About eighteen months ago, I went for a drink in the Arts Café in Islington. I was taken there by a woman I had only recently met. You reach the entrance down an unpromising side street off Essex Road, and climb the stairs where photocopied posters for small gigs or poetry readings are tacked to peeling plasterwork, or where yoga and Spanish language teachers offer phone-numbers on tear-off tags. Upstairs, it’s a ragged space, a little ruined, with mismatched furniture, amateur canvases on the wall, and rugs and cushions scattered over the floor. In short, it is the kind of place I can remember falling in love with before I left home, whenever I spied them on rare trips to places like Edinburgh or Paris, and dreamed of what cities might offer me. A place where things have been thrown together by people who do it for the love, where you get what they sell and you like it. A good place, in fact.
We sat towards the back, looking down on the rooftops behind Essex Road, talking about ourselves, talking about each other. It turned out that, as well as enjoying books, art, musicals, and the wonderful possibilities of food and good wine, this woman liked zombie films. It wouldn’t be the only thing we had in common. Strange;y, however, she could be extraordinarily squeamish, and once having to leave the cinema during a screening of Vampire In Brooklyn because she found it too terrifying. Still, she found herself attracted to these apocalyptic films for those relatively isolated moments amidst all the carnage, when society starts to re-establish itself. She explained:
You know, people have found ways to survive in hospitals or bunkers or prisons. They have established a normal routine. And for the first time all that horror is behind them. They have time, time they haven’t had before. It begins to send them a little mad. They throw themselves into science, or they make further preparations for the zombies outside the gates. They arrange ways to search for food. But the zombies don’t come, and the science doesn’t lead anywhere, and the food begins to sustain them. Aside from the agreed upon shifts, they have no work. There is no functioning economic system, not even bartering. And, so they start to occupy themselves in various ways. They garden. They knit. They study chess. Or they paint.
She smiled at me. ‘So’, she asked, ‘What would you do?’
What would I do?
It should be an easy questions for someone who writes. A chance to put everything behind you, the low level interference of taxes and train times, the day job and the relentless curse of admin. Well, of course, I’d write.
‘But,’ she asked, ‘What would you write?’
I should explain that this woman had read my novel. She also knew that I wrote poetry, or at least had done, once upon a time, and had recently picked it up again. I understood her point. All of those zombie films tap into our fantasies about what lies beyond our current system, communicate our anxiety about democracy and consumerism. A novel is a function of that system. A writer in a vanished economy would write plays, journals, short stories. Poems.
In some way, that zombie parable has nagged at me ever since. (The woman in question reminds me of it every now and again). The system continues to survive and the dead don’t walk. The things is: if you know what you’d do when the world falls apart, then the obvious question is, why aren’t you doing it now?
Words © Daniel Bennett