Arrival in Sittingbourne

sittingbourne

Back in the early nineties (which admittedly seems like a long time ago now) I used to think a lot about writing a cutting-edge science fiction story that was to be set, not in the future or in a different solar system, but in the present time and primarily based in Sittingbourne, a town about sixteen miles from where I was living at the time. This was the idea. Furthermore, there was to be nothing futuristic or hi-tech or anything like that in the story. Sittingbourne – just in case you haven’t heard of the place – is an average sized and distinctly ‘normal’ town in East Kent. You couldn’t get a more normal town, I would say. Nothing remarkable about it at all – it is even more drab and unremarkable than Maidstone (twenty miles down the A249/Sittingbourne Rd) and that is saying something. You might be wondering exactly how such a story could qualify as science fiction, but that should become clear shortly. I am coming to that. You just need to be patient…

 

In style the novel was to be somehow epic, like one of those grand, galaxy-spanning science fiction novels from the golden age of science fiction (which stretched from the fifties to the end of the seventies when that first mighty wave of SF finally crashed on the shore line of the New Romantic eighties and then pulled back into the sea of the collective unconscious). It would be epic but ironically so, I would think to myself at such times. It was to be a short story and so to imbue it with the trappings of the Great Retro Science Fiction Novel could never be more than a stylistic conceit. In order to understand the irony one would have had to understand a bit about Sittingbourne and also about my state of mind at the time, which was not the best. I was suffering from a fair bit of paranoia in those days and I was unclear as to where the paranoia ended and reality began. Which is the usual way I geuss.

 

I am at a loss when it comes to describing my own private perceptions of Sittingbourne, which may not necessarily be congruent with the perceptions of anyone else who happens to know the place – particularly given my state of mind at the time, which as I say was not good. Suffice to say that Sittingbourne occupied for me something of a low-point on the spectrum of those lack-lustre, wearily banal, grey and characterless towns that are doubtless to be found all over the world. Wherever the human spirit has been oppressed and eroded past the point where it can grow back, and dull uninspired utilitarianism has taken over, there surely one will find such towns! They may be taken – I would further add – as a testimony to mankind’s astonishing ability to create an environment that denies him. I think I stole that line from someone else but I’m not sure who. Only – I must stress again – Sittingbourne occupies a unique position in that wretched spectrum, being situated so much to the lower end of the ‘banality spectrum’ that it practically deserves being allocated a spectrum all of its own! Or maybe that was just the way I was feeling at the time.

 

My friend Paul would have said that it was ‘skudgy’. Paul lived in a rather dire region of south east London known as Plumstead and in Plumstead skudginess was the order of the day. In Paul’s system of terminology, which he made up himself, a ‘skudge’ was a person (generally a man in his twenties or thirties) who spent a lot of their time drinking what he ironically referred to as ‘Skudgemeister Lager’ in the high street pub. Skudges characteristically hang around in mutual-support groups, presumably because their lack of personality can be quite frightening to them when they are on their own. Equally, this selfsame ‘lack of personality’ can be quite frightening for anyone else that they might meet, particularly if they are in a big group on their way home late at night after drinking 12 pints of Skudgemeister!

 

It is fair to say that Paul did not have a particularly high opinion of skudges or skudginess in general. He was skinny tall guy with long black hair and beard and quite obviously not falling into any of the categories found acceptable by the skudge mentality (which is generic, i.e. it is the same wherever you meet it). Come to think of it, Paul must have had a hard enough time of it in Plumstead which as I have said was almost entirely inhabited by thirty year old skudges and their birds. As for me, I lived in what I considered South London proper (in an estate on the South Lambeth Rd) which was full of skinheads, punks, rockabillies, Goths, New Romantics, hippies, Rastafarians, the odd left-over mod and general freaks of human nature that you couldn’t even put a name to and no one ever so much as batted an eyelid at me. Tolerance was the rule in the inner city. Tolerance interspersed with the occaisonal burst of ultraviolence. I must admit that did look a bit like Paul in that I was tall and thin with long hair; I was not however bearded because I was unable to grow one, and I wasn’t I suppose as strikingly skinny. That’s by the by, anyway. It’s not strictly relevant.

 

Saying that Sittingbourne was skudgy (or that it was ‘full of skudges’) would however be missing the point. It was skudgy but in a particular way of its own. It was skudgy in the sense that it was as depressing as hell and you knew nothing interesting would ever happen there, but as I have already said this place was – and probably still is for all I know – in a league of its own. At least Plumstead had a sense of vitality about it, albeit in the form of menace and edginess if nothing else, whilst Sittingbourne was merely defunct – it was a backwater amongst backwaters and as far as I could see any semblance of life or vitality or character had long since fled. At the risk of stating the obvious, the irony that I mentioned earlier derives from the fact that the discovery of or (or arrival in) Sittingbourne was to be treated in the story in the same way, as an epic science fiction novel might deal with the arrival of the hero in some highly exotic and marvellous far-flung planet with an intriguing name such Aldiss’s Yinnisfar or Vonnegut’s Tralfamador. Whereas the truth of the matter is that Sittingbourne is – as probably most people not from the place would agree – the exact, thundering opposite of the exotic or the marvellous. It is in my admittedly biased opinion about as exotic and marvellous and intriguing as a half-eaten cheese-burger left lying on the pavement.

 

To my mind, Sittingbourne is so much a caricature of an interesting or intriguing place that it is in some way actually priceless. It is so extremely dire and dismal, so downright ubiquitous and lacklustre that it is quite marvellous after all. I say that it is priceless because it made visible and tangible for me, in a genuinely wondrous and startling way, something that one simply never sees. What I mean is that it draws one’s attention to a peculiar entropic property of the urban environment that you might on occasion catch a glimpse of but which you would almost certainly forget about very quickly afterwards. You wouldn’t allow yourself to beleive that you had seen it. What do I mean? What I’m trying to say – I suppose – is that the image of the place had degraded, slipped down the entropic slope, so much that it had become something of a conundrum. It was a conundrum in that nowhere could really be as tedious as this and yet still exist. The image was drab and nondescript and yet – surely – the reality underlying it could not be so. In this way, therefore, it can be said that the degraded image involuntarily assumes an ironic status. The image is mocking itself, as it were, and this is my thesis. I suspect it isn’t original, but still.

 

My fascination lay with the idea of an aggressively banal reality that hints – from time to time – at something else, something uncanny and disturbing. It is like seeing a guy sitting on a park bench reading a paper or drinking a can of beer or perhaps talking to someone beside him. He looks very normal, very typical, perfectly innocuous in his manner. Then for a split second he suddenly grins like a demon from hell, splitting his face, laughing like the devil himself at the best joke ever. You see it but at even at the time you can’t quite believe that you did. You can’t admit that you did. It’s too much. Reality itself is a conspiracy, therefore. Even on the extreme fringes of weirdness and weirdness-mongering (beloved by readers of the Fortean Times) they don’t talk about this type of thing. Not as far as I know, anyway.

 

This makes it I suppose you could say the ultimate conspiracy – the conspiracy that even conspiracy theorists don’t want you to know about! It has occurred to me more than once that there is something suspicious about all of these conspiracy theories that keep circulating around. What’s that all about? What I think is that the reason there are so many weird conspiracies going around (like the one about the lizard aliens who disguise themselves as members of the royal family) is because they are being deliberately put about in order to harmless distract us from the real thing that they don’t want us to know about. They’re a smokescreen. What better way to distract those who have started to suspect the truth than by providing them with all manner of absurd red herrings? Tasteless stuff about pop starlets making tawdry third eye insinuations; abysmally crass music videos with lurid Illuminati-type innuendos.

 

Or maybe I was only thinking along these lines as a result of having taken too much bad acid back in the eighties. One particular conspiracy that I had heard many times back then was that most of the acid available on the street had been manufactured by police-sponsored chemists who were part of a conspiracy to make us think that we were tripping when we weren’t. Can you believe that? Maybe you can. We weren’t tripping, we awere pseud-tripping. We were being taken for a ride. Our reality was being manipulated by the man. We’d gone off down another road entirely (a dummy road) without ever realizing it. A generation of stooges, obediently tripping on police acid! Thinking that we were ‘turning on’ whereas in reality we were just being taken for the poor suckers that we were…

 

Anyway, that’s all beside the point. That’s just me going off at a tangent. I don’t know why I got into all that. My discovery – which was to be somehow incorporated into my science fiction novella – was therefore that the social environment we live in is actually a kind of charade, a kind of mocking joke in that we are being progressively presented with shoddier and shoddier versions of reality to basically see how much crap we could take before we finally copped on. The idea is that the stuff we’re presented with to ‘get on with’ is so crap that it’s actually a joke. We’re not meant to take it seriously but we do! Ludicrous fools that we are…

 

It’s like an experiment. The whole thing is an experiment. Someone somewhere is taking the piss. So this was to be the ultimate revelation in the story that I intended to write – that Sittingbourne was an exotic destination after all, that it was a kind of science-fiction destination as exotic as any you might read about, beneath the deceptive veneer of mundane redundant decrepitude. It was all just a trick designed to lull us into a false state of thinking that we actually knew what is going on. By inventing a supremely preposterous reality that we somehow take at face value.
Needless to say I never wrote the book. Why? I don’t think it would have worked. The concept was flawed. It was too dense, too full of private meaning. Jokes that only I would ever get. And possibly not even me. I was trying to be too ironic and it didn’t quite come off – I was putting too much egg in the pudding. I don’t think anyone would have got it. I don’t think I get it, to be honest. That’s probably more like it. The idea – elusive at the best of times – has by now completely escaped from my grasp. I guess I never will write it now…

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