Wednesday, January 13, 2010

It's a bit like one of those Kilgore Trout novels

There once was a man who found himself atop the world's tallest building, listening to Thin Lizzy's "Still in Love With You" off the "Live And Dangerous" album. You know, the version that carries on for roughly eight minutes and has that beautiful-simple bass line where you can just imagine Phil Lynott lost in his druggy haze with four strings being his only reality. And right where the second guitar solo kicks in (a) -- right after Lynott moans, "Help me see it through, I'm still in love with yooooo" -- the man set himself on fire and jumped from the top of the building.

With music blaring and the whole great world stretched out below him, here are some of the things the man thought as his flame-engulfed body sped toward the ground:
- "This is so beautiful, so amazing, so incredible! My soul is overflowing. My heart is singing."
- "This hurts so much. The pain is excruciating. I can't take this."
- "I'm lost. I've got nothing to hold onto but this feeling. There is nothing solid, nothing real."
- "I'm going to die. Oh, God, I'm going to die. This is going to kill me and it already hurts so much. I just wish it would end."
- "How did I get like this? Why did I do this to myself?"
- "I just can't ever fully get into my head that Phil Lynott was Irish. It just messes with the mind a little bit."
- "Why does it have to end?"

Meanwhile, a woman sitting at a cafe at the foot of the world's tallest building, sipping a white chocolate mocha, heard a noise and looked up. The noise she heard was screaming. Or perhaps laughing. Or perhaps both. Singing, too. All emitting from a ball of flame plummeting toward her from half a mile above. Calmly dropping her mobile phone into her purse (she had been texting her friend), she picked up her mocha and stepped back about three feet just as the screaming, laughing, singing ball of flame tore through her table and extinguished itself in the inexorable sudden unmovingness of pavement. So sudden was the stop that the sound it had been making continued to echo down, its last words being: "Wait! Wait! Wait! Wait!"

The woman walked over to the smoking lump of a thing and nudged it with her foot. She emptied the contents of her coffee cup to extinguish the last little flame and walked away.

"Wait... wait... wait... wait..." breathed the man, too quiet to hear.

He coughed to get back the breath that had been knocked from him. The dull ringing ache of his head kept him from moving right away, but after a moment or two he straightened out his legs, sat up and rubbed his neck.

"My clothes are ruined," he thought. "But no broken bones..."

He pulled his iPod from his jacket pocket and, using the back of the personal stereo, checked his reflection. Hair's a mess. But no scars. No, wait, there's one. A pretty good one, actually. In a weird sort of way it made him look a little more dignified, more mature -- like he had lived a little.

As he did this, with his head still muddled, the iPod quietly whirred back to life and started playing "Tupelo Honey" by Van Morrison.

"Ooh, this is a great song," the man said to himsef.

He got up, made a half-hearted effort to fix his hair and then walked over to a little patch of manicured green lawn, where he sat and looked at the world's tallest building and thought: "You know, I probably -- probably -- wouldn't do that again. Or, at least, not do it exactly that way. But I don't regret it."

After a few more moments, he realised that the iPod was stuck on repeat; "Tupelo Honey" was playing over and over and over. But the player was banjaxed, and he couldn't get it to play any other song. All he could do was adjust the volume. So, unwilling to go without music, he sat there listening to the song for almost a fortnight -- sometimes turning it up, sometimes singing along, sometimes nodding his head to the rhythym, sometimes feeling warm and content in the song's layers, and sometimes getting quite bored with it and turning it down in order to try to think of his own songs to sing.

One day, cold and tired from sitting still for so long, the man got up, turned the sound on his iPod down so low that it was almost unnoticeable, and went to see the Gourds perform live in concert.

"Holy shit!" he screamed into the noise of the evening. "Holy shit! I love this!"

All around him was warmth and dancing and laughing and singing. And the band took the crowd everywhere -- up and down, fast and slow. Everyone wailed at "Port Arthur," they whooped and howled to "Burn the Honey Suckle." And the joy swelled in the man's heart and filled his lungs.

But when the concert ended he fell into inconsolable tears because the Gourds' albums aren't available through the UK version of iTunes.

(a) No truly great song has just one guitar solo.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Leaving the black

I'm on my fourth cup of tea, trying mostly unsuccessfully to overcome my London hangover. Before my grandmother fires off another e-mail accusing me of being a drunken no-good, I should stress that the hangover is not alcohol-induced; yesterday I had only a bottle of beer. And a pint of beer... And a gin and tonic... But the hangover -- this headache, sore throat, dry mouth, sore body, muddled brain and exhaustion -- has come as a result of spending a week in what is arguably the world's greatest city.

For the benefit of those who have missed out on much of season 33 in the Chris Narrative due to a writer's strike (and it's a pity because you missed that whole cross-promotional story arc with NCIS, in which Ziva and I had a child together), I have been stuck on the Island of Rain over the holiday season thanks to the UK Home Office's brilliant anti-terrorism measure of just sort of letting immigrants wander about without identification for several months. Nothing stops a terrorist more than enforcing annonymity.

Back in October I compiled every little piece of information about me and shipped it off to an office in Durham, all for the sake of being issued a new visa. And one of those pieces of information about me was my passport, the little collection of papers that bureaucratically facilitate what my great aunt Johnnie refers to as my "jet-setting playboy lifestyle," the little collection of papers that one aspect of UK immigration law insists I must have in my possession at all times -- overuled, apparently, by the aspect of UK immigration law that insists I send the thing to the grim North.

In addition to my passport, I had to send along a lengthy questionnaire which contained such baddie-filtering interrogatory statements as: "How much money do you presently have in your current account?" and: "Do you own a business?" and "Are you a financial genius who could turn around the economy and save the election for Labour?" and: "Have you ever been convicted of genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity?"

The first and last of those are actual questions; the other two are implied. What I have learned from the UK's immigration system is that devotion to British values is far less important than a fat wallet. I am tickled to think someone would answer "yes" to the genocide question: "Ah, well, you know, we all do silly things in our youth. My girlfriend at the time did a lot of cocaine; and I slaughtered 9,000 religious minorities. But, hey, we all make mistakes, and since two wrongs don't make a right I'm certainly not going to lie on this visa application."

I'm not exactly sure what the chaps up in Durham do with one's passport, but apparently it takes them a whopping great long time to do it because I still don't have mine back. I mean, honestly, how long does it take to run a Google search on the terms "Chris Cope" and "war atrocities"?

Actually, I fear that the internets may be to blame for the delay, specifically the wee corner that contains my Welsh-language blog. The immigration system may noy be built for digging through a Welsh speaker's internet presence. I would assume that part of the background check is delving into one's internet presence, searching for certain key words and terms. But it's possible that no such software exists for Welsh. So, they've brought in some bloke named Dai, who's from Margam and really only has A-level Welsh, and he's presently poring through every Welsh-language post. Right now he's somewhere in 2007 and has written in his report for the 54th time: "Really likes women's breasts."

While Dai is at it, I am sans passport and not allowed to travel beyond this island's shores. In November I was called in to give biometrics, which is a slightly Total Recall-sounding term for "fingerprints and eye scan," and asked when they thought I might yet again have freedom to wander. I was told my passport would be returned in "roughly four to 14 weeks."

"So, I'm not going to see my family for Christmas, am I?" I huffed at the woman in Cardiff's biometrics office.

And in one of those moments that reminds me of why I moved here in the first place, the woman dropped her governmental tone and looked at me with that almost-maternal warmth that all South Wales women seem to possess.

"No, James. I'm so terribly sorry," she said. "But do you know Monknash? Down by Llantwit Major? There's a pub there, the Plough and Harrow, that does a lovely Christmas dinner."

As it turns out, the Plough and Harrow didn't serve Christmas dinner on Christmas Day, but I was saved from spending Jesus' birthday alone (well, just me and Him, I suppose) by my neighbours, who are the sort of people who make it difficult to think seriously about moving. I often think that I would like to live a bit closer to the areas of Cardiff where Welsh speakers are most oft to be found, closer to cafes, closer to the Chapter Arts Centre, but then it occurs to me that I quite possibly would not end up with neighbours half as good as those I have now. So, Christmas was spent with a proper family, including a grandfather who dismissed America as "kind of a young country."

But as the new year rang in I was on the banks of the Thames, in Britain's capital city, with a bottle of Champagne in hand and hundreds of thousands of people shouting out into the cold, crisp night. After the fireworks reached their climax, as the crowd began to push away from the river toward pubs and Tube stations, snow began to fall and everything in the world felt right and good. The beam of light shot out across Greenwich and we were all connected.

I spent a week in London, and, as happens to me every time I visit the city, I spent the majority of my time telling myself I want to move there. But London is not a place; it is a thing. Mrs. Phin once brilliantly described it as the most intense lover you've ever had: it ignites your soul but also holds the power to destroy you. London can take everything you have to give; it will never get its fill of your energy, your hope. London is that Twilight vampire, but it shows no restraint as it sinks its teeth into your veins.

And one of the things they don't mention in tourism books about London is The Black, the soot that lurks in London corners and seeps into your every part.

Years ago I saw a piece featuring Ruby Wax on the top of a tourist bus with Lisa Kudrow, in which Kudrow stupidly commented on how London is cleaner than she had imagined. Ruby Wax then succeeded in drawing out that Kudrow, who had never been there before, had imagined a kind of Dickensian coal-dusted misery in which coughing rag-adorned hordes collapsed in the street from consumption. Many Americans have this sort of view. We expect heavy, miserable skies pissing acid and woe. But, in fact, the weather is quite often agreeable and there are days where you would rather be nowhere else in the world. There are days when the sky is so blue it almost hurts your eyes and the air is so clean you feel like you're flying.

But beneath the ground, in the ground, lies The Black. After a journey or two in the Tube you notice flecks of black -- ink black -- when you blow your nose. It works into exposed skin, slips beneath fingernails, and robs clothes of their colour.

In the past week there have been museums and art and theatre and good food and warm pubs and laughter, but constantly moving around the city has overexposed me to The Black. It has sunk into my lungs and cut at the back of my throat.

And so I am ready to be back in Cardiff, back in the Old City. I am ready to be back in my old routine. I am ready to be back trying.