the Writer

That night, he sat by his open window and shook a match from the packet with a satisfying crack. It sparked briefly on the sandpaper, then burst into flame, shooting fireflies into the gloom. The candle sputtered at first, then drew light and began its solitary dance. The shadows cast shot high up the walls.

It was the twenty-ninth of September, he wrote, then paused. He put the pen down. The street was quiet – a passing street rather than a stopping street. A lame fox limped down the pavement, a straggly bone in its mouth. A motorbike roared a few streets off. Unremarkable, he thought, then pondered the paradox of his having remarked upon it. He picked up the half-burnt match and relit it on the candle. Reaching up to the shelf, he took another and held the lit match to the wick. There, he now had two candles. As the match burned, he came to an idea and reached for another. Lighting it, he eyed another on the shelf, but the match pricked at his fingers, so he dropped it into the third candle where it caught and burned bright.

Now, it may be a trick of the light, but it looks like a glint comes into our protagonist’s eye. He lays his hand, palm down, on a blank sheet of paper and unsheathes his pen. Now reader, if I tell you what happened next, you’ll scarcely believe me. Said writer raised the pen up to eye level and aimed it at his hand, still stationary upon the sheet. In a flourish, he brought the pen down, forcefully, piercing the skin of his hand and driving through onto the paper. As I watched, streams of characters began to flow forth. Unstoppably and building in force with every heartbeat, words and then whole sentences flowed from this gaping wound. Out poured sin, and beauty, out came art.

For two whole hours he sat there, transfixed by his own absurdity, while the candles coughed and shimmered in their glass cages. Reading over his shoulder I saw scenes of unspeakable beauty, of soaring eagles of stories, of mighty peaks of emotion. Reader, by now you’ll believe I never wanted this to end. But eventually the wound started to close around the intrusion, and the stream of words slowed to a trickle, less coherent now, less thick on the page, until it had become nothing more than a few letters clinging to the pen. It remained stuck in his hand, which he raised to shut the window.

Lying in bed a few minutes later, he chanced upon a patch on the sheet, when he realised his wound was still oozing. It would dry by the morning, he thought, as he reached to turn off the light. By the light of the candles still guarding his evening’s work, I could see, every now and then, another word slip out onto the pillow, lost to the night. Within minutes though, this came out as random single letters instead. His breathing, previously heavy, settled into a soothing rhythm. He rested, a happy writer.

Radiohead in Lisbon

The moon smiled and was gone, hidden behind the main stage, where some huge unknown warm-up act – who we tolerated purely for what was to come – winked at the girls. Condensation ran down my fingers as I clutched the beer that would see me through this long wait where time trickled like sand – but what was three hours when you’d waited three years?

As this minor band left, the pack flowed forward, squeezing into every nook the leavers made like cement into a mould. By the time it set, we were not thirty metres from the stage. Thirst drew my mouth into a desert and turned my rationing of beer – beer that was by now very warm and very flat – into an art form. We had Russia in front, Canada beside: a motley army of worshippers to greet the greats, the goods, the everlastings, the been-away-but-come-back-agains.

The sky darkened into dusk, then the stage lights followed. A blue glow cast across the podium, then four gladiators entered, the crowd baying at their arrival. From that moment on, I watched Thom like a hawk, his spindly hands playing keys, his whine punctuating the summer.

At times, it was as if the crowd assumed an instrument of their own, as tens of thousands of voices combined to form one to chant “Fade out...again,” back at the Gods on stage. An entire crowd, it turns out, sounds all lengths of the spectrum and all visible colours in the night.

They left the stage, then returned – the been-away-but-come-back-agains embodied – to play five more. Beside us, the Canadian was in tears. I watched them hammer drums into the air on “There There”, then they were gone again. This in itself would have been a worthy end, but back again they came. Only with Creep. Only with their biggest song ever, the cry for disaffected youth, “I wish I was special, but I’m a creep,” and we felt his pain, so vivid was the melody, so vibrant his sorrow.

Then the piano started. The song that brought Radiohead into my life in the first place. “This is what you get, when you mess with us” – well, so far Thom, messing with Radiohead has brought me nothing but joy and grief and self-discovery. It’s been a soundtrack for growing up, a driving force in my maturity, so I think I’ll be messing with you for the foreseeable future if you don't mind. Thom rises to seal the night. “For a minute there, I lost myself.” Yes, and so did we. So thank you.

As we sat on the bench afterward, too stunned to move, too broken to speak, too mind-blown to think, a cry from the next table echoed into the night. “Fade out...again,” and with an instinct I can only compare to breathing, I found myself singing along, and as ten voices became a hundred, I felt the process of time tearing in two and the world had very seriously changed. The time that was to come would bear no resemblance to what had gone before.

That chant will now forever be the sound of time itself splitting in two.

running late

It's three minutes until the wedding, and I'm in Seoul traffic, sweating. The grey of the high rise is indistinguishable from the sky. My fate lies, as it has so often so far in this city, in the hands of someone who speaks not a word of English. Though he'd nodded perfunctorily enough at my mention of Apgujeong station, it would be a minor miracle if I made it there on time. Being late in your own city has something inherently uncomfortable about it. Being late for the whole purpose of your trip to a foreign country is another matter altogether. 

The traffic sat. Those on foot overtook those in cars. Horns buzzed in the suffocating air. I try to piece up the tiny scrap of map I have for the venue with the screen of my driver's satnav.

I take a leap of faith, grappling to win back a little bit of control over the situation.
"Drop me here," I say, my hands gesturing at the nearest kerb. He asks me a question in Korean. I point back at the kerb.

On the streets I start running the two blocks to the where I think the venue is. With a lurch, I realise that if I've misjudged the map, there's no way I'll make the wedding. Nothing like a bit of all or nothing. The roads seem to expand in the heat, stretching away from me, mocking me. The lights at the crossing are in on this twisted joke too, taking an age to turn to green. Day two in the city and I'm already jaywalking. My feet drum a rhythm into my head of the groom's words last night: "Don't be late eh, gents?"

Reaching the turning I think I need, I cut left and jog along the road which slopes up a hill. Not this one. Too early. Car showroom. Japanese restaurant. Shit. Turn corner, scan buildings. Still nothing. Check phone. 11:59. Try one further. Arts Center. Hoards of suits. Buzz of voices. Is this it?

I'm still scanning faces when a familiar voice, almost 9,000km from where I last heard it, takes a pin to my bubble of panic.

"You made it! We've got you a seat upstairs. Here's a glass of white."

Korea's DMZ

"Skip it," Min had said in the hostel. Spend your money on beers instead."
I ignored him. When else would I get the chance to see over the border of the world's most secluded country?

*****

It's a forty minute drive to the border, past mile upon mile of barbed wire and sentry posts. Every hill in the distance became a guessing game: "Is that North Korea? It sure looks pretty bleak there." It wasn't.

There were at least ten other buses on the lot as we pulled up at Freedom Bridge. A neatly-designed visitor centre sold smoothies and postcards. The seats of a Ferris wheel hung unmoving in the drizzle. Loud voices of all languages clashed in the air. Our guide spoke a language that at times resembled English. In dramatic terms, she told us a pocket version of the Korean War, the creation of the DMZ and intense security of the compound. At least I think she did.

A soldier boarded the bus at the checkpoint and walked down the aisle of the bus, casting an eye over everyone's passports. I could have showed him last night's dinner receipt for the attention he paid it. From this moment forward we were in the DMZ. Every hill became “North Korea” again. At the first stop, our fellow travellers streamed off the bus and flocked around three enormous letters, spelling out the area's acronym. Selfie sticks were extended, poses perfected, filters chosen.

Across the lot was a museum of sorts, marking the North's numerous attempts at breaching the zone. Shepherded into a cinema, we were shown a rollercoaster of scenes narrated by an enthusiastic American. Footage of the war and maimed bodies was interspersed with calming shots of the many types of wildlife now living in the DMZ. "Visit the DMZee today," it said, "where animals great and small live in perfect harmony. The DMZee is nature's haven forever."

As the film ended we donned hard hats and ventured down into one of the tunnels, the third of four discovered since the DMZ's creation. It’s unknown how many others may exist. Painted black inside by the diggers who then claimed it was a coal mine, the tunnel sits over 70m beneath the surface. A single-file procession ran in each direction, in and out of the tunnel. Most of the ceiling was propped up by metal scaffolding, and the dripping walls and shouts of tourists were punctuated by the frequent sounds of hard helmet hitting the metal. The barbed wire at the end of the tunnel was decorated with fairy lights. Boarding the bus later, I saw the row in front had bought "authentic DMZ barbed wire". Someone's mother-in-law was in for a real treat at Christmas.

Our guide was by now so incomprehensible that she could go entire streams of thought without me picking up a single word. Next, apparently, we were visiting the sober tree. It was only when we pulled up at the hill that the 'sober tree' in fact became the 'observatory'. It was also here that the tour came to resemble a trip to the zoo. Cue more loud voices, more elbows, more selfies. A row of binoculars stood at the edge of the viewing platform as we looked down into the lion enclosure. No cameras are allowed at the edge, as we wouldn't want the North Koreans seeing the latest Samsung model.

Forgive me if I'm trivialising here, but after a day of the war-zone being trivialised by the never-ending marketing surrounding it, it comes frighteningly naturally.

We moved away and found a pagoda in a haven of quiet with a view over the border. It was here the enormity of the situation really struck. We're actually looking into a country at war with our hosts, just 40 minutes from Seoul. I said a silent thanks for the freedom we take so much for granted.

We carried on to Dorasan Station, the South's final stop on the line towards North Korea, built at a time when reunification looked more likely. It had never seen a train go north. Tourists posed under signs reading "Trains to Pyongyang" and the departures board was now being used to encourage visitors to check-in on Facebook.

A booth in the corner of the station offered us the chance to get a Dorasan stamp. A sign hung above it: "Do not use in passport or on bank notes." The American beside me grinned like an imp and stamped it down opposite his Korean entry visa. I wished him a pleasant trip through Customs.

Because a bus trip is never complete without being forced through an "authentic local handicrafts" factory against your wishes, we were dropped at a two-storey ginseng showroom. Time for a tactical tap-out.

"Sorry, we're running short on time. Thanks for the tour! Gamsa hamnida!" We damn near ran out that door.

*****

Min was in the hostel living room when I got back. He looked up as I took my shoes off at the door.

"And?"
"You were right." I said. "Let's grab a beer."