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The Insomniac Booth

Short Stories



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The Insomniac Booth continues many of the themes that first emerged in Clive Gilson's earlier collection of short stories, The Mechanic's Curse. This second collection continues with the investigation of magical realism and the glories of traditional folk and faery tales.

As ever, these are intimate tales, focusing on broad but subtle themes and personal recollections. Clive Gilson's stories continue to link recurring themes of fantasy with urban and future decay – splintered glass, dust motes and cracked plaster; the loss of loved ones, of the ability to remember; black and white movies of the mind; shafts of golden light shattered by war; haunted memories and the night darks.


The Politician's New Speech

Politicians come and go, passing through the revolving doors of power and celebrity, and sometimes even infamy, like eels sliding from a barrel. For the most part the good folk who take up the cudgels of representative democracy on our behalf are well meaning, hardworking souls armed with the sword of conviction and the shield of dedication. In recent years this combination of valour and commitment has been ably demonstrated by many of the parliamentarians who congregate at Westminster. During recent periods of parliamentary jousting one politician above all others has become synonymous with the ruthless pursuit of truth and the calling to account of those who would betray the allied boons of principle and practicality. He has made it very clear that he doesn’t care for convenient little compromises and political deals, believing absolutely that a spade should be called a shovel. That he is no longer in direct control of the levers of power is a shame, but in his time of greatness he employed a whole army of secretaries and assistants, whose sole job it was to document every fact and every detail of every case and policy so that he could remain true to his principles. He was well known for his ability to quote chapter and verse, with a comprehensive range of interpretations, on any of the hot political potatoes of the day.
So renowned was he throughout the country, indeed throughout the world, that many famous and influential people came to visit him at his London home, from where the man worked so hard to forge his shrine to political verisimilitude. One day, attracted by the unrivalled opportunities being offered to skilled people by this new broom sweeping through government’s old and crusty cobwebs of social patronage, two provincial public relations specialists arrived in the city determined to make their fortunes. They watched and listened in the marketplaces, taverns and forums, and then, one morning, they called an impromptu press conference where they made a grand announcement. They could, they said, write the most fabulously truthful documents in all the known world.
"That's right", they said to an amazed crowd of journalists and onlookers in the main parliamentary square, "we are the greatest doctors of spin ever seen or heard. Our speeches, pamphlets and white papers are guaranteed to cure all evils".
To cap it all, they claimed that their documents were so beautifully written and were so truthful that they had a very singular and wonderful effect. Their words, phrases and arguments were so truthful that they became quite invisible to any person who was unfit for their office or who was inadmissibly stupid. The great politician was stunned when he heard these claims. "What a wonderful thing", he thought to himself. "With documents like this I can find out which men and women in my government aren’t suited for the posts they hold; I can tell the wise ones from the stupid. Yes, these men must become my secretaries at once".
Within a couple of days, the politician’s grey suited emissaries employed both men at a very competitive salary and asked them to lend their considerable expertise to the production of a particularly difficult document that the governing party had to set before their parliamentary colleagues. The two men were installed in a bright new office full of the latest computers, printers and online, on-demand production facilities. They sat tap-tapping away for days on end, preparing this very difficult document from the politician's notes and the supporting data supplied by various agencies, committees and focus groups. They attended countless briefings with government advisors and other interested non-governmental agencies, demanding without ceremony or attention to etiquette or protocol, the finest paper, the most exquisite pens and a great largesse of expenses, all of which disappeared into their briefcases at the end of each long working day.
After a month, and with the deadline for the great politician's speech looming, he decided that he would like to see how the document was progressing, although, given the special properties of this document, he felt a little uneasy about reading it in person. He certainly didn't want to appear unfit or stupid. The great politician did not believe in conceptual attitudes like fear, but nonetheless he felt it best to send one of his advisors to find out how things stood. After all, the political and media establishment knew about the magic powers this wonderful document possessed and the great politician knew that these people, who generally failed to see the bigger picture, would be as keen as mustard to see how unfit or stupid various members of the government might be.
"I'll send my faithful old private secretary to see these doctors of spin", thought the great politician. "He's very capable and far from stupid, so he's the best one to see how the land lies".
Sir John Gladstone went to the rather tastefully decorated office where the two word-smiths were beavering away at their task, and as he perused page after page of the report he became more and more agitated. "Heavens above", he thought, his eyes wide with surprise and fear. "I can't see a single word on any of the report's pages". But he said nothing.
The two writers asked him if he thought the syntax was just perfect? They asked for his opinions on all manner of things, and particularly whether he thought the blending of fact, interpretation and style created the most stunning and persuasive of arguments? Then they showed him the latest section of the report, which was hot off the printer, and Sir John could do nothing but open his eyes wider and wider. He couldn't see anything but blank pages, for there was, as far as he could tell, nothing written on any piece of paper anywhere in the room.
"Great galloping synonyms", he thought. "Am I really this stupid? I've never thought so, and if I really am then no one can ever find out. And if I’m not stupid then I must be unfit for my post! No, it will never do to let anyone know I can't read the report".
One of the two men of letters asked the old man, "Well, what do you think? You're being very quiet"
"Oh, erm, it's wonderful, to the point, pithy but flowing, quite brilliant…" enthused Sir John.
"We're delighted to hear it", said the two men, beaming at him, and they proceeded to name the chapters, to summarize their arguments and to explain all of the most salient points they had made. The great politician’s faithful private secretary paid close attention to everything the men said so that he could repeat it all verbatim when he reported back to his master, which he did directly.
After this visit, and pleased with their work, the two doctors of spin demanded an increase in their salaries somewhat above the prevailing rate of inflation. They also asked for a chauffeur driven limousine and a large apartment overlooking London’s magnificently refurbished and regenerated dockland landscape, but not a word was typed even though they sat in their office day after day tap-tapping away diligently on their keyboards.
Not long after this, and with the day of the speech now very near at hand, the great politician sent another official to review the document and to report back on its progress, but exactly the same thing happened to him as had happened to Sir John. He read and he read, but as there was nothing to read but empty pages, he couldn't actually read a thing.
"Isn't it a beautifully constructed thing", said the two public relations wiz kids, and they explained every nuance, every intimation and every statement, overt or implied.
"Well, I'm not stupid", thought the official, "and neither am I unfit for my least, I’ve always assumed that was the case. If I really am incompetent I must be careful not to reveal it".
And so, he praised the document that he couldn't read and assured all who would listen that it was perfect. "It really is your sort of thing", he said to the great politician later that same day. "It’s direct, to the point and it’s sure to knock your opponents into next week".
Every journalist and commentator in the world of newspapers, television and radio, together with every member of the chattering classes and everyone who was anyone in the established elite, were all talking about the soon to be published paper. Reassured by his aides and aware that the world’s press was waiting with bated breath, the great politician himself now wanted to read the document, even though there were still some relevant facts to include and a few final conclusions to draw. Together with Sir John and his cabinet colleagues, the great politician swept through the corridors of power and into the office where the two doctors of spin were pretending to type away furiously at blank computer screens.
Sir John, aware that he had to make a strong showing in the midst of so many hawk-eyed, elected members, exclaimed, "Oh yes Sir, isn't it magnificent, so well argued, so concise, so irrefutably true. Please, Sir, take a look, read the executive summary". He took the great politician to one side and showed him page after page, reassuring everyone assembled in the room that it was only the stupid or the incompetent who wouldn’t be able to read a word.
"Bollocks”, thought the great politician, "I can't see anything at all on these pages. This is dreadful. Am I really stupid? Am I truly unfit for the great office I hold? This is the worst thing that could happen to me. There'll be a leadership challenge for sure".
Calling on every ounce of his experience and all of his blithe abilities, honed to perfection through dealing with cabinet crises and the terrier snappings of the gutter press, the great politician read through a few pages silently. Then he turned to his colleagues and said, "Some good points being made here. Just what I wanted. All as it should be. Couldn't have put it better myself".
Turning to his two new spinmeisters he said, "Yes, very good work, gentlemen".
The great politician nodded approvingly at the piles of papers that covered every desk and table in the room. He certainly wasn't going to say anything about not being able to read the bloody thing. It was then the turn of his cabinet colleagues to scrutinise the document, page by page, but they weren't able to make any more sense of it than their boss had been able to do. Yet, like the great man himself, they were all convinced that their own survival in office was at stake. One after another they made various comments of agreement such as, "Oh yes, I entirely agree...Extremely well put...A fine piece of work...A solid basis for policy..."
So pleased were the great politician and his cabinet, so convinced were they of the document's merits, that they promised the two charlatans a knighthood apiece if the document found favour in parliament and the policy became law. The gentlemen in question thanked the members of the cabinet for their generosity, pleased that their work was so well appreciated, and looked forward to enjoying the benefits that such preferment would bring. They were particularly interested in lucrative non-executive directorships and non-governmental agency sinecures.
The two masters of official prose worked like Trojans throughout the whole of the night before the paper was due to be published, collating pages by section and sections by chapter. They bound the finished documents in real red leatherette and hand embossed the government's coat of arms on each cover. As dawn broke they staggered wearily out into the early morning daylight for a well-deserved cigarette on the Embankment. They were just in time to meet the deadline for publication. The great politician's long awaited speech on the matter was just a few hours away.
During the course of the morning the finished document was delivered to every cabinet minister, to the media, to members of parliament and, of course, to the great politician himself. The two charlatans attended the cabinet and ran through the contents of the report with the assembled ministers of state, describing and explaining all of their arguments, summaries and conclusions in the clearest and simplest terms.
"It's such an easy read, though", they said. You'd think there was nothing here but blank pages were you a simple minded man or an incompetent fool, but that, of course, is the beauty of it".
For the rest of the morning the two men worked with the great politician, schooling him in the contents of the report. They made sure that he could cross-reference the relevant sections with his own briefing notes and that he could quote verbatim from all of the sections and paragraphs that would support the arguments he was to make in his speech. As the great politician tried out different tones of voice and different facial expressions, as he opened his stance and practised his smile, the two doctors of spin encouraged and enthused; "Oh, sublime, Sir...Well put, Sir...What a winning way with words".
Just then Black Rod, in his role as master of ceremonies, popped his head around the door and said, "Time, Sir. They’re all assembled in the chamber".
"I'm ready", said the great politician. "Bring it on…"
He took one last glance at the executive summary and checked his notes. He checked that his tie was straight and that there were no bits of cabbage stuck to his perfectly white teeth. Then he proceeded to enter the great debating chamber in procession with the master of ceremonies. The place was crammed to the rafters. Every bench seat was taken and there were crowds of people standing in the aisles. In the galleries up above the assembled politicians there was a veritable host of media reporters, who were all fighting and scrapping for the best vantage points. On every lap and in every hand there was a bound copy of the government document, resplendent in its full red leatherette glory. Every copy was thumbed and smudged with sweat and grime where avid but confused readers had tried and failed to glean the document's meaning from its empty pages. There was a look of madness in every elected representative’s eyes, and the reporters in the gallery, having assumed they were in some way mentally sub-normal, were ready to hang on every word that the great politician might say. There was a general air of desperation.
Following a brief introduction by the Speaker, the great politician rose from his seat on the front bench and the wild chatter that had filled the great hall subsided and was replaced by a hum of nervous excitement. All became still, except for the sound of a car engine being revved outside, followed by the squeal of tyres on damp tarmacadam. The great politician cleared his throat and raised himself to his full and magnificent height.
"Never before have we faced such a clear and present danger", he began, using his most authoritative and serious voice. "Never before has our resolve been tested to such limits…"
All around him members of the parliament shouted and cheered. "Hear, Hear...Absolutely...Come the time, come the man", they all exclaimed, waving their order papers in the air above their heads. Not one of them wanted to appear stupid or unfit for their position in front of so many of their peers and friends in the media. The great politician raised his hand for silence, but just as he was about to continue the otherwise usually anonymous member of parliament for Rutland Metropolitan stood up and spoke.
"But there's nothing written on any of the pages…" he said quietly.
The chamber was pregnant with silent expectation. The Speaker started to rise, intending to admonish the backbencher for his rude interruption, but thought better of it when he caught the great politician’s steel grey gaze. For his part, the great politician broke off from his prepared text and brought his verbal guns to bear on the heckler, just as he had done with unfailing accuracy so many times before. He glowered at the meek little man who had dared to interrupt him, before breaking into a fatherly smile and saying, "There speaks the voice of innocence…"
Even as he spoke the great politician became aware of a whisper circulating around the chamber. Backbenchers on all sides of the house became more and more animated, while the press pack in the gallery repeated the words of the otherwise unknown political representative to their editors by means of their mobile phones. Suddenly, one of the great politician's own cabinet ministers leaped out of his seat and shouted, "There's nothing written here at all - that's what old Hester-Whatsisname is saying - there's nothing written here at all!"
His words turned into a chant. Every single person in the chamber jumped up to his or her feet. The air was thick with the maniacal laughter and the sound of pages being torn out of the beautifully bound document. The great politician was drowned out in a storm of derision, with shouts and cat-calls ringing out everywhere. Every newspaper and every television programme ran special editions and lurid news flashes. The great politician shuddered and sank back into his bench seat. He knew the game was up... except that he puffed and he blew and he managed, with the help of the Speaker, to finish his speech.
The rest, as they say, is history, although throughout his long years of retirement, when he published his memoirs and his diaries and tried to settle into a state of fatherly grace in the House of Lords, the once great politician told anyone who would listen that he had been right, that his opponents had been wrong and that a report with blank pages was exactly what he had intended all along.

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