Friday, September 22, 2006

Pleasure Island

Pleasure Island. You’ve got to remember. Out of Pinocchio? Take a moment to dredge it up. Because it's way down there, buried deep in your psyche, one of the great, uncontested stories at the base of you, like the Nativity and Tommy Cooper dying and the Big Snow of 1981. That was the year you turned eight, and also the year you decided to get your fledging consciousness organised, and stuffed it full of things like Pleasure Island, things with a heft to them, things you thought might come in handy, little realising that for the rest of your life you would approach all sorts of crisis situations with a psychic toolkit packed by an eight year old.

Anyway, Pleasure Island. It all kicks off when Pinocchio falls in with a gang of brattish street kids. (I've forgotten how; maybe they sang to him. He always was a sucker for a catchy tune. Which is the general problem with Pinocchio- the cartoon is apparently intended as a fable about the risks and responsibilities of maturity, but the real message you take away is: don’t trust musicians. A pretty viable message too, as it turns out.) In turn, the urchins fall in with a crew of Satanic circus barkers, who carry them on a hayride to a queasy looking Coney Island mock-up, where they gorge themselves silly and drink and smoke and shoot pool and hurl abuse at the donkeys that are unaccountably roaming free in this funpark, until, in a twist I genuinely didn't see coming, they find themselves turning into donkeys too (the most terrifying scene for me as a child wasn't the sudden onset of braying, or the floppy ears or the fur, but the part where the kids looked at their mutating forearms and realised that they couldn't bend their elbows). It ends with the Satanic circus barkers, who have now revealed themselves in their true guise as Satanic donkey wranglers, locking the whole crew into crates and shipping them out for export to donkey-beaters worldwide. It’s a sequence that still stands out today for its brutality and misanthropy; a lot of awful things were happening in 1940, and Pleasure Island seems to plug into all of them.

As I grew older, I realised that Pleasure Island wasn’t unique. This was a motif which had been used by preachers and painters and storytellers to scare people off their own appetites for centuries: from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. But I never saw it put to use as a business model. Never, that is, until last Sunday, when E. and I took the final, decisive step into coupledom, and visited Ikea.

At the start, Ikea seems ridiculously user-friendly; it’s as if someone designed a walk-through internet. You and all the other doting couples walk along a gracefully curving path through a wonderland of domesticity. Everywhere there are sofas and chairs and wardrobes and shelves that are charming and stylish and cheap, and promise to shear all complications out of your life and leave you both with nothing to do but loll around all day in bleached white dressing gowns, drinking bowls of coffee and reading Le Figaro. To each side, there are apartment mock-ups showing how Ikea furniture can make your 20 square metre studio flat look like a villain’s penthouse from a Luc Besson movie, and even though their idea of optimising space seems to include covering up all the damn windows, you are charmed and inspired, and want, more than anything else in the world, to be a villain in a Luc Besson movie. And all you need to do to claim any of this plenitude is to take a stylish stub of an Ikea pencil and note its number in a little pad, a process that is actually less physically demanding than pointing and clicking. So you walk along the mazy path, plucking items of wonderful furniture as you pass, a wardrobe here, a bookcase there, and believing with all your heart that it is going to be magically spirited into your living room, that, in fact, it is all there waiting for you right now. Then you go downstairs, and steady yourself for what looks like a brief trot to the checkouts, when the path unaccountably veers rightwards and leads you into a giant hangar of a warehouse, and that, my friend, is where the donkey wranglers come out.

Two hours later, braying, exhausted, unable to bend our elbows, we arrive at the check-outs. We’re toting enough pine to build a barn, and we’ve just completed three long-haul expeditions against the crowds back to the showrooms upstairs, first to get hinges, then to get door handles, and finally to get the right door handles.
“All in all, I think it’s all gone pretty well,” I say.
“Have you got the piece of paper, honey?” E. says.
“The piece of paper we got at the sales desk upstairs when we came in?” I say. “The piece of paper that this guy needs to scan to process our entire order?”
“That’s the one,” E. says.
“I gave it to you,” I tell her.
“You know you didn’t,” she says.
“I gave it to you, then,” I tell the cashier. He looks at me blankly.
“Aside from that,” I say, “I think it’s all gone very well indeed.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


They have a perfume, you know. They do. You can buy it in Superdrug. There is a poster of the couple in the shop window, in a sophisticated yet saucy pose, apparently inspired by the cover of the Mastermind boardgame. Victoria presses up against her husband and gives her signature look- Blue Steel!- the kind of pose that’s meant to accentuate her cheekbones, but ends up giving her face a freakish angularity, as if she’s stuffed protractors in her mouth. Behind her, David looks absented and seigniorial, clearly lost in the task of pinching his wife’s bum. Inside the shop, there is a promotional stand, with purple drapes and two separate his’n’hers scents, presented in heavy glass decanters with great cut stoppers, like love potions in cartoons.

It’s not unique, either. In fact, there’s a whole Fantasia of signature scents lining the back wall in here- perfumes by Paris Hilton, P Diddy, J-Lo, Cindy Crawford, and Naomi Campbell, among plenty of others. Most of the bottles are labelled with punchy sounding nouns and adjectives– Instinct! Curious!; if you added the definite article, you’d have a comprehensive round up of New York garage bands circa 2001. There are a few exceptions- the Sarah Jessica Parker scent, for example, goes for a strangely lukewarm “Lovely”, which is exactly what a friend might say if you bought it for them; it’s the closest thing to calling a perfume “You Shouldn’t Have”. And perhaps it's best not to mention the Jade Goody scent, which is called “Shhh…”, presumably so that you can say “Smells like Shhh… in here”. Looking at the range, the overall effect is of one more staging post in the refinement of celebrity. Already these stars exist independently of their actual purpose and even their surnames; the next logical step is to move beyond matter entirely, to establish themselves as a fragrance, a sweet abstraction moving freely among the Children of the Air. Perhaps these bottles of fragrance are the ultimate distillation of fame. Because what in the world else could they contain?

Well, let’s see. E and I make our rounds of the tester bottles. The scents are obviously geared towards teens and tweens. They all smell light and impossibly sweet- apart from Jade Goody’s “Shhh…”, which layers floral disinfectant on a base of something vile beyond belief (You can only imagine the blackness in the heart of the perfumier who discovers he’s been handed the Jade Goody account). And what of the Beckhams? Victoria’s fragrance smells like mothballs and oranges. In what may or may not be a particularly audacious act of cross-marketing, David’s smells like Pepsi Cola. It leads you to wonder whether, in the future, the web of brands connected to the Beckhams may decide to cut out the middleman, and just refer directly to each other. You put Pepsi and Adidas and Gillette in the same room together, and David Beckham emerges by inference- a kind of genie of branding, a personality articulated by his endorsements.

Maybe I’m being cynical. Maybe these perfumes perform a useful function. Maybe they offer a prop to insecure kids who want the comfort of their hero’s presence in their lives. In earlier times, these kids would have clutched at a saint’s relic to get them through the day; now the millions of atoms of P-Diddy floating around their neck provide the same service. The Beckham his’n’hers scents push that model a little further: not only articulating the stars’ personalities but also their coupledom. I imagine these are targeted towards teenage girls who worry about keeping their boyfriends, and see joint branding as the best way to cement the relationship- for what, after all, is Posh without Becks, Becks without Posh? And this points to a sweet correspondence between stars and audience. As their individual gifts fade, what the Beckhams give to each other is exactly what Homer Simpson offered to Marge- absolute dependency. Perhaps, when they invoke the Beckhams as their inspiration, the teenagers intuit what the posters never say- that the golden couple stays together because they can't survive alone, that their USP is their insecurity, something teenagers understand very well. No wonder David looks preoccupied...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

London Loves

London on a fleet, breezy morning. Everything in this sidestreet is bleached and sun-dazzled, like an image from an old polaroid. And this is how the city seems: like library footage, something called up at short notice from the archives to fill the space left by my office job. The houses are sturdy, two-storey, fronted with pale yellow bricks, with plaster porticos hugging the doors and bay windows. They seem intensely familiar, remembered not from my own childhood but from the childhood of every single sixties rock star- you can easily see a young Jagger or Lennon or Moon squirming behind the net curtains, looking out at the English rain and wishing that the bombs would fall again. The tree outside my window is a lollipop of dusty olive leaves and bright orange berries, the colours of a dress from the seventies, you’ve got to remember, your great-aunt wore it to your mum’s wedding, she looked weighty and mysteriously troubled and older than she does now. A cabbage-white, a butterfly that practically belongs on Super 8 film, flits among the trellises across the road. The whole scene is soothing, predictable, almost advertising itself as gentle backdrop for the harried creative. All I’ve got to do, it seems, is sit down and start writing. Well then, here I go…

So, what’s been happening? What has been happening? If all you’ve got to go on are the posts on Moving Sideways, you’re probably looking for a bit of extra context around now. According to the blog, Ben awoke from a deep sleep at the beginning of August and promptly threw himself into an exhausting rota of activity- contracting a series of driving lessons, going flat-hunting, hymning French boulevardiers, travelling to Greece, evading forest fires- before lapsing once again into sullen indolence. According to the blog, Ben is Robert De Niro out of Awakenings. And sometimes I feel tempted to leave him to his slumber… But while Ben’s been sleeping at the wheel in here, outside, in the real world, there’s been a few genuine changes going on.

Last Friday, I finished in my job. My contract in London was up, and I decided, for personal reasons, to remain here under my own steam rather than return to Dublin. A bit more contentiously, I also decided to stay home for a year, and try to support myself through my writing. When people ask me exactly how, I tend to get vague and self-righteous at the same time, which is so not an effective rhetorical device. I will TRY AND FREELANCE, I tell them. I will SORT OUT A FEW PROJECTS HERE AND THERE. The important thing is that I will be FENDING FOR MYSELF. As opposed to, you know, LIVING OFF MY SAVINGS. All I’ll need for a 21st century media career is unparalleled moxie, the internet and A DOG-EARED COPY OF THE WRITER’S AND ARTIST’S YEARBOOK 2001. And if all of this gives them any problems, they can FUCK RIGHT OFF. Like I said, not the most refined of mission statements. Still, I’m looking forward to putting it into practice.

A few days previously, I left my work-sponsored flat in a swanky but soulless part of London, the kind of area where the traffic meters make more than the traffic wardens, and moved with E. into our new place in Shepherds Bush. This is where I expected to be confronted by the grim realities of modern London, pulled up short by real life. But all in all, the change has been incredibly positive. The flat itself is a dream; cosy and stylish and bright; the kind of place that’s made for literary poseurs. Three days in, and I have already adopted the most writerly pose imaginable- sitting in the front room, staring out an open window, with a full cafetiere on the table beside me and a lopsided think bubble of a mirror above my head. The landlord is young and enthusiastic, and genuinely eager to help; in any of our contacts with her we’re all competing to see who can do best by the place. The neighbours are pretty friendly too, and those who aren’t manage at least to be pleasantly crotchety, in a crumpled 1950s way. And, like I said, the neighbourhood is damned comfortable, a version of urban London as soft-edged as any Madness song. Even the annoyances are quite enjoyable. In my old place, I was regularly blasted out of it by tightwad Europop from the coked-up Norwegian asset-stripper upstairs, God bless his soul; now I’m sporadically charmed by bursts of glitchy electronica from the hip-hop kids in the garden flat next-door, erratic beats popping against the wall like corn in a pan.

Sure, sometimes I feel the absence of the old job, and occasionally crave its jagged contours; but only in the absent, compulsive way you prod your tongue into the space where a tooth used to be. I miss the early morning immersion and the break-down into coffee at eleven-ten. I miss the company, and the banter, obviously. I miss the adrenalin jolts at odd hooks and angles of the day, when a stray phone call or email pulls your job description taut about your neck. I even miss the information: the two fat morning papers folded on your desk, the bloated 9am inbox, the sense of starting out every day at ground level on a massive trading floor of news. Most of all, I miss the occasional sense of fulfillment; of producing relevant copy, of being of use.

And this is where the blog comes in. I resurrected Moving Sideways about a month ago, and I guess this break was always at the back of my mind. I’m hoping to keep it updated fairly regularly from now on in, partly to instill the discipline of producing something creative on a daily basis, partly to gear up my rusty writing brain, but mostly to make sure I don’t get cabin fever in here on my own, goddamnit. So over the next while, you can look forward to frequent updates on everyday life in Shepherds Bush, more trawls around the further reaches of the chessboard, plus, if I can manage the upload, some pictures from the fires on Kassandra. Bet ya can’t wait…