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Catsback

Walking with Wagner

The converted ballroom was lit by guttering church candles and regular flickering from an imitation coal fire in the marble hearth, Leonardo was sulking, and we still didn’t know where to start the revolution.    That’s the trouble with projects like this – without proper management from the outset details get missed.   Little things, like ‘what’s the reason for the revolution’, ‘who’s the enemy’, ‘what colour is the flag’...

As soon as I joined the team I realised that our headquarters were part of the problem.    Every time we got together for another session someone would be missing.  If it was raining or snowing I’d find Leonardo or Emily scrunched up under a rug on the chaise longue in the Long Gallery, reading a first edition from the library or staring thoughtfully across the lake to the mountains.   If the sun was out half of the team would end up hiking on little-used trails through the woods, or trying to start a tan on the pebbled lake shore.

When I was elected chairwoman of the collective I argued that we should move.   I wanted us to be somewhere with intrinsic energy, unfettered by delusions of conformity.   Hackney or Stoke Newington perhaps.   I knew of an old warehouse in Whitechapel which would have suited us perfectly – large but with few distractions other than a disturbing proximity to one of the Ripper murder sites.   But my colleagues were adamant – they wanted to stay in Muswell Hill.  

If you don’t know the area let me tell you something.   Imagine a suburb in north London with wide streets, large century-old houses, flowering cherry trees in the Spring.   Buses are few and the railways have retreated.   Every third house contains a psychotherapist or a counsellor, and their non-judgemental drones permeate the atmosphere like gaseous leeches, sapping vibrancy and daring, imposing acceptance of failure.    The whole place is in permanent hibernation.  Would you plan a revolution from there?

In the end I had to give in – perhaps I’d been affected more than I thought.    The house we used was at the top of the hill, near the Broadway with its cafés and bookshops.   Johan lent it to us – he’d got the land originally as a grant from one of the priories, long gone now since the dissolution.     The house itself was, I must confess, beautiful.   Tudor brick, a central block surmounted by a bell tower and two wings containing most of the accommodation.  Along the back ran the Long Gallery with its distant views and the winding herringbone brick path down to the lake.     

Having decided to stay, our next problem was where the first barricades should be raised.    As you’ve already realised, the right location is vitally important.   London has very confusing energy flows – in some places they even run backwards.   If we chose the wrong place the reverse flow effect could drain all our energy before the first banner was raised.    Leonardo  suggested designing a machine to counter any reversal effect – we spent days looking at his spidery drawings, spread over the table and pinned up across the walls.  I could see the elegance in his concept - a horizontal solid wheel two hundred feet in diameter, spinning on an offset axis planted at the centre of the flow contours which Dixon had mapped.    When properly tuned the fields generated by the wheel would neutralise the reversed energy flows under the barricades.   Leonardo’s diagrams were compelling, finely drawn in whatever colour ink he could find, with crabbed commentaries and analyses penned alongside - so much detail couldn’t be wrong.   We were almost persuaded.   The wheel would take a year to construct, planning permissions would be more problematic.    Then Dixon, who’d just returned from another surveying sortie, said  Why not just start somewhere else, where the flows are different – we’d only need to move a few hundred yards down the street?”  It was at moments like this that I wondered about my suitability for the rôle. 

We knew that we needed to be in the heart of the City of London – around three thousand years of laughter, pain and conflict have left some significant energy markers there.   The obvious place was Ludgate Hill.  We all had fond memories of the wooden temple there  - it was quite a social centre in the old days.   We wasted an entire evening reminiscing about Lugh  - one of the most attractive gods, a face like the rising sun.   That night, sitting alone outside on the grass sloping down to the water, I realised how much we had lost.   It was like emptying an attic and finding a long forgotten favourite from childhood, once a living companion and now faded and dusty, gently disintegrating out of mind in the darkness.

Will argued hard against Ludgate – he’d lost some good friends there in a fight but that was way back  and as we all said, sometimes you just have to move on.  That was part of the problem, allowing for the burdens of experience that we all contributed.  Will was always harking on about the first time he entered the City, riding along Cheapside, listening to he cheers of the crowd.   There was a difficult moment when Thomas, who should have known better and wasn’t there at the time, accused Will of offering the crowd a choice; cheer or lose your head.   Some revolutionaries just never grow up.

Looking at it objectively the next part may seem strange, but none of us could remember why we were having the revolution.   It was one of those projects that have been in the planning stage for so long no-one knows why it was started.  To be sure, each person on the team had a different personal agenda, but I said that for both moral and ethical reasons we had to present a consensus.  We brainstormed all the candidates for our just cause.  Third world debt, global corporatism, shutting the mines, the Corn Laws, Spinning Jenny, window tax, crop failure for the third successive year.  

“We must”, I said, “have a clear message.  No-one will join us if we’re not clear about our purpose.    We must be resolute, we must not waver.   We must hold our conviction clear and untarnished in our hearts”. 

Then Leonardo, always keen on practicalities, asked simply “What is our conviction?”

Never, in all the years that we’d known each other and worked together, had there been so much dissent.     I confess that I watched much of the debate from a corner of the vast room, sipping brandy tapped from the small sea-stained barrels that were replaced by orderlies at intervals throughout the day.    To be honest, I was so much younger than most of them, with no fixed agenda save an overpowering urge for change.   No doubt it was hormonal.   As I watched and listened to them, the gesticulations, the misinterpreted accents, I thought  They can’t let go.  All of them, they’re stuck, their opinions are immutable”.  

I felt as if I could see into their minds.  Their thoughts were flowing sluggishly like ancient rivers grown soft and comfortable in old age, forgetting the coruscations of their youth.  All except Wagner’s. 

I’ve always thought that one should make decisions for simple reasons.   If a concept can’t be reduced to a few simple sentences then it’s not comprehendible, certainly not by the masses, and they were who we had to persuade.   Part of the trouble with a cabal is that we all sit around arguing, sometimes agreeing, debating the merits of philosophical anarchism versus utilitarianism, is socialism dead, what role can the wicker man play, should we introduce the guillotine, is red a good colour for the flag.   But then we have to persuade our followers.    Mike believes in the soapbox – speak directly to them, he says, if our cause is just they’ll rise up.   I know better – look at Hengist or Lenin.  They had the right tactics – creep into the citadel under someone else’s cloak; only then do you stab them in the back.    If you’ve remembered to bring a knife.

We couldn’t afford to frighten our possible followers with a real agenda – what person in the street would understand the philosophies that underpinned our arguments?  None.  We didn’t understand them ourselves.  We had to prepare easy morsels, pre-digested, we had to wear smiles while we sharpened the spears.

Wagner came up with the answer, in the end.   For a long time I couldn’t quite understand him. He seemed to change from day to day, taciturn at one meeting, explosive with fantastic ideas at the next, never able to take criticism.    I thought that a lot of his early fire had faded after he met Arthur – an old fashioned boy, very introspective and pessimistic – but I was mistaken, as events proved. 

One day, after lunch, I went for a stroll around the lake.  I found it restful there, especially on a bright winter afternoon, with the mountain peaks and the forests reflected in the impenetrable water.  There’s a path from the house which joins the lake at its western end, where the pine woods come down to the shore.   I found Wagner staring into the water, and we walked on together, around the edge.   I took his arm – an expected courtesy.

He was in one of his dark moods – I guessed that he’d spent the morning with Arthur.   After a few minutes of silence he started speaking, as if he were half way through an old conversation with himself.

“Perhaps I’m just being arrogant”. 

He was quiet again for a while, and I knew better than to interrupt.   Then he stopped and turned to face me.

“Do I look real to you”?

“Of course you do.”  I squeezed his arm.  “You’ve been talking to that boy again, haven’t you.   You know, Wagner, he has a very unhealthy attitude to life.  You really shouldn’t accept everything he says”.  

“It’s not just him.  All these meetings;  how do we rally the people, what will be our battle cry?  I used to believe in all that, the need to get rid of this corrupt layer, this suppurating sore crawling with maggots masquerading as our leaders.   I knew, absolutely, that only then could I be free.  Only then would my true genius be visible to all and not lie hidden lest it reveal my supposed peers as the parasitic worms that they truly are”.   

His words were directed at the gods in the distant mountains, as if he’d forgotten that I was there.  I slapped his wrist, gently but firmly.  “Wagner, you’re declaiming again – you know what the group agreed, no speeches”.   He paused for a moment, and I pulled him into motion again, this statue of a man.   This time he addressed me.

“But it’s all for nothing – I have as much value as that chaffinch, or a blind worm.   For God’s sake, I don’t even exist!  I’m just a process, you’re just a process, we’re all just fluctuations in the continuum, bubbles in the foam”.

It was the first time, and the last, that I saw him cry.  We turned and began to walk back to the house.  It waited upon the crest of a small rise, towers and pennants silhouetted by the late afternoon sun.    The smoke from the chimneys had always looked comforting, but today it streaked up with a life of it’s own, racing across the sky in all directions, oblivious to the breeze.   

I tried to comfort the man beside me, to give him some anchor to hold onto.

“I hate to criticise, Wagner, but you’re getting a bit ahead of yourself.   Look – I see you, I can touch you, I experience you, just as I experience the wind and the smell of the lake and the lunch we had earlier.   I’m not perfect – all I can do is use my ears and eyes and nose, my fingers, and they tell me what the world’s like, what’s real and what isn’t.     I can’t do any better than that, and I don’t need to.   The world my senses tell me about is enough for me – and that’s the world that we’ve got to change, for the better”.

He didn’t answer and I guessed that he was unpersuaded, but I knew he was thinking about my words.  I’ll give him this, he was always prepared to listen.    I think that he always felt inferior in some way, determined to better himself, always believing deep in his heart that other people knew more than him.  It would explain a lot.

We finished the walk without speaking again.  

At the beginning of the afternoon’s session Wagner held out his hand for the speaking stick as soon as we convened.  Someone had opened a window and I could hear traffic from the Broadway, the invisible fog from badly tuned diesels tainting the sharp air blowing over from the forest.

“I’ve been thinking”.  He looked over to the gas fire, the plastic coal flickering with electric light flames.   “We want a clear message – something easy for the masses.   How about this”.  He stood and began pacing up and down beside the windows.

“We in this room, we’re the best example of the problems out there.    We can’t agree even among ourselves, and we are at the apex.  Even in here there are too many options, too many vested interests, too many memories that we cling to like flotsam.  We’re starting from an inferior position, trying to build on foundations that are cracked and crumbling beneath us.   Now translate that to the world outside, with its capitalists and industrialists, its blind greed.   We need a radical solution, the only real solution”.  I saw him glance across at Arthur, who was looking at the ceiling and smiling.  “We must once and for all sweep away all of the dross around us.    We must be ruthless – individuals don’t matter – none of us matter – but we have a duty to purify and destroy the filth and evil that surrounds us like a miasma”.

No-one asked what would replace the old.   There would be no replacement, it was our duty to break the cycle.    Perhaps we’d all known this since the beginning, and that we why we found every excuse to prevaricate, a procession of delays through the centuries.  After all, even the illusion of life can be precious.

Leonardo started to speak, something about a design he’d been working on for an ultimate weapon, but Wagner waved him into silence.

“There’s only one way to do this, and I think you all know what I mean”.

We did.   And so, it was decided.   No need, after all, to persuade anyone of anything.   No need to incite the masses to rise, no message to proclaim.  Wagner took no part in the next phase, his contribution already made.   For the rest of us the work was just beginning.

In spite of what we were planning we took refuge in normality, as far as we could in the circumstances.  If you’ve never run one, you have no idea how much work goes into a revolution.    I set up working parties to distribute the tasks.   Uniforms we didn’t need, nor a flag.    The horses were still a necessity but we’d acquired them right at the start – in fact, I think we inherited them along with the project.    For the look of the thing we decided to keep the barricades, even if just for their symbolic value.    We gave them to Leonardo, of course.    He’d finished the plans years before – always one to look ahead.   Publicity we didn’t need, not for the new arrangement.   A shame really - we had a logo that would have inspired anyone, a hologram of the galaxy set against an elliptical black background.   I was going to use it on the flags, but as Wagner said in a rather bitter aside, it’s all illusion anyway, so why bother.

So that just left the fire.  We recalculated the location – Ludgate Hill was still our best option.   From there the flames would quickly spread across the Thames, down the A2 to Folkestone and through the Tunnel to the mainland.   That accounted for Europe and Asia.   By the time the conflagration reached the Pillars of Hercules the speed of the flames would be enough to leap across into North Africa, ditto for the Bering Straight and the Americas.   For Australia we might need to pull back about fourteen thousand years to raise the land bridge with the Asian landmass – I could work on that.   As for all of the minor islands – their populations would be below critical mass for long term survival, so we didn’t need to worry.

At the end of a week we met again, around the walnut table in the ballroom.   Outside the sun was fierce as if in sympathy with our plans, and I’d stopped sitting out on the beach – my family have always had a predisposition towards skin cancers.   The four black horses were standing quietly in the paddock, one of them with a  seaside donkey’s hat on to protect him from the heat.

I brought the meeting to order – the atmosphere in the room was charged with more energy than I’d felt for weeks.   We all knew that this was the final act, the culmination of decades, centuries, millennia of planning.   We would have only one chance.    Wagner was there, in his usual place, his face ridged and drooping.   As silence fell around the table he stood, his back more bent than on our recent walk.  There were a few barely suppressed sighs as we realised he was about to make a speech.

“My friends, this is a grave moment.   I have never been afraid to speak my mind, whether you wanted to hear or not.  I have watched over the past few days as you worked, at my suggestion, to plan this revolution.   But, what have you achieved?    This will be no revolution, no turning from one order to another.    There will be no bright tomorrow.  There will be no tomorrow at all”.  He paused as the murmurings began, smiles fading around the table.  He raised his voice.

“I must be honest with you.   My thoughts about the nature of this world haven’t changed.  All that we see is corrupt, evil, and illusion.    But if that is true, then we too are corrupt, evil and an illusion.   What we experience of this world is limited by our own apparatus of perception.  We perceive the world in our own mould.   And if the perception is of evil, then the mould too is evil”.  He was striking the table to accent his words, and he looked straight at me.   “Whatever we plan or desire must by definition be corrupt and wrong, except insofar as it affects only ourselves.   The noblest action I can take is to throw myself into the deepest part of the lake, to return to nothingness.  All else is vanity”.

The noise in the room was deafening.  Every person around the table was shouting at the same time, screwing up plans, throwing papers into the air in a frenzy of frustration.  I had to resort to the megaphone to restore order;  a bit melodramatic, but it always worked.  When everyone was seated again I addressed them.

“Let us remember the rules of this convention.   First, no-one speaks without my permission.   Second, we all know Wagner’s views.   Each of us has our own agenda – Wagner is honest enough to be open about his, and I thank him for that honesty.   Which of you has admitted the truth about why you are here?”  As I looked around the room no-one could meet my eyes, like children caught pulling the legs off beetles.

This our final chance to decide.  I shall ask for a show of hands.  Remember, each of you represents generations, civilisations.   It is a heavy responsibility – exercise it well.    Who is for our agreed solution – please raise your hand?”    All except Wagner put their hands in the air – I noticed that Arthur was missing from the group.

“Then we go ahead.  Ladies and gentlemen, aux barricades”.

 *****

It seems strange, writing this now.   The memory of those days is so clear, the detail so sharp.   I can still taste the cheese we used to buy in the tiny importer’s next to the cinema.  Beaufort was always my favourite, Beaufort d’été, made from the milk of cows that grazed on the rich summer pastures in the Haute Savoie.    The rough Scottish oatcakes, sweet and salty in the same bite, that complemented the cheese so well.    I can see the church, cleaned stone and adverts for God, the rise of the steeple contrasting with the squat and out of place cinema, an Art Deco experiment that never quite fitted.    The walk back to the house along tree lined Edwardian avenues, sedate and smug.    Behind the house, the lake and the mountains and the forest, the smell of pine in the evenings, the scent of snow on the wind.

I remember all of this.  I can see my comrades, I knew the contours of them all.   Some I slept with, mapping their bodies; some I argued with, our voices dissonant and sharp.  I knew the colours in their hair and the movements of their eyes.   I spoke their languages and heard the music in their voices.   I dried their tears when they fell.  We encompassed the world with our ethnicities, our cultures and our generations.   We admitted no boundaries.    We destroyed Babel.

Gone now, all of them, like everything else.    Even Wagner, who never really believed his own words.   The barricades collapsed, the flames evaporated, the cities dissolved.   I walk through a landscape in which I no longer believe, a flat collection of faded sets;  and I am the only actor, playing to empty seats, my voice echoing in the shadows.

You, reading this, where do you fit?   I’ll ask the old question;  are you my creation, or am I yours?   And if you think that you are real, sit quietly for a moment. 

Listen.  

Can you hear it? 

There, scratching, at the edge of hearing, is the sound of a pen writing your life.

 

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