Real Time Short Stories

Real Time Reads: “Low Visibility” by Margaret Murphy

Posted on: August 13, 2011

Sometimes time simply passes but sometimes it rushes up to us, stops, grabs hold and drags us along with it. In Britain, we’ve been having some of that type of time. The determination – not to add to the huffing, the puffing, the analysis and the splenosis – is undercut by the perversity of avoiding the conversation.

One of the contentions of this blog is that short fiction is ideally equipped to relay our own lives back to us. It is intimate with the people we are, and its pacing means it can fall into step with us, its narratives alive in our world, travelling in real time. While this enables the form to reflect social and political narratives as they emerge, we can’t claim that we’re dealing in immediate commentary. Poetry, music, some theatre, film and most definitely photography will provide the most instananeous artistic responses to the disturbances in London and other UK cities. Short fiction will have to step back and assess what are the enduring narratives, after the clearance of smoke and the clean-up, after every possible agent of delinquency has been fitted up for the criminal rampage – witness David Starkey’s post hoc ergo propter hoc argument that effectively blamed it on the boogie, or the voices in Parliament and elsewhere deciding social media are to blame because rioters used Twitter and Blackberry messaging for mobilisation. What to ban next? The bicycles that got them there? The bottles used for firebombs? Glass itself?

Margaret Murphy‘s Low Visibility, published by Comma Press in the 2008 Book Of Liverpool (eds. Maria Crossan and Eleanor Rees), would seem an obvious point of comparison with the narratives of early August 2011 and, let’s face it, it owes the timing of its presence on this blog to the fact that we can’t yet look away from the theme. The 1981 riots, or uprising, in Liverpool 8 (you’ll know it as Toxteth, as the result of one of those curious early 80s re-orderings of the media’s lexicon that seemed to stick, like Argentinians suddenly and forever becoming “Argentines”) was the long-overdue explosion of a powder keg. Poverty, deprivation, criminal justice, racism and the legacy of the slave trade in the area, and across the city, came under the microscope; Loosen The Shackles, Lord Gifford, Wally Brown and Ruth Bundey’s 1988 report into the riots, served to ratify the idea that the violence of ’81 contained a political programme; strategic investment and development in the most marginalised communities and European funding for regeneration had a direct effect on the city’s capacity to produce and promote cultural activity. When the slogan “The World in One City” was adopted for the successful European Capital of Culture bid, it was almost by way of tacit acknowledgement that the uprising/riots had passed over in the city’s mythology from shameful blight to necessary corrective.

While community mobilisation “to find a resolution to the unrest” may come to secure a cherished status in the civic memory, it’s unlikely that this week’s copycat flurries of destruction themselves will serve writers as well as the scenes from 1981 have done. In Murphy’s story, the violence provides an orchestral backdrop to the emotional choreography for a woman struggling within an abusive relationship:

The television cameras switch to Upper Parliament Street. A wide stretch of road, a barrier built from a van, a burnt-out milk float, a VW Beetle, the silvery sheen of its metallic finish peeled off like plastic in the heat. The reporter sounds afraid. A baker’s delivery van turns into the road, brakes hard and starts to reverse, fishtailing wildly back the way it came. But it hits a pothole and loses control, smashes into the wall of a derelict building. The mob is on him. They drag the driver from the van and beat him. His van is overturned and set alight as the fire brigade sirens wail inconsolably beyond the police line.
‘Animals,’ mutters John, feasting on her pain.

It’s not a profound engagement with the politics of the riot, nor should we expect it to stand up to rigorous analysis: it’s not reportage. Writing a prose fiction descriptive overview of a riot might well be up there with fictional acts of sex or war as inevitable disappointments – there’s simply too much going on to do it justice. Vikram Seth in A Suitable Boy and Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man contain examples of attempts to capture riots and what they and other writers invariably find is that the individual story wins out. Murphy ensures that the central character is always the conductor for how we receive information about what is happening in Liverpool 8. The character in turn mediates her experiences through the television via the remote control held in John’s hand while he rests “the other [hand] on her thigh. She keeps very still.” The violence is framed by the television report and John’s hostility but we can see its metaphorical stock rising as she reflects on her own sense of alienation:

She is wordless, stripped of language, or the liberty of expression. She doesn’t know the right thing to say, because he changes the rules each time. So she says nothing. It’s safer – less painful.

It’s a desire for liberty and it’s about to crash through John’s domestic fortress:

Shouts drift up from the street and he points the remote control at the TV, lowering the volume. Three solid thuds rattle chunks of plaster from the ceiling, then a cheer, and the sound of footsteps on bare board.

Note the vulnerability of the bare board and the sequence of onomataopoeia in “thuds rattle chunks” – what this does is emphasise the visceral aspect of the riot, while the timing – just as John has escalated his abusive treatment of his partner, the street violence moves from the TV into his shop downstairs – is an illustration of why I talk about “choreography” in relation to short story narrative. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether it was a riot or an uprising; whether it was the springboard for rebuilding Liverpool or an explosive prelude to thirty years of false dawns; whether any of what happened in ’81 could be identified in the Blu-ray DVD re-release of that inner-city strife in 2011. We read Low Visibility and find a small but definitive moment in the story of one couple, that very basic human framework for short fiction. All we take away are the individual narratives. The rest is just scenery.


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