Twenty-four hours in state of unconsciousness

Stephen Barber

Futurama Nights, October 1978

Veröffentlicht am 04.07.2017

Now the dead will no longer be buried, now this spectral city will become the site for execrations and lamentations, now time itself will disintegrate and void itself, now human bodies will expectorate fury and envision their own transformation or negation, now infinite and untold catastrophes are imminently on their way —ready to cross the bridge over the river Aire and engulf us all — in this winter of discontent, just beginning at this dead-of-night ­instant before midnight, North-Sea ice-particles already crackling in the air and the last summer long-over, the final moment of my seventeenth birthday, so we have to go, the devil is at our heels… And now we’re running at full-tilt through the centre of the city, across the square beneath the Purbeck-marble edifice of the Queen’s ­Hotel, down towards the dark arches under the railway tracks, the illuminated sky shaking, the air fissured with beating cacophony, the ground underfoot trembling.

As we pass through those long, sloping tunnels, their arched brick walls streaming with water, the trembling intensifies. Beyond the far side of the tunnels, in near-darkness, a chaotic straggle of bodies extends towards us along the narrow pavement at the base of an immense, abandoned building, seven hundred figures or so —elated and exhilarated, simultaneously downcast and accursed —girls in fishnet tights and ripped silk dresses, scarlet-lipsticked mouths and bleached or jet-black hair, boys in ancient black-leather motorcycle-jackets or heavy overcoats and hand-inscribed razored t-shirts, all emitting their own vocal strata of noise against the monstrous bursts from that building’s interior. And against the facade, there also stand resolutely isolated, shadow-hidden figures, in silence, alone, near-embedded into that building’s soot-encrusted, scarred surface, shards of broken brick against split-lipped and hooded faces, disjointed from that straggle of bodies.
At exactly midnight, the paint-peeled oak gates of that now-derelict tramshed —its vast interior space once teeming with steel carriages ready to head on electrified lines for the city’s peripheries, and now emptied-out for over twenty years —are due to be prised open, and the Futurama festival will begin at that instant. It will not end for ­exactly ­forty-eight hours. Many of the crowd carry tattered blankets in the expectation that there could be sleep to be had in the unknown world inside the tramshed facades, others carry nothing but a plastic-sheathed entrance-card with a stencilled image of a ghost figure in a 1930s suit, face gone beneath his hat. There has never before been such a festival here in the North, only one-off nights of oblivion at punk-rock venues sited —alongside polluted rivers that stream with naphthalene detrita or industrial zones of coal-tar residues —on the cities’ discarded edges, occupying the decrepit nightclubs, dancehalls or ballrooms whose proprietors despair of finding other bookings. Our location is at the heart of the city’s aberrations.

Through the cacophony-beaten, worn-down facades of the century-old tramshed, the noise is diminishing, reduced now to sequences of sudden, split-second electronic wails. Whoever is testing the sound-system now decides that its malfunctioning is irreparable, or has reached the acoustic threshold at which it can be sure to irreparably damage all listeners’ ears. Only the dementia and psychosis propelled night-screaming of the inmates of the High Royds Asylum for the Insane, the sub-city for the mad on the exposed hills to the north-west of this city, could compete with those last wailings, before the tramshed’s interior abruptly falls silent. We are going inside, and will not emerge until our bodies have been exposed to experimental treatments or unprecedented ordeals, as with those subjected tonight to the High Royds inmates’ bodies. The surrounding city is falling silent, too —the bars closed over an hour ago and the final drinkers pass by on the street’s opposite side without speaking, casting disbelieving glances at the dishevelled line of figures. Already, another two hundred bodies have amassed behind us.

Nobody here in the zigzagging line loves this city, or this country: England. The name of this festival is cast in sardonic irony: any future was curtailed and annulled, before our lives began. The Second World War ended only thirty-three years ago, our fathers are still obsessed with it or wounded by it, and tracts of every industrial city of the North remain wastelanded by its aerial bombings. We despise our distant fathers and our nerve-shredded mothers are hidden. We already belong to the markets, slaughterhouses and corporations of this city, our lives and bodies set to be ­gutted-out and discarded by them, unless we elude and refuse them. The blinded government of England, Callaghan’s government, is almost ready to fall. A bad time is coming, far worse than ever before, only the span of this coming winter away: Thatcher is coming, and the devil is already here, to see and touch, in this darkened, fallen-apart city. Serial-killing is here, gang-warfare is here. Along with the entity of noise we are about to confront, moments from now, a tramshed-­facade away, our only intimate attachment is to our own violent exhilaration, and its instantaneous combustions and conjunctions with other bodies.

It’s midnight, and those bodies around us are growing restless. Everyone falls quiet for a moment, as the seized-up hinges of the gates gradually pivot-open to create a narrow aperture. A short, hunchbacked man with a black beard emerges, limps out on clubbed feet into the middle of the street, Swinegate, glacially appraises the line of bodies, as though they are gathered there solely for purposes of slaughter or prostitution, expires a reluctant breath, looks up into the stars of that endless moonlit night above the city, then nods to himself, gives a minuscule hand-gesture for the gates to be wide-opened and stands to the far side of them, glancing with definitive disinterest at the hand-gripped entrance-cards. Even those isolated figures enmeshed in the tramshed’s blackened facade detach themselves, and are irresistibly sieved inside with everyone else. The accelerating line of bodies fractures, and we follow the rusted tracks that emerge from the tramshed gates, ready to enter a lightless void already seething with disorientated bodies. As we leave behind the surrounding city, it appears to respire again, as though a great malediction is lifting.

Inside this cold and abandoned tramshed —which its momentary proprietors, to conceal its denudation, have called the ‘Queen’s Hall’, as though in derision of the queen of England whose reign’s twenty-five-year jubilee took place a year ago, or else to intimate that this hall is the infernal twin of the lavish Queen’s Hotel, in which every inhabitant of this city dreams of spending at least one night of their lives, on the far side of the dark arches —an atmosphere of acute fear soon comes alive. In the two decades since the trams were scrapped, no work of renovation was ever undertaken here, and the slate floors are still slick with a screen of oil, thickest between the steel tracks, where engineers spent decades on their backs at work on the trams’ undercarriages. The overhead power lines are gone, but the corroded gantries that supported those lines remain, and above them, an immense void of soot-constellated air stretches to the ceiling, far above us. The blackened interior walls of this tramshed hold an ineradicable coating of century-accumulated work-sweat, cacophony, cigarette-tar and benzene, generated by relentless, intense activity, now ­overlayered with the haunted aura of that activity’s abandonment. With the sudden heat-influx of a thousand young bodies into the hall, that coating is already pulsing back into life and emitting a dense toxic stench.

No lights have been switched on in the hall, and all that can be glimpsed of its interior is revealed by the burning ends of cigarettes. The mass of bodies, propelled into the hall through their own velocity, now begin to panic, as though they have been led into a chamber designed solely for their slaughter. A sizzling of malfunctioned electricity traverses the space overhead as a scattering of fluorescent tubes fixed to the overhead gantries are turned on, casting a vertical light down upon the accumulated bodies. Exposed, we scrutinise one another, eye to eye and face to face: an audience of the dead. A scream of feedback turns all eyes to one corner of the hall, close to the entrance, where the hunchbacked promoter —whose hands have just activated the lighting by pulling down a lever —now clutches a microphone, ready to introduce the Futurama festival. He even has a few notes ready. But the microphone will not stop screaming, his first muttered words are inaudible, and after ten seconds of downcast fury, he throws the microphone to the ground and gestures a crossed X with both arms in renunciation, as though the festival is finished before its first moment.

The fluorescent tubes glow down on the bodies below, but above them, the tramshed vault seeps upwards into an engulfing darkness that hangs above us. Another thousand bodies have entered the hall’s now-sealed doors: it has reached its maximum capacity. The lighting reveals the contours of a platform constructed in scaffolding across the entire far end of the hall, with precarious columns of amplifiers stacked at either side and extending up to the level of the gantries. The entity of noise could manifest itself at any moment, but for now, silence holds its ground as the amassed bodies still stare at one another, at the precipice between terror and elation. Everyone is standing and nobody knows what to do. For the next forty-seven hours, our bodies in that space will be compelled to conjure and inhabit a short-lived sub-city of madness and fear, barricaded by the tramshed walls but aberrantly deep in the heart of that great infernal city of serial-killing and gang-warfare that stretches from the river Aire valley to the northern hills.

Pivoting, I see that a long table close to the hall’s entrance has been stacked with cans of beer in golden-coloured containers, still affixed to one another with plastic, and I slip through the petrified bodies to reach it. The beer’s fee is hand-inscribed on grease-proof paper and taped askew to the wall behind the table, which conceals many hundreds more cans. There will be nothing else to drink for the next forty-seven hours other than rust-tainted water to be collected in your hands from taps and then brought to your tongue and throat. But an excessive glut of amphetamines exists in that hall, and in the shadows alongside the table, entrepreneurs are already distributing handfuls of blue tablets from pharmaceutical bags. As I thread my way through the bodies, the lights are switched back off and an originating outburst of cacophony projects itself from the still-empty platform at the far end of the hall, immediately convulsing the interior surfaces of the tramshed so that fragments of plaster and brick fall from the walls and a miasma of displaced dust plummets from the ceiling onto those bodies below.
Four figures are now on the platform, and the outburst of cacophony which led the population of this hall to move to its far end, breaking that crowd’s bewildered silence and making their voices cry out in expectation, abruptly fades out from the precarious columns of speakers stacked at either side of the platform, as though it had been generated of its own accord as a last-gasp residue of the sonic tests that were heard beyond the tramshed walls, as far away as the central square of this city, whose pavements they momentarily convulsed. The four figures on the platform appear unsure what to do, looking at one another in nerve-shredded hesitancy, in the same way that the bodies newly pinioned in the tramshed looked each other in the eyes, an hour earlier. The space around and above those four figures is black and immense, reeking of benzene and toxic residues, petrified and near-solidified in the air after the building’s two decades of abandonment, and down below, two thousand or so pressed-together figures form a volatile layer on the ground, hissing and shrieking in anticipation. The four figures exposed on that platform are dressed as though they’ve arrived for work in a hardware store, and everyone in the hall can sense that, in a split-second, they will either flee the platform, pushing through the crowd and out via the doors into the night air, or else they will begin to perform.

One of the figures approaches the microphone on its stand placed at the edge of the platform, and speaks five offhand words, in a voice of the North: ‘Welcome to the atrocity exhibition.’ We have gone nowhere, we are already here, transfixed and adhered to the ground, our vision jammed, but our eyes can be unscreened. Instantly, the living entity of noise materialises in that hall. The gantries above us begin to shake in repetition with the beat, and the sound speakers on either side of the platform are seisming too, the propulsions of noise visible as they exit the torn meshed coverings of those speakers. The crowd seemed to rip as I manoeuvred my way through it —almost to the point at which those amassed bodies end, and the platform begins, extending ten feet into the air, and I am occasionally transported backwards and forwards as other bodies infiltrate the crowd from either side. A heat generated by those bodies’ gratings-together is now gradually rising up into the tramshed’s cold air, in the first fragile tendrils of corporeal condensation that intertwine with the spiralling ascents of cigarette smoke.

The singer’s body is solely illuminated from behind by a sequence of lights placed on floor-level at the back of the platform and projected obliquely upwards towards him, and apart from the moments when he approaches the microphone, his face is part-hidden by those vertical trails of cigarette smoke and rising sweat. But when he pierces that curtain of smoke and evaporating body-fluids, we can see his raw, young face, eyes wide, hair and forehead streaming with his own sweat already dripping now onto the front of a C&A shirt of shining nylon fabric, half-tucked into work-trousers. His voice is so drowned in noise that, even singing with such velocity that his throat’s tendons are pitched against his skin, it seems he is only murmuring to himself, cast into eyes-wide-open hallucination.

I look from side to side and see that, from the edges, that crowd is already dispersing, heading back towards the alcohol and amphetamine zone, or else to lean in lassitude against the coal-tar surfaced tramshed walls, which are reverberating from the repeated pounding of noise from the platform’s speakers, as though blown into minuscule concave and convex deviations with each assault. After a few moments’ silence, the noise begins again, this time more frenetic, and now, accentuated above the drone of instruments that accompanies it, for the first time we hear the singer’s voice clearly, as he grips the microphone and holds his mouth close to it. His voice roars and echoes through the hall, to the far wall and back again and up beyond the gantries into the voids above them, and also directly into the bodies and arteries and bones of the amassed crowd below. That voice is still immersed in hallucination, but at the same time is dreaming the city at night and its compulsions, exhilarations, elations, ­abysses.

In peripheral vision, my eyes still focused on the lines of bodies fixed to the tramshed’s shaking exterior walls, I realise that the singer has started dancing, while the other three figures are intent on perpetrating an immersing noise for that dance. The ­singer has taken a step or two back from the microphone, and moves in malfunctioned convulsion, arms flailing as though they need to undertake an intricate sequence of disjointed aberrations in order finally to perform the simplest gesture, fists pumping, knees buckled upwards while his feet keep pounding the wooden floor of the platform. His face too is awrily dancing, somewhere in the zone between psychosis and uncontrollable epileptic propulsion, pupils almost gone, skin streaming with sweat, neck pivoted backwards. When he moves back to the microphone and starts to sing again, I look around at the crowd. I can see many faces weeping and overcome, tears pouring from their eyes, naked shoulders shaking, and other faces are laughing, beside themselves, in the hilarity of desperation and in the vision of a transformed body that is outlandish. It’s a theory of the body that will never cohere, has no liveable history, and can only be annulled. Those weeping, laughing faces have witnessed something irreparable.

Twenty minutes later, it’s evident that the singer is drained beyond endurance and barely able to keep on his feet. Between songs, he grips the microphone stand to support himself, eyes closed, but each time the cacophony reaches its driving intensity, he is compelled to dance again and is moving further and further into a terrain of seizure. Between two songs, he lights a cigarette and sits on one of the amplifiers at the back of the platform, putting his fingers to his forehead, but then moves back to the microphone as the percussion for another song kicks in, and starts to sing, then tilts backwards, instantaneously unconscious, arms flailing again but now totally beyond intention, and collapses on his side, the cigarette thrown from his fingers, his limbs still performing spasmodic movements but with an aura of such deep exhaustion that the gestures barely traverse any space, rapidly diminishing into stasis. His bloodless face on the ground appears relieved, blissful in its unconsciousness. The other three figures, who up to now have seemed oblivious, focused only on their cacophony and disinclined to stop playing, raggedly fall silent and set aside their instruments. Two of them pick up the singer, one behind the knees, the other by the shoulders, adeptly, as though they have done this before, and carry him outstretched across the platform, then down steps into darkness. The third figure carefully wipes some fluid from the platform floor beside the microphone with a cloth, glares at the audience and tosses the cloth aside, then rapidly crosses to the steps and is also immersed into darkness.

After the four figures are gone and the platform is emptied, the amplifiers still leak a detritus of noise. Everyone in the crowd around me appears distraught and unsure where they are, wrenched and shaking as though they’ve just experienced a calamity or cataclysm. On the far side of the amassed bodies, a long, unsupervised corridor leads to a dead-end crammed with bottles of Ukrainian vodka arranged on shelves beside an old work-bench. Off to one side of the corridor, I pass the festival dressing-room. Inside, the four figures who left the platform a few minutes ago are sitting huddled together, the singer now returned to consciousness, shirt and trousers soaked in sweat. Those four figures are beside themselves with laughter.

I twist the cap of the bottle taken from the stack at the corridor’s dead-end, and look at the label. It reads only: ‘Kolos Company of Ukraine, Chapeltown LS7’, on a background of blue and yellow. Among the untold streets of back-to-back terrace houses of that district to the north-east of this city’s centre, many of them left still-gutted and pulverised from war-era aerial bombing, a distillery in the backyard of a bakery produces strong vodka for the population of that district who fled their own cities of famine and obliterating conflict, and gathered instead in this city during the chaos of displacement after the end of the Second World War, to live here in nostalgia for their own razed cities, now rebuilt and reassigned to other populations. I upend the bottle and swallow a mouthful of the burning liquid, then another.

At the far end of the tramshed, another four figures climb the steps onto the platform. Even though it ended definitively with the singer’s fall into unconsciousness, the Futurama festival is now ready to begin again. Through the dazed crowd, their eyes still transfixed by what they witnessed on that platform fifteen minutes ago, I walk beside the opposing tramshed walls to those that run along Swinegate, heading in the direction of the platform, but stop after a few steps. In the silence before the next eruption of cacophony, I can faintly hear channels of ­water coursing vertically down the exterior side of the tramshed walls, which connect with the immense subterranean chambers constructed as workshops and foundries when the adjoining railway viaducts were built in the 1860s, reached from the tunnel under the train tracks by minuscule hatches pierced into the dark arches. The workshops have been disused for many decades, and now the detrita of the city live within those chambers, as negated traces of human life —the mad who resist being transported to the High Royds lunatic asylum on the city’s periphery, the destitute and the homeless, the alcoholics and the prostitutes, and those who resolutely refuse this city and this land, ­England, and now wait to die. Through the tramshed wall, I can almost hear them gathering against its reverse face, in their own sub-city of the deranged, to listen in to the muted ­caco­phonies, with disinterest.

After further mouthfuls of vodka, I lean my back directly against the wall, and feel the chill that traverses it from the chambers on the reverse side. I can see that the four figures on the platform at the far end of the hall are preparing to transmit their cacophony, and I rapidly take more mouthfuls until the bottle is drained and slips out of my hand, the neck snapping from its body of glass as it strikes the slate floor. Then my knees buckle and I slide down the tramshed wall, the shreds of coal-tar embedded into the ­facade scraping against the skin over my vertebrae, into a ­position of skewed kneeling. At the moment when the sound speakers ­begin to emit repeated slabs of sound, so loud that the bones in my ­eardrums are already protesting, I enter a half-awake ­alcohol-­induced ­blackout limbo-state, unable to move or close my eyes.

Now time disintegrates, and many hours go by in that darkened tramshed with its own autonomous durations: instead of night and day, there are expanses of pummelling cacophony that appear unending, followed by expanses of silence that also seem endless, until the momentum of cacophony exerts itself again. I can see the shapes of bodies amassed in that tramshed, intermittently cohered into frenzied knots with convulsed limbs and then dispersing again, so that my eyes glimpse the opposing wall of the tramshed, against which other bodies are also leaning, or have fallen. I see a spectral figure above me, pointing in the direction of the platform, as a new cacophony opens up, and exhorting me to stand and witness what will take place. Realising that I will not move, that figure tries to pull me up, but I stay affixed to the tramshed wall, in an interzone between the invisible population of the sub-viaduct chambers at my back, and the exhausted population of the tramshed directly ahead, in my malfunctioned field of vision. Then that spectral figure vanishes again. At another point, a second ­figure, with an entirely black-masked head, two slits for eyes, lifts the serrated neck of the broken vodka bottle to the side of my throat, screams at me, then vanishes too.

By the time I begin to grow lucid again, I feel I have been compulsively imagining or enumerating variants of falls into unconsciousness: that singer’s plummet backwards into the disintegrating bliss of his sudden blackout, my own blood-loss haemorrhages in which I tried always to maintain consciousness but realised it was about to slip from me, and the many eyes or faces of people I have seen in this city —run-over by speeding cars, passing out in the hostile streets, or else simply engulfed in ecstasy —whose consciousness veered into its own dissolution. There will be no viable life in this city of gang-warfare and serial-killing without such falls and their releasing of bodies into dreaming. We live in blackouts.

I lever my body back from a concertinaed to vertical position, and open my eyes fully. The drained, broken-in-two bottle is still there beside the base of the wall. My knees are aching, and to activate them I walk over the split slate ground of the tramshed floor to its empty centre. When I turn to face the platform, I realise that the intervals of cacophony and silence have lapsed, and directly against the tramshed’s back wall, whitewashed for the occasion, a film is being projected. The surface engulfed by the film image is immense, stretching almost from one side of the tramshed’s end to the other, and dispersing upwards into the darkness above the overhead gantries, half film, half void. The soundtrack is channelled directly through the platform’s speakers, the film’s voices interconnected by spectral trails and spirals of feedback left-over from the performers’ cacophonies. Ineradicable traces of the ­epileptic singer’s cries, in his dance convulsions, are now ­embedded in the fissured walls of that tramshed, and will remain there until its demolition. The film image fills my entire vision. A hooded figure is sliding his way down a slope of coal residue beside an abandoned industrial building after the fall of his body into the surface of a lake, then walks along a highway, the hood pulled back to reveal livid red hair. Then he climbs onto a bench beside a locked television store, to sleep. I recognise the film from seeing it in one of the decrepit film-palaces of this city, two years earlier: . I look around and realise that, apart from those fallen unconscious while still upright, I am the only figure standing in the entire hall.

Against the blackened benzene-seeping walls of this tramshed, many hundreds of its inhabitants are slumped, body against body, saliva trailing from their lips and pools of urine beneath them. It appears they have been lined against the walls in a coup exacted against this sub-city of the urban deranged and then machine-gunned, but they are sleeping, or unconscious, or in comas. Many thousands of the emptied golden cans are strewn across the ground. Alongside them, in every direction, bodies are awrily splayed on that glacial slate floor, as though they had convulsed there, before freezing into immobility. I could believe that this mass of bodies —two thousand or so, the entire punk-rock population of this city and the adjacent cities of the North —were instead those summarily ­deported from a city that had been destroyed, now crammed into this space as refugees, as with the bodies of the Ukrainians and Poles who ­entered this city in bewilderment, their own cities war-razed, ­thirty or more years ago. I lift the hand of one of the sprawled, his young face aged three decades in one night, and look at his watch, reading time in the glare of the film image. It is now 2 am on the second day of the festival: I spent twenty-four hours in my state of unconsciousness.

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Stephen Barber

ist Autor von 25 Büchern, darunter sieben Romane. Kürzlich erschienen: White Noise Ballrooms und The Projectionists. Eadweard Muybridge and the Future Projections of the Moving Image. Seine Bücher wurden vielfach ausgezeichnet und in diverse Sprachen übersetzt. The Independent newspaper (London) nannte ihn »den gefährlichsten Mann Europas«.