The Dissertation

6 Apr

You’ll know him for his stories

Some are eerie, some just gory

And that poem of his ‘The Raven’, well I’m sure that’s one you’ll know,

He’s the source of my frustration,

And my bloody dissertation:

‘On the textual orientation of the works of Edgar Poe.’

 

I know just what you’re thinking,

You’re thinking: ‘what’s he drinking?

Who on earth would write a paper on the works of that old loon?’

Good point, but I’m in shit,

I need to bloody finish it

Before the English Lit department shuts this afternoon.

 

Well the word count isn’t great,

And I feel compelled to masturbate,

And organise my socks in rows of black and rows of white.

Perhaps I’ll write to Granny…

Clean my room from nook to cranny…

It is really quite uncanny that the hoover looks so …right.

 

Jesus Christ this essay’s bad,

Two thirds wanky, one third mad;

I didn’t think it possible to reach this kind of low.

Quoth the Raven: Nevermore.

Quoth the student: I am bored

And I don’t think I can stand much more of old Lenore and Poe.

 

My degree mark will diminish,

If I do not get this finished;

Just a few more hundred words and that is that, what’s done is done;

I’ll get my cherished third

Never write another word

And forget I ever heard of Poe, get drunk and have some fun.

 

And the student still is sitting,

Never flitting, still is sitting,

In a bedroom full of open books and folders on the floor,

And his eyes have all the seeming

Of an idler who is dreaming

Of a doctor deeming him unfit to write it anymore.

 

Follow this link if you fancy reading the dissertation.

(image: Forsakenfotos/FlickrCC)

Local Business Review: Cafka

19 Mar

A Wednesday in March. What to do? Lunch on a park bench? Lank loom in a book shop? I decided to slurp down a quick coffee. But where to go? The choice: a cosmopolitan Starbucks, frazzled businesspeople, young mums – or slum it with the herbal freaks and bean-addled student crusties in one of the city’s independent coffee houses; slouched buildings with names like Café Caffeine, Bean-Cradle, Milk Lumps. For various reasons I chose the latter.

I meandered into an arty little place called Cafka.

At the door there were three sexless individuals who smelled of cumin. They were discussing an art installation being erected in the window of Cafka. One of them was smoking a roll-up, the other two were rolling roll-ups. Their clothes seemed to be made from curtains and their voices had the spaced, jobless drawl of those who smoke weed before lunchtime.

‘Yeah, that’s it man. It’s an … it’s an enigma.’

I glanced at the installation. It was about as enigmatic as a pube.

‘ A … presence.’

‘For sure, for sure.’

You’ll no doubt be amazed to hear that the piece was entitled ‘Enigma; Presence.’ It was a television with an ashtray on top of it. In the ashtray were three stubbed cigarette butts, each a different colour. On the screen there was a woman in a white dress walking three cats along a beach. The colour of each cat corresponded to the colour of one of the butts.

‘Yeah, it’s like… like…’

‘Yeah…’

This was creative production at its lowest ebb (or so I believed at the time, having not yet seen the initial drawings for a giant fresco of Alex Salmond in Falkirk should Scotland go independent) it had the unexpected effect of making me feel better about my life. I had to commend these people: with their banal and deeply absurd exhibitions, they were inadvertently providing much needed comic relief to Edinburgh’s creative sector.

Inside I ordered a coffee (a coriander macchiato, the best on offer) and sat down on a rug-splattered chair that felt alive, alarmingly. The décor in Cafka is smothering; every inch of wall pasted with past installations and leaflets for obscure music events; D.J  Gadge and the Reindeer Egg; Derek’s Accordion Apocalypse; Cod Sounds. I sipped my drink and put it down, not intending to pick it up again. Sat opposite me was a bearded man wearing lensless glasses. He was flicking through Cafka’s bi-monthly newsletter: The Scene. I picked up a bedraggled copy.

It was trash.

The main article was a florid piece about ‘modes of expression’ which profiled a day in the life of the artist who had spawned ‘Enigma: Presence.’ There was a small picture of her standing alongside an older piece: ‘Presence: Enigma’. I squinted my eyes at the black and white image; were they?… yes … they were. The artist was definitely sporting a pair of lensless glasses. I looked up. It couldn’t be, could it? It was. I was sitting face to face with the artist. His name was Michelle X. He let out a high pitched cough through his beard. I noticed he had breasts.

I left Cafka in high spirits.



 
This review was commissioned by The Ancient, Honorable 
and Fragrant Order of the Pink Goats. If you would 
also like me to review a fictional venue, do not 
hesitate to get in touch.
(image:Wonderlane/FlickrCC)

Edinburgh Streetname Derivations

20 Feb

Do you know the story behind the name of the street you live on? Streetnames, or odonyms, can present all sorts of interesting historical portraits and anecdotes. Here are the stories behind five Edinburgh streets:

1. The Royal Mile – It is in fact 12% longer than a regular mile

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The name ‘The Royal Mile’ was first used in W M Gilbert’s Edinburgh in the Nineteenth Century in 1901, and was further popularised as the title of a guidebook, published in 1920.

2. Princes Street – Sticklers for Grammar Think it Should Have an Apostrophe

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Soon to be the sight of tram journeys and no doubt a few political rallies, Princes Street was originally to have been called St Giles Street after the patron saint of Edinburgh. Plans changed however when King George III discovered St Giles was also  the patron saint of lepers. The street was named after King George’s two eldest sons, Prince George, Duke of Rothesay (later King George IV) and Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany.

3. Ravelston Dykes – Famously Genteel

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Ravelston Dykes, formerly known as Ravelston Dykes Road was named after Ravelston House. The house was built in 1790 for Alexander Keith, Knight-Marischal of Scotland, and is now A-listed. Sir Walter Scott was a regular visitor. The building is now part of Mary Erskine School.

4. Alan Breck Gardens – An Interesting Literary Connection

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This distinctive name came out of a South Clermiston scheme where all streetnames were selected from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Kidnapped”. The appropriate Committee felt this theme was suitable because of Stevenson’s connection with Edinburgh and in his novel it was Clermiston Hill that David Balfour crossed before looking down on old Ebenezer’s house.

5. Breadalbane Street – Home to Blair Cadell Solicitors

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Breadalbane Street is named after a region of the southern/central Scottish Highlands in Atholl. The district is bounded on the north by Lochaber, on the south by Strathearn and Monteith and on the west by Lorn and Lochaber. The area gives a title to the Marquis of Breadalbane. At the time Breadalbane Street was named  the Earldom was held by Gavin Campbell, 7th Earl and 1st Marquis of Breadalbane, a liberal politician.

If you would like to find out more about the street you live on, take a look at this website, which documents the history behind dozens of Edinburgh streets.

(images:RonnieMacdonald/Berndt Rostad/FlickrCC)

(This piece was taken from another blog I write at Blair Cadell, a leading firm of Edinburgh solicitors. You can find other pieces I have written for Blair Cadell by clicking this link. Subjects range from Edinburgh property to the impact of the trams on local business, Scottish independence and beyond. Take a look!)

Hazy Edinburgh: The Silk Road

18 Feb

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I met Eric Ford on a drizzly afternoon in Edinburgh in a bar in the city’s west end. I had been referred to him by a friend who said that Eric might know something about preserving one’s anonymity online. Eric, I was assured, had purchased class A’s on the internet.

            ‘Don’t tell him I’m a journalist,’ I said.

           ‘I’ll tell him you’re a client.’ Suddenly I had visions of Al Pacino in Scarface.

            But it was all a joke. Eric wasn’t a drug lord. Not even a drug  mule. In fact Eric was just your run-of-the-mill university student and casual weed toter.

            Of course the first thing I did when I met Eric was tell him about me being a journalist. He agreed to talk to me and let me write about him as long as I changed his name, didn’t publish his address etc etc. Was I allowed to say we were in Edinburgh? He supposed so. After we had established that it wasn’t mere legal highs Eric was purchasing but real ‘soviet-grade’ marijuana – we moved on to the good stuff. Or at least the stuff I’m interested in: The Deep Web, The Tor Network and The Hidden Wiki.

            Like many others Eric had stumbled across discussion boards that mentioned an elusive website called the Silk Road. This e-bay style site allows its users to purchase illicit substances with complete anonymity. The reason I say that it is elusive is because you can’t just go looking for it on Google; to get to the Silk Road you have to enter the Deep Web, the part of the internet that isn’t indexed by conventional search engines. The process is relatively esoteric and complex. ‘It took a bit of perseverance,’ said Eric. ‘But in reality it’s not all that hard to get it all set up. I did some research on TOR and then downloaded the browser the next day.’

Originally sponsored by the US Naval Research Laboratory, the Tor Network is widely used around the world for protecting anonymity online. Controversially though it is also used by people who want to remain invisible when making illegal transactions in the Deep Web. Visiting a website through Tor re-routes your connection through a random path of other Tor users’ computers before reaching the target web server, masking your originating location from that server. Thus your unique IP address is hidden and the authorities shouldn’t come knocking at your door. I should stress that this isn’t meant to be a how-to guide – and I don’t condone the use of drugs having taken ill after a calpol overdose at the age of seven. Mother calls it my Woodstock.

Unlike normal websites, Deep Web pages do not have catchy titles and user-friendly URLs. What you get are a series of random numbers and characters followed by, somewhat mercurially, “.onion”. This is the ‘O’ in TOR, which stands for The Onion Router. Like someone peeling an onion, each onion router removes a layer of encryption to uncover routing instructions, and sends a message to the next router where this is repeated. Easy as that.

Enter the Deep Web and one of the first pages you will likely be confronted with is the infamous “Hidden Wiki”. This is a bit like a map of the TOR network. It provides listings of various sites that range from the disturbing to the utterly insane. Listed below are some of the most notorious:

Banker & Co.- Professional Money Laundering Service.

Buttery Bootlegging: This person will go shop lifting for you.

Paypal4free – Hacked Paypal accounts for cheap, with balances.

Atlantic Carding – Credit Card information sold at a discount rate.

All Purpose Identities – US and Canadian Drivers Licenses, passports and much more.

Rent-a-Hacker – Professional hacker for hire.

White Wolves Contract Killer – speaks for itself.

The Human Experiment – where allegedly one can view medical experiments carried out on human subjects. Nice.

Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at security firm F-Secure believes that although TOR has many laudable uses, others are content to abuse it. “It reminds me of the web in 1995. In those early days, once people got the hang of it, anything goes as there seemed to be no law, no police and no regulation. People trust they will never be found when they are on Tor.’

Some of these websites are probably hoaxes, aimed at perpetuating the myth of the Deep Web as a murky place to hang out. Yet there is certainly a great deal of harrowing material to be found, or avoided. I asked Eric whether he had come across anything that he found uncomfortable.

            ‘Personally I have only encountered one or two things that you could call dark or sensitive. I think like the regular internet it’s just a matter of avoiding that stuff. If you don’t want to find it you probably won’t. Obviously never click things like CP.’[CP stands for Child Pornography].

            I asked Eric to tell me a bit more about the process of buying cannabis on The Silk Road. Was it easy? Did you worry about your bank details being stolen?

            ‘Apart from setting up the TOR browser on your computer you also have to make a bitcoin account. [Bitcoins are a way of paying for the purchase anonymously]. Sellers on the site are rated on their reliability so you kind of know who’s going to pull through. When you’ve made your purchase your bitcoins are held by a middleman until your purchase is completed. Then you get an envelope in the post.’

            While obviously purchasers have to give over an address at some point, no names are exchanged. This means that were the police to intercept a package the purchaser has a degree of what you might call ‘plausible deniability.’

            The attraction in the system insists Eric is that he doesn’t have to put himself at physical risk by purchasing street drugs. He insisted that the cannabis he was buying was also better and safer than what he could get in Edinburgh.  ‘You are buying direct from the grower  – which means the quality is more consistent.’

            The time and effort required by police to track nefarious Tor users (even when possible) would be almost laughable if it weren’t such a serious issue.

            Police have little to go on other than powerful servers known as TOR ‘end nodes’. These are servers which, in effect, connect the TOR network to the wider world. Yet it is a risky business managing one of these nodes as, unlike those on the TOR network proper, your IP address isn’t hidden. The owners of computers acting as end nodes for Tor traffic are usually volunteers – often with an interest in facilitating free speech for the oppressed. Donating your computer to be used as an ‘end node’ is in many ways a noble act.  These volunteers have no idea what criminal traffic is passing through their machines however it is common for them to be harassed by police. Here is the account of one such end node operator posted on Spyblog.uk:

I totally believe in Tor. I think it is a magnificent force for the circumvention of internet censorship but there is a problem.

I was visited by the police in November because my IP address had turned up in the server logs of a site offering, or perhaps trading in (I was not told the details of the offence) indecent images of children. The date of the offence was about one month after I started the server so it looks as though the site in question had been under surveillance for more than a year.

It was what is known as a ‘dawn raid’ and, amazingly enough, my children were still asleep when it occurred. Thank God.

I explained to the officers, who we had heard threatening to break the door down before we let them in, about Tor but they had never heard of it. My wife says she thinks they were about to arrest me before that. I was not arrested. I was told not to touch the computer and it was placed, considerately, in a black plastic bag and taken away for forensic examination.

This man – who didn’t want to be named – was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing. At present TOR has around 4000 end nodes which allow the network to handle roughly two or three  million daily users [at the time of writing]. But to sustain millions more users and keep traffic from slowing down it would take around 10,000 nodes. Tor is currently developing hardware that volunteers will be able to buy and plug into home computers to automatically become nodes. For those uncomfortable about running the nodes with all that illegal activity on the network, Tor offers a program to sponsor a larger one that is operated by experienced developers and serves as the final risky node in the chain. The incident above reveals just how eager the authorities are to infiltrate the TOR network but also a lack of understanding in just how the system works.

            Underneath the nose of these authorities the operators of the Silk Road are making a tidy profit. The website receives around 60,000 hits a day from users all over the world and according to research by the Carnegie Melon institute the site was generating around $1.2 million dollars per month in the early part of 2012. Since then, Forbes magazine have estimated that the site was due to bring in around $30-$45 million dollars in 2013. For every transaction the site takes a 10% commission fee.

            The founder of the site is the notoriously secretive Dread Pirate Roberts (a nom de plume taken from William Golding’s novel The Princess Bride) who is sought by governments across the world. Roberts does not permit the sale of child pornography, stolen goods or guns on the Silk Road. We know this because he is an active presence on the site’s discussion forums where he often shares his views on the US government and the Austrian school of economics; a school that bases its analyses on the purposeful actions of individuals.

            “We can’t stay silent forever,’ he wrote recently, ‘We have an important message, and the time is ripe for the world to hear it. What we’re doing isn’t about scoring drugs or ‘sticking it to the man.’ It’s about standing up for our rights as human beings and refusing to submit when we’ve done no wrong. Silk Road is a vehicle for that message. All else is secondary.”

            He insists that The Silk Road is part of a larger project to grant power back to the individual and take it away from big government. However we probably won’t be seeing him on the ballot box any time soon.

            The important question in all this is whether software like TOR encourages criminal activity. It certainly enables it; a point which it its supporters concede. They also like to stress that traditional police techniques are still effective against Tor. Police can still investigate means and motive, analyse writing styles, conduct technical analysis of the content and various other types of physical investigation. The developers of the Tor Project also insist they work with governments and the police to train them how to use the Tor software to safely conduct investigations and anonymised activities online.

I asked Eric if I could see his set-up but he didn’t feel comfortable taking me to where he lived. After our conversation it didn’t really surprise me that he might be man with a few privacy issues. As we wondered to the exit we shared a joke about the TOR network possibly being a mythical pathway to the cosmos. He admitted that he had done a bit of fruitless alien hunting on the Deep Web. Well Eric, I was tempted to say, that’s what happens when you smoke to much dope brother.

(image:XuanChe/FlickrCC)

Dark Laughter; Humour in The Works of Edgar Allan Poe

7 Feb

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 I. Self Parody, Bad Taste, Blank Pages

Between 1948 and 1950, a radio series entitled ‘THE NBC UNIVERSITY THEATRE OF THE AIR’ set out to adapt ‘THE WORLD’S GREAT NOVELS’ for a mass audience. Hemingway made the cut, as did Dickens and Steinbeck, Huxley, Joyce and Greene among others. And Edgar Allan Poe found a place in the line-up, although not on the merits of his only feature-length novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It was a few of the shining stars of Poe’s perennially popular short fiction that made it to air. On the third of June,1949, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ‘The Purloined Letter’ and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ were broadcast along with ‘Lionizing,’ the one seemingly leftfield selection. The name Poe is of course synonymous with the eerie (also the horrible, the dark, the bleak, the simply terrifying) and has been since he published his first collection of fiction Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840; yet for one who had never read or heard of Poe, to listen to these adaptations of his stories, they would certainly not be under any such impression. The NBC theatre’s version of The Fall of the House of Usher in particular, supposedly one of the author’s more bloodcurdling narratives, is laugh out loud. Roderick Usher, Poe’s doomed hero, creepily incarcerated in his own melancholia, becomes an outrageous burlesque parody of himself – ridiculously mournful and dejected, almost to the point of absurdity. The narrator, naiveté cranked up to the full, becomes the archetypal straight-man, while Usher’s rather too deathly sister Madeline wafts in and out of the broadcast, either whispering demonically or emphatically howling. Throughout all of this, intriguingly, the story seems to retain much of its original mythopoeic power. I suggest that the success of this adaptation is a reflection of the humorous strain implicit in Poe’s original text, a conjecture which I will return to later on in this paper.

One doesn’t have to look very far to trace the comedic trend in Poe’s work more generally. Of the twenty-five pieces in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, at least eleven are wholly comic in intent; these range from social satires such as ‘The Man Who was Used Up’ and ‘Bon Bon’, to farcical pieces like ‘King Pest’, and an attempt at a hoax ‘The Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaal’ in which the author describes, with apparent scientific veracity, a journey to the moon in a hot air balloon. Poe himself objected to being pigeonholed, taxed by critics for ‘what they have pleased to term ‘Germanism and gloom. The charge is in bad taste, and the grounds of it have not been sufficiently considered’ (63). I intend to argue, with recourse to a number of Poe’s texts, both overtly comic and ostensibly gloomy and ‘Germanic’, that Poe used humour to critique the fashions and intellectual mores of his society. This goes against a long tradition of critics placing Poe somehow completely outside of society. Freudian critics, often the worst offenders in this regard, have sought to read his texts as a selection of medical case-notes. Marie Bonaparte sees in his writing ample evidence that he was a ‘sadonecrophile’; Joseph Wood Krutch offers a similar diagnosis when he asserts that ‘Poe’s texts are nothing other than an accurate transcription of a severe neurosis’ (Bloom 132). These sort of interpretations are spurious for a number of reasons. Firstly, they make totalising assumptions on a factually inaccurate basis; Poe’s corpus certainly did not consist entirely of stories about premature burial, metempsychosis, mutilation and vampirism as these critics seem to believe. Furthermore, these themes are often problematised in the tales that are not necessarily explicitly about them, as I intend to illustrate. Secondly, as Stephen Rachman suggests, ‘when critics assert the isolation of Poe’s art from social pressures they are often doing little more than reiterating Poe’s own aesthetic credo’ (xii). Poe was particularly adroit at manipulating his own image and vexing the categories by which we know literature, the world, and the difference between them. Thus for some critics, notably Lacan, the status of the Poe is no longer that of the sick patient but, if anything, that of the analyst ( Felman 137).

But was he funny? The phrase ‘Poe’s humour’ is thought by a number of critics to be ‘a contradiction in terms’ (Zimmerman 63). One of the in-jokes of Poe Scholarship, summed up by J. Marshall Trieber, goes that ‘a study of Poe’s humour might consist of twenty blank pages’ (32). Yet others are more accommodating towards the idea of Poe as a humourist; James H. Justus, for example, writes that

in the last decade scholars have unearthed a writer of such duplicity that the dominant image of Poe as the exploiter of terror and sensation may eventually be replaced by that of the witty self parodist and burlesque comedian (86).

It is not my aim to prove that Poe was, or is, actually funny. As Trieber cogently points out ‘a study of Poe’s humour should be based on Poe’s idea of humour, not the reader’s’ (32). What I do aim to establish is that Poe’s comic works often reveal a startlingly darker vision of the nature of man than his tales of terror.

 II. Satire, Savagery, Scorn

‘If we take a distant view of [Poe’s work] as a whole,’ writes T.S Eliot, ‘we see a mass of unique shape and impressive size to which the eye constantly returns’ (327). Once we get up close and personal, however, we find Poe’s work littered with elements that have caused critics to wince, and turn away. Writing on Poe’s poetry, Aldous Huxley, for instance, accused him outright of vulgarity:

To the most sensitive and high-souled man in the world we should find it hard to forgive, shall we say, the wearing of a diamond ring on every finger. Poe does the equivalent of this in his poetry, we notice the solecism and shudder (86).

I shudder to think what Huxley would have thought of his attempts at comedy. Poe’s wit runs, not to sophistication and refined urbanity, but rather to the extravagant and outrageous. His use of dreadful puns, for example, is well documented. Standing round a burial tomb or a family vault, Poe’s characters have been known to let out a ‘grave’ chuckle (‘The Gold Bug’ 276). In ‘The Philosophy of Furniture,’ riffing on national tastes for décor, Poe could say of the Spanish that ‘they are all curtains – a nation of hangmen’ (Zimmerman 71). His fondness for ludicrous names is also frequently alluded to. ‘Mr. Touch-and-go-Bullet-head’ in ‘X-ing a Paragrab’, ‘Professor Rubadub’ in ‘Hans Pfaal’, the law firm ‘Bogs, Hogs, Logs, Frogs & Co’ in ‘Diddling’ and ‘Brevet-Brigadier General John A.B.C Smith’ in ‘The Man that was Used Up’ are among my favourites. Nevertheless, I have to grudgingly concede with Trieber that these sort of name games are ‘the result of someone trying too hard to be funny (38). However, under the immediate surface of these seemingly crude narratives, as in so much Poe’s work, lurk complex structures of meaning.

To elaborate on this point, I intend to illustrate the mechanisms of social satire operating in ‘The Man who was Used Up – A Tale of the Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign.’ The joke in this piece revolves around Brevet-Brigadier General John A.B.C Smith, a seemingly perfect individual, who is in actual fact a bizarre fraud, a used up man, constructed entirely from false body parts. The suggestion is that the highly decorated military man, famous for his brave exploits in the eponymous conflict of the tale, was indecorously blown to shreds. Smith is a legless, armless, chestless, shoulderless, eyeless, toothless “bundle” disguised as a handsome hero (Mooney 435).The anonymous narrator of the tale, afflicted with a nervous constitution, is in awe of Smith as they meet at an important public event, so much so that he cannot remember anything about the evening, only that

There was something, as it were, remarkable – yes, remarkable, although this is but a feeble term to express my full meaning – about the entire individuality of the personage in question. … There was air distingué pervading the whole man, which spoke of high breeding, and hinted at high birth. Upon this topic – the topic of Smith’s personal appearance – I have a kind of melancholy satisfaction in being minute (79).

The narrator goes on to farcically describe the perfection of each constituent part of the General’s body. Accordingly Smith’s legs are ‘indeed, the ne plus ultra of good legs,’ and he [the narrator] wishes to God that his ‘young and talented friend Chiponchipino, the sculptor, had but seen the legs of Brevet Brigadier General John A.B.C Smith’ (80). The important word in this passage is ‘appearance’ – the narrator confuses appearance with reality. The clue is of course in the name, John A.B.C Smith: what appellation could be more ordinary than that? By the end of the story, after anxiously inquiring about Smith’s noble deeds and personage to his credulous social circle, the narrator finds Smith in his dressing room, a mere bundle of limbs on the floor, being put together by a servant. All is finally revealed. Poe’s aim in this story is to savagely undermine the specious triumphalism of the ruling elite by revealing its underlying disorder. This theme is evident elsewhere in Poe’s comic fiction, in the King’s obstinate assumption that he cannot be recognised as an orang-utan in ‘Hop-Frog’, for example, or the obtuse Psyche Zenobia’s belief in her own writing ability in ‘How to Write a Blackwood Article.’ Stephen L. Mooney suggests that this type of humour is allied to the vaudeville tradition: ‘it is the wit of the Grand Guignol, The Commedia dell’Arte, and the Johnsonian antimasque of the Royal Court, inventive and fantastic, and charged with shocking jests and metamorphoses’ (434). Comic progression, in this regard, relies on a relatively simple set of rules: disguise, action, error, revelation and result. Action for Mooney, is always based on ‘a fundamental error in the perception of the real’ which leads to ‘the comic revelation of truth as a stripping away of appearances’ (434). The error then in the ‘The Man Who was Used Up’ is on the part of the narrator; he is a gullible participant in what is eventually revealed to be a vacuous and frivolous society led by empty individuals. However, while Mooney’s structure may account for the narrative thrust of Poe’s satiric tales, their semblance of rational order and motivation, it does not figure in their sheer disorder, their ludicrous linguistic games and jarring incongruities. The comic works can be hardly be said to embody ‘that vital requisite in all works of art, Unity’, Poe’s famous dictum as he states it in ‘The Poetic Principle’ (462). They in fact exhibit the opposite. Any attempt to impose on them such unity as can be found elsewhere in Poe – as in say, the poetic solutions of Dupin or the meticulous doubling in ‘William Wilson’ – would detract from their intended effect. Poe’s picture of American society in the comic tales is savage, cynical and uncompromising. Whereas his readers might have believed that the pursuit of happiness is the prime basis of a democratic American society, Poe laughs at such easy optimism. As Justus writes of Poe’s comic tales

The mismatched parts and crude rivets help to shape the jerry-built structures into symbolic artefacts of Poe’s vision, their message reads: there is no harmony in man or society (71)

Along with satire, Poe’s tales also exhibit elements of what Trieber has called ‘the humour of scorn.’ Poe’s humour, argues Trieber, is primarily motivated by personal triumph and revenge over the things and people that would have personally irritated him. We might note that several of his most scathing stories are set in surroundings that he would have been familiar with, Newspaper offices (X-ing a Paragrab), high society gatherings (‘The Man Who was Used Up’), the homes of the literati (‘How to Write a Blackwood Article’). It is a capricious type of humour, based around the idea of ‘grin’, a concept summed up by Poe in ‘Diddling [i.e hoaxing] Considered as One of The Exact Sciences’:

Grin: — Your true diddler winds up all with a grin. But this nobody sees but himself. He grins when his daily work is done — when his allotted labors are accomplished — at night in his own closet, and altogether for his own private entertainment. He goes home. He locks his door. He divests himself of his clothes. He puts out his candle. He gets into bed. He places his head upon the pillow. All this done, and your diddler grins (4).

Such a grin is that of the superior individual who has successfully manipulated and perhaps ridiculed the only-too-predictable people around him. Poe’s fondness for hoaxes – diddles – is undeniable. In 1845 he set about trying to fool the readers of The New York Mirror that a ‘Mr Pennington’ would be attempting a transatlantic crossing in a ‘Steam Balloon,’ by writing a false letter to the paper’s editor. One can imagine Poe grinning as he finished the appalling letter with the sentence ‘I hope that you will excuse this Hurryed Epistle Bad Writing and bad Gramer’ (2 col. 3). Indeed, one critic speculates that Poe “laughed heartily when, incredible as it may seem, at least a portion of the public swallowed the tale as sober fact” (Krutch 159). The pleasure in overcoming an adversary is undoubtedly one of Poe’s favourite topics. In the ‘The Purloined Letter,’ for example, by cannily discovering that the Queen’s letter is hidden in the open, Dupin outwits both the prefect of police and the aristocratic thief Minister D-. The pleasure in this story arises from the unfolding of Dupin’s solution in the face of incredulity and a sense of a triumph of the imagination over plodding police work. Perhaps slightly more sinister is Trieber’s suggestion that Poe intends us to grin with the vengeful Montresor as he seals in his old enemy Fortunato behind a wall in ‘The Cask Of Amontillado’ (33). I mentioned earlier The NBC University Theatre’s adaptation of this particular story; as Montresor laughs maniacally into the credits, the story’s appeal as a piece of wicked schadenfreude becomes quite a convincing possibility. Trieber summarises this aspect of Poe’s humour as ‘the enjoyment we might feel if we heard of a pompous person slipping on a banana — the humour of scorn, wherein our own superiority is tacitly affirmed’ (34). Satire always has a motive, something or someone to expose. In this respect, Poe offers an interesting conundrum. Although it seems that in stories like ‘The Man Who was Used Up’ Poe has a moral vision of the world that he wants the reader to enter into, perhaps there is also ample evidence to suggest that humour in his tales often reveals the opposite; a savage, amoral world in which one must always try to get their own back .

III. Perversity, Romantic Irony, Dread

Critical thought surrounding Poe’s comedy often encourages one to associate the work with farce, silliness, crassness, even lewdness. Early tales such as ‘Lionising,’ for instance, have been excavated for innuendoes. ‘Lionising’ is the story of Robert Jones, a resident of the city of Fum-Fudge who gains acceptance into European high society on account of his miraculously large nose. In ‘Poe’s Lionizing: The Wound And The Bawdry’ John Arnold suggests that this story is not really about the nose, rather that it is about the penis. Brett Zimmerman agrees with this idea and provides several examples of other critics who also agree, largely on the basis of one particular passage; Jones is about to arrive for dinner with the Prince of Wales and guests

“He is coming!” said somebody on the staircase.
“He is coming!” said somebody farther up.
“He is coming!” said somebody farther still.
“He is come!” exclaimed the Duchess.
A marked sensation immediately ensued… (214)

I too agree that this passage is obviously a piece of thinly veiled filth. However, Poe was certainly capable of constructing more literary jokes. I intend to illustrate this by tracing what can be interpreted as a form of detached Romantic Irony in two tales, ‘The Imp of The Perverse’ and ‘The Duc De L’Omelette.’

‘The Imp of the Perverse’ is a short tale, it would have taken up only a page (three columns) of Graham’s Magazine when first published in 1845. It appears to be a murder story, as it involves both a murder and a confession. Yet these two things happen only in the last third of the tale, the equivalent of roughly one column in the original article. The first two columns are a detailed explication of what the narrator terms as a ‘paradoxical’ phenomenon called the ‘perverse’ which contemporary scientific thought refuses to accept as a realistic mental propensity. In this respect, the tale seems remarkably unbalanced in terms of structure. Either that, or it is not really a story about murder at all. The structure, I suggest, reflects various ideas Poe had, strongly reminiscent of the Romantic tradition, concerning the eventual overflow of the rational mind into creativity. ‘It cannot be denied’ says the narrator, criticising the scientific establishment, ‘that phrenology and, in great measure, all metaphysicianism, have been concocted à priori.’ This is why ‘perversity’, according to the narrator, has been overlooked, it can only be empirically ratified, a posteriori

Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible (324).

The story results in the narrator confessing to a perfectly executed murder (i.e there was no chance of him getting caught) for no other reason than that he need not confess. As the narrator sees it, The Imp of the Perverse, that which makes one act as they should not, is a propensity present in all men, however, more importantly ‘with certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible.’ If we take ‘certain minds’ to signify the creative artist, and ‘certain conditions’ to signify the creative impulse, this distinction suggests, as E R. Kanjo points out, that ‘the tale is as much about the creative mechanism in man as it is about the destructive’ (2). The Imp (surely a pun on impulse) is both a ‘direct instigation of the arch fiend’ and yet it is ‘known to operate in furtherance of good’ (i.e creativity).This is the territory of high Romanticism, the paradoxical symbiosis of the creative and destructive. The tale can be interpreted as a Romantic allegory of the creative act, yet it is suitably ironic, in that the artist, knowingly detached from his creative impulses, creates a story based around their destruction (Kanjo 41). This is epitomised in the third of the examples that the narrator gives of the Imp’s influence on him; he imagines himself standing on the edge of a cliff, having an attack of the perverse, so to speak

But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability, a shape … and yet it is but a thought, although a fearful one, and one which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall — this rushing annihilation — for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore, do we the most impetuously approach it (325).

This is the turning point in the bi-part structure of ‘The Imp of The Perverse’, which beginning with rational, scientific language eventually unfolds into the dramatic language of a murder plot. The narrator, under the influence of the Imp is desperate to confess his crime at this stage, and thereby undertake the creative act of telling the story of the crime. His anxiety is caused by the knowledge that by taking such a course of action he will simultaneously ruin his life. Paradoxically then, the narrator’s urge to leap into the abyss in this passage reflects his desire to enact the creative process. Ironically, as Kanjo suggests, the ultimate dread – death – becomes at once the ultimate delight – creativity (43). In imagining death the narrator approaches the act of creation, but also, perversely, approaches death. This may not be a particularly funny joke, but ultimately it is a metafictional play on the anxieties of creative inspiration. Poe revised this story meticulously after its first publication in Graham’s which tells us he was certainly interested in its implications. It exhibits ‘the dizzying, self dissolving effect of thought about thought’ which Poe seems to have enjoyed producing immensely (Irwin 11).

‘Keats died of a criticism’ begins ‘Le Duc de L’Omelette,’ another of Poe’s shortest and seemingly most obscure tales. It is a good example a tale motivated by both Poe’s ‘humour of scorn’ and his interest in contemporary literary motifs. It relates the story of the demise of an epicure, his reawakening in Hell and his subsequent return to earthly world after beating the Devil in a game of cards. Scholars have shown that the satirical object of the tale was likely to have been N.P Willis, the editor of The American Monthly Magazine (Levine 9). Willis wrote a monthly column entitled ‘The Editor’s Table’ in which he invited the reader to share in the extravagant pleasures of his office: ‘two dogs, a pet “South American Trulian” (a bird of his own invention, apparently), perfume for the quill of his pen, crimson curtains, all manner of exotic lounges, ottomans and divans, olives, japonica flowers, and a bottle of Rudesheimer’ (9). Willis was publicly lampooned for these affectations, Poe took pleasure in joining in with the jest. Yet as the first line suggests the tale can be interpreted as commentary on certain aspects of Romantic thought.

From the first line Poe sets up a series of symmetries that will inform the meaning of the tale, which centres around one of Poe’s common themes: metempsychosis. A parallel here can be drawn between the ostensibly ‘gloomy and Germanic‘ treatment of this theme in a tale such as ‘Ligiea’. ‘Keats died of criticism’ refers to Shelley’s poem ‘Adonais.’ Poe is focusing on the body/soul duality Shelley establishes in lamenting Keats’ material death, whilst simultaneously celebrating the eternal life of his ‘pure spirit’ (stanza 38). In terms of imagery, ‘The Duc De L’Omlette’ plays a complicated symbolic game using this Neo-Platonic body/soul motif. Yet as David Hirsch suggests ‘in this burlesque… [the soul’s] “transcendence” remains problematic’ (36). The first significant image is the ortolan (a small bird and antiquated delicacy) which is the cause of the Duc’s death. He cannot stomach that it has not been prepared properly, and dies in ‘a paroxysm of disgust’ (11). The ortolan has been imported from afar

A golden cage bore the little winged wanderer, enamored melting, indolent to the Chasusee D’Antin, from its home in far Peru. From its queenly possessor La Bellissima, to the Duc De L’Omelette, six peers of the empire conveyed the happy bird (11).

The image of the bird in the cage, mirrors the soul’s confinement within the body. As Hirsch remind us, the image of the immortal soul as bird was typically Romantic, exemplified in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” – “Thou west not born for death, immortal bird” – and Shelley’s “To a Skylark” – “Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! / Bird thou never wert . . .” (37). Yet the fact that the bird arrives in a golden cage raises the question of whether Poe is satirising the Duc’s gaudy epicureanism, or in fact suggesting that the body is  the rightful domain of the soul. The Duc, in his refusal to accept the mistake in the ortolans preparation (it is served ‘sans papier’, without its proper culinary adornment) tacitly admits that he cannot accept the soul without the clothing of the body. This metafictional game continues when the Duc arrives in Hell, as the Devil orders him to strip. The Duc refuses to part with his clothes, the symbolic body surrounding his soul, ‘Strip, indeed! very pretty i’ faith! no, sir, I shall not strip’ (12). The Duc and the Devil eventually decide to play a game of cards to settle whether the epicure will reside in Hell for eternity, or return to his sensuous pleasures on earth. During the card game, again, the clothing of the Kings and Queens is frequently alluded to: ‘The cards are dealt. The trump is turned — it is — it is — the king! No — it was the queen. His Majesty cursed her masculine habiliments’ (15). Finally the Duc wins, his soul and body can remain coupled together as he returns to earth. As well as satirizing the Duc’s (and N.P Willis’) diehard epicureanism, what this tale demonstrates is Poe’s ability to parody themes that he would elsewhere treat with more apparent seriousness It also shows Poe’s erudition. Hirsch suggests that perhaps the most important aspect of The Duc de L’Omelette is that shows Poe‘s ‘awareness of the visionary tradition in British Romantic poetry and of his willingness to take an anti-visionary stance’ (39). On the basis of small stories like this one, critics can confidently argue for more complex layers of meaning in the tales of terror.

IV. Duplicity, Parody, Ridicule

In ‘Hawthorne’s Plagiary; Poe’s Duplicity’ Robert Regan offers an interesting distinction between irony and duplicity:

The intention of the writer who employs irony is that the reader shall, perhaps after momentary difficulties, decipher his code; the intention of the writer who employs duplicity is that his code baffle as many readers as possible (294).

A good parody relies on a commitment to the exalted visions of a genre and a renegade impulse which mockingly dissolves such visions. We might cite Northanger Abbey as an example of a clever Gothic parody. The difference between Poe and Austen however (that is, if we take Poe’s acclaimed tales of terror to contain elements of parody) is that whereas Austen flags up her parodic games at every turn, Poe’s parodies of the Gothic are ‘duplicitous’ (in Regan’s sense) in that he didn’t want the reader to know what he was a up to. This results in style of writing that appears to be exemplary of the genre, and nothing more. Intriguingly, Poe’s very first attempts at the horror genre, in the unpublished Tales of the Folio Club, were in fact avowedly parodic. Tales of The Folio Club was originally intended as a series of burlesques commentaries on popular fictional genres; ‘Siope – A Fable’ and ‘Metzengerstein’, for instance, aped both the folk horror story, and the typical Germanic/Gothic romance, on the assumption that readers would share the joke. As a result of not finding a publisher for the book, Poe went about publishing each tale separately in a variety of different magazines. Without the extended burlesque vision of the collection, many readers began to interpret Poe’s stories as serious attempts at the horror genre. Subsequently, as Regan suggests ‘he seems to have decided to make the best of being misunderstood, if his audience would not laugh at his clownishness he would laugh at theirs’(295).

I suggest that the similarities between two of Poe’s stories shed light on his interest in parody. Although it was written six years after ‘The Fall of the House Usher’, ‘The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether’ seems written in reference to the former tale. Both are set in remote buildings in a desolate rural setting. Both buildings are associated with madness; the House of Usher is the setting for the mental collapse of Roderick Usher, the building in the latter tale is explicitly a madhouse. As B. F Fisher and Daniel Hoffman have both noted the narrator in each story arrives on horseback, before being stricken with feelings of dread and gloom on seeing the ominous buildings (Fisher 49). Indeed, both tales also end similarly, in crashing noise and destruction. The House of Usher collapses in on itself, whilst the System of Dr Tarr and Dr Fether also crashes in on itself, when the incarcerated keepers, tarred and feathered, break out of incarceration to prove that all along the mad have been masquerading as the sane. As the title suggests ‘The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether’ is about ridicule. The Parisian narrator (anonymous, as in ‘Usher’) is fascinated with a ‘madhouse’ in the French countryside chiefly because he has heard

that the institution of Monsieur Maillard was managed upon what is vulgarly termed the “system of soothing” – that all punishments were avoided – that even confinement ­ was seldom resorted to – that the patients, while secretly watched, were left much apparent liberty, and that most of them were permitted to roam about the house and grounds, in the ordinary apparel of persons in right mind.

The humour in ‘Tarr and Fether’ arises from not knowing who is sane and who is mad. Poe’s ambivalent claim seems to be that it is impossible to define true sanity when the sane and the mad reverse roles. I suggest we can interpret the narrator in this tale, curious as he is about madness and mystery, as a personification of what Poe perceived as his readership. In this respect, we can see the story as an allegory of the reader entering into the ostensibly unhinged madness of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, and Poe’s other tales of terror, with complete credulity.

Poe plays a multitude of literary and cryptographic games in ‘The Fall of The House of Usher’ that would have escaped the reader merely interested in the frisson of a chilling narrative. The principle motif in the story is the double. The examples are numerous. The physical decay of the House of Usher mirrors the decline of the Usher family; Roderick and Madeline Usher are twins, incestuously in love with one another. Each element in the tale has a mirror image somewhere else. Claudine Herrman and Nicholas Kostis have demonstrated how this system operates on a linguistic level by singling out the words used in the title;

The word House is employed both literally and figuratively. The author stresses this point: “An appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.” … Although the name Usher really existed (the Ushers were Poe’s cousins) it was not chosen at random, for it comes from the French hussier which means introduction (36).

Observations like this one open up the complex possibilities of a relatively simple sentence such as ‘the Valet now threw open the door and ushered me into the presence of his master’(93). I suggest that it is the deciphering of this process of duplication that seems to be comically alluded to in the – appropriately – duplicated narrative of ‘The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether.’ In an elaborate system of mirrors and doubles Poe challenges the reader to solve him or be held up to ridicule.

V. Conclusions

I have tried to demonstrate in this paper that humour in the works of Edgar Allan Poe is a multifaceted aspect of his corpus and a vital requisite in a comprehensive analysis of his work. As we begin to trace the humour in his work it alerts us to his self awareness as a writer, more or less dispelling the myth of him as tortured genius, or worse, crank. Nightmarish aspects are often subtly underscored with jibes against intellectual fads and the moral failings he perceived in others. A certain fondness for grotesque satire and crude burlesque in Poe may be also a mechanism for shrouding more complex modes of thought. However, that is not to deny that he often exploited schadenfreude simply for the wicked pleasure of it. We can see many of the themes of Poe’s humour expanded in the ostensibly more serious tales. Poe’s delight in mystifying the reader, for example, is elaborated into the invention of a new genre – The Detective Story – through the Dupin tales. Poe’s dubious, ironic view of Neo-platonism and the transcendence of the soul as exemplified in ‘The Duc D L’Omelette’ again becomes a serious theme in ‘Ligiea.’

In ‘The Poetic Principle’ Poe has this to say about what the artist strives for:

He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description …has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star (455).

Poe is often accused by critics of avoiding reality in search of an ideal and ultimately specious artistic unity. ‘Aside from his art,’ writes Vernon Parrington, ‘he had no philosophy and no programs and no causes’ (57). What Parrington has failed to note however, is that only someone acutely aware of, indeed haunted by separation and disjunction could make so much of the principle of Unity (Justus 69). Poe’s comic works serve to reveal his sense of the underlying disorder in man and society.

Bibliography

Arnold, John. “Poe’s ‘Lionizing ’: The Wound and the Bawdry” . Literature and Psychology XVIII (1967): 52-54.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
Eliot, Thomas Stearns. ‘From Poe to Valery’. Hudson Review. Vol II (Aug 1949): 327.
Fisher, Benjamin. ‘Marginalia’. Poe Studies, vol. VI, no. 2, December 1973: 49-50.
Felman, Shoshana. ‘On Reading Poetry; Reflections on the Limits and Possibilities of Psychoanalytical Approaches’. Edgar Allan Poe. Ed, Bloom, Harold. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
Herrmann, Claudine & Kostis Nicholas. ‘”The Fall of the House of Usher” or The Art of Duplication’ Substance. Vol. 9, No. 1, Issue 26 (1980): 36-42
Hirsch, David. ‘”The Duc De L’Omelette” as Anti-Visionary Tale’. Poe Studies. Vol. X no. 2 (December 1977): 36-39
Huxley, Aldous. Vulgarity in Literature : Digressions From a Theme. London : Chatto and Windus, 1930.
Irwin, John. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic Detective Story. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Justus, James. ‘Poe’s Comic Vision and South Western Humour’ in Lee, A Robert, ed. Edgar Allan Poe: The Design of Order. Barnes & Noble: London, 1987.
Kanjo, Eugene. “‘The Imp of the Perverse’: Poe’s Dark Comedy of Art and Death”. Poe Newsletter. Vol. II, No. 3 (October 1969): 41-44.
Krutch, Joseph Wood. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell and Co, 1926.
Levine, Stewart, ed. Edgar Allan Poe Thirty Two Stories. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.
Mooney, Stephen. ‘The Comic in Poe’s Fiction.’ American Literature 33 (1962):330- 340.
Parrington, Vernon. Main Currents in American Thought. Vol II. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1927.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings. London: Penguin, 2003.
—‘The Duc De L’Omelette.’ Edgar Allan Poe Thirty Two Stories. Ed, Levine, Stewart. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.
—‘The Imp of The Perverse.’ Edgar Allan Poe Thirty Two Stories. Ed, Levine, Stewart. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000.
—“Lionizing”. Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales. Patrick F. Quinn, ed. New York: Library of America: 212-217
—”Pennington’s Steam Balloon” (A) The Evening Mirror (New York), February 12, 1845, p. 2, col. 3.
Rachman, Stephen. ‘Beyond The Problem of Poe’. The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. Eds Rachman, Stephen & Rosenheim Shaun. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1995.
Regan, Robert. ‘Hawthorne’s Plagiary; Poe’s Duplicity’. Nineteenth Century American Fiction. Vol. 25, No. 3 (Dec., 1970): 281-298.
Trieber, J Marshall. ‘The Scornful Grin:A Study of Poesque Humour’. Poe Studies. vol. IV, no. 2 (December 1971): 32-34.
Zimmerman, Brett. Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style. Quebec: Mcgill-Queen’s UP, 2005.

 

A Few Sparkly Christmas Lights

8 Dec

 

Members Only

20 Oct

snooker

On Friday nights I lock up around six or seven and buzz round to Janine’s on the scooter for an hour before moving on to Frankie’s. Janine’s a tight little piece who thinks I look like Euan Macgregor. She squirms and  protests but we usually get somewhere in the end. Afterwards I light cigarettes for us and we talk for awhile about her dreams. She wants to be an actress  but this is Edinburgh and I tell her it’s pretty hopeless and that dreams are for losers and that she should get a job in Sainsbury’s and keep with me. She gets all tetchy when I tread on her dreams and tells me I should go – so I do, shutting the door firm.

I hop on the scooter and whip round to Frankie’s for eight or nine, cue strapped round my back in its leather case.

Frankie’s skulks in a backstreet behind a dim pub nobody goes to – if you’re not from round here it’s not likely you’ll have heard of it. I leave the scooter perched in the empty car park and cruise in. Jock the Clock puffs his fag at the entrance below the flickering sign (FRNKIS): ‘alright Jock’, people say. He appraises whoever it might be and croaks hello.

In the bar the regulars are at large. Young Cecil stoops over the fruit machine, walking stick by his side, dribbling his heavy down his chin. Fucker Burke’s at the dart board. Morningside Fats prowls in his sharp suit and crumbly suede shoes looking for a frame of straight pool – not my game. Spaz Monty, Tony the Church and Quinn the Welshman prop up the bar, waiting for punters to get a card game going with.

Round here they call me Pecker. I came through to Edinburgh a couple of years ago to go to the art college. I can’t draw, can’t paint, or sculpt or take photos or that but as I see it you don’t have to do any of those things to get by as an artist these days.  I mostly work with what they call ‘found objects’ – shit I pick up from skips and building sites. I basically do what I can get away with. I tend to throw off the odd art history reference now and then – I’ve only got a couple but I recycle them and it seems to do the trick. I tell them Van Gogh was a nobody until he died and I tell them that Picasso was a fanny but that doesn’t make him a bad artist. The boys at club think I’m some sort of Michelangelo.

I’m the best snooker player at Frankie’s too by the way, by a mile. Number 1.

Friday’s my night.  When I get to the table it’s hot and swift. I snipe and knife and cut anything in, almost unconsciously – I don’t mean to brag it’s just like that. I could give you thirty points and sink you on yellows alone. And the boys know this. And if you are at all handy as a snooker player and you reside in Edinburgh you are aware of this. And some of the geezers in Glasgow are aware of it too.

Enter the hotshots  - the poor things that slot the jazzy long ones in with a wink to their birds – and not much else. You could call them my  fish. I reel them in, net them then bash them countinually until they stop wriggling and lie prone. I’ll give you an example: Wee Davy. Aye, Wee Davy was a puffed up little bastard who thought he was the next Steve Davis. His cue action was pretty sharp and he could pot – but he had no balls. Wee Davy shouldered into Frankie’s one Friday night in a trenchcoat and placed a fifty on the bar. He ordered a coke. The boy Liam, the bartender, looked over to Table 4 – my table – and gave me the nod. Go through the back he says to Wee Davy. I wrapped things up and walked through to the Members Only room. Fab place: single table, spotless baize, leather seats round the walls and a personal hatch through to the bar for your bevs.

Davy was already practicing as I entered. ‘I’m Davy’ he says.

‘Aye?’ He knew me alright.

Wee Davy reckoned he was worth fifty quid a frame and I wasn’t in the mood to argue. I let him win the first one, and the second – and I made a pretty show of putting up a fight. I’d hooked him: hundred a frame – cash on the table. Davy had to nip off to the bank machine.

When he got back the audience had gathered.  Along the right wall it was Tony, Fucker, Young Cecil, Gettis, Jock the Clock, Big Phil and Johnny Hummingbird. Along the left sat Spaz Monty, Quinn The Welshman, Deek Chisholm and Crooked Andy the Milkman. The boy Liam had closed up early to take up scoring and refereeing duties. When Davy got back from the Cashpoint I think he nearly shat himself. But he was game, he was already conviced he would win.

‘Five frames, hundred each,’ I said. He nodded. I ordered a double Talisker and placed it down by Davy’s coke.

I won the toss in the first and let Davy break off. He made a cock of it and slapped the blue full in the face on his way back up. From there I made a forty six and it was as good as over. The second was scrappier – I made a twenty, he made thirty and so on until I beat him on the pink. I eeked out an eighty in the third and that’s when Wee Davy really started to sweat. The fourth and fifth he was all over the place and bang – seventy three and a hallmark century to finish – the lads were creasing themselves. Five hundred quid. When the shots you picture in your mind are all happening a snooker table is the best place in the world.

Wee Davy didn’t show his face in Frankie’s again. Aye, that was a special evening but on the whole most nights its all pretty elementary – twenty quid here and there; I’ve been known to play cards with the boys on a really slow night. A lot of the time I finish up around midnight and buzz round to Melanie’s who keeps her doors open late. I spend a half an hour or so saucing her up with my art banter. Afterwards, when she falls asleep, I pad out and shift round the city for a bit until I get tired and buzz home.

The days are slow at college. I sit and watch the girls most of the time. There’s this one lass Georgina who’s a proper surprising talent. Her corner’s stuffed with sketchbooks and canvases resting up against the walls. She spends full days concentrating on a shadow or a speck in her airy pastel scenes. She’s right posh and I’d love to get her in the sack. But she’s got a wee thin lover with greasy locks who flits in and out from time to time who’s most likely a poet or something. A wank essentially. Maybe I’ll invite him down to Frankie’s for a friendly. There’s a few girls I fancy a round with at the college but I suppose I can’t complain: I’ve been screwing our pottery tutor in the kiln room on a weekly basis, I think she’s having some kind of nervous breakdown or something. Hey ho.

So I’ve told you about one of my victories. Now you’ll probably want to hear about what defeat feels like.

Well, I was round at Vicky’s for a backrub one evening when I got a ring from Morningside Fats. He was all jittery so I said I’d catch him down the club poste haste. I said to Vicky that I’d pour over her novel manuscript in the coming weeks but that I had to get away swift because there was an emergency of great importance. She wasn’t happy but I thanked her anyway for the backrub and left.

I swerved round to the club on the scooter. Fats was in a tizzy. He’d got wind of a busload of English on their way up to Edinburgh looking for a war. They’d decamped from the Home Counties and rallied at Carlisle to wreak havoc in snooker and pool halls all the way up through the borders and into the Lothians. They’d made a laughing stock of the Glasgow boys he said – Gorbals Joe had snapped his lucky cue in a rage – and they wouldn’t stop, said Fats, until they’d punished every last cueman in the country. They’d just arrived in Edinburgh. Fats was sweating like a pig.

There were ten or twelve of them he said – scary buggers the lot of them. The head man was a bastard called Cutter Kim who could play with both hands. Fats was saying he was one of those chink prodigies who’d slotted his first fifty at six and his first century at nine. But you can’t trust Fats, he’s a born gambler, a liar that can’t help but exaggerate the truth. That’s not to say I wasn’t edgy about all this.

The story was they were laying siege to the New Yorker on Monday, The Ball Room on Tuesday, Diane’s on Wednesday, The Corn Exchange on Thursday and last but not least Frankie’s on the Friday. I said to Fats I’d be waiting and that they’d picked the wrong evening to mess with Pecker.

I put in some fairly serious hours at the practice table that week as you can imagine. I wasn’t about to be shown up at home, especially by the English. Straight shots, cuts, dinks, swerves, right hand side, left hand side, topspin, screw, deep screw, rest shots, massé, my safety game – I honed everything up. I made consistency a throbbing muscle – concentration, steel focus.

To relax I used to go round to Janine’s for an hour or two at the end of the day. She’d picked up a bit-part in Rebus or Taggart or something and was in a state of mild ecstasy. The sex was marvellous.

On the big day I was icy like Paul Newman and went for a late lunch with Kate. As evening drew in I wrapped myself in my good  jacket and walked through the city in a dream – appreciating the theatre of the buildings and the streetlights and the rush of people and all that. I was buzzing. Kate was talking about her first violin or something, in a ring cycle at the Playhouse that night and about how I was absolutely going to love it. She gave me a fancy ticket with a backstage stamp and told me to dress nice. She paid for the food which was sublime and I kissed her on both cheeks like the French do and didn’t bother saying I wouldn’t be there.

I got to Frankie’s at seven and hit Table 4 to get my arm going. The English were arriving at nine. The club was smack full of talk and excitement which I tried to  ignore. We were all nervous. Everybody knew what was coming. I stuck my face in the baize and eased into my rhythm. It was Pecker vs. Cutter Kim and nothing else. Me and Cutter.

Now here’s the rub. The kick. This is where it all goes mental. The English arrived on time right in a tight little huddle and everybody was just staring, just trying to pin Cutter Kim. Now, Cutter Kim’s a scary bastard right? Plays with his eyes closed right? Wrong. Aye, that’s where you’d be wrong. Cutter Kim, ladies and gentleman, was a bird. No jokes. I shit you not. A female cueman. She played with both hands, she had a reputed high break of 132 and she’d scared two shades of shite out of Scotland’s snooker fraternity. Nobody could believe it. And I’ll tell you what – I laughed in her face. I couldn’t help it.

She didn’t move a muscle, didn’t flinch. Everything went silent and everybody was throwing glances about like nobody’s business.

I broke the silence. ‘Right then,’ I said – ‘let’s go’.

The boy Liam shut the doors and served about fifty drinks. Everybody flocked into the members only room. Screw the Playhouse, this was the only place to be in Edinburgh that Friday. All eyes were on Cutter Kim as she knocked in a few practice shots. I tell you she was some player. She moved like a pro.

‘OK,’ she says, ‘I’m ready to play, who’s first?’ She went a few frames with Gettis whose a tight safety man. He’s an intimidating presence round the table is Gettis, stands right behind your back and that, breathes down your neck. And sure enough he put it her in all sorts of trouble but she matched him shot for shot and when he let her in she cleared up every time. She was no chump. I’ll tell you what as well she looked really good, I mean physically. Stout arse, silky skin and those eyes – you could get lost in those and never find your way out.

Once she’d finished with Gettis she went to the bar and slurped down a Malibu & Lemonade. Some of the boys went a few rounds with the other Englishmen and it was all sort of fifty-fifty come midnight. Cutter Kim was just sitting there straight faced, polishing off the bevs. It was pretty impressive. I walked over. ‘You and me darling,’ I said. She stood up and wiped her mouth.

Best of seven. No money involved between me and her; she wanted it that way. But the punters were going bonkers – I reckon there must have been over five grand changed hands that night.

I chalked up a storm and broke off in the first and left the white up against the top rail. But I’d stuck a red in the open which she could see. Silence. She didn’t take it on but she hit the safety sweet as a nut. I returned the compliment and so on and vice versa for five minutes or so until she pinned me right in behind the brown. Bit lucky I felt. I nudged off the pack on the return and left a cut in the middle which she sank and then she was off like a firework – up to the blue smack into the reds and in for a sixty or a seventy. The English were clapping away. I spotted Fats in the corner chewing his hand.

The second was mine. I took it carefully, resisting my natural game, lining everything up with my cue.

In the third she let me in after a brutal kick. But it didn’t seem to phase her. My clearance was textbook.

Two-one. In the next she spotted a mad plant and finished up plum on the black. Ten reds ten blacks and everybody was thinking she might do the business but she missed a stinker into the middle against the nap. Everybody was behind her on that shot, maybe even me.

We shared the fifth and sixth. The match was going all the way.

It was two in the morning. I felt the press of a nation on my shoulders. I felt the back-slap of men everywhere. I felt the wee boy in me. It was a twitcher from the off. The walls were closing in and I knew I was gripping my cue too tight. I broke too hard with far too much side and was lucky to bop the green and finish near the pocket. So tense. So tense. She dumped the white down the other end and sent a red up to baulk. There was a cut on to the left corner but I turned it down in favour of the safety. And this was the right shot. But I clipped it thick and left it for the middle. Tragedy. She made a difficult thirty and left me in a tight little spot behind the yellow. And what do you know, I butchered it and fluked a red. It wasn’t pretty. I waved my hand up like a good boy but inside I was dancing. The English boys were in turmoil thinking it was all over. Far from it. The table was a labyrinth, a cryptic crossword puzzle. Every shot felt like the 147 black. But I silenced everything and got to frame ball. Jabbed it. Choked.

Cutter Kim made a noble clearance.

I don’t want to talk about the boys’ faces, the English cheers, the scraps in the carpark. I just don’t.

Outside in the rain, I sat on my scooter and played that frame ball in my mind perfectly twenty or thirty times. You shouldn’t do that, you should just forget about it and get on with your life. Anyway I was just about to buzz round to Tracy’s for a midnight snack when I got a tap on the shoulder. It was Cutter Kim. ‘You’re talented Pecker’, she says, ‘but you found it hard playing against a woman.’

‘Did I fuck,’ I said.

She asked if I would buzz her back to her hotel on the scooter.

We spent the night together – it was pretty wild – and I as I drifted off to sleep I asked her if she’d stick around for awhile. But when I woke up she was gone. She’d left me to deal with her hotel bill and all. Last I heard she was in Dundee teaching some other uppety bastard a lesson.

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