boatrace – featured story by shane starling

keith emerges from the hammersmith tube station, noonish. a man hunkers down over a black leather bag containing a video camera and a tangle of wires, tapes, batteries, plugs, cords, cables, jacks and a cellophane-wrapped sandwich.

‘clyde.’

‘yes, yes, that’s me – clyde.’

‘remember me clyde – i met you at a party a few weeks back.’

clyde’s not sure. he tries to stuff all the wires he’s holding into the bag, smiling.

‘you were there with vass, theo, ronnie, some others. you…’

oop, hang on, he’s got something…

‘…oh yeah, yeah,’ he says. ‘you’re the running man, marathon man. hey man, how is it?’

‘it’s good thanks. how is it for you?’

‘yeah, cool man. funny you should mention vass – i’m about to meet him. we’re going to stalk the boat race.’

‘i’m going down myself.’

‘well you might as well come down with us,’ clyde says still jamming wires into that bag.

‘sure,’ keith replies.

clyde has the camera at the ready now and side-saddles the bag. ‘time to stalk,’ he grins. they move to the teeming street corner. he emerges from the mass – vass. white leather casino shoes, goanna skin jacket and air force-issue shades. typing something into a mobile phone.

he’s in operations mode and takes in keith’s unexpected presence casually.

‘keith, good to see you. clyde. lola’s on her way then we’ll go. which way is it to the river? does anybody know that?’

‘it’s that way i think,’ clyde says pointing that way.

‘ok, good. so you’re with us then keith?’

‘for now,’ keith says.

soon enough, lola arrives, fighting the chill in a gigantic red scarf.

vass introduces keith to lola. they move off. vass stops to buy a chicken and mediterranean salad wrap. the camera is rolling. vass exiting shop. lola adjusting scarf. lola, keith and vass in discussion. vass pointing. lola, keith and vass pointing. a sign: we are argentinians, need tickets. beggars. street folk. folk. folk everywhere.

down footpaths, alleyways, under bridges they go to arrive at the murky, high-tide-swelled thames river under the hammersmith bridge. there is more pointing. east or west? the riverside pathway is jammed but a lot of people are moving away from the river.

‘when’s the race start?’ keith asks a stranger.

‘it’s over,’ the stranger replies in a south african toungue.

‘who won?’

‘dunno, we missed it.’ they move off.

vass and lola break into smirks.

‘let’s go this way,’ vass says. they enter the throng, moving west, on camera, seemingly surrounded by south africans.

by the thames is a rowing club that incorporates a pub: the blue anchor. young girls in navy aprons sell hot dogs from a room housing rowing craft. lola, vass, keith and clyde slip inside the pub. the place is busy, not packed, there is a long line to the crapper. rowing memorabilia on the walls. hunting paraphernalia. trophies, large sepia photos of people standing by river banks in rowing garb proudly holding heavy wooden oars upright, of people in panama hats, of people in athletic garb flying over hurdles, a bugle in a corner glass display with more pictures and the skull of a goat.

vass takes the camera while clyde heads to the bar.

keith approaches a young australian woman wearing a fake seal pup on her head. she is with another australian and an older canadian woman.

‘what have you thought of the day?’ he asks her.

‘it’s been ok.’

‘what happened when the boats came by?’

‘not much really – they just went past.’

‘did you know which boat was which?’

‘no, i didn’t really care. they just flashed past. light blue was cambridge i think…maybe, i’m not sure, i don’t know. do you know?’

‘no, we missed the boat. who won?’

cambridge, i think.’

‘what was the crowd’s reaction to the passing of the boats?’

‘everyone cheered. there was a lot of screaming. someone threw a full beer can at the boats. it didn’t hit them but i thought that was pretty stupid. even though it was only lunch time there were a lot of drunk people. it was kinda funny though. it was such an utterly dumb thing to do. some big rowing dude came and dragged him off. i guess it broke things up a bit. i mean the boats just whizzed by. it was an anti-climax really.’

‘would you come again?’

‘no, probably not. are you with those guys?’

‘which guys?’

‘those guys there, with the cameras.’

‘yeah.’

‘what are they doing?’

‘um, they’re…well…it’s a project they’re working on.’

‘what kind of project?’

‘well, they talk to people, ask them questions. they record things. they look for stories. links. they ask people questions and then get those people to ask questions of other people and webs are formed. they may well have a melancholic vision of life. it’s hard to say.’

‘what’s the point of it?’

‘i don’t know. there will be a website. maybe several websites. i think it will be called sadlives.org. do you think that guy there asking the questions in the pilot’s sunglasses and crocodile skin boots looks a little like omar sharif?’

‘who’s omar sharif?’

‘doesn’t matter.’

‘he’s kind of cute though. there’s something about his eyes. it’s like they’re sad but he doesn’t care. is his life sad?’

‘i don’t know. quite possibly. but i think you’re right. he may well like it that way. where are you from?’

melbourne.’

that needs to be discussed.

across the room the stalking has begun in earnest. clyde and vass take turns on the camera with big black spongey microphone attached. it’s significant that big black spongey mike. this is no videocam job; no doomed-to-fail frivolousness. this is something more significant than that. this baby’s got currency. people with honed skills and proper tools are in on this. don’t be fooled. this could be big. can you feel the excitement? people wonder if this is serious film making. let them wonder. let them eat film…people respond to the questioning. if only they knew how shitty that mike really is. people usually suspend disbelief. good. it’s a camera after all. the most alluring documenting device.

vass has begun to stalk the other australian female. clyde moves in that direction, camera rolling.

vass explains the format. ‘if you could ask anyone in this room a question what would that question be and who would you ask?’ the young australian woman chuckles, as she takes in what is being asked of her. zoom in.

vass continues: ‘i will then ask that person your question in complete anonymity of course. they will not know who has asked them this thing. is there someone here who’d you like to ask a question of? when you’ve got it look into the camera and ask the question as if you were speaking to that person in the flesh.’

after a moment of contemplation she points to a stocky man wearing sports raybans.

‘ok,’ vass says. ‘and the question?’

‘ask him…’

‘no,’ vass says firmly. ‘to the camera. ask the question direct.’

she smirks, adjusts her hair, casts quick glance at friends and faces the camera.

‘did you go to either oxford or cambridge?’

‘good,’ vass says. ‘that was great. thanks.’

he takes her name and e-mail details and moves to the bloke to ask the question, clyde in tow, camera rolling, suddenly the room’s fulcrum. vass has centred the room, defined it, rounded it, exploded its boundaries, made it uneasy. the camera rolls, lola chats to the canadian, keith, the australian.

the mountain man asks after panty colour. others are brought into the game. then it is time to move out into the grey, cold mist of the afternoon by the thames.

the footpath by the river is still rammed with people. we move through the crowd. south african. it’s exotic twang gives the air a certain charge. for some this is disturbing. ‘damn south africans,’ vass mutters. they shuffle along through the drunks, rolling, and the drizzle and arrive at another, larger pub bursting out onto a large lawn promenade. vass hyperstalks some others but the momentum is fading; the sadness is too diluted here. clyde meets some friends and bags the camera.

they encounter the television news broadcaster jeremay paxman hoisting a child onto his shoulders.

‘why don’t we involve him?’ keith suggests to vass.

‘no, it would take too long to explain to him and his family,’ vass says frankly.

‘good journo though, paxman,’ keith says before moving off through the crowds and drizzle toward some people he has recognised.

‘there needs to be a narrative thread. there needs to be a facilitative middle ground for events to unfold,’ vass says speculatively. ‘that is what sadlives.org provides. we seek the pure sadness.’

the rain comes down.

‘do you know who won the boat race?’ a stranger asks lola. ‘no, i do not know,’ she replies in her thick french accent, drawing in her big red scarf against the increasingly biting chill.

the bedrock imperative is fractal.

it’s time to go home. check the footage.

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