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The Coup

A new short story.

To be denounced before eight in the morning interferes with the digestion. Gerald, unable to swallow his cereal, wondered what he’d done.

“Shame on you!” chanted the lone protester outside.

Much as Gerald searched his memory for past disgraces, nothing wicked came to mind. Disappointing, really: by one’s mid-forties, oughtn’t a man to be ashamed of something?

He strode the length of his townhouse, upstairs past the back terrace, across the living room, beyond the guest and master bedrooms, up to the top-floor study, which still smelled of paint three weeks after they’d moved in. At the window, he peeped down on the street.

The protester, a pudgy bearded man, stood there holding a sign that declared “Filthy Pig”, followed by three exclamation points. Gerald turned from the window, glancing at the attic clutter: the rolled-up Persian runners for which they’d not yet found the right floor space; an obsolete iMac that was hard to toss out; emptied suitcases and assorted leftovers of the recent move. What had he to be ashamed of?

After all, much of Gerald’s adult life had been devoted to charitable works. Eighty-three nonprofits entrusted him with a total of £1.6bn, which it was his duty to protect and increase at Wisset-Brown, the private bank whose charities department he directed.

There was something childlike (in the best way) about many in the charitable sector, he believed. They were optimists about humanity, which was a form of extremism in the sense that children were extremists – that is, endearingly so. Especially since this was so demonstrably not an era of empathy. Then again, which ever had been?

He returned to the window. Three more demonstrators had joined the bearded man, who raised a megaphone for a new chant, words of loathing that seeped into Gerald’s consciousness with utmost relief: this rally, he realised, was aimed at his neighbours.

When he’d first contemplated buying this house, Gerald had noticed on the adjacent property a rain-dirtied flag with an exotic yellow bird at its centre, marking the embassy of a nation he thereafter referred to as the Kingdom of Budgerigar – one of those tiny states he knew to be brutish and hot, but whose location on a map required two minutes to find.

He’d contemplated whether the act of residing beside a despicable regime raised moral questions, particularly for his partner, who was at the Foreign Office. But, as a friend had commented, if Britain were willing to accept diplomats from Budgerigar, surely Gerald should be broad-minded enough to live next to them in South Kensington. Plus, the house was extremely reasonable.

Thankfully, the Budgerigarian diplomats proved a genial bunch, particularly a chargé d’affaires called Ústaffa who invited them to dinner with the ambassador soon after their arrival. All the Budgerigarians at the meal were charming, articulate, cultured – and eager to play down media reports. Gerald’s only lingering complaint was that they put out their rubbish so much earlier than the council demanded, causing an awful stink, given that fish featured so highly in the national diet.

As he stood in his attic, the protest-chant outside took hold of him, an irritatingly catchy tune: “Go away/You fat goats/Or we choke you/By your throats.” The temptation was to lean out and remark that a throat was the only place one could choke a goat, wasn’t it? Though, to be fair, they needed a rhyme with “goats”, and he couldn’t think of a better one.

Gerald avoided eye contact with the demonstrators when he left for work that morning, biking off for Wisset-Brown. A satisfactory day ensued, including a luncheon with his fourth-largest charity, some of whose fund - raisers had been pushing for a shift to so-called ethical investments – that is, no oil companies, no big tobacco, no orang-utan abusers. Gerald cautioned that he had yet to encounter a socially responsible investment that performed long-term. You could set out with ideals and indeed should. But you could not achieve ideals with ideals.

The head of the charity was relieved – times were tough without taking a risk on their holdings. The financial crisis had led to a decline in giving and a rise in neediness; rampant inflation ate into their funds; the government had been threatening to cap how much the rich could write-off in donations. Not that donors gave for tax relief alone. Just that . . . Anyway, the existing investments would stand. As the luncheon concluded, the head of the charity made a few conscience-salving comments, remarking that Gerald had “forced our hand” and been “so hard-nosed, as ever”. Untrue and unfair.

Yes, money was a priority but that was his professional duty. And it was his private belief too. Money ensured comfort for those he loved: his partner, his nephews, his god-daughter. Their happiness could not be purchased but it could be rendered more probable in charming lodgings, with decent schooling, proper travel, exposure to aesthetics, varied cooking. So, no, money wasn’t the point – but it paid for the point. Cycling home, he proceeded down a chain of thoughts, worrying first that he was a horrible person, then if they ought to have lamb again, wishing there were a Waitrose nearby, and whose turn it was to cook tonight, his or Gerald’s? (It should be noted that Gerald and his partner enjoyed a contented domestic relationship, with one vexing feature: both men were named Gerald. Early on, this had been amusing. But soon, Gerald took to encouraging the other Gerald to change his name to Ivor, which – they agreed – was a pleasing alternative. However, Gerald insisted that Gerald should be the one to change. Each remained wilful, referring to the other as Ivor and refusing to surrender his own Geraldness.)

So it was that Gerald, director of charities at Wisset-Brown, bicycled home with thoughts of spring lamb, new potatoes and Rioja (did lamb go with Rioja?), and forgot about the morning protest till he arrived in his own square, finding the rally still noisily in force.

He cooked that night and Ivor, arriving late, recounted his workday, which included a maddening ministerial briefing in which he’d been permitted two minutes to distinguish among three conflicts, one rooted in a ludicrous colonial-era border, another due to cocaine trans-shipment, a third pertaining to cashew production. In each, armed men swarmed the country, leaving unspeakable wounds, mocking any notion of justice in life. Dispirited, Ivor salted his new potatoes at length.

Day after day, the rallies continued, lasting till after midnight, resuming in the early morning. Coming and going grew awkward – Gerald felt like a strike-breaker pushing through the crowd. When Newsnight broadcast a segment on the embattled insurgency in the Kingdom of Budgerigar, they showed a snippet from the embassy demo, including a shot of Gerald in his bike helmet, fiddling to get his key in the front-door deadbolt.

The protest grew and the litter increased – crisp packets in the gutter, fish bones. Gerald came to dislike the demonstrators and, secretly, longed for them to bugger off – only to wince at this churlish thought, making a point thereafter of accepting all their pamphlets. Tidying up one night, he found himself leafing through the protest literature. The awful claims gripped him and he read to the end, doing follow-up research on the internet. Hard to tell if the government really was that horrible, or if the opposition just had a better website. Nevertheless, he was in a righteous mood when Ivor returned from Whitehall, and was soon advocating the expulsion of their neighbours. They agreed that Ivor would raise the situation at work. To denounce another country was always tricky. Problem was, so many foreign governments were fairly repellent – picking one was, Ivor explained, “a question of resources.”

Plus, any condemnation risked stirring the Daily Mail, which might then pry into Foreign Office programmes that had inadvertently funnelled British taxpayer money to foreign thugs. Thankfully, a review of recent spending in Budgerigar revealed a paltry £843 expen diture – although the associated word “mangoes” was worrying, in the Daily Mailgetting- wind-of-it sense. Nevertheless, Ivor lobbied at work, and he and Gerald missed no opportunity to rail against the regime; they become bores about it. Ivor returned from work aglow one night, having wrung out a three-sentence press release chastening the Budgerigarian administration (though in no way casting aspersions on the nation’s famously succulent grapefruits, nor any affiliated UK-based citrus importers).

Gerald was effervescent about their victory for a few days. But the protesters outside – unaware of his efforts – became no more considerate. Their rowdiness only increased, with noise around the clock.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, he decided not to skulk inside any more, imprisoned as he had been by the cacophony outside. He had bought this townhouse to enjoy, not to cower in. He marched into his back garden, put on his iPod, and settled down with the FT crossword. When he glimpsed Ústaffa across the fence, Gerald hastened over.

They chatted amiably, lamenting the traffic snarls expected from the Olympics, until Gerald sneaked in a mention of the protesters, noting that they’d be outfoxed, were the embassy personnel to up and move. He passed over a business card from his estate agent.

Within days, the embassy was empty. The protesters dispersed too. Not, it transpired, because of Gerald’s suggestion. But because insurgents had stormed Budgerigar Palace in the capital, ousted the despots, and installed a caretaker council. The rebels, Ivor explained, had been anxiously awaiting any sign of support from the west. And it had come in the form of a three-line British communiqué. Not insignificantly, the insurgents had the good fortune to attack when the entire cabinet was out of the country, attending the summer sales at Harrods.

Presently, a new flag fluttered from the pole next door. The brass nameplate was replaced to reflect the changed title of the state, which Gerald now referred to as the People’s Republic of Parakeet. A new set of diplomats moved in. What relief: they lived beside liberators now. The new neighbours threw a vast Parakeet party in their garden and, though they failed to invite Gerald and Ivor, it seemed a merry occasion. Worryingly, the parties continued. This new lot were so triumphant that they wouldn’t shut up about it, with barbeques all summer, and not just on weekends. Fish bones found their way into Gerald’s back garden, along with beer cans and empty crisp packets.

In a fit of pique, as a live band did its soundcheck on the other side of the fence, Gerald fetched one of the old protest pamphlets, whereupon he called the listed mobile number to learn what they thought of their new regime now. The number rang, seemingly in stereo: once through the handset at Gerald’s ear and again across the fence.

“Yes, hello?” a man replied.

Gerald stood on his tiptoes to see into the adjacent garden.

“Hello?” the man repeated. It was the pudgy bearded protester, now in suit and tie. They had moved in over there.

Gerald hung up. “Shame!” he shrieked. Well, it wasn’t a shriek so much as a mutter, but with a degree of vitriol that was formidable. Autumn arrived and the parties dwindled. Still, the Parakeetians scarcely acknowledged Gerald, even when he and they happened to be putting out rubbish at the same time. As for the stench, this lot were even more prolific eaters of the pungent national fish than their predecessors had been.

All of which was pretty inconsiderate given that it was Gerald who had liberated their homeland in the first place.

Developing countries, he thought, you just want to give up on them after a while, don’t you. One puts one’s faith in the new lot. Then they turn out even worse than the last bunch of bandits.

Tom Rachman is the English/Canadian author of “The Imperfectionists” (Quercus, £7.99)

Tom Rachman is the English/Canadian author of “The Imperfectionists” (Quercus, £7.99).

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis