see loneliness doesn’t necessarily stem from being on your own. Solitude can or will inevitably contribute but even those with regular human company can feel lonely. It is the inability to share private thoughts, desires and acute observations with like minded souls that accentuates many people’s sense of isolation.

Like sitting on a bus two rows behind a stranger you’re to painfully shy too approach, the same aches and desires apply and in many ways it can be even more painful. Blink is a story about love. A story about how it’s easier to confess all to a bleeping box on Facebook than it is to call a childhood friend. To lapse into an inexplicable world where you believe the other to be perfect. When you haven’t even heard their voice and as quicksands of love shift, which they always do, you blink and the feeling has gone.

Blink runs at the Traverse Theatre until August 26th and the Soho Theatre from Wed 29 August – Sat 22 September. 

Door to the River

After graduating from Glasgow University in July 2004, I had several ambitions in life and like many arts graduates none of them involved having a career. Well at least I had absolutely no intention of retraining as a history teacher, which at the time appeared to be the only option available to me.

Instead I embraced a hazy world of denial and escapism and this involved travelling around Europe on borrowed money and giving up a £65 a week bedsit on the Great Western Road. Such an undertaking came partly as a lust for knowledge and a desire to explore new cultures and languages. Scotland for all its charms is geographically isolated, monolingual and bordered only by England.

However, I must acknowledge that one of the most compelling reasons behind my desire to travel was the chance to ditch my joke finance job at the Abbey National. So before I abandoned Glasgow for the olive fields of Andalucia, I had one ambition left in life and that involved writing my own fanzine.

Such was my love of Kelvinside and its bohemian leafy character, I came up with a pun title derived from a mediocre John Fante novel and set about producing an irreverent guide to post-graduate life in the West End of Glasgow. An inky offbeat publication capturing small town blues, film reviews, Chinese takeaways and unwise polemics against high street chuggers. Ask The Kelvin seemed like a good idea at the time.

Unknown to me in the mid-Noughties, I had set about producing a dead tree publication long before the wonders of tagging, Tumblr and all the social interactive elements that assist writers today. Unable to share my thoughts on a global scale, there was no danger of Ask The Kelvin ever going viral. Living in a make-believe world I knew at the time I couldn’t make any money out of a fanzine but for some strange reason I felt compelled to make one anyway.

On embracing the self-funded model, I produced fifty copies at the local stationary store and distributed them at Fopp, Offshore and a ragtag collection of Byres Road charity shops. Back then Facebook didn’t even exist and the audience I secretly lusted and craved for during my sleepless nights in Otago Street never quite materialised. Indeed looking back it does seem really twee and provincial, especially when I compare it to some of the sexy projects on Kickstarter.

Based in New York and providing a self-funded platform to raise funds on a global scale, Kickstarter allows random individuals to become patrons of their favourite projects. Almost like a counter-culture version of the BBC Dragons’ Den, Kickstarter involves a video pitch alongside a synopsis explaining the reasons why you should support them. Not with a lazy like you can get away with elsewhere but with hard cash.

Kickstarter is an amazing place to support new talent and my personal favourite is theNewerYork, an experimental lit mag based in Brooklyn that celebrates radical poetry, love letters and seriously weird pieces of art. Like stumbling into your favourite record shop as a 17 year old and discovering heroin tainted rock zines for the first time, if you tire of the NewerYork, you are tired of life.

Surreally decorated with unfamous quotes and the occasionally haunting story, their magazine blows my wee Glasgow fanzine out of the water. Beautifully humbled by their efforts, I must confess that on reading their e-version, some 3500 miles away in an English metropolis, I never stood a chance back in leafy Kelvinside. Alas I am now older than the 23 year old locked inside a Glasgow bedsit but still similarly way inclined.

Unlike the NewerYork I don’t think I would get $8,119 in funding for the second edition of Ask The Kelvin, even allowing for the social media tools available to young writers and artists today. However, I do take some inspiration from one of their many slogans: everything has been done before, so do it better. 

The Web is Not Great

Coming into work with your eyes stinging from the night before doesn’t require a night out to remember. The world is flooded with electronic light and it no longer requires anyone to go outdoors. After spending all day in front of a computer and returning home to converse in the same fashion, there appears to be more and more ways to communicate than things to say.

Cyberspace has become a black hole, where our thoughts and emotions are distributed on Facebook and Twitter, and sold on and repackaged to make a profit. God once commanded his flock to down tools on a Sunday but there is now an even more powerful designer in charge and like the celestial dictatorship of old he is entirely man-made.

With the internet going on strike over proposed anti-piracy laws, the Wikipedia protests only further exposed the excessive amount of time we spend online. Such a powerful new religion now requires a Sabbath. Luxury is a result of scarcity and what leather, travel and prawn cocktails were to the working classes in the early twentieth century, spending less time on the internet will be to the twenty first. As anyone with a compulsive refreshing habit will already realise there is something wrong with having permanently sore eyes.

Online activities are too passive to stimulate and often leaves the mind under-nourished but like junk food served in neon-aisles of 24-hour supermarkets it remains curiously addictive. In a world dominated by Twitter storms and hang outs, there is a never-ending spectre of what the computer industry calls ‘content’. But even the most erudite of web pages will leave you  feeling jaded after clicking the refresh button once too often.

With the Apple Ayatollahs of this world religiously defining their personalities through their digitally branded toys, a dangerous cult is emerging and abstinence is a potential cure. It may involve abandoning your phone and being disconnected for a few hours. Ignoring friends might not seem the most sociable way to re-engage your mind but anything that doesn’t involve being online is time worth cherishing.

Some cellular weary businessmen in the US are checking into ‘black hole’ resorts such as the Black Mountain Ranch on holiday. Granting them a chance to unplug and rediscover their love of literature and human conversation, the resort proudly boasts of having no Wi-Fi or television facilities. A Sabbath luxury of a different kind, these black hole resorts relieve the eyes of tedium by denying access to the greatest communications system of all time.

All man-made religions need challenging and especially one as powerful as the internet.  So when jumping down a black hole feels like a worthy alternative you know it’s time to put down the Kindle and reads as many books as you can.

Rules of Engagement

Until quite recently the number of friends you had on Facebook really mattered. Friendship was a numbers game and anything less than a hundred confirmed you were of a lowly social status and resoundingly unpopular. In order to seem normal then tagged pictures of you drinking Mojitos with friends were vitally important.

Going to a house warming party must be a public event or otherwise people will think you’re loser that never goes out. Friends are social points and likewise so are the stock greetings you receive on your birthday, which are especially poignant coming from the friends you unsubscribed from three years ago.

In bars and clubs people exchange Facebook details as a user friendly alternative to calling someone. With a new media landscape comes a new set of rules and social etiquette now involves protecting your internet history. Adding a date on Facebook is a potentially ruinous move. Sexy pictures of former partners, neurotic status updates and flirty comments will be revealed to a virgin pair of eyes.

Becoming friends online will inevitably ensure you go too far, too fast and if things do go awry you will be a humiliating click away from the recycle bin. A six month probation period is essential before you can even consider adding a new partner on Facebook.

Since people are growing sick of sharing their most intimate thoughts with idiots they never liked in the first place. Private circles are now becoming increasingly attractive. On realising that you don’t want Jakers, Spanner and the pregnant girl from school following you anymore – social media is gradually becoming more nuanced and exclusive. Rules are therefore required.

With Facebook becoming increasingly unpopular, alternative forms of social networking are slowly taking its place. Agenda setting and forming part of the national conversation, Twitter first began as a smug past time for media savvy professionals in London but has now opened up to the public at large.

Dangerously addictive social media has rewired our brains to such an extent that nearly everyone is now prone to shocking displays of mental promiscuity. Books lie unfinished and articles remain half-read, as the mind diverts towards refreshing a laptop instead. However, as our brains are being rewired to suit the net, the rules of engagement are still being defined.

Self -publicists on Twitter ‘retweet’ praise about themselves and this involves resending a comment to your own band of followers. This a massive faux pax in the social media world. Already such behaviour is frowned upon in dinner parties and gastro pubs as incredibly annoying. Therefore let others retweet praise about you rather than be defined by your own slovenly antics.

It is also important to remember that no one outside of your social circle has any interest in what you have to say. Like the gold rush of the Wild West, the people who made the real money were those selling the spades, not the poor souls digging in the wilderness. Twitter has thus become a narcissistic ponzi scheme full of link exchanges and diversions that people rarely (if ever) pay any attention too.

Social networking remains an illusionary stage and while it may lack authenticity it certainly has transformed almost every aspect of our daily lives. With old media rendered obsolete, breaking news is no longer announced on the BBC or Sky News but on Twitter instead. Falling behind the curve is particularly embarrassing online – like when people tweeted about the death of Amy Winehouse three hours after it went viral in Uzbekistan.

Again like retweeting praise about yourself, announcing old news as an OMG exclusive is not good practice and with over 300 million users worldwide there are plenty of news channels to choose from. If failing to keep up with a modern news cycle is understandable then tweeting #RIP tributes to dead celebrities is certainly avoidable. Empty tributes to movie stars, actresses, sportsmen you had previously shown no interest in won’t reflect well on your brand.

A new social contract is slowly being formed and shedding a few dimwits from the friends list and refining your manners will benefit everyone in the future. Our generation ability to shape and control the rules of engagement is an essential learning process for mankind, as social media will have a huge impact on our future relationships, friendships and personal integrity too. Something that will prove essential when brand building narcissists discover they are nothing but mere noodles on a graph.

The Pen is Dead

Letter writing is an increasingly rare occurrence these days. With the rise of smartphones, there are simply more convenient ways of expressing our feelings. As a frequent note jotter myself, I despair at the slow disintegration of my own handwriting. Although I do take solace in that I still compose my thoughts in legible English, as the shape of most people’s written ovals, loops and slants has been in terminal decline for decades now.

Writing a letter to your friend has almost become a Victorian anachronism; something quaint and romantic but no longer necessary. Like revitalising dead languages in areas they were never originally spoken, letter writing has become a sentimental way to communicate.

Chatting online is more convenient nowadays but handwriting forces you to slow down, to think, to form your thoughts more carefully. Everybody’s handwriting will die out eventually without regular practice. Each year I witness my handwriting deteriorate and I still scribble my thoughts down on a regular basis. But note jotting doesn’t require anywhere near the same level of discipline as writing a letter.

There is something about pressing the tip of a pen against a page and watching your thoughts form right in front of you. Letter writing is a genuinely cathartic experience and it helps you remember things, unlike any messages you may compose online. There is no undo button in real life.

As a former teenage boy of letters, I feel something has been lost by the instant muses of mobile technology. When composing your thoughts on paper, the writer has to form relationships entirely dependent on their written skills. Letter writing is certainly a more genuine way to express your feelings.

Receiving a handwritten letter in the post will always feel more meaningful than a hastily composed email or Facebook message. In fact putting pen to paper feels almost too personal now. Composing something online is easier because the medium provides a cloak of anonymity that a pen cannot provide.

With the evolutionary demise of handwriting being predicted by some experts, there is a now a romantic movement trying to restore the art of letter writing. The Domestic Sluts are kicking off a debate in London this week about social media and how our letter writing has changed since we started emailing. Does it really matter that we don’t write by hand anymore?

On a practical level it doesn’t matter as our need to communicate has never been driven by romantic sentiment. Once technology is established in people’s lives, it doesn’t go away. Indeed the very existence of a restoration movement suggests letter writing is dead already.

Romantic movements are meaning well but they are niche by their very nature. Letter writing was never meant to be a kitsch lifestyle choice. Letters are now exhibited as period pieces in retrospective galleries, where once they lay on the porch floor awaiting to be torn open. With the rise of modern technology we arguably exchange more messages and communicate than ever before. Progress is inevitable but as our handwriting passions slowly die, it sometimes comes at a price.

Museum of Broken Relationships

After examining a heroin test, teddy bear and a Jamaican dollar bill at the Museum of Broken Relationships, I reopened my own dusty memorabilia of dead romances. Girlfriends come and go but their pink letters and hair clips remain locked away forever. The modern way of excommunicating a lover scorned is to delete them from Facebook. As feelings run high, many will have experienced the cathartic rush to delete all of their texts, emails and naked photos. Although years later you may regret deleting the latter.

Unable to throw anything away, I continue to hoard fragments of my broken relationships in shoe boxes. These include paper clips, feathers, wooden frogs, heart shaped mirrors and an empty bottle of Prosecco. Every failed relationship has its fair share of emotional debris. Reading some of my love letters is surprisingly painful, and after a few words I begin to feel uneasy, and fold them back up feeling nothing but regret that purple ink is all I have left.

The Museum of Broken Relationships is a touring exhibition created by ex-lovers Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić in Zagreb. Some of the donations range from surreal plastic toys, postcards, reels of films and surprisingly tender BDSM love poetry. In this macabre confession room of love lost, one of the exhibits includes a bike given to a woman by her cheating husband, who on discovering his infidelity, spent her evenings riding the high winds looking for closure. She continues to ride to this day.

One of the most illuminating exhibits came from a BDSM convert, who experienced her first ever sado-masochistic relationship with an art historian called Simon. Her love is represented in a book of nine poems, and she spoke of a man ‘….emotional, dysfunctional, demonstrative, difficult and controlling. Yet I was drawn to his tortured soul. He is intelligent, deep, dark and poetically literate. I had some truly magical sexual experiences with him and I fell for him or as he would say I was “obsessed” with him”. Alas such a temporary form of insanity now has a graveyard for where love goes to die.

Originally conceived in Zagreb, the Museum of Broken Relationships is now touring internationally, amassing stories and donations from cultures from all over the world. However, not everyone has to visit Covent Garden to appreciate the stories on display. They lie tucked away in your own draws, cupboards and inboxes. As we all have a Museum of Broken Relationships in our homes, words that have been laid to rest and star spinning memories lying soaked in dust.

Museum of Broken Relationships
Tristan Bates Theatre
London
WC2H 9NP

Exhibition runs until September 4th 2011.

Paradise City

The slippery side streets of Soho have entertained the capital’s residents for centuries and it remains one of the most seductive landmarks in Central London. Renowned for its trashy lingerie, drug dens and peep shows, the unofficial red light district is a honey pot of illegal activities. Despite frequent attempts to clean up its image in advance of the 2012 Olympics, the back alleyways of London’s West End retain a downtrodden appeal.

Blue tooth messages are sent to visitors walking past illegal brothels, and friendly Russian gangsters are fond of marching their customers to nearby cash points for bonuses. These are obviously not the type of establishments you check in on Facebook but anyone who goes for a “massage” at 5am probably does get what they deserve.

Although to dismiss Soho as a magnet for illegal vices would be extremely misleading. For while some men wander in search of foreplay with their trousers on, Soho is also home to some of the finest restaurants and bars in London. The relationship between sex and food is the belief that one tends to lead to another, irrespective of which comes first.

Soho luckily provides both in abundance and anyone caught stumbling along say Green Court will realise that Yalla Yalla is one of the finest cheap eats in London. The Beirut food court is notoriously difficult to find but one of the attractions of eating out in Soho is that you get lost every time and nothing ever feels the same.

Attending restaurants in Soho is a bit like going to the theatre, where customers find themselves auditioning to play the lead role in a make believe world. Foreign themed restaurants are fond of describing themselves as ‘authentic’ but the word is misleading. A murky back alleyway in Soho is nowhere near the Middle East and while the rural taste of Lebanon at Yalla Yalla has never been in doubt. There is nothing remotely authentic about Soho.

Whether its old men drinking in 1940s pubs, PR darlings sipping cappuccinos or film journalists scribbling inside darkened rooms; the Soho peep show continues to entrance and deceive its audience. Constantly on the run and never dull, the side streets are awash with sexual favours and androgynous ecstasy. Soho meanwhile remains as slippery as ever and will put on magic shows for its audiences longer after 2012. Whether the law authorities will continue to permit such activities remains to be seen.

Your mind is the scene of the crime

After moving to South Hackney two years ago, I have enjoyed a peaceful inner city existence and never felt in any danger. Occasionally teenagers can be seen loitering around the canal bridge and feral kids play improvised football against the recycling bins. But this if anything provides a sense of gritty character to an otherwise dull residential neighbourhood.

While the grim Stalinist appearance of the estate and being surrounded by human storage containers is depressing at times, I have never had any reason to be fearful. Well at least until the coalition government’s new crime website was launched this week. The location based website provides an interactive map of reported violent crime, burglary and anti-social behaviour on every street in England and Wales.

Almost immediately I punched in my postcode and against my better judgement, I found myself living in a crime hotspot. Everyday I walk over the canal bridge on Shepherdess Walk and feel perfectly safe. But the government website reveals a different story.

There are incidents of burglary, vehicle crime and drug dealing on what I had previously assumed to be an idyllic thoroughfare. Clearly the teenage hoods on the bridge have been up to no good. Further inspection of the website reveals there were 2134 reported incidents of crime in my postcode area in December alone.

Should I be too scared to leave the house now? The chances of me being a victim of crime appears to have increased since I discovered what goes on outside when I’m indoors. Even though I should be terrified of my crime ridden estate, I have yet to even spot a litter bug during my two-year stint in Hackney.

Such horrifying statistics are in stark contrast to what I experienced in rural Aberdeenshire as a child. After pouring over the dark side of inner city life, I initially began to reflect back upon how kids from my village would play football after school instead of drug dealing or car theft.

While times have changed since the 1980s and the rise of the internet and games consoles has probably contributed towards more kids staying indoors, I remember how my peers indulged in criminal activity of their own. Every year local school kids would construct massive hay bases in nearby fields and cause thousands of pounds worth of damage.

Most eight years old’s are unaware of the economic value of a hay bail and are unlikely to have a crisis of conscience when they turn one into a straw heap. As a result, local farmers would angrily come charging after us in their tractors once they realised their cherished field had descended into a William Golding novel. The thrill of the chase begins when you are young and I fondly remember scrambling over stone dyke walls escaping from irate Doric farmers as a school boy.

Crime like love is in the eye of the beholder and while stealing strawberries and pea-pods from an allotment patch might have seem like harmless fun to a country village boy. Is it really any different from local youths in Hackney stealing Mars Bars and Coke cans from a 24 convenience store? Enid Blyton would have loved my village escapades and my childhood experiences of crime seem incredibly idyllic in hindsight.

While urban youths are frequently demonised in the media, I can empathise with bored teenage youths loitering around shops in sub-zero temperatures. Dimly lit streets and high rise buildings judge their offspring cruelly in the absence of wide green spaces. In light of the newly publicised figures, I should perhaps tread more carefully along the streets of Hackney but likewise so is the fear of me becoming another government statistic.