Declaration of War

Depression is a fucking liar. If I could reach out to you, I’d tell you that. The sad thing is that you wouldn’t believe me, but it’s true.

The sly voice in your ear tells you that you’re worthless, but you’re not. It tells you that you’ve made bad choices and done bad things, but you haven’t. That you’re a fraud, an imposter, a chancer. You’re none of those things. Look around you. Look at the things you’ve achieved, the places you’ve been, the people that love you. When did depression last tell you that you’re amazing? You are. Depression hasn’t got a clue.

Depression is a fucking liar, but it’s also a fool. Its arguments are weak, falling apart at the merest hint of scrutiny and fact, yet we fall for it every time. Depression is Boris Johnson. Depression is Jacob Rees Mogg.

I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of people I love being lied to. I’ve had enough of beautiful souls being wounded by slander and deceit. We need to rebel, to look the black beast in the eye and let it know that it can never win.

We are many, yet we are one. Look out depression, we’re coming for you.

 

* The crow sketch on cardboard is by my lovely talented friend Sarah.  Check her out on instagram @sarahrussell_illustrates 

 

Delete?

I realised today that I still had Dad saved as a contact on my phone. We used to talk a lot, before he was sick. I try not to get too emotional about things these days, but pressing delete sent a jolt of sadness through me.

It’s strange how we attach sentiment to such things as a number in a phonebook, but sometimes they’re all we have to connect us to a vanished time. Today I resolved to be less afraid of emotion, and less reluctant to think about the past.

Here’s to loved ones that we’ve lost, and to all of our shining futures.

Elegy

Endless winter holds the countryside in a brittle embrace. I sit forlornly, watching steam rise slowly from a mess of brash where the oak had stood. Columns and curlicues of vapour, liberated from the ruined xylem of a dying god. A murder cloaked by the illusion of progress.

The people in power call them veteran trees. They plot their locations on a map and write their names on a list. They’re national treasures, they say. Jewels in our natural environment, they say. Until things change. Until they stand in the way of the new town, the quarry or the new road. It was the important new railway that did for this majestic specimen, and a natural treasure was quickly reclassified as a nuisance. Dying and dangerous, they now said. A health and safety nightmare. Think of the children. A death warrant signed in chlorophyll, so that the bigwigs can get to Slough three minutes earlier.

According to official records the oak had stood for over six hundred years, but the records tell less than half of the story. Nowhere in the record books does it describe the fragile acorn laying dormant in the subsoil, bound into the foundations of a temple to a sun god. Nor does it describe the passage of epochs to which that humble seed bore witness, trapped motionless as the temple fell to ruins and dynasties rose and fell a few meagre metres above. The relentless churn of life and death on the surface had no influence, until the day that the acorn was dragged to the surface by the erratic action of a primitive ploughshare. Awoken by sunlight and damp, new life erupted from the torpid husk, and a new chapter began.

Six hundred years is a long time. Astrophysicists will tell you differently, however they generally think on a universal scale. Not me. I think of a man of wood rooted in the same spot; six hundred years is a very long time when you can’t even go for a walk. A consequence of such a long life, however, is that the world changes around you. The tree had stood watch over the reigns of kings and queens, through uncountable changes in government, and through periods of war and piece. Religions rose and fell whilst the surrounding landscape changed beyond recognition. Urbanisation and agriculture replaced woodland and heath, marshes were drained yet the tree survived. Wind, lightning and drought all took their toll, as did pollution from the noisy new machines, but the roots stood firm. Sturdy and steadfast, until today.

The important people were right when they said that the tree was dying, and yet their definition was so lacking in nuance as to be laughable. We’re all dying, every last living thing, albeit some much more rapidly than others. To categorise an organism as dying is to ignore the glorious value of decline, and in some ways the tree had never been more alive. The term ‘tree’, a singular noun, is troublesome – a tree is host to a vast ecosystem, and a dying tree is truly comparable to a great metropolis (and is ultimately equally as unsustainable). The dying tree, with its labyrinth of damage and decay earned over many centuries, is home to unfathomable richness and diversity of life, from magpies and mosses to moths and mycelium. Each parasitic in some way to the mighty host, just as mankind clings leech-like to the natural world. On many nights I had listened to the faint chatter of roosting bats within the cracked and crooked limbs of our tree, and had closely watched the hole in the trunk where the tawny owls lived. All gone now, forever.

I ponder sadly the toll taken on our environment, and wonder when the flywheel effect of our destruction will take us past the point of sustainability. Perhaps we’re already there? I turn my face away as the rising vapour dwindles, unable to bring myself to witness the final ebb of spirit at the close of a life well lived. As I trudge slowly down the sunken lane to the village, I reach into my pocket and touch the small heap of acorns hidden within. Acorns that I plan to scatter in a small act of defiance to those that relentlessly destroy. Each a potential new veteran. Each my own minor act of treason.

Avocado Man

I am the avocado man;
inexplicably popular with millennials.

I am the avocado man;
good for the heart when consumed in moderation.

I am the avocado man;
gleaming stone of sadness hidden within.

I am the avocado man;
green and fleshy, spongy when squeezed.

I am the avocado man;
frequently mashed and enjoyed by Mexicans.

I am the avocado man;
shrivelled yet shiny, like a varnished scrotum.

I am the avocado man.

🥑

Echoes

Excerpt from the diary of George Fisher, latterly of St John’s Asylum:

7th April 1971. Fosse Manor.

I write this in the hope that, someday, someone might understand…

Kitty and Dr Pullman have been whispering again. Heads together, voices low, all furrowed brows and concerned glances. They think I’m going mad. They bother and fuss, convinced that that age and the vestiges of shellshock have finally taken their toll. I’m not mad, dear reader, I promise you that.

In hindsight, it was a mistake. I thought they might believe me. I thought they might understand. Part of me even hoped that Kitty, my darling sister, might have the gift too. It seems not, and since that evening things have been altogether different. Gin-fuelled and garrulous, I laid bare my secret, and now I am undone.

What is my secret? What did I utter, so that all that hear it think me quite mad? The truth, dear reader, just the truth. I see things. I hear things. Things that once existed but are no longer there. Things that sensible folk claim never existed. They’ve always been there, always spoken to me. You probably think I’m mad as well, don’t you?

I tried my damnedest to make Kitty understand, but I just left her ashen-faced and frightened. She insisted that Dr Pullman be sent for at once, certain I had been struck down by a sickness of the mind. Albert Pullman, a friend and confident of some 50 years, the family physician. He didn’t believe me either, and so the seeds for this sorry tale of my mental decline were sown. I wish they could see through my eyes. I wish I could make them understand.

I fear my time as a free, independent man grows short. I hear them talk of removing me from the family home and committing me to the care of the asylum, St John’s Home for the Feeble Minded. I have passed that god-forsaken place countless times, and each time thanked the lord for my freedom. Now, it seems, I am destined to view those rusted iron gates from within. I wish with every fibre of my being that it was not so.

I’ve had these experiences, these visions, since I was a child. The world around me has always spoken, yet it was only in adulthood that that I learned that my talent was special. I had always assumed that it was normal, and had been saddened to learn that others saw but half of the world that I experience. I’m different, but I don’t know why.

The manor grounds have been my home since childhood, and are alive with colour and sound. The hedgerows astride the long drive teem with the chatter of birds and wood sprites, each distinct voice as clear to me as that of my own dear Kitty. I know their names and their stories, and can recognise their distinct accents. Friend yellowhammer conversing with a hazel elf about the weather, wood mouse and tree sparrow discussing the farmer’s new hat. This is my world. Always has been.

Southwest of the manor, beyond the old ice house where the roe deer gather, is a dismantled railway line. I frequently take long walks into the fading light of evening, and the old railway line is a favoured haunt. It’s also the place where some of the most powerful visions occur. Perhaps visions is the wrong term. They’re not visions so much as living echoes, a past world viewed through a film of silver gossamer. As I walk beside the old railway I smell coal smoke, and hear the soft chunter of the small narrow-gauge puffer that once served this line. No trains have run here since 1882, and yet I see them clear as day. I tip my cap to Bill, the sooty fireman, and wave heartily at three carriages of cheery passengers as they pass. The echo fades as the engine steams out of sight, but I know that I’ll be seeing old Bill again soon enough.

Past the old railway are the ancient oakwoods, where the green man lives. I have spend many happy hours in his company, smoking my pipe and listening to his tales of times past when the trees were new. Crowds of woodland creatures would gather at his feet to listen, enchanted. I learned much of the world from hearing the green man speak. I will miss him. Happy times indeed.

These are but three of a great many experiences, however I must stop here. A black sedan is creeping slowly up the long drive, and Dr Pullman is walking to meet it. Kitty is weeping, trying and failing to cover her face so that I don’t see. I fear my time here is done, but will try to write more soon.

I am not mad. Remember me well.

Helsinki Noir

December 31st 1966. New year’s eve fell on a Sunday. God’s day, which gave a cruel resonance to the sequence of events that would follow. These were secular days indeed.

Vilho Mäkinen turned up the collar on his gabardine overcoat and walked silently into the Helsinki night. It had been a particularly mild winter so far, but the sea winds had a wolverine’s bite. The sky was black, punctured only by pinhole pricks of starlight. Darkness was a constant in this part of the world, a part of the psyche of the nation. In December daylight was often five hours of dull grey, a glaucous ephemera dividing the belligerent black. Mäkinen didn’t mind. Mäkinen did his best work at night.

A short walk southeast on Mäkelänkatu took him to the tram stop, followed by an expectedly long wait. Mäkinen abhorred lateness, which was often the difference between life and death in his line of work. He nervously fingered the scrap of paper in his pocket as five minutes became ten, beads of sweat forming on his brow when the tram finally lumbered into view. Taking a seat, he silently cursed the public spending cuts that had allowed the historic tram network to fall into such disrepair. There had even been talk of scrapping the trams altogether, although this had been met with significant public outcry.

The trolley car lumbered slowly onwards, picking out a sinuous path towards the central railway station. The route passed through the run-down suburb of Kallio, which served as both the artistic epicentre of the city as well as home to countless types of depravity. Artists and musicians intermingled with drunks and whores, creating an atmosphere unlike any other part of Helsinki. Mäkinen had briefly rented a top floor flat on Vaasankatu as a younger man, sharing living quarters with an up and coming beat combo called the Blues Section. He’d always felt at home with the creative crowd, but had left that scene long behind him since he received the call. For the past two years he had been a ‘runner’, carrying out illegal errands for faceless employers under the cover of the long, lonely nights. Tonight’s errand was a big one. Tonight Mäkinen would kill.

The steep hills of Kallio gave way to the open environs of Töölönlahti, the great bay that carried the Baltic Sea into the heart of the city. Bright lights shimmered on the surface of the black water as Mäkinen contemplated the task ahead one final time. Vasiliev, the slimy Russian diplomat with the one-armed wife, had inextricably entangled himself in the Baltic underworld, and tonight was the night that his treacherous dealings would reach their denouement. Mäkinen recalled that, according to popular rumour, Vasiliev’s wife had lost her arm in a vicious brawl with one of his spurned lovers, although the truth was far less glamorous, being as it involved a mishap when slicing ham.

The glacial trundle of the tram finally drew to a close outside the central station, its impressive granite edifice illuminated by the yellow glow of street-lamps. The kivimiehet stood sentinel either side of the entrance, a role they had performed for almost 40 years. They reminded Mäkinen of himself, steadfast and stone-hearted. He checked his watch. 23.34 hrs. He was on time.

His destination was Senaatintori, the senate square overlooked by Engel’s sublime cathedral. 1967 would be the 50th anniversary of independence from Russia, and at midnight president Kekkonen was to deliver a speech to a massed throng of assorted diplomats and dignitaries. Among that crowd would be Vasiliev, no doubt still brokering nefarious deals whilst Finland’s greatest president delivered chapter and verse on Fenno-Soviet relations. The cathedral itself was built in honour of Tsar Nicolas I, and Mäkinen took dark delight in the delicious irony of his task.

His walk from the central square took no more than ten minutes, directly east on Aleksanterinkatu. He walked slowly, cobbles slick with rain, brain whirring in anticipation, fraught with anxiety and doubt. He had never failed before, but this could be the one. Approaching the junction with Unioninkatu he slowed, the wide senate plaza opening up in front of him. The crowds were beginning to mass in front of the cathedral steps. Mäkinen would have to be careful. The doorway to a small cafe along the southern edge of the square provided shelter from the rain, which was in the process of turning to sleet. It also provided a concealed location from which he could identify his target. He checked his watch again. 23.52 hrs.

Vasiliev was a tall man with a distinctive coiffure, a failed combover described by some wags in the media as looking like pubic hair glued to a boiled egg. His wife was a loud, boisterous woman, almost completely spherical (with the exception of the aforementioned arm which gave her a slightly off-kilter gait). It didn’t take Mäkinen long to locate them, their location in the midst of the crowd revealed by a startling guffaw from Lady V, reminiscent of a piglet in a cement mixer. The loudness of her laugh was matched by that of her dress, a lurid pink that did little to dispel the porcine mood that her outburst had created. She wouldn’t be laughing for long. 23.58.

At 23.59 hrs a brass band struck up a solemn tune, slow parps from the tuba creating vibrations in Mäkinen’s chest. The chiming of the cathedral bells struck midnight, cheers from the crowd fading to awestruck silence as president Urho Kekkonen appeared at a lectern on the granite steps. Kekkonen was a hugely influential figure in Finnish politics, and his presence instilled a hushed reverence in the enraptured mob, Mäkinen included. As Kekkonen launched into an impassioned speech, heavy with metaphors surrounded the Finnish swan and Russian bear, Mäkinen stepped into the crowd. It was time.

His weapon of choice for such tasks was his faithful puukko, a short hunting knife given to all Finnish boys as a right of passage. For most boys it was used for gutting fish and carving rude words into trees, but in the hands on Mäkinen it had a subtle brutality. He had spend an hour that afternoon working at his whetstone, giving the knife a keen, wicked edge. As he slipped through the crowd the knife was already in his hand, concealed in his sleeve. He soon found himself directly behind Vasiliev and his party. He slowed his breathing, and a dangerous sense of calm filled him. He waited for the right moment to strike.

President Kekkonen was mid-speech and made a particularly witty remark about the great Russian bear shitting in the woods. Amid the uproarious whooping and applause, Mäkinen seized the opportunity. Leaning forward he plunged the puukko into the side of Vasiliev’s neck, giving the short knife a sickening twist in the same action. As the Russian pitched forward and fell to the floor, blood spurting impressively from the killing blow, Mäkinen was already 50 yards from the epicentre of the writhing chaos, his overcoat ditched amongst the churning mass of human flesh. He was already running south along Helenenkatu when the droning voice of Kekkonen stopped, and was well past the Kauppatori fish market before the first faint sound of sirens reached his ears. The deed was done, but this was the most dangerous time for Mäkinen. This was the point that he lost complete control, and had to rely on others.

Sprinting south with the open sea to his left, Mäkinen arrived at the agreed meeting point the the entrance to Kaivopuisto Park. The note had only specified the location, he had no idea who he was meeting and how the escape was to unfold. He looked around frantically, until a faded black Volvo P130 screeched to a halt next to him. A female voice demanded that he get in the fucking car immediately. Mäkinen cursed under his breath – he’d always been a Saab guy.

She was beautiful, in a stern Scandinavian way. Blonde hair framed porcelain skin, and he was sure her eyes would have been sky blue, however it was dark so he soon gave up trying to tell. He wiped the blood from his puukko and returned it to its leather pouch as she drove them west towards the harbour isthmus of Munkkisaari. Moonlight illuminated the harbour cranes of Nosturi, used for loading and unloading merchant vessels, as they slipped into an underground car park at the corner of Bulevardi. The car park door was closed behind them, and Mäkinen was ushered out of the vehicle by the driver. Had this been one of those spy films that everyone was so fond of, he was sure she would have whisked him away for a night of passion, however this had never happened before and her expression told him that it would not be happening tonight. He knew the routine by now, he would be handed a brown envelope of full of used Finnish markka, before taking a seat in a brightly lit room. Eventually a man in a pristine lab coat would enter the room and then…

Mäkinen was awoken by the sound of a newspaper being pushed through the door. As always, he found himself in his own home, fully dressed and fuzzy headed, no memory of the previous evening’s exploits. He knew he’d been working, and felt for the familiar sting of the needle mark on his neck, then the equally familiar bulge of the brown envelope in his pocket. This was always the way, he was used to the process by now and understood the need for secrecy. After all, a known runner was a dead runner. He prepared a cup of thick, black coffee and sat at the kitchen table, casting an eye over the dramatic headlines that told of murder and the souring of relations with Russia. Fucking politicians, he thought, and went back to bed.

Hyvää uutta vuotta.

Blue Passports

23rd June 2016. Independence Day. Brexit means Brexit, what a time to be alive. Article 50 mate.

I’m a proud Englishman me, a proper patriot. Flag of St George tattooed on my right arm, British bulldog on the left. Shaven head, face like a haunted omelette.

We’re taking back sovereignty. Pull up the drawbridge lads, we’re full. Go home. Born in Leamington Spa you say? No mate, I’m not a racist, I love a curry.

No no, not that kind of sovereignty. Frustrating the will of the British people. Fucking traitors, hang ‘em for treason. Land of hope and glory mate.

Hard Brexit, no quarter. We’re sick of experts. If Nigel says it’ll be fine that’s all I need. Rees-Mogg for PM, champion of the working class.

Exit bill? We’ve already paid our exit bill. Spirit of the blitz. One World Cup and two World Wars. Fuck off Merkel. Face like she’s chewing a wasp. Get back in the kitchen, love.

Shut it Remoaners. We don’t need a trade deal, we’ll go it alone. A return to the days of empire, putting the Great back in Great Britain. Traitors, fucking snowflakes. Frustrating the will of the British people.

Sod the refugees, they’re terrorists anyway. No women and children see? Why don’t the cowards stay home and fight? Send them back, fuck ‘em. British jobs for British workers, no room at the inn.

Blue passports. Brings a tear to the eye, what a result my son. Makes you proud to be British. £350 million for the NHS? Economic impact studies? Frustrating the will of the British people.

Blue passports mate. Blue fucking passports.

Jet From Gladiators

I hold the teacup gently, rotating it slowly with my fingers to learn its secrets. The low winter sun streaming into the study gives away the translucence of fine porcelain, but only after I use a soft cloth to wipe away a decade of dust. It had sat neglected on the shelf above my desk ever since the day that we cleared mum’s house. I don’t know why it caught my eye today, or why I felt the urge to take it down from the shelf.

Clearing the house after mum left had been a sobering task for all of us, and very few of the bizarre array of artefacts that she had collected in her final years escaped the skip. The stupid cup had only escaped the cull due to a pang of emotion, dredged up from the far recesses of my mind. Bloody idiot. I distinctly remember how proud mum had been when dad bought the tea set home. I was only six years old, but the excitement emanating from the pair of them was palpable. Chinese porcelain! In our pantry! My word, what a time to be alive. In the intervening forty two years I’ve learned that it’s not normal to whip one’s self into a frenzy over kitchen goods, but for mum it was quite the status symbol. I never did find out where dad got it from, but with dad it was sometimes better not to ask.

Over the years the tea set dwindled, cups and saucers falling victim to clumsy hands, excitable dogs and children acting out Buck Rodgers fantasies. The day that dad dropped the teapot was particularly harrowing, although I learned three new swears that have stood me in good stead throughout my adult life.

The fragile piece of bone china in my hands is all that survives, an anchor for so many bittersweet memories. A hairline crack, barely perceptible, runs perpendicular to the ornate handle, and a small chip at the edge is stained brown where the bare clay has soaked up years of piss-weak tea. The rich blue cloisonné glaze has started to fade, but the carefully rendered figures of dragons are still visible, brilliant and red.

A glance at the base of the cup provides a small surprise – Armitage Shanks isn’t the first thing you expect to see printed on period Chinese ceramics – but it doesn’t matter. It was real to mum, and dad never let on otherwise. An authentic piece of Tang Dynasty earthenware couldn’t mean more to me than that tiny cup. I place it gently back on the shelf above my desk, giving it pride of place next to the signed photograph of Jet from Gladiators.

I don’t think about them often these days, but I miss them both.