There’s something in the air
Or perhaps it’s in the water
Or perhaps it’s in the pale and
Trembling heart that I have torn
From my chest to plant
In the black soil before
Our house where the windows
Stare at us as if we were
Welcome but not here
Not now and not like this
Planting our hearts as deep as
Spoons and forks and knifes
Made clean by the earth
Opening its arms to us
Telling us we are the lost
Pieces it was waiting for
No matter what our house says no
Matter what the neighbours say
Behind our backs or to our
Faces turned toward the place
Where we buried our hearts
Happy that this would be
Terminal in the best sense
Somewhere to stop traveling stop
Running from the spirits that
Haunt our homeland No not our
Homeland just the land we left
To find soil not soaked
In blood and salt from below
That we might tear our hearts
Through slabs and spokes of bone
As if we were on stage asking
As if we were on our knees
Wearing bracelets of black soil
Making this land fertile not
Making this land ours but
Making ourselves this land.
There’s something in the air
A couple of months ago, I published Four Species of Ghost, a knife crime on the body of psycho-geography, in Kamenzind Beograd Issue 5. Four Species is partly an homage to Iain Sinclair, whose work has been hugely influential in how I understand the city as a work of literature, and that’s probably a little too obvious.
It’s hard to escape the shadows of your literary influences, but it’s harder to escape the consequences of poor urban planning. As you’ll gather if you read the article, Savamala is a mess; trapped between a rising river and a falling hill, it’s suffered from decades of neglect that no amount of artisanal bike repair shops can fix.
Walking in Savamala now, I feel the hot breath of the Four Horseman of Gentrication upon my neck; and first among the Horsemen is Beograd na Vodi (warning: link may contain satire), the biggest experiment in social engineering ever attempted in the Balkans. Savamala Future doesn’t look anything like how I described it in my article: in fact it looks worse.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at the billboard outside the main train station, a vision of Belgrade that looks like it’s just flown in from Dubai, and isn’t planning on staying too long. I’m sure it would be a great place to visit, but you probably wouldn’t want to live there – but then I’m not sure that the government really intends people to live there.
Large-scale urban development projects such as this speak the language of the public good, and they spend public money; but the real ambition is to attract outside investment (in this case, more Emirati money rolling into town). The problem is that the only way to do this is to wipe out what came before: the rich and ragged history of one of the oldest parts of the city.
One good thing has come out of Beograd na Vodi so far – the renovation of Geozavod, into something that looks a bit faux but is finally being put to use. Of course, that made my article outdated before it was even published; but that’s the great thing about psycho-geography. It’s not about what’s there right now, but what was and what will be. Savamala survives, for now.
This month the White Review published my non fiction piece Every Night is like a Disco: Iraq, 2003, which only took me 11 years to write. I had it in notes, in my head, for that whole time; I always intended to write something, especially after Granta published Fly Away Home: Iraq, 1998. So why did it take so long?
I’d been writing about my working life ever since I started, cribbing from my notes, emails, reports, and anything else I could get my hands on. I’d published a couple of pieces in small magazines, and was thinking (optimistically) about pitching a full-length book, to be titled “Life in the Colony”.
After Iraq – well, after Iraq, three things happened. One was that I was filled with remorse – an attentuated strand of survivor’s guilt – and I felt that I would be trading on the lives of others. I hadn’t earned that right, not by a long shot, and the best thing to do would be to shut up. This feeling continues today, and publishing Disco was quite difficult for me.
Second was that I was angry at the humanitarian sector, and particularly the United Nations, for the abject failure of judgement that was Iraq. After working in Afghanistan, I didn’t expect much from the US and UK governments, but I had hoped that the UN had learned something. They hadn’t, and I’m not sure they’ve learned it now.
Third was that there was a snowstorm of books after Iraq, often from people who’d been in far worse situations than I, or had done far better research and reporting. Iraq became a coin in the reputational currency of the Beltway and beyond, to be traded for power and (often) sex; and I didn’t want any part of that. Aid memoirs? I felt like I needed to grow up.
The memory wouldn’t go away. It was a turning point in how I approached my work, in how I viewed the entire sector. It represented something more for me than just another story in the collection, and I never forgot those people along the airport road. Here was Iraq under a microscope; or more likely Iraq under a magnifying glass, burnt by the sun.
So this summer I sat down and wrote it in a couple of days. Long gestation, quick birth; I guess it had been writing itself in the back of my head. It was an awkward child – too long for short stories, too short for longform. I had a vague idea that The White Review, whose tastes trend extremely catholic, might want to publish it, maybe? And they did.
Now it’s out, I feel a sense of relief. I can get on with writing other things, maybe even from that same period: I have half a piece from Liberia, that same year, “A Day Late and a Dollar Short”, but who knows if I’ll ever finish it? That’s the problem with writing: you can make all the plans you want, but sometimes the words follow their own schedule.
I originally submitted The tiger waiting on the shore to Nature magazine because I’d been enjoying the Nature Futures podcast. This week Nature selected the story for the podcast, and I had the pleasure of listening to Noah Baker read it. I have no idea how many people read the Futures section, or listen to the podcast, but it’s immensely satisfying to be cooking lunch while listening to one of my stories being read.
The Humanitarian Future was difficult. The original article was trying to be three things: a potted history of the modern humanitarian sector, an outline of what needs to change for ‘humanitarianism’ to survive in the now-times, and a brief personal account of my work. My editor Brigid Hains took one look at that and realised it wasn’t going to work. The final version doesn’t capture everything that I wanted to say, but, contrary to what the internet wants you to believe, it doesn’t have to. This is a small part of a wider discussion, across many platforms and in many fora. Go read.
The tiger waiting on the shore, by contrast, was easy. I had been enjoying the Nature Futures podcast for a few months, and wondered if they had an open submissions policy. They did, so I wrote the story in less than a day, and sent it off with no expectations. Editor Colin Sullivan accepted it immediately, and it’s printed more or less as I originally wrote it. Writers’ lesson for the day: you never know where you might find a platform for your work. The story is a science fiction / horror / family drama – a bit more obscure than most of the stories that Nature publishes, and it fills me with a feeling I can’t quite describe.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a writer is to sit around waiting for other people to recognize your genius. There are two reasons for this: first, you’re not a genius; and second, people are idiots. (You may notice that these two are basically the same point.)
My resolution this year was to write, but also to perform. I’ve always envied visual artists who can take over a space and force themselves into the public consciousness; on the other hand, visual art can easily become wallpaper in a way that performance usually doesn’t.
In March and May, we staged two updates of Jekyll and Hyde at UK Parobrod: my paranoid drone fantasy, No Place To Run No Place To, and Marija Pavlovic’s gothic satire Čudni slučaj gospođe Džekil i doktorke Hajd. NATURALLY IT WAS A TRIUMPH ON EVERY LEVEL.
Originally I wanted Pete Chaffey to play the role of the drone pilot, and Željko Maksimović to play the psychopathic doctor. Unfortunately Pete was
playing golf in South Africa working, so I was forced to don the white coat – my first time on stage in 20 years.
Feedback from the audience was great, although obviously nobody rushes up to tell you how much you sucked. We recorded some video, but… let’s just say, it’s not the best video ever. You can download the story script of No Place To Run No Place To in PDF.
The White Review is a fantastic magazine that supports experimental writing, and Chiral is a stream-of-consciousness story. It’s only three paragraphs long, but each paragraph is one sentence, and each sentence is 1500 words.