Mstyslav Chernov_soldier_burning

Sofia Cheliak, Ukrainian Lottery: Ukraine Lab

Ukraine Lab is run by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with PEN Ukraine and Ukrainian Institute. It is supported by the British Council as part of the UK/UA Season of Culture. You can read the pieces in Ukrainian in Тиждень. Ukraine Lab pieces by Kateryna Iakovlenko and Jonathon Turnbull focusing on the environment have been published in The Ecologist, while the pieces tackling disinformation will appear in openDemocracy.

About Ukraine Lab
Sofia Cheliak, Ukrainian Lottery, (In Ukrainian)
Kris Michalowicz, Luhansk Stolen, (In Ukrainian)

Mstyslav Chernov, A Ukrainian serviceman in front of the destroyed headquarters of the Mykolaiv regional military administration in southern Ukraine after a Russian strike. August 5, 2022. Visual interpretation for Ukraine Lab, September 2022
Mstyslav Chernov: A Ukrainian serviceman in front of the destroyed headquarters of the Mykolaiv regional military administration in southern Ukraine after a Russian strike. August 5, 2022

War-time Lodgings
The small 900-square-foot apartment, built to accommodate one person, now housed five people: all had moved in here to free up their own homes to accommodate those who were forced to abandon theirs and flee into uncertainty. This was not an exception: divorced couples moved in together, long-estranged paramours did the same, relatives that had seen each other once before shared homes, and cats, dogs, and fish all got along just fine. People slept on mattresses, in sleeping-bags, on a couch, three to a double bed. But that was nothing: Ira had taken reservations for the spots on the floor of her apartment.
Anna looks up from her zoom meeting and gives me a hug that has become routine—the hug that says, “I am so happy that you exist and you are here right now.”
Maksym gives me the same hug and says, “Sofia, do a dance. We have a bottle of wine. Ira’s friend from Poland, the reporter, brought it.”
I sit down in the red armchair under the window, light up a cigarette, and realize that things are almost as they have always been. We’re about to have dinner, just like we used to, we can stop working for a bit, and perhaps, for the first time since it all began, speak in sentences longer than, “I’ve got three families from Donetsk, and I can house two, can you find room for the third?” We will have some illegal wine.

Please, Just Leave Us Alone
This was before the shortage of petrol, but after the ban on alcohol sales. Maksym picked me up from my office in his car an hour before curfew. He had heard that my guests from the East did not make it.
Maksym works in alternative education. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he has been helping teachers and students set up learning in evacuation. He also takes humanitarian aid to the regions near the front. His car was shot at multiple times. It took him forever to find replacement glass, and for a while his very expensive vehicle sported a large hole taped over with scotch-tape. He has a deferment from the military service, but he is getting himself ready to go to the front. A saint.
During those days, the highway from Kyiv to Lviv was one single traffic jam. The family with a small child who were supposed to stay with me for three days decided to spend the night in a hotel hallway. They were lucky there was room for them in the hallway. To be alone in the beginning of the war meant two things: one, that you had an apartment (which was good), and two, that you were putting yourself in danger (not so good).
Alone, you might not hear the air-raid siren and die in a rocket strike.
Nothing had hit the city yet, but you were getting used to the idea that you were mortal. And that every day you were still alive was like winning a lottery: you got lucky.
The city would empty out about an hour ahead of curfew (at 22:00); during the day, it acquired the look of an impregnable bastion, ready to take the hit—sandbags and check-points everywhere. The boot of our car was like a mobile supply depot of a military unit. We had three bullet-proof vests, four helmets, pain-killers of various strength, chemical protection suits, tourniquets, Israeli bandages, a dozen of first-aid kits, two boxes of canned food, three canisters of petrol, and a ton of various smaller bits and pieces. The following day, all this was supposed to go to Kharkiv. All this was pulled together in half-a-day, as soon as my friend heard folks were leaving the next morning. You could get anything necessary on the front-lines in the city in those days. Our city became the main sorting point for equipment and humanitarian aid that flowed into Ukraine, while Ukrainians all over Europe were raising money and buying up gear. In a few days, you would not find a single bullet-proof vest or a tourniquet in Poland, and a week later Germany was similarly cleaned out. In this manner, zig-zagging between check-points and wiring money to the military, we moved toward our Ukrainian dream: to be finally left alone, so we could just live our own life as an independent country.

Feminism in Ukraine Has Won
“It is official: Feminism has won. The girls are saving the country, and we are making dinner,” says my friend, Andriy.
He works in IT, and the war caught him on a business trip abroad. On the morning of February 24, the air space above Ukraine was closed and all flights canceled. Andriy traveled thousands of miles to get back, and finally crossed the border on foot. Men are prohibited from leaving the country until the end of the war. Andriy knew this but could not fathom not coming back. As soon as he returned, he went to the enlistment office, but was turned away.
“Someone has to make money to buy the drones,” they said. “We’ll call you if we need you.”
So: the three guys are making dinner while we are finishing work. Anna is negotiating with a group of international lawyers—we keep hearing the word ‘tribunal’ but politely ignore the conversation. Anna is a lawyer; one of the youngest to make partner at her firm. Before the war, she worked with business clients, but began taking on human rights cases in 2014. In most of these, she represented, usually pro bono, victims of political persecution, and she lobbied tirelessly for the release of Kremlin’s Ukrainian political prisoners. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Anna began collecting evidence of war crimes–the evidence that will eventually help take russia to court for crimes against humanity and genocide.
Ira is on the phone all the time. “Yes, we have a home for you in Krakow, Witek will pick you up at the border… There’s a family waiting for you in Rzeczow, they are happy to put you up for three days, until we can arrange transport for you to Vienna or Prague, wherever you want…” Before this invasion, Ira was an art curator: she organised exhibits of Ukrainian art in Europe and brought the work of European artists to Ukraine. Over years, she amassed a vast network of contacts all over the world which was now very helpful in evacuating women, children, and the elderly away from the russian bombs and occupation.
I am prepping for my next broadcast. I call a young, successful and intelligent writer to invite him to join a national marathon tomorrow: a shared broadcast by the country’s biggest channels that would run for 24 hours. He holds a pause and then says, “The intellectuals can all fuck off, I’m going to the front, I won’t be here to talk,” and laughs confidently.
I know it is himself and his previous life he is telling to fuck off as he prepares to take up arms. I laugh hard back at him. Ira interrupts her flow of phone calls.
“It’s so funny, I now talk to the air-raid sirens like I talk to my alarm clock. I make a deal and go back to sleep.”
“Got it. We’ll wake you up.”
“Can’t I just sleep?”
“We won’t sleep, so you won’t get to sleep either.”
“Either that, or we’ll get hit, and that’ll be the end of us. It’s a lottery.”
An air-raid siren wails, and we go to the basement.

The Dreamers
The raid lasted just under an hour. We returned to the apartment. We are six: three girls and three guys. In our previous lives, we worked, went on Tinder dates, flew to Berlin for parties, and bought art. We were the generation who had no memory of the Soviet Union. We were practically children when we got involved in the Revolution of Dignity in 2013, when our nation’s leadership did something unacceptable: used force against unarmed protesters. At the cost of those first lost lives and our collective grief, we won the right to determine our own destiny—until the russian regime interfered, annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine’s East. It was some time then that we grew up.
With no experience but learning quickly, we became part of the Ukrainian Youthquake. We were into fashion and art, and spoke several languages. By the age twenty, we had mastered wine pairings and gone to the world’s most important art museums. In 2014, when war began in our country, we realised we were mortal—and fell deeper in love with life. We had successful careers in creative industries that we built fairly, from the ground up, on merit and with faith in the future of our country.
And now our greatest joy is a chance to have dinner together. The guys started the water for the pasta, mixed up the sauce, and washed the vegetables for the salad, (we are the bourgeoisie who eat fresh vegetables even during a war).
The dinner was ready. We poured out our one priceless bottle of wine. It came out to about six sips for each of us.

Miss Ukraine 2022
Andriy was still on the phone, and we decided to start eating with him. Most of us remembered we had not eaten for two or three days—and not because there was no food. On the contrary, a hoarder instinct awoke in all of us, the genetic memory of previous wars and Holodomor, and ever since the first news of the possibility of a full-scale invasion started coming last autumn, we all put an extra can or two into our shopping carts on each trip. We did not eat because our bodies pumped out so much adrenaline they could only function on coffee and cigarettes. The only time you remembered about food was when someone put a cooked meal right in front of you.
Ira spoke first.
“You know, I got out of the bath this morning and saw myself in the mirror for the first time since it started. I mean, I had looked before, but just to make sure I didn’t have toothpaste all over my face. This time, I actually looked at myself. I’m all ribs.”
“Don’t catastrophise things. After we win, ours will be the land of the models, the way they looked in the 90s—“heroin”, pardon me, “war-time” chic. We’ve got our very own time machine here.”
“Listen, I never believed it when women in the movies about the Second World War had these nice tidy hair-dos, and wore dresses, and red lipstick—but look at Sofia now: full make-up and perfect hair. It’s like there’s no war,” Maksym teases me.
I realise I had not washed my face since the broadcast, so I look like I’m dolled up for a party. When I became a broadcaster, I hated that slick hair, the heels, the make-up. Now I feel like I’m one of about ten women left in the city who wear make-up. I usually wash my face and pull my hair into a bun before I leave the office; I feel very embarrassed to walk down the streets with my face all painted. Today, I forgot to do that, too. But that’s his fault: he distracted me with his talk.

Hedonism Days
“They keep bombing Kyiv,” Ivan says. He is an artist, and thanks to Ira, his work is known around the world. His pieces can be found in institutional collections all over Europe. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, he designs interiors for the newly built shelters that house temporarily displaced people.
“Just think, less than a month ago, a few days before the full-scale invasion, I was dancing in a bar in Kyiv. Against the backdrop of the alarming news, we were joking that those were our last days of hedonism. I mean, it sort of turned out like that, but it was all in a previous life.”
A long silence as we open and scroll through the news. We read about the defense of Kyiv and Kharkiv, and Anna starts talking to fill the silence.
“I went and bought myself a piece of gold jewelry. I tell myself I could trade it for a loaf of bread, if it comes to that.” “Ha-ha! And if it doesn’t, how are you going to explain it to the children you will have after the war? The fact that you bought it during the war?” “Right, they’ll think you did it in between digging a trench and running around with a machine gun.” “And next to her, Sofia, with her perfect curls, flitted from one trench to the next and wished her viewers a very good day…” “I made a manicure appointment for next month: this is the only thing I managed to plan that far.” Anna at some point remembered the value of sustainable development, and determined to make plans not just for the day or the week, like everybody else, but for a month. We looked at her as if she were a mad prophetess. The war turned out to be different from what we had imagined. We would hide in bomb-shelters—but then go to a newly opened restaurant whose owner kept buying automobiles for the front. We would buy clothes from Ukrainian designers—and know that, while making the profit they needed to keep funding their businesses, they would donate a portion of the proceeds to the military. We could make a manicure appointment—thus providing employment for a woman who had arrived on the previous evacuation train from the East. Our former lives with parties and receptions to be attended in cocktail dresses felt very distant, but everything we brought back we did for the Armed Forces of Ukraine and our victory.
“We’ll cancel it for you if we have to,” Maksym jokes. He means in case a random rocket hits the building where we are. We roar with laughter. Anna has just raised the stakes in the lottery.

Basic Instinct
“Well, my friends, I have had calls from all my exes. Every one of them. They worry about me, bless them,” Andriy says, with a touch of pride.
“Calling is nothing,” Ira laughs. “Mine was coming from the safety of Europe to rescue me out of Ukraine.”
“Well, shit! What did you tell him?”
“Told him to fuck off at first. Then I told him if he was coming anyway, our shelter needed some basic drugs. And that I was not going anywhere: this is my country, this is my home, and I’ll die here if I have to,” Ira says.
“Hey, Andriy, did you tell your exes how crappy your libido gets under air-raids?”
Even here, far away from the front-lines, we had forgotten about sex and sexuality. We put on the same clothes day after day because making a different choice required an effort. The chats on our phones exploded with messages. We wrote “How are you?” to friends from the cities that russians hit what felt like every minute. Certain words lost their significance. We knew we had to tell our friends, of all genders, “I love you” if that’s how we really felt. Love for one’s own, and hatred of the enemy—this is what helped us get out of bed in the morning (on those exceptional mornings when the air-raid sirens did not do it).
“I feel the opposite,” Anna says. “I really want to have sex with those guys in uniform and to have their babies. Only how am I supposed to have babies in the world where they won’t close the sky and children get used to sleeping in shelters, and all their games are about war?” She raises her eyes at us.
“I miss my son. I keep thinking of the day I put them on the train. My son and my wife left the country, and I won’t be able to see them any time soon. I cried on my way from the station. But they will live,” Ivan blurts.
Most people left because of the children. Women bundled infants in their warmest clothes and took them to the other side of the border. They crossed an imaginary line beyond which the sky was secured by NATO and wept at the despair of having left their homes. We don’t know who has it worse: we who had stayed or those who had left. To be on the other side of the border, near or far, is to live in a normal world, but without losing touch with our broken one. When you are ostensibly safe on the other side of that line, you feel every piece of news even more acutely. The women who left put their children above their own interests or mental health. They are alone in a foreign country where they cannot afford a nanny, and do not have their parents or a partner who could watch the kid while they go for a walk alone. Their lives revolve around their children and the news of casualties in their native cities. But to remain in Ukraine would have meant to put one’s child in danger. Most do not wish their children to play the lottery.

Adrenaline Roller-coaster Park
“If you are going to spread pessimism, I’ll kick you out of the apartment. Better let me show this video of how our nice Bayraktars blow up russian tanks. Look, there was a column of tanks—and now there is not.”
I look up with tears in my eyes.
“But what if we lose Kyiv? What if we never get Mariupol and Kharkiv back?”
The waves of adrenaline that made us capable of working two or three jobs and volunteer in-between would give way to deep pits of despair. Whenever that happened, the most important job was to support the person, to pull them out as quickly as possible. And then to keep working, working, leaving no opportunity for another fall.
“Even if they take them, we’ll get them back. Look, look: a nice little Bayraktar is flying through the sky… and there are fields below it, pretty summer fields…”
“Feel better? If not, I’ll give you my wine. These six sips are not going to make a difference.”
“Thank you, a little better. I can’t take your wine.”
We watched a lot of russian content, too, to understand what people there were concerned about. It made us sick, but we could not stop. All of us at least read russian, and this gave us the tool to, let’s be frank about it, locate some hope that their society would organise, would protest, that they would begin fighting the regime from inside while we battled it at the front. Our hopes were in vain. Instead, we saw Instagram stories about the pain of sanctions (are you serious?) and threats to our President.
We grew up very early, just like the majority of our compatriots. While people of our age out in the West spent time wondering where they would apply for college after a few gap years, we were managing enormous projects and founding successful businesses. After the Revolution of Dignity, we learned very well that we needed to live life to the fullest and take responsibility for our every action.
We finished the food and the wine. It was a few minutes before midnight—we went to bed.

The Ukrainian Dream
The other day a well-known writer asked me whether I knew how to build my life from now on.
I realised I did not. I cannot plan or dream; I don’t know whether I will be alive tomorrow. But we are all certain that none of this is in vain. We are not afraid at all. We, young, beautiful, and accomplished, slept three to a bed that night. Yes, we just slept. We spent all our savings on assistance to the Ukrainian military. We worked twelve-hour days for our Ukrainian dream. Each of us, curiously, had something unique in mind, but this did not matter. We wanted one thing: for the russians to leave us alone so we could go on developing our careers, starting families, and renovating our homes not as a means of dealing with obsession but because we were confident no enemy rocket would strike it the next day. All of this is yet to come—when russia finally leaves us alone. In the early hours of the morning, the air-raid siren sounded, but we decided to ignore it. Rockets did not hit Lviv that day; we survived, and we had one more day to be young.

Translated by Nina Murray


Sofia Cheliak is programme director of Lviv BookForum as well as a TV host, cultural manager, translator from Czech into Ukrainian, and PEN-Ukraine member.


Please note: since Russia’s full-scale invasion, many Ukrainians and supporters have refused to capitalise the name of the aggressor state and its people. This piece uses lower case in accordance with the author’s preference.

Roman Road by Kerry Mead

‘This decaying fabric, this unknowable terrain has become my biography, the euphoria then the anguish, layers of memories colliding, splintering and reconfiguring’. 

Laura Grace Ford


Do ghosts exist? Yes, they do. I know this because I’m being haunted. The ghost stains the air around a stretch of pavement next to the park on Roman Road. Roman Road is in Easton, an urban neighbourhood just northeast of Bristol’s city centre. It is a short one-way street with not much going for it really; a mishmash of flats, shuttered shop fronts and graffiti. Overflowing Biffa bins and haphazardly parked delivery vans line the narrow pavements and pounding bass throbs in waves from passing cars. It’s around the corner from the golden glass dome of the Bristol Jamia Mosque, situated at the end of the recently regenerated and rebranded ‘cultural and culinary hub’ of St Mark’s Road.

St. Mark’s Church sits opposite the start of Roman Road. It was gutted and converted into sheltered housing in the 1980s, after dry rot bloomed and took over its wooden interior. The builders dug up a stash of gold coins as they excavated the foundations in 1848; three bowler hats full, apparently. It was called Roman Road because it formed part of the route between Bath and the Roman settlement of Abona, where the northwest edge of the city meets the Severn Estuary. Roman Road is a place destined to be a cut through on the way to other places. A site for secret stashes of gold to be buried and left behind.

I live just over the other side of the motorway from Easton. When the ghost started haunting me, I avoided walking along Roman Road for a while. Instead, I stuck to the logical paths through the city that guarantee an efficient passage from Place A to Place B. But that’s not how ghosts work when they haunt the city you call home. There’s no escaping them, and they can’t leave, either.

‘I read the past everywhere. It’s like an overlay to the city, two maps, two cities – past and present – and you can always switch your view, walk through the streets a ghost, with you as if you were a spectre.’

The Place of the Bridge, Jennifer Kabat


Bristol has been a port city ever since Abona was established. It’s a city of hills, basins, bridges and gorges built on migration, movement and slavery. Many of the neighbourhoods in Bristol are named after saints. Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, the labyrinthine city of marshland, lagoons, offshoots and dead ends, has his name imprinted over Easton’s streets. Water and earth rub up against each other amongst Venice’s networks of canals, bridges and squares. The footsteps of past, present and future residents overwrite each other along its walkways. All of this creates fissures and in-between spaces where ghosts can appear.

More than twelve rivers and brooks run through Bristol’s valleys to the docks, into the Severn Estuary and out to seaAs in Venice, these waterways circle around Easton and cut it off from the rest of the city. It can sometimes feel like an island. Many of the rivers have been culverted; the River Frome is one of them. It flows from its source in the Gloucestershire countryside, passes through the town I grew up in and then skirts around the edge of Easton, buried under concrete. It’s easy to forget it’s there most of the time but, even though the water is hidden, its influence can still be felt if you pause and linger. A quiet pull, a whisper.

Ghosts need straight lines to move through a place freely. Centuries ago, all over the UK, pathways called corpse roads, lych ways, coffin paths or bier roads wound and weaved their way for miles across the rural landscape. They linked villages to their parent churches and often took the most barren and remote routes. Mourners who couldn’t afford a hearse would carry their dead on foot along these designated paths to be buried. They never took a direct, logical route. Our ancestors believed that if they were straight the spirits of the dead would find their way back to haunt those left behind. They also believed ghosts couldn’t cross water. Corpse roads often cut across streams, rivers and marshland to further ensure the dead didn’t return home.

Many of the straight lines evident in Easton’s streets have been overwritten over the years. This might explain why the ghost that haunts me is stuck on that stretch of pavement next to the park on Roman Road. It’s tangled up in the rows of Victorian terraces interspersed with mid-century cul-de-sacs and tower blocks that make up the urban geography of Easton. It’s stranded on an island. It couldn’t escape even if it wanted to.

The past also teaches us that the living haunt us as well. Processions of sprites, luminescent corpse candles and wraiths were rumoured to travel along corpse roads after dark. But once a year, in April, on St Mark’s Eve, apparitions of the living, those who are destined to die during the next year, make their way from their homes to the closest burial place. In the past, villagers would gather at lych gates at midnight and wise women would watch over the corpse roads and churchyards, to see whose ghostly figure would pass.


My steps have scored Roman Road’s paths so often that something of me must also remain for other passers-by to spot in unfocused moments. An occasional flickering glitch barely visible to the naked eye. Flesh and bones are transient, but ghosts remain to reappear again and again. I mostly drive straight through Roman Road nowadays, not leaving a mark. On my way to somewhere else in a rush, navigating the parked delivery vans or stuck behind a mum in an SUV reversing into a too-tight space, dropping her children off for gymnastics.

It’s easy to stop noticing even the most solid of things when you see them every day. In the middle of Roman Road, sandwiched between Anstey Street and Barrett Street, is a large red brick building that dominates the streets around it and houses Hawks gymnasium. I’d rarely notice it when I passed it every day. The building has lived many lives before, of both industry and dissent. Built in 1897, it was first a corset factory, then a laundry, then a storage space for engine parts used by British Aerospace. It was left empty for years until 1987, when it was squatted briefly before being gutted by a fire in 1989.


‘The time is out of joint’

Hamlet, William Shakespeare


I started noticing Hawks gym again after I had children. It has a reputation for being one of the best gymnastics centres in the Southwest; it’s probably the only reason many people from the more affluent areas of Bristol ever venture to EastonAva went to gymnastics there when she was six or so, but stopped after a term: ‘It’s too boring Mummy, we repeat the same things again and again.’ I secretly felt proud of her rebellious, independent streak. To be honest, I was also relieved not to have to drag myself out of the house early on a weekend anymore. Every Saturday morning, I’d peel myself out of bed and pile Ava and Joe into the car, both sullen and complaining, before driving over to Easton.

In my memory, every one of those mornings was grey and wind whipped, dragging Joe and Ava through the park opposite Hawks by the arms of their coats, their sulky bunched-up fists wet and cold. Head down, red wine hangover stinging my synapses, horizontal rain bursts slapping my face. Crossing the road, running up the steps, ushering Ava into the fusty, crowded reception. Since then, sometimes when I’m passing, I catch a flash of my back pounding up the steps to the entrance, Ava’s chubby fist in my hand. I am rubbing shoulders with the fainter ghosts of the corset factory and laundry workers pouring out of the double doors at the end of the day. Mothers rushing somewhere they don’t want to be, gymnasts’ feet hitting the mats in the same spot over and over, the clack clack clack of rows of sewing machines.

Hawks gym is clearly visible from the M32 motorway, a swath of Brutalism that sweeps past Easton, elevated on concrete pillars. It provides a constant background roar of traffic; the sound that has lulled my children to sleep since I moved back to the area in 2013. Work began on the motorway in 1966, a safe distance away from the gentle crescents of Angela Carter’s bohemian Clifton. The M32’s construction embodied the promise of a new, more dynamic future for Bristol. It cleaved through the streets of Victorian terraces which housed the city’s workers, rupturing the green parks and cutting Easton off from the rest of the cityThe route planned for the motorway intersected with the River Frome just upstream of Easton, so the river was redirected and culverted as it passed Easton’s western edge. The river’s natural course through the city has been altered and forced underground so many times it no longer flows freely. There is a cycle track you can take from Easton to the city centre that follows the motorway, a short corridor of grass, tarmac and graffiti. If you walk along the path and look closely you can catch glimpses of the river stagnating in the dark through metal grilles set in the concrete.


Opposite Hawks gym is a rank of shops. There’s Pak’s Butchers and Star Cash and Carry with its silver bowls of bruised fruit on display outside. Above the cash and carry, a small flat with a grubby closed-eye window remains unchanged since Katie lived there during the long, stifling summer of 1995. We’d both just moved to Bristol and I’d walk there some evenings from my house on Easton Road. We’d smoke a joint with her flatmate, and when we got bored she’d pull her trainers on and we’d run to the pub giggling, Katie still wearing her pyjamas. We’d pool our change on the bar for a pint each; nineteen and fearless. I often think about Katie and her flatmate when I walk along Roman Road. He ended up on smack; I wonder if he got clean.

Two doors down, on the corner opposite St. Mark’s church, is No.12, the new cafe that opened a few years ago. It’s conspicuous in its sophisticated blandness, like it’s been ripped out of a Sunday supplement and pasted over the takeaway that used to be there. Remains of the building’s previous life are still visible if you know what to look for, like a palimpsest. You can see it in a flake of white masonry paint above the new fascia revealing where grey stone used to be. Or in the long, low sill that still runs along the large windows, where a row of people would perch every evening, waiting for their orders of pizza or kebabs. Windows dripping condensation, softening the harsh strip light glitch and buzz inside.

The first time I sat in the courtyard of No. 12, it had already been open for four years. It was a hot, bright Saturday morning in 2018, the summer after I met O. He’d visit most weekends and I’d sometimes meet him off the train at the station opposite St Mark’s church. That day I’d got there early so I was killing time. I sat listening to the coffee machine puffing and screeching inside, nondescript electronica floating through the air. At that moment the café felt flat and calcified; nothing left to be added to its serene occupancy. In direct contrast, the street outside was a constant overwriting of footsteps and noise; the rich busyness and unfolding of an always shifting and building geography. I remember feeling suddenly complicit in the othering of the Easton on the other side of the courtyard’s high whitewashed walls, just by being there doing nothing with my expensive cappuccino. I quickly drained my cup, returned my book to my bag and stepped back out onto Roman Road.

I walked the long way to the train station instead, past the shops and through the summer-humming park. Before the park, unseen behind bricked up ghost doorways, are the backyards of a row of fixed up cottages. Their front doors face onto Albion Road, which runs parallel to Roman Road, like they are politely turning their backs on it. My friend Greg bought the middle cottage for £26,000 in 1999. I rented a room there for a couple of years not long after. A mossy red brick path weaving through tangles of jasmine and green led to the front door. Inside, the rooms were covered in wall hangings and full of cheap furniture, and on weekend mornings empty bottles and overflowing ashtrays left from an after-party the night before. Greg and my close friend Helen, now his wife, lived there until recently with their two boys. They sold the house for £399,000.


You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming.’

For the Sake of a Single Poem, Rainer Rilke


My old bedroom window looks out over the high wall onto Hawks gym, and I always glance up at it when I’m passing, but the blinds are usually down. I remember telling O they were happy times living there when we passed one time and paused by the peeling green park railings to look up at the window, but now I’m not so sure. Too many sleepless nights, whether drug or anxiety induced. Too many people passing through, not enough time spent still.

One scene comes to mind looking up at the window. I am lying on my side in bed propped up on my elbow on a dull, white-skied Sunday afternoon, with last night’s makeup still on. I’m watching a film and passing a joint back and forth with Louie, who is sat leaning against the wall on the other side of the bed. The smoke curling and mugs of hot, milky tea soften the jagged edges of our hangovers. Then the sound of drumming starts drifting up from the street outside. We both get up to look out of the window in time to see a procession passing along Roman RoadA joyful, proud collective heading from the Sikh temple on nearby Colston Road dressed like jewels. The men and boys wearing white kurtas, orange turbans and elaborately patterned coats, the elders at the front carrying blue and orange flags, the younger drummers jostling behind. The procession briefly fills the road and pavements. They are gone in a minute or so, heading in the direction of St Marks Road, leaving nothing behind except the fading sound of drums. I pop my head out of the window to try and follow their route, then I ease the sash window back down and we return to the TV. Louie moves closer, wrapping his arm around me, squeezing my shoulder and settling in next to me.

When I think about living there I also think about the black cat. Sometimes I’d feel a hint of soft fur sweeping across the back of my calves as I ran up the stairs, or I’d catch a glimpse of a black cat’s tail curling around the corner at the bottom of the stairwell as I walked back down. It happened enough times that I started to believe in ghosts. We didn’t have a cat until two or three weeks before I moved out. A stray tortoiseshell cat had turned up out of nowhere one day and would sit motionless for hours on the red brick garden path, staring at the house with intense yellow-green eyes. One day she strode into the kitchen as if she had never belonged anywhere else.

In another scene, I’m lying in bed again, but this time it’s late at night; one of the last nights I spent living in Easton. I’m in bed with the stray cat, who jumped in and curled up next to me a few minutes before, lapping her rough tongue over the back of my still hand.  I’m staring out of the window at the streetlight outside Hawks, half-packed boxes surrounding me.  It is silent and the height of summer. I don’t want to move out of the cottage anymore, but I’ve accidentally made myself homeless. I was meant to be moving to London to live with Louie. Greg had already found a replacement tenant, who was moving into the room in a week’s time. Louie had rung me a couple of days before to announce that he didn’t think me moving in was the best idea anymore.

I decided to take the stray cat with me a week later when I moved into the flat I’d found at the last minute. It had newly painted white walls and pristine polished wooden floors and was on a leafy, quiet street two miles away, on the other side of the M32. It was called a clean slate. When I moved there, the quiet sometimes deafened me, but the cat filled the silence with her warm weight across my feet at night and loud miaows at the door during the day. As I unpacked boxes and filled kitchen cupboards, I made myself a promise that, from then on, I would stop believing in anything that didn’t seem completely solid. The cat disappeared a few weeks later. I was inconsolable, but still couldn’t see the absurdity of the promise I’d made to myself.


Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.’

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf


From the first time he came here in 2017, O seemed like he was sucking the streets dry; collecting the sights, sounds and contours of the city, then storing them away in a private, locked collection. He didn’t want to go for walks through nature reserves and parks on Sundays. Instead, he preferred to traverse the underpasses and back streets, scoring a line past the skatepark under the M32 with its sunken, burst sofas and upturned bins. Sometimes I’d wake on a Sunday morning and he would already be sat on the edge of the bed pulling his socks on: ‘I’m popping out for a quick walk’. We’d walk most Saturday nights as well, me talking, him listening, moving between gigs, friends’ houses, clubs and bars. When I walked with him Bristol felt like a new city. His presence breathed life into the tired streets.

A few months before I last saw O, he messaged me on a Wednesday afternoon to tell me he was coming to Bristol after work and would get the last train home.  It was unusual for him to visit during the week, but he told me he was bored and fancied the trip. All I heard was that he missed me. I rang around for a babysitter and met him in the pub by the station where Katie and I used to go. We sat in the beer garden wrapped in big coats under fairy light garlands and rolled cigarettes in gentle silence and smiles.

After a while we decided to head to Ricardo’s who lived a few streets away. Roman Road was unusually still, bathed in orange light, April sky full of stars. Past No. 12 and Pak’s, past Katie’s grubby closed-eye window, past the bricked-up doorway and closed blinds of Greg and Helen’s. As we walked alongside the park, he stopped in that spot and pulled me close and kissed me out of nowhere. We rarely kissed in public. We kissed for a long time, me marvelling at his solidity, his here-ness, then I pulled back laughing:

‘What are we? Teenagers?’

He laughed as well and pulled me back into him tightly and kissed me again:

‘I just can’t let go’.

We carried on walking, wrapped up in each other, paying no attention to the streets. Later, on the last train home, he messaged me with links to one-bedroom flats in Bristol on Rightmove. All I heard was that he wanted to stay.


When O first left, his ghost haunted my house. Over time, it appeared less and less; the frequent apparitions slowly written over by the constant traffic of domesticity. New memories are painted over the old. But all ghosts reveal themselves occasionally; they can never be fully deleted if you know what was there before. Occasionally O’s frame would flicker at the kitchen table in the corner of my vision when I was draining pasta at the sink and a song he loved came on the radio. Or sometimes as I woke and opened my eyes, especially on bright, crisp, winter mornings, a long, freckled back might materialise on the edge of my bed, caught in time pulling on a sock again and again. These ghosts always disappeared when I turned to them, with my mouth full of unanswered questions.

Although the traces were faint and glitchy at home, there was still a ghost’s stain that was vivid, trapped over the other side of the river. Shortly after O left, we entered the first 2020 lockdown. I would sometimes drive through Easton and in my memory the same thing happens each time. I see myself rounding the corner past the church and No.12. There is a white delivery van stopped with its hazard lights on outside Pak’s, the open tailgate door showing skinned carcasses hanging from hooks inside, staring blindly from clouded eyes, the driver nowhere in sight. I stop and drum my fingers on the steering wheel whilst I wait, sometimes for so long I end up turning the engine off. Cars start pulling up behind me, beeping impatiently. Reggae is blaring from somewhere. I see an old man in a long white kurta and topi feeding the pigeons in the park. My eyes, against my will, are pulled to that stretch of pavement and railings that separate the park from the road. That’s where the ghost is, entangled with the street’s tarmac and airA stratum usually concealed from view. A garland of orange marigolds slung over the railings appears for a second before disappearing. A glitch; a symbol of union and mutual trust marking a sacred spot. Or an offering slung over a portrait of the dead. A point of access shimmering between presence and absence. I wince and turn away and look over towards the gym. Eventually, the butcher in his blood-stained white overalls lumbers into view, pushing a supermarket trolley. He is following the delivery driver, who is on his phone, and slowly starts unloading. When he has finished, the driver jumps back in the van and starts up the engine. As the road clears, I exhale, relieved, and pull away.


Beneath all the cities we don’t recognise are stacked all of the cities we do.

Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London


At the start of the millennium, just before I Iived in the cottage on Albion Road, I lived in Barcelona for a short time. When I arrived, the city was laid out before me unspoiled. No layers of memories, no roots from which to untangle my feet. For most of my time there I walked. Like O, I wanted to suck the streets dry. I walked like a tourist who wants to take the essence of the city home as a souvenir, from the port and beaches next to the old city across to the very top of Montjuic. I walked between cafes and galleries, through secret, crumbling squares. I listened to the echoes of my footsteps in knotted networks of narrow, gothic alleyways that the midday sun never reached. I stopped to watch locals parading dead-eyed, jewel-coloured papier-mache Gegants on sombre, grey Sunday mornings. I walked alone along the wide, crowded thoroughfares that cut through the city, rain showers briefly slicking the pavements before evaporating. I’d inhale Barcelona’s heady, sweat-spiked petrichor deeply, marvelling that I’d never smelt anything quite like it, knowing deep down I never would again. I fell in love with a city.

Then, after a while, I started walking out of loneliness. The people I crossed paths with felt distant and unreachable. As I sunk deeper into depression, the actual bones of the place felt increasingly threatening and the people in it casually cruel. I started resenting the city and everyone in it. One evening I mapped the streets of the barrio around where I lived in looping, unravelling circles for hours. My restless steps echoed the heavy agitation I felt running through my arteries. I couldn’t stop but I didn’t know what I was looking for. I was unable to return to my flat, turn the key in the door and admit the affair was over.

After that night I left as soon as I could. 


I returned a year later with Louie, a few months after we first met. I felt the urge to revisit and forcibly overwrite my complicated memories with new, simpler ones. We stayed a few streets away from my old flat in a grandiose but down-at-heel pensión filled with huge blooming succulents. We gorged on expensive food and I fucked him noisily day and night. We drank cocktails in bars hidden from the street behind heavy velvet curtains until we stumbled home through the gothic quarter in the early hours. I didn’t tell him, but as we walked I was searching the streets for traces of what I’d felt when I’d inhaled Barcelona’s after-rain smell. But I couldn’t find it. Nor could I fully exorcise my ghosts.


‘Find a way out | Through a memorial garden | A wilderness of roses.

Savage Messiah, Laura Grace Ford


Not long ago, I found myself walking back along Roman Road on a steely grey February afternoon. Life had shrunk since mine and O’s Saturday night wanders had ended. For the last ten months, I’d stuck to walking the same established paths during our allotted hour a day of outdoor exercise. In the depths of the first lockdown, I’d walk with Joe and Ava up to Stoke Park along the pathway that climbed through the woods behind our house. As we reached the top of the hill, we’d stop and look out over the city spread before us, pointing in wonder at the empty motorway gliding silently past below, high above the roofs of Easton and St Pauls.

When I find myself walking through Easton again, it feels freeing to cut through the city streets on foot once more. As Hawks gym and the peeling green railings of the park come into sight, instead of following the logical, more direct route home, I change direction and walk along Roman Road. I want to know if the ghost is real or is just a by-product of malignant nostalgia left to grow unchecked throughout the lockdowns. I want to see if the garland of marigolds is still there or if it was just refracted light bouncing off my windscreen.

Just before Hawks gym, I reach Paradise Fashions, which has had its shutters down for as long as I can remember. I cross the road and walk slowly along the pavement. A gaunt man in a shiny black Adidas tracksuit sits on the park bench cradling a can of Red Stripe. His gaze is fixed in the direction I am walking from, but he seems to stare straight through me. I don’t see the garland of marigolds as I approach but I can tell as soon as I stop that the ghost is there. I sense it as a swirl of solid, dark energy and hear it as a crystalline snatch of song suspended in a cold April starry sky. A corpse candle halted, flickering mid-air. The ghost still feels brand new, and as gentle and kind as silent smiles in a pub garden, but it also feels raw, and as cruel and shocking as fresh grief. The spectre of an imagined future that failed to materialise. Caught in the city’s in-between spaces, unable to extricate itself from its surroundings. No one else knows it’s there, but it’s now as much a part of Roman Road’s geography as its bricked-up doorways, concrete, grass and air. I hurry away, paying no attention to my surroundings. Past the back of the row of cottages, past Katie’s window, past the rank of shops. A young boy of around ten or eleven comes out of Star Cash and Carry as I pass; I almost bump into him and have to step aside to let him by. He stops to tip a plastic tub of food scraps onto a knotted black bin bag resting on the curbside. His stare makes me feel like an outsider. I follow behind him as he turns and walks back through the shop door.

I decide to return a few weeks later and I swear the man in the Adidas tracksuit is sitting on the park bench again, but the ghost is very faint this time. The marigolds have yet to reappear, although I know they are still there.  The ghost and the marigolds are as solid as chubby fists in my hand, the turn of a key in a lock, a black cat’s tail, a river running under concrete. The marigolds remain there somewhere, buried like a stash of gold coins waiting to be dug up in the future.



The Burden of Guilt by Emma Werner

My little sister Flora is two and a half. She collects chestnuts and pinecones in a small metal box. She stops on walks to smell the flowers as I lean to keep hold of her hand and the greatest problem she has ever solved: a 16-piece puzzle. She is a toddler, and if my biased opinion is to be trusted, a particularly sweet one at that. She is also the same age I was when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Insidious thing, cancer. I often thought of it as a completely separate entity from my mum. The uninvited third wheel in our mother-daughter relationship. But malignant tumours arise from our own cells, so in that sense, my mother’s cancer was her. I was once told to consider the disease as a Darwinian process; species evolve by mutations and natural selection across entire populations, and so do cancer cells within each individual. Malignancy is the inevitable cost of our existence as multicellular beings. In the case of my mother, she was in her early thirties when the unwanted bill came. She had no genetic predisposition, no family history; the chances of her getting sick were laughably small. But the cancer grew anyway, and with it, an unnamed bulk of guilt and responsibility crawled onto my small back. I have flashes of her skinny figure in a vast double bed taller than myself. I doubt I understood what was happening then, but I know she underwent surgery and chemotherapy early on. The cancer hid for a while, then in 1999, it came again, this time grafting itself onto her right hip. With the benefit of hindsight and many years of biomedical studies, I now know this was the beginning of the end – once the cancer reaches the bone, there is no way to remove it. From then on, my mother’s condition was, plainly, incurable. I have no recollection of being explicitly told this, not then anyway. Any mention of Darwin and oncogenic mutations did not reach me until much later in life. But her first relapse remains brutally etched into my memory.

During the Christmas break of that year and amid a vicious round of chemotherapy, my parents took my sister and me to a ski resort. I was five; my sister was eight. Much of that holiday is a blur – and hard as I try to recall, I do not believe I was aware of the full extent of my mother’s disease. Shortly after we arrived, she fell sick and was rushed to a doctor nearby. When she returned the following night, it dawned on me for the first time in my life: one day, my parents would die, and I would be alone. I rushed to my mother for comfort. She calmed me down and said not to worry and to enjoy the rest of the holiday. But a few days later, on New Year’s Eve, while I was jumping around to songs I didn’t really know, thoughts of my mother’s health came back to haunt me, mingled with a dull feeling I could not quite yet put words on. As the millennium drew to a close, I was joined by a shadow that would stalk me for the rest of my life.

The thought that I’d burdened my mother with my own fears was mortifying; what pain she must have felt, knowing the cancer was killing her even as she consoled me. I never mentioned the incident again. Instead, I quietly carried the shame of what I considered my failure to deal with my mother’s terminal illness without causing a scene. And as the cancer cells continued to slowly but inexorably multiply inside of her, so did my own feelings of guilt. 

For the twelve years that followed, the cancer lived with us like an unwanted family guest we all did our best to ignore. Occasionally, it disappeared for a while before storming back in, each remission shorter than the last. The cycle became so familiar that I fooled myself into thinking it would carry on forever. I went about my life as normally as I could. I went to school, sang in a choir, took violin lessons, and convinced myself that things would get better eventually. Yet, at times, the horrors of my reality burst through that naive ignorance, just as they had in 1999.

When I was around twelve, my mother lost her hair. It had happened before several times, but her most recent chemotherapies had spared her this characteristic side-effect and I had almost forgotten what she looked like bald. I was the only one home when she came from the hairdresser, where she’d said goodbye to the last remaining clumps of hair not yet ravaged by the medication. I assured her she looked great, that her new black chemo hat was sweet and that we’d find a good wig anyway but was unable to mask my reaction upon seeing her. She looked so pale. So ill. All I could see was her cancer. I knew how upset she was at losing her hair again and hated myself for hating her appearance and for the half-second in which I feared the shock had been visible in my eyes.

While writing this piece, I found an email I’d sent that same year to a teen magazine in response to a story about cancer they had recently published. Written in Comic Sans and signed off with a smiley face – my attempt to lighten the mood – the message read:

“My mother has had cancer since I was two years old. I have learnt to live with it, but the older I get, the harder I find it. I am unable to talk about it with my mother, nor my family, nor a psychologist nor my friends. How can I make it easier and help my mother?”

🙂 Emma, 12 (Paris)

I received a very kind email back five days later. The editor suggested I look to artistic outlets as a coping mechanism: “drawing, writing.” As it turns out, I had spent most of my childhood writing. Short poems, mainly, though I ventured into other genres too. At primary school, I’d penned a small pamphlet in which I examined the meaning of words. In suitably morbid fashion, the first one on the list was death. I wonder what my parents made of it. 

When I was fourteen, my mother once asked me to pick up the blood test results for her, too anxious to see what they might show. Unfolding the piece of paper in the laboratory’s drab waiting room, I broke down. I willed the numbers to change, but her illness’s stubborn un-solvability stared back at me from the page. I called my father in tears. After all the pain and the treatments, how could I possibly tell her she was still dying? In the end, it was she who had to comfort me. Here I was, five years old again, unable to cope and unable to make her better. “So it’s not so good, is it?” she said as I opened the front door. “It’s ok, the doctor said the markers might continue going up for a bit.” 

I went on a trip with my conservatoire orchestra a month before her death. In hindsight, I should have known that time was fast running out when cancerous nodules were found in her liver not long before. Still, celebrating Halloween in various bars of Vienna, the cancer seemed far away. And nothing quite takes your mind off impending death like a week of underage drinking and sleep-deprived performances of Verdi’s Requiem. Reality came crashing down the same hour I got back. My father came to pick me up from the coach station on the way to collect my mother up from a therapist appointment. She climbed into the car and burst into tears. “I am not afraid anymore,” she told my dad. It wasn’t until two weeks later, when my father sent me to stay with my grandparents to shield me from the excruciating final moments, that I understood what she had meant. We had finally reached the end. After fourteen years of a life-threatening illness, I still failed to recognise death when it came.

For a long time after her passing, I dreamt about her often and every time the same scenario would play out. I would see her on a Metro platform in Montparnasse, near our flat in Paris, and I would apologise for not realising early enough that she was about to die. My mother was gone, but my guilt remained.

I found solace in biology textbooks in the gaping hole she left behind. I relished learning anything to do with cancer. I sought any mentions of the chemotherapy drugs I had seen my mother endure. Taxol. Taxotere. Any mutations I remembered hearing about. HERC2. BRCA1. “Bones are the most common metastatic site for breast cancer”. “Secondary liver tumours develop in about half of all metastatic breast cancers and often lead to liver failure”. Rather than finding it upsetting, it was like a comforting voice making sense of it all. Here for the first time was a logical justification for my illogical childhood, a coherent explanation of my mother’s illness. 

Biology gave me another, more unexpected source of healing. The same year my mother died, I took an internship at a laboratory researching cancer in Tasmanian Devils. There, I first learnt about malignant tumours in the context of evolutionary theories. The scientist who supervised me called them “biological dead-ends” – once the cancer becomes stronger than its host, it dies with them, just like my mother’s cancer had disappeared with her. In the following months, that same scientist met my dad, who’d wanted to thank her for taking good care of me. They married some years later. And so, in a strange turn of events, after cancer took my mother, it gave me a younger sister, Flora.

It has been eleven years since my childhood fear of losing a parent came to pass. My own thirties are looming large on the horizon. On the other hand, Flora is looking forward to her third-ever Christmas. A few weeks ago, she became inconsolable after breaking a small plate, and as I comforted her, I saw my childhood expectations crumble too. I had always believed it a perfectly reasonable assumption that I should know to deal calmly with my mother’s illness before I had even learnt how to read. All those failures I’d been carrying around since I was Flora’s age, my remorse, my guilt – it was justified. Now, faced with the reality of a toddler’s emotional landscape, I realised for the first time the sad absurdity of it all. 

It took over a decade and the arrival of Flora into my life to reach that basic conclusion. Sometimes in her eyes, I recognise the same carefree innocence I traded as a child for a lifetime of self-reproach. I cannot change how I grew up, nor, as I assured my mother on her deathbed and many times in dreams, would I have wanted to. But as I watch Flora play with her toys and cry over broken crockery, the burden of guilt medical textbooks never quite managed to shift slowly makes way for bittersweet relief. I was a kid who did not know how young she was. I did my best in the worst of scenarios; one day, I will accept that that was enough.

Emma Werner is a creative producer and writer, living in South London. She also holds a PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Cambridge. She is originally from Paris, and enjoys writing in both English and French.

Time Trial by David Fisher

I receive a letter from Dad. He’s on the other side of China, moaning about wanting to retire and the university not letting him.

I receive a letter from Dad. He’s on the west coast of America, moaning about his students – how they’re unintelligent but he has to let them pass anyway, quotas or something.

I receive a letter from Dad, and I wonder if it’s going to be his last: he’s coming home.

Living with Dad was a bit like being loaded into a comedy cannon and then fired off to land somewhere, who knows where: in hospital, India, or the wrong school. He had this thing about experience, the necessity to experience life, cram as much as possible into it, and ‘develop the ever-expanding mind,’ as he put it. So, education and travel and risk were important, safety much less so.

Maybe the 1960’s and 1970’s were like that, and boys like me were almost expected to wander around the city with their younger brother and older sister, get involved in things presented to us, experiencing them, and acquiring knowledge, pleasure and hurt. Maybe Dad was just hopelessly neglectful and ignored the risk of us becoming casualties. Maybe, simply because we survived, he was right.

1963. The day we found a dead squirrel, was a hot and dry one. Not half-eaten or diseased, apparently undamaged but definitely dead, it lay on the ground where kid brother, Dan, me, big sister Phoebe, and the dog, squatted down and studied it. We poked it with sticks, turned it over a few times, while we decided what to do. Our speculations revolved around eating it, burying it, burning it, hanging it in a tree as a warning or posting it to one of our enemies. Eventually we thought it best to take it home and show it to Dad. He would know what was best.

He did.

‘The best bit of learning to get from a dead squirrel,’ he declared, ‘is to dissect it.’

‘What does “dissect” mean?’ we chorused.

‘I’ll show you,’ he said. ‘But quick before it starts to smell.’

Mum just sighed and said, ‘Take that ghastly thing outside immediately and wash your hands before you come back in.’

We gathered in the garden, around an upside-down tea chest on which lay the unfortunate squirrel. Beside it were Dad’s dissecting instruments, left over from his first and only year of medical school. Steely, fascinating things, never seen before by us: small, scarily sharp scalpels that we were forbidden to touch, odd-shaped scissors and forceps, large pins, and all held in a neat fabric roll. This little dissecting kit revealed both organisation and hitherto unknown talents in Dad, so we were intrigued, and not a little nervous as we contemplated the motionless squirrel. Something that soon escalated into trepidation, and a frisson of real fear when Dad said we were going to see inside it. Deep inside our little souls we knew a taboo was being broken – the one that states the body must remain sealed and continuous, and that opening it up is a transgressive act.

Dad looked like he knew what he was doing as he fitted a blade to the scalpel and announced his intentions. He was unusually focussed as he pinned the squirrel out on its back, into a square shape, and we stared, horrified, at the tiny clawed paws through which a large pin was placed – surely that would hurt?

We must have looked upset because he said, ‘Not to worry, it won’t hurt the squirrel.’

Dan asked, ‘Is it a little boy or a little girl squirrel?’

‘A boy,’ Dad informed us with aplomb, and we all squirmed.

With the scalpel, he drew a line down the squirrel from neck to tail. A small amount of blood immediately oozed, and he made more cuts along the inside of each slender furry limb. We all recoiled at the sight of such bodily peril and Dan burst into tears and ran off to find Mum – who soon appeared at the back door, saying, ‘Is this really a good idea?’ But Dad was in his element, explaining the layers of skin, and how the ribcage moved. This, he snipped apart and held wide open with the forceps. Then he used his curved scissors to cut the blood vessels attached to the heart, and removed that.

‘Ta da!’ he said with a flourish. ‘The heart. Just like ours, only smaller!’ He laid it on the surface of the tea chest: reddish brown and about the size of a grape. I touched it – it was cold and wet.

By now the smell of extreme butchery was getting to us, especially with the heat of the day, and Phoebe threw in the towel, saying she felt dizzy. I felt ill, but I knew Dad wanted me to stay for the experience, and I was game. It was gruesome and sick and bloody but it was real and I knew I was required to appear tough even though I was only nine. Mum reappeared to complain that her children were being traumatised, but Dad cut her off with a lecture about finishing things: the importance of. He used to talk like that – finishing a sentence with its subject. She stared at him, said nothing and disappeared.

Dad looked at me and I looked at him. We obviously had more to do, so he carried on dissecting the squirrel, next removing the stomach – ‘He can’t eat much, can he, it’s tiny,’ then the large intestine – ‘Squirrel poo in there…see,’ and finally the liver – ‘It regrows, you know, like in space,’ which baffled me.

Eventually, the lesson was over and he said to wash my hands and go inside to call the others; we were all going to bury the squirrel in the garden, next to Jimmy the cat. I was exhausted, with cramping pains in my belly and unable to understand what had just happened. Dad claimed this was normal, useful, and it had been a good test, considering my age.

Mum was summoned to help and we all lined up next to the tiny grave while Dad announced, ‘One day your mother and I will look like this,’ adding something else that sounded important, about life and knowledge.

Mum was furious, I could tell by the way she held her lips so that she couldn’t talk through them.

Much later, when I took my turn at medical school, and they asked us to dissect a rat, I could honestly say that I was experienced at such things.

1970 and Dad was testing us again. This one started at the departure gate in Cincinnati airport where I stood with Dan in one hand and a blue nylon Pan Am branded shoulder bag in the other. The bag was empty except for ten dollars and two passports.

On arrival at JFK, of course we followed everyone else off the plane and onto the chaotic and crowded concourse – only to find ourselves alone. The vast space in the terminal building echoed and howled with noise and Dad’s instructions about connecting flights and where to go seemed to fly up out of my head to bounce off the distant skylights, where they hung, useless and out of reach. We stood around, aching with anxiety, kid brother hopping around like he wanted to pee. Both of us were longing for a familiar face, for someone to say our names, or for Mum or Dad or both or somebody or anybody to appear out of the crowd. But no one did.

We probably should have been met by someone. After all, I was nearly eleven and Dan only six.

I wanted to cry. I was failing the test. Fear grew until it loomed above my head like the slavering demon version of me. I grew certain that there was no hope, that the worst had happened, that no one was coming for us and that we had been abandoned; I realised that it was me, the big brother holding the blue nylon Pan Am branded shoulder bag, who was now, suddenly, in charge. I took kid brother’s hand, knowing I must not lose him.

Dan kept seeing Mum and running up to someone who resembled her. ‘Are you my mummy,’ he’d say, but it was always a stranger. Then he’d whisper to Dennis – the plastic toy dinosaur he always carried with him – ‘Don’t worry, mummy will find us soon.’ Dennis was soon spending more and more time in Dan’s wobbling mouth.

We stood outside for a bit and watched the taxis emptying – maybe someone we knew would climb out of one. They didn’t. Aimless as falling leaves we wandered around the airport looking like under-age nomads in search of fresh pasture, obeying some deep-seated instinct to keep moving, usually from departures to arrivals and back again. Cut adrift and irresolute, our connecting flight long since gone, we regressed into a kind of trance, a rootless endless motion suffused with dread. It grew dark. I wanted to burrow, to dig underneath something where it was dark and safe.

‘I’m hungry!’ said Dan for the ninth time.

I decided I must be hungry too.

McDonald’s stood before us, radiating promise. After a year living in America we were still captured by the spell of its fast food and we knew well the kind of divine pleasures inside.

‘Two chocolate milk-shakes, please,’ I stammered at the till.

The teenager gave me a squint and looked around for the (absent) parents. ‘Whose payin’,’ he demanded, but I had the cash ready and the sight of it convinced him. Soon we were sitting in a booth, happier than we had been for hours. We kept quiet and slurped steadily while Dennis watched us from the Formica table-top with a purple, perpetual snarl. No one was there to say no, so we had another milkshake, blowing bubbles until they ran down our chins and we felt bloated and sick.

‘Give me the bag,’ said Dan.

I was still holding the blue nylon Pan Am branded shoulder bag because it gave me comfort, authority, and a sense that I, and all this, was real. I was reluctant to hand over the talisman but did so; he seemed to know what he was doing. He sat for a minute, holding the bag on his lap and staring into the middle distance as if summoning the djinn the bag probably contained.

‘Let’s ask a policeman,’ he announced at length. ‘I saw one back there.’ And then he looked scared, because it meant leaving the safety of McDonald’s and the milkshakes and returning to the yawning chasm that was the concourse. But in the end we made ourselves leave, because we knew we had to be brave.

The cop stood behind his large belly, surveying his realm and gesturing with his billy club; he seemed to be measuring the noise and chaos as if he was conducting it. He towered above us, black moustache and black uniform, black boots that would crush us to dust if we spoke. We stared up at him in fascination and horror and were unable take our eyes off his gun. He nailed us to the floor with his black eyes.

‘Hiiii boys,’ he said, ‘I seen you two around here already, where ya’ll goin’ to, huh? You guys ok, really?’ We stared up at the monster, ready to be eaten. ‘Where’s mom and pop, huh?’ He waited with a kind look on his face, then squatted down to our level. ‘You guys lost?’ he said.

But we were now examining his moustache – Dad didn’t have one at all – which curved and snaked around his face like a black caterpillar and made us want to touch it to see if it moved.

Men in suits wandered in and out of the icy air-conditioned room, took our passports away and asked me the same questions again and again, but never seemed to like my answers. Uniformed Pan Am women brought us hamburgers and Cokes and showed us where the toilet was. We shivered in our shorts and t-shirts and waited; adults knew what to do, at last, but I held onto the blue nylon Pan Am branded shoulder bag just in case.

After what seemed like days, they decided what to do and we followed someone down corridors and onto a plane. She told us where to sit and gave us our own blanket and a sweet, one each. She smiled at us. ‘You’re going home now,’ she said.

We curled up in our blankets and Dan said, ‘When we grow up to be men, will we have a moustache like his? I want one like his.’

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘If you want, but you have to want one. Anyway, guess what, we’re on a plane home so we passed the test, ask Dennis if you don’t believe me.’

‘Will Phoebe be there?’

‘Yes, of course, she’s our sister. Stop making me say of course.’

We had survived, so maybe Dad was right in his theories. Maybe the idea was to compress the child until it fit the mould, squeeze until it squeaked and learned the lesson. Like making diamonds. But I didn’t understand that either.

1990. Emotionally unintelligent and unfit for the task I ease myself into an unsuitable marriage, the way you would an old sock – it’s a good fit, but the work involved can make you sweat. Dad would say that with Amy I’m experiencing one of life’s bigger tests, but everyone else just says I’ve lost my sense of humour. Maybe it’s because I see my life as a theory now, a complex maths problem with me as a kind of equation: if I can just input the right values then I can calculate the correct volume of a sphere.

I am collecting my kid brother after his AA meeting; now in his late twenties, Dan has decided which way is up and is evangelical about it. Sometimes we go for a coffee and discuss the experience. Dad would approve. I just love to hear Dan’s old laugh again, there’s a maniac in it, or a djinn.

I too, might be learning – by taking the long view, and enduring. I decide I prefer distance to closeness so Amy and I move to the flatlands, a mute, unwelcoming part of the world; crisscrossed by ditches and canals the landscape seemed to have been darned. The country is so level, so endless and the sky looms and spins you around so vast and just above your head that it makes you want to clutch onto things. Here it is always October, the mists and watery environment enter my mood until a bleak habit of mind develops. It feeds a kind of fundamental disorientation, but it’s actually quite simple – I am no longer a child, in fact I have two of my own.

Being halfway round the world most of the time meant Dad missed the birth of my daughter, and a son. But later, when he holds a baby against his shoulder, supporting the head without me needing to remind him; I see his tenderness, how he is capable of great care, and remember that he cared enough to teach me to read. Dad says I am on the right track with the maths problem approach to life, but that I am living in a wasteland. Dad is often right about his children, or thinks he is because he’s the teacher in the family; but being the Dad doesn’t mean he knows what to do about kid brother’s drinking. No-one does.

Dan gives up on AA, full of nutters and liars he claims, and is back to living in the pub. He drinks a bottle of vodka a day most days, and his decline is unequivocal, untouchable. There is a vengeful quality to his drinking now, as if he knew something all along and wants to tell someone – ‘I told you so, I told you I was doomed.’ When his laugh turns sour and bitter I try, and fail, to give him up as lost.

My parents divorce, as do Amy’s. The events echo through our marriage from a distance, like the sound from the paper cup and string telephone I used to make for Dan and his little friends when he was small. A hurricane in the form of meningitis seizes him when he turns twenty-eight, carrying him away in the space of a week. His death feels like someone has stolen the truth and is a test no one could pass intact, only by a kind of internal withering do I make it into middle age. Phoebe and I, shocked and bruised by loss, sift through memories for a while, but unable to touch the wound, float apart from each other. She wanders as far as California, marries, rarely writes.

Two griefs. One mine and one hers; one here one there, one arid and shrunken and one inflated and sentimentalised by jukeboxes.

Things between Amy and I begin drifting soon enough. Cracks form, silences expand like an invisible gas, all made from the satisfactions and disappointments found in any marriage, but with me are built on a foundation of ambivalence. I try. I try to calculate the right answer to the equation, but the answer never fits. And between us now, nothing fits, or is fake, or a joke.

‘Maybe if you see it all as an experience…’ Dad says, trying to help.

I wake in the night and look at my wife’s face softened and changed by sleep and the room’s shadows, see her younger than the girl I married, look again and see her older, my-mother-like; until finally she is a stranger, as incongruous in my life as a llama grazing in an English field.

In the empty space that somehow occupied decades, I remember one of Amy’s final acts before leaving for good was to take a photo of three men on a sofa: Dad, me, and my teenage son. All shy of cameras, all with the same angry mouth.

I receive a letter from Phoebe. Somehow, she has encountered Amy, and though I try not to, I see them drinking coffee in the Los Angeles sun, comparing notes, sharing experiences of my warped family.

2010. In the end Dad has made it back home. His book is published, the property empire is established, his life-long global trek has ended with the conquering of academia. He finally begins his fable of retirement so no more letters come to me from distant, exotic cities detailing a life one step, many steps, removed from mine.

Now Dad’s brain is being tested by dementia. He stands on the steps of an imposing Victorian building in a February gale, the wind howling down off the moor and blowing wisps of leaf and rain against his flat and empty face. The gloom of a winter twilight barely reveals its brown stone, damp with age and neglect; its brightly lit interior seems both an invitation and a lie.

Dad’s new wife and daughter accompany me. We fail to remark on the magnolia, the steel bed frame, the smell. We do notice the rhododendron garden outside, the way the moor stretches up from the river. And the way Dad’s unnerving, subterranean silence is deepening.

We all smile at Matron, who, as implacable as the stone of her building, calmly takes charge. She anticipates our visits to be infrequent, and painful; his stay to be short.

She’s right. Because whenever I visit Dad and sit with him in the day-room where I read him poetry for an hour or two, the difficult part is the leaving.

‘Dad, you have to stay here.’ He tries to follow me out, but the staff keep him inside and so he stands there at the door, waiting for it to open like a cow at a gate. ‘It can’t be helped, Dad.’ Meaning I can’t. His posture is a mute accusation, meaning why can’t you.

‘Dad, you have to stay here, please.’ He stands like a disciple – silent and patient, waiting for me to release him, his face blank, as inscrutable as a crow. We look through the door’s window at each other, the wire reinforced glass a barrier to everything precious but light.

2020. “… until we’re all at death’s door.” It was a line Dad liked to finish a sentence with, to exclaim at odd intervals or to simply add emphasis. Well, here he is now – at death’s door. Pre-occupied as I am with other losses and terminal illnesses, to find myself in another hospital room at someone’s bedside seems almost routine. It obviously is for the nurses. My step- mother and I have just finished the latest conference with one of the senior ones. Leaning against the wall, with her arms folded and her face in neutral, the nurse’s stance says more to me about Dad’s chances than anything in her words. It must be hard to know what face to wear when every day contains a tragedy.

‘It’s the old man’s blessing, pneumonia,’ is what she does say, not quite casually. She’s probably right.

I’m watching his heart rate on the monitor next to his bed, over 120 a minute – as if you or I were running hard, sprinting after a long race, but he lies motionless under the toxic umbrella of his breath which is too shallow, and far too fast. I wonder how long an old heart can keep going.

Phoebe is here, jet-lagged from a long flight from Los Angeles, but still hoping. I watch as she climbs onto the bed and sits on his hips, pulls open his pyjama top and rubs scented oils into his chest. Intent and furious in the task, she is trying to heal him, cure the illness, make everything all right again. I keep quiet and watch her efforts, knowing them to be fruitless, but appreciating them just the same.

The heart rate monitor goes up a notch, his blood oxygen level goes down a notch. Phoebe climbs off and sits next to him in a chair, her face in her hands. I want to go and squeeze her shoulder or something but am unable to do so; Dad, unconsciously, had taught me the undesirability of touch.

“What is a life for?” he would have asked us as we watched the football on the juddery, black and white TV. I just wanted to know: how do you talk to girls?

I watch Dad’s grizzled face and wonder what he’s going through. He used to say it’s all grist for the mill, it’s all usable as an experience. That’s one way to approach life and I wonder if it’s made him ready to face this, the end of his life.

Phoebe puts a small, water-soaked sponge between his lips and the lips suck hungrily at it. She repeats the act with great tenderness, a few more times, until it seems he’s had enough. And we’ve had enough too, for now; we go outside for a cigarette and to talk for the first time in years, only to discover that, in a vacuum, things have fallen apart.

She says, ‘Do you remember that song Dad used to go on about all the time? That goes …are you experienced?Remember?’

‘Yeah, great song. Jimi Hendrix, Dad’s song, isn’t it.’

We go back up to the ward’s side room where our stepmother is waiting, and Dad is still alive.

David Fisher is a new writer based in Romney Marsh, Kent. He studied English and Creative writing at the Open University. He has had work published in The Guardian newspaper, winning its travel-writing competition and a story is forthcoming in the ‘Between these Shores’ annual. He was long-listed for the VS Pritchett prize and the Fish publishing short memoir prize. He is currently employed as a train driver.

A Necessary Disposition by Kate Venables

My father and I were both doctors. I use the past tense for my father, Harry Walker, because he died young. For myself, it is because I am no longer a real doctor. I became an epidemiologist and my clinical skills gradually atrophied. I was a child when Harry died and I never had a conversation with him about medicine. Never about anything. Can an adult be said to converse with a five-year-old, a seven-year-old, a ten-year-old?

When I was a young woman, I packed Harry away as images in a photograph album and as a few inherited books and objects. But if I visited a large medical library and walked past a collection of old Medical Directories, I would look up his entry and wish I knew more about his life and work. When I opened a package of my father’s testimonials, a phrase stuck in my mind, that he had ‘the necessary disposition for an anaesthetist’.

Why do people choose medicine as a profession, why are they are drawn to particular specialties, how much do these choices relate to ‘disposition’? These large generalities are all interesting, but this essay looks at the subject at a microscopic and personal level, through the lenses of my own career choice of epidemiology and Harry’s of anaesthesia.

In many ways, epidemiology and anaesthesia could not be more different. Much of epidemiology is desk work. It’s about big-picture thinking, looking at disease patterns at the population level, comparing regions and countries, using statistics to define the factors that cause disease and those which influence its outcome. We have all become acquainted with it during the coronavirus pandemic as, night after night, we look at graphs and listen to discussions about projections and risk factors and the parameters of the latest regression model. Harry, on the other hand, dealt with one patient at a time and in a highly practical manner. His work required him not only to be familiar with every aspect of the machinery and chemicals he used, but also to touch his patients and understand the quirks of their anatomy and physiology, as well as the pathology that forced them into the operating theatre.

But maybe there are some fundamental similarities which explain why a father and daughter might have chosen such apparently different fields. We epidemiologists work in teams, or, these days, Teams. Anaesthetists, too, don’t work in isolation. Although the specialty has expanded its boundaries considerably since Harry’s time, it started as a partnership with surgery and this partnership remains fundamental in the operating theatre. The anaesthetist and the surgeon dance round each other, the patient between them. They share responsibility for the patient’s outcome.

Maybe there is something about not wanting the limelight? The epidemiologists on our television screens are backroom creatures, unused to media interest until now. And, on a surgical ward, each patient ‘belongs’ to a surgeon, not to an anaesthetist, and most anaesthetists appear content with this superficially subordinate position.

And what about the magical properties of our respective specialties? Epidemiologists are oracular now. We predict the future and advise governments. And Harry had the shamanic power to render a person unconscious and powerless.

But they are very different disciplines. I was never interested in anaesthesia. I don’t think I have the right skills or mindset to be an anaesthetist. It is a field which, more than many medical specialties, marries clinical skill with the basic anatomical, physiological and biochemical underpinnings of medicine and which merges both with an interest in pharmacology and in tinkering with bits of kit. Anaesthetists are often inventors, introducing new chemicals or perfecting new connectors or valves.

I lack an interest in technology. I admire people who can make things work, who can build things, are good with their hands like Harry. I enjoy the beauty of my father’s woodworking tools rather than wishing to have a go at carpentry myself. Although I have some manual facility and can draw and sew, I lack the ease with three-dimensional shapes that a real craftsman has. I can read maps and diagrams but I have to think it through with my intellect rather than trust to my gut feelings. It follows that I stick laboriously to a step-by-step leaflet to assemble a piece of furniture whereas my husband could scan instructions then set to with screwdriver and drill, humming with satisfaction as he worked out how pieces fitted together. I used to do what I called ‘inventing’ as a child but it was a species of collecting. I would requisition particularly attractive sweet tins and within them hide an assortment of rubber bands, hair-grips, old coins, pebbles, shells, feathers, broken brooches and doll’s limbs. These assemblages had more resemblance to a seventeenth-century antiquarian’s cabinet of curiosities than to an inventor’s bench.

When I was a child, I took it for granted that not only was my father a doctor, but he was an anaesthetist. When he came home from work his clothes were aromatic with the smell of anaesthetic gases. He kept a brown, ribbed glass bottle of ether in the house because it was good for dissolving the sticky grey crumbs of residual gum left after removing sticking plaster from children’s limbs. I always had skinned elbows and scabbed knees and I got through a lot of Elastoplast. The ether was an important tool in making me presentable for visitors.

At school we asked each other what our fathers ‘did in The War’ and there were hierarchies of glamour from fighter pilot downwards. When a television appeared in our house I became fascinated by Sergeant Bilko, who always had a scheme to make money and managed his gimcrack crew of American soldiers with fast, wisecracking humour, always getting the better of the dim officers who nominally commanded him. I found Sergeant Bilko immensely clever and funny and I wanted him on my side. A sergeant was clearly a prestigious being and I suppose I had heard of people ‘learning a trade’ in the Army so I started to boast that my father had learned how to be a doctor when he was a sergeant in the war. This story must have spread because my mother was cross and made me learn how to spell ‘a n a e s t h e t i s t’ and that my father left the Army as a major.

Harry was a practical man who did most of the house-painting and minor repairs around the house himself and I have memories of playing round his feet while he did something: digging the garden, painting doors in the house, writing letters at his desk. When he was reading or watching television, I used to clamber over him, turning the signet ring round his finger, exploring his pockets, stealing his handkerchief, combing his hair.

Harry’s carpentry tools came to me after my mother died. Then they moved to my first house. Much later, they went into storage until finding their current home in a chest in my hall in my current house.

There’s a Bailey No 4 plane, Made in England stamped on the baseplate in a plain font and Stanley in raised letters on an orange ground on the blade. It is heavy wood and iron. The heft of it is not familiar but I can tell it would fit a larger hand and a stronger arm comfortably. Rust blooms on its base and there are wear scratches and a few streaks of white paint. The wood is thickly varnished a dark brown. The handle and the knob did not have to be as elegantly turned as they are. The worn areas show the wood grain. In the chest there is also a tenon saw and a few chisels, an awl, a punch.

I like the tenon saw especially. I probably misuse it, looked at from a technical, carpentry perspective, but it fits my hand and its weight feels good in my wrist. The wooden handle is polished with skin oils and fixed to the heavily rusted oblong blade with two big bolts. The metal guard on the handle has a curved, finished shape. I could be part of a dragon carving on a sword from the Dark Ages. It’s rusty but it cuts.

Our house had a garage at the bottom of the back garden, with tall folding doors that opened into a back alley behind the houses. Part of the garage was a workshop and this side was almost completely filled with the boat lying propped and wedged on its sawhorses. The floor was cobbled with a gutter running down the centre to a drain. There was a workbench under the side window, black with oil and the window glass was gauzy with oily cobwebs. In the workshop Harry built an Enterprise dinghy from a kit sponsored by The News Chronicle. I used to play on the floor in drifts of sweet sawdust, a radio mumbling in the background, Harry rubbing down the wood with different grades of sandpaper. He painted the hull a shade of blue I had never seen before. Not pale. Not dark. A blue in between. He varnished its other parts: the mast, the rudder, the stern and transom. Several coats. We didn’t talk but I chattered. I missed the boat’s presence when it was finished and launched and left the workshop, with much reversing and re-aligning to move it onto its trailer in the narrow alley.

The testimonials are folded into a brittle, foxed envelope and held together by a rusted paper clip. ‘I have every confidence in him when he undertakes anaesthetics for me’ writes the senior surgeon, a referee for Harry’s consultant post at the start of the NHS in 1948. Another writes ‘Because of his knowledge and skill in the practice of all the most modern types of anaesthetics, there is a great demand for Dr. Walker’s services in this area, where his abilities are now held in high regard by all his colleagues.’

The centrepiece of anaesthetic practice has always been surgical pain relief, assessing the patient’s physical condition prior to surgery and deciding if he has sufficient resilience to withstand the surgeon’s assault, preparing him for surgery, inducing unconsciousness safely, monitoring his bodily responses to the surgeon’s cuts and probings and stitchings, returning him to consciousness and relieving his pain while he heals. It’s a fine balance. Too little anaesthesia and the patient is agonisingly aware of the surgeon’s intrusions; too much and the patient dies.

But it is not solely knowledge and skill that matter. There is something more nebulous and difficult to describe. Along with these technical attributes, a really good anaesthetist also needs a certain type of personality. The referees strain to describe it, using words like interested, conscientious, loyal, pleasant, stimulating, likeable, courteous, agreeable, enthusiastic. ‘He has the necessary disposition for an anaesthetist’. He is ‘in every way a first class man’.

It is curious that personality should be such an important factor in these testimonials because anaesthetists, like psychiatrists and orthopaedic surgeons, are the frequent butt of medical jokes. ‘Gasmen’, they are called. Putting people to sleep is a favourite trope, many jokes riffing on ‘the half-asleep looking after the half-awake’. Status and charisma are other themes, surgeons always asserting their superiority over anaesthetists.

Most likely, what the writers of these testimonials meant is an ability to work flexibly with temperamental surgeons and to manage emergencies in the operating theatre firmly. ‘He didn’t suffer fools gladly’, said one of his colleagues. He (or today, often she) has a complicated relationship with the surgeon. The surgeon is in charge of the surgical procedure, makes the diagnosis, chooses the technique and carries it out in theatre. But the anaesthetist is in charge of the patient. The anaesthetist protects the patient from the harm the surgeon inflicts. If resuscitation becomes necessary during an operation, it is the anaesthetist who takes charge and who directs the surgeon’s actions to preserve the patient.

Some people see the relationship between surgeon and anaesthetist (whatever the sex of either) as akin to the stereotype of a traditional marriage, where the surgeon is a demanding husband and the anaesthetist a competent wife, who is apparently subservient in the background, but quietly in charge. The quality of the relationship is important, not only for the working atmosphere in an operating theatre, but also for the welfare and survival of the patient. Some partnerships last for decades.

Anaesthesia is much more than playing Darby and Joan in the operating theatre. Anaesthetists are entrepreneurs and inventors. They have always had a wider role than sitting at a patient’s head during surgery and today they take the lead in trauma teams, intensive care, emergency pre-hospital care and pain management. I feel that Harry would have relished being part of these territorial takeovers by his specialty. He took anaesthesia seriously.

His copy of The Development of Inhalation Anaesthesia: with Special Reference to the Years 1846-1900 is bound in azure blue fabric-covered boards, sun-faded to grey on the spine and on the top inch of the front cover and with neat gold lettering on the spine in the Oxford University Press manner. Inside the front cover is the bookshop sticker: Donald Ferrier, Medical Bookseller, 8, 9 & 18 Teviot Place, Edinburgh 1, Phone 21551 – 22321. Harry has pencilled above it: 2/47 and 35/-.

When Harry bought the book it was the height of the severe winter weather of 1947 and he was a postgraduate student in an unheated Edinburgh flat, his pregnant wife and undergraduate brother huddling with him in coats and army-surplus blankets. But it was important to buy The Development of Inhalation Anaesthesia as soon as it was published, for thirty-five shillings, the equivalent of about fifty pounds today. It has become a classic, reissued by medical history societies. Buying it at the start of his post-war professional life was an investment in his library, the un-thumbed condition of its shiny mid-century paper suggesting that he put it aside to read in a more leisurely future that never came.

I am surprised at the frontispiece. John Snow (1813-58) is a titan in my own specialist area and I have never seen him in my father’s world. In the photograph John Snow has Darwin-like beetling eyebrows under a receding hairline. His neat mutton-chop whiskers meet his stiff white collar and black, loosely-tied tie. He has a pointed nose, wide mouth and inquisitive, intelligent eyes looking off beyond the photographer’s left shoulder. He leans his right elbow on a small table, arge, practical hands loosely folded in his lap.

In my field John Snow is the man who removed the Broad Street pump. Water was supplied to pumps and houses by a variety of water companies in Victorian London. At the height of the cholera epidemic in Lambeth in 1854 Snow drew a map of cholera cases and showed that their water supply came from one water company. Although it must have been a more complicated process than usually portrayed he is described as persuading the local public health authorities to remove the handle of the suspect pump, thus preventing people drinking the contaminated water, halting the epidemic and saving lives. His mapping and his simple, logical approach to the cause and prevention of cholera means he is claimed as ‘the father of modern epidemiology’ and ‘a pioneer of statistical mapping’. Epidemiological societies are named after him and any respectable School of Public Health has a page on its website devoted to him.

But John Snow was also the first professional anaesthetist. Already interested in the physiology of asphyxia and resuscitation, he read in 1846 of the use in America of ether during surgical operations. Snow developed a mechanical inhaler, testing it on animals and on himself, and this allowed greater control of the anaesthetic process and therefore greater safety for the patient. He became the pre-eminent practitioner in London and personally administered chloroform to Queen Victoria during the births of two of her children. He advocated a scientific understanding of anaesthesia, wrote instructional manuals, and trialled innovations. The Broad Street pump merits only a short footnote in The Development of Inhalation Anaesthesia, whereas Snow’s work on anaesthesia gets a full column in the index.

I like to think of John Snow as a connection between my speciality and Harry’s. To strengthen the connection Snow, like my father and me, came from Yorkshire. Only forty-five when he died, he demonstrates how much can be achieved in a short life when nineteenth-century rationalism, inquisitiveness and respect for education are applied widely instead of being channelled down narrowly-specialised streams.

If Harry had lived long enough to retire, his last decade or so of practice would have overlapped with my first. Harry would have had something to say about the surgeons I worked for in my surgical house job, good surgeons both. In the hospital where I worked as a junior physician my ‘firm’ was in charge of patients on ventilators on the intensive care unit. We called an anaesthetist only rarely and I realise now that we treated the ‘gasmen’ as if they were superior technicians unsuited to managing patients for any period longer than a few hours. Harry would have had something to say about that. He would have lived into the days when anaesthestists were branching out, negotiating turf wars as they expanded their remit beyond the operating theatre. All of it highly practical work, technically competent, physiologically aware, patient-focussed. Very different from my desk work. He would have had something to say about that, too. 

Kate Venables is a PhD student at Goldsmiths College, where she is writing a hybrid memoir-biography which draws on her father’s life. A poem about her father’s books was selected for the 2014 Hippocrates Prize Anthology and her poetry and flash fiction have appeared in The Frogmore Press, Envoi, Ink Sweat & Tears, Brittle Star, Lighthouse, and Flash.

On the Confusion of Violence by Charlie Hill

When I was at junior school someone I had never seen before punched me in the stomach as I walked down the street. I have thought about this incident continuously. Violence gives some men wings, others the bullying power of the privately educated; some it reduces. For me, it is a source of relentless confusion.

Is violence avoidable? Fathomable? Can it be traced? Perhaps. The answers don’t come easily. Dad grew up in poor housing, with a shared backyard, about a mile from the centre of Birmingham. He boozed; when he was a teen he began mooching round the pubs of Digbeth and Sparkbrook and Saltley and when I was a teen I went with him. At Christmas we visited cousins in conservative Rugby and he would regale us with stories from the Sixties and Seventies – cityscapes part-obscured by smoke from lives blazing – of hard men he’d faced down in boozers. And before I was punched, aged about nine, I grabbed Daniel Tedds by the hair and pulled him down the road – ‘fancy a run, Teddsy?’ – even though I got on with him.

The wondering runs through my life. When I was 12, I opened a book on a fight in the playground between the cock of my junior school – in a dukes-up style – and a kid from Alum Rock. Alum Rock was deprived but I’d never heard of it so I made my man 1-4 on and the other kid 8-1 against, odds for which there were many takers. The fight lasted as long as it took for the kid from Alum Rock to walk up to my man and drop the nut on him, a simple enough opening gambit that led to my expulsion for poor maths.

The following year I needed to toughen up a bit as I liked my hair long so I joined a boxing club in Kings Norton where I sparred with an area champion – Dean of Wayne and Dean Beach fame – to no avail: after I hit him in the face with a perfect jab I apologised and had to stop going.

At a tennis club in Hall Green I had none of the right gear and the other teenagers were entitled. After I reduced a posh boy called Gareth to serving underarm, torrential rain drove us from the court. Gareth was the son of somebody who probably sat on the club’s committee and as we stood in the clubhouse, he said ‘you need to go and bring the balls in’ even though it was down to him too and although I was this close to telling him to fuck off I fetched the balls instead, getting soaking wet because of class. 

At 17, I lived above an insurance shop, ate rice and tinned tomatoes and worked as a full-time barman at the Grant Arms in Cotteridge, where there was a lock-in every night. During one of them a copper got talking to the gaffer about how difficult it was to tell the age of people these days – ‘Take your barman. I wouldn’t have said he was a day over 17.’ During another there was a punch-up, among the select few, the close friends of the gaffer, and after the pool table shifted across the bar as part of the melee, I decided that bartending was not for me and moved back in with my parents.

At the Stirchley Co-op I sometimes worked in the warehouse with a fella who liked a smoke and wished he’d been old enough to fight in Vietnam, but mainly I played pool in the canteen, with Al from Fish. Al was one of The Lads, with whom I did the gallon at the Red Lion, ate at Yassers and travelled to Amsterdam in a minibus, at least until we fell out after a fancy dress party at a working man’s club. The fight spilled out onto the Pershore Road and cars stopped to watch Big Daddy break-up a fight between Stevie Wonder and an alien, while Yogi Bear kicked Zorro in the bollocks.

After a basketball game, I was animated and yes, long-haired, as I walked to the bus stop with a friend. Standing outside the King’s Head at the Lanes End, a stranger in sports gear spooked me by looking me up-and-down and glaring. His violence was unashamed, naked. He got on a different bus and my mate said ‘he wanted to fight you’ which wasn’t news but a cause of much consternation.

I also played rugby union like my dad but stopped after our flanker stamped on someone’s leg for no good reason; later, a friend from Crewe introduced me to the 13 man code. Birmingham Amateur Rugby Football League club had a squad of maybe 16 and played derbies against Stoke as there were no teams nearer save West Midlands Police, who were the dirtiest bastards. After a team-building night on the pop down Hurst Street I was losing my enthusiasm for being associated with large groups of men when, in a game against the coppers, someone broke four of my 19 year old ribs in a deliberate act of foul play. ‘Run it off!’ said our coach, who came from Wigan and had a limp and I tried as we had no substitutions, even though I had nearly punctured a lung.

In my twenties, my brother and I bought a bottle of rotgut whisky for the walk home from the pub by the canal (The Flapper, or maybe, back then, The Longboat). We were with a good friend, an ex-traveller who was kicking smack and lived by a code that was bafflingly common to many. As we walked down Hurst Street a bouncer said something to my brother or my brother said something to a bouncer and there were expletives on both sides. I hadn’t heard what had gone on and didn’t want our night to end badly so walked on, which didn’t go down too well; by the other side of Belgrave Middleway me and my mate were rolling about on the grass, bruising each other concussively until the police arrived.

Later, I was giving a free pool lesson to a Villa fan in the back room of The Malt Shovel in Balsall Heath. The second time I asked him to move so I could take my shot, he picked me up by the throat and spread-eagled me on the table, his fist cocked; I suspect he had issues beyond the obvious. The balls went everywhere, and I said, though I’m not sure why, ‘that’ll be two shots to you then, mate’ whereupon the fella frowned and, processing slowly, let me go. I gave him the game and left, on advice from others, but I wasn’t daunted. A few nights later I went back to find the pub empty and the pool table askew on a pool of dried blood; the night after our dalliance, the fella had ground a glass into someone’s face.

On a 50 bus, I stopped a teen being bullied, a miscalculation; there were six miscreants sitting at the back, initially cowed by my intervention but getting bolder with each subsequent comment. By the time we got to the bottom of Kings Heath there were another six waiting for them/me at the bus stop; ‘yeah, you walk away!’ one said as I crossed the road too quickly and nearly got run over.

On my way to work when I was in my late 40’s, a woman announced ‘that man has just sexually assaulted me’ and after a moment or two of deliberation I followed the suspect/attacker and another fella off the bus. The other fella was watching over the suspect/attacker on a pavement thick with icy snow and said ‘I’ve called the police but I’ve got to catch a plane. Can I leave him with you?’ and as I stood there looking mean, the suspect/attacker gave me the once over and concluded I wasn’t fit for purpose. ‘I’m going,’ he said, ‘You can’t stop me’ and slid precariously off along the pavement. I said ‘you’re not going anywhere mate’ but he clearly was, and for several metres we slid precariously alongside each other, me wondering how to stop him from making the world’s slowest possible getaway. Then someone more accustomed to assault got off the bus and throttled him into a hedge as I looked on, delivered to violence once more, no closer to ending my confusion, alive – alive! – yet late for work.   

Charlie Hill is a writer from Birmingham. He has published two critically-acclaimed novels, a novella and a memoir. Some of the above is taken from Charlie’s memoir, I Don’t Want to go to the Taj Mahal, published in 2020 by Repeater Books. 

The Object of All Studies by Daniel Cullen

 “I feel dazed and dopey, my mind a blur of ideas and images”, writes Julia Bell at the outset of Radical Attention.1 She is describing a state of digital overwhelm, one which might be considered the inverse of the reading state,2 and which leaves her feeling that she has “lost [herself] somewhere, zombified by the machine.”3 Walking to a nearby park, she realises that rather than writing, as she had intended, her day had instead “been spent in a black hole, scrolling through webpages and social media accounts looking for – what?”4 As she pauses, and begins to observe her environment, she notices that all those in her vicinity appear to be similarly afflicted, entranced – “Scrolling, texting. Necks bent, shoulders hunched”5 – by their own virtual worlds.

This state, and its discontents, will be familiar to many readers. With the relentless acceleration of online life over the last decade arising from the ubiquity of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, anxieties of a ‘crisis of attention’ have become commonplace. These have been expressed in a number of forms, from the personal essay (Andrew Sullivan’s ‘My Distraction Sickness – and yours’6) to books from Silicon Valley insiders (Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now7), and even major documentaries (Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’8). Regardless of form, sociologist Richard Seymour notes that “the complaints are almost always the same: users end up constantly distracted, unproductive, anxious, needy and depressed – yet also curiously susceptible to advertising.”9

Radical Attention weaves together various, overlapping facets of these phenomena into a long, meditative essay. Adopting a creative non-fiction approach, it draws on sources from a range of disciplines, including literature, psychology, education and philosophy. Roughly demarcated into seven sections, each opens with an epigraph, taken from the works of authors such as Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin and bell hooks, with the text of the essay set out in short bursts of a handful of paragraphs at a time. Jumping breathlessly between topics, perspectives and temporalities, while maintaining an internal sense of narrative, the book intuitively accommodates the diminished attention spans of a distracted readership.

In setting out her defence of attention, Bell, who teaches creative writing, takes inspiration from the thought of another teacher, the French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943). Weil was unequivocal about the virtues of attention, writing that “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”10 She saw the process of paying attention as an end in itself, yet emphasised that this process required significant effort and great patience to undertake. For Weil, learning how to be attentive was “the object of all studies.”11 Amid the maelstrom of connectivity, Radical Attention seeks to convince the reader of the urgency of cultivating their own practice of attention.

* * *

Concerns over the fraying of attention spans are not solely a product of the digital age. In accounts of early Christian monasteries as far back as the fourth century, for example, the Latin term acedia was used to describe a spiritual state in which religious devotees suffered from an inability to pay attention. Translated from its original Greek, the term denoted a ‘lack of care’ about one’s life, involving a persistent boredom or listlessness which “left one yearning for distraction and continual novelty, exploiting one’s petty hates and hungers”12 – a description which aligns remarkably closely with present day accounts of the state of digital overwhelm.

But if the perils of inattention have long been observed, Bell sees a major shift resulting from the explosive uptake of social media platforms. “It is no accident of design that these platforms are leveraged to distract us,” she states, “rather it’s the logic of a system whose purpose is to capture our attention.”13 As such, Radical Attention is rooted in a critique of the forces of contemporary capitalism underpinning the social industry. In this view, aspects of everyday life are subject to a continual and expanding commodification, through which the platforms hijack and monetize users’ attention. “The collision of emergent technologies with the current form of deregulated, increasingly anarchic and rapacious capitalism has accelerated social change at a sometimes dizzying pace”,14 she writes.

That attention, in the form of data, can be transformed into an object of monetary value is demonstrated by the vast commercial success of many Silicon Valley companies, including the social media platforms. During 2020, Facebook alone collected revenues of $80 billion.15 But this success rests on the readiness of users to dispense of their attention – be it unthinkingly, reluctantly or happily welcoming distraction. The paradox of this shift is that attention is conceived of as an extractive resource for the benefit of the private companies which operate the platforms, yet for the user it is assumed to be entirely dispensable. The implication of this is that from the perspective of the individual, their attention is considered to have no intrinsic value.

This commodification of attention is founded on a behaviourist model, which seeks to direct users’ actions along specific paths. Many of the features which have now become core parts of these platforms, such as the ‘Like’ button pioneered by Facebook, use methods of reinforcement inspired by research in behavioural psychology. Such features rely on users’ susceptibility to be influenced or ‘nudged’ towards certain behaviours – returning regularly, checking for updates, interacting in set ways – through the exploitation of psychological vulnerabilities. This background leads Bell to articulate what she sees as a core ethical questionfor those contemplating the possibility of resistance: “Are we to accept that we are simply manipulable brains at the mercy of our neurobiology, or are we individuals with free will?”16

* * *

As much as it is a book about technology, one of the principal concerns of Radical Attention is the future of subjectivity. In the platforms’ behaviourist model, Bell identifies the imposition of a new mode of being that leaves little scope for private selfhood. In this context, she fears the replacement of human freedom with increasingly automated behaviour. What arises among users, she writes, is “a semi-automated for- profit personality which is constantly being nudged and notified and prompted. … Maybe one day there will be a generation who won’t question the notion of automated human behaviour, but will accept, wholeheartedly, the idea of technology telling them what to do, where to go, monitoring and measuring every aspect of their lives.”17

The cost of this emergent automated selfhood, as she sees it, is the preservation of individual subjective experience. “Where now is the space for [the] private self? For the private reckonings, thoughts, musings, fleeting fantasies?”18 Bell asks. Other authors have recently expressed similar concerns about the implications of contemporary digital life. Philosopher Justin E.H. Smith writes of “the forces that would beat all human subjectivity down into an algorithm”, with the human subject “vanishingly small beneath the tsunami of likes, views, clicks, and other metrics that is currently transforming selves into financialised vectors of data.”19 Richard Seymour meanwhile states that social media platforms “have demonstrated that our everyday lives can be commodified, provided we consent to their darkest corners being flooded with light.”20

Rather than foregoing the exercise of freedom and deferring to the convenience of automation in such ways, Bell advocates the protection of individual subjectivity. She quotes an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which one of the characters, adjusting to seclusion after spending extended time in the company of others, is described as returning “to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.”21 In The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen describes this ‘wedge-shaped core’ in an individual’s interior as a ‘mute spot’ which constitutes “the very source of creative life.” Intrusion into this private space, he suggests, is “is the most profound violation a person can experience.”22

* * *

The wider implications of these transformations extend beyond the level of the individual. “As more and more aspects of our social and professional lives are conducted online”, she writes, “the [online/offline] distinction begins to lose meaning.”23 With the crumbling of this online/offline divide, she sees the increasing blurring of the barriers between private life and public life. What happens online becomes more closely entwined with public life, with “increasingly strange and dystopic” effects.24 “Our attention lies on a new frontier between the public and the private”, she claims, to such an extent that “it must almost be at the level of our consciousness that we decide whether we are in public or in private.”25

To understand the nature of the spillover from the platforms ‘IRL’,26 it is necessary to focus on the body – and it is this which becomes the true foundation of the analysis of digital life set out in Radical Attention. Bell describes users of social media platforms as often being overcome by “convulsions of outrage”27 – a visceral, physical feeling. The analogy of the convulsion is an apt one, evoking the vision of an extreme, yet apparently involuntary, takeover of the body. William Davies describes the dynamics of social media crowds in similar terms, as “amenable to waves of feeling, which seize its members in ways they don’t expect and can’t always easily explain.” Davies terms these waves ‘somatic’ phenomena, which, though mediated by technology, pass from body to body in sequence.28

The great irony of this, as Bell points out, is that online technologies initially promised increased communication and connection with others without the need for physical proximity – transcending the corporeal. Instead, however, she sees the body as being hacked, hooked, hijacked by the technologies. Consider, in this regard, the intensely physical nature of the descriptions of the state of digital overwhelm. And Bell emphasises the inadequacy of digital technologies in recreating human connection in the absence of the presence of others. She observes the flourishing of an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ – reported to now affect 20% of adults in the UK and the US – and comments that “Our bodies don’t just crave touch, we actually need it – the soothing effect of another body on our own.”29

* * *

At the heart of this book is the story of the troubled collision between technology, subjectivity and embodiment in the digital era. “The technology that is supposed to free us from the flesh has actually done exactly the opposite”, she argues: “Rather than being liberated by technology, we have become weirdly trapped in the interplay between it and our biology.”30 These developments present a significant challenge to the historically dominant conception of the relationship between mind and body, drawn from the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650), which has influenced Western thought since the seventeenth century. Whereas in the Cartesian model, the rational thought of the mind was paramount, and feelings and sensations of the body regarded with suspicion, today these boundaries appear untenable.

Ideas of the absolute separation of mind and body had never entirely held up to scrutiny – not least when the role of the nervous system, mediating the junctures between the two, began to be better understood. But Davies argues that the dynamics of new digital technologies have further dissolved these conceptual boundaries, as evidenced in the notion of waves of somatic phenomena passing between platform users. As a result, he writes that “the categorical division between ‘reason’ and ‘feeling’ no longer functions, because Descartes’ idea of the disembodied rational mind is dead.”31 In turn, the implications for subjectivity are that “in place of Descartes’ strict separation of mind and body, there is instead an image of a human being possessed of instinct, emotion and calculation, all fused together.”32

Such transformations are of particular significance for liberal democratic political systems, which are founded on Cartesian ideals of the human subject. Davies notes that where marketing and technology companies have lead the way in engaging with the power of feeling and sensation, political systems have been slower to respond. This is a concern which Bell echoes, writing that “The terms of democratic engagement are radically altered by this new arrangement.”33 She references the spread of disinformation and propaganda through social media platforms, which has generated significant turbulence in political systems worldwide in recent years. It is clear, however, that these disruptions are only further symptoms of the changing dynamics of public life, driven by the underlying forces of technological change.

* * *

Faced with the challenges that these digital transformations pose to both private and public life, how might one respond? A popular recommendation, which Bell firmly rejects, is the adoption of mindfulness, such as through meditation. She describes mindfulness as a passive solution which seeks only to control digital distraction and its attendant anxieties – the kind of ‘life hack’ which might be advocated by Silicon Valley executives. Taking particular issue with this corporate enthusiasm for mindfulness, she presents the ap- proach as insufficient for the problems at hand. It cannot, she contends, “solve the ethical and intellectual questions posed by the unsettling reality of what technology, as it is currently utilised, is doing to the organisation of society and to ourselves. To the reasons why we might be anxious.”34

In place of mindfulness, the reader is advised to adopt another approach: the concept of ‘radical attention’. This is a “more radical, active kind of attention”,35 which is presented as an explicitly embodied practice. Returning attention to one’s body, she argues, “allows us to reconnect to the parts of ourselves that have been outsourced to the screen.”36 Rather than accepting metaphors of technological dualism (‘the software of the mind running on the hardware of the body’) she insists on the importance of understanding that human consciousness is inextricably rooted in the flesh. This can be understood as a call for readers to reclaim their bodies – in all their “mutable, strange, contingent and. mysterious”37 realities – from their hijacking and their manipulation in the interests of private companies.

The cultivation of radical attention is more urgent than ever, Bell insists, in the face of the overwhelming collective challenges of the present, from climate change to racial and gender injustice. She urges readers to “get off the net and into the streets and the classrooms, to offer up new, practical solutions to the common problems we all face. We are going to need to find new ways to come together, rather than succumbing to the fake pressures of our online identities.”38 That the actions she proposes – taking to the streets, debating in classrooms – involve physical proximity reflects the fact that this practice is not intended to be undertaken solely in isolation, but also in connection with others. Bell cites the wave of Black Lives Matter protests during 2020 as an example of the possibilities of in-person protest to counter abuses of power: “a loud reminder that bodies matter.”39

* * *
The reader is being encouraged, then, to join together with others, in person, to practice the art of attention. And at heart, Bell sees this act as the basis of her own pedagogy. In the classroom with her students, she is “trying to instil in them attentive practice, a capacity for concentration, so that they can make connections, think, and engage in the kind of deep reflection that good writing, but also good living, demands.”40 But it is striking to consider that if attention is indeed to so central to the mission of pedagogy, the proliferation of distraction generated by digital platforms may be said to constitute its own form of poisonous pedagogy. Within the chaos of vitriolic disagreements between social media users, writes Seymour, “No one is learning anything, except how to remain connected to the machine.”41

The fundamental distinction between these two pedagogies might be understood in terms of their different attitudes to learning. In her book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, the philosopher Zena Hitz draws on two concepts from the writing of Saint Augustine, the vice of curiositas and the virtue of studiositas, which assist in elucidating this. Rather than ‘curiosity’, curiositas is translated as the ‘love of spectacle’, which Augustine saw as a disordered drive for knowledge. Hitz refers to the internet as often “a cesspool for the love of spectacle”,42 a source of experience simply for the sake of experience, rather than with the object of any deeper purpose. Hitz characterises curiositas as contentment with the surface of things, and refers to the compulsive use of social media as “a screwed-up longing for communion. We want to stay at the surface with others.”43

The concept of studiositas, meanwhile, is translated as ‘seriousness’. This is not intended to imply dullness or severity, but a more meaningful love of learning which goes beyond experience. Hitz explains this as “a desire to seek out what is most important, to get to the bottom of things, to stay focused on what matters.” To practice this virtue involves self-examination: “to ponder one’s dissatisfactions, to discern better from worse, the possible from the impossible.”44 In this juxtaposition of spectacle and seriousness, the significance of a practice of attention in response to the problems of digital distraction becomes clear. Where the teaching of the art of attention in the classroom seeks to nurture students towards being studiosus, the reinforcement of distraction taught by the platforms actively encourages users to be merely curiosus.

Beyond the urgencies of the present political and environmental context, consideration of these philosophical distinctions clarifies the importance of a practice of attention for the life of the individual. To be continually trapped at the surface of things by the dynamics of the social media platforms has serious personal implications – as reflected in the sheer frustration in so many contemporary accounts of digital overwhelm. But the reader of Radical Attention is neither advised to delete their accounts, nor provided with solutions for the reprogramming of their attention. Instead, they are left with something more valuable: a sense of their own agency as an embodied subject, a perspective from which to assess the competing pressures making demands on their attention, and a call to turn this back towards a deeper love of learning.

Daniel Cullen ( is an Oxford-based writer and researcher. He is currently studying Creative Writing at Cambridge University, with a focus on creative non-fiction, and is a former Birkbeck postgraduate student.

1 Julia Bell, Radical Attention (London: Peninsula Press, 2020), 12.
2 Mairead Small Staid, “Reading in the age of constant distraction,” The Paris Review, February 8, 2019, 
3 Bell, Radical Attention, 13.
4 ibid, 12.
5 ibid, 13.
6 Andrew Sullivan, “My distraction sickness – and yours,” New York Magazine, September 16, 2019,
7 Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (London: Vintage, 2018).
8 “The Social Dilemma,” Netflix, accessed 5 January, 2021,
9 Richard Seymour, The Twittering Machine (London: The Indigo Press, 2019), 72.
10 Bell, Radical Attention, 30.
11 ibid, 110.

12 Seymour, The Twittering Machine, 200.
13 Bell, Radical Attention, 43.
14 ibid, 78.

15 John Naughton, “All I want for 2021 is to see Mark Zuckerberg up in court,” The Guardian, January 2, 2021, up-in-court
16 Bell, Radical Attention, 45.
17 ibid, 76.
18 ibid, 46.
19 Justin E.H. Smith, “It’s All Over,” The Point Magazine, January 3, 2019, life/its-all-over/

20 Seymour, The Twittering Machine, 104.
21 Bell, Radical Attention, 46.
22 Josh Cohen, The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark (London: Granta, 2013), 9. 

23 Bell, Radical Attention, 71.
24 ibid, 71.
25 ibid, 103.
26 ‘In real life’.
27 ibid, 68.
28 William Davies, “The funny side of politics,” OpenDemocracy, April 9, 2019,

29 Bell, Radical Attention, 27.
30 ibid, 75.
31 William Davies, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 223. 
32 ibid, 131.
33 Bell, Radical Attention, 70.

34 ibid, 106.
35 ibid.
36 ibid, 119. 
37 ibid, 115.
38 ibid, 120. 
39 ibid, 121

40 ibid, 113.
41 Seymour, The Twittering Machine, 74.
42 Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2020), 135.
43 ibid, 143.
44 ibid, 144.





Does Something Terrible Happen to the Dog? by Daisy Henwood

Half way through a story about a child and their canine best friend, I pause to think, “this isn’t going to end well.” There is a peculiar ache to worrying about the fate of a fictional pet, a kind of inevitability that doesn’t quite translate to watching human suffering. Perhaps it’s because (as my mother always says) you can’t explain to a pet what’s happening – you can’t explain that they’re getting old, that they’re sick, that their family is moving away. This is the whole plot of Disney’s Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993); three beloved family pets are left with friends when their owners move across country, and they don’t understand. They vow to find their family, and make, yes, an incredible journey through the Canadian wilderness to be reunited with them. 
It’s a story full of peril – bears and river crossings, hunger and the emotional strain of being abandoned and reunited. The climax of this story (spoilers ahead if you’ve not read the book or seen either of the films) is when the young dog and the cat bound over the hill towards their juvenile masters, and there’s a sweet moment of reunion mixed with an awful, sinking ache: the old golden retriever hasn’t appeared over the hill. The oldest child (there’s three pets and three children) looks devastated, as his dad gently tells him, “well, he was old.” It’s a horrible jumble of the pain of a lost pet and a child’s lost innocence, the stoic older-brother-ness of the boy’s sad little face, and the younger children’s elation at being with their own pets coupled with their sadness at their brother’s loss. And then the old dog comes limping up the hill, wearing that golden retriever smile, and it’s all alright again. It’s a saccharine moment of pathos and catharsis. I haven’t seen the film since childhood, and this is the only clear memory I have of it, so affected was I by the possibility that the little boy’s dog wouldn’t have made it home.
Because I’d been asking, all the way through the film, does something terrible happen to the dog? This is a question that recurs throughout Sigrid Nunez’s 2019 novel The Friend. The book is about a woman whose close friend dies, leaving her to take custody of his Great Dane in a 500 square foot New York City apartment. It’s a classic tale of reluctant owner turned devoted companion. It’s about the process of grief, and the way we attach emotions, personalities, ourselves to pets, particularly during periods of emotional or physical upheaval. The dog, Apollo, imposes himself on the narrator’s life until she can’t be without him, and she knows she’s succumbed to the thing so many people do: she’s fallen for a pet she will probably outlive. The dog is not incidental anymore, a trick Nunez’s narrator understands: less than fifty pages into the book, the narrator says, “there’s a certain kind of person who, having read this far, is anxiously wondering: Does something terrible happen to the dog?” From then on, you can’t help but wonder, at every turn, in spite of yourself, does something terrible happen to this dog?
Nunez’s novel draws a delicate and contemplative picture of the relationship between a human and their dog. It’s not overwrought, there are no manipulative emotional moments like the end of The Incredible Journey, and in fact we don’t really know if something terrible happens to this dog. Of course, something happens, but it’s unclear whether it should be read as terrible. Apollo’s arthritis becomes so bad he can’t climb the stairs, can’t stand up on his first try, can’t jump up on the bed. He is fading, and we are all watching it happen. The narrator’s solution is to transfer herself and her dog to her friend’s Long Island beach house for the final weeks of the summer. With no steps and no noise, there’s plenty of tranquillity for the ageing Great Dane. Apollo sits staring out at the beach, watching younger dogs and butterflies and, perhaps, he dies:
They should watch out for you, o eater of insects. One snap of those jaws would take out most of them. But there they go, heading right for you, as if you were no more than a giant rock lying on the grass. The shower you like confetti, and you – not a twitch!
Oh, what a sound. What could that gull have seen to make it cry out like that?
The butterflies are in the air again, moving off, in the direction of the shore. 
I want to call your name, but the word dies in my throat. 
Oh, my friend, my friend!
So the dog is dead. Or perhaps just sleeping, exhausted from the sun. But also definitely dead. Probably. However you read this ending, the question remains – did something terrible happen to the dog? Or did something terrible happen to me? 
That’s what we’re really concerned about. If something terrible happens to the dog, the dog won’t necessarily perceive it as terrible – if the dog is dead, the dog won’t perceive it at all – whereas we, as readers, as witnesses, will feel terrible about the so-called terrible thing that is happening. It’s hard to disentangle these emotions. When the golden retriever doesn’t immediately lope over the hill, are we feeling sad for the dog or for the child? Both, of course, particularly as the dog in question had been so thoroughly anthropomorphised as to be given a voice and thoughts and worries throughout the film. But the both-ness of this feeling is difficult to comprehend, because we’ve so connected the boy and his dog that emotions for one are emotions for another. This feeling is tinged with the question, “how would I feel if I were that child? What if that were my dog?” At the same time, we’re asking “how would I feel if I were that dog?” So much of our fear over whether something terrible happens to the dog seems to be to do with the prospect of having to bear witness, to bear the emotion of the event. While – or because – the dog might not comprehend its dying, we feel it twice over. Once again, Nunez’s narrator understands this:
It is widely believed that although animals don’t know that one day they’ll die, many of them do know when they’re actually dying. So at what point does a dying animal become aware of what’s happening? Could it possibly be a long time before? And how do animals respond to aging? Are they completely puzzled, or do they somehow intuit what the signs mean?
These are burning questions precisely because we cannot answer them. We cannot know whether our beloved pet knows it’s going to die. We can’t even really know how much pain it’s in. The pathos comes from not knowing and asking anyway, as Nunez’s narrator understands: “are these foolish questions? I acknowledge that they are. And yet they preoccupy me.” 
They preoccupy me too. My own childhood dog is ageing now, and every time I visit my parents, she’s a little slower, a littler stiffer. She no longer runs after a ball, and has trouble jumping onto the sofa on her first try. Has it occurred to her that she’s getting older? She certainly has a lower tolerance for younger dogs now, but then again, she wasn’t that sociable to begin with. And she still trots off along the beach, and gets excited when she goes in the car. She still wants to share our snacks and loves to be where the action is. We explain it away like this. She’s still happy, she has a good life. My dad makes jokes about her dying soon because he’ll be devastated when she eventually does, and my mum trawls through Mary Oliver’s dog poems to find the one she thought would be “right for the funeral.” I pretend the dog’s just fine, and try not to feel sad when she can’t jump up next to me. 
I remember how distressing my first pet deaths were. The white rabbit, stretched out and stiff as though running, mum lifting her out of the hutch and explaining what had happened. And the twenty-three-year-old cat who’d been around long before me, mangy and skeletal under the radiator in the kitchen. Like the empty space before the golden retriever, these memories are tense and breathless, and they’re pivotal. We learn to process, to accept, to confront the possibility of loss through the sick cat, the belly-up goldfish. We learn that we will outlive things. 
“Does something terrible happen to the dog?” is a question about control. Our ability to answer it, to know not only what will happen to the dog but how and when, gives us a sense of preparedness and assuredness we’ve probably all been searching for since our first shoebox funeral. At the same time, knowing that the dog will die does something to our love for it, gives us a kind of urgency, a desperate affection. It’s difficult to know that a being we love will go before we do, will be small, and grown, and ageing within the space of about ten years, but this difficulty amplifies our feelings. Stephen King, who owns (and is obsessed with) corgis, understands this. In an interview with Nerdette, King explains that he thinks his current dog, Molly, will be his last corgi: “I think I particularly care for Molly because I understand she’s probably my last dog. She’s a year and a half old, I’m sixty-eight, and if things work out the way that I hope they do, we’ll play out at about the same time.” This is the dream, to have exactly the right amount of time with the pet and for neither of you to have to witness the demise of the other. It’s hard to connect this sweet wish to the person who wrote Cujo. Or perhaps it’s easy: something terrible happens to the dog in that one, too. 
Back to The Incredible Journey for a moment. Here is Mark Doty on that film in his 2008 memoir, Dog Years: ‘When he watched the Disney remake of The Incredible Journey … I made sure he wore [headphones]. I didn’t want my mind to be infiltrated by those images and their soundtrack, because I knew they’d break my heart. Never mind that my circumstances were already genuinely heartbreaking; I was managing that, somehow, but what I couldn’t bear was the representation of the heartbreaking.’
The ‘he’ in this passage is Doty’s partner Wally, who is dying of AIDS. Dog Years tells this story, refracted through the life and death of two retrievers. The irony here, of course, is that Doty’s fear of the representation of the heartbreaking through the film about dogs and their humans is the same representation we experience as readers as we learn about his two dogs (Beau and Arden) and witness, at the edges of the narrative, Wally’s slow death. It is a devastating book. And while at the end of The Incredible Journey we get the “inevitable reunion,” as Doty puts it, his book offers no such resolution: both of the dogs and Wally are dead by the end. 
Yet this is not a surprise. The question “does something terrible happen to the dog?” doesn’t quite follow us around this book in the same way, because these deaths are revealed in the first few pages. We know that Wally passed away as early as page four, and the fact that the dogs die follows soon after, though we’re not told how or when. Instead, Doty backtracks, and begins to tell the stories of adopting, caring for, moving around, and losing both dogs, against the backdrop of Wally’s illness and death. The book gives us the sense of control we thought we craved, that we think we want. But because we know, more or less, what happens to Wally and why, we become preoccupied instead with the question: “what terrible thing happens to the dogs, and when?” 
A terrible thing happened to my dog. She died in October. She was the first dog I’d ever had. We got her when I was a teenager, and for twelve years she’d been a noisy, untrained, loveable fixture in my parents’ house. My friends loved her, my family loved her, my dog-hating boyfriend was entirely persuaded by her. She was a joyful, unignorable force – which is a kind way of saying she barked too much, loved carrots, and by the end was being made her own cup of tea. 
She was old. Old dogs die. We know this. But I was completely unprepared for her death, despite the months of jokes and conversations about it. She wasn’t sick, she wasn’t that slow, and she definitely wasn’t unhappy. I assumed she wasn’t done with living. But my dad phoned one morning to say that Wilma had died in the night. His voice was small and sad. My mum didn’t speak on the phone. Months later she’s still, understandably, devastated:  something terrible happened to her dog. 
We all knew the dog would die. We always know the dog will die, but in the same way we know we’ll die: we don’t look at it, don’t think too long or hard about it unless someone or something tells us we must. There’s such an impulse to ignore or brush away the impending terrible. Very few people want to know how and when they’ll die, and the same thing goes for pets: in spite of us asking and asking does something terrible happen, I don’t think we really want to know, don’t think we can ever be prepared. And all it really leads to are more questions. What is the terrible? Is it the death, or how we feel about it? Is it the absence of the dog, or of something the dog represents? For Doty, the dogs are signifiers, metaphors for love, for devotion, for the slow death of his long term partner. But they’re also dogs, and this is just as important. Getting too tied up in dogs-as-metaphors is to discount the very real effects they have on our lives. When our dog died, my mum wasn’t sad because Wilma represented her relationships to other loved ones, or to the very idea of death; she was sad because the dog had died and was gone.  
Mourning a dog is not part of our grief culture. There’s no compassionate leave for losing a dog, and grieving a pet when hundreds of thousands of people are dying isn’t something to shout about. Nevertheless, the loss of a pet, a dog in particular, leaves a rift. When I speak to my parents on the phone, they talk about how quiet the house is, how they haven’t been out for a walk in a few days, how the entire shape of their day has changed. I think about how loud the dog was, how she’d bark at the postman, steal socks from the radiators, demand a handful of your crisps. She was so obstinately there, so part of it all. It’s hard to explain this to people who’ve never had a dog, hard to refer to the dog as ‘part of the family’ without sounding twee, or deluded. But it’s true. We love them fiercely because they love us fiercely, and they fit in our lives because their life entirely depends on us. 
When Wilma died I started thinking again about my obsession with that question, does something terrible happen to the dog. I started wanting at once to watch all the doggy snuff films and never watch one again. I thought about the ending of Marley and Me – which every dog owner has seen but not every dog owner will admit to – when Owen Wilson holds Marley’s paw and tells him he’s been a good dog. Marley was never a good dog. He was untrained and big and loud. But he was funny and loving and loveable. Most dogs are like this, I think. Mine was. Her propensity to entertain and annoy was boundless and we all loved her, even though she ate windowsills, ripped apart books, and used to hide pound coins behind her teeth. She had character. Was a character. So when something terrible happened to her – because something terrible always happens to the dog in the end – it happened to us too, and we were sad, and we still are. But before the terrible thing happened to us, the dog happened to us.
The end of The Friend avoids tying off the terrible thing, doesn’t need to say how sad the death was but how life ultimately goes on. Instead it just half-answers the question that we don’t really want the answer to anyway. Did something terrible happen to the dog? Yes, and no. So did something terrible happen to us? Yes, and – mercifully, wonderfully – no.
Daisy Henwood in a writer, tutor and arts producer. She leads workshops for the National Centre for Writing and Young Norfolk Arts, and has been commissioned by Norwich City Council and BBC Norfolk. She received her PhD from UEA in 2020. She is writer-in-residence at the Wherry School and lives in Norwich.

FUNFAIR by Michael Eades

There’s a temporary utopia in town. You can see the lights in the distance, flashing through the gaps in trees, across gardens and slate roofs. You can hear the music and the high pitched screams and the hiss of hydraulics through late summer air. 

August, 2020. There’s a funfair on the Common. It is only a small one: a few socially distanced rides huddling well away from one another. But it is definitely there. Its placement has a defensive quality, tucked away at the bottom of the hill down by the High Road, surrounded by a temporary fence. It stops and starts, struggling for custom. Every time I walk past in the morning and at twilight I see the rides squatting emptily, waiting for punters, surrounded by bored men smoking and chatting. 

In these viral times, in a lull in the pandemic, it is optimistic of them to come here and set up shop. In that sense, you might read it as a positive sign. A little flash of returning normality in the midst of a ‘new normal’ defined largely by weirdness. In another sense of course it presents a strange tangle of interconnecting risks. Danger of death from those poorly maintained rides meeting danger of death from infection carried on machinery and candy floss. 

I want to walk out into that fair and take some pictures. I want to put my mask on and move in close enough to hear the screams. 

A funfair is a portal that connects you to different times. The lights, the repetitive music, the conjuring trick worked by the shooting galleries and the ghost train; they trigger responses deep within you: emotions, memories. They allow you to slip through one reality and into another. The sights and sounds come together to create a spectacle, an illusion which, for some reason, never changes and always, always works. 

Walking around a weirdly empty, Covid-stricken fairground on a bank holiday weekend, I can suddenly see how it all works. I can see the breaks and the joins and the gaps between things. Sitting on their rides, bored workers stared into the distance or dance ironically to the music pumping out of speakers. The music is never updated. It is the same music played at fairs for the past twenty years or more. Rave classics. ‘You’ve got to show me love’, ‘It’s Not Over Yet’, ‘Search for the Hero’. A few scattered families are wandering, wearing masks. Rides whirl and climb into the sky with only a couple of punters aboard. Hand sanitizers squirts are compulsory on embarking and disembarking. 

In the looking glass hall of mirrors here I see reflections and refractions of funfairs past. I remember trips to Blackpool as a child. Every year with my grandparents to see the illuminations. The almost panicked excitement of it. The huge scale of the rides when seen from close to the ground. The sense of being inside another world in the dark rides: ‘River Caves’ and ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Experiencing actual, traumatising terror on the Ghost Train. The definite autumn darkness with weird light at the edges, the rich feel of seaside air, the luminous paint glowing and the smells and screams lingering in the car on the way back. 

The filmmaker Patrick Keiller, who grew up in Blackpool, once suggested that: ‘if Louis Aragon had come to England and someone had taken him to Blackpool, he might have been intrigued, and England wouldn’t have been left off the Surrealist map of the world’. 

Wandering through this tiny funfair in South London, stopping to take pictures and jot down notes, I can see exactly what he meant.

Funfairs are portals, ways back to different times. 

I remember going to Blackpool again later, as an adult (or a young adult, a larger child). The excitement felt almost as intense. It felt almost…better. I was there with someone that I loved at the time, intoxicated, happy just to take a day out from the world and immerse myself in a different, artificial one that has stood somehow on the cold lip of the North Sea for more than a hundred years.

When I was there, I didn’t think about the future at all. I didn’t realise that this was a moment that would have an ending. I didn’t realise that the person I was with would become a stranger one-day. I didn’t realise it would turn all turn into nostalgia. 

Fairgrounds, pleasure beaches, funfairs. Trips away with different people over different years. Grandparents, parents, partners who come and go. Different versions of myself, on different rides, with different people.

And then, finally, just me. Just me, walking around a deserted South London funfair with a camera, in the middle of a pandemic, alone. 

Michael Eades is a writer, researcher and curator based in London. His work has appeared in The Mechanic’s Institute Review, The i, and Reflex Press. Michael also runs the UK’s Being Human festival, an annual multi-city festival of innovative, research driven events. He can be found at @DrMichaelEades and

THE JAVELIN by Sam Simmons

St Pancras, Central London. A station was opened in 1868, to serve the Midlands. The grand building at the front is a hotel that has slept on the Euston Road since the station was built. Behind the Grade One listed exterior are boutique shops to suit the needs of the modern clientele that frequent the station – from its new destinations of Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam on the international rail link. Also, from the far reaches of the continent and beyond, reached via train services from Gatwick and Luton airports. It’s a bit like an airport terminus since St Pancras station had ‘International’ added to it in 2007, although there’s no duty free (it’s more like double the price).

Sometimes I see mice run across the concourse, looking for food in the city. Sometimes I’ve seen them run under the rails, looking for a place to hide. Trains here are served by overhead cables, so I’d hope the mice would run on to somewhere else when they feel the rumble of a train. I want to be the mouse, creeping out gently, watching the comings and goings, rather than being a part of it all, rather than be the briefcase rush hour model image. But I guess we are all a part of it. Our lives are in the hands of the six-car service to Margate, whether we like it or not, whether our journey is for work or pleasure. I want to take my time and buy my M&S avocado sandwich and eat it, before I’ve boarded the 140mph High Speed train. I want to enjoy my expensive artisan coffee before I leave the big smoke (which probably isn’t the big smoke anymore). I’ve been looking at new ways of naming it, and so far, I’ve come up with ‘the mega million gigabyte’ and ‘the big vape’. I don’t think either will catch on though.

The barista is abruptly asking me if I want ‘hot or cold milk’ with my Americano. The question of milk becomes more of a question of having a quick answer. I’m abruptly asked again. I’m being too slow. A train that connects London to Kent in no time at all is waiting for its load going from city to sea. It has the comforts of Wi-Fi. There’s never much chance to socialise here, so I guess we’ve got to take those moments of me, myself and Wi-Fi when we can. A modern train for a modern society. I spill a bit of coffee down my front during a power walk and don’t have time to care.

The train has nestled into platform 11. I slot my ticket through the machine and the barrier grants me entrance. A conversation is going on with a passenger and the guard as I walk through to catch the train.

‘Moorgate? You want the Northern line.’

‘No. I’m going to Margate.’

‘Oh, Margate? You want platform 11 for Margate.’

The train is getting busy, loaded up with pushchairs, back packs, suitcases, and of course city boys and girls in their best clothes (no coffee stains down their shirts). The digital board says ‘MARGATE’. Echoes of Chas & Dave.

Our service leaves St Pancras along a railway that passes over the Regent’s Canal with its narrow boats afloat, and the canalside gas holders that have been turned into offices or luxury flats. Camley Street Natural Park brings greenery to the area. We pass a bridge that has ‘HOPE’ painted across it. We head out towards the east. Our service sinks into a tunnel, then it picks up a bit of speed, and all we can see is our reflections in the windows. Oyster tappers are reminded to get off at the next stop as their fares won’t be valid any further. The ticket holders’ border.

We pull into Stratford International, where the international trains do not stop. The station has an unfinished look about it and sits in a concrete ditch. There’s the big shopping centre, Westfield, wedged between the international and mainline/underground Stratford station. The signs lead you through the shopping centre. I worked out there’s a short cut around it, if you walk past the depot where the HGVs are unloading their unholy goods. It’s a different world from the Stratford Centre, which at night, is a shelter for the homeless to put down their duvets for indoor sleep. Where the Olympic Stadium now engulfs the land was previously a mountain of fridges, which was said to be the largest collection of dumped white goods in Europe. Why didn’t they build the stadium out of old fridges? Next to the stadium is a supersize Helter Skelter.

 As soon as news of the Olympic games were pulled out of the hat, the Javelin would be the one pulling us into the new Olympic park through shuttle services using the newest train technology that these Hitachi-made Class 395 fleet could offer. Each train has the name of a famous British athlete on the front, complete with their signature and the words ‘Britain’s Fastest.’ Dame Kelly Holmes is an important one, being from Kent.

Celebration Avenue. Victory Parade. Anthems Way. Olympic Village. Olympic sized shopping centre. Olympic Park. Olympic Javelin throwing you into London in record time. Shaving minutes off your journey. Increasing capacity on the network. Room for more. Squeeze in. Hold on tight. Come January the fares will go up again. This is the price we pay for a celebration. If the London yellow stock brick was still in building fashion, the high speed would be lugging them up from the clay pits of Kent to Stratford, because building is happening quickly in the outer zones.

Onwards we go, slipping through into another tunnel. The hum of air pressure. You really notice that it’s picked up speed when it launches itself out of the tunnel and into the wastelands of the London/Essex border. It flies through the area like it’s a forbidden zone. I try to take in as much as I can, every time I pass here. I don’t want life to just be a blur we speed through.

It’s Ford Dagenham territory. MOT centres on the roadside at Ferry Lane. The industry buildings and work yards of Eddie Stobart, Rainham Steel, Scania Purfleet, Tesco and the glowing ‘M’ of fast food in the distance. It doesn’t have the dramatic feel of being on a two-car diesel pacer train, slugging past the dead British Steel works between Redcar and Middlesbrough. But this is what modern industry has become. The A13 runs alongside our tracks. Pylons sending electricity, fast, across Rainham Marshes. This is the land of Iain Sinclair’s orbital ramblings. Cobelfret Freight ferries anchor at Purfleet. A dangerous sighting of ‘Daily Mail’ beside the stilts of Queen Elizabeth II bridge brings on terror. Motorists are still required to pay the royal fare to cross. More shopping precincts at Lakeside, Thurrock, somewhere over there. Bluewater, the other side of the Thames estuary. The train rocks like a rollercoaster, red squares of rows and rows of Biffa bins blur past, and we catapult down through a tunnel under the river.

When the HS1 resurfaces again, we arrive at Ebbsfleet International. They seem to have stuck ‘International’ on every station. Intentional? Will they still be ‘International’ if this Brexit thing goes ahead?

Ebbsfleet is a made-up place on the Kent side of the Thames estuary. There’s not a lot there. Just a car park for commuters to park their motors before boarding a quick one into town. Two churches sit on the chalk cliffs that surround the station. Its location is somewhere between Swanscombe, Northfleet and Gravesend. Ebbsfleet does exist, but as a hamlet, some 55 miles down the line, at the mouth of the River Stour, near Ramsgate. I’m sure this new Ebbsfleet will exist soon. From the train window I can already see the men in green jackets surveying the alien lands. There’s already an Ebbsfleet United football team. I can’t see any goal posts. Perhaps they have a kick about on Rainham Marshes?

Ebbsfleet really is commuter land – most of the passengers that get on or off here are cradling laptops and holding leather satchels. The trains come fitted with handy plug sockets, and the modern commuter’s best friend, Wi-Fi. A lake is in sight of the platform, a pretend natural feature for passengers to glance at. Mark Wallinger’s commissioned White Horse (or Angel of the South) was planned to be built near where the rail goes under the A2. The white horse being the symbol of Kent. It was going to be taller than the Angel of the North, although no signs of the giant gee-gee as we leave Ebbsfleet Valley behind. Whether it exists or not, we start moving like a race horse again. We pass where the A2 was re-routed to make way for the tracks of this new rail link, and then we go into the fields of this home county.

The Javelin is the heron of UK trains – the only one superior is the Eurostar. Although the routes have been perfectly timed, that we rarely see the mythical beast pass us on our journey – only in its London nest, back at St Pancras.

We cross the River Medway, side by side with the M2. We see Rochester Castle crumbling on the riverside. It’s been haunting the riverbank since long before Dickensian days. It’s a picturesque view of Medway, whichever way you look out the window.

We flee consumerism in the fields. If I was standing on the field, the train would look like a Hornby set. Faster we go, into the hop growing county, we see the wooden poles that help them grow. The hops get dried and land into liquid form eventually. Two or three oast houses grouped together around the county, looking prestigious in their places. They were used as kilns to dry the hops and many have turned into homes, since beer is produced on an industrial scale now. The hop pickers would have caught the High Speed 1 if it had existed then. Down to Teynham, Faversham and Paddock Wood. London to Ebsfleet in 17 minutes. To Ashford in 37, Canterbury in just under an hour.

The murmurs of conversations, phone calls, and a faint hum of headphone music. The snoozer resting their head on the window. Oblivious to where we are. Just waiting for the train announcements to confirm it. Others glare on at their phones, immersed in emails or their favourite new TV series. The person behind me accidently knocks on the back of my seat. I feel it reverberate down the spine.

I watch the blue circle move across Google Maps on my phone. We get close to the M20 and move almost twice as fast as the cars. Shiny modern saloons, lorries, logistics…all moving across county and country, but not as quick as us. A corrugated metal barrier suddenly blocks our views, as we head into Ashford.

At Ashford International, it comes off the overhead cables – ‘ding’. The station looks like a glass spaceship, that has landed in a random town. Sometimes a Vic Reeves sighting, he catches the HS1 from Ashford. This is where the train joins the regular tracks with the mainline trains. There’s three lines coming out of Ashford – towards Ramsgate, Folkestone or Hastings and above is a monorail, where the Eurostar tears up into the sky, towards mainland Europe. Although some of the continental trains stop at Ashford, adding the international. The only international signs I can see is the word for exit in French, sortie. There are several javelins parked in the sidings, next to a building – ‘Hitachi – Inspire the next.’ Opposite sits the Millenium Dome-esque Ashford Designer Outlet, and the Batchelors soup factory. A clash of Andy Warhol’s soup factory and a naff pre-Millenium architectural panic attack. They have a face off across the tracks. We tune into regular speed now, getting the currents from the third rail.

Wye, Chilham, and Chartham. We sail through these places, while the Stour gently flows past. ‘Why kill ‘em and cart ‘em to Canterbury?’ Grandpa Tom once said to me. The slow stopper from Charing Cross opens its doors at these villages on the Kent Downs. Near Wye, there’s a white horse engraved on a hill. There’s a few of them on hills around Kent. Still no clip-clop clip-clop at Ebbsfleet though.

I hear a man on a phone say, ‘I’m off to that dump of a place, Canterbury.’ A slight irritation grows inside me to say, ‘it isn’t a dump.’ It’s the first time I’ve heard the place I was born called that, though I’ve heard my hometown be called a dump many times. Herne Bay – cracked manhole covers with the words ‘Pryor & Co Ltd, Dalston Junction’, ‘Haywards Limited Makers, London’, and ‘T.Hyatt & Co, Farringdon Road.’ Perhaps in the future, when BT have done their broadband job, these will be ultra-fast portals to London.

‘We will shortly be arriving at Canterbury West.’ Across a level crossing, a sighting of the Westgate Towers, and the traffic queued up along St Dunstans. We pull into the Archbishop’s city. From the station you can see the Gothic cathedral poking up. No, it’s not a dump. It’s built on history. This is where Chaucer and his storytellers pilgrimaged from London. It’s where Saint Thomas Becket was murdered by the king’s followers inside the cathedral in 1170. In Roman times this ancient city was called Durovernum Cantiacorum. In the early 2000s, Tony Robinson and his Time Team came to the big dig, where 2000-years’ worth of artefacts were found. The diggers took the artefacts and now a modern shopping arcade sits in their ancient place. Nowadays, the cobbled streets are packed with students and ‘I love London’ T-shirts. My Great-Great-Grandfather’s pink plaster mould cherubs are still intact on one of the buildings half way along the High Street. They’ve been there since the 1930s. Much of Canterbury was bombed during the Blitz, but the cherubs survived World War II. Beside Canterbury West, is a goods shed, which has been turned into a farmer’s market displaying the best produce from the Garden of England.

We roll out into the edgelands of Canterbury, heading towards the seaside. There’s a power plant and electrical wires firing in many directions. Pylons waving for miles. Car showrooms with brand new Jags, Mercs and BMWs on their forecourts, overlooked by a landfill site on a high mount, where seagulls scavenge. A permanent private gypsy site the other side of the tracks on Vauxhall Road. We pick up moderate speed across the level crossing past the village of Sturry. From the Javelin window, we see the glistening lakes of Westbere, where I did cross country running in my school days. We pass the derelict halt of where once stood Chislet Colliery. The colliery produced coal from 1919 to 1969. It would have powered the steam trains. The only remains is the station platform. The Stour joins trackside again at Grove Ferry, where boats and amateur fishermen while away the day. We glide past the fields beside Stourmouth and Sarre. During the summer you can read the crops on the fields. We go over the River Wantsum, which in the past would have been a channel of fast flowing water. It separated the Isle of Thanet from the mainland. These days it’s just a piddling stream. Wantsum Brewery sits nearby, and worth a sip if you like an ale. Better than the river water, it’s said.

The real Ebbsfleet can be seen from the train, but I can’t quite pinpoint where. It’s near where the concrete tea cups of Richborough Power Station used to be, and the only reminiscence of those cooling towers is a small wind turbine.

 We slow down and go under some concrete bridges of dual carriage way and pass Pegwell Bay. William Dyce famously painted ‘Pegwell Bay, Kent – A Recollection of October 5th 1858.’ The painting was inspired by a family day out the Dyce’s had spent on the sands. A concrete platform sits near the bay, where the hovercraft used to inflate and glide to Calais. It discontinued in the 1970s. The port of Ramsgate can be seen from here, and that’s pretty much derelict too. Now the bay is a place for birdwatching across the marshes and sands.

‘We have now arrived at Ramsgate.’ The doors bleep, several times, and open. If you’re sitting or standing near the door, you immediately feel the breeze of the seaside air. Ramsgate has many regency squares, and a large number of blue plaques – including one to Vincent Van Gogh, where he is said to have spent his happiest times as a teacher. From the window, all I see is another red Biffa bin and seagull shit scattered across the platform. (Even over the yellow line.) The station is a bit of a way from the town centre and the sea, so don’t let the first sightings put you off. It’s home to a royal harbour, where barges and yachts slowly bob on the twinkling harbour waves. On a clear day from the clifftop, you can see France. Perhaps it should be named ‘Ramsgate International’?

A viaduct takes us out of Ramsgate, affording us a panoramic view of the town. A voice comes from the tannoy. ‘Welcome aboard this service to Margate. Calling at Broadstairs and Margate ONLY. If you see anything suspicious, please do report it to a member of staff or the Police. The next station stop will be Broadstairs. Thank you for travelling with us today.’ Every time we stop, another town gets dropped from the digital screen. Then, the most common of all train interactions, ‘tickets please’, comes into the carriage. I look for today’s ticket, amongst my wallet full of expired journeys. I’m wearing a beret. The ticket man approaches me and says, ‘Bonjour! Paris is that way.’ He points, laughs, nods at my ticket and stamps it.

‘Tickets, please.’

I then overhear a conversation between a passenger and the ticket inspector.

‘I’ve got a ticket here somewhere. Can ya come back in ten minutes, mate?’

‘I’ve got plenty of time. I don’t mind waiting.’

‘I swear I just bought a ticket. Bugger. I can’t find it.’

‘Well, if you can’t find it, you’ll have to buy another one.’

And when it comes to the price.

‘Fucking hell, has it gone up? I swear it was cheaper than that before.’

‘Yeah, it goes up every January.’

‘Nah, you’re joking. It couldn’t have…ah! Will you do me a discount?’

I guess the guy doesn’t want to fare dodge, but who can blame him when prices go up? We slowly cruise through Dumpton Park. There’s weeds and wild grass growing in the cracks of the island platform.

Pavements full of litter, unemployment, teenage parents, family struggles, stroke services in jeopardy, mental health issues and a corrupt district council looking after everything. Welcome to Thanet.

Broadstairs station hangs on a slope at the top of its High Street. Welcome to the Turner & Dickens way. Dickens’s Bleak House lives on the clifftop and looks over Viking Bay. With windfarms on the horizon, as is much the same along the Kent coast. It has the best of the bays in the area and is regarded as the quainter of the Thanet towns. But much the same as the other towns, a lot of the High Street shops have moved to the out of town shopping centre, Westwood Cross – a mini Westfield.

We cross a field out of Broadstairs, pass an estate, and the train slows down as we approach the town where the journey ends. The unfinished town. Bits being propped up and just about held together. ‘MARGATE’ rolls across the screen. People start to prematurely stand, collecting their bags from the racks and heading for the automatic doors. I stay where I am, until we pull into the terminus. Somebody is playing music on their phone, another is answering a call and says, ‘I’m just on the train, but I’ll be there in a few minutes and will walk up to the clocktower and meet you.’ The railways aren’t public anymore, since they were privatised, but you still get no personal space.

We see the brutalist architecture of Arlington house. ‘BLOCK BREXIT’ in one of the windows of flats. Next to the re-vamped funfair of Dreamland, where I spent a summer working the dodgems and the tea cups. It’s been a theme park since the 1880s. It went into demise and ruin in the 2000s. The old owner set fire to the scenic railway, and it was derelict for years. But money has been put into it, and now it brings the tourists back in for more days of play. The scenic railway is making the kids put their hands in the air again. The Turner Contemporary has attracted artists and art lovers, the ribbon cut by Tracey Emin, who grew up here. It’s seen trendies from Hackney migrate to Margate via the High Speed rail, still within a commutable distance of the office, but who cares, you can work from home now. Or just work from your favourite local that offers coffee, and yoga and records too. A man with a beard is also flogging bars of soap, and candles made from local seaweed.

Margate’s always been a place for artists and holidaymakers to escape the city for cleaner air. The famous lines of T.S.Eliot ‘On Margate sands, I can connect nothing with nothing.’ He wrote some of The Waste Land in a shelter across the road from the station. Eliot’s poetry writing shelter is next to some toilets (his anagram). Turner came here to paint the panoramic sunsets across the harbour arm – smudged gold in the naturalist form. Tracey Emin has moved back and laid her bed in the Turner Gallery, and also married a rock. Dreamland is an all-day disco again. Sea bathing might not have come back just yet, but people still come to cleanse city pollution from themselves in salt water.

‘We have now arrived at Margate, where this train terminates. Please remember to take all your personal belongings with you when leaving the train. And when alighting, please mind the gap between the platform and the train. We have now arrived at Margate. All change, please, all change.’ Could the announcer not have put it as simple as ‘we have arrived at the sea – wash your sins away.’ I step out of the train, at the end of my journey, on the threshold of where the land meets the sea. There are no ticket barriers at Margate, so I just wander out onto the seafront without getting my ticket out of my wallet. I hear a seagull cry, I feel the sea salt breeze, I’m back home beside the white horses of the waves.

Sam Simmons is a beret wearing poet. He was born and read within seagulls’ cry of the splashing North Sea waves in Kent. He is a writer of geographical ramblings, poems and a painter of pictures. Sometimes he uses crayons like a three-year old would. He has an interest in psychogeography and enjoys long walks. In 2020, Sam graduated with a BA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck with a psychogeograpical dissertation titled ‘The Turtle’.