At the end of a long project, waking up the following day feels like a strange hangover. It’s not so much a sore head as an empty head; more relief than catharsis. Charlotte & The Charlatan began as a poem about the Circus. Rather than just a random bunch of quirky character sketches, I decided to make the title-characters part of a loosely-threaded narrative. They both appear throughout the book, giving clichéd advice, unaware of their own foibles, failures, lies and misdeeds. Although I sketched nearly thirty tales, only 23 ended up in the book – a tiny, hand-stitched, illustrated art-book.
Throughout the process, I tried out the stories on audiences at spoken-word events in Edinburgh, and found that they worked well as performance pieces. People enjoyed their sinister humour. Next, I found background music for some tales, while others were specifically written to fit with music so that they could be choreographed for interpretative dance. My dance-artist was a major inspiration whose positivity pulled me from the darkness that threatened to drag me – and the book – into morbidity.
Another friend suggested recording the tales, with four voices playing various characters. Then video, slideshow, costume, illustration and other collaborations came into play, until the project culminated in a one-off performance exhibition which happened (depending on when you’re reading this) last week. It is not planned that this will happen again, so if you missed it: tough. The book is a limited edition art-book, and the recordings may appear on sound-cloud.
So “today” I am struggling with a weird and wonderful hangover. Charlotte and the Charlatan are no more. One of my favourite writers, Elaine Feinstein, said ‘All sorrows are borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.’ Actually, she didn’t say that; she was quoting from Isak Dinesen, the nom-de-plume of the Danish writer, Karen Blixen. In the spirit of Charlotte (not the most trustworthy sage) it doesn’t matter what is said by whom. It’s who you are, not what you do, that defines you.
I am a writer, musician, artist, playwright and poet. This means I am a liar, since ‘art is a lie that helps us to understand the truth.’ (That was pilfered from Adorno.) But at least I’m not a fraud or a thief.
There is no more grief and sorrow in the pages of Charlotte & The Charlatan than in the final story, ‘Invisible Alice.’ It is the tale of the worst possible day after, when The People awake to find that everything they dreamed of is gone, emptiness fills the air, and questions are barely-formed. When I wrote a poem about ‘the morning after’ this time last year, I didn’t imagine that, a year later, I’d be asking ‘Why.’
But thanks to my many true and wonderful friends (not least the beautiful, optimistic Melanie) this weird and surreal little sequence ends with the most conflicted sound we can ever hear: painfully positive, yet positively painful.
We ignore – or stop our ears against it – at our peril.
from Charlotte & The Charlatan
– and other cautionary tales
Something was awry in Charlotteville. The parks and streets evinced an eerie silence. For weeks there was an absence that a cliché would call deafening; a dearth of noise the local folk considered threatening.
It glistened in the trees like trembling light. Those who listened heard far more than sight. For those who dealt with taste, it left a bitter bite. But if you choose to use your nose, olfactory intelligence told of a sharper sense that could be felt on lips or fingertips, or spied in ice so thick, or felt in furnace (for who can tell what lies beneath the surface) or heard beneath the ground, or in the echo of the dome above (for who can hear, alone, of love.)
It was an emanating absence all could tell with more intelligence than sight or sound or smell or taste or touch. Nor head, nor heart, nor gut, could dare identify an instinct. Yet everyone in Charlotteville, from low to high, was linked in understanding bordering on visionary: Charlotteville was in a thrall lacunary and nihilist. Some-thing was missing, but nobody knew what it was, or why they missed it.
Tension grew like a major chord against a minor 3rd suspension of a melody, heard within a harmony it could not fit (yet nature toyed with it.) The music of the soul sought resolution in a situation that refused to be resolved: the People longed for salve along a tightened string or taut skin of a drum; a sound to solve their longing, or dissolve a fear that none could sense, yet all could taste and smell and hear.
And some claimed they could see what wasn’t there. For those who thought they had the touch, it wasn’t up to much: a phantom presence that disappeared in thin air like an echo: repeating a noise that existed only in the memory and was, therefore, little more than unreliable imagination.
There was something demonic, something monstrous: a juggernaut of thought, of passion more emotive or of motion uncontrollable that cast a shadow on a void. It employed both light and dark so no-one knew if they were looking though a glass or their reflection or projection of their image they could never see though nor observe where it might lead to.
And as the tension grew and built in a crescendo, people gained an understanding that – ironic – darkness dawned upon them: an epiphany illuminating what was missing. Dismissing their own needs, their foibles and failures and lies and misdeeds, every woman,every man cried out and called for Charlotte and The Charlatan!
But the Charlatan and Charlotte were gone. They called out again, but no sound was heard, nor glimpse construed. The air was imbued with empty wind, and from the ground the dust flew up like powder (was it talcum, chalk or sherbet?) On the wall, a palimpsest of new graffiti sprayed a message none, not one, could forget.
Charlotte and The Charlatan were gone.
Throughout the Principality, the People went from a sense of damp dismay to being drenched in some calamity for which they had no coping strategy or understanding. Those with energy sought high and low, while those of thought, demanding reason, found no wisdom. And those of raw emotion fought the tears of passion, empathy, aggression… all came to naught.
The collective grief flowed through the stages any therapist could prescribe. A landscape painter would describe the scene as a vista: a broad horizon evanescing or inducing endlessness; a dim façade or perpetually rolling fen of melancholy.
Time and space on senseless surge of tide on surf and shifting sand and coastal shelf and pointless blue dissolve of sea and endless sky that sucks the ocean up and yet the wet remains although the dry earth calls and enthrals as all the folk of Charlotteville, every woman, every man called out to Charlotte and The Charlatan:
Why, Why, Why?
A sinking, stabbing, throbbing realisation came to all. Were Charlotte and The Charlatan a figment of their fraudulent imagination? Was this just a reaction: to doubt their existence was foolish or futile, surely? Some thought it was purely a dream, but on waking discovered things were, indeed, exactly as they seem.
In desperation, they gathered together and called out once again to Charlotte and
Why, Why, Why?
But whether they called with the same intent, or even knew what the other – their neighbour – thought or felt or meant, not one could know or sense or say.
Charlotte and The Charlatan were never seen again. Although the pain it caused the folk of Charlotteville, long after their disappearance or departure would, in nature’s course (or time) reduce or dissipate, there was but one excuse that would emolliate that wound, or scar, or trauma (or whatever hurt is meted on a person’s flesh, or heart, or brain.)
Nothing is certain. No hours of contemplation, moments of passion, nor the steady plod of blood our organs push without cessation just to live, or be, or thrive: only one thing keeps us alive. It’s only one thing we are capable of giving. And only one thing makes our fictional life worth living.
It was at the point the people called out ‘Why, Why, Why?’ that they stopped their senses and forgot – or failed – to listen for a baby’s cry.