Today, nobody believes in reality. Fiction remains stronger than fact. All stories are true - satires in particular. Imaginary heroes are more dependable than the other kind, living or dead. Whatever you need is unavailable, so choose the brighter new tomorrows that you want instead. FAX 21 is a muse (news) blog-fest of science fiction concepts and fantasy ideas for genre enthusiasts. Paradox free since next year!

Friday, 25 March 2011

Vermeer In Mirrorburgh

(The Search For The Last Unfamous Man)
“During the 1960s, I think people forgot what emotions were supposed to be, and I don't think they've ever remembered”. -Andy Warhol.

When an anonymous caller tipped-off the Mirrorburgh Herald, I eagerly agreed to join the press pack on their next big manhunt: the search for the last nobody. The word was out, a sighting had been made, the location vague but the media bloodhounds were onto a still-warm trail and it could only be a matter of days or hours until our helpless quarry would be run to ground.

Rumour was, he was some kind of intellectual, a classical music freak, a reader of books or maybe he wrote them. Who cares? He was odd and that was the point. Maybe he really would turn out to be the last weirdo that hadn’t had a documentary made about him. Well, we’d put that right soon enough.

There was all the surveillance footage to go through from the cameras in every shop and on every street corner. I mean the guy had to buy milk or drive to the corner shop now and again didn’t he? His fingerprints, his iris-scan, his DNA, his bank cards, his store transactions, driving licence, passport, health care – he had to need a doctor or a dentist from time to time, right? We’d find him, everyone was sure of it.

Andy Warhol. That’s as far as my Art and Culture go by the way. Saint Warhol said that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes, and now that day has come. I’ve been on TV, you’ve been on TV. Hell, even my mum’s been on TV. Quiz shows, focus groups, street interviews, Big Brother, House Swap, Wife Swap, Changing Rooms, Property Ladder, A Place In The Country, pet swap, job swap, semen swap. Reality-TV-Presenter Swap. I’ll trade you Lawrence Lewd Bowen and some bad curtains for a diminutive dietician to rake through your faeces with a fork. Even my hamster’s famous. He has his own talk show. He lets all his guests just be themselves and really let their hair down while he runs around on his wheel and looks interested. My sofa’s famous, its photo is all over eBay. My penis is all over the internet too, but let’s not go there right now…

Back to our manhunt. The Search For The Last Unfamous Man had gone national and now there was a big clock ticking and bets were being taken. Pundits and precision-wafflers had been drafted into all the news studios to waffle precisely about precisely nothing, just as they’re paid to. Johnathan, you’re an expert on unfamous people, or at least you sat next to someone on a bus once who you overheard say they were an expert on unfamous people, so who do you think this guy might be and where he might be hiding? Well David, I was talking to someone off the record about this yesterday… Uhhhh… who were they Johnathan? Err, I can’t say David, they were off the record. And what did they say? Well I can’t remember David, because I didn’t record it. Well what can you say Johnathan? Well David, I can say that I was talking to someone off the record about this yesterday…

I could go on. They did. But we had our first lead on the second day. Story went our man had bought ten copies of The Big Issue from a homeless gentleman then burnt them all in front of him. The stunned vendor had asked him why and apparently he had said because you’re bloody irritating and now you’ll have to do something else all afternoon. It sounded like classic, un-mutual and free-thinking behaviour, the trademark of an eccentric. One of our reporters had been informed and an attempt duly made to follow and interview our subject, but when approached he had said he ‘shunned’ publicity – a dead giveaway that, using an old-fashioned word like ‘shun’, obviously a closet-intellectual. A TV reporter then caught up with him a block later and our fugitive had pulled the Reporter’s trousers down and shoved his microphone up his anus, quite literally. It had made great television for a rival station arriving on the scene, but in the general confusion and excitement our man had got away again.

But fortunately he’d let slip a vital clue before he disappeared: he’d said to someone that he didn’t even have a television. Absurd? A ridiculous claim, or a shocking admission? In any other case we would have presumed the first explanation but the more we learned about our man the likelier this sort of thing seemed. Now it would be a simple matter to turn the TV detector vans on his neighbourhood and flush him out.

Problem was, we discovered that TV detector vans don’t exist, they’re just a ridiculous story made up by the BBC to scare students into paying their licence fees. In fact they’re a plotline even more far-fetched than anything in EastEnders if you stop to think about it. So we had to invent a TV-Detector van, which delayed us for a full two weeks.

But sure enough, once we had built one and tested it we did a sweep of the whole neighbourhood of Mirrorburgh he had last been seen in, and after a couple of false alarms breaking into flats where lonely old people had been partially eaten by their own dogs, we stumbled in on our subject.

The room he was in looked very old-fashioned and stagey, but weirdly familiar even to an ignoramus like me. Chequered black and white floor, tapestries for curtains. Our intellectual fugitive, dressed in medieval costume, was seated at an easel with a paintbrush in his hand. He greeted us casually, scarcely looking up never mind getting up, then proceeded to enlighten us all without the slightest encouragement.

Is this a…? - I began to ask.

Vermeer Painting, yes, a perfect re-enactment of one of his compositions, in a replica of the studio in his house in Delft, circa 1668. Come in and sit down, I knew you’d all catch up with me in the end.

I would have sat down, but all the ornate Dutch chairs in the room were currently occupied by women in period costume who were suspiciously static: a milkmaid, a procuress, a maidservant, a woman in blue, a girl interrupted, a laughing girl, a girl reading a letter at an open window, and a girl with a pearl earring.

Are they…? I began again.

Dead, yes quite. – he drawled calmly, without stopping painting. Stuffed, taxidermied. I did it myself in the next room but only once I’d put down a lot of newspaper and got my parents permission.

Your parents…?

Yes, that’s them in the corner dressed as an Officer and a Lady At A Virginal, they’ve held that pose for the last six years.

Why do you keep…?

Finishing your sentences for you? It’s a cheap directorial device contrived to condense retro-narrative, but your copy editor will love it, especially if there’s pressure on feature length.

No I mean, killing, you’re a…

Serial killer, yes of course, and one of the best around, though I say so myself. We’re all on the government payroll these days. A good state-sponsored murderer can earn anything up to £150,000 a year.

That’s almost as much as the prime minister…

Well, he’s one of us, in a manner of speaking, and maybe the best of the bunch since he goes on getting away with it. You see, after the 2012 attacks and the introduction of biometric identity cards the murder rate fell to dangerously low levels in the UK. They hushed it up. The Great Entertainment Crisis it was called. You see, we humans like to pretend that murder is a really bad thing but 80 percent of our nightly televisual entertainment of choice is based around murders and ageing socially-dysfunctional police detectives trying to solve them. Don’t you see? These dramas are called gritty, but how can they go on being gritty if there’s nothing like them happening in the real world anymore? And of course serial killers have to be acting out pages of the bible, or moves on a chessboard or some such other far-fetched bollocks. It’s a tradition. I’ll let the police catch me next week and then British television will be good to go with another ten years of ludicrous-but-gritty serial-killer drama-porn. You’ll see. And you’ll thank me. I guarantee it. Face it, murderers have a socially indispensable entertainment role in human society. You’d be lost without us.

Then he eviscerated my friend and colleague Bob from the Daily Mail with a palette knife. I should have expected this, all the subtle clues were there in his little lecture, and after 30 years of watching crime dramas I should have seen him rising towards the chillingly gentlemanly denouement scenario. He was half way through taking my other colleague Philip from the Guardian’s left arm off, when Peter from The Sun shot our serial killer straight through the head with a harpoon gun.

Whoooah. What are the chances of that?! –I wailed, dripping with second-hand blood and brain tissue. Were you on the way to a Sub-Aqua Club or something?

I know, Peter grinned, admiring his handiwork (ear to ear) and throwing up simultaneously. It just goes to show you… He stuttered… – that maybe God himself is a really poor screenwriter and a cheap hack.

It was hard to disagree.

Before the police arrived, we went through Vermeer’s address book and found the names of the government’s other Entertainment Agent-Provocateurs: undercover commandoes sent out to cause weekly riots on inner city housing estates to make episodes of The Bill seem less ridiculous. Bisexual models sent out to insinuate themselves into the affections of engaged couples in order to precipitate last-minute cold-feet scenarios on wedding days, essential for soap-operas. Secret sociologists sent to train even menial hospital staff in stress-counselling and intrusive psychology so they can pry into their patients’ private lives in a style reminiscent of Casualty.

So don’t worry readers, we’ve got our teeth into something really big this time (our own tails/tales?) and this story is going to run and run until it drops from exhaustion and we all tear it to pieces. Your favourite bloodhound, you can rely on me.

*For the benefit of readers from foreign shores or the future: The Bill, EastEnders, Casualty, Holby City etc are long-running soaps or semi-soap dramas on British terrestrial television. Conceived to accurately portray real life, they have in fact each digressed over time, in pursuit of higher viewing ratings, into their own patronising parallel realities. Constantly discussed by every socially-acceptable adult under the age of 35 in buses, trains, and offices, they are thus a self-enforcing, self-fulfilling corrosion of all cultural values by the power of cliché. Their only conceivable ultimate outcome is the complete reduction of the populace to couch-morons robbed of the language with which to articulate their own emotional lives.

On the other hand, I have for some time harboured the hope that through some kind of televisual short-circuit the worst of our television will begin to overlap and consume itself in creative and spectacular ways. For instance while that American-spoken ‘House Doctor’ woman is busy tearing some family to shreds for their poor choice of sofa fabrics, Trinny and Susannah might burst in and begin attacking her for her lack of dress sense. The cat-fight moves out into the street where Chief Inspector Meadows from The Bill is driving by and accidentally runs over Trinny. They all adjourn to the accident and emergency wing of Holby City where a junior nurse turns out to be one of the miserable cast of EastEnders who overhears a private conversation about Meadow’s drink problem then begins to entrap Meadows into a miserable blackmail situation he can only solve by visiting the miserable Queen Vic pub and being leered at by everyone. Fortunately and as usual, the entire staff of Holby City appear to double-up as freelance social workers with time to burn who take to counselling everyone about everything, including sofa fabrics. (I first made this projection last year but it was then almost instantly pre-empted by the announcement of ‘Holby Blue’ an expansion of the hospital drama into a police side-series. Life imitating art indeed).

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