The Cave Diver: a Halloween story

October 15, 2014

Leaves are streaming from the trees and the long nights are drawing in. At this time of year the weather keeps us indoors, our mood becomes more introspective and, perhaps, our taste for the macabre grows. It’s in this spirit (ooOOoo!) that I offer this chilling tale.

The Cave Diver

The pumpkin curdles on the porch. Its innards are cooked by candle heat, its rind-crown open to the autumn air. Trees crack and groan behind the garden fence. I remember the story Dad told us in our gloomy garage one Halloween about his friend: the cave diver whose buddy line went slack. Like everything Dad said, it was given to us as true. A master story-teller, he’d chosen the garage as the coldest, darkest, eeriest place in our suburban home. We were surrounded by the spare parts of our lives: an unused treadmill, punctured footballs, broken action figures and drawers of tools, cables and half-dead batteries with too much charge to throw away. Satisfied with this claustrophobic setting, my father began to tell the story as it was told to him.

I can’t recall exactly how the two divers were separated, however. There was a sharp tug on the line and then nothing. These submerged catacombs were not much wider than a man and Dad’s friend, who was the lead diver, had no way of turning or wriggling backwards. It was only when he emerged into a larger chamber that the line came free and the cave diver realised his friend was gone. Had he gotten into difficulty and cut the line to make a break for the exit? Or had it snagged on razor-edged rocks? He retraced their route. Bubbles stirred a cloud of sediment everytime he exhaled. His oxygen tank clinked and boomed on stalactites as he squeezed through ever narrower spaces. Then, while exploring one of the side tunnels his torch lit up a discarded weight belt. His friend was lost and running out of air.

Suddenly a beam of diluted light shone through a hole in the rock wall no bigger than a fist. The cave diver flashed his torch through the gap and, on the other side, the lost man gestured to his air gauge with slow hands and wild eyes. So the diver passed his regulator through the gap, holding his breath while the lost man clamped down on the mouthpiece and breathed the air withheld from him. The cave diver held his breath until the lost man returned the mouthpiece. Then – in a cruel twist – the other’s torch blinked out. The cave diver pointed the way out as he remembered it, and passed his own torch through the gap. The beam caught his lost friend shaking his head, pupils shrinking in its light. He was in a separate tunnel system. They’d both had the same air, had both been down for the same time but the lost man had panicked and used up more oxygen. The cave diver struggled to stay calm. He had to get to the surface now or they’d both drown. They shook hands through the gap in the wall and parted.

Grim minutes passed under the permanent granite night. The cave diver felt his way through the forest of rocks with palms, elbows and knees. At last, he was birthed into open water and able to breathe stale dregs of air that expanded in the cylinder as he rose. Then the last fumes were gone. Having pulled himself, exhausted, onto land, he waited for ten minutes at the edge. The lost man’s air had run out long ago. He knew that his friend was drowned – until a cloud of dim torchlight and bubbles broke the surface. The lost man clambered out, dumping his tanks and torch in the mud. He staggered to his jeep and drove away without a word. The cave diver checked the abandoned cylinders where the torch beam still shone into the rain. The air gauge read empty.

“Was it a ghost?” We asked, sitting in the dark garage at home.
Dad lowered his voice, “Who’s to say? No one ever heard from him again”. Then, with one sudden movement, he whipped a flashlight from behind his back, lighting it under his chin. He grinned like a pumpkin filled with candlelight and cackled, “But I still have his torch”.

Shigeru’s Cave shortlisted for Live Canon 2014

September 30, 2014

Poetry news! ‘Shigeru’s Cave’ has been shortlisted for this year’s Live Canon International Poetry Competition. It’s a series of three Italian sonnets imagining one of the fathers of modern gaming, Shigeru Miyamoto, as a kind of schoolboy hermit exploring Platonic territories. Miyamoto is (of course) the creator of the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda games. Much has been made of his formative, solitary childhood playing in woods, caves and streams in the hills behind his family’s suburban home. Shigeru himself suggests a mysterious link between these early experiences of nature and the playful, tactile exploration that characterises his game design. The poem was inspired by this article in The New Yorker.

A philistine visits Tate St. Ives

September 14, 2014

However spellbinding the exhibitions at the Tate St. Ives, I’ve always felt that nothing can beat the view of Porthmeor beach from the upper gallery. Pulling your attention away from the indigo waves you’ll notice fascinating sculptures and paintings encased in glass, such as Alfred Wallace’s slanted and enchanted daubings of his life at sea. The thought occurred to me though, that all art is in some way incidental, depending on a particular piece of material, thought, observation, moment or brushstroke. It may have been while looking at Ben Law’s series of minimalist penciled squares… which according to a plaque were produced in a single day. No shit. What makes this work interesting, if anything, is that it is what it is.

When Dan and I visited MoMA in New York, there were several huge Jackson Pollock canvases. I can’t remember which numbers they were. A guard dressed in black security gear carrying a sub-machine gun stood at one corner of the room. He could have raised that mp5 and mown us all down at any point, which I found much less conducive to viewing the work as the artist intended. Anyway, a little lad wandered up towards one of these sprawling pieces encouraged by his parents who were standing back to take a photo of him in front it. Everyone looked at the security guy, including the boy, who was a bit older than a toddler, to see what he made of it. Sub-machine gun dude seemed affable and watched with a fond smile. So the child went ahead and leant on the painting. The whole canvas trembled. People gasped. His parents rushed forward gesturing for him to come away. Maybe Jackson Pollock’s No. 4 will fall on us and its protector will commit seppuku in a hail of bullets. Instead, the canvas ceased to shake and the guard tiptoed over to the boy to gently ask him not to lean on the painting, looking around sheepishly to see if he was in for a bollocking. But he was right to be relaxed about what is, in an absolute sense, splashings of dried paint. In what scenario was the gun necessary, I wonder.

You can make or stultify art depending on how you present it. There’s a curious effect in the upper gallery of the Tate St. Ives, where if you look sideways at the large curved window – neither at the waves or human attempts to represent them – it seems as though the sea is flowing into the room, reclaiming all of the works it inspired in the glass. Then, as you leave the gallery altogether, the sea air hits and you come into the entranceway outside the large curved window. Another sense is restored. You can’t see them yet but you hear waves echoing in this concrete cylinder. Another few steps and you’ll see waves, hear waves, perhaps even walk in them. And maybe that’s what art is really for: to make sure we’re awake for experiences it can only point to.

Roshi Returns

September 9, 2014

I’ve written another story for The Book of Almost Truths. Roshi returns from his adventures in the desert to climb the mysterious tower that defeated him in his youth.

After years of wandering amid the beauty of the desert, the thrill of the forest, and the warmth of great cities, Roshi returned to the tower he had almost climbed in his youth. It was difficult to find. The desert was larger than he remembered but the tower was very tall. He walked barefoot on the hot sand for many days before he saw its spire shining in the white sun. As he walked towards the tower he saw an oasis on the horizon…

Read Roshi Returns here.

Isabel’s Curious Machine

September 6, 2014

Williams Carlos Williams said that a poem is a machine made out of words. That’s a fitting way to describe Isabel Rogers’ poem ‘John’s Curious Machines': a very efficient, inspired machine designed to evoke John Harrison’s ingenious marine chronometers. These highly precise clocks kept time even in rough, varied weather at sea, making it possible for a ship’s navigator to determine its longitude — saving many lives. Isabel’s poem recently won the Cardiff International Poetry Competition and she was one of the Live Canon Poetry Comp. shortlistees for the past two years. You can read ‘John’s Curious Machines’ on the CIPC website. She’s also written a guest blog for Royal Museums Greenwich about John Harrison and the Search for Longitude.

The St. Ives to Zennor Coast Path

September 4, 2014

I walked the coast path with Hugh today. Hugh is a writer and artist whose poems appeared in The Inner Sea. It started foggy and cool but by midday the morning haze had retreated to the horizon. We saw a seal surface to watch the waves rustle through the carracks, and a stonechat flitting and chirping about the rocks. It’s a walk that means a lot to me, having walked it with good friends on a camping holiday, and my wife when we first came to St. Ives together. The scenery is spectacular. Headland after headland stretches into the Atlantic. We stood in the Trevalgan stone circle and guessed that two hundred generations may have passed since the stones were brought there. It’s a place that makes you feel very transient and all the while waves continue to roll into hidden coves and beaches. We discussed ideas for a follow up to The Inner Sea and finished in The Tinner’s Arms.

Gear talk

September 3, 2014

It’s funny how our preferences change. After summarising my musical modus operandi a few weeks ago it all felt a bit too set in stone. I’ve been resistant to switching to Ableton Live, thinking that it was more efficient and unique to keep plowing my own furrow on Cubase. However, I want to collaborate with a few friends who use Ableton and see what new possibilities appear because of Ableton’s novel way of triggering clips and instruments. I’ve installed it on my wife’s laptop, which I’ve basically commandeered and where I have recourse to none of my preferred plugins. It’ll be fun to start from scratch.

I’ve also finally gone ahead and bought a Fender Stratocaster. In my reckless youth, I was all about high powered humbucker pickups and the uncompromising shape of my cherry red Flying V. I played an Epiphone Les Paul Black Beauty for a while, probably because it was like my guitar tutor’s Gibson custom shop model. Perhaps some part of me thought that by owning the same guitar I would acquire the same speedy chops. This strat is all white with a rosewood fretboard, a mexican model rather than the more expensive American made guitars. How can you play the blues on a thousand pound guitar? I asked myself. Same as you can on a burned out and swamp-rotten one in all likelihood but in the end I didn’t want to spend quite that much.

The Fender tone is there. It’s much more subtle than that of many other guitars, I believe. Those crunchy, warm but clear and bright chords would have been great for the rhythm sections of Distant Signal songs when my MO was to make everything as loud as possible and hope the song would fit around enormous riffs. The strat has plenty of soul for lead lines too, which I’m hoping will come through on the next Uffmoor record. I have no idea what that will sound like at the moment… only a few guesses. Whether these changes will make more difference to the creative process or the end product remains to be seen.