Several years ago. on my way home from a night out, I paused on the old bridge near the centre of town to look at the water below. I think it must have rained upstream or something because the river was surging. It looked strangely inviting to my drunken mind. I stood there watching the murky water for a long time and felt a perverse urge to jump in. Then, a passing police officer, as if sensing the bad ideas in my head, bellowed at me from the other side of the bridge, “Hey, mate, are you okay?” snapping me out of my trance.
Bad Ideas\Chemicals is a book about moments like this. Moments when you feel hypnotised by some irrational urge you cannot fathom.
It is also a book about self-destruction.
The setting for the story is a fictional town called Goregree which is partly-inspired by Bridgend, where I lived for most of my life, but also by corporate model towns like Celebration in Florida. Goregree is a dilapidated decaying place, riven with drug abuse; abandoned, and haunted by a once promising future. It’s a darkly comic, absurdist vision of Britain where the bleakness is so exaggerated it edges on farce.
It begins with an introduction to our main character Cassandra Fish – a woman orphaned at a young age who wears a spacesuit, believes she’s from Alpha Centauri, and awaits the day her alien parents will come to rescue her. Cassandra is a character who I identify with strongly because, even though I am an immigrant to this country, because I am white and from a former British colony (Zimbabwe), I’m rarely identified as foreign. Like Cassandra, I have often felt alien to my surroundings, but I am not recognised as alien by the rest of society who I imagine must just think I’m a little weird. I’ve always felt a bit detached from the world and Cassandra was an attempt to capture that sense of detachment, that sense of seeing the world through a smudged visor.
Another main character is Louie – a young man whose life is falling apart following his dad’s collapse into alcoholism. Louie’s story runs parallel to Cassandra’s. While she and her mates have a bad night out, Louie attends a workfare placement at a private euthanasia clinic, considers suicide, and contemplates murder.
I first started writing Bad Ideas\Chemicals in the second year of my undergrad at the University of South Wales (then Glamorgan) and there were two big events which had recently happened that informed the book’s subtext. One was the banking crisis and the beginnings of austerity. The other was the spate of suicides that were happening in Bridgend and which were being covered with a crude, mean-spirited salaciousness by the tabloid press.
The former confirmed a suspicion I’d had since I was young – that despite its appearance of rationality, predictability, and solidity, our political and economic system was in fact highly irrational, unpredictable, and ethereal. The banks got sick. So the government got around a table and magicked up trillions of pounds out of nothing to make them better again. And what’s crazy about that is that the medicine actually worked. Brilliantly. In fact it worked so well that it feels at times like these last seven years of debilitating cuts and enforced misery have been nothing but an elaborate performance to distract us from that one small moment where the power dropped out and we saw the truth behind the screens – that the systems that governed the world were just as much a game of make-believe as anything Cassandra might imagine.
As for the latter event, those tragic suicides, they revealed something else that has informed this book – that beyond our front doors, in our neighbourhoods, right around the corner, even in the sixth richest society that has ever existed in the history of our species, there is real human pain. Pain that is more real than our farcical deficit or any pound created by quantitative easing. Pain which is ignored until it surges into catastrophe.
Early in the book Cassandra describes the world of Alpha Centauri she longs for – a utopian futuristic society where telepathically-charged empathy has eliminated all conflict and people live in underwater cities. It is a heart-breakingly sweet vision totally alien from the bleakness around her. It is also goofy, delusional, and probably very naive. Though I often wonder whether her delusion is preferable to our own – if the rivers of Alpha Centauri are, in fact, clearer.
Bad Ideas\Chemicals is out through Parthian Books, priced £7.99. Their Carnival summer pop-up bookshop opens to launch this title at 4pm Saturday 1 July (3-7 Duke Street Arcade, Cardiff CF10 1AZ).
This article first appeared in the Western Mail on Saturday 17 June 2017