Extras: Escaping Scapegoats
Extras are bonus content to complement the work in our issues. Here, Paul Mills considers the genesis of "Gustav's Pole" and the journey toward getting one's writing off the ground.
Ten thousand metres above Casablanca, staring out of the window. The Fuerteventurian detective is down there somewhere, inspecting his fingernails, waiting on me. His instincts telling him he is never going to get off the ground.
A journey has begun. Masters in Creative Writing completed, five short stories “finished”. A few more and my collection will be ready. I quit my day job and go travelling. Sitting on a budget aircraft over the Atlantic, there’s no movies to binge on; it’s the perfect time to work on my next short story. Instead, I am staring out of the window dreaming up a detective series: Esteban Raban, chief inspector on the island of Fuerteventura, amateur vulcanologist and addictive vaper. No, he needs more of an edge: twelve fingers on his left hand; a severed nose ensuring constant underestimation of his detective skills; an ability to self-induce comas so he can communicate with the corpses of victims.
Oh yes, this is so very promising.
Some stories are destined never to get off the ground; some flights eventually do. We were rooted to the runway 30 minutes after the scheduled departure time. Got to love budget airlines. The First Officer finally gave an explanation but the intercom kept cutting out: something about trouble getting a dog in the cargo hold and the air traffic controllers in France being on strike (we are nowhere near France).
We have been up in the air for an hour now. Hopefully the dog—I picture a melancholic daschund—is drugged up and snoring softly. Perhaps the French air traffic controllers likewise. The First Officer assures us Casablanca is down there under the right wing. All I see is sea.
My vulcanologist sleuth needs a nemesis. A Tyrolean villain in a cape and feathered cap, who tasers little old ladies and steals their pugs and pekineses for ransom. Perhaps he is also holding Esteban Raban’s severed nose hostage. I should write this down.
Disconnect—I quit my day job. It was the “random things in Sweden” moment that made me realise I was out of touch. I’ve tried combining teaching and writing, and I often felt like I was failing twice over.
Time to get to work. I’m off in search of exotic settings. I will eventually finish my collection of short stories. And then I will write a novel, a series of novels, a collection of essays, too. I will.
Something ironic happened this week: a taxi driver asked me for advice on writing. He found writing therapeutic but couldn’t stay focused, could never finish anything. I gave him a helpful suggestion: Quit driving. Or writing. He wasn’t satisfied with my tip.
One of the stories I did finish was about a boy climbing up a pole. A man called Gustav—widely regarded as the village idiot—lives in a barrel at the top of the pole. All the adults in the village seem to have their own theory as to how Gustav ended up there. Each mythical origin story about Gustav seems to serve a purpose for the teller. Meanwhile, Gustav looks down upon everyone—sees everything.
I stare out of the window. Still can’t see Casablanca. I’ve given up on Fuerteventura. My detective is down there somewhere, looking up, wondering where I am. Why have I left him kicking volcanic pebbles down the road with six toes and no nose—or whatever it was. What was his name again?
I remember Gustav and how he came to be in that barrel. The BBC was to blame. As a teacher, I tried to start off each day with an interesting clip of something going on in the world. The school I taught at backed on to one of the poorest suburbs in Hawke’s Bay, where gang affiliation and meth addiction enclose the lives of many of the adolescents who slouch into school each day. So, I show them hitch-hiking robots, astronauts brushing their teeth, a Do-Nothing guy in Japan who lonely people can hire to accompany them to the cafe. I find a lot of these snippets on the Reel section of the BBC website. One time it featured a South African guy who had just broken the world record for consecutive days living in a wine barrel on top of a pole. The villagers would send food up to him. There was a funnel he could send his “waste” down. He had broken the record but seemed intent on hanging out in his barrel for a good while longer. His one complaint was an inability to stretch out his legs and get a good night’s sleep. He was happy to stay up the pole. Everyone else was happy he was out from under their feet. His tenure in the barrel ensured equilibrium.
That image of the man in the barrel stayed with me. As did the “imbecile” character in Ursula Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. The vibrancy of Omelas depends upon the existence of this scapegoat, hidden from view, but in everyone’s consciousness. I put my own “imbecile” up in a barrel among the clouds, out of sight, apparently out of his mind. When a small boy climbs the pole to meet Gustav, the mythology surrounding the scapegoat is shattered.
The First Officer, sensing the brooding restlessness in cattle-class, deployed his scapegoats. It’s all the dog’s fault. And the French. Mmm, we murmured, hemmed in like convicts. Daft dog, implacable French strikers. We get it now. It’s not the First Officer’s fault, nor his crappy airline.
It’s not my fault I fail to finish stories. I’ve got a day job, you know! That’s how I used to comfort myself. There’s something problematic about trying to be an inspiration to a roomful of students while simultaneously categorising the lot of them as scapegoats, collectively responsible for your lack of creative output.
Each morning I would show my class the fascinating video snippet of something weird and wonderful happening in a corner of the world, opening their eyes to the possibilities beyond Hastings—the cultures and experiences that they can one day realise for themselves. Then came the day I completed the roll and notices but had a brain fade. “I’m sure I’m forgetting something.” The smartest boy in the class let out a sigh, “You haven’t shown us some random thing about Sweden or whatever.” My bubble was well and truly burst. My engrossing and enriching BBC Reels were simply another boring ritual my class endured patiently each day. A good teacher, like a skilled writer, can open eyes—help people make sense of the world around them. Trying to perform both roles at once is a juggling act. I watched a ball thud to the ground.
To cut a long story short (always helpful when trying to finish one), I quit. The timing fit. Post-Covid it was time to travel again—visit family and friends in Europe. Take some time out to think and write.
Here I am in a plane 10,000 metres above someplace flying towards somewhere else. Trying to work out my next move. Trying to finish stories I’ve started. Trying to stop dreaming and start writing again. Now there are no more excuses. I don’t have a day job to distract me. The scapegoats have scattered.
I open my laptop. Before I start to write I take one last look out of the window, like Gustav gazing down from his barrel. I catch a glimpse of Casablanca.