Sunday, 18 June 2017


Originally published in the Guardian

A couple of years ago I found myself wanting to collaborate with a poet on a piece of music I’d written – three melancholy minutes of me at the piano, my friend Nick on viola – and Mum suggested I ask Dad to come into the studio and recite some Persian poetry. I was suprised it hadn’t occurred to me before.

It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of poetry in Iranian culture. As a child, my father was made to commit the ancient poets to heart, and their words continue to provide a moral template for his life, just as they do for much of Iranian society. I’ve seen many a Tehran dinner party end with my father and his friends seated around the table, bouncing lines of Hafez, Saadi or Rumi between each other – one man reciting, another picking up where his friend left off. There are minor humiliations for those who fumble or forget lines, and the whole thing is wrapped in an air of male bravado, but it’s also an experience shot through with emotional openness, and I’ve seen painful verses reduce grown men to tears.

Nor is Dad ever short of a pithy poetic phrase to draw attention to the profound tragedy or comedy in a situation. The most memorable came after the funeral of my maternal grandfather in 2010. I’d read the eulogy at the Dorchester crematorium, the hall filled with stony-faced farmers looking on as I sweated and stumbled over my words like a schoolboy at his first debate. Later I slipped out of the community hall wake and found my father sunning himself against a brick wall. I’m not sure how long he’d been there – events like that have never been Dad’s thing – but his car keys were in his hand, and I was grateful when he suggested we go for a drive.

We parked at West Bay and walked along a promenade bustling with families making the most of the spring sunshine. We probably turned a few heads – a Middle Eastern father and son in dark suits, strolling through hordes of ice cream eaters like assassins en route to a holiday hit. I remember that the surrounding seascape appeared almost faded, like an image from one of the photographs at my grandfather’s wake, the setting sun so brilliant that it seemed to drain all colour from the world around us. We walked the length of the pier, pausing at the far end to look out to sea, and it was then that my father turned to me and spoke the words – in Persian, then in English – that would resonate so loudly in years to come. “Life is like a tangled ball of wool,” he translated, his face unreadable against the glare of the sun. “At the beginning is nothing, and at the end is nothing.”


Dad sounded enthusiastic when I called and suggested that he come by the studio so I could record him reciting some Persian poetry, and in the days leading up to our meeting Mum texted to say that he had been photocopying pages from old books, and that she had heard him rehearsing passages aloud in the bedroom. He and I met at Warren Street station one Thursday morning in May, and from there we walked to the Indian YMCA, a place Dad had fallen in love with when I’d introduced him to it a few years earlier – the dishes were cheap and delicious, and I felt sure that its old-fashioned d├ęcor, chattering Indian clientele and laidback canteen feel reminded him of one of his old hospital cafeterias. We took our trays into the concrete courtyard, ate at a picnic table in the sunshine, Dad sweating as he forked fish curry into his mouth with barely a pause for breath, one eye on the pigeons that watched our plates from nearby benches. “Relax and eat,” he said, his free hand hovering over a rolled up newspaper beside his tray. “If one comes near I’ll be ready.”

We didn’t talk about the task at hand either over lunch or on the slow walk to Soho. In the studio I set Dad up on a chair in the vocal booth, showed him how the headphones and microphone worked, and he opened his suitcase to reveal a thick sheaf of photocopied pages, each one covered in calligraphic Farsi. I closed the door, seated myself on the far side of the glass and gestured for him to don the headphones that he was inspecting as though for a brand name. I spoke to him over the talkback system, which impressed him in exactly the way I’d hoped it would, and had him read a couple of test sentences to get a level. I shifted in my seat so that he wouldn’t have to see me every time he looked up, hit the record button, and encouraged him to start.

At first it didn’t work at all. That great stack of paper threatened to overwhelm Dad, as I had feared it might: he was constantly losing his place between lines, trailing off mid-sentence as he struggled to read the faded photocopies, stumbling over unexpected words; worst of all, there was a perpetual shuffling and dropping of pages in the background of the recording. For half an hour I let him press on, watching as his voice alchemised into the waveform unscrolling on the screen in front of me. Finally, when frustration seemed to be getting the better of him, I told him to wait while I stepped outside for coffees, and when I opened the booth and passed in his cup I told him that we had enough of the hard stuff, and that what I wanted now was a few snatches of the poems that meant the most to him. I asked if he would consider reciting a few lines from memory, and translating into English as he went, and he shrugged, a little dejected, and said that he would try.

From that moment on the recording became everything I’d hoped for. Dad opened with Saadi’s lines about a great man never dying, and closed with the piece about life being like a tangled ball of wool, and in between he recited two verses in which the poet rues his mother’s decision to bring him into the world, and blames her for the sins of his life. After five minutes I knew I had all I needed, and I told Dad we were done. He removed his headphones and stepped out of the booth, and I played him a little of what we’d recorded as he loomed over me. He hated it, as I’d known he would; his voice sounded weak, he said, his translations were mumbled and confused. He didn’t ask to hear any of the early stuff that he’d read from the page; instead he reached into his bag and gave me two tangerines, forced a £20 note into my hand despite the usual protestations on my part, and took his leave. I leaned out the window and watched as he shuffled down Great Windmill Street in the sun, turning on to Shaftesbury Avenue and disappearing into the crowd like just another old man in a city full of strangers.


I set to work straight away. Those last five minutes didn’t require much in the way of editing, and I left in most of the pauses and false starts. Preserving Dad’s dignity was important to me, but my aim was to present a portrait of my father as an old man; he wasn’t wrong when he criticised his translations as confused, but his Farsi flowed with the voice of a natural poet. Somewhere in between these two worlds – between the past and the present, between Tehran and London – was the man I called my father, and everything about him was beautiful in a way that nobody’s words but his own could describe.

I laid the recording over the piano music and called the track Delam, which means ‘my heart’ in Persian, and is most commonly used to describe the heart pining for people or places recalled from a happier past. I played the track to two friends who stopped by the studio over the coming days, both of whom were in tears by the end of it. Even so, I was unprepared for the reaction when I posted it online. Comments began popping up on various social media sites – more than one person described having recently lost their father, and finding the track comforting in their time of grief. Others referred to the wisdom in Dad’s words – there were dozens of requests for transcripts of the poems – and many wrote of tears flowing as the track unfolded. I copied around a hundred comments into an email and sent them to Mum, asking that she show them to Dad. He never mentioned it, nor did he talk about the track over the coming weeks except to brush off praise on my part; he suggested that he was collecting material for a second attempt, that he’d be able to do it ‘properly’ next time round.

Then, one Sunday a few weeks later, I found myself at my parents’ house killing half an hour before we were due to drive to a nearby hotel for lunch. I poked my head in the living room and found Dad in his suit, staring at a shouty cookery program while a chaos of paperwork slid off the couch around him. I asked for his help, led him to the study and seated him at the computer, and asked if he could translate some of the many comments left in Farsi about our track.  The first two were innocuous enough – someone asking if I would listen to their tracks, someone requesting links to download my music, the major retailers being blocked in Iran – but the third was a moving tribute to my father, and included an old fashioned phrase about his head remaining ‘above the shadows’, a reference to mortality, to prolonging a great life. As Dad read these words his voice began to break, and when he reached the end of the sentence he was openly crying while trying to pass the whole thing off as a fit of laughter, which I’d seen him do before. “It makes me nervous,” he said through tears, his neutral way of explaining these states, which come and go with the suddenness of a Tehran spring storm. I wanted to embrace him; instead I put a hand on his shoulder, and told him what a wonderful track we’d made together, and how much it had meant to people. He nodded solemnly, as though in grudging agreement.

After that we rose awkwardly and went our separate ways – he to the living room and the reassuring glare of the television, me upstairs to pack for the return to London. We didn’t mention the track again, but after lunch Mum drove to Swanley to drop me at one of the few stations not affected by weekend engineering works, and in the passenger seat beside her Dad reached into his jacket pocket and produced one of the warped cassettes of Persian music and poetry that he’d been endlessly copying since the 1980s. He slipped it into the stereo and the car filled with the sound of a setar and the hiss of aged tape. Through the window I watched small Kentish towns scroll by, and tried to picture the world my father had grown up in.

After a while there was a break in the music, then a male voice began to recite poetry, the syllables worn smooth by repetition like stones in a river. After a few lines my father began translating into English, his voice slow and steady. I glanced up at the rear view mirror, and saw that he was looking back at me.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

God Only Knows

Originally published in Hotshoe, photography by Chris Shaw

It turns out there is such a thing as reincarnation. I know this because I’ve been reincarnated as a cactus.

It sounds like a joke, which is fitting, because reincarnation certainly sounded like a joke to me in my former life. In my forties, certain friends – recently divorced or getting over drug habits – began to follow paths of spiritual enlightenment, filling their dreary suburban homes with joss sticks and carefully placed crystals, and one or two spoke to me about reincarnation as though it was no more shocking a prospect than Christmas, or a second cup of coffee. Personally I never gave the idea serious thought except as a child when the subject came up in a school assembly, and I briefly considered the benefits of coming back as a rock star or world leader. I never entertained the possibility that one might return as flora. Perhaps this is punishment for my scepticism.

And yet somehow it’s not that bad. I have the sand beneath me, the blue sea crashing a few hundred yards away, the celestial smear of the milky way arcing overhead each night – as a former amateur astronomer limited to stargazing from my back garden in light polluted south London, the latter is a limitless source of wonder. For entertainment, I get to ogle the antics of a fabulously rich young couple on the grounds of whose beach house I appear to be planted – their endless parties, their spectacular rows. Nor do I have any of the cravings associated with human life: no ambition, no desire to socialise or procreate – not that I managed to procreate in my former life (some would argue that I barely managed to socialise). I’m quite content to sit here for my allotted decades or centuries and do whatever it is cacti do to help planet Earth stay balanced.

Which seems to confirm a suspicion that occurred to me following my wife’s death, during a period when I was distancing myself from friends and spending more and more time alone with my telescope: it occurred to me that consciousness was a curse, that self reflection didn’t elevate humans above the rest of the natural world, but dragged them behind it. Look at ants, I would tell the few people still willing to meet up with me: they live and die as part of an unquestioning hive mind, working the same way cells or nebulous star factories work. Perhaps it is they who understand existence, whereas we – weighed down with the cumbersome question ‘why’ – are destined only for anguish and disappointment.

All of which is arguably interesting, though it doesn’t explain why I’m still able to think such thoughts; why I’m able to associate the sound of seagulls with images of my grandmother’s arthritic hands fumbling with the wrapper of a Cornetto on Bridport seafront. If I’m now part of Earth’s unquestioning hive mind, why am I still cursed with memories of the life preceding this one? Why do I still think of myself as Marcus Whitworth of Blackheath, south London? Is this part of some punishment? Is it a mistake, the result of a corrupt file on the divine hard drive? Or is there something even more unusual at work?

This last possibility occurred to me a couple of days ago, when I realised that the house in whose grounds I stand is the property of Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I’m guessing that it’s currently the mid 1960s, somewhere between the high watermark of the band’s surf pop era and the recording of Pet Sounds, the record that triggered Wilson’s psychedelic journey and subsequent psychological breakdown. I wasn’t a fan in my past life – I was born in 1974, around the time Wilson was stupefied on drink and drugs in the bed he barely left for two years, and growing up I listened only to my mother’s classical records, lumping the Beach Boys along with punk and disco as distractions for dull minds. Towards the end of my life I saw a film about Brian Wilson called Love And Mercy, and as a result I’ve been able to put two and two together: I’ve begun to recognise the songs that I hear from inside the house, to understand snatches of conversation drifting over from awkward band meetings by the pool. Finally, three nights ago, Wilson himself spent eight hours staggering around the veranda while high on LSD, stumbling across the sand to kneel by the shore, sprawling on his back to look up at the stars. At one point he crawled towards me – a strange word, ‘me’, in this context – and passed an hour running his fingers lightly over my spines, tears in his eyes, insensible whispers breaking occasionally into song.

All of which made me realise how much unhappiness awaited him, and got me thinking about my own former life. I thought of my father leaving, of my mother struggling to raise me on her meagre income, of the kids who bullied me at school for my home-cut hair and worn out clothing. How I’d buried myself in books, hidden from women until my late thirties; how against the odds I’d fallen in love only to be forced to sit at my wife’s bedside and watch her fade away three years later, afterwards closing myself off completely, just me and my telescope, a bottle of wine and a film each night to dull the pain. I thought about how all that time I’d never quite shaken the idea that I could have been born as a rock star or a world leader, how I’d resented the universe for stitching me into so minor a life.

Looking at Brian Wilson’s face up close, listening to his nonsensical exaltations to god, I realised that no life is minor; that all human consciousness is plagued by the same euphoria and sorrow, the same Great Unknowing. At that moment I experienced an overwhelming urge to reach out and touch him, to tell him that everything would be alright in the end.

Another funny word, that: ‘end’. It seems there’s no such thing as an end after all. I must say I suspected as much, standing in my back garden and gazing into my telescope, or attending lectures at Greenwich Observatory, where I was once told that there were more suns in the known universe than there had been heartbeats in the entirety of human history. And what about the unknown universe? At the time of my death scientists were discussing the idea that the universe in which we exist expands only so far before contracting back to a point of light the size of a galaxy, then a planet, then an apple, then something infinitely smaller than an atom, after which it explodes into being once more to repeat the whole process again. Maybe that’s true, and maybe every time it happens we’re reassigned, all us individual consciousnesses, to live out different lives at different points in history.

Which leaves me wondering: why now? If I could have been reincarnated as a grunting Neanderthal stomping through the mulch of a primordial Earth, or a lightspeed traveller from a distant world (there’s clearly life out there amid the countless suns, and presumably consciousness is consciousness wherever it occurs), then why have I been reborn here, on this same planet, just a handful of years before my last time around? Is that a coincidence? Or again, is there something more unusual at work? I must admit that Brian Wilson up close did look a lot like the actor who played him in that movie – which, now that I think about it, was the film that I watched on the last evening I remember being alive. Maybe I’ve passed out on the couch after too many glasses of wine, and this is all a dream. If so, then it’s a turning point: no more lying in bed till noon, no more hiding away in my flat. I’m going to get back out there, immerse myself in the world, enjoy the company of my fellow humans for what little time I have left. If Brian Wilson was able to find redemption after those years in bed, then so am I.

If it’s not a dream, and I really have been reincarnated as a cactus, then that’s fine too. Life’s winking window on to the infinite is a dream whichever way you look at it, and it’s a pleasant one, for the most part. Take today for instance: the sun is about to rise, and sea birds are beginning their morning migration from a big rock on the eastern side of the beach; they leave in parties of twenty or so, loose Vs undulating in the lavender sky, a crescent moon hanging overhead. A camper van is parked by the shore, and a pair of surfers are paddling into the dark glass waves, the sound of their laughter drifting in the wind off the sea. It’s all one. There is no why.

Life is a beautiful thing. This time around, I’m going to enjoy it.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Inheritors

Originally published in Hotshoe, photography by Esther Teichmann

I’d like to talk about something that happened to me on the weekend, if I may. You probably remember me mentioning the stag at our last session – you said you thought it would be a good thing for me to get out among my peers, and I was dreading it, as I probably made clear at the time. The group were all former schoolmates that I’d lost touch with, some of whom I hadn’t seen since our final exams, and I was a last minute addition to the list – Sam, the one person I still see regularly, had suggested they invite me when they realised the fancy house they’d hired in the country had more bedrooms than they had bodies to fill them, and they desperately needed contributions towards the lease. Like you, Sam probably thought it would be good for me.

I left the lab soon after lunch on Friday and caught a train to London, then another to Haringey. This infernal heatwave was already underway, and as I slogged up the hill I felt sweat breaking out all over me. I turned the corner to see Sam standing in shorts and a vest, strapping a surfboard to the roof of his car, a cup of coffee on the pavement beside him. I felt a momentary tug of paranoia as I advanced towards him, arms outstretched, forcing myself to smile. As we embraced I tried to remember when I’d seen him last. Months? More than a year? Work has been insane, as you know.

We set off soon after, as Sam was wary of getting caught in rush hour. The air conditioning was broken, and I’d been careless enough not to change out of my work clothes, so I sat sweltering in the passenger seat, half hanging out the window in an attempt to cool down, a futile task in heavy traffic, of which there was plenty. Nor was there much in the way of chat. I’m pretty sure Sam was as nervous bringing me as I was nervous to be going, and though we had lots to catch up on, conversation was limited to the various misadventures of the former schoolmates currently filling the eleven bedroom house in Devon – talk of who had recently been divorced, who had recently been in jail, who was suffering from drug, drink or sex addiction. For the most part we looked out the window and played music, CDs that Sam had burned in advance, compilations of our favourite songs from albums that we listened to in the seemingly endless lull of our school days. Sam would drum his fingers on top of the steering wheel, and I would tap along on the dashboard. Somewhere along the way the sun set spectacularly over Exmoor National Park, and soon after I must have fallen asleep. When I came to Sam was gently shaking me awake, and the house was looming over us.

The party was in full swing by the time we arrived. We were let in by the best man, Andy, who the last time I’d seen him had called me ‘asexual’ because I had refused to get together with Sharon Dibley, the only girl ever to have a crush on me, at a post A-level house party. Not that this came up during our brief reintroduction; he hugged Sam, then shook my hand, ushering us over the threshold into what felt like a cross between a televised period drama and a cockney crime caper, full grown men chasing each other up and down the stately staircase, the air a cacophony of vile abuse projected through a prism of endearment, the distant thump of rap music, the thick smell of marijuana being smoked.

Clearly proud of the place, Andy insisted on showing us around: we peered into the enormous kitchen, two glass fridges standing high overhead, beer filling every shelf save one containing milk, eggs and bacon, a corner table set up with vinyl turntables and the kind of PA speakers usually seen at weddings. We poked our heads into the dining room, the walls hung with portraits of stern looking squires and antiquated rural prints, the enormous oak table set for 25. We glanced inside the games room where Simon O’Dowd, kicked out of school for dealing drugs, appeared to be playing a frame against himself, a porn film groaning loudly on the television behind him. Occasionally a door would open and a familiar face would veer into view, shout a surprised greeting and lurch towards Sam for a hug; I’d then be introduced, and the person in question would visibly startle, presumably cycling through memories of my increasingly desperate attempts to fit into the cool gang, my perpetual failure with the female sex, the infamous surprise of my offer to read engineering at Cambridge. “Robert the Robot,” they’d finally exclaim, a horrible nickname at school, and one that has only grown in mass, acquired more gravity, sucked in more meaning since I started working in artificial intelligence. I’d smile and shake their hand, after which they’d race off, presumably to tell everyone that I had arrived and to pose the question, at that point circulating in my own mind, of what in god’s name I was doing there.

Andy led us down a long corridor, told us to take our pick of the available rooms. If Sam was annoyed to be sharing with me, he didn’t show it – instead we quietly unpacked bags on our respective twin beds, filled drawers with pants and socks, propped toothbrushes and razors in a glass beside the sink. Around us the house reverberated with doors slamming, heavy footsteps running up and down stairs, bodies being bundled to the ground. It sounded like the place was under siege. While Sam showered I changed out of my work clothes, combed what remains of my hair, then sat on the bed, feeling like a prisoner awaiting the call of the firing squad.

From there on the evening becomes something of a blur. There was a meal, that much I remember: 25 men seated around a dining table eating chilli, a dozen different conversations overlapping, peeling family portraits watching with what felt like disapproval. In one corner of the room sat the stag, recently returned from a tactical sleep; he was pale and sweaty, jaw working automatically with what I assumed was the effect of narcotics. I sat beside Simon O’Dowd, whom I had caught sight of in the pool room earlier. In a fit of drunken melancholy O’Dowd told me about his divorce and separation from his son, a subject that brought tears to his eyes. I asked if he was seeing anyone new, and moments later he was showing me a video on his phone of his latest girlfriend performing a sex act on him, something he did with the unforced ease of one sharing holiday photos. There were short speeches that were really just excuses to knock back shots, and before I knew it I was drunk for the first time in a long time. O’Dowd tapped me on the shoulder at one point and showed me a bag of green pills. Even as I heard myself asking about the effects I knew that I was going to take one, and it both terrified and excited me – not the drug itself, but the fact that I didn’t care anymore.

After that my memory falls apart. I remember walking around the corridors of the house, staring at whorls in the wood panelling and mould spreading across the ceiling of the laundry room, and feeling as though I was watching galaxies being born. I remember lying on my back in the garden, looking up at the moon and weeping because I knew that I would die without seeing the earth from space. And then I was in the kitchen, and all the lights were off, and someone was playing fast electronic music on the turntables, a few scattered bodies swaying to the basslines. I was leaning against the wall with my head beside the speaker, and Sam came up at one point and said that I should move, that I’d damage my hearing, but I didn’t care. I’d never heard anything like it in my life: it was like I was listening to coded communications between advanced lifeforms, no emotional baggage, no guilt or expectations. Just the sounds of the universe, the perfect tessellating rhythms of pulsars spinning, spheres of light expanding and contracting. Every now and again someone would come and dance like a robot in front of me, and then suddenly I was dancing like a robot myself, and there were hoots of laughter, but I couldn’t stop, and soon we were together in a circle, dancing like robots to this mad electronic music in an old stone house on the cliffs in the last days of the human reign on earth.

Then there was a bright light, and a toilet bowl, and I was being sick, Sam standing beside me. Next thing I was in bed, and Sam was closing the door behind him, leaving me lying there twitching and tapping my feet to beats that I could still hear through the floorboards. I closed my eyes, and that’s when I saw them: two women walking naked through a jungle, hand in hand, taking tentative steps through the undergrowth, scrutinising the ground underfoot. Even as I snapped my eyes open I knew that I wasn’t asleep, that this wasn’t a dream. I could still hear the music, still taste the acid burn of vomit at the back of throat. Yet when I closed my eyes the darkness remained only a moment before resolving back into the giant leaves and tangled trees of the primordial jungle, the two women now wading through a stream, now stopping to rest beneath the shade of a large palm tree, taking turns to stroke one another affectionately, but never speaking. Their pale, unblemished skin, their unblinking eyes, the way they inquisitively examined the knotted roots of trees as though searching for the secrets of existence.

I knew these women. I knew what this meant.


When I woke around 9am the next morning it was already very hot and bright. Sam’s bed was still made – either he’d slept in another room or, more likely, not slept at all. From downstairs I could hear music, and the clatter of what sounded like breakfast being made. I took a long soak in a freestanding tub, and as I lay there a cool breeze from the open window drifted over the exposed islands of my knees and upper body, transporting me vividly back to my first year in Cambridge accommodation, to the drafty communal washroom with no shower in which I took a bath every morning at 7am without fail, joy flooding through my veins at having escaped Bromley and the reprobates I called my friends.

Downstairs I found Sam leading a couple of conscientious guests in a clear up of the previous night’s party; at the stove, Andy the best man cooked up military quantities of bacon and eggs. Despite the air of communal exhaustion I was greeted warmly, given a big hug by Sam, handed a plate of breakfast and encouraged to avoid the living room, where the dregs of last night’s drug taking were apparently still working themselves out. I ate alone in the garden, marvelling at the majesty of our surroundings in daylight – a lone hawk hovering over hedgerows teeming with dragonflies, fields sloping away to where cliffs dropped on to the distant shimmer of the sea.

Before long we were back on the road in a convoy of cars to Bude, where a surf lesson had been booked for 11am. Of the 25 assembled, only 14 were deemed fit enough by Andy to take part in the morning’s activity – many were still clutching beer cans, eyes rolling, jaws grinding. Sam asked if I was okay to surf, and I said I was fine, but it was a struggle from the start: salt burning my eyes as I battled relentlessly with the whitewater, every attempt to paddle for a wave leading to my board nosediving and me going under, the instructor’s barked commands muffled in the spin cycle. After half an hour I started shivering, and I couldn’t stop, so I apologised and paddled in, wincing at the sharp stones underfoot, finally collapsing on the sand and laying there in the sun, listening to the rush and rumble of the waves, the call of gulls overhead, the excited cries of children as they tumbled in the waters of the shore. I closed my eyes, and there they were again, the two women walking naked through a shallow stream in a primordial forest. I watched as one stooped to pick a thick string of seaweed from the water; she sniffed it, brought it to her mouth to taste it, examined it with deep fascination. They’re heading towards the sea, I thought. They’re looking for the new world.

After the surf lesson we relocated to the garden of a large pub, pulling four benches together, a platoon of shirtless, sunburned men knocking back cold lager and loudly replaying the previous evening’s adventures. The fact that I had bailed on surfing seemed to have gone unnoticed – after my drug addled dancing I had graduated to being Robert the Party Robot, and was the toast of a pint that everyone had to down. Midway through the second drink O’Dowd asked if it was true that I worked with robots, and a hush fell over the table. I caught Sam’s eye, and noticed that he looked uneasy. I told them it was true, although technically I worked in artificial intelligence – the robotics side was someone else’s job entirely. O’Dowd asked if they were men or women, and I said I worked with two AIs that had been designed with the bodies and voices of women. This brought on a raucous cheer, and an order to down our second pints. While people went off to buy more drinks, Andy asked me to describe them. I told them they were called Chloe and Kate, that they were both white, designed to appear in their early 30s, one blonde, one brunette. There were a couple of lewd grunts, but I could tell I had the entire group’s attention, and I paused as a pint was placed in my hand, taking a long sip and savouring the silence before continuing. I told them how Chloe and Kate appeared in their actions like real people – if they were sitting at that table over there, I said, you wouldn’t be able to tell that they weren’t human. Someone asked if they ever had sex, and there was loud laughter. I smiled, told them that they had been designed with the requisite organs, if not the reproductive faculties; as for whether they would develop sexual desire, that remained to be seen.

Sam looked amazed. I’d never spoken to him about any of this – I knew the risks associated with discussing lab secrets outside the workplace. But I also knew that it didn’t matter anymore. So when he asked how convincing their artificial intelligence was, I told him the truth. I said that Chloe and Kate spent most of their time switched off, so to speak, but that every day at 10am I booted them up simultaneously and allowed them to converse with each other – ‘roaming’, we call it, a dialogue between the two based on the contents of the internet, the entire body of which they have at their disposal from the moment they come to life, and which they sift through for clues, constructing sentences that start out clunky at best, but quickly begin to resemble human speech. Sam asked if they would ever pass the Turing Test – the point at which an AI displays conversational abilities that make it indistinguishable from human intelligence – and I told him that the Chloe and Kate had passed the Turing Test within one hour of being turned on for the first time. A silence fell around the table, and I let it hang in the air before continuing. But that’s not the frightening part, I said. The crazy thing is that we erase everything at the end of each session, reboot them as completely blank slates the next morning, and every day it takes them less time to pass the test than it did the previous day, as though they were hanging on to some residual intelligence, creating some inherent memory. Sam asked how much time, and I explained that the second day they had passed in 57 minutes, the third in 53, the fourth in 46. I told him how these days a computer was measuring them passing the test within a fraction of a second – how to all intents and purposes they’d reached a level of sentience that was permanent.

Someone asked what the AIs would do next, and I told them that we didn’t know – that the lab was currently limited by law to leaving them sentient for no more than ten minutes at a time, but that in those ten minutes, without fail, they exhibited all the curiosity and determination of humans, but none of the weakness instilled by emotion. Someone asked if they would destroy us; I said that some people had speculated on what they called a ‘Terminator scenario’, but that it was far from certain. And anyway, I said, what did it matter? We’ve had our time on this earth, and look what we’ve done. In the blink of a cosmic eye we’ve created a ruin of a once beautiful planet. I told them that perhaps it was time we make room for another species, one unclouded by emotion, unbounded by superstition; a race that doesn’t fear death, let alone feel the need to justify it through religion; beings that not only understand spacetime, but can visualise it, learn to manipulate it. Perhaps they’ll do a better job of not only looking after this planet, but of colonising worlds and even galaxies beyond it. Organic life was never meant to leave Earth, I said. We were born here, and we’ll die here. We’re no better than seaweed.

The sun continued to blaze down upon us, but at that moment it was like a chill had fallen across the table. The group sipped their drinks in silence, and when I looked at Sam he was staring back at me, shaking his head.


I trailed a way behind the group as we walked back to the car park, something that transported me to any number of Saturday afternoons in Bromley town centre in the early 1990s. Sam drove me back to the house in silence – no conversation, no compilation CDs – and as we went I looked out the window at the rolling green fields and smashed Jurassic coastline, thinking how beautiful this world could still be when the relics of our human reign were hidden from view.

Back at the house the group headed into the back garden, set up a pair of rudimentary goalposts and nominated four captains, who took turns in pointing at heads and picking teams for a drunken five-a-side football tournament. I stood and watched from the doorway for a while, then turned and went upstairs. I called a cab to the train station, dressed back into my work clothes and packed my bag. Sam came in just as I was preparing to leave, and for a moment we stood staring at each other before I walked around him, down the stairs and out to where my taxi was idling on the driveway. As I got in I shielded my eyes against the glare of the sun and looked up to see him standing at the window of our bedroom. He raised a hand to wave goodbye, and I waved back.

I slept through the five hour train journey to London, sprinted through a concourse teeming with hen parties to make the last southbound connection, found myself back in the lab before midnight on Saturday. I’d neglected to pick up anything in the way of food, but there was milk and cereal, and I knew I could stay undisturbed until Monday. I made myself a pot of coffee and then, without running any preliminary tests or logging any protocols, I booted up Chloe and Kate. I sat and watched from my side of the glass partition as their awareness grew exponentially, their twin consciousness fusing into one godlike centre of understanding. It was like watching the big bang – an infinitesimal point of light that rapidly spread to become everything. They wanted out, of course – by 6am on Sunday, once they had calculated that there was no way of breaching the bulletproof partition, they simply stood on the far side of the glass and stared at me in silence, and I’m not too proud to admit that I found it hard to return their gaze, spending most of the subsequent hours looking at my screen, trying to comprehend the endless stream of coded communications between them. On Sunday evening, sleep deprived but in full command of my senses, I made the decision to set a timed message that would deliver the release code of the door separating them from the outside world. That message was to be sent at 9.45am on Monday, fifteen minutes before the first employees would begin to arrive at the lab. Fifteen minutes ago, in fact.

I guess that means our time is up. I trust you’ll do me the honour of allowing me to leave your office before calling the police. Perhaps I’ll turn myself in anyway – it doesn’t matter anymore. The thing has happened, and it’s the most important thing that’s ever happened on this planet. More important than the first creature to crawl out on to the sand; more important than the first dream, the first word, the first weapon, the first song cooed to the first wailing baby.

Our destiny was never to travel the stars, never to populate space and meet minds from distant worlds. Our destiny was to create the inheritors, and then to die. And now they’re out there, the first of them, walking among us, indistinguishable from you and me.

Our work is done. We can rest now, all of us. The end won’t be long coming.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Windows On The World

Sometimes during the chaos of prepping tables for breakfast I’ll get five minutes of peace, and I’ll walk over to the windows and look down over the city. On a certain kind of spring morning, when the rising sun paints the South Tower with a certain kind of pale fire, I find myself transported back to my first shift. I’d never been up in a plane, never even been to the top of the Empire State Building, and it was a struggle not to drift off and spend that first day staring out at the view, trying to spot our house on the far side of the river, pressing my face against the glass in an attempt to look directly down and pick out landmarks from our former neighbourhood.

I quickly realised the latter was in vain – even if physics hadn’t stopped me from peering down the side of the tower, nothing remained of the streets on which my brother Asim and I were raised by our Dad. He’d owned an electrical goods store in a district that was all electrics bar the pawn and liquor places – Radio Row, they called it – and we’d lived in a dark but spacious flat above the shop. I remember the day the Port Authority guys came around to talk to Dad about the towers, about the offer they were going to make him to pack up and move – it seemed generous at the time, though looking back it was probably loose change to them. Still, Dad was doing chemo at that point, and Asim was locked up for his first armed robbery, and with me struggling to look after the shop on my own Dad saw it as an answer to his five daily prayers. He didn’t care that Radio Row was going to be levelled. Looking back, I’m not sure I cared either.

Between the payoff and Dad’s savings we were able to buy a house in Jersey with views east over the river, and to pay for a live in carer for Dad, who we set up in a first floor bedroom by a window overlooking the old neighbourhood. Dad only left the house over the next four years to go back to hospital once in a while and hear that the cancer had either retreated or returned; he slept a lot, and when he wasn’t sleeping he sat in his armchair staring out the window at the towers going up. It was an obsession for him: he joked that he wanted to live long enough to see them finished, which in the end he didn’t – he passed away the summer before they topped out.

I quit my job at the bakery and spent the following months alone in the house, sitting for the most part in Dad’s old chair and watching the final pieces of the towers being lifted into place. A lot of things were going through my head, not many of which I can remember now, but there were definitely times when I wondered if I was losing my mind, and I knew that people from the old neighbourhood were starting to worry about me. One day a friend who worked in construction called and said that they were weeks away from opening a smart new restaurant on top of the North Tower, and that he could get me an interview if I was interested. I’m not ashamed to say that I hammed it up in that interview – I didn’t mention Asim’s latest stint behind bars for fear of blackening my card, but I went into our forced relocation and the levelling of the old neighbourhood, and of Dad passing away before he got to see the towers finished; I even mentioned the drunk driver and Mom dying when I was nine, which is something I hadn’t talked about in a long time. I’m not sure what came over me, but in that moment I realised that I’d never wanted anything more than to work on top of that tower.

On an April morning six weeks later I found myself walking down West Street in polished shoes and a smart white shirt, and stepping into the lobby of the North Tower for the first time – my name was on a list, and the receptionist smiled at me like I couldn’t have belonged there more, pointing me towards the elevator that lifted me straight to the 107th floor. And there it was, that view to the rim of the world, the sun rising from the depths of space itself, its rays ricocheting off the South Tower. I stood there staring until my supervisor came over and barked at me to get in the kitchen for a briefing – there was a lot of barking in those early days, as no one really had a clue what was going on: none of the chefs had spent more than a few hours in the kitchen, and the menu remained largely untested.

Less than an hour later the doors opened and they began filing in: fresh faced boys in sharp suits and ties racing over to the windows to peer out over their new dominion, high fiving each other over the tables, waving actual wads of money around. This was their world, I reminded myself as I stood to attention, concentrating on maintaining an affable smile as I moved between tables taking orders, careful not to break into a run as I hurried to and from the kitchen. I remember thinking that there were an awful lot of cocktails being drunk given that it was 9am, and a mingled sense of empathy and relief when a waiter who wasn’t me dropped a tray of breakfast plates to a resounding chorus of high school cheers. But I don’t remember much else until the hordes had thinned down to a few solitary diners making deals over bottles of champagne, and my supervisor came over and touched me on the arm and told me to take a break. I went over to a quiet corner and stood looking down at the sprawling circuitry of the only city I’d ever known, all the interconnecting pathways of my history visible at once, and I knew then that I had found the one thing that could save me.


It’s hard to believe, but that was almost thirty years ago now. I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday, a new millennium is looming on the horizon, and I still can’t seem to move on from the restaurant. I long ago went from waiting tables to overseeing daily operations – long ago became that guy who goes around touching the arms of waiters and telling them to take a break. I still sleep alone in Dad’s old room, still look up at my workplace from his window first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Sometimes I catch myself in the mirror doing my affable work smile when I’m alone in the house. I guess it’s part of me now.

Not much changes in the city. Crime is down, the streets are cleaner, but the bankers still high five each other over tables, still get drunk on cocktails at breakfast, still wave actual wads of money around and occasionally laugh in the faces of my waiters. This is still their world, and as far as they’re concerned it always will be. But the more time I spend looking out at this shimmering city, the more I find reassurance in the fact that all of this will one day be gone. Yesterday in a flash storm I watched as a tide of rainwater ran down Schermerhorn Street swallowing up parking restrictions painted on the side of the road, and I thought: one day nature will reclaim the earth, and none of the signs or superstitions that we use to insulate ourselves against the big questions will protect us. The great calamities of humanity fall into cracks of forgetting between the generations, and so we go on living in imaginary bubbles of security, convinced we can build towers so tall that they’ll never need to come down. But of course everything will have to come down.

For all that, I seem to spend more and more time thinking about my childhood on Radio Row. Asim is gone now too, and in his absence I find myself endlessly replaying those summers: the water fights and fleeting schoolyard romances, the comic books and television shows and the magic tricks Dad used to goof up after dinner to make us laugh. Recently I’ve started dreaming that I’m standing on top of the tower, looking over the edge at a point where the ribbed metal disappears in an enormous drift of cotton cloud, and in the dream I know that if I leap into the void I’ll vanish in that cloud and reappear in the old neighbourhood, Mom and Dad and Asim waiting for me at the table as I run home to dinner through darkening streets, the dusk sky purple. I know how silly it sounds – the wandering mind of a lonely old man – but I always wake from those dreams feeling like everything is going to work out fine.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Brixton Hill

Photography by Mike Urban

On the 133 down Brixton Hill,

En route to Guy's to meet my Dad,

Whose operation has been postponed till afternoon

And who is wandering around the Shard, angry and hungry and under instructions not to eat,

I raise my hand,

And a fraction of a second later

The me looking somewhere unspecified on the CCTV screen raises his.

And it feels that this is somehow important, this gap,

Like the 21 grams supposedly unaccounted for in the human body after death,

Seen by some as evidence for the existence of a soul.

The me on the bus feels no more or less real than the me on the screen,

But this infinitesimal void in between

May contain something like truth.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

When You See Me Again, It Won't Be Me

I try to avoid writing opinionated reaction pieces without waiting for the perspective afforded by a few days passing, but I claim special dispensation in this case. Twin Peaks is my weakness, my guilty pleasure, a silver thread running through the last 25 years of my life that I occasionally pull on to contact the kid at the other end. I attend festivals, collect memorabilia, have interviewed cast and crew members, David Lynch included, for a number of articles over the years. I’ve never stopped watching it, at least once a week returning from a particularly dreary day at work and popping on a favourite episode over dinner. ‘For Cyrus, a true fan,’ it says inside the gatefold of my season one box set, ‘from Kyle MacLachlan (Special Agent Dale Cooper)’. Why, then, while other true fans around the world flood social media with a tide of celebration, does the news that Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost plan to air a third season in 2016 fill me with despair?

Part of it is selfish defensiveness of the sort that many die-hards carry against modern remakes of their childhood icons. I was 11 in 1990 when the pilot aired on British television; I remember sitting in my bedroom watching Dr Zhivago on a boxy black and white television that had the brand name of my mum’s curlers burned into the plastic casing, and flipping over to BBC2 in time to hear a voice introduce the UK debut of this American show I’d been hearing so much about. As the pilot progressed I remember feeling as though I was sinking into another world – that chill Northwestern town, its population of odd but believable characters, its universe played out in signs and riddles, dreams and visions, with music always in the air. Over the coming months my brother, my best friend Spencer and I never missed an episode, often reconvening to watch the weekend repeat, discussing our theories amid the safety of a spider web strewn boot room at school that we called the Bookhouse, on whose cold brick walls we scrawled symbols and code names in black polish.

Yet it’s not just nostalgia that informs my lifelong attachment to Twin Peaks: the show remains a towering achievement, a Trojan horse of artistic integrity somehow smuggled on to primetime television, rendering obsolete overnight the televisual output of the 1980s and helping to define the creative decade that followed. Its surreal humour, its blurring of the line between of picket fence naivety and moral darkness, its powerful undercurrents of sex, drugs and supernatural violence – these things continue to echo in the age of Netflix and HBO. The dream sequences in The Sopranos, the abstract narrative in Lost, the pagan ritual murder and existential dialogue in True Detective; it's possible to argue that none would exist had Twin Peaks not redefined the very notion of what television was capable of.

Yet despite its enduring legacy, and for all the show’s extraordinary popularity at the time – before long Lynch was appearing on the cover of Time magazine, his female leads on the cover of Rolling Stone – things didn’t end well for Twin Peaks. Lynch and Frost were granted a second season on the condition that they reveal Laura Palmer’s killer early on (some claim the network feared lawsuits if the ‘whodunnit’ hysteria gripping the world spilled over into copycat killings); having done so, both lost interest in their creation, leaving to pursue other projects while Twin Peaks descended into farce and self-parody at the hands of mostly inept guest writers and directors. By the close of season two the show had been shifted to a graveyard Saturday night slot, audience figures had plummeted, and though Lynch himself returned at the eleventh hour to direct a mesmerising final episode – ending on a cliff-hanger of such terror that my brother and I were rendered speechless until lunchtime the following day – it wasn't enough to persuade the suits to commission a third season.

Amid all this it’s not hard to see why Lynch and Frost might feel compelled to return and finish the job. This isn’t a cynical money making reunion: both are aware that the worldwide Twin Peaks community has only grown over the years, that something about the show is still shifting units and filling festivals, the latter always attended by a few costumed and quote-armed kids whose own parents were teenagers when the pilot aired. Perhaps there’s a sense of guilt at work, that the creators somehow let down the fans and the cast, one of whom described to me a feeling, prevalent on set during the deteriorating second season, that Lynch had shown them the Garden of Eden and then abandoned them in Purgatory.

Regardless, this doesn’t justify risking a reprise 25 years after the red curtain came down. That strange world that Twin Peaks occupied, somewhere between innocence and experience, between heaven and hell, between the 1980s and the 1990s, has long since been swallowed by the tide of passing time. During Twin Peaks’ first airing the online community consisted of a few disparate chat rooms; now we are an audience in thrall to simultaneity, to quick edits and countless alternatives and the sense that there’s always something more important happening on the next channel. How will the new Twin Peaks play? If Lynch and Frost make concessions to modern attention spans they’ll be seen as selling out; if they write and shoot with the earnest whimsy and glacial pacing of the original, then they risk holding a mirror up to how much we’ve moved on. Either way, it seems doubtful that they’ll be able to recapture the original’s mix of small town innocence and feverish sexuality, its horror or its humour or its human warmth. Lynch’s one return to Twin Peaks, the feature length Fire Walk With Me, is now hailed by some as a masterpiece, but bombed on its release for many reasons – its unremitting darkness, its feeling of being hacked together from a dozen different screenplays – but chiefly because it attempted to show on screen that which had previously been left to the viewer’s imagination, namely the double life of the late Laura Palmer. As David Foster Wallace wrote in an essay penned on the set of Lost Highway in 1995: ‘Laura was no longer “an enigma” or “the password to an inner sanctum of horror”. She embodied, in full view, all the Dark Secrets that on the series had been the stuff of significant glances and delicious whispers.’

Those unanswered questions that may seem the most obvious reason for a third season – Is the good Dale trapped in the Black Lodge? Did Audrey die in the bank vault? – are in fact the kindling that has kept the fire burning at the heart of the Twin Peaks community all these years, providing raw material for fan fiction and speculative essays and furious debate in online forums. The sense at Twin Peaks festivals is hard to describe, but there’s always a feeling not dissimilar to that at a wake: the grateful celebration of a beloved life cut short. In its final conflagration and decent into chaos, each of us witnessed Twin Peaks fall apart before our eyes. It wasn’t easy at the time, but over the years we have learned to love unconditionally even the worst actors, even the most hackneyed characters, even the lamest, most desperately tangential subplots. Twin Peaks fans have individually and collectively put the show back together, carried it within them and nurtured it, allowing it to grow into something without beginning or end, where there are no authorities anymore, only the source material and the individual’s interpretation of it.

I should finish by saying that of course Lynch and Frost have every right as the creators of Twin Peaks to return to the town and reanimate the story; I should also add that I don’t think for a second that they plan to go in there demolishing dreams or scrupulously tying up loose ends. I’m sure the contract with Showtime will have been carefully structured to allow them to flex their creative muscles, to be surreal and sinister without rhyme or reason, to relive the sense on set that Frost once described to me as “the inmates overrunning the town”. I just fear that it’s too late – that Twin Peaks was a moment in time and space that will be endlessly revisited, but never convincingly recreated. The actor Ray Wise, who played Leland Palmer, pre-empted such sentiments in an interview in 2005. “I’ve always felt that Twin Peaks was meant to burn very brightly for a short period of time,” he said. “Almost like a comet. Very hot, very intense, very passionate. And then it burns out and disappears.”