If there’s one thing you can say with absolute certainty about the modern world it’s that its full of false optimism. Respectable news outlets speedily switch to celebrity stories rather than dwell on famine, people buy ‘environmentally friendly’ cars just because there’s a happy/folky song on the advert and everyone believes that social networking represents a true advance in civilisation, but try saying something pessimistic on it, and see how many followers you lose.
The best antidote I know is the work of Paul Ashley Brown.
Browner Knowle, now on it’s sixth issue, is a collection of material ranging from observations and/or speculation about people spotted on the street, to full length, unflinching stories about dysfunctional relationships, that are frankly, a little bit hard to read. A girl waits in the same spot where a passer by once told her she has a beautiful face until she is an old woman. An artist incapable of compromise systematically ransacks his own life before burning all his work. An unnamed observer speculates as to why a man waits in the same spot for three hours each morning before walking away purposefully. The brilliance of these stories lies in the simple act of stopping, and letting the marginalised flotsam of the landscape speak. Perhaps Ashley Brown is the last of the urban flaneurs.
A Life in the Day is a little different, a character is introduced to us who does nothing all day, has biscuits for breakfast and makes a point of spending time lying on his back and staring into space. What a loser! And yet so intense seem his small pleasures, feeding birds in the park, listening to the static on his ancient radio and walking by the river, that the reader must concur that he is in fact a kind of socrates figure, happier, or at least no less miserable than the frenetic LOLing over consuming throng of mankind. ‘Birdsong, the most civilised sound in the world’ observes the man in a rather brilliant sentence that made me stop short.
The question Ashley Brown is asking; what do we have left when we turn off the gadgets, stop moving and have the courage to be alone with ourselves? I suspect the answer is everything.