In a rare, slight breeze

The trees in the atrium are dying. Nobody can stop them. Specialists have hung small cloth teabags full of biological agents in the branches, and still every morning the building’s smooth marble floor is covered in the detritus of fallen leaves. Some evenings cones and danger tape separate an area in which the specialists work, but the trees still cannot be saved. The company buys a new tree, which arrives with its base wrapped in dark black plastic, and its foliage covered in hole-punctured transparent plastic, but it too is soon as sick as all the others.

Ecological malfeasance say some, bringing these alien plants so far from home. Bees or other insects may be the answer, say others. In truth, nobody knows where the trees are from. Though they have small, intensely green leaves and something that looks like creepers growing around their squat trunks, there is no name for them, no plastic spatula embedded in the earth with both common and Latin names. Are they so different from the trees on the street outside? Those trees are not dying, and the trees in atrium are dying. Everyone is certain that the trees in the atrium are dying.

The trees reach almost to the balconies of the second floor that surround the building’s central lightwell. On a sunny day, to stand underneath them is to feel the light of the sun, intensified in heat and reduced in harmful radiation by the glass of the building’s ceiling, dappled by the small, intensely green leaves of the trees. Being environmentally controlled, the building does not admit of much weather, but if there is a rare, slight breeze, the light of the sun may ripple in and out of vision; it may feel like being stroked.

The building is a new and well-planned place to work: many are jealous of those who work here, those who benefit from a subsidised canteen and a free gym. The atrium is a busy, social area. People hurry beneath the trees to have meetings, to get coffee, to enter and exit the building. Sometimes they forget that the trees are dying, and then remember. Occasionally, an employee is found sitting on the granite pedestal around a tree, sobbing silently. Everybody avoids them, everybody pretends that they don’t do it, but everyone knows why.

It is rumoured, though only rumoured, that there are high-level meetings about the trees, that senior management have discussed the problem but are at a loss to know what to do about it. No mention of these discussions ever appears in the public minutes of executive meetings, and in the monthly staff meetings, senior managers deny that the problem with the trees is not under control. Packets containing a beneficial biological agent have been hung in the branches of the trees, they say: you may have noticed them, they look like teabags. A new tree has been bought.

Perhaps we would be better off without the trees, say some. They clutter the view of the atrium. If there were no trees, we could see this building the way its architect intended. Nonsense, say others: the trees are an integral part of the building, they complement its human and architectonic flow. There is an original maquette of the building in the corner of the atrium, and it is inspected. A perfect scale model of the building, it contains tiny plastic desks and even tiny plastic employees going about their business, but no trees. See, say some: the trees were an afterthought.

It is suggested that the dying of the trees is not a natural process. Somebody has been seen touching a tree in a way that was suspicious: it was late at night, or perhaps early in the morning, a lonely time. Should we not touch the trees? asks someone. Does it hurt the trees to touch them? We shouldn’t ever touch the trees, says someone else. It’s not right to touch them, they didn’t ask to be brought here, they didn’t ask to be touched. It makes me feel better sometimes to touch them, says another person. I would like someone to touch me if I were dying. Only touch them gently, says someone.

In the restaurant on the fifth floor, when it’s noticed that there is an odd tang to the usually bland ocean pie, questions are asked about what the trees might be putting into the atmosphere of the building. Is it the trees themselves, or perhaps the small cloth teabags containing mysterious biological agents that still perch hopefully in the branches of the trees? Nobody knows what the bags contain, nobody has been told. Does the ocean pie really taste different?

There are more leaving parties than normal. People are definitely leaving the company in greater numbers than usual. Everyone has a good reason: they are moving cities, have a better job, pursuing studies or giving birth to children. Nobody is leaving because the trees are dying: it would be ridiculous to leave because of the trees, and besides it is a good building and a good company: there is a pleasant atmosphere and above-average benefits.

Cylindrical monitors are placed in offices and working areas on all floors, to measure the contents of the air. Perhaps it is the atmosphere that is killing the trees, it is suggested. Perhaps our breath, full of artificial colourings and flavourings, carrying tiny particles of dioxin and poison, is killing the trees, someone says. Perhaps we are the problem: the trees are just not compatible with us. We should leave the building to the trees.

Hope comes with spring. New leaves appear on the trees, tiny buds at first and then growing, glowing with chlorophyll: as intensely green, those who can remember say, as the leaves were when the trees first arrived, when the building was new. Certainly greener than the previous year. The feeling of being stroked by the dappled sun when there is a rare slight breeze is treasured, and some arrive for work early just to stand for a few moments in the April sunshine filtered through the roof and branches.

The company prospers. Many of those who left, when people were leaving, have not been replaced, and the company’s wage bill lowered. The company wins a new contract, and though those who are left must work harder to fulfil the contract, everybody is somehow happier because there is work to do. The packets are removed from the branches: maybe they have been successful, though there is still no available wisdom on what the packets contained. It was a pesticide, say some. Invisible agents were attacking the trees and now they are gone. The trees are healthy.

After a long bank holiday weekend, one that many people have made into four days by taking an extra day’s leave, on Tuesday morning, one of the trees is dead. The few leaves still clinging to its branches are grey and crackled, the rest lie on the floor, beyond the reach of souvenir hunters, behind cones and danger tape. Nobody knew that a tree could die so quickly, nobody was ready. Some say it was the new tree that died, and so its death is not really indicative of anything. Others say that it was one of the original trees, and that the new tree is healthy. Of these others there are some in turn who regard the new tree’s health as a good sign, and some who feel that, being newer, it will merely last a little longer than the others.

The next day the dead tree is gone. Was it dismantled or dismembered first? There is no sign of chips or sawdust on the marble floor in the central lightwell, and yet it must have been chopped into pieces says someone, because both front and rear entrances of the building are small revolving doors, suitable only for people: even a dead tree that size could not have been exported through them. If that’s the case, asks someone else, how did the new tree get in here in the first place?

The next few days are days of great anxiety: people wait to see if the other trees have taken a lead from the dead tree or if they will continue to hold onto their small, intensely green leaves. In the fraught atmosphere, questions are asked about the trees in interdepartmental meetings, and managers, normally dismissive of such questions, admit their ignorance of the situation and promise to join temporary project groups. People are afraid of being left off the distribution list of emails about the trees. They look over each others’ shoulders at email clients, scanning subject lines, searching for the smallest hint.

Soon, though, everyone can gather all the information they need with their eyes: the remaining trees have resumed their slow march towards death. The small cloth tea bags reappear, but soon even they fall onto the floor. A member of the maintenance team is assigned the duty of sweeping up the leaves: a small, glum man, he sweeps his v-shaped scissor broom from one end of the floor to the other constantly. To stand underneath a tree now and look upwards into the rippling September sun is to risk being hit in the face with a leaf.

Tears are commoner now that everyone knows the trees are finally, properly dying. Touching the trees is no longer frowned upon: everybody understands the need to touch the trees, and when they leave the building sometimes they touch the trees outside on the streets too, wondering what makes them such strangers to death. People are caught in meetings idly doodling pictures of trees: not trees like the trees in the building but ornate and psychedelic trees, ones that are better. Trees that will live, if only on paper.

It’s not long before the holidays when the last tree dies and, as has become routine, it is gone the next day. Everyone makes a big deal out of looking forward to the Christmas party and secretly plans to find an excuse at the last moment for not attending. As a small group of employees leave the building one early December night, someone says well now we can see the lines of this building, we can see what the architect intended and someone else is heard to say that the way the architect intended this building was not so great after all.

My cultural life in 2010

My cultural life in 2010, nerdishly accounted for (except for the month of November, in which according to my records I partook in no cultural activity at all) looked like this:

I visited 60 exhibitions, including both temporary exhibitions and permanent collections.

I watched 60 films, of which I saw 33 at the cinema, 20 were on DVD, one was a download of a non-commercially-available film, and six were screenings followed by a discussion above a pub. Not included: television, archival TV, and box sets.

I read 34 books, of which 20 were fiction and 14 non-fiction. This isn’t counting books I started and didn’t finish.

I attended eleven talks, public lectures and discussions, not counting nine seminars of an MA module.

I attended six and a half performances, mostly of poetry.

I went to six comedy shows but only four plays.

I only went to two gigs, but they were both pretty good.

I saw one opera.

I don’t expect 2011 to be as busy.

Experiments in autoliterature

Less a case of infinite monkeys, more a case of infinite loops

Using Google scribe, and beginning only with ‘Give me liberty’, then accepting the first of every suggested autocompletion:

Give me liberty or give me anything what would it be too much for them to become more involved in their children can vary greatly due to company policy and procedures for their use in therapy and is doing well and I’ma let you finish but Beyonce had one of these days I’ll bet your life on the road today and they are nothing but another form of therapy for these patients is not known whether these are the only ones who can not afford to pay for their own users and groups to their Friends / Favorites list yet, so I’ma keep popping up in their own right and do not want to be related to their particular field or industry in which they are attached to their respective owners and are strictly for viewing and printing of these books are nothing but another form of therapy for these patients is not known whether these are the only ones who can not afford to pay for their own users and groups to their Friends / Favorites list yet, so I’ma keep popping up in their own right and do not want to be related to their particular field or industry in which they are attached to their respective owners and are strictly for viewing and printing of these books are nothing but another form of therapy for these patients is not known whether these are the only ones who can not afford to pay for their own users and groups

Stopping doesn’t seem to be in Google’s vocabulary, then. On and on and on until we fall over. No full stops. Seemingly no grammar, but also interesting incorporation of ebonic grammatic forms. Oh, and an apparently infinite loop.

Let’s start again:

A spectre is haunting European Union and those countries with a copyright term of a patented invention without a license and then you can contact them directly and verify their companies info carefully and contact the seller with questions before you make any changes to their owners with their original licenses and permits to open and close themselves off from their jobs and their proportion against the total number of page views delivered based on the seller and the listing broker as an agent of the present invention is to provide and maintain their own calendars and schedules for their employees and their families in their homes and their lives are nothing but another form of therapy for these patients is not known whether these are the only ones who can not afford to pay for their own users and groups to their Friends / Favorites list yet, so I’ma keep popping up in their own right and do not want to be related to their particular field or industry in which they are attached to their respective owners and are strictly for viewing and printing of these books are nothing but another form of therapy for these patients is not known whether these are the only ones who can not afford to pay for their own users and groups to their Friends / Favorites list yet, so I’ma keep popping up in their own right

It has the quality of a childhood word association game in which neither party will give up. The version of English used seems to be that perverse dialect ‘business English’. And again, we find ourselves saying the same thing, over and over again. One more go:

It was the best of times and then they will become more apparent from the following detailed description of these properties are not well understood and therefore not available for this item is available online at the comfort of your home close to your family and friends together for another year of amazing pictures online featuring the world famous Concise Oxford English Dictionary and Thesaurus for Blind and Visually Impaired Children Committee, therefore, that there is anything you would not believe how much I loved them all and I’ma let you finish but Beyonce had one of these days I’ll bet your life on the road today and they are nothing but another form of therapy for these patients is not known whether these are the only ones who can not afford to pay for their own users and groups to their Friends / Favorites list yet, so I’ma keep popping up in their own right and do not want to be related to their particular field or industry in which they are attached to their respective owners and are strictly for viewing and printing of these books are nothing but another form of therapy for these patients is not known whether these are the only ones who can not afford to pay for their own users and groups to their Friends / Favorites list yet

It seems clear that Google is implicitly saying that all human communication amounts to saying the same thing. The endless jowly flap of mouths, the hammering on keyboards: perhaps Google and all other interfaces should be replaced with a single giant Om, signifying oneness in everything. A single mouth repeating the same words – forever.

Are Google’s underlying algorithms generative? Are suggestions produced by its underlying (and ever-changing) database of all words on the web. If so, the loop might change its form; it might unwind. On the other hand, if we all keep following Google’s suggestions and reproducing this loop, typing it into forms and sending it emails, we create the very verbal evidence Google needs to sustain the truth of the loop. Ouroboros! Can you imagine the sitcom catchphrase “I’ma keep popping up in their own right“, the hollow laughter, the hysterical despair of recognition?

Perhaps this is finally the realisation of Kenneth Goldsmith’s dream of the book that writes itself. If so, I think I’ve read this one before.

More slogans to be spread by every means

Issa no tube day today

Issa no tube day today, by Nicobobinus on Flickr












The Museum of Unexploded Bombs

Unexploded Cluster Bomb

Unexploded cluster bomb in Iraq.

The curator of the Museum of Unexploded Bombs is not, as you might expect him to be, a nervous man. Nor is he stoic, slow-witted or even suicidal. Rather he is a man who lives like a soldier, unoblivious to the immanent possibility of death and thereby open to every marvel that existence offers in the moment. The curator of the Museum of Unexploded Bombs knows that when the time comes he will not know.

The Museum of Unexploded Bombs does not charge an entrance fee and receives no public subsidy. It is dependent solely on donations from members of the public. Little old ladies with world war leftovers from their back gardens, scuba divers, policemen and even war criminals turn up on the doorstep with their offerings. The Museum turns nothing down: all gifts are accessioned, catalogued and displayed.

The collection of the Museum of Unexploded Bombs is not organised along taxonomical or historical lines, but in displays that reflect the aesthetic predilections of its curator. An early twentieth century tank shell wears a belt of machine gun ammunition uneasily. A display of hand grenades of all eras is organised in a tidy pyramid. A glass vitrine of bullets spells out the ranks of the Sudanese army.

The management board of The Museum of Unexploded Bombs has put a Change Transition and Risk Management strategy in place for the day when it becomes the Museum of Exploded Bombs.

The Museum of Unexploded Bombs organises schooltrips to the minefields of Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia. Children are taught to tiptoe alongside ordnance, they visit a prosthetics factory that manufactures in junior sizes, and are taught a cultural history of bombs. They meet other children for whom unexploded bombs are an unremarkable part of everyday life.

Offers made to The Museum of Unexploded Bombs to make the collection ‘safe’ have been rejected, and press releases issued to explain to the public that a collection of disarmed bombs would no longer be unexploded but technically unexplodable, and that this would run contrary to the Museum’s Founding Charter

Visitors to the Museum of Unexploded Bombs are not required to leave their coats, hats or bags in the cloakroom. In focus groups conducted by a market research firm on behalf of the Museum, visitors describe their visits to the museum as ‘awe-inspiring’, ‘life-affirming’ and ‘rewarding’. There are positive comments about the catering.

Things to do in Denver when the skies are dead

Toxic Schizophrenia (Hyper Version)

Toxic Schizophrenia (Hyper Version)

Wonder where everybody is. Downtown skyscrapers grow like knotweed, their universally rectilinear mirrored forms reflecting each other in mashed-potato parodies, but the people are elsewhere. The 16th Street Mall has a free bus running from the Capitol to Union Station, a few panhandlers and vendors of the local homeless magazine. There are no crowds, there is no teeming city population.

Visit the Museum of Contemporary Art. Their photography policy is no flash, for personal use only. Does that include flickr? Yeah, people seem to be doing that. Their building is designed by David Adjaye and their show ‘imagines human beings apart from their everyday guise’. Highlights are Billie Whitelaw’s 1973 performance of Beckett’s Not I on a tiny monitor in a dark room, and A.G. Rizzoli’s extraordinary portraits of people in the form of architecture.

Ride the bus out to the inner suburbs. There is a route 0. Observe your fellow passengers holding buckets of soft drink, half-smoked cigarettes dangling from their lips, talking about weed and pussy. People use the bus to transport things, and don’t move them out of the aisle to let you pass.

Visit the Denver Art Museum. Their photography policy is tag it, submit it to the group, and they’ll display it on a large screen in the building. The newer half, the first public building by Daniel Libeskind in North America, houses contemporary art and interventions, including Charles Sandison’s Chamber. The older half has a more traditional collection with additions:  art of the American West interspersed with contemporary questionings; a largely ethnographic Indian display includes work by and a film about Fritz Scholder, painter of drunk and mad Indians.

Take in an afternoon movie at the Mayan Theater, a 1930 Art Deco cinema built in the Mayan style inside and out, with zig-zag edging and decorative heads that have survived even its splitting into 3 screens. Watch a Korean movie, a dark tale of a developmentally arrested boy and his mother, of murder, revenge and immorality. Note that the dozen or so people also watching the film seem to be either senior citizens or posses weight-related mobility problems.

Visit the Denver Museum of Science and Nature (museums are, after all, why you’re here). Their photography policy is anywhere but Body Worlds. Note the number of apparent volunteer staff on the information desk and in the galleries,  older men in the space display dressed in tabards that are a cross between Star Trek and hospital orderly. Marvel at the way the galleries are split between hands-on activity spaces and nature displays: taxidermous dioramas, the dead zoo.

Go to the Tattered Covered bookshop, it’s indie++. Browse the magazines, buy Harpers, the Boston Review, Zoetrope All Story and Lapham’s Quarterly. Pick up a book about achieving happiness by a white woman called Gretchen, pick up a book about how white people try to achieve white happiness by a black man called Rich.

Check your bank account, take more dollars from an ATM, fill your wallet with receipts for everything you eat, buy a mountain of candy with funny names for your colleagues and some antacid for yourself, buy something for your wife, ponder what you could possibly buy that might be distinctly identified with Denver alone rather than Colorado, the Southwest or America.

Wonder what’s going on. Walk down the street, walk into cafes looking for free wifi, soak your stomach lining in gallons of coffee using the free wifi. Check twitter, check facebook, check personal email, check work email, check twitter again, check each and every hashtag that could apply to your situation. Check the BBC, check the Guardian. Read news timestamped EDT, BST and GMT, add seven hours to your departure time, subtract seven hours from the next NATS scheduled update, add nine hours’ flight time. Click your heels together three times.

Science fiction mystery

I grew up on pulp science fiction. Books passed on by my parents, acid-heavy paper already yellow, cheap glue binding already cracking. Novels of course: Asimov, Heinlein, Simak and Niven; but also books and books of short stories: Nebula winners,  Hugo winners, author compilations and best-ofs. The short story is the science fiction form par excellence, where the effervescence of ideas has the most freedom. Clunky characters and minimal plotting are forgiveable in twenty pages. Introduce a story arc and it descends to the level space opera.

And so books come and then they go, or they fall to bits, but the ideas, and fragments of them, stick. These are ten stories that I remember, or remember a part of, but have long lost any clue about who wrote them or what they were called.


An alien approaches a human spaceship, the occupant of which is an astronaut taking recreational drugs to cope with the ardours of a long space journey. The tripping astronaut and the alien regard each other through a porthole glass; the astronaut assumes the alien to be a figment of his trip. As the human astronaut starts coming down, the alien begins to fade out of existence.

A narrator addresses an audience describing the extraordinary power of an ambient weapon that kills people directly without damaging property. At the end of his lecture he tells the audience that they’re dead: he has used the weapon on them.

A man acquires the power of time travel, and travels backwards and forwards along his own life and into the future. Travelling back as far as he can, he meets a female version of himself from an alternate reality who has also acquired the power of time travel. They have sex.

Mars needs water, and Earth is holding her to political ransom for the water from Earth’s oceans. An enterprising group of young men take a spaceship to Saturn and return with a fragment of one of its rings, largely composed of H2O.

Two men begin to wonder why humans must sleep and dream, as no other sentient creatures in the galaxy do. They discover that humans are occupied by a species of mental parasite whose co-habitation of the psyche causes the phenomena of sleep and dreams.

A reality-correction agent relies for clues about the future on an instantaneous communication device called a dirac, from whose signals everything that has ever been said or will be said using it can be decoded.

Aliens arrive on Pluto. The lightspeed time lag makes communication problematic. Someone suggests simply broadcasting a constant stream of information, and the aliens doing likewise. Most potential questions will be answered before they are even asked.

A man called Kilroy travels into the US wartime past of the 1940s, and leaves in a graffito a mark of his presence.

A talking dog explains to a man on a park bench that canines exercise a guiding intelligence over humans, and that it was a dog who gave Thomas Edison the clue enabling him to make a lightbulb with a persistent filament.

In a society where children are aptitude tested and neurologically programmed for their careers, one boy fails the aptitude test: he can’t be programmed. He’s distraught until he discovers he’s one of the elect few who write the programmes.


Trying to remember what you can’t remember is a perplexing exercise in itself: you can’t begin with a book, you have to begin with the fragment that’s stuck with you, the essential piece of the story. It’s the known unknown.

If you can identify any of these stories, please do. I’d like to know how far my memory has distorted them.