Thursday 23 December 2021

That the city, after this enormity, may be renewed

 So I saw a tweet asking...


That the city, after this enormity, may be renewed 

They told me that my sex drive would be

'ruined' - the exact word that they chose,

as if the hormones were a bomb

that would destroy the proud erections

of an engineered city.

What they didn't realise

was that my metropolis

already lay in ruins:

behind the neoclassical facades

of banks, the people gathered

'round the fires that burned in drums,

bartered shoddy goods under the tarps

slung far beneath the shattered skylights

of the covered market;

that taps gasped air and dirt

in sailors' bars beside the silted harbour:

and here, hormones came as wrecking ball

and blueprint for renewal, as mortar

in the sense of both explosive and cement,

as the new broom in City Hall,

and that, where once I had a Miesian libido,

gridded and predictable, what sprang up in its place

is more like Gehry: complicatedly

amazing; twisted and baroque,

always apparently about to

tumble in upon itself, but stronger

than the mess it seems to be.

Where once I was the New York Subway,

now I'm Harry Beck's map of the Tube

reimagined as a rollercoaster

(though I happily will go

South of the River):

complicated, multi-coloured, centripetally

alive in all directions, and I know

that cut-and-cover, and the pounding

of the tunneling machines

can look like demolition

but they aren't. I'm not in ruins:

this chaos that you hear and see

is not a war:

 it's just my future,


Friday 17 December 2021

The Burning of the Elephants

Strictly protected. She’ll tell you the story

all came to her on a train. The owner will go to the papers,

gush about saving the table, but whine his first edition

can’t be found. The cultists will claim it was arson:

they have such quaint ideas, these people, 

of causality.

The only place that got to print the legend

on its legend, since her brother-in-law’s property

became a Chinese buffet. Went on fire, they say round here,

with knowing intonation. Like the School of Art.

No word on Muriel’s location this time, but the spark,

they say, caught from the basement of the woman 

in Room Four. Why don’t you come on over,

said the paintings and statues of Indian animals,

fetishised like Joanne’s mensa, shown off like Maratha 

treasures plundered by the Royal Scots, sick of

being implicated in her veneration, sick of queues

of tourists, sick of chintzy white folks saying how exotic

it all looked, oh how Bohemian and quirky, longing

for some peace and quiet, they rejoiced to burn.

And if you’re picking through the ashes 

and the rubble in the hope of finding footsteps

or forensic spoor, a connection to the photographs

retweeted from her door,  you will not find them

where your eyes and fingers scrabble. But there is

a footprint here, which you cannot see the way fish

don’t see water. There are things

that move in ways we see

by implication only, that use people 

as their moving parts, and happen 

in a dozen or a hundred spots at once.

Take a ruler. Draw a line from here

to her Barnton house to Killiechassie.

Plot the times. Of course you can’t. 

Some days you cannot see yet since,

to you, they haven’t happened.


Some things are bigger than elephants

Saturday 27 November 2021

Mechanical Turk

The joke is that it never was a robot.

The joke is that 'battery hens'

is a reference to conditions.

The joke is the advert's promise

that you won't speak to a robot

is a promise you will be accused 

of breaking by a caller who knows

fine well you're a human. The joke is

that you know this line is monitored

and when you say 'Yes, I am a real

human being,' in a sing-song voice,

you can say you are not doing me,

you are doing the girl

in the advert.

Monday 22 November 2021

Trump gets an 'honorary' black belt

 In his head, he's really going to start thinking he's Frank Dux now. Telling people he was literally trained by Tiger Tanaka, a fictional character from the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. He's going to start being all 'I respect you, fellow warrior,' when he meets Putin and Steven Segal now. He's gonna go the full fucking John Dupont. This is hilarious. 

His favourite movie was not Citizen Kane

And will you watch Bloodsport on Air Force One,

now the strains of My Way have died down?

Will some flunky fast-forward the boring bits

so you can cut to Van Damme doing the splits

and punching that big Chinese dude in the nuts?

Will you tell yourself this is what you have done,

with your sniping at China? That you have become

an American ninja, a kumite king, a heavyweight

champion lord of the ring, like the man Van Damme

played, the white ninja, Frank Dux,

who put on a cheap gi and made it all up?

Who paid for the trophy he said that he won

with a face straight as yours when you bragged about grabbing

the pussies of bitches you moved on at pageants.

What is it with boys like you? Desperate to come

off as what you think men are? Was daddy that bad?

Were you so poorly served by the models you had

that you think we respect you, you ludicrous goon?

Well I never did. And I’m glad that you’re gone.

And I hope they fumigate Air Force One.

Wednesday 3 November 2021

Cancellation, Baby!

 I want to be famous

and considered blameless

I want my mates promoted and my critics rendered nameless

I want to be rewarded for actions most consider shameless:

that’s right - I wanna be cancelled!

Cancellation’s where it’s at, pals, cancellation’s King:

if you claim you’re being cancelled you can say most anything,

you can claim to be a pugilist while running from the ring.

All you have to say is ‘I’ve been cancelled!’

Cancellation’s what you need, not dedication, Roy:

cancellation will take you from strength to strength through joy,

you can write a book about how you like perving on underage boys,

and never have to fear, Ms Greer, just be clear that you’ve been cancelled!

Or perhaps you want to talk about the breasts of teenage girls
and folks are pointing out that this makes you sound like a perv?
Just frame your chat in terms appealing to your fellow terves 
and carry on, my wayward Alison, by saying you were cancelled! 

Cancellation is the royal road to superpower,

you can quit your job and get a softball spot on Woman’s Hour,

you can claim to love free speech and threaten critics with your lawyer:

your Stock can never drop when you’ve been cancelled!

Cancellation isn't quite the same as saying 'leave':
true patriots know English words mean more than what they mean,
so if you lose a cushy speaking fee, you still can act aggrieved -
if you ever need to change your plans, Nige, say it's you that's being cancelled!

Is your sense of comic timing deader than a parrot? Are the people who once laughed with you just looking on embarrassed? Do people speak more often of the women that you harassed than your one-note comedies, John Cleese? At ease: claim you've been cancelled!

Cancellation’s barely come in even single spies

while you have big battalions to amplify your lies,

but so what? Claim you're being targeted by Shinigami Eyes,

you can baby face yourself by wailing 'Cancelled!'

But just remember: cancellation’s not for everyone.

You’re only cancelled if you say things they agree with in the Sun,

not things like ‘the BBC platformed a TERF who’s rapist scum,

and they were warned she was a rapist but they let the story run.’

Do you think we care about the truth? We’re journalists, hun!

And if you point out otherwise at best you’ll be ignored,

at worst we’ll slag you off in print or drag you through the courts,

we’ll steal your private photos and we’ll twist your social words,

we’ll convince the general public that you’re all a bunch of pervs

when all you want to do is live your life and not be hassled:

we’ll make that life a living Hell, but we won’t call you cancelled.

Tuesday 2 November 2021

Horror Recollected in Tranquility 2: C.H.U.D. (1984)

What does C.H.U.D stand for?  One of the big twists in Douglas Cheek's film is that it doesn't stand for 'Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller'. That phrase, blurted out by Wilson, the dodgy suit from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission after some papers bearing that acronym are inadvertently revealed during a meeting with the protagonists, is actually a hastily improvised cover for the real translation, discovered in the final act on canisters of toxic waste dumped under New York City - Contamination Hazard: Urban Disposal. 

The files never referred to the Dwellers, but to this secret programme of dumping waste beneath the inner city. It's an effective twist, and it really transforms the movie, turning it from a battle between humans and typical - if very well-executed - horror movie monsters to a struggle to reveal the truth and expose Wilson's schemes. It's Wilson, the NRC company man, who gets shot by one of the protagonists in the film's denouement, after all. The revelation that the bigwigs have decided the only thing New York City is useful for is dumping waste also situates the film in the kind of conversations about New York that were going on at the time, with the city still emerging from the 1975 financial crisis, and not yet transformed into the sanitised, tourism and finance-focused behemoth we know today. Reagan to City: Go Toxic. 

Not just New York, in fact. During the 1980s, the Thatcher government, an ideological ally of Reagan's neoliberal US regime, discussed whether or not it might be better to allow the 'managed decline' of the poverty-stricken city of Liverpool, rather than investing to save it. Liverpool being, among many other things, the setting for Clive Barker's short story 'The Forbidden', better known to most through its US adaptation into yet another film whose supernatural hijinks reflect anxieties around urban spaces, the 1992 version of Candyman (which would be rewritten in 2021 by Us director Jordan Peele). 

Candyman itself is somewhat outside the purview of this series, in that I didn't get around to rewatching it while doing the October Horror Movie Challenge this year, and this series is meant to strictly follow the films I did watch. But it's worth mentioning here both because it shares concerns with C.H.U.D., and was Peele's next writing choice after Us, which strongly suggests Peele didn't show us a copy of Cheek's movie on the TV shelf in the opening of the film we looked at yesterday just because they share subterranean settings. 

Both films are about abandoned populations: the Tethered in Us, the street people (and indeed by extension the entire population of NYC who will have to deal with toxic waste and the cannibalistic mutants it creates) deemed expendable in C.H.U.D. And while there are specific groups culpable in these abandonments - the scientists who discontinue their experiments with the Tethered, Wilson and his pals at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission - both those groups ultimately answer to the US government. Whether it's the Tethered or the people of New York, both of them have been abandoned by America. 

This is what's so important about Red's statement in Us that 'We're Americans'. Why her final, attention-grabbing gesture is the Tethered creating a Hands Across America style chain across the country. She's staking a claim, resisting being discarded. The protagonists of C.H.U.D. -  George the photographer, and A.J. the Reverend (played by future Home Alone housebreaker Daniel Stearn) - also stake their claim with an attention-grabbing move, stealing an NRC camera to expose that organisation's misdeeds, but you could argue that they're less successful. Certainly they are in a non-diegetical sense. 

Why? Because - well, what does C.H.U.D. stand for? You have to have seen the movie to know the initial explanation is a bait-and-switch. In posters and video covers for the movie, in its numerous sequelae, and throughout pop culture since, it's become axiomatic that the acronym really does mean Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller. And so a meditation on urban abandonment and necropolitics avant la lettre is more readily remembered as simply a creature feature. 

Of course, that's a fairly common trope in the history of horror cinema: often the first film in a franchise has depths and resonances which vanish from later entries (indeed, we'll be looking at one notable example of this later in this series). Maybe the reference to C.H.U.D. in Us will lead more people to look again at a film which might too easily be dismissed as 80s schlock, and think about the themes both films share. 

Monday 1 November 2021

Horror Recollected in Tranquility 1: Us (2019)

In his documentary Jerry Building: Unholy Relics of the Third Reich, the architectural critic Jonathan Meades observes that tunnels are a form of 'infantile structure...the burrow, the warren, the uterine comforter...associable with secret societies, and the desire of the human to take on animal form.' Jordan Peele's 2019 film Us, which has a lot to say about childhood, secrets, and the animal, begins with an observation about tunnels, telling us that 'There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the continental United States. Abandoned subway systems, unused service routes, and deserted mine shafts...Many have no known purpose at all.': 

Meades observes that the Nazis' infantile obsession with burrows and tunnelling (they were building underground bunkers long before the war began) would acquire a new importance when they were forced to 'scurry, crawl and hide in the dark'. But Us, like most horror movies that deal with the depths, isn't about burrowing in, except in its unsettling opening and, to an extent, its climax. Instead, it's concerned with what might get out. 

That something unheimlich might emerge from underground is hinted at in the presence, in the opening shot, of a VHS copy of C.H.U.D., Douglas Cheek's 1984 movie in which the people of New York's streets are menaced by the quasi-titular (but more on that tomorrrow) Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller. So when Lupita Nyong'o's Adelaide 'Addy' Wilson strays from her arguing parents at a seaside theme park and becomes lost in the 'Vision Quest' themed hall of mirrors, we're primed to see something disturbing emerge from the dark. What we get, however, is a different flavour of disturbing to cheek's shambling, toxic zombies: an exact duplicate of Addy: her doppelganger. 

We will learn, later in the film, that said doppelganger is one of 'the Tethered': clones created by the government and kept underground as part of an experiment to see if they could somehow be used to control their originals on the surface. We will learn that the experiment failed, and the Tethered have been abandoned underground to a life of empty mimicry of their originals (their name refers to a peculiar psychic connection between the clones and their counterparts) and eating the caged rabbits left behind by the scientists. But the first thing we will learn about the Tethered, when a family of them visit Addy and her family at their vacation house, is that they want revenge. Addy's Tethered counterpart, Red, explains her motives in a speech which also serves to introduce us to the twisted copies of Addy's husband and children which make up Red's family: 

'Once upon a time, there was a girl and the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together. And the girl ate, her food was given to her warm and tasty. But when the shadow was hungry, she had to eat rabbit raw and bloody. On Christmas, the girl received wonderful toys; soft and cushy. But the shadow's toys were so sharp and cold they sliced through her fingers when she tried to play with them. The girl met a handsome prince and fell in love. But the shadow at that same time had Abraham, it didn't matter if she loved him or not. He was tethered to the girl's prince after all. Then the girl had her first child, a beautiful baby girl. But the shadow, she gave birth to a little monster. Umbrae was born laughing. The girl had a second child, a boy this time. They had to cut her open and take him from her belly. The shadow had to do it all herself. She named him Pluto, he was born to love fire. So you see, the shadow hated the girl so much for so long until one day the shadow realized she was being tested by God.'

What follows is a game of cat and mouse between the Wilsons and their Tethered reflections, plus two tethered duplicates of two family friends played by Tim Heidecker and Elisabeth Moss, and their children.  This culminates in Addy descending into the tunnels again (the 'Vision Quest' attraction has been restyled as the less culturally-appropriative 'Merlin's Quest') to confront Red and rescue her kidnapped son, Jason (in the course of which Red explains more about the Tethered's origins). 

What's most compelling in all of this is the air of unreality Peele creates around the story. The confrontation with the  doppelganger, or the Shadow, is a big, mythic, Jungian theme, as is descent into the underworld. The styling of the hall of mirrors, in both its guises, reminded me of those creepy, fairytale-style covers that you see in pictures of some of the books on hypnotism which would eventually morph into the pseudoscience of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Rabbits, of course, have a longstanding connection with adventures underground (go ask Alice). As with Peele's previous film, Get Out, the scientific veneer (in this case the scientists who create and then abandon the Tethered) really serves as a plot contrivance to allow Peele to tell a story about disturbing magic - magic which strikes at the core of one's identity.

Because one of the film's last revelations is that Addy herself is one of the Tethered. In the hall of mirrors as a child, she strangled her doppelganger - the real Addy - unconscious, and replaced her. The damage to the original's vocal chords is why Red speaks in the scratchy, terrifying voice in which she addresses Addy. 

Maybe this is why, as Addy finally escapes with her family, and sees evidence of Red's plan (inspired by another pop culture reference from the opening scene) coming to fruition, she smiles. Because she, more than anyone else in her family, understands the drive to get out of the sunken place the army of the Tethered has escaped from. Because she already got out. And this, perhaps, explains why of all her family - including her physically much bigger husband, Gabe - Addy proves to be the fiercest fighter in disposing of her family's doubles. Because she knows what it's like, down there in the underground shadow of America - and she doesn't want to go back.  

Saturday 28 August 2021

You, and the choices you made

 What you have to understand, what you already do understand if you would stop lying to yourself, stop reassuring yourself that everything you did was right and just and principled, is that you made choices two years ago, and because of those choices the world has fallen into what you might call a dark spiral. Dark is not quite the word. We don’t really have words for what this is. It’s dark during wildfires, sure. It was dark on the night the Indianapolis went down and the men who delivered the bomb became food for the sharks. But it was also bright. So very bright. And red. A red we shouldn’t see on Earth. But we do see it, sometimes. And some of us live in it, all the time, while the rest of you were sunning yourself under blue skies that will soon be a memory. There were choices that you could have made. You didn’t make them. You made others. And we’re here now. Deep, deep, deep in the red. The nights the air you breathe will choke you. And you chose this.

And you will have to make new choices. And if you keep thinking as you did before, you’ll make the wrong ones again, and the skies will get more red. And sometimes, even if you don’t. Because one of the things you chose was the folks who choose for you, and you didn’t choose them that well, did you? Because you believed that everything you did was right and just and principled. Or said so, anyway. I think deep down some of you know. Some of you fooled yourself. Some of you told yourselves that you were fooling us. But your choices were shallow. Your choices were venal. Your choices were made from your own smug sense of comfort, dreams of Empire and the West, of civilising missions. Sentimental, hoping that the animals come home while the people you paid to have bombed and shot and raped by those lovely Alsatians shiver and hope that there won’t be more bombs. You had a chance and you fucked it, or let it be fucked, lay back and thought of England, all the lies she sang to you at school. I don’t know if it’s worse if you believed them or you knew that they were lies, but here we are. You chose. And you wrote your columns, saying that your choice was right and just and principled. But really, you were angry that young people called you melts. Or gammon. You were angry you heard other languages in public. You thought the voices that you couldn’t understand were mocking you. Judging you. Why? Is there something you ought to be judged for?

Tuesday 8 June 2021

This business breaks your heart sometimes

Tonight, at the Cumberland Arms, the pub which has been the lynchpin of the Newcastle poetry scene for decades, they're holding the first live gig Newcastle has seen since lockdown began last year. It will take place on the Cumberland's outside terrace, a great place to be in good weather. Kate Fox will be there, and Rob Heron, of the Tea Pad Orchestra. A lot of people in the local scene will be going. But I will not be one of those people, and the reason for this is simple: because the third person on the bill is Alix Alexandra, a ukulele-toting singer-songwriter who has, in the past year, decided she supports the views of some very transphobic people.

Here, for example, we have Alix enthusiastically announcing her decision to attend a conference organised by Women's Place UK, a transphobic organisation, platforming Maya Forstater, who lied about 'being sacked for not supporting trans rights' (in fact, her contract was simply not renewed, and her attempts to claim that the 'gender-critical' beliefs which made her colleagues feel unsafe should be protected under the Equalities Act was dismissed by a judge as 'not worthy of respect in a democratic society'); Jo Phoenix, who was disinvited from the University of Essex over an inflammatory presentation she planned to give on the 'dangers' of trans women being imprisoned with cis women' and parlayed the row over this into a classic example of the 'I'm being cancelled' grift (the latest ComRadio podcast goes into a lot more detail about this Phoenix saga, in the context of government scaremongering about 'free speech on campus'), and Julie Bindel, a transphobe of such vintage that I, and plenty of other writers, have been pointing out how much she really seems to hate trans people (and sex workers, and bisexual women), for over a decade now, going all the way back to 'Gender benders, beware' the quite staggeringly transphobic Guardian piece which brought Ms Bindel to our attention back in 2004. 

Alix is quite a fan of Julie Bindel. Here she is gushing on Twitter about a book launch event featuring Bindel being interviewed by fellow SWERF Rachel Moran: 

...and here she is sharing an article written by Bindel as part of the current campaign by an unholy alliance of Tory politicians, right-wing media, anti-trans 'feminists' and homophobic evangelicals to undermine Stonewall, the UK's biggest and longest-serving LGBT+ rights organisation, for the crime of standing up for trans rights: 

So the first poetry event in Newcastle after lockdown was going to platform a performer who regularly and enthusiastically promotes the work of people who have a long track record of bigotry against women like me. People who, in the works of one of their major philosophical influences, The Transsexual Empire author Janice Raymond, would like to see me and my kind 'morally mandated out of existence'. Call me paranoid, but I don't really feel safe attending a performance featuring someone like that, especially given one can assume that lots of her friends and fans would be in the audience. 

So I expressed my frustration about all this on Facebook, but left it at that, assuming, from bitter experience (and having seen how a similar situation played out in the Scottish poetry scene), that all involved would probably use it as an opportunity to claim they were being 'cancelled by the woke mob', paint me as the villain, and generate a ton of free publicity while also ingratiating themselves with the transphobic clique which is massively overrepresented in UK media and publishing (despite the fact that the vast majority of cis women do not hold transphobic views).

Some trans poets I know, however, decided to get in contact with Rowan McCabe, who was organising the event, and let him know about Alix's turn towards TERFiness. I stayed in contact with them, though I had little hope we'd get anywhere. The fact is I've been side-eyeing Rowan for some time now, since he started getting close with Labour MP Laura Pidcock, whose reaction to the loss of the 2019 election was to write a piece for Tribune magazine containing such an obvious dogwhistle in support of transphobic 'feminists' that Tribune themselves had to run a piece affirming their commitment to trans rights to distance themselves from Pidcock's implied views: 

Care to unpack this a little, Laura?

About the best we could hope for from this process, I figured, would be confirmation that, when alerted to a pattern of sharing anti-trans material from a performer at his event (and one of his personal friends), Rowan McCabe would ultimately ignore concerns raised by trans people in order to give his pal a gig. 

Well, we got the best we could hope for: 

Alix Alexandra enthusiastically supports transphobic groups and individuals who are engaged in a campaign to undermine Stonewall and further marginalise trans people in the United Kingdom and worldwide. Rowan McCabe has been made aware of this behaviour and decided to act like it isn't a problem. Everyone in poetry in the North East and beyond who cares about the rights and welfare of their trans comrades should be aware of those facts, and act accordingly. But I won't hold my breath.

Wednesday 2 June 2021

The Second Bathroom Thing

 What's this? A sequel?

I used to piss in the gents.

I don't mean pre-transition:

I mean, when the queue

at the British Museum 

snaked up the steps 

of the gift shop,

I put on my best style-it-out face

and strutted into the men's room

as if I was daring somebody

to tell me to leave.

Somebody told me to leave,

years later, in Waverley Station:

a cleaner. I'd already pissed

but he stopped me washing my hands,

which does not seem hygienic.

I was matter out of place, I guess,

already too dirty, something 

to be shooed. A lot of us do

it, both trans and cis, when 

the queue is too long and 

our bladder too small and

we think we can chance it,

we'll walk into the bog

with the man on the door

because signs are not magic

and we are not vampires Peter Cushing

can see off with juxtaposed 

candlesticks. And that cleaner, he

had passage to both sets of toilets 

(perhaps that was what he resented,

my usurpation of his

lavatorial warrant),

which suggests that a man bent on mayhem

(which is what you say I am)

could more easily throw on a tabard

than secure a prescription for hormones.

But you expect these signs to bind us.

You expect me to keep out

of the toilets I've queued for 

since I got the bum's rush at Waverley

Station, you want the right

to call me matter out of place.

Well, I refuse. I will claim

my right to use these cubicles

however long I have to queue,

and however much my bits ache,

and before I piss in the gents again

I will piss on your doorstep. 

Wednesday 19 May 2021

I don't know what to say


I don't know what to say: today

a bill was passed in Tenessee 

to force businesses that serve people like me

to hang a sign up on their door,

the kind of sign we've seen before

in Germany, in '44, 

a target for the rocks and mobs 

and baseball bats and firebombs,

and yesterday the BBC

discussed the rights of folks like me

on Woman's Hour, at 10am.

They booked two guests: and both of them 

agreed with the host that there should be

signs forbidding some like me

to have the right to fucking pee

Oh: and also, this Labour MP

who loves to libel those like me

was re-elected as the chair 

of Labour Women's PLP,

and honestly, why wouldn't she be?

After all, the Head of the EHRC

said hating us was A-OK

in an interview on Saturday.

And that was just the last few days.

I don't know what to fucking say.