A slight change in tact for this posting. It’s not a story. And it’s not about my writing. It’s about another story, one that isn’t written down but is acted out once a year. A wonderful, touching story, but one that may, perhaps, be just another work of fiction.
There are writers whose work I enjoy and who I hope influence my own work. One of these, and possibly my favourite writer, is Edgar Allan Poe.
I grew up with Poe. My parents had a large, hardback, leather bound, gilt edged compendium of all of Poe’s stories and poems. I can remember from a very early age, holding this tome in my hands, running my fingers around the embossed image of a raven on a skull, in gold leaf on green leather. Smelling the leather binding, the crisp pages. The weight of the book. Even before I could understand the stories, the book itself was a thing of beauty. It is the first book I actually remember. And the stories themselves! The Telltale Heart, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter (detective stories to rival Conan Doyle’s work) and my favourite, The Imp of the Perverse. Not to mention the oft-parodied The Raven, and my favourite poem, Eldorado. These are the tales of my childhood and adolescence.
If people wonder why so much of what I write myself is strange, bizarre, weird, perverse, then it is the influence of Poe, and latterly Lovecraft (himself hugely influenced by Poe).
Which brings us to the tale of “The Poe Toaster”. In brief, each year on the anniversary of Poe’s birth, a mysterious figure is spotted stealing into the Westminster Presbyterian Church graveyard in Baltimore, to lay three roses and a bottle of cognac by the writer’s grave. Described as a “Poe like figure”, the visitor has been spotted, but never spoken to. On rare occasions, he has left notes to indicate that he is not the original Poe Toaster, but someone carrying on the tradition, and that the original Toaster had died. Is he a fan? A distant relative? Is he some spectre, the ghost of Poe? Whoever or whatever he is, his actions are a labour of love, a tribute to a literary genius, that has happened every year since 1949.
Or perhaps it hasn’t. If Sam Porpora is to be believed, the whole thing is a hoax, a publicity stunt to garner attention to Poe’s final resting place. Porpora admits that someone has, based on his story, subsequently become the Poe Toaster (an example of an urban legend becoming true, known as pseudo-ostension). One of his tour guides? Porpora himself? An anonymous citizen of Baltimore? Perhaps even a tulpa, created by the expectation of seeing this mysterious visitor.
Yet controversy remains. A newspaper article from almost a quarter of a century before Porpora claims to have invented the story makes reference to an annual visitor to Poe’s grave who leaves a bottle of cognac. Porpora’s story is inconsistent, variously claiming that he made up the story and told a journalist in 1967, whilst the newspaper story he is referring to dates from 1976. Where is the truth? Porpora’s claim only muddies the water, and leaves us no closer to knowing who the Poe Toaster is.
And to be honest, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know that this was all a hoax. I don’t want to know that this was all a mere publicity stunt that has been carried on into the public domain by enthusiastic individuals. I want this to be a quiet tribute by an anonymous person, for personal reasons. A solemn remembrance of a tragic figure. A romantic idea, a recognition of a writer gone but not forgotten, visited by a shadowy figure, someone that Poe could have written himself.
Sometimes a lie is more beautiful than the truth. That is what fiction is. Beautiful lies, lies that we want to believe, even briefly, because believing the lie has beauty and purpose. If the lie does no harm, and the truth is less inspiring, then why not perpetuate the lie?
An actor dresses in a frock coat and goes through the motions of laying flowers in order to attract the tourists. Is that the truth? If it is, do you want to believe it?
I prefer to believe the tall tale, of an unknown person, who steals into a graveyard unnoticed and unchallenged in the dead of night, to lay a tribute whose true meaning we presume to know, for reasons we can only guess at. That has meaning. That has purpose. That has beauty. On this occasion, I don’t want to find out the truth, ever. Call it Poe’s last great mystery. And leave it unfinished.
I have begun to notice a lot of dead bees just lying around on the street recently.
And Colony Collapse Disorder is a genuine phenomena, and it has got beekeepers worried globally because of the drastic impact it has on their livelihoods.
I took the two ideas, and came up with a worst case scenario based on them. I don’t think that the scenario envisaged is plausible, although recent studies link a decline in the bee population to a decline in plant pollination. About 80% of Europe’s crops rely on insect pollination, so a reduction in the population of those insects who pollinate the crops could conceivably impact on our food supplies.
Anyway, enjoy the story, and don’t have nightmares.
Like all important events, it started off with something imperceptibly small.
Like the glance or kind word, that turns friendship into love. Or the slight shift in the breeze before a raging storm.
The end of the world was heralded by a bumblebee on Old Bond Street.
I spotted it as I was walking home from work one balmy June evening. It was just lying there on the pavement, unmoving. Not an unusual sight, circle of life and all that, bees die, and you often find them, lying on the ground, still and silent. But not usually at this time of year. Not when they should be in their prime.
And it wasn’t the first I had seen this year. Walking to and from work, I must have seen dozens and dozens in the preceding weeks. How many streets around the country, how many fields and gardens harboured lifeless bees?
It struck me that I had noticed fewer and fewer bees this year. I had good cause to notice. A dreadful phobia of bees, coupled with an allergic reaction to stings left me acutely aware of bees of all species.
Soon we became aware of the initials. CCD. Colony Collapse Disorder. In the United States alone it was estimated that as many as three-quarters of all hives had vanished, simply disappeared, almost overnight. And that was just the domesticated colonies. What of the wild bee populations? There were no statistics.
But reports of swarms were down. Even the slow creep northwards of the Africanised honey bee, the dreaded “killer bee”, defied all predictions by spontaneously reversing.
Then reports of CCD began to appear in the South of England. Within weeks only Scotland seemed unaffected by the problem, and by the time Defra began to address the issue, colonies were disappearing the length and breadth of the UK.
Reports came in from Europe, Africa, spreading east. And yet, nobody seemed overly concerned, other than beekeepers. Initially it was reported as just another “and finally” story. Then the Einstein quote started to appear. Supposedly, Einstein had once said that if bees disappeared, then the human race would follow in four or five years. No-one is sure if he ever actually said it, but we certainly believe the truth of it now.
The obvious impact was on honey. The price simply rocketed as supplies began to get scarce. What was once a common product became an expensive commodity. I still remember the day that an ounce of honey became more expensive than an ounce of platinum. That same day my mother found a few old unopened jars of honey in the back of the cupboard, and it was as if she had won the lottery.
But then other effects began to be felt. The price of flowers began to creep up, slowly at first, but then florists and garden centres began to run out, and the prices went sky high. A dozen red roses showed you truly loved someone then, or at least could afford to splash the cash. Without the bees, gardeners were struggling to pollinate flowers by hand. It was a long and difficult process, and failure rates were high.
After the flowers, fruit and crops were hit badly. Panic began to set in when we began to see just how many foods we were used to, relied on pollination by insects. And as they dwindled, people snapped them up as and when they could. What might have been preserved to help rebuild the reduced crops was instead consumed. After the direct effects came the indirect effects. Other species that relied on these items for food began to die of starvation. Insect species that, like the bees, pollinated the plants began to die off, as there was less food to go around. And less insects meant less pollination, which meant fewer and fewer flowers, fruits, plants as the seasons went on. A reduction in one population led to the reduction in another, and the knock on effects just went up the food chain, and before we knew it we were facing a global famine.
With that realisation, there were riots. I’m not talking a few hundred people erecting barricades and throwing bricks. Millions of people. All over the world. Insurrection on a global scale. Governments fell, and wars arose over the dwindling stocks of food we had left. Stronger countries invaded the weaker, raided their food supplies and tried to use their land to provide enough sustenance to keep going, from day to day.
It’s funny. I was a pacifist once. I marched against the war in Iraq. And now look at me. A captain. A regiment to command. And the blood of countless innocent people on my hands. People whose only sin was to be in the way. Because we only follow three rules now. If you don’t fight, you don’t eat. Look after your own. Kill the rest.
We thought the Yanks were crazy a few years back, when they shut their borders, but now it seems like they had the right idea. They moved their population to the coasts, and to the borders of Canada and Mexico. Millions of people, ready to defend the US from invasion. And the rest of the country they turned over to pasture, to try to raise crops and cattle to keep themselves fed. Sure, we all heard the rumours of what the government did, things that we only speak of in hushed tones. But was it any worse than what we are doing now? Their population is stable now. With only 3 million left, they can produce enough food to keep going.
And of course, no-one would dare invade them, not after President Turner’s Suicide Proclamation. In the event of invasion of US soil, he informed the world, in the last public message from America, then the United States would unleash its entire nuclear arsenal. Not against the invading force. But against itself. Turner understood that this war would be about surviving. It would be about taking land and using it for food. And what use would land be that was poisoned for generations to come? So we steer clear of the United States now. The new Eden, they call it. And so the US is secure.
The rest of us? We fight. We kill. We conquer. It’s been five years since I saw that bee, lying on the ground. And tomorrow morning I lead my men into a surprise attack on Sydney. Australia is our ally for fuck’s sake, and we’re about to attack them. It’s wrong, but we have no choice. I’ll feel guilty as hell tomorrow, when it’s all over, if I survive. Just like I felt after Tokyo. But there are no friends in this world anymore. There’s only food. If you don’t fight, you don’t eat. And if you don’t eat, you don’t survive.
And we all want to survive.
And this is about the point in the conversation where I start to mumble and look at the floor, shuffling my feet awkwardly…
I dread the question “So what do you do?” at parties, or indeed any social occasion. A few years ago, I could simply say “I’m a law student” and then have an interesting conversation about the law, my ambitions etc. As I got older though, I found people began to roll their eyes at that answer, as if they were saying “Are you still dossing about? Get a real job you scoundrel.” (In my imagination, everyone giving me abuse is very, very posh…) All of a sudden, what I did became something to judge my worth as a person on, and still being a student in my mid-twenties just wasn’t cutting it.
Then, it got worse. You see, I did a lot of legal secretarial work whilst at law school. It was the best paying work that a law student could find, and one of the few jobs a student could get during the summer that was vaguely relevant to the degree. So when I moved to London, I took on legal secretarial work part-time to fund my degree. When I abandoned the degree (note to self – inform institution of this fact sometime…) I went full-time in order to keep a roof over my head and food on the table.
The question “what do you do” became acutely embarrassing. Not because there is anything wrong with being a legal secretary, far from it. But a male legal secretary. Well, there must be something wrong with you. Shameful, but I let society’s conceptions affect my self-worth, to the extent where I was ashamed of my job. Even when it was dressed up in fancy terms to obfuscate what I was being paid to do, eventually the conversation would boil down to “Oh. You’re a typist.” *turns back, finds someone more interesting to talk to*
So what do I do now? I’m straddling two job positions at the moment, part Document Production Specialist, part Legal Executive Assistant, but the reaction is the same. And what of what I want to do?
Because it sounds so, I don’t know, unusual perhaps, I get embarrased to say that I want to be a writer? Why? Why do I get that way? Is it shame about being a writer? Is it fear that people will ask me to give them an example of something I’ve written? Or ask about what I’m working on?
Probably the latter. I realised that even in the company of other writers, I was nervous and embarrassed about explaining what the plot of my work was. Because it wasn’t groundbreaking, it wasn’t deeply, deeply intellectual. It wasn’t War and Peace.
“Yeah, so there’s this priest, right, and he used to be in the military, and he’s in a team with a demon and an angel. Did I tell you about the vampire? No? Well, see, the Vatican runs this team of superheroes…”
At this stage, I tend to get really, really self-conscious. And when I get self-conscious about something, or myself, my natural reaction is to denigrate it, then lose all confidence.
So it was a really, really pleasant surprise to find out how well received the writing sample was last Friday at the writing group. More so than the last piece I submitted, from a more serious book that I always considered to be more “real” writing than this story. But it grabbed attention more, it was more compelling, and people just liked it more.
So yeah, my strange little story about superpowered religious types investigating strange events looks to be the pony to back at the moment. Profuse apologies to my London characters, but your story may have to wait. I’ll get back to you someday no doubt. But for now, it looks like the pulp fantasy story is beating you.
The problem with trying to write is the inherent self-doubt you have, the fear that whatever emotion you are feeling, you will never be able to express eloquently.
And I suppose this is a feeling that everyone encounters at some point in their lives. When you try to tell someone that you love them. When you have to make an appeal to someone to change their ways, or to agree to side with you. When you have to speak in memory of somebody. We all feel unequal at times to expressing what we feel inside – that somehow, we do not have sufficient skill with language to help people to feel what we feel, see what we see.
It is a sensation people will encounter only rarely. But if you write, it’s a daily problem. I can see in my mind’s eye that this character’s heart is breaking – but how the hell do I get that point of view across? Or I can imagine a beautiful sunset over the ocean, but can I describe it to others so they can see it as vividly as I can?
But you have to keep plugging away at the words, and try your best. At these times I get especially jealous of lyricists. In three, maybe four minutes of a song, they can evoke a range of emotions, memories and visions that leave me breathless. Strip away the music, and the lyrics are still poignant, funny, heartbreaking.
There are a few songs like that running through my playlists, songs whose lyrics get under my skin, touch my heart, and which make me marvel at how well the sentiment is caught by the lyric.
And I can only hope that someday I’ll have that effect on someone with my words.