Manchester Writing Competition 2013
J A Hopkin
Manchester Writing Competition 2013: the Short-listed Finalists
The Manchester Writing Competition was designed by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and her team in the Manchester Writing School at MMU to seek out and celebrate the best original writing while establishing the city as the focal point for a major literary award. Since its launch in 2008, the Competition has attracted more than 10,000 entries. £10,000 prizes are offered in two categories: Poetry and Fiction. A new Writing for Children Prize will launch in late 2013, with prizes awarded as part of the 2014 Manchester Children's Book Festival.
This year's Poetry Prize was judged by Bernard O'Donoghue, Adam O'Riordan and Fiona Sampson and the Fiction Prize by Alison Moore, Nicholas Royle and Robert Shearman.
The winners will be announced at a gala prize-giving ceremony at Chetham's School of Music in the centre of Manchester on the evening of Friday 18th October. The event forms part of the 2013 Manchester Literature Festival and will feature readings from each of the finalists before the £10,000 prizes are awarded.
One of the short-listed finalists is the author J A Hopkin, one of the guests of the Kamov residency and this is his story:
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’s Arm
A rude-headed homme came over all boese when he ran across the road
on the bridge over the Spree, coming our way, clearly coming, he’s coming our way, NR, I said.
We – that is, NR and I – were outside Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble Theatre, you know the one? With that illuminated sign rotating on the roof, just over the river from the Friedrichstrasse S-bahn. And we were coming to the end of Schiffbauerdamm, when this rude-headed homme – yes, I realise that’s not German but we’re still in Europa, n’est-ce pas? – this rude-headed homme came over all boese and made a bee-line for me, just as I was commenting to NR what a brilliant piece of Brechtian invention it was in the play we’d just seen for the main protagonist, Arturo Ui, to develop a nervous twitch-spasm-fling that sent his right arm into the air in much the same way as a certain vile salute.
A brilliantly comic political critique, I said, tweaking my imaginary moustache. Yes, like Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, said NR. But then I started getting the moustaches confused. Indeed, moustaches can be very confusing.
Anyway, this rude-headed homme became more boese in his bee-line in the corner of my eye. A second or two later, he sprang upon us, flapping with spittle-sped expletives. He grabbed my arm that was still aloft in that parody of a salute – yes, still aloft, because gestures can so easily become marooned once words have subsided – and he grabbed my arm tightly, and, as if I was a one-armed bandit, he tried to tug that arm down. But gently. Indeed, with a curious gentleness, by which I mean that the grip was tight but the pressure downwards was not. As if he was trying to defuse me, a tick (or a tendon) at a time.
And this self-control, if that’s what it was, this self-self-something on the physical side succeeded only in putting more motivation in his mouth.
‘Scheisse!’ he spittled. ‘You musst dass nicht machen!’
At night, over the dark river with the sky on either side as well as overhead, in the symmetrical-geometrical way that Berlin does so well, with the bahnhof looming as bahnhofs do, in a particularly solid yet at the same time hallucinatory way, and with that illuminated Berliner Ensemble sign rotating behind our backs, we – that is, NR and I – were coming out of a play that had secreted many strange characters throughout the evening, some painted, others naked - because it’s rare to see theatre in that city without nudity; how they love a good prick in a plot! – while other characters, in masks or false heads, sat in the audience, spouting off or reeking of strange chemicals or else they promenaded potent odd! And ghostly revenants, with snippets from our own well-bristled Bard on their tongues, went creep-whispering between the aisles, nibbling at our ears with a line or declaration, and all under weird lighting to stop you sitting comfortably in your assumptions, nothing like at the National Theatre back in dear old Blighty where even the most so-called radical of plays is dressed up like a ‘70s sitcom complete with camp dance-routines so that we can chuckle into our over-priced interval ice-creams, comment on ‘a very polished production’ and later rise from our prejudice-preserving, bum-muffled seats and go home without a single new or – heaven forfend! - subversive thought in our petty little petit-bourgeois heads!
Glad I don’t live there anymore!
Yes, after unsettling Brecht, or rather, after Brecht had done his best to unsettle us, my first reaction to this sudden assault on the bridge was to assume that it was an epilogue to the play, an actor stalking us right up our strasse to deliver a few more lines outside the so-called relations of audience and proscenium, to perform at the very end of our wits, our nerves, our so-called tethers.
‘Scheisse!’ said the man, again.
And I began to have my doubts. Distresses. Doubts and distresses growing ugly under the bridge, and grumbling up through the drains.
Still gripping tightly, but pushing lightly, my arm that had never known such attention, the rude-headed homme spurted, ‘Du shit in a leder jacket’. Though he pronounced the last word as the German ‘Jacke’, he displayed his continental acumen by adding the English ‘t’. ‘You muss dass nicht!’ And with that he finally positioned my right arm by my side but kept his hand there to make sure that I did not muscle-spasm-jerk back into the shape of that aforementioned unmentionable salute.
My nostrils twitched to a whiff of cigar smoke on his breath which sent me back to Brecht and the fat stub always in his mouth, so that, for a moment, I said nothing, merely waited for the man’s next move with the most receptive face I could muster at 11pm on a cold night in February, having just had my entrails shivered by a great play full of odd characters, passionate-parodic-politic-oh speeches! and, lest we forget, nudity – oh yes they like a good bush in the sub-plot! - and with a silent NR by my side as if (as she later told me) she was embarrassed by her compatriot (is that still a word?) and was also wondering (as she later agreed with me) if this character was a fugitive from the cast who had selected us for an after-show after-thought; after all, he was after us.
We must have made a strange sculpture over the Spree, the three of us entangled in limb touching, not touching, almost holding, just-about-jousting, against the bahnhof-ing background of a city close to closing up for the night, when the neon, with moribund crackles, sinks to the river bed and the U-bahn rumbles no more.
‘No nein no!’ spittled the spurting man. ‘Verbrechen!’
His voice grew hoarse under the Himmel.
And then he tried to show me the gesture that was outlawed which, of course, he couldn’t show me because, after all, it is outlawed, so he didn’t know whether to raise my arm to show me again what I had been doing, just in case I had forgotten, and, indeed, this is what he did, raising my arm slowly, a centimetre at a time, like a spring-loaded lever that he must not release, but after only ten centimetres or so it was enough, he dare not go further. ‘Nein! Du muss dass nicht!’ and when he realised that this wasn’t really a proper demonstration of the gesture that is not allowed he turned slightly and between the heads of NR and me, and in the direction of the illuminated sign rotating on the roof of the theatre, he started to raise his right arm, automaton-methodic, but again, after ten centimetres or so, he shouted ‘verboten!’ this time at his own arm which obediently went back the other way to behave itself by his side. Meanwhile, his other hand was still lightly pressing my right arm to my ribs like a tailor testing a sleeve.
‘What’s my Jacke got to do with it?’ I said, almost snapping.
By now, it was getting terribly kalt.
At this point, NR, trembling slightly (her grandfather had been in the SS), laid her tongue in my left lobe, ‘Because youâ€¦He is angry with your up arm. I mean, your arm up.’ She made as if to demonstrate the unlawful gesture of an up-arm but having got about halfway, she of course realised that an up-arm is unlawful and that the demonstration of an up-arm is also unlawful and so she turned her half arm up into a kind of dance move, spun on a single heel, coughed, muttered under her breath, and for all intents and purposes acted as if she had just broken wind.
‘It is not allowed in public places,’ she said, the hand at the end of one of her arms now grabbing the hand at the end of the arm of mine that was not being supervised by our assailant.
‘And what’s my leder Jacke got to do with that?’ I asked her. Also, I have never liked the word, ‘allowed’.
(Also, I loved that leather jacket. Cheap from a flohmarkt in ’99, when Potsdamer Platz was a building site, and I’d wandered there with NR, accompanied by the smell of my new-old echtes leder Jacke, my arms quite rigid inside the stiff sleeves, and ignoring NR’s comment that her grandfather had worn one just like that,Â and it was like another planet – Potsdamer Platz, that is - this huge space just sand and bricks and steaming cement mixers in the winter air, right there in the centre of our continent, or so it had felt with east meeting west in that very city, and this smoking plateau of sand and rubble and piles of bricks and perhaps burning Deutschmarks, well, it felt like the Europa of the twenty-first century was beginning right there, was springing up from that very spot, a brick at a time, and right before our eyes.)
‘And my jacket?’ I said.
I’d never seen NR shrug. Nor did she shrug at that moment. She considered such an acknowledgement a sign of weakness, a sign of not knowing. Wir mÃ¼ssen wissen, wir werden wissen!
I turned back to the rude-headed homme. He was gurning in my Gesicht as if he had fallen into a trance, having apprehended the criminal.
When an assailant hesitates, the fear creeps in.
This was no escapee from the Berliner Ensemble.
To overcome his inertia, he once again burst through the attempted aborted demonstrations, the centimetred salutes, or rather, not-salutes as if I was slow on the uptake.
So I started walking with NR, and I explained to the man who kept trying to fasten his fingers to the sleeve of my jacket, that he’d got the wrong end of the schtick and that we’d just been to see ‘Der aufhaltsame Aufsteig des Arturo Ui’ by Bertolt Brecht’. (Even though Frederick the Great compared the sound of German to the neighing of his horse – and the horse won - Â that is no excuse for you not to know ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’.)
At that moment, with the intention of pointing that way to corroborate my story, I glanced back at the illuminated sign rotating on the roof of the theatre before realising that another raising of the arm would doubtless be interpreted by this historical homme as the shape one must not make, so instead I tried to explain how, in the play, Arturo Ui develops an uncontrollable tendency to thrust his arm into the air in much the same way as a certain unspeakable salute but, alas, I was still so thrilled by the performance of Martin Wuttke who played Ui that I couldn’t help butÂ throw my right arm up in the air to accompany my explanation, and thus make a perfect but - honest, Herr Richter! – parodic salute.
However, before I could say, for example, ‘political allegory’ or even, for example, ‘brilliant Bertie’, the man had all but jumped on my arm, or was swinging from it, or was trying to sit on it, or, in any case, he had lost the sense of delicacy he had previously exhibited towards my limb (apart from his hangman’s grip), so that the Spree suddenly seemed far too close, and I could see the city lights in his spittle, the illuminated sign rotating in his blue eyes, while his breath sent a noxious luft up my nasals. What’s more, he was still shouting, ‘scheisse! In your leder Jacke!’ – now dropping the ‘t’ to confirm that bridge or no bridge (i.e. the real bridge that we were standing on or the metaphorical bridge we had been pretending to build with phonemes pilfered from each other’s language – oh, Europa!), we were in his country now.
He started looking anxiously about as if he wanted to flag down a passing car or a person and make a citizen’s arrest but in order to flag down a passing car or a person, he would, of course, have to raise his arm, but he couldn’t allow himself to pass the horizontal with his gestures, no, he was all blind elbows and angles less than acute, and this made the rude-headed homme madly more boese. ‘Du muss not! Verboten!’
Meanwhile, NR had released my left hand and strode off, showing me an annoyed backside - mein Gott, she could make her arse could look angry! - as if now (as she later told me) she was also embarrassed of me as well as of her so-called compatriot (does that word still exist two pages later?), or probably now only of so-called me, and I used her departure as an excuse to shake off the man, point to NR with a carefully un-raised arm, indeed, a digit from the hip, and announce, ‘Ich muss!’
Having jogged to catch her up, I speed-walked with NR to the S-bahn, going toe-cap-to-tin up the stairs under migrainous lights with the smell of the day’s fish scraps drifting up from the cut-price kneipe under platform three, and we kept looking over our shoulders, me over NR’s, and NR’s over mine, for the muttering mensch to come leaping up behind us and, believe me, he was in lunatic pursuit, looking like a person trying to make haste while cutting himself out of a net.
Alas, having reached our platform, we had to wait three minutes for the train, during which we engaged in pretend conversations, while resting our chins on each other’s shoulders like dogs with the bone before the scent, and, sure enough, our assailant came lolloping up, drenched in sweat and curses, and spurting all that he had previously spurted by the Spree, but, curiously, never a single word to NR, never a command in her direction.
When the train pulled in, we bundled our bodies aboard with a minimum of fuss about physics – ‘Einstein bitte!’ – where we noticed that – danke Gott! – he isn’t coming our way, NR, I said, as if he has any way to go! she said, but he kept slapping at the closing doors, still shaping his lips to say ‘Scheisse! Leder Jacke!’ until the train pulled away and into the night and beyond Friedrichstrasse where the city feels empty and dark, especially at that time, and when I looked to the glass of the doors now backed by the black of a starless night, I saw that the rude-headed homme had left a sweaty palm-print by means of a last-ditch protest, though NR (with her head on my shoulder) and I (with my head resting on her head) took this disembodied palm as a final farewell.
Besides, gestures can so easily become marooned once words have had their say.