Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, Blogging, Craig Johnstone, Edinburgh, Egor Piskunov, Freedom of Speech, Humor, James Oliva, Mark Hirst, Novichok, Opinion, Paul Kavanagh, Podcasting, Politics, Pub, Russia, Satire, Scottish Independence, Sergei Skripal, Sputnik News, Wee Ginger Dug, What's the Frequency
[SCENE: The outside seating at the 56 North gin bar. Tychy, James, Tori, Pablo and Hutu the Clown are sitting around a small, rickety metal table. The evening air is slightly too cool and they are all restless and uncomfortable.]
Hutu the Clown [a sullen-looking man in a clown costume with his hand inserted inside the rectum of a glassy-eyed ginger dog]: I am warning you! Your last edition of the Noctes implied that I am a paid Russian agent. This is highly defamatory – actionable, in fact! You’d better take care to withdraw such an accusation, or there could be very serious trouble in store for you…
Tychy: Trouble for James. He’s the editor, after all.
Hutu: Which of you has more money, James or the website?
James [distractedly]: What, me?
Tychy: Exactly, it’s James.
Pablo: Eh, this mister weirdy is always wanting the money all the time now. He ask me for money when we at the bar – he ask me for my donation when we standing earlier at the urinal.
Tori: He did the same with me.
Pablo: You were at the urinal? This is what happens when you go to the gym every day – you look more and more like a man. Now you have the hard face of a man!
Hutu: You know, I am extremely reluctant to ask for funds for my website, The Wee Ginger Dug, which I am happy to provide for everybody in Scotland free of charge. But I wish to import my American clown partner, Mr Ronald McDonald, into Scotland to live here permanently. If each of my 100,000 devoted readers each gave just £1, then I would have enough to pay the hefty visa costs and also for the wedding.
Tori: May we have the option of paying £100,000 to send you to America instead?
Tychy: Yes, there are lots of promising little states that are simply waiting to be independent. Maine?
Tychy: Maybe Arkansas?
Hutu: No, the Scottish independence movement is going from strength to strength, with so many passionate and dedicated activists just waiting to send the Tories a message, by donating to me using PayPal or GoFundMe, or alternatively with a cheque, postal order, or direct bank transfer.
Tori: Isn’t this somewhat hypocritical? Surely there are worthier things for left-leaning independence supporters to donate to, like a food bank or homeless charities, rather than for the personal enrichment of a single greedy clown?
Hutu: I don’t charge any fees for my speaking appearances all around Scotland, so why don’t you get your facts straight, babycakes? I am not here to trade noxious abuse with yet another froth-zooming trumpmuppet whose brain is emptier than a pledge on the side of Boris Johnson’s bus!
Pablo: Incredible, eh? He is on fire today. I write all of these down in a book to learn. You want to hear?
Pablo: I am the amazing Pablo the Clown! You are a Unionist froth-mermaid.
Hutu: It’s froth-merchant! Unionist froth-merchant!
Pablo: Wait… listen… you are blocked, my dear, so why not stick that in the pipe and flush it, poppet.
Hutu: In your pipe and smoke it! And “poppet” is meant to sound sarcastic.
Tychy: Can this continue in your own time? Besides, I thought that Mr Clown was no longer welcome here, since he was exposed as a Russian agent.
Hutu: Watch it, pal, that is a highly actionable statement, which I would immediately withdraw if I were you…
Pablo: Eh, this Tychy has the mental finesse of an… how you say… unzipped aubergine?
Hutu: Unripe aubergine! The mental finesse of an unripe aubergine! That was from my article on Liam Fox.
Pablo: Oh you can find the true words to speak what is in the human heart. Just like Franco – a man who is the father of everyone.
Hutu: You can donate via PayPal or you can just put the cash right here into my hand.
Tychy: Speaking of Russian agents [Hutu glares], we are about to meet some new applicants for the post of editor. Here they are.
[A gleaming black car pulls up outside 56 North and duly empties of a group of differently aged men and women. They all look watchful and rather shifty, like the members of a close-knit evangelical church.]
Tychy: Ah, this is Sputnik! Welcome!
Tychy: Er… purchasing?
Piskunov: [dumping a holdall full of banknotes on the table] This should be enough. [He alone sits down whilst his henchmen all stand around him in a defensive shield]. Let us celebrate, my new colleagues, with a glass of vodka.
Tychy: Okay… that would be nice.
Tori: Biggy, we’re not drinking with this creep? Seriously?
Piskunov: This is our own craft vodka, which we brewed at our micro-distillery in Putin Tower.
Tori: Don’t you mean Exchange Tower?
Piskunov [chuckling nervously]: Oh yes, sorry… my small mistake. Yes, Exchange Tower. [He takes out a bottle and some glasses and begins to pour out shots.] This is a botanical vodka with subtle and delicate hints of elderberry. It is my grandmother’s recipe.
[Tychy et al take the glasses and start to sip appreciatively.]
Piskunov: We call it, in Russian, “Navichok.”
[Tori shrieks. Tychy and Pablo are frantically hawking and spitting out the vodka.]
Piskunov: Oh no, my friends! This is another small mistake! In Russian, “Navichok” means “fragrance of elderberries.” It is totally different to “Novichok” which is… you know… the other one.
Tori [angrily and with her eyes streaming]: Mr Piskunov, your organisation is a propaganda vehicle for the Putin presidency and for a regime that has repeatedly murdered journalists?
Piskunov: Well, it might be, who can say? Some people are of that view, but others think it simplistic and misleading.
Mark Hirst [with the depleted charisma of a failed anchorman]: A lot of people ask me, you’re just a mouthpiece for President Putin? It would be much easier for us if we just got a fax through from Moscow that said “you will read this.” Unfortunately, it’s not like that.
Tori: Unfortunately? Are you insane? You said something similar on Newsnight – though John Sweeney wouldn’t supply your name. This was presumably a condition of him gaining access to your offices and it is hardly the transparency that you are always campaigning for. So you’re literally saying that it would be preferable if you were given direct orders from the Russian state?
Hirst: I had expected this aggressive bias from the mainstream media…
Tychy: Mainstream media? You’re the ones in the Exchange Tower – we’re in a student gin bar!
Tori: Mr Piskunov, do you believe that the Russian state was flatly responsible for the poisoning of the Skripals?
Piskunov: Well, who can say? It’s very murky and there’s a lot that we’re not being told.
Tori: No there’s not!
Piskunov: And your UK state itself assassinates people all the time using drone strikes…
Tori: That’s changing the…
Piskunov: And what about Grenfell Tower, where the state deliberately, or so it seems, killed people through austerity?
Tori: But if we can just get back to the Skripals…
Piskunov: And what about attempts to assassinate Castro with an exploding cigar? Or the death of Princess Diana – was it murder? These things occur constantly and who can say who is responsible?
Tori [furiously]: I had an ex-boyfriend who used to do this. If we can please stick with the Skripals and focus on them…
Piskunov: And what about the death of Osama bin Laden? There’s a lot that we’re not being told there. Your West thinks that it is above everybody else but in many cases it turns out that they are even worse.
Waitress [entering]: I’m sorry sir, but you are drinking your own vodka on our premises. These seats are only for customers who have bought drinks at the bar.
[Piskunov silently takes a mini automatic weapon out of his jacket pocket and, without looking at the waitress, as if absent-mindedly, he shoots her though the head.]
Tori: Ah, murder!
Hutu: Help, somebody! Murder!
[Piskunov’s henchmen, Mark Hirst and Craig Johnstone, walk quickly over to the waitress’s body. They each produce vials of acid and sprinkle it over the corpse, which disintegrates into a mass of bubbling foam and smoke.]
Tori: Mr Piskunov, we have all seen this! You are a murderer!
Piskunov: These things are very complicated. Who can say what we just saw? You saw me firing the gun?
Tori [flabbergasted]: Of course!
Piskunov: And you saw this lady falling over?
Tori: This is crazy! Of course!
Piskunov: But you did not see what exactly connected these two events. It could have been that my gun fired out a quick little flag that read “pop” and that this lady hiccupped and fell over. Besides, there now seems to be no body, just a puddle on the floor. So who can say what happened?
Tori: Oh yes, well two can play at this game. How, for example, do we know that Sputnik is real?
Piskunov: What? What do you mean?
Tori: You knew that you worked for Sputnik when you left your tower this afternoon. But when driving over here to the gin bar you could have passed into an alternative dimension in which Sputnik was never launched. Or one in which it is funded by the CIA. What evidence do you have that Sputnik exists at this very moment?
Piskunov: This is getting silly… Of course, we exist.
Craig Johnstone: Mr Piskunov, we’re starting to shrink, sir!
Tori: Sputnik certainly exists in your memory. But what evidence do you have to hand that it still exists at this precise second? It could have been annulled by a decree from President Putin a few minutes ago. It could have been made illegal by the British government. Who can say what we’re not being told?
Hirst: Help, we’re shrinking!
Johnstone: Do something, sir!
Piskunov [now the size of a three-year-old and philosophising desperately]: Well, how do we know that the Tychy website exists? How do we know that this is not just a dialogue or a fictional narrative on a website? And if nobody is reading it – ah yes, I’m on top of this now – if nobody is reading it, then how, Tori, can you feasibly claim to exist yourself?
[Darkness begins to gather across the sky. The façade of the 56 North bar flickers. Around them tables are going out like candles.]
Tychy: Come on Tori, quick, before it’s too late!
Tori [fixing her gaze on the David Hume Tower across the street, a famous totem of international scepticism]: Yet what is truth, Mr Piskunov? You can only ever exist in the present moment – there can only ever be a single fleeting bubble of awareness at any one time in your consciousness. If you look at one hand, how do you know that the other one is still there? How can you ever be sure that your beloved Russia exists? If you have a glass of vodka and a cheque from the Russian government and a gun issued by the KGB, you can look at each in turn, but what actually connects them? An idea – an imagined community – the necessity that there should be some entity called Russia – but is it in any sense real? Who can say – who can point to anything material between the cause and the effect?
[By now the Sputnik News team have shrunk to the size of insects. The microscopic figure of Mr Piskunov can be just about distinguished frantically firing his pistol.]
Tori: But isn’t there one thing that we still know to be true – one fact that you cannot wriggle out of using all of your relativism and metaphysical nonsense – and this is that the system that we have in the UK is ten times better and fairer than the one that you have in Russia. Your President Putin is a clapped-out has-been – a second-rate, unmemorable Bond villain – one from the Daniel Craig films or from a rubbish spinoff novel by Sebastian Faulks – and his country is an ongoing wreck whilst he struts about bare-chested like a discount gigolo. Most of his presidency looks like a creepy, offputting Grindr profile. If you’re “telling the untold,” you should start with that!
James [taking out his headphones]: Tori, what have you done to them?
Tychy: What? All this time, you’ve been listening to another of your infernal podcasts?
James: Freedom of speech must be always the priority, Tori. If our democracy was a fish tank, then freedom of speech would be the water! I don’t like how Sputnik has been kicked out of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce and I don’t like the endless menacing of it in the media. We should always welcome alternative voices and revel in their new, fresh ideas!
Tori: Dictatorship is hardly a new, fresh idea, James.
James: Even so, there’s something rather wretched about Sputnik. There are a lot of kids knocking about these days with journalism degrees and not many new jobs available for them in the mainstream media. For these young journalists, it’s probably either working for Sputnik or in a bar like this one. Here, let me try to scoop them up in this glass, before they’re all eaten by a bird. [He manages to collect the Sputnik team in an empty glass but unfortunately their tiny figures begin to sag drunkenly in its lingering gin fumes.]
Tori: But in tolerating Sputnik, are we not dangerously fattening up a lion cub?
James: We should use this tolerance to advertise the superiority of our democracy. Sputnik should be put on a protected pedestal in a way that alternative voices are not in the Russian system. We should never convince ourselves that we are frightened of an undemocratic state that is inevitably weak and unstable in the long term. Look at the Skripals, for example. Their poisoning was intended to demonstrate the power of the Russian state – to show that it can strike anywhere and at any time – but this has come to be completely upstaged. The Skripals’ poisoning has supplied the most wonderful advert for the NHS – it confirms that our healthcare is vastly more brilliant than their terror. In the hospitals of most autocratic countries, the Skripals would have died.
Tychy: So you’ve woken up? I perceive that you were listening to a podcast all throughout our editorial meeting.
James: I was listening to the latest episode of James Oliva’s What’s the Frequency? This is the very elite of podcasting – near to the tip of the sharp end of the avant-garde.
Tychy: Most of our output these days is about podcasts! And few readers appear to inhabit your tip of the avant-garde, judging from our stats.
James: Just listen – I’ll put my iPod on speaker.
[They hear a parody of a 1950s radio play, with swirling strings and a husband and wife at home.]
Wife: Darling, what are you doing in the bathroom?
Husband [in a suave, perplexed, very crisp voice]: Why, I am washing my hair.
Wife: Washing your hair?
Husband: Why, washing my hair.
Wife [pricking up with alarm]: Washing your hair?
Husband [perplexed]: Why, washing my hair.
Wife [more shrilly]: Washing your hair?
Husband [emphatically]: Washing my hair!
Wife: [gasping]: Washing your hair?
Husband [doggedly]: Washing my hair!
Wife: WASHING YOUR HAIR?
Husband: WHY WASHING MY HAIR.
Wife [orgasmically]: WASHING YOUR HAIR!
Husband: WASHING… MY… H-A-I-R-A-I-R-R-R-R
[An immense cathedral now soars, a soundscaped cacophony of “washing my hair,” chanted with hysterical deliberation.]
Tychy: Turn it off!
Tori: Please, I can’t take it, turn it off!
Hutu: Kill it! Kill it!
Pablo: Maldito bastardo! [He throws the iPod on the floor and stamps on it with a crack.]
iPod [faintly]: … Where is the conditioner, darling?
James: Such philistinism! If you cannot learn to admire and appreciate such a postmodern treasure trove, how can we show an example to our readers?
Tychy [sternly]: This will not do, James. You have to find something more popular to write about. In light of this, I am speeding up our search for a new editor.
James: In ten years’ time, people will hardly remember Brexit and Trump and Gareth Southgate. Yet they will be talking about What’s the Frequency? every day. Let us drink to this delightful creation!
Hutu: Well, let’s have a drink at least.