A Song for the Day and a Short Story Extract: The Electric Chair

I was recently in Vienna on a strange, pre-birthday solo trip; pushing the boundaries of how comfortable I felt being in a foreign country on my own in different circumstances. Seeking out a dimly-lit jazz club is something I try to do in every country I visit and, luckily for me, Vienna has Porgy & Bess, one of the best venues I’ve ever sloped into after dark. This red-lit pit of a place is lined by plush, velvet stuffed chairs and benches that are filled, nearly every night, with dedicated locals and a smattering of curious tourists.

What I loved most about this place was the sheer diversity of the acts on show. You’ll find more on stage there than just crowd pleasing swing jazz and cuban beat classics, because this Vienna haunt supports a slew of local and lesser known international artists of the more avant grade variety. The Vienna Roomservice session I dropped into had three acts, the frighteningly hypnotic Manon-Lui Winter, who doesn’t exactly play a piano…she strums it, the heart stopping funk of No Home For Johnny and a solo guitarist called Julien Desprez.

Desprez’s performance wasn’t exactly comfortable for me. From his first clashing roar of sound I was taking sneaky peeks around the room to see if anyone else was a little nonplussed by this violent synth mash up. But soon I was overpowered and pinned to my chair, transfixed by the force of his playing. Mainstream it wasn’t and still, even after the room burst into expected, rapturous applause, I was left shaken and vaguely disturbed by his music; by this electric man and his strangled guitar. So I did the only thing that I knew would make me feel normal again, I grabbed a pen and scribbled this little chunk of rambling prose into my Vienna guidebook.

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The Man in the Electric Chair

His arms contort, thrust themselves forward to tear at the empty air as his body is taken up by the infernal machine. The rhythm he writhes to is a twist and a shake, a scatter gun of shudder and stutter like a broken toy soldier. Every twitch is agony, but that sound, that sound must be fed. Deep and raw and brutal it gushes from his quivering limbs, moving and clenching as it creeps its way upwards, up from his locked knees, his rigid stomach, the sinews in his throat taunt as a bow’s string with the tension of it, with the musical rigor mortis.

His eyes are shut against his corporal horror, his mouth stitched closed by the sound. The sound that hits him, beats the hands that are throttling the neck of the guitar. It’s a violent sound, a red sound. A wall of vibration from the guitar he clutches, the guitar he is lashed to by wires the colour of old veins.

He stabs at it, a glancing blow to the sound, but he comes back again and again. Slicing until the next convulsion of that sodden sound ripples over him again. And then he’s still, heaving into the absence as the sound stretches out and away into the darkened room beyond.

If you’re heading to Vienna anytime soon I urge you to check out Porgy & Bess. You can book tickets, in English on their website: www.porgy.at

And here is the man in action on youtube:

A behind the scenes song for the day with a digital difference: The Kronos Quartet

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“Virtually any composer that we’ve encountered has said that the string quartet is the most personal and expressive medium that they know of.” – David Harrington, Artistic Director and Founder of Kronos.
Listen, delve into and experience the physicality of a the brilliant Kronos string quartet from the outside in with this beautiful virtual rendering of the communication between symbiotic performers, which reveals a visual representation of how the individual players connect as one.

“When four people are doing very complex rhythms, we talk about a heartbeat right in the center of the group, and I do think of that image, too.” – John Sherba, Violinis

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Full and original article on the Arts section of the NY Times, found here.

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Travel Diary: On Sweat and Cambodian Fever

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As it’s Travel Tuesday today and because I haven’t posted one for a while, here’s a short and sweet nugget from the Travel Diary on, rather appropriately as the sun is out (or inappropriately if your mind is politely inclined), sweat and the relentless heat we encountered wandering around Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

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“I think I will always have mixed feelings about Cambodia. I am vaguely relieved to leave it, yet can’t help but feel that there is so much more I should be seeing.

I feel drained, hollow, almost as if I had been ill while I was here. Like a fever has emptied me drop by arterial drop. That’s what it’s like here, a fever.

331_528088397192_2364_nThe unrelenting heat, a cacophony of sound, a wall of smells. Fever-pitched eyes lingering on a tear of sweat that falls, languidly, elegantly caressing  pale neck on the way down while it drops, hidden in the modest clothing. Dreams of what is underneath.

Lying so still, a corpse on a damp bed with shallow, racked breathing. The soporific whir of the fan mixing with the inky blackness, soft, like incense. Like a drug-induced slumber. Embalmed
darkness. Food so longed for sits heavy in your stomach, too heavy to swallow. It sticks and lingers. The heat eats your hunger.”

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Travel Diary: Into the Eye of the Sun in Ko Tao, Thailand

I was recently asked if I would take a trip to Dubai and the first thing that popped into my head (besides bloody hell, aren’t I lucky) was ‘yes!’ An escape from the relentless grey skies and thundering, sopping, drenching British rain.

Dubai has never been too far up on my travel wishlist but, at this time of year, it means red deserts and golden sunshine. It means a legitimate excuse to wear sunglasses in February, a chance to break out summer clothes early and to just sit, face up in the white light, letting the warmth coat my skin, saturating it in a glowing halo. It also means suncream, and lots of it for me. Being fair-skinned I only ever manage a light dusting of gold when I try to sunbathe and, after spending too much time in the sun travelling and watching my freckles breed and multiply at an alarming rate, I doubt I’ll ever be a sun worshipper.

I did try to be once though, years ago on a bleached-white beach in Ko Tao, Thailand…although it didn’t go quite as planned.

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“The sea, the sand, the air. It is all so slow, so soft. Like a drug. It makes you slow and soft as well. Damp sponges soaked in salt water and salty sweat.

I feel serene here. Completely and perfectly lazy like a coddled child. Your daily routine is all picked and chartered for you: wake, up, eat, dress, walk and lie down and pass the day in a haze, revelling in your lack of an agenda.

Your flesh is slick with heat here, you feel every tiny breeze like a gift. A whisper over your gleaming skin and you are grateful. The water is warm. Green by the sandbanks and turquoise where the sun touches it.”

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“Your day boils down to sensations. The sting of salt water, the scratch of sand in the suncream, the cool wind on your arched back and the burn of the sun, white-hot and blinding.

I think I looked like a skinned rabbit. Laid out flat, pink and raw and exposed. The hairs on my arms shine white. Albino…”

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“The water tricked us. So cool, so green, so inviting. So we swam in its crocodile jaws, shedding our white armour in the waves. It was as if I had flown into the sun itself. I am roasted, boiled, as if I had been slapped by a giant burning hand. I feel damaged, tender, like a snake about to shed, revealing baby pink flesh underneath.”

I seem to remember I then had mild sunstroke followed by a cold…always follow the golden rule: don’t be that burnt Brit abroad, re-apply suncream after swimming!

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Travel Diary: Backpackers and Rucksack Fatigue

This weekend I took a trip back home to my parents’ house in Hampshire and, while I am still working on transcribing the intricacies and transient deliciousness of Japanese food, I’m also contemplating lugging a suitcase back to London this afternoon on the train.

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I always seem to leave my childhood house with more than I came down with. There’s always a photograph, a forgotten box of clothes or stack of scribblings hidden in an old drawer that I can’t seem to part with. My room is like a Tardis, it’s a trick of the eye or a paranormal vortex, because no matter how much ‘stuff’ I cart backwards and forwards to my teeny box room in London – to be later wedged like a complicated Russian doll set in something else that’s stacked on top of another pile in turn…like award-winning Tetris, if they gave medals for packing – my old room is still heaving with possessions.

Later I’ve got the slow muscle burn to look forward to in that moment that you realise you can’t actually lift your case but, incapable of admitting weakness or defeat, you create a kind of back stretching pendulum movement to swing it on board a train, praying that it doesn’t throw your body forwards into those unapprovingly commuters. Those very same commuters, in fact, who clocked you and your case and frowned at your space-hogging, luggage-toting audacity before you shuffled into their carriage. But then again, I would do the same if I was on the other side, superior in my unencumbered, luggage-less state.

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Actually, it put me in the mind of a diary entry on travellers with luggage where I had a similar moment of ‘rather them than me.’ That quiet moment of relief when you realise your bags are safe and locked in a room that you’ve claimed as yours and you can stop and breathe for the next few days before you repeat the tired trauma of pack, travel, search, stay again.

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“Travellers. Freshly arrived. They are like tortoises.

Sort of pale. Blinking in the sun or squinting in the dark. Huge packs like shells drag them down, necks craning forwards under the pressure. The Rucksack, the traveller’s portable home. Your life is in your pack: your medicine, your toiletries, your clothes and your protective gear. Without it we’d like to think we would survive, but we would feel stranded. Lost. Disconnected from ourselves and what we were and are. So we cling on for dear life, lugging our possessions like a burden, like a treasure.”

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“You feel pity. Empathy. I feel their fatigue, that slow, hungry panic eating through when night falls. Where will we stay? How much will it be? We have to find somewhere. And the dogged tiredness, the heavy-eyed, heavy-footed trudge. The people around you so sure, so aware of where they are and what they are doing. They arrived years ago and have been there aeons.

I feel this because I have lived it and will continue to do so for the next four months of constant, bone-aching moving.

Yet a sneaky voice bubbles up, whispering illicitly through my saintly sympathy. ‘Thank god’ it creeps, ‘thank god it’s them and not us tonight.’”

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Travel Diary: Indian Trains and Restaurant Menus

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Illegible scribblings, doodles and snatches from the dirty, scuffed travel diary I kept while travelling around South East Asia in 2008.

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On Ordering from the Menu in India

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“A menu is essentially useless here. They will either not have or not have the inclination to cook half the dishes from it. Ordering merely one local dish will be met with suspicion and ignored and instead you’ll be brought two of everything.

Your choice of plain fizzy water will be considered insultingly plain and will obligingly be pepped up with spices, sugar and copious amounts of salt.

Food orders will be repeated, tirelessly for around ten minutes until both diner and waiter are beyond a level of confusion to the extent that the appearance of food – not what you ordered but presented with such a flourish you don’t care – is a miracle in itself.”

168926_594343122192_1338368_n“Do you have coke?”

“……Coke?”

“Coca Cola? Or Pepsi?”

“Ah yes, Pepsi. I know Pepsi. Yes we have Pepsi.”

Two minutes later he returns with a can of Coke. “Pepsi sir, very good sir.”

On the Train from Goa to The Pink City, Jaipur

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“It’s just gone seven and I am uncomfortably awake. The Nun sits in profile to the window below me, her figure is half-lit by pale, lemon sunshine. She looks as though she should belong in some ancient triptych, a stained-glass window or carved of blonde and chestnut wood.”

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“She looks martyred, blessed by divine illumination, quiet, infinitely composed. She is ‘Nun’ personified. A girl sits opposite. All I can see are her feet. The edge of a sari so red it burns in the half light. She has dancer’s feet: high arched and oddly supple. She stretches them, languidly. Everything seems beautifully serene at this moment. India is a bubble dream contained at this point.”

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Children with Matches

In honour of Imogen’s first post on the Mongolian Steppes, I unearthed one from the archives. A strange, not-particularly-autobiographical snapshot into two idiotically young lives at one frozen moment in time.

Children with Matches.

They liked to document their moments together in film. To look at these neatly arranged, fiercely coloured pictures was to see perfect, crystallised moments of shining hair and wide camera-smiles. If you looked closer you could see the shadows in their eyes, the brittle laughter behind that gleaming softness.

She had done it again; managed to portray that curious mixture of the virgin whore. A gratuitous act of heavy-eyed blushing and strategic phrasing that seemed so ghastly flamboyant, so grotesquely obvious to her she was astounded by their wilful blindness. The truth was that sometimes she revelled in it, this power, this spell; the dip in her voice that made listeners lean in, the twitch in her body that made their eyes linger, rake away her clothes: make her naked pulsing flesh.

But in the quiet moments it made her loathe herself. Damage control was her morphine, hiding was her survival instinct. Like a lizard without her tail. That dull burn would always come after, later: now.

She always got herself into these situations. In Her place She would fuck the boy. Make him want her with her oozing, boyish sexuality, her radiation of free and pliant flesh. Yet she needed too; that love of being loved, of being wanted, desired, of watching eyes that stripped to the bones and the bleeding ache. It made Her hate her for the ability to indulge in her wants, to sink into another’s being, to permeate them, to claim a piece of them for herself. But each pound of flesh comes with a price that She half gleefully watches her pay time and time again. In between the changing bodies She scornfully watches her wither her prejudiced, caged body.

She has flames for hair that makes Her blonde feel like winter.

What bound them was dependency. The need to understand, to acknowledge that hunger for satisfaction and denial. That need to comfort, to believe that there is something more, was something more and will be again.

That’s why they take their pictures. Their admirable, charming pictures of frozen, unmoving, beautific flesh. Then they can smile on them and mimic, share that camera-smile until they burn into one.

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Contemplating Solitude: The Mongolian Steppes

75830_627564384152_2339912_n‘End of tourist season…end of tourist season’ echoes through my brain as I sit alone in my ger. Mongolia, the land of extremes – geographically, socially, emotionally. Minute by minute struggling to adapt to the quiet, the isolation, the barrenness of the Mongolian wilderness.

Yet I am not alone, of course. I only feel this isolation because I am not sharing the new experience with anyone, and the language barrier along with cultural differences make it difficult if not impossible for me to confide in anyone here. I hate to say it, when surrounded by such jaw-dropping scenery, but I think that if it weren’t for internet access and my ipod, I would go insane.

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The lonesome feeling is a strange one. I feel bereft, as though something has been ripped from me, as though I am being deprived of something essential to my happiness – to my survival, even. I have been observing the Takhi, riding, walking, preparing English lessons… I have been relatively busy, but it is the moments when there is nothing to do that are the painful ones. Trying to refrain from reading, because I have only one and a half books left(!), collecting stones and pressing plants for mum to see, sketching, writing…

149499_627528705652_5286070_nRocks are the bones of the Earth jutting through its skin

I have realised that this pitiable, pathetic, lonely feeling won’t be leaving any time soon – and I shall have to absorb it, assimilate it into my being somehow. So very strange. In some ways this is heaven – an expanse, a landscape I have always dreamt of. Something to be absorbed into; to become nothing, insignificant, in its presence. In other, more surprising, more revealing ways, it is also hell. So strange, so confusing, so perplexing. I feel that I should be happy here. I thought I was an independent being, satisfied with my own company, content with being alone. Perhaps I am not the girl I used to be. Perhaps I was never that girl?

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When we strip back the skin, the sinews, the complications, the human being is essentially a sociable animal, and apart from a few anomalies to the rule, we all need companionship (or at least the option of companionship) for happiness.

‘The silence is deafening’ – such an overused phrase, and yet so precisely relevant, here. When I am alone in this Mongolian desertscape, and the deer have momentarily ceased their desperate, yearning cries, I listen, and I hear nothing. And yet my ears seem to buzz deafeningly loudly. It is almost as though my senses cannot comprehend this silence, this soundlessness, and in a panic-stricken way they over-compensate.

Panic. It is what I have felt time and again, when I begin to dwell on the solitude. Utter, animal panic. If it wasn’t so excruciating I would call it intriguing.

The grass rustles and rattles as the wind passes through. It sounds like fire.

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Blue on Blue: One Man and His Dog

Last December I was lucky enough to have one of the most exhilarating travel experiences of my life: five days learning how to mush my own pack of huskies in the near perpetual darkness of a Norwegian winter. You can read a snapshot of the trip here, but I can’t let the story go without mentioning one of the dogs that seems to have left an indelible impression on me.

My sledding teacher Stian has 23 dogs, all of which are precious to him, both as working dogs and as canine companions, but he has one dog that he treats differently.

2371_133499535082_4951_nVarg is the king of dogs. Part wolf, part husky, part Alsatian he towers above the other dogs, lupine eyes watching as the females flutter around him and the other male dogs practically bow in deference.

There’s something almost ghostly about him, although his relationship with Stian is purely human in nature.

Varg was Stian’s lead dog on his sled but one day, during a heavy snow storm he got injured. His back is now twisted and he can no longer run for miles without limping. Instead of racing at the head of the sled he stays behind when Stian takes the other dogs running. He is one of the only dogs allowed into Stian’s cabin at night where he sits, regal and proud, deigning to let you stroke his impossibly soft fur, resting his head or paw against Stian and gazing up with a curiously haughty mixture of respect, dominance and adoration.

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He is, without doubt, Stian’s favourite dog. They have that unique relationship of old friends, of one man and his dog:

Old eyes, blue on blue.

One glassy, black-ringed and bright like a winter sky

One twitching and hooded, swollen with the cold

One is a lion, sphinx, a ghost

One is a wall of muscle, a beast

Their love forged in snow and sinew. In the rushing wind and the whine and the whimper.

The growl and the thunder that rasps across the frozen air, torn from throats, red raw and heaving.

Respect born on the run, on flashing feet and the thud of heavy boots in the pulse of flesh and fur

Of wool and rope of ice and metal, of broken bone of split skin, flayed and yawning

Young hands on old paws.

Stubby, dirt-covered and worn, searching along the silk of a back that’s twisted and used.

Old friends, old wounds, old blood, deep and alive. One man and his dog.

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Paper Houses

On the strange combination of privacy and exposure that comes with sleeping in a tent in the middle of night, the ritualistic night-time etiquette of being surrounded by strangers, cocooned and swaddled but separated from the sky by a thin skin of material. Scribbled in Ethiopia, at the summit of a peak in the Simien Mountains.

Guides by Night

Stifled giggles in the thick velvet night, the walls stained midnight and painted with weird shadows. The walking poles up ended, arthritic fingers spiked to the roof, jumbles of clothes, smoke filled and stiff with cold and dirt. Boots clogged with red mud flood the air with an earthy pungency, damp bodies and soil and second-hand breath.

Paper-thin walls of material stretched taunt like synthetic skin, a cocoon of deceptive vulnerability where we whisper and laugh, little girls trading stories in the creeping evening.

The darkness leans across slow, languorous and soft. Encased like Russian dolls, zipped in, tucked up tight with faces up, white and open into the gloom. We are not asleep, the others are not asleep. We are all part of a strange dance, a pointedly polite ritual. We move, one leg, one arm. The noise makes us flinch in its abruptness, the outrageous volume in a place, at a time where whispers are an unspoken agreement. Someone turns, the audacity of the movement thunders and reverberates through the tent. Hushed, hushed: “Sorry, sorry.”

I can feel her as she slips in her sleep. She’s falling, slowly, slowly. Stretching herself across the floor. She commits the unspeakable as she inches her way across, marooned in impolite and unclaimed territory, out of hers and into mine. This is difficult. In the light we can cover our childish embarrassment, the bright chatter covering the time when we shed and slip from one skin to another, but in the embalmed space proximity is invasive, claustrophobic, inappropriate.

Camp by NightI can hear her breathing, soft, soft as I open my eyes to the thick murk of the tent. In the concentrated blackness I concentrate on facing away until morning. Eyes averted, danger averted. When morning breaks propriety will resume and we will laugh and I will shove her out of the way. She’ll slither back, retreat into her bright, pretend skin. Now it would be violent and disconnected, an arm in the night, brutal and strange. So I’ll wait, slowly, slowly and sleep comes slowly, languorous and soft.

Camp by Light

The Photographer’s Box

On the ocassionally agonising process of being secretly photographed or, worse, someone stealing a picture while you gradually realise and your body begins to tense to rigor mortis levels as you freeze and attach your photo grimace.

I not posing, really

The reverie on light and cloud and sky, the beige descriptive patter interrupted by the squeeze of a photographer’s button.

The slow focus crackle as the lenses stretches itself, unfolding towards you. The trigger like the silencer on a gun as it happened. Confused like prey, like woodland vermin in the beam of a torch, fixed for inspection like an insect on the entomologist’s slab, atrophied by the muffled shot.

Half blind in the peach-tinged half light that seeps through the bus’ window but they see. The camera clicks sharp and restless moving around you as you hold your breath, suffocating while the photograph comes alive, slowly searing your colours onto film and print.

Indignant and exposed you stay stock still, a stubborn turn of the head, the stiffening of the jaw, a tick in the cheek gives you up. Then the surrender, the imperceptible straightening of the spine, the sullen lift of the chin, the concentrated look of ambivalence, remember; frame within a frame, smile with your eyes, create leading lines. All seen, all captured, all digested to be looked at later, now.

Excruciatingly aware now as he swims just beyond the arch of your pupil, moves to swap an eye for his camera. Stooping low in the milky space beyond the curve of your vision, hunched over the body of it like a mantis, like a hawk with its catch.

Then it’s done and the photographer straightens, the camera’s face is lowered, cradled unconsciously in his hands, blinkered by a lens cap. We both exhale.

Curiosity forces you to ask and, what you see caught on the hard, little screen, spread in a wash of pastels and light, is so lovely and so pleasing that you forgive, you accept. The photographer and his magic box.

The photographer in question is my hugely talented friend, Simon Tupper. Some of his infinitly more beautiful work can be found on his website, Simon Tupper Photography.