Monday, February 17, 2014

Fear and Loathing in Danzig

From an account by a French tourist, written in 1663.
We were on the point of leaving, when a man some six feet tall came in. He had a clean shaven face, and eyes set in deep folds and wrinkles. It was a Polish nobleman in the company of some fifteen retainers… As soon as he saw us, he came over with a declarations of friendship, shaking our hands and pressing us to accept his expression of respect and chivalry… He said he was ill, and that he had been looking for two weeks for someone who might confirm his belief that debauchery was a better cure than dieting… After we had consumed some fifteen or sixteen tumblers, my colleague offered him his pipe…. He thrust the bowl into his mouth, drawing the full draught of burning smoke straight into his stomach… He said that tobacco should be drunk not blown into the air and wasted… Suddenly, he rushed from the table and, seizing a lighted candelabra started to bang his head on the wall and writhe around on the floor. He was foaming at the mouth like a bull, and looked as if the fury would kill him… But then a little vomiting made him more presentable… Next he staggered blindly in my direction, smothered me with passionate kisses, and announced that he would give me one of his daughters in marriage, together with ten thousand pounds and two hundred serfs. In honour of the forthcoming marriage, we drank toast after toast… Then I looked around and saw that he was stretched out on his back once more, but calling for wine and urging us to drink to the confusion of the Turk and the ruin of the Ottoman Empire. .. By now he had assured me that I was really a Pole, and that I ought to dress like one. Starting with his crimson cloak, fastened with sculpted silver pins, he began to strip, and to dress me up from head to toe in his own clothes. Unbuckling his sabre, he ordered me to kiss it and fastened it to my side, declaring that Poland owed all her Freedom to it… Meanwhile, I was desperately planning my escape.
Quoted in God's Playground: A History of Poland, vol 1. by Norman Davies.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Shrewsbury Park, early 1990s

This story is from way back in the mists of time, when my hair was blond and my clothes brightly coloured. The memory has been swirled around like a piece of sea glass, smoothed and softened by the action of numerous forgettings. These days it's little more than the smell of leaf-mould and wet autumn woodland, a few still images, and a sense of something lost.

There was an area of half-forested parkland near the house where I grew up. I'm not sure whether it was laid out intentionally, or if it was just a patch of the hill that was too steep and unstable to build on. It had Victorian iron railings along the side near my house and half a rather grand gateway. By the time of my childhood the left-hand gatepost was long gone, along with most of the rest of the railing --  lost to vandals I suppose, or weather, or a wartime scrap-metal drive.  Elsewhere, nature had quietly and patiently undone the carefully imposed Victorian order of the place. Tree roots snaked across stone paths and entwined themselves around long-extinguished gaslamps, tufts of grass levered apart paving slabs, and fallen leaves buried what remained. In the winter small streams ran down the hill and where they scoured away the earth you could see the layers than underpinned the crumbling pathways -- tarmac over concrete over bricks and logs and gravel.

The downhill side of the park was, curiously, home to feral cabbages and wild turnips, remnants of a wartime victory garden that had fallen into disuse. The uphill side comprised two open fields, where children played lopsided games of football against the steep slopes and the hilltop winds. Between these two areas was a small patch of woodland, probably less than an acre in size. This was my favourite part of the park growing up, a place where enormous puddles sucked the bright red wellingtons right off my feet and squirrels watched me from bizarre angles, crouched halfway up a tree trunk or on the underside of a branch.

I'm sure that every square inch of that little park was trodden by dozens of dog-walkers, bored teenagers and curious children every week, but to me it was somewhere exotic and unexplored. I can remember squeezing through gaps in the dense undergrowth to find odd little clearings and gullies, convinced that I was the first person to set foot there in decades, perhaps ever. The fact that I was never more than 10 metres from the footpath where my mother stood waiting didn't affect my enjoyment one bit. I remember one summer, coming across a sort of natural dome of holly under a great big willow tree deep in the bushes away from the paths. Inside there was a collection of plastic garden chairs around the remains of a small campfire, a sodden futon, and a load of empty beer cans. To me, it was like finding some kind of lost city deep in the jungle.

On the day that sticks in my memory, I was following one of the old fences that wound through the woodland, tracing the route of some long-forgotten footpath. For most of its length the fence was no more than a line of rotten wooden staves held together with baling wire -- I expect that if you were to go back there today there would be nothing left expect for a few strands of rusted metal half-buried in the earth.  There was one point, however, where the fence was interrupted by a large metal gate, the kind people use to close off car-parks and private roads. I have no idea how long it had been there -- the path it spanned was barely wide enough for two people to walk down side-by-side -- but it was still in good condition. On either end of the gate was a box-steel post, hollow and open at the top.

As a approached this gate, I heard a faint squeaking noise, and then a tiny brown bird darted out and disappeared into the trees. Holding my breath and thinking in whispers, I tiptoed up to the post and looked down into it. At about the height that the mounting bolts for the gate went through the box-steel, there was a little birds nest, made from twigs and bits of carrier bags. The nest held three miniscule birds, just big mouths really, bundled together in a little ball.

I knew that disturbing a bird's nest was a naughty thing to do, so I darted back from the post and hid behind a tree. I waited for what felt like ages to my hyperactive and impatient little-boy-brain in the hope that the mother bird would come back to the nest, but she didn't show. I became worried that perhaps I'd scared her off and ran back to my mum.

I don't recall if I told her what I had seen or not, I probably did. I was really excited. Baby birds! Like on the wildlife shows! We tramped around the park for a little longer before heading home for lunch.
I didn't get to go back to the park for another week. When the weekend finally rolled around, I pestered my mum to take me out for a walk. I picked way way along the paths, looking for the rotting fence. It was late spring, and the plants were getting thicker and greener by the day, it took me quite a long time to find it.

Once again, I walked gingerly up to the gatepost, expecting to be dive-bombed by an angry mother-bird at any moment. She didn't seem to be around this time, and the nest was oddly quiet. I couldn't hear the twittering. I stood up on tiptoes and looked down into the post.

It took me a few seconds to realise what I was looking at. I glanced around, checking to make sure this was the right spot. It definitely was. Where the nest had been -- where the nest still was -- there was a brick. It was one of the mouldering, broken ones from the path nearby. Someone had shoved it into the hollow post, crushing the little nest and its tiny inhabitants.

I backed away slowly, making a sort of whimpering sound. Oddly, for a child prone to theatrical extremes of emotion, I didn't cry. This was, I figured, my fault somehow. It seemed inevitable, just like the way that the bigger boys at school were always breaking my lego castles or scribbling on my drawings. I'd gotten too excited, and the bigger boys had ruined everything.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Missing hours

I don't remember when exactly this happened. I was seventeen or eighteen, I think. Still at school, doing my a-levels, and living with my parents. I remember that it was a day much like this one  -- a cold, sodden day on the dreary side of Christmas. One of my teachers was off sick, so I'd been home since about 2pm. The house was empty and silent aside from the odd knocking noise or crack or creak. I was sitting on the end of my bed, reading a book or doing some homework, I don't remember exactly. It was boring. I guess I fell asleep.

I had a strange, incoherent dream peppered with odd details that seemed to hint at some awareness of the world around me. Crows bellowed in my face and doorbells rang, my arm went numb. After some indeterminate amount of time, it all exploded with sharp, deafening noise. I don't know what the noise was, I later decided that it must have been the phone ringing, but with my mind mostly asleep it was just formless sound. Accompanied by this piercing klaxon soundtrack the dream became even stranger and more distorted. I started feeling panicky and trapped. I had the strange feeling that comes from screaming in a dream and, in some muffled and distant way, hearing your own voice echoing in your ears.


I was standing in the kitchen. My hair was disheveled and my clothes were all rumpled and askew. For a moment there was just complete blankness. My legs ached and my head hurt. I looked at the light from next door's patio and wondered why I was standing in the dark. I switched the lights on over the countertop and glanced up at the clock.


I was up early today.

I pulled open the cupboard and took down the box of cereal. There wasn't any milk so I just sat at the kitchen table eating a dry, crusty brick of weatabix and gulping at a glass of water. It was odd that my parents weren't up yet. I couldn't even hear the faint drone of their clock radio.

Having decided that dry weatabix was, in fact, a terrible idea, I got up and looked around for my bag. I eventually found it in my bedroom, in the attic. My school books were scattered across my desk, my homework half done. I must have fallen asleep mid-way through. While I was gathering up my books and wondering why no-one had woken me up for dinner, I started to get the unsettling feeling that something wasn't right. My bedsheets were tangled and knotted, bunched into a ball at the foot of the bed. Try as I might, I couldn't actually remember getting up or getting dressed. In fact, come to think of it, wasn't I wearing these clothes yesterday?

I stood there for a while, trying to decide whether to change into a fresh shirt. ultimately my laziness triumphed over my admittedly feeble sense of propriety, and I walked back downstairs. On the first floor landing I stopped and poked the door to my parents' bedroom open with my foot.

The room was empty. For a moment I thought that perhaps they'd gotten up and gone downstairs while I was in my room, but I'd heard nothing and could hear nothing still. Sure enough it was just as empty downstairs as it had been before.

I was now very confused. I must have forgotten something. Perhaps dad had a meeting and mum had to go into work early? I couldn't remember anything being mentioned but, then again, I couldn't remember very much at all. Was I drunk?

I figured these mysteries could wait until later, and heaved my bag onto my shoulder. I popped in my headphones and opened the front door. It's English Literature this morning isn't it, Ms Long still pushing us through Dr Faustus.


I was fumbling with my keys, trying to lock the front door when my little sister tapped me on the shoulder. She was holding a bag of shopping. Mum was standing behind her. She asked where I was going this evening. I stared blankly at her for a good few seconds trying to figure out why she'd gone shopping at six o'clock in the morning before it clicked into place.


I still think of that day when I'm asked how long it's been since my last siezure. If I'm only counting the grand mal monsters -- the ones where my body jerks and flails like a broken robot or the hero of a really glitchy videogame -- then I've been seizure free since I was fourteen. I know, however, that there are other ways that the wires can cross.