The Wife’s Lament

As part of a module I’m teaching this term I’m getting the students to write creative pieces prompted by Old English texts. I thought I’d have a try at doing one myself, so here’s something based (loosely) on the Old English poem ‘The Wife’s Lament’. The length limit for the exercise was 1500 words and I’ve come in just under.


Today she’s sad. I find her easier to cope with when she’s angry, to be honest. Then I rise up on the boil of her rage, up the dark steps like a messenger from the netherworld.

“Why did you pick this horrible basement flat?” I ask her.

“He told me to piss off back to Grove Road,” she says, “So I did. It’s all I can afford now anyway.” She’s sad today.

She misses him, after all these years, and I suppose I have to respect that, though I find it hard to understand. He was such an utter prick to her.

“We were soul mates,” she tells me. “Everybody saw the talent, the outrageousness, the way he could dominate a room, but I saw the sadness in him. The need. He was just a little boy really, always needing a woman to care for him.”

Of course this need for a woman’s care extended to sleeping with someone else the night she gave birth to his baby. But one has to try to understand the human psyche in all its rich complexity.

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Dot writes:

fiction isn’t happening for me and hasn’t been for a while. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, just that none of them go anywhere. They are sedentary ideas, reluctant to venture into the January wet, slumped in front of their computers. Is it worth getting any of these moving?

Quiche Lorraine

Quiche Lorraine is a heroine who works as a canteen lady at a tech firm. Once, helping to unload the Tescos delivery at the back of the office block, she spotted a nefarious character seeking to enter without a lanyard. Thinking quickly, she threw a quiche in his face and he gave up the attempt. Thus her name. Few people know how she got it but the ones who do recognise it’s a badge of honour.


The problem with Sean was that he had no real interest in anything anybody else said or did. He was very generous, very kind – he’d buy you dinner, or a jumper you liked, or tickets to a film he’d just seen and wanted to tell you about. He was popular with small children because he knew a few magic tricks and was always delighted to show them off. He liked to tell people things he knew, such as the way Teflon pans are made or how events were misrepresented in the currently popular TV history drama. However, if you knew more about that particular historical period than he did he was never going to find out. He would never stop talking for long enough for you to mention it.

So Louisa thought, sourly. The shine had long worn off him as far as she was concerned. Or, rather, she’d realised he was the sort of bright light that only made everything else seem darker – a localised dazzle that didn’t illuminate. And she herself was especially cast into shade, practically invisible, in fact – Sean’s sister and, thanks to personal setbacks, currently, reluctantly, his housemate – appearing briefly on the edge of his sociable evenings to boil a kettle and disappear again. But there are things you can do in the dark.


The girl under the lamp-post smiled happily. She knew she had done well. Duncan had only managed to get a bollard. Kelly was pretending a wheelie-bin was an achievement but, really, it was a flimsy thing and not even fixed to the ground. Look at her tying herself on with pathetic thoroughness, as though you could solve everything with a sufficiently complicated knot. Sometimes it didn’t matter how hard you worked or how clever you were; it was just about where you were standing. The girl under the lamp-post pushed against the belt that strapped her to it, to check it would hold firm.


I Fall Apart

Here are two versions of a song.

This is the one I heard first. It’s sweet and melodic and sad. It immediately became a song I needed to hear many times.

As it happens, it’s a cover, and here is the original. On first listening I liked it far less.

Probably all people who properly keep up with current music have heard the Post Malone version and not necessarily the Flor version, but I tend to come at everything sideways – in this case from letting Spotify play on after the last Haim album, which led me to Flor’s single ‘Guarded’, and some time later to investigating them further. Their recent album is a feast of irresistibly tuneful indie pop and I thoroughly recommend it. Also the singer, Zach Grace, is as cute as a bag of kittens.

But back to Post Malone. The original version of the song definitely grew on me. I post it here partly just to share the song in both renditions, but partly because it’s a case study in how trying to think about things can change my enjoyment or aesthetic experience of them. When I first heard Post Malone I thought “oh, the vocal is a bit forced, when Zach Grace has such a sweet, expressive voice; and the tempo is slower and it seems draggy; and where’s that great bass line I was enjoying; and I don’t like the hip-hop instrumentation as much as those clear and pearly guitar parts” (I was going, of course, from the cover to the original). However, the more agonised and rough delivery of the original version, and that tough guy aesthetic in the general musical style, makes sense with the lyric. “Oh, I fall apart, down to my core” – but he’s trying to self-medicate after his break-up – “harder than the liquor I pour” – and he’s resorting to misogyny in a crap, macho way that just confirms what a mess he is – “devil in the form of a whore”. When Zach Grace sings that line it sounds a bit rougher than the rest but it’s hard to believe he might mean it. When Post Malone sings it you see the ugliness in sadness, how falling apart means feeling and behaving like shit.

That all sounds very intellectually pleasing, doesn’t it? I should prefer the Post Malone version now, as being more insightful or authentic or something. Indeed, thinking through the song’s themes did go hand in hand with acclimatizing to Post Malone’s sound-world. But Flor’s sound is so lovely; and really I’d rather listen to them.


A Walk in the Dark


It was past 6 o’clock on Halloween and already dark as she crossed the road into the Yew Grove estate, the little duffle-coated figure trailing behind her. Oh, how tired she was, how she longed to get home and shut out all the posturings and jargon of her day, but he hadn’t wanted to leave his childminder – he’d refused to fetch his things, wanted to stay in the warm watching tv, and she’d got angry and said there’d be no trick or treating, since he couldn’t do what he was told. And certainly the idea of tramping from house to house smiling politely while hissing at him to say thankyou made her want to scream. But it was mean of her, she knew. She’d tell him he could go after all, just as soon as it was decent to relent. Meanwhile he was dawdling. He was in a sulk.

The houses in this estate were large and blank for the most part: neat blinds, trimmed borders, prosperous cars on brick-paved drives. There weren’t many children here, but a few people had decorated for Halloween, and they hadn’t settled for home-made cutouts or plastic skeletons from Centra. One house had a row of ragged scarecrows in the garden and a single pumpkin carved into a leering face; another had a giant black spider on the wall. “How clever,” she said to herself, but her pace quickened. “Hurry up!” she called to her son.

As she rounded the corner it turned quieter and far darker. Two of the streetlights weren’t working; instead of their yellow glow there was an intermittent white flicker which she realised after a moment must come from LED projectors. On the side of the nearest house a procession of stooped, bony shapes endlessly crept along the wall. Further on wispy ghosts scattered into the eaves. Behind, now the noise of the main road had receded, she could hear the stubborn little footsteps. Suddenly, a great shadow swept across the pavement, so dark she couldn’t help but jump and cry out – what was that? It looked like a clawed, grasping hand, but it missed her, thank god – and of course it must just be another projection, but what a horrible one! She scuttled a few yards more and then stopped and waited. “Hurry up! Run and hold my hand!” She heard him stumble, and looked back, but for a moment she couldn’t see him at all, and the dark lay over the pavement. Then there he was, walking on at the same pace as before. Well, be like that! If he wasn’t scared, he was tougher than she was. She turned and resumed walking.

Round another corner, and they were out of the Yew Tree estate and into the brighter and smaller streets of their own neighbourhood. Soon she’d be able to turn on the television, put on a kettle for pasta, make tea. She hurried to her front door, opened it and flicked on the lights. The small figure finally caught up to her; she let him in and firmly closed the door. And then gazed in horror at the blank white eyes of the creature that was no longer her son.



Two records

Dot writes:

over the last few months of listening, two records have been my favourites, and if I spin it right (see what I did there) I can present them as representing almost opposite strategies for how to be a musician.

One is meditative, intricate, makes use of mostly traditional orchestral instruments, has no vocal lines unless you count birdsong, responds to traditional crafts, remote places and the natural world, and comes upon you gently; it’s a record to think with, to be alone with, to drive through the rain with (as I have); and I realise I don’t actually know what the artist behind it looks like, which is appropriate given the project is called Hidden Orchestra. The album is the exquisite Dawn Chorus.

The other is brash and loud, draws on a garish mix of genres but most prominently on rock and EDM, has songs about drugs, vacuous self-help, twisted internet obsessions and cowboys finding friendship, veers from the utterly bleak to the camply hilarious, is ugly in places and cliche’d in places and full of catchy tunes, and is made by an artist who dresses like he’s in a different Sacha Baron Cohen film every week, when not actually naked. (Or wearing – brace yourself if you plan to click the link – these very memorable underpants.) Also, he’s pissing on his own face on the cover. It’s amazing I like it, but I do, very much. (Not the pissing part, but those truly are memorable underpants.) In this case I’m talking about Kirin J. Callinan and Bravado.

What do these records have in common, apart from that I like them? Collaboration, for one. Hidden Orchestra combines field recordings, especially of dawn in various places, with instrumental performances, all brought together by the magic of a laptop; one of the performers is Tomáš Dvořák, the clarinettist and composer responsible (as Floex) for the Machinarium and Samorost soundtracks. Kirin J. Callinan I discovered through his collaboration with Alex Cameron, another singer who likes to inhabit different characters, though without experimenting so recklessly with his trousers. Here’s the collaboration. It should win Eurovision and bring about world peace.

Another connection is that they both repay repeat listening. With Hidden Orchestra perhaps this is obvious: some of the tracks are quite long; they’re richly textured; the way the field recordings blends into and works with the instrumental music is worth thought. (I found myself thinking about how the birdsong somehow starts to seem melancholy in conjunction with the human music – for its innocence, for the damage we might do it, for the consciousness of fragility and loss that we bring to this sound that is so much more ancient than we are, for how we strain to connect with the natural world around us). But with Kirin J. Callinan too I find there’s a lot of substance behind the brashness. As I keep listening, the funny tracks don’t stop being funny, and the difficult or initially ugly tracks (thinking here especially of “Down 2 Hang”) turn out to have powerful stories to tell and music that helps to tell it. And his lyric writing is remarkably good, as witness this bonkers piece of rhyming from “Song About Drugs”: “wrapped up in plastic, thrown down the stairs / feeling fantastic…” But approach his Instagram account with caution.


Door (revised)

[This is a revision of the story I posted a week ago. The main changes are to the end.]


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Once upon a time there was a boy who had a little door in his belly that he could put things inside. He was embarrassed about it and didn’t tell anyone, even his parents. He still ate food as normal but sometimes he knew he needed something for the door. Usually it was only something small. Once he placed the thing inside, It might disappear, or it might change, or it might wait. The boy worried about being so strange and he didn’t want to be laughed at, but he had to accept this was how it was for the present.

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