I’m reading from the new Daiphanes German translation edition of Endland at Hebbel, Berlin (Hau 1, in the Foyer) with performer Thomas Wodianka, at 8pm this next Monday, November 3rd. Looking forward to that.
Here’s the intro I wrote esp for the new book.
In the 1980’s, I had written a novel called Helen © & her Daughters. The book was messy and borderline incoherent; its landscape and tone very dark, brutal and cartoon-like. The story itself was crazy, set in the world that was a kind of hybrid of Thatcher–era North of England (i.e. selected lowlights of what I could see out of the window) mixed with all manner of other things and places, times and landscapes – some real, others invented. The language was also rough, cut-up, hybridised, slang. I was writing a lot of stuff for performance with the group Forced Entertainment at the same time and working on various short fiction things and film ideas and random projects and bits of writing.
My friend Tony White asked me to contribute to a publication series he had started, called Piece of Paper Press. The idea was to make a little book from a single sheet of A4 paper, cut and folded in a simple way, then produced as a photocopied edition. Some were by writers, others by artists; some were texts, others comprised sequences of drawings or diagrams. The idea appealed to me and I wrote a blunt, comical narrative called About Lisa. One tiny chapter per page. The sense of humour was very dark and a lot of the drive in the narrative came from stretching the world of the story really thin and making the world ‘be’ horrible to the characters. At the time I was reading 1001 Nights, William Burroughs, Russell Hoban, Kathy Acker, Donald Barthelme, Alan Moore and RAW comics. In the background were Mike Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, Charles Dickens, David Lynch, Tarkovsky, Philip K. Dick and a million other things. I was listening to The Fall, whose lyricist/singer M. E. Smith was probably the biggest single influence on what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it. The great thing about Piece of Paper Press for me was how its formal framework and restrictions forced my writing to become much more stripped down and economical. I remember I used to tell people that it felt like taking the world, tone and language of my (unpublished) novel Helen © and boiling it. About Lisa and the other stories that followed in the following year or two – which would eventually become Endland Stories – were the result of that process of reduction. I plundered the novel for landscape, characters and gags and atmospheres, hanging them on sharp, brutal, compacted little narratives – postcards from hell.
Years before I’d done an interview with William Gibson for Performance Magazine where my friend Steve Rogers was the editor. Gibson said that the world of his book Neuromancer was only one molecule thick – that (in effect) any reality sensed in it by the reader was just a temporary effect – a momentary production in the language. I liked that idea – it made sense to me in terms of other stuff that I respected as writing. In the Endland Stories, I was trying to play with how thin and dense the world in it could be at the same time, how disposable I could make that world and the characters populating it, how violently contradictory, while still somehow keeping an engagement with the reader. It meant creating characters and narratives in the ruins of something larger, whose shape, purpose and extent could only be guessed at.
The stories came pretty fast, one after another. Elaine Palmer at Pulp Books included German Fokker in an anthology on pop culture, titled Allnighter, and soon afterwards agreed to do the whole collection as a book. After Endland Stories: Or Bad Lives came out in 1999, I wrote a few more stories (Taxi Driver/Antagonistes for that year’s Sceptre Brit Pulp anthology and much later Cellar Story, published in 14 Hills) that pretty much existed in the same world / landscape / language, but apart from that my fiction writing post-Endland Stories took off in quite other directions. *
Years later, in 2006, I got another out-of-the-blue invitation, this time to participate in an extraordinary on-going project by Australian artist Barbara Campbell, 1001 nights cast. In response and without really planning to do so, I found myself back in what could be called Endland territory, wandering (and plundering) a related terrain ten years later, but with different intentions.
Barbara’s request to guests on her project was to write in response to a prompt – a fragment she’d pull from that morning’s newspaper coverage of events in the Middle East. As an invited writer, you had to somehow use the phrase she’d selected – a word or a few words – as a starting point and turn the story around in a few hours. Each narrative produced had to be up to 1001 words long and each evening Barbara would perform that day’s story on the Internet as a live webcast. She did this continuously, daily, for almost three years – 1001 nights to be precise, ending in March 2008. Once again, there was something appealing and creatively liberating to me about the constraint – the very short length and the process of writing under a time limit. Most of the second wave of Endland Stories included in this collection –– murky and opaque, intentions seem good, I thought I smelled something dirty, paying for a bullet, wanted to get a good look, generally unsmiling and now not moving –– were initially written for Barbara’s project. Two further stories were also done around this same time for projects by other artists. For performance maker Kate McIntosh’s solo work Loose Promise (2007), I created a text which had to include elements from a menu of words and events she’d compiled. For Goran Sergej Pristas and Nikolina Bujas-Pristas of Zagreb-based group BADco meanwhile, I wrote at their instruction, a new version of Aesop’s fable The Ant and the Grasshopper, which became one of the texts for the group’s 2007 performance, Changes. This “second wave” of Endland stories is published together for the first time in this collection, alongside all of the stories from the original UK publication. Both “batches” share an interest in creating a place/space which hybridises different geographies and fictions and which is dominated by dark humour, absurdist puns and general air of malevolence. Shifting in time and apparent location, mixing the high tech and the decayed/archaic, colliding the realistic and the impossible, Endland was always a messy place: at once a capitalist free-for-all, an anarchistic bedlam, a post-apocalypse retro-medieval nightmare, a Central European civil war zone and a heavily trade unionised pre-yuppie-fication military junta Housing Estate in Rotherham or Doncaster. In the more recent stories, there is also somehow more America in Endland, perhaps since I’ve spent more time in America. There’s also more Iraq and Afghanistan in it, too – not surprising I guess – as the war wagons of geo-politics and atrocity have moved on in that direction. In addition, the fictional modes of fairy tale, pub anecdote, parable and condensed movie plot have been boosted by a thick residue of digital culture. As a result, the reality of the newer stories is now prone to error-messages, pixilation, artefacting and other compression faults, as well as to the jump-cuts, sarcastic punch lines, graffiti, exaggerations and pseudo-moralising that abound in the earlier set of stories.*Endland exists and does not exist. It is not locatable on maps and no doubt its relation to any ‘England’ described in newspaper accounts or in realist fiction of the last 30 years is highly tangential. My hope is that these grotesque tales out of Endland – ontologically, geographically and temporally confused as they are – might get closer to the heart of things than might be possible by other narrative means – fictional or otherwise. I hope that as work, these stories come closer to the bone – closer to the essence of the strange and bitter times we are living in. It is my belief at least, that the psychological, political and cultural landscapes we’ve been walking in these days – from Thatcher to Google, with IFOR, ICANN, Big Brother and Bin Laden in between – need strange fucking tools to navigate them.
Finally my thanks go to Tony White and Elaine Palmer for their parts in getting Endland Stories started, and to Barbara Campbell for her project 1001 nights cast which offered space for me to continue these stories. I’d like thank my agent Ivan Mulcahy at Mulcahy Conway as well as Sabine Schulz and Michael Heitz at Diaphanes for their interest in creating this German edition. And last but not least big thanks to my friend Astrid Sommer who has translated these stories with a patience and an attention to detail that’s never ceased to amaze me. I will miss Astrid’s emails seeking clarification for the possible meaning of made-up film titles, invented slang words or arcane aspects of Endland/England and the characters inhabiting it.
Tim Etchells, Sheffield, 2008.