WATER BABIES EXIST
By Jon Bounds
The problem with running away to sea, is that you can’t walk on water. The tides pull you back. I’d hitchhiked to Portugal, to Lisbon, on the promise of change, of revolution.
Despite repeated radio appeals from the ‘captains of April’ advising civilians to stay home, thousands of Portuguese had taken to the streets – mingling with, and supporting, the military insurgents. On television you saw soldiers with carnations at the end of their guns, in the barrels. What began as a military coup led by part of the army known as the Movimento das Forças Armadas had become a mass movement of civil unrest. The soldiers were against the Portuguese colonisation of Africa, they wanted freedom. For once the guns bled red with the life of Spring. A central gathering point was the Lisbon flower market, full with carnations. I’d wanted to be there, to experience the feeling of the old guard falling away, humans against killing. I loved the people, but it wasn’t my revolution.
What I’d seen in the market didn’t change me, although it gave me another reason to love flowers. What I’d seen on the trawlers — millions of dead fish — was like water off their backs. What I saw heading back towards Liverpool did change me.
In Southampton I was picked up by a lorry, a good lift. He could take me more than halfway: to Birmingham. We listened to Radio One. It was still new, back then, but it felt like pop was captured. Cliff Richard was still going. You keep me hanging on, he sang.
It was early evening when I saw the phosphorescent glow, the lines curving around each other, above and below. Not so much spaghetti, but the snakes of Medusa, eating themselves, like a living, but concrete, ouroboros. What traffic goes around, comes around. Spaghetti Junction was opened in 1972, I’d seen it, passed it, the year before. In those days hitching was commonplace, and my favourite part of a long journey was on the elevated stretch of the M6 that cuts through the north and east of Birmingham. From this position the city I could see looked like a city of the future, or at least from the TV programme Tomorrow’s World. It even had a skyline like American cities had.
The driver descended into the belly and dropped me off, heading to the British Leyland plant in Longbridge, to deliver parts to give life to more cars, more traffic, more lights.
The last time I’d been here, dropped off at Spaghetti Junction when hitching from Liverpool to my parents’ home in Corby was a couple of years before. Then it was night-time and raining. I got lost somewhere deep underneath it all and spent the night there. All very scary.
This was my first return. And I often find it’s not the first visit to a place, but the second that is the one that builds the relationship. In years to come, I’ve kept finding myself returning to the same spot under Spaghetti Junction, and it is often about rebirth.
If you don’t know Spaghetti Junction, it’s the largest road junction in the country, properly called the Gravelly Hill Interchange, the meeting point of two motorways, two rivers, three canals, a train line and any number of A- and A(M)-roads. The 559 concrete columns are rumoured to contain the remains of many enemies of local gangsters. There’s nothing quite as romantic as this place in the UK. It has the feel of a Neolithic monument, the new stone here is concrete.
In the dusk, I made my way to the beach under the junction. Salford Junction is the meeting point of three canals: the Grand Union Canal, Tame Valley Canal and the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal is an area of dirt where the water laps. To me it was a beach, an industrial beach, and the canal water a sea as worth running away to as any I’d run away to before.
It wasn’t the weather to sunbathe, but I did remove my boots and socks and paddle a little in the water. Then I sat on the bank in the silence of the rhythmic thunder of traffic above.
After a while I met a man. He came up from the central underpass and strolled onto the dirt bank. He stood on the shore and stared out. When he spoke, he asked me if I had seen the “water babies” under the canal. I had not. I did not know they existed, I told him. I stood and looked alongside him. “It looks lifeless,” I said.
“How do you know that? Have you been there to see?”, he asked, “And if you had been there to see, and had seen none, that would not prove that there were none... And no one has a right to say that no water babies exist till they have seen no water babies existing, which is quite a different thing, mind, from not seeing water babies.”
I had to agree with his philosophical position. Not least from a fear of him forcing me to join in the hunt in the canal, he was a big guy, and after all, Spaghetti Junction is the entrance to the underworld. But later, my mind wandering in the back seat of a Morris Traveller which was taking me further up the M6, I could pick holes in it. Quite often I had seen things that proved not to be true, and not just childhood magic tricks, or politician’s promises, but I’d seen life in the midst of death. In painting, you are doing nothing but tricking the eyes into reacting to something that isn’t there. Given that you couldn’t trust your own eyes, nor what they hadn’t seen, then the truth didn’t matter. If, indeed, it even existed.
What did? was the questions you asked, because they were what became the story you told yourself.
FISH-FUCKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE
By Peter Robinson
In the year I turned 21 and came face to face with the darkest version of myself, an abandoned fruit warehouse on Liverpool’s Mathew Street was being converted into a theatre. It was right there, psychoanalyst Carl Jung had said in 1927, that the pool of life was located. Jung had a thing or two to say about unconscious worlds — that whole area was one of his greatest hits.
Anyway, Mathew Street also coincided with a leyline that came down from Reykjavík, and it was along this very line, miles out into the North Sea, that I first glimpsed the version of myself I’ve been living with ever since.
Some background: I was not in the North Sea for a laugh. I was there as an apprentice trawlerman during the third phase of the decades-long Cod War between Iceland and the United Kingdom. On one September afternoon the trawler’s net splashed its contents onto the deck and, as the Cod and Haddock flapped around at our feet, a Skate appeared. Everyone else seemed to find this very amusing, but I didn’t know why. I would soon find out, when the Skate was hoisted up by one of my fellow trawlermen and nailed to a door. I had never seen the underside of a Skate but its mouth, I realised, looked like a woman’s lips, and a couple of feet below that was a hole. I suppose when you’re away at sea for weeks at a time you make your own entertainment. And this afternoon I, the youngest member in a crew of seven, was to be that entertainment. This was my initiation. “If you want to become a true trawlerman,” my skipper told me, “You have to ride the lady.”
I realised there and then that I did not, at all, want to become a true trawlerman, but that realisation was not helpful to me in the moment as a 21-year-old, stuck on a boat, with nowhere to turn. I don’t know how much this needs spelling out but, and there is no pleasant way to say this, I was being invited to fuck a fish. Bear in mind this was over a decade before a young man at Oxford University, at a similar age, was supposedly invited to put his penis in a pig, and several more decades until he kept his job as Prime Minister anyway. Back then, the whole situation seemed far from ideal. For a moment, I did wonder if I’d have to go through with it.
In the end I gave ‘the lady’ a kiss on its lips and that was that. My initiation was over. How different might my life be, I wondered right then, if I had got to what Americans would call third base, and what American trawlerman might call third Bass, with the fish? It was like the film Sliding Doors, if Sliding Doors had been about someone who fucked a fish.
We got back to Aberdeen and I quit. I never found out who among my trawler companions had been presented with a similar scenario during their own apprenticeships, and I never found out how many had gone through with it. But I did know that in an alternative version of my life, there was a me who did fuck the fish.
Turns out I was wrong. This fish-fucker version of Bill Drummond did not exist in another timeline at all, but in my own. I ’d hoped he would stay on the boat, but as I stepped onto dry land, he did not leave my side. I knew I could not admit, even to myself, that he existed. But nor could I pretend that he did not exist.
This other version of me has been with me each day, a dark companion on my journey through life. Anything you read about my life after this event, in this book or any other, and any success, failure or neutral endeavour that may ever be attached to my name, has been informed by the notion that there is a version of myself — as real and as human as the one you think you know — who fucked a fish. When I feel I’m acting through free will, what I’m actually doing is arguing (sometimes successfully, other times in a way that is futile and doomed) with a fish-fucker.
Sometimes I win. When I win, I decide, for instance, not to chop off my hand on a televised awards show. But sometimes the fish-fucker wins, and — just to pluck a million examples from the air — my bank balance never recovers.
But he is always there: this fish-fucking version of myself.
Did Jung have some ideas about all this? You bet he did. His idea of the Persona, for instance, describes the acceptable, palatable version of myself that did not fuck a fish. Whereas my shameful, unacceptable Shadow self is the fish-fucker. As it happens, Jung also had some ideas about fish: they were good, he reckoned, for representing psychic happenings that “suddenly dart out of the unconscious and have a frightening or redeeming effect”.
I suppose this means that when the fish-fucking version of me does dart briefly out of the darkness and into my awareness, the frightening part of it is helpful. Simply by existing, even if he’s outside my field of vision, he guides my life. I’ve no idea to be honest, to be fair I’m basing all this on some Google searches and a book that attempts to explain Jung’s Map of the Soul through the lyrics of K-Pop boyband BTS.
FIVE QUESTIONS FOR THE FISH-FUCKER
1. Did you go on to fuck another fish or was that a one-off?
2. Having ‘ridden the lady’, did you live out your days as a True Trawlerman…
3. …and at age 70 were you happier or less happy than I am today?
4. In your world, what do well-meaning friends say when you’re heartbroken, instead of “there are plenty more fish in the sea”?
5. Do you consider me your own dark side, and if so, what did I do to deserve it?