A Good Leader
A Guided Surreal Tour of Oxford
The snuff of early autumn is in the air and my old college friend Edwin is visiting me in Oxford. We have joined a guided tour led by someone calling himself the Mercurial Hatter, a chap well qualified to lead us round the ancient cloisters and clusters of the city oyster beds. In exchange for a bent sovereign (or “Charlie”), he offers an hour-long tour of all the dark corners, forgotten libraries and wine-cellars of what he jocularly calls the “City of Scheming Liars”. He is a tambourine man of the old school and we must follow his jangling chimes through the ancient city streets.
And here we are at Christ Church Cathedral, where the beamish boys of today sit in their
pews descanting their heavenly psalms in yesterday's echoing chambers. We walk down the aisle (a decade for each pew we pass) to where the blazered boys of the 1920s are sat in their punts in heavenly warble, boaters doffed.
I nudge my friend connivingly in a Private Walker whisper. ”Pssssst! 'Ere, look Edwin, we could grab ourselves some real jazz-age minstrels. Get them into Jonesy's van and whisk them off to the village hall dance next Saturday and charge the Regulars a nicker a time on the door.”
“My poor friend,” says Edwin laying a consoling hand on my smoulder of ambition. “If we took them away from their temporal pew they would age horribly. Your hot jazz barbershop choir would be a pile of dusty bones upon the stage, poor fools who have already fretted their hour and are now mere headstones in the municipal graveyards, their chiselled names mossy and blurred by rainfall relentless.”
His face assumed a grim aspect. How he could be so sure of the grimness of the aspect I will never know.
“I couldn't mean deader!”
So we followed the antique chimes of our guide to the nearby meadow where the old men fly their gliders in the first lightness of youth.
“I say, this is wizard!” I chortled as I launched a balsa wood pigeon into the Vista above. It crashed immediately. But just as I was considering an upgrade, the sound of a few hundred bees was heard from above and a private helicopter descended on my train of thought, perched precariously as one might expect.
“I'm sorry for having to economise on bees,” said the elderly female part of my subconscious discourse emerging unpretentiously from the glass and metal bubble. “They are in short supply. If they disappear completely we'll all be dead in a few months and then what a lot of silly asses we will appear to be. Let me show you my latest snaps.”
I squint at the sequence that flickers slowly through parchment fingers. Broken old wash-tubs. Careful studies of wallpaper peeling from roofless walls awaiting demolition. Ivy sprawling across rusty cars. Derelict barns abandoned during the emotional famines of the last century. Bleached ram skulls staring up from boggy turf. Why do my women always present me with such pictures? I point to a mouldering drystone wall sinking by willows under willow herb and grasses.
“I'm sure I took that one. I remember taking that one long ago.”
“No, that was not you. That was never you,” she replies, curling like an aged cat on her accommodating Ottoman while settling a silken pillow by her headstone.
“Come,” says Old Headgear. “Your hour is fast running out and the sky is beginning to bruise. We have not yet completed your tour.”
“Where are you taking us, Spirit?” I ask weakly.
A bony finger points to another dismal scene. A two-up-two-down in the good old days of affordable housing.
“My first house, Edwin! I bought it for a snip in the eighties! We all had the snip back then and so our rooms became empty and sterile and we died out. You know the story.”
He nodded sagely. “The curse of the Bohemian. Too many twinkles in the eye, but not enough happening upstairs. Why, you could have filled this whole terrace with chimney sweeps from up north.” He waved his arm dramatically around the sparsely furnished living room, noting the brittle wings of last summer's butterflies in the un-blacked grate.
I can hear voices of children from the houses next door. Our guide smiles maliciously. “Let's take a look from upstairs, shall we?”
We ascend. Suddenly the house seems smaller, as though we are characters in a Doll's Council House Terrace. I hit my head on the door frame. A lump comes to my throat.
In the gardens on either side, far below, is a scene of post-industrial pastoral content, where small figures bask in a Thatcherite Idyll. Half naked children dandle on their pregnant mother's laps. Oily trousered legs of men sprawl from vehicles like witches downed by rogue cabins from the sky. Staffordshire terriers playfully maul couriers, postmen and pizza delivery boys who laugh stoically as they try to disengage their bloodied limbs.
“It seems all is well with the neighbours,” says Edwin.
“But who is that sad foetal youth crouched in the bathroom reading “La Nausée” by Sartre?” says the Head-case who has led me to this forgotten place.
The lump ascends to my head.
“That is no youth...” I say slowly. “That is a pig!”
A rather cute pig has made its home in the bath. Waking up, it grunts something to itself (too soft for me to make out) and toddles off down the stairs, which I realise now are punctuated with pig-poop and other unwelcome characters and key-strokes.
“So it was all a load of shit?” I say, surveying the Maslowian chaos below, and gazing fearfully up at the rotted wood of the precarious winding staircase petering out against a winter sky above.
“I rather think so,” mutters Edwin. “I think your hour is up.”
I still sense you squeeze my shoulder
in my dark, tight moments
when there’s no clear solution,
see you shake your head, hear you say
there’s always a way out.
Your current pulled fast and sure
where I wanted to go
it made such sense to follow
but were we both wrong
to drift so freely, so far?
Eddying up alleyways
where you found the holds
my small hands could grasp,
erased the shouting with your soft
voice late at night.
You said I shouldn’t
judge myself against others,
you said those gilded girls at school
would have flopped at our lives
as spectacularly as we did.
You scaled walls, reached down for me
to lead us out of corners,
sorting, sifting, much shop-lifting
was I no more than salvage,
or were you my slave?
"To Be A Good Leader, Round 10 Essay, By Mia Tazin
Back in the days when people voted for their leaders life must have been difficult. How did they know what a person was really like inside? All they saw was a carefully constructed plinth of lies on which stood a person, usually a man. The chosen leader would be surrounded by mostly loyal acolytes, who'd prop them up and write their speeches and stand behind them, smug, as the leader faced a bank of cameras. And often, at the first hint of trouble, they'd run a mile and disassociate themselves from the entire party. And the parties themselves, not much to choose between them, the leaders spending more time arguing with and putting each other down than actually BEING leaders.
I'd have hated living in those days. No fairness, even in the so-called democracies.
Things changed in 2099, when global crises after global crises had caused war, death, disease, ruination of the earth, and
Here, I have to stop typing. Every single word feels forced. The essay is due in tomorrow, as part of my Leader 2150 training. This is about the 10th beginning I've started. I've tried dictating, I've tried hand writing (I'm one of the few who can still write by hand, having come from a very traditional family. I, along with my siblings, was taught to sew, cook and write. Our parents said we'd need these skills if the 'shit ever hit the fan', an archaic expression that Father loves.) but I'm now relying on a good old NewSlate, an old model, but a very reliable one. It's like one of the old fashioned tablets but has extra features.
Musn't digress. I have to pass the tests, which means I have to write a decent essay on being a good leader, basically proving that I understand why things changed and why life now is SO MUCH BETTER. The trouble is, I don't agree. I would have loved to live in that time of chaos, that time of free will, that messy, fun, unpredicatable time when humans could be humans instead of being constantly moderated, molded, trained, taught to obey. I imagine the reaction to this from a reader in the past, say about 2015, the year to which I've traced my direct lineage. They'd not believe a word of it! Timetravel still hasn't been mastered so I'm safe from the scorn of the past.
I know exactly what they want me to write. They want me to show I am good Leader material. That I follow the rules and will do exactly what I'm meant to do. From birth, this has been my path, when my family had no choice but to provide a trainee. I blame Father, for all of his ideals he was weak-willed there at the end, and in turn for a new heart he gave them me. Funny how staring death in the face changes things.... I don't blame him, anyway. The other choices available to me were joining my siblings at the WorkStation, churning out packages. Of clothes, food packets, vitamins which would then be distributed to the people. I'd go crazy and be sent away to wherever they send crazy people. They say it's a seaside 'resort' - like the old days - but I know differently. Extermination camps have different names now but essentially that's just what they are. If you're not useful, society has no use for you.
I imagine someone in the past being horrified by this but think, if you're in, say 2015, is it that far away? Feeling a tad overcrowded on Earth yet? Lots of people around who cannot take over themselves? If I remember from the illegal reading I did in the Leader School Library, it was about 2015 when 'Do not resusitate' was first mooted. I think there was a headline that said something like 'Doctors Told To Offer DNR to the Over 75s'. I'd like to ask someone from 2015 where they thought THAT would lead...
I'm digressing horribly. This essay will not write itself. I have to write about why it's a great idea be willing to undergo corrective brain surgery as a Leader, just in case you start to feel like a 'normal' human and have scruples about Leading the way you've been taught. The problem is, the more I've learnt about Leading, the more awful it is. I've got through the first ten rounds and there are only two more now. This, the second to last one is where we get plonked in a room with whatever kind of writing instruments we choose and told to sum up our entire training in one essay. We're told it's the last time we will truly have private thoughts (no wonder I'm digressing then, my every thought has been controlled until today) and that the room we're in has no recording equipment. They told us that we need to prove we can still think ourselves despite all the Brain Training. And I believe this - I mean, it's a good idea to examine us on our own, no thought help at all.
It's a strange feeling. The more I write, the more I WANT to write. Like I've got all this stuff that's been building up inside me during the last year of Leader Training. 'How to be a good leader' is suddenly so much harder to express. It feels as if my head is going to burst! And to have this last bit of freedom, before I'm properly allowed in to the Building.... it's good. It's a good feeling. The essay can wait, just a little longer.
I'm going to imagine that I am, indeed, talking to someone from 2015. It's the uear I'd go back to, if I could, and find my last birth ancestor. I could describe Society to you, but it'd take too long. Let me tell you instead, about my family and about how I got Chosen. Obviously there's no random birth anymore and at our level of society my parents were allowed to choose four children. They could choose everything, from looks to intelligence. As the eldest they got me best of everything, all from A1 genes. My siblings all got A2, as you're only allowed one A1 per family. It's a little confusing, I guess, but it's normal to us. My siblings and I get on well, from similar genes.
When Father needed a new heart he didn't have enough Coin to pay, so he made a deal. His friend in the Building needed one more applicant for Leader School and could get a new heart. That applicant was me! everyone says I am lucky but I'll let you into a little secret. I'm not lucky, not at all.
When you become a Leader, you become a slave to Society. Your very thoughts are controlled, your brain is molded, your life belongs to them. There's some inner sanctum that only the applicants form the last two rounds go into, and once you go in, you don't come out again. The ones who are not chosen go to that 'resort' I mentioned earlier. That's what the rumour is, anyway. Once you are allowed to know those secrets, well, that's it. They cannot let you out again. So I've no choice but to continue. From the moment you begin training, you belong to Leader School and its trainers.
I'm running out of time. I've only got an hour now to write my essay, but the words are feeling further and further away from my grasp, those words I am supposed to write.
I'll tell you the rest - if you are chosen, you are hooked up to the system and you are a Leader until you die. We've not managed to beat death yet. Maybe in the next century. When they think you are dying, they get the next applicant ready. Our present Leader, Mo Sin, is OLD. Some say about 120 years old. I wanted to be next but suddenly I am not so sure. This last bit of free thought has made me think again. There is so MUCH I'd like to tell you, now...
Leaders cannot see their families again. The families can see them, through their Screens, every single day, greeting Society, reminding them that what they do is for the good of all, reminding them of the rules, giving out medals, giving out punishments, if necessary. Leaders always dress in black, the colour of purity, and always, always smile. They can lull us with their voice, as they make a new rule which cuts off yet more of their freedom and
There's a weird noise coming from outside the door. It sounds like clicking. Metal wheels? Maybe it's lunch coming early! They did say we'd get fed ater finsihing our essays, But I've not pressed Send yet, to submit it to the School. Shit. How do I delete everything I just wrote? If anyone reads this.... what have I been thinking?
I can't delete it. I need to get
The door's opening. I know now, what this essay was all about. It was nothing to do with our knowledge. It was a test of us, of "
NOTE: APPLICANT TERMINATED.
FAILURE 2487 THOUGHTS NOT CONTROLLED