Alexander Smokescreen, whose misadventures about town this weekend make up the subject matter of this story, was not born to signify all the asphalt and cigarette butts and constant frustration and impossible dreams of the city that generated him; rather, he was born small, loud, and covered in slime (and, as we presently shall learn, he’ll die lean, strungout and greasy at the age of twenty-three). Until a few years ago, Smokescreen was renowned for his affability and intelligence, and was widely conceived of as a good bloke, but then suddenly he stopped seeing any point in desiring anything for himself other than contemplative seclusion, or secluded contemplation, or whatever, and ever since then he has managed to get along just fine without doing anything really useful with himself. One life, one of so many threads of life here, ravelling out from the spool of this city, only to be chopped like a length of thread once it is sufficiently drawn out… he used to study philosophy, and is therefore acutely aware of his mortal condition. The way of all flesh – temporary, mutable, restless – is the lot of Alexander Smokescreen, though his mother had named and raised him to do greater things than to simply exist.
The mist of Smokescreen’s mouth forms a pale little cloud in the chill of this morning, and as he traverses the streets he sighs aloud, his head plaintively switching, as though to rebuff the gentle drizzle which sprinkles over the back of his neck. The air is thick silver still, and overcast, as he walks to the markets; the city surrounding him is still soaked in spring fog, its towers as inseparable from the clouds as though composed of vapour and not concrete. Church bells conflate in the pale atmosphere, combining with bird-sounds and the clamour of trams, as the narrow young man conducts himself through the streets, dressed in a child’s waistcoat, tattered, and creased woollen trousers. His hair is dark and flecked prematurely with grey, and even though his narrow shoulders are high, he walks always with a slouch. Alexander goes out into the street and slowly, somewhat irresolutely, begins to walk around, as though he is unable to make up his mind about something; but this speculative stance of his, which he has only lately adopted, is offset somewhat by the shopping trolley he pushes, which looks just as though it could belong to a granny. At the present moment, Smokescreen is off to purchase the week’s groceries for his household, and with even step and musing gait, his pale lower lip curled in concentration, he sets out along the damp streets.
Perhaps at this point we should take careful note of his structural similitude to the setting: his flesh tone ashen, his close-set eyes glinting streetlight sallow, and his jaw-line sculpted sort of like a tramcar; his long sloping forehead and aquiline nose, his incisors yellowish brown and pointed, and his bone structure imperial notwithstanding his apparent malnutrition and general scruffiness. In his appearance, Alexander is not plain in the sense of unnoticeable, but whereas Spectator A might consider him comely, Spectator B would equally and oppositely consider him ghastly. Alex, frankly, could be inclined (whatever the weather) to consider himself neither, or both; in his own mind, he could be a master of all guises, a nonessential form that transforms its appearance according to his whims and moods. It seldom occurs to such persons as Smokescreen that they are merely nondescript, or simply do not possess the integrity of a stable form; not that he’s inclined to think highly of himself – the opposite, more often than not – rather, he’s more inclined to think of others thinking highly of him, or perhaps, being spoiled, that is just what he is used to.
As I mentioned earlier, a few years ago he was renowned for his quick wits and easy charm; at twelve, he was awarded a full scholarship for six years of schooling at a famous private school for boys, and up until quite recently, he was studying law and philosophy. But the only trait of character worth dwelling on here (for his inconsistent temperament has been perpetually in flux, as of late, and this cursory outline was never supposed to equate with his curriculum vitae) is that Smokescreen is quite unable to speak his mind to others: it is very seldom fixed upon a single thing for longer than a few hours, and as such he has acquired a habit of muttering to himself as he walks along, or even engaging in lengthy discourse with his own mirror image. As for now, he is unfussed about the morning drizzle, though it seeps into his inexpensive suit and torn, untidy shoes: Alexander foresees a fine and foggy day ahead, that with any luck should stay glowing beneath this veil of precipitation. For the vernal drizzle is a inexorable constituent of city life, its intrusion as invariable as the nasal twang of the local accent.
He feels fresh and full of potential this morning, listening to the songs of silver doves pouring from their ersatz nests set in window arches. Today is a day, he reckons, for getting things done: four days off work stretch out before his measured tread, because it is the weekend preceding the first Tuesday in November. The public holiday heralds the Spectacle Cup, a horserace which is said to stop the nation. The day off work is official only in the state of Austral Felix, the verdant wedge whose capital is Spectacle City.
It is the year of our lord two thousand and five; the Federal Commonwealth of Terra Australis is one hundred and four years old. In a certain important place a certain phenomenon will occur – i.e., it actually will happen.
So: the Southern Cross hangs very low in November. Yet horse racing, illuminating the lives of Australopes in its place, coruscates with particular brilliance this season. The sport of kings has long maintained a favoured place in the heart of this nation, to such a degree that it would not be an exaggeration to say that Terra Australis is starkraving horseracing mad.
Let us dig a little deeper, for our fortune’s to be found in the soil.
In this year of our lord two thousand and five, the Punters of the Federal Commonwealth of Terra Australis have bestowed seventeen billion, four hundred million dollars to lawful licensees of casinos, to lawful licensees of electronic gambling machines, and to lawfully licensed betting agents.
That is an integer with eleven figures, and it looks like this: 17 400 000 000.
If I were to use that amount of $ to shout pots of Victoria Bitter to every single Australope, regardless of their age or disposition to sinking piss, then each would be credited with two hundred and forty eight pots. Some conservative Australopes might stretch all those pots out across a whole year, indulging in a libation or two only after a particularly stressful day at work, or whilst socialising. Other Australopes might take the opportunity to binge-drink the lot of it, and if they were to drink an average of two pots every hour, within a week they would have reached their prescribed amount.
In any event, having spent five score and four years as a federated nation, Australopes spent more on legal gambling facilities than they did on alcoholic beverages. Thus, if the amount spent on recreational activities, such as drinking and gambling, is evidence of what constitutes the Australopithecine Way, then the clear answer is that Terra Australis is a nation of punters, not pissheads.
Let us dig a little deeper, and we might strike gold; for as anyone who’s ever sung the national anthem ought to know, the soil of Terra Australis is said to be auriferous.
Speculators struck gold in the colony of Austral Felix midway through the nineteenth century. Its port township, Speculator Settlement, was soon filled with wealth-seeking Speckers from all parts of the world, all bound to the conviction that if they were to toil for long enough in the soil, they’d unearth their fortune. At length, the Speculator Settlement became Spectacle City, but by then the site of speculation was no longer the goldfields: it was the totalisator syndicates.
Even though the soil was well and truly speckless of its aureate glitter, speculating remained the Australopithecine Way, though by now, unearthing fortune by toiling in dirt was called punting, and those who did not have the nation’s lucky streak on their side became those least fortunate, and therefore the least Australovian.
So the punt was rooted in the soil of Austral Felix far more securely than gold ever was.
Unlawful totalisator gambling flourished for a century or so until legislators got struck by gold fever. They speculated that greater fortunes could be generated by taxing totalisators than by taking their bribes and quietly tolerating them. So lawful gambling was introduced in Terra Australis, and licences were issued to totalisators and betting agents.
State governments sanction gambling when it furnishes them with revenue; otherwise, it’s a filthy habit. These days, unearthing fortune by toiling in dirt is recognised, by legislation, as a form of recreation as valid as any other way to kill time in Terra Australis, like smashing tinnies, heading down to the shops, or going for a swim.
In Austral Felix, the Department of Justice has a whole subsidiary office devoted to ensuring that the State’s gambling and racing facilities are justly administered, which basically means that sufficient revenue is being collected from them. Before I bothered to research the matter, I had imagined the Office of Gambling and Racing to be a room, partitioned by cubicles, whose walkways were tracks for bureaucrats to race against one another as others staked items of stationary, bought with tax dollars, on victorious co-workers. But I soon discovered that the Office of Gambling and Racing is not at all the functionless bureaucratic entity I had imagined, for once I conducted some cursory research, I discovered that that the central role of the office is to ensure that Austral Feliciens are aware of how to distinguish problem gambling from responsible gambling, and what the benefits of responsible gambling are for everyone.
The functionaries of this Office must sleep very well at night, secure in the knowledge such a neat bifurcation justifies the civic capital generated by the same filthy habit.
According to the Department of Justice, the responsible gambler on spec for their fortune soils only their own person when they toil through dirt. But when the problem gambler toils for their fortune, they fling soil on non-Punters; so as long as you keep your filthy habit to yourself, you are doing the right thing by the Office of Gambling and Racing, by the State of Austral Felix, and by the Federal Commonwealth of Terra Australis.
Indeed, the punt may or may not be your patriotic prerogative.
So anyway, the revenue generated by gambling, be it responsible or problematic, is what makes this the lucky country. And even though we’re up to our cunts in soil, without a single speck of gold left in line of sight, the punt is our privilege, our heritage, our recreation; and we Australopes will toil in dirt until the spoils of speculation entomb us all. Because that is the Australopithecine Way.
A scaffold of violet sky looms aloft, and upon it hangs a film of electric coloured lights that gloss the air and bleakly illuminate the threads and webs of skyscrapers. Lighted windows are arranged like games of dominoes in the ash-coloured buildings; a cool stillness pervades the blackened roadways, the blue-lit alleys, the humps of inert rubbish. Spectacle City may or may not be the dwelling place for shadows, so let us simply call a trowel a shovel and identify them by means of application: Spectators.
Spectators are numbered in millions; not many, to be sure, but several million all the same. Some of them have garlic breath, many have a vagina, and several avoid paying their taxes. Recreational pursuits often include: sitting and watching syndicated television programmes, sitting and watching sports matches, sinking piss, taking trains, inspecting the collections of the picture gallery, absorbing news about the weather’s apocalyptic fluctuations or the exorbitant cost of petrol, and gambling. Spectacle City boasts many such diversions designed to divest diligent and attentive Spectators of their $. This dignifies its designation of a liveable city.
Now, as the sun rises, the city becomes filled with oblong strands of silver light, edged and offset by dense concrete shadows; and presently chrome-coated passenger trains begin to drop clusters of Spectators to the many workplaces in town.
They are cloaked with fog still, and clutch pale grey satchels or vibrant backpacks, and conceal in the lining of their neat attire things like palm-sized telephones, calfskin wallets, condoms, lunch-money, lozenges of foil containing analgesics or chewing gum, pocket-fluff. Many conceal excrescent and grotesque bodies in rigid suits or angular dresses; many soak their tired eyes in pancake-batter makeup or conceal them altogether with sunglasses; and many more of them queue for cups of coffee. Mostly the commuters stick to practiced routes of rectilinear exactitude like red blood cells clinging to a flood of plasma.
Some of the people who work in Spectacle City work in cubicles, some in windowed offices; some in kiosks or kitchens. Some travel from the vast expanses of distant outer suburbs on crowded trains with tabloids in their possession, some travel from marble breakfast nooks with no spilt orange juice and prior to departure kiss a child goodbye who merely gapes at the morning cartoon programming. Spectators flood indiscriminately among the neat, grey glaciers of buildings: cool, tumbling floods of commuters charge amidst the slim fissures of grey streets.
Hours pass; the morning passes; and presently the commuters establish themselves at their cubicles and activate their computers. Sometimes the computers seize up so it becomes necessary for the user to slap their behinds cased in plastic to jolt them into action. But mostly, computers are considered to be functional things: they are not merely mechanisms to facilitate deferment and distraction via role-playing games and social networking apparatus, but are utilised for such varied functions as mathematical equations, conveying prompts to telephone interviewers, the production and propagation of pornography (subsets of which include: amateur, bestial, scat, necrophile and foot-fetishist) – and the processing of words, a practice performed sometimes by little allegorists as they endeavour to formulate a documentary sheaf of the city’s prosodic machinations, attempting a cartography of its arbitrariness referring to the tincture of the nebulous fog and the precision of the architecture it shrouds, to the fabric of the suburbs and the synthetic texture of the skin of its residents, to the proliferation of the use of fluorescent lighting and the negative cultural atmosphere it elicits, to the moral abstraction that pervades the city’s every channel in spite of the meticulous establishments of law and order set to extinguish it, to its reliance on that which is virtual and constructed, its reliance on the structure and vision of itself declaimed and marketed by the instruments of its government, its reliance on its runts and fuck-ups to sustain its balanced order, etc.
As well as offices, there are bars and retail outlets and cinemas and concerts to kill time in Spectacle City for those who like them, and there are drugs too if you think that all those things are shit. If you want speed, a gram costs something like two hundred dollars; if you want cocaine, maybe three hundred. I cannot remember how much ice is because I do not use it these days, it’s a pretty shit drug as far as they go, but if you would really like some I could talk with some people and do my best to sort you out. If you know who you are dealing with, ecstasy tablets cost twenty dollars apiece. If you don’t, they are thirty. They don’t work so well for me these days so I tend to shelve them. That means shove them up my arse. If you were to ask for my advice, I would recommend that you just eat acid and binge on as much nitrous oxide as your means allow. You will feel more connected with the universe after that.
So let us propose, in brief, the whole subject of the present work. Fifty million years ago, when volcanic action severed the land bridges which connected Terra Australis to the top of Asia, Terra Australis was left an island, but an island of such size as to rate the status of continent. The continent is largely composed of arid soil unscratched by the ploughs of civilisation: the Great Australovian Fuck All occupies nearly two thirds of it, and Spectacle City, with all its attractions and other concomitant aspects of liveability, is signified by a touch of the cartographer’s pen at latitude thirty seven degrees and forty nine minutes south, and longitude one hundred and forty four degrees and fifty eight minutes east.
This fathomless pen-point of ours on the ochre leviathan of Terra Australis – turning its back on the continent, casting its eyes adrift through a shipping port – indicates a city bound to its settlement by speculators: and its ephemerality having been treated of, I think, with sufficient hyperbole, let us move right along to the narrative present; it is the year of our lord two thousand and five; the Federal Commonwealth of Terra Australis is one hundred and four years old, and in a certain important place a certain phenomenon will occur – i.e., it actually will happen.
[a previous version of this extract appeared in Invisible City Issue 01]