Other Rooms (excerpts) — Matthew Turner

Extract One: Other Rooms


It’s strange to live with a person you have never seen. Well, I had seen her once, but the memory quickly faded, leaving me to reconstruct her persona and form from the sounds she made in other rooms. I had heard my mother once too, when I was very young. There were two adjacent telephone boxes and I’d been locked in one of them, and she, I was told, was in the cubicle next to mine. We had spoken briefly with only a thin metal partition dividing us, and there was a silhouette projected onto the rough pavement outside next to my own. I heard her slowly place the receiver down as I searched for a hole in the divide. Her sounds were different now.

I had been living abroad but was told I should return immediately. When I first arrived at her flat there were some documents to sign, as there always seemed to be in these situations. She had written them all out in painfully uncommunicative handwriting that I could barely decipher, and the glaring bulbs scattered throughout the flat, none of which were fitted with shades, further bleached out my concentration. After pretending to read for a while, with my irises at maximum circumference, I hurriedly signed them without even knowing what was agreed, with my hands glowing pale in an air that was wet and viscous with light. Her appearance was delineated by voids; the features that caught the light were sliced away, and those remaining moved around out of focus like alcohol separating from water, leaving behind only isotropic contours.

Extract Two: Threshold


I hate giving away things I love to people I hate, I thought as I relaxed in the generic hotel room chair in front of the open window. You can move all around the world, I speculated into the warm breeze, but this chair will always be there. The room was non-smoking but I projected the vapour on to the air moving past the window with the expertise of a mariner attuning his sails to the wind.

It was hot outside, and the sound filtering through the window felt unusually expanded, the streets were breathing into rooms. The noise always sounded compressed in the cold of the winter, but in summer with all the windows and shutters open, it echoed and reverberated more freely into people’s apartments. Looking back to my iPhone screen I continued scrolling through more videos. I had two phones; one for private and one for business, I was relaxing in the hotel room but still using the business handset. I liked to maintain a work and life separation, but I adored even more to save the data allowance on my private phone.

A summer shower had just finished, and a powerful light, like a noisy TV in a room at night, streamed in and backlit my profile along with all the furniture. It felt light and dark at the same time, confusing even the streetlamps, and their sensors turned them slowly on and off. The contrast between darkness and light was probably one of the most primitive spatial dividers, before that there was just the difference between earth and sky. In early Christian churches, such as Santa Costanza in Rome, the procession from the dark outer ring of the rotunda to the bright inner ring symbolised an initiate’s acceptance into the church and their rebirth from profane darkness into sacred light. The light outside was momentarily poised on the threshold between these two states, a condition I hadn’t seen occur in nature before.

I liked hotel rooms for their liminality, for their ability to facilitate the inhabitation of a realm between reality and fantasy. They also existed in a weird place between order and chaos; you can mess around with them as much as you like, move the furniture, leave your underwear strewn all over the floor, stain the sheets, and still, when you return at the end of the day everything will be back in its place. The legs of the sofa, for example, will have migrated safely back to the indentations in the carpet they have been cultivating for years. If only people were a similarly self-reordering system.

Stopping on a pixelated freeze-frame, I play a video. It’s a scene taken from a film set in another hotel room and it looks hot there too. The room’s shutters are open and there are bars over the window, the protagonist lies on the bed smoking a cigarette. Seeking to escape his work, life and wife, he has stolen the identity of an acquaintance that had dropped dead from a heart attack. But in this penultimate scene the two identities merge into one, delineated by the movements of the camera, which seamlessly and magically moves outside through the iron bars across the window to show the inside and outside world, those of fantasy and fact, public and private, coalescing into one — a smooth and faultless transition from one insular space to the next. The room is in two simultaneous states, and despite the scene’s dreamy and meditative qualities, there is violence at the transition of these two worlds. When the camera comes back around to the window after turning 180 degrees, through the bars, the audience can catch a glimpse of the protagonist’s dead body.

I took another drag on my cigarette and thought of the scene’s echoes of private spaces and discrepancies of identity online. There are boundaries and borders, albeit unseen ones, but these are effortlessly crossed.

Both my phones vibrated at once, and I saw the same message from my collector `doubled across the two screens. He had been buying my work for many years and I still didn’t know how he managed simultaneously text so quickly. The message said that he would be leaving the club at about five in the morning and would then travel by train to the storage unit by the airport. He was oil money, and I hated selling my work to him. As an artist, it’s funny how you spend so much time wanting to sell your work, and then, when it finally happens, you hate the people that end up with it.

I played the film again in slow motion.

My collector, let’s call him Robinson — people with that name are always marooned or annexed from reality in some way — had enough money to make sure there wasn’t an overlap between his public and private life, between his fantasies and reality. His life was purely private, pure fantasy, pure fiction. We exist due to the friction of these boundaries crossing, their rupture points are who we are, where we emerge from our subconscious as physical spaces in the world — they are one of the few things that are ‘real’. And he didn’t have any of this; he was just a body at one remove from reality. The oil he traded was incredibly physical, but even this, he said, was just numbers and barrels.

The camera in the film was breaking through the bars once more, but much slower, the pixels becoming viscous and oily.

Once, Robinson was reminiscing about how, as a small boy, he had often smelled the dirty oil coming out of the engines his father worked on. He finished by describing how it now made him feel sick and that he would regularly faint when he chanced upon the scent.

The next video I watched was of Alex Higgins playing snooker. The table at the centre of the scene is pure order and geometry, and he is drunk, fidgeting and stumbling around it with the slippery and angular movements of a character from a silent movie. Complete chaos, until the split second the cue tip connects with the ball and everything is perfectly still and aligned. He’s on course for the perfect 147 break; the balls are impeccably spread on the table, the geometry between them is ideal. Bending down to take another shot, still flicking his head back to disrupt an invisible fly on his face, he finally relaxes with his eye directed down the cue. He slides his arm back in preparation to strike, but a random cough from someone in the audience breaks through the order. He misses, and stumbles away from the table.

Extract Three: Meridian


I wanted the passive order a person often craves after experiencing something traumatic, so I was sat on a National Express bus progressing slowly along the motorway towards London. On arrival I planned to walk a perfectly straight line, roughly ten miles of the Prime Meridian, from one marker at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich to another at Pole Hill, which sits on the border between Greater London and Essex. I would spend the day subsumed and expunged by cartography, still but still moving, as my path wouldn’t deviate from 0 degrees longitude. I would walk, not to delineate a route or line in the landscape, but to register an un-movement; one that wouldn’t highlight the route’s presence in the world of experience, rather carve out its absence. Although perhaps an hallucination of a desire, I would spend the day at ground zero, flatlined at 0° 00′ 00.00″.

As the bus starts to move at a less frustrating speed, I watch a screen positioned in the middle of the aisle affixed to the ceiling. The film functions as a rear view mirror, showing the motorway disappearing behind us, and, due to the road and landscapes generic and monotonous nature, the view seen through the coach’s windscreen and the one stretching backwards look identical. As I see London emerge in the distance, the two views make me feel as though I am stuck in some kind of strange inertial vertigo between moving forwards and moving backwards at apparently the same speed.

I had attended my Grandmother’s funeral that morning at a large church in the Midlands. ‘Down the passage we did not take’, intoned the priest, as I grasped the silver plastic handle on the coffin with my left hand, my arm stretched across my eyes, and my other hand placed under her head. I couldn’t see my own, so I looked across to the other pallbearers’ feet to judge the path we would take. We carried the coffin 26 steps across the back of the church; equal to the twenty meter width my sharp, ruler drawn pencil line marking the route of meridian would be, if I scaled it from the maps 1:25000 scale to 1:1. Deepening my detachment, I imagined the 20 meter dusty charcoal shadow it would cast over the landscape, and the sinuous line I would erase through it with my feet; an idea that merged with the priest continuing, ‘Towards the door we never opened’, bodiless and reverberating all round the church. We turned right and began to walk the 40 straight steps towards the altar; 23030 less steps than it would take me to complete the walk between the two meridian markers.

The coffin was lighter than I predicted it would be. My grandmother was absolutely still inside, but still moving, on one more journey directly down the aisle. The paint on the coffin wasn’t even dry, I felt its white, damp pigment transferring to the skin on my hand, and I speculated as to the imprint it would leave on my shoulder. Placing the coffin down unsteadily, I didn’t feel any weight shift inside, and I turned around to take my seat. Everyone was stood dressed in black and the bearers scattered out amongst the other mourners. All I could see in the dim light, through dusty cold breaths, were dusty white marks on five different black shoulders, displaced yet aligning amidst the pews. We all sat down.

Arriving at London Victoria I alight from the coach and head towards the first café I spot. Its automatic door slowly starts to open away from me as I approach, at the same speed as my steps, meaning my reflection in its morning clean glass doesn’t become larger but rather retains its size as I get closer. Despite my continuing movements, for a moment, I was an inert impression on reflective shroud, instead of a body in full motion.

51°28’36.8″N 0°00’00.0″E

Once inside I glance up at the menu. Always fucking coffee, ‘Just a cup of tea please’, I say to the waitress, and sitting down at a table by the window I take out my phone. In equilibrium with the barista’s trajectory from her counter, my tea arrives as I, using Google maps, zoom in on the barely decipherable and pixelated meridian line marker in Greenwich. The walk up the hill towards it looks strenuous, but once there, in my mind, I feel a complete lack of physical exertion. In video games it is often more efficient for the scenery to move around the protagonist, instead of allowing them to move freely through fictional landscapes; the lead of any video game explores the world by staying resolutely still, ensnared in a deception of locomotion. My own actions feel clunky and glitched like they have lost a dimension, in the same vein as a video game character. Or more specifically, how on the meridian, my progress forward would be cartographically measured. However, those to the side (East and West), wouldn’t deviate from zero — a dimension of perception and movement severed or compressed into the two-dimensional traversals of a reflection. I felt as though I was still in the exact spot as when I had been informed of my grandmother’s death, since then, I had stayed static and the landscape had moved on without me, in the manner of a train — for which I was late — leaving the station and me behind in its wake. It was reminiscent of a shock I had once received when sitting beside a window: a bird had knocked itself out, in full flight, against the outer surface of the glass pane in which a mirrored sky presented a simulation of continued space.

Reaching the top of the hill where the Royal Observatory sits, I imagine straddling the meridian line marker between my legs, and look across the landscape to see the phallic, chromium rupture demarcating the zero degree boundary of time and space, shoot forward to the unseen point of Pole Hill in the distance. An outcrop of high-rise structures at a seemingly equal mass and height to the mound I stand on shimmer beyond the Thames, a technological echo of my own environment, with strata of iridescent blind windows, fissures of branding and seams of cranes and reconstruction work. Canary Wharf, Margaret Thatcher’s cock, London’s all seeing innuendo, is larger than the rest and sits in a clearing, although it’s no match for the meridian, which stretches continually all around the world, colonising the territory more than a mere symbol of market deregulation.

51°30’34.5″N 0°00’00.0″E

Walking north down the hill I pass the Millennium Sun Dial before skirting the edge of the millennium dome in, what I imagine would be, a small boat that drifts through the Thames, in discordant and illogical opposition to its usual traffic. The boat docks at a straight path running towards Pole Hill named ‘Prime Meridian Walk’, and I follow it for 240 steps — 200 more than I had used to carried my grandmother down the church aisle — at which point it abruptly and unexpectedly ends. I look back to survey my progress so far; the midday sun is aligned with the vista in the style of an amateur dramatist’s enactment of a Neolithic earthwork lining up with an equinox corona. It makes props of spent syringes and damp musty nettles fermented by the rising heat of the day, in place of sacrificial offerings. Vast anonymous sheds stand in for monolithic stones, layers of serpentine, elevated roadways act as concrete horizons. And control over crop cycles and the rising sun performed instead by monopolised place names such as ‘East India’ and ‘Virginia’.

Looking forward again, I notice that the path doesn’t end, just gets smaller and finally segues into a glass strip that then transitions into a thin window cutting a jarring section right through the building the meridian line runs below. The building, despite its many storeys and obvious capacity to hold many office workers, is eyeless and doesn’t have any other windows. In contrast to its large size, on the fence encircling it a tiny sign reads, ‘Telehouse London Data Centres’. Googling the name I find it’s a building not for people, but for row upon row of servers processing great coral reefs of data, vast slipping sandbanks of monetary transactions and conversations, a stationary hub for the constant unseen landscape of phantom movements inherent in the digital world.

In a square next to the building, there are a few pop-up market stalls selling jewellery and exotic foods. A woman is motionlessly admiring her necklace in a mirror loosely hanging from the framework of one of the craft stalls, and each time the wind blows the mirror flickers quite violently, lending her composed and relaxed material persona, a frenetically jolting reflected alter ego. Despite its chaotic surface appearance, the digital has catalysed a similar serene stillness within people, one in which we motionlessly migrate — a seizure of movement. We move through the streets and, not giving it our full attention, are always distracted from the present line of thought; we glance at our phones incessantly and take pictures to look at afterwards instead of experiencing the moment in real time. A phenomenon that calls for a new word to replace those aging notions of flâneur and the dérive, because instead, we ‘buffer’, akin to that moment when the red line on a YouTube video reaches the grey line and everything stops: the new content is loading but we are yet to experience it. This is how we experience our environment now, we amass details and pictures as we walk only we don’t let them play out in our heads as an immediate experience, instead we wait, we buffer at a standstill.

I check my latitude and longitude again, still 0° 00′ 00.00″, I have been moving forward for hours and this hasn’t changed, it’s as though I’ve been passing through the perspectival illusion of a canvas surface, through an expanded momentary slice of time. Examining my phone screen more closely, I press the overlapping square at the bottom right corner of the safari browser, and my open web pages splay out frontally, in the way of a card trick, all lined up in the direction I’m about to walk. Moving forward is the spatial progression of optimism, towards something better, more knowledge, a greater understanding. Online we only move forward; on to the next page and the next, along the endless scroll of twitter, apparently making progress, yet, it’s like reading the pages of the manuscript: once you have read one page, you put it to the back of the all the pages, and all with the impression of moving forward through it, you nevertheless end up back at the first pages again, just where you started. I had been unmoving along the meridian line as well, an amorphous fissure that doesn’t really exist, in similar fashion to the way perspective makes train tacks appear to meet and converge into one. The Internet, duplicating my current feeling, is the same as living constantly on that point of vanishing. Perspective in reverse, viewed from the horizon, where everything terminates and seems to come together, however, you can see its multiple lines shooting into the distance, sprouting virulent dark blooms: lines that will splinter again tomorrow, shards that will fragment once more the day after.

51°38’09.5″N 0°00’00.0″E

For the remainder of the route I digitally travel along Wood Street, Walthamstow, that follows the high ridge of the Lee Valley, believed to be one of the old pilgrim routes to Waltham Abbey. Next I perambulate though Chingford before finally, via the car park of a pub and through an overgrown alleyway behind some terrace houses, I find myself at the top of Pole Hill and confronted with the second meridian marker. In the near distance there are two colossal expanses of water, parted by a road, that look like a sea falling downhill towards London. Apart from that, the view down the centre of the earth is quite banal.

An information sign suggests that T. E. Lawrence once owned the top of the hill, and built a house there with his friend — and perhaps lover — Vivian Richards. It’s fitting, I thought, that a person running from himself, his sexuality, his previous exploits, would pick this nebulous cartographic blind spot as the ideal location for his home. My phone vibrates and cuts in. I hadn’t checked my messages all day and realise I have fifty, all variations on the theme of why I hadn’t stayed for my grandmother’s wake. Unlike Lawrence, I couldn’t travel to escape, I would always be trapped in the inertia of the digital’s cradle, I could be outside and free, but still travel without moving from the same place: that vibration, that connection.

The latter part of the text informs me that modern GPS yields to another meridian that passes through the Earth’s rotational axis, and this line sits 102.478 metres to the east of where I’m standing. The ground falls out from under my feet again as I process the information, my place in the world an afterimage as my location shifts east.

My phone suddenly dies. I can’t finish reading the text about Lawrence and the recalculation of the meridian. Surrounded by coffee cups, I had been occupying the same seat all day; I don’t think I really looked up once while planning my walk between the two illusive points on my phone, and imagining what it would be like. I knew I would start the walk one day, maybe even finish it, but not today, I think as I look outside, I’m tired and it’s getting late.

Matthew Turner is a writer living in London. He studied at University College London and is now working as assistant editor for LOBBY magazine, while also teaching at Chelsea College of Arts and writing on art and literature for various publications. He is currently working on a new book for Gordian Projects.

Images: Matthew Turner

Other Rooms by Matthew Turner is available at  http://www.hesterglock.net/p-013-matthew-turner.html