Picking on Leo Shipp

ShippWhen I meet Leo Shipp (author of Pick), he is in his garret; humming, reading an atlas. “When did you read Crash, by J.G. Ballard,” I interview him. “University,” he says. “Please,” I say, “stop humming.”

He hums all the more tenaciously. I realize his atlas is missing its countries. “Why Crash,” I interview him. “Hated it,” he concludes. “I was obsessed with all things ‘postmodern’,” he continues, “at the time. I made a list of things to read. It included things like Infinite Jest, which I bought, and haven’t yet opened; for reasons I’ll soon get onto. My favourites? Donald Antrim, Hundred Brothers; Martin Amis, Money; and Smuggler’s Bible, by someone-or-other. Joseph McElroy, I think,” he thinks. “Then I read Crash,” he continues, “and it was physically, mentally disgusting. To read it was some kind of torture, y’know?”

I nod non-committally. “Please, stop humming.

“You are a very annoying boy.”

“And so,” he continues, conventionally enough, “I finished it, and thought it the worst thing I’d read. So then I read The Atrocity Exhibition, by J.G. Ballard; then Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard. Strange, no?”

“No,” I conclude. “Please,” I interview him, “do go on.” “Damn!” he exclaims, and continues, humming, “now, when I’d finished, I had Ballard inside me. Perhaps that is why the reading had revolted me: it had, in fact, been nothing less than Ballard himself — a cyborg-spirit — penetrating into my brain; slow, like some Cronenbergian device, antique, and metal, shiny, flesh. Now he was in me. I had to get him out. Decided to Pick him out. Funny thing,” he whistles, obnoxiously, “it all came so easy, writing as Ballard. He’s a very distinctive style, which — like so many great artists (Blake, Dickinson, Hardy, Pete Townshend) — is also somewhat inept.” “Ah,” I cry, squirming excited, “and and and yes, one might — one might even — one might go so far as to say, that ALL great artists,” I continue, theorizing, caught on a wondrous notion, excited, “are great, and are loved, for having the most individual minds; those whose personality is best expressed, and most impressed upon us. From Wordsworth and Whitman to Eminem, we love the weirdos who force us to know them.”

Leo Shipp lobs the atlas at my head, where it hits me. Clobbered, I flop to the floor, clattered. I jabber and wheeze, blood. I dust myself off, interview him, “You say it was easy to write as Ballard?” “Yes and no,” he ruminates softly, “most of it came very quick, and direct. But once it was done, I decided to add more elaborate sections (in particular, the Lady Gaga passage), to satisfy the feeling, and make it more postmodern. This required a strange ordeal, of poring through certain parts of Crash, harvesting ‘typical’ words and phrases. Following this, I took an anatomy book out of the library; and made a list of every scientific word pertaining to my nose. The two lists — Ballardian words, nasal words — were then given ‘a stylized sex-act marriage; a destined, longed-for merging of the two, in which were played out the million possibilities that each had concocted in fatal dreams.’” “You’ve lost it,” I reproach, “that is pale, contrived; nothing like what you have writ in the book.” “I know,” he knows, hanging his nose, in shame, like how in the book. “Go on,” I beseech, I interview him. He sighs. “After Ballard, I read a book called Giles Goat-Boy, by John Barth. It was almost 1000 pages long, with small writing, and long blocks of text. Also, it was rubbish. The writing was good, so I was already some 100 pages in by the time that I knew it was crap. By then, I felt obliged to finish. So I did. I finished the tedious book. I’d been devising, and starting to write, my own big postmodern book at the time — Screensic, blending music, films and books — perhaps, one day, I’ll return. But for the long-time being, Goat-Boy killed it. That was the end of my postmodern love.”

He sighs, and wants to wrap up. “I never read Infinite Jest. Suffering from overwork, I was suffering much by the end of my degree (History, BA Hons, First Class). I became more earnest, more wrought in my writing. Also — conversely, for some strange reason — even as my tortured self-obsession grew, I was growing an obsession with other people; the first time in my life. (‘To know another well were to know one’s self,’ as quoteth William Hazlitt; a quote which could be pushed out into more mutual waters.) In especial, I found an obsession with speech. So I wrote a book called The Sufferer’s Home; a novel, with not much by way of plot, but very good, I still think; very fine, but uncommercial. So although some agents praised and encouraged me, none were willing to take it on. I gave up trying. Sad, sad,” he condoles. And goes on, “Now I’ve gone on to work in a school. I’ve recently finished a YA book, which, if I was being crass and not-modest — but no — I’m not-crass, and always modest.”

But I, your reporter, am crass to the max. This YA fantasy book, Genefreaks, I can tell you, is like a cross between Pokémon and Harry Potter, while remaining wholly unique. Also, it has very human interest, almost akin to a soap. “And is it true,” I fawn, I interview him, “you recently sent the book to some agents?” “They rejected it,” he says. “Keep trying,” I breathe. “Thanks,” he snorts, “I will.”

As I am leaving, and as he is humming, he goes back to work on his latest attempt: another YA fantasy book, Mythologitis, about a disease which turns people into beasts from Greek myth. It’s sublime, and is also about friendships and foes amongst teenage girls, who constitute half of the cast. I suppose it will fail — the way of all fish. I suppose he will never stop humming.


Leo Shipp, 23, is a teaching assistant at a north London secondary school. He has had a rap-style poem published in the poetry journal Magma 58, and a few of his older short stories are available to read on Wattpad under the name ‘Yodageddon.’ (http://www.wattpad.com/user/Yodageddon).




(a Ballardian Crash-course in nose-picking)

Vaughan died yesterday in his last nose-pick. He had known for months it was coming; had for months planned the exact details – or some of them – or, at least, guessed that he was going to die sometime soon in an accident erotically related to a pick act; or, if not erotically related, then certainly related in the more general sense. The slight jerk of the nose-picking finger as it encountered the raw inner nasal flesh, freed from its mucal layer by continuous pickings; the minor shock that such a discovery sends through the nervous and cerebral systems; the milliseconds of control and cogitation lost to this brief revelation; all this was enough to send his car spinning out of control, off the stuporous suburban road and into a lamppost, the jolt of the collision driving his finger straight up his empty nose, rupturing the roof of it and leaving the fingertip embedded in the outer layers of brain tissue. As Vaughan slumped into oblivion, his finger gave one last pick, and dropped from his nose with a piece of pink globular brain glistening on its tip.

Vaughan had always been obsessed with nose-picking, and the manifold disasters which might ensue therefrom. The walls of his intimate, nose-shaped apartment were decked in photos, diagrams and drawings, all illustrating various facets of this fascinating facial feature, and the great variety of positions and postures a finger might assume with relation to nose and nostrils. His head, both when awake and asleep, was filled like a brothel with infinite lurid nose-pick-fantasies, and he used to reel them off to me in his dull nasal tones, his voice betraying only the hint of his perverse excitement. “A freak, who has grown up wrong and has acquired massive hands and fingers, one day enters his index finger absent-mindedly into his right nostril, which closes cruelly and sticks to the finger like a suction, leaving the finger trapped in the tight nasal cavity for the freak’s entire lifetime, thus compounding the freak’s freakiness. An old nun, hands too contorted and arthritic to pick her own nose, requests a novitiate sister to do it for her, only for their pick act to be walked in upon by the Mother Superior, who promptly accuses them of breaking their vows and demands their departure forthwith, even though the old arthritic nun is too old to live outside the convent. A little boy, by picking his nose continuously, his finger wriggling and squirming and chipping away at his nasal contents until, eventually, he gives himself a nosebleed, convinces his mother that he has been in a fight, upon which conviction she grounds him for an entire fortnight…” Such demented ramblings would stream on for hours, like an endless river of nasal mucus, and yet despite their semi-banality they held me disgustingly entranced, and craving ever more of the same. Indeed, as I listened to these revolting inanities, I myself came to desire that almost-noteworthy pick act, that nearly-worth-mentioning collision between finger-tip and inner nose. My desire was never more awoken than when Vaughan’s fantasies turned to embrace celebrities, a favourite theme of his: David Dimbleby, caught on TV picking his nose; Andy Murray, fingers transferred from tennis racket to nostrils in between points, and then swiftly back again, hoping that nobody noticed; Prime Minister David Cameron, thumbing his nose at opposition leader Ed Miliband, but finding his thumb stuck on a drooping piece of semi-congealed snot; Heston Blumenthal, so keen on the taste of his own bogeys, that he came to include them in the vast majority of his starters and main courses, thus boosting his reputation substantially for his selflessness; and Elizabeth Taylor, dead and buried underground, a worm mimicking the actions of a finger in picking out the contents of her decomposing nostrils. At such times as these, my hunger would become unbearably ravenous, and I would know then that the pick act was my destiny. Eyes locked insatiably upon Vaughan’s mask-like face as he drawled out these dreams, I would sometimes wonder whether his obsession was a reaction, an overcompensation, for the tininess and emptiness of his own nose.

Sitting at home, plucking on my guitar-strings, I would often become tormented with the thought of just how similar was the motion between picking a guitar string and picking a nose. The sound emitted by the instrument was exactly analogous to the sneezes one received when one reached over unexpectedly and picked someone else’s nose. Sitting there, playing the main bit of Street Spirit by Radiohead with just my fingers, I would see in my hand-motions the shadows and harbingers of the motions later to be made by my hands in my nostrils; the very contours and constitutions of the instrument’s six-strings formed a shape and a pattern destined to be repeated by the accumulated snot of my inner nostrils, as I explored it, sifted it, removed it. As I considered the matter further, led on in such considerations by an untameable fervour, the sole difference I could conceive between the two activities was that, whereas one’s fingers came away from the guitar with very little to show for their exertions, one’s fingers could come away from one’s nostrils with literally anything. What a catalogue of wonders and abstract-concepts-made-solid one drew from one’s nose; the variety, the diversity, was truly incredible.

I came to desire the unison I felt was richly deserved, or indeed clinically demanded, by the similarities between the two activities, nose-picking and guitar-playing; I came to feel that the persistence of essence and pattern and shape between the two enterprises screamed out a fated meeting, a destined merging of the two, in which both would maintain their purity and integrity even while something new and original was born. But what would such a coming together consist of? To simply alternate – picking the nose, picking the strings, picking the nose etc. – would be too crude; and besides, it would get the guitar strings all covered with bogeys.

Tennis was a similar case – there, too, I wondered in vain how to merge two activities which were so clearly soul-mates, the motion of the racket-swing mirroring the nose-pick with a near-precision that seemed extraordinary. It was no wonder that Vaughan often dwelt on tennis players, such as Andy Murray, covertly or even overtly picking their noses between points, and occasionally pocketing the specimens; tennis was nose-picking writ large, the essence of nose-picking made manifest in a public, athletic and competitive capacity. But for the grace of God, tennis professionals such as Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Sabine Lisicki, Marion Bartoli, Sam Stosur, Marin Cilic, and Radek Sepanek would have been professional nose-pickers, and commentators such as Greg Rusedski, John McEnroe, and Andrew Cotterill would have been commentating on an activity far more intimate, far more physically repulsive, but, in essence, the same. The similarity was, indeed, so close, that I often used to shake my head in disbelief that tennis could pull such large summer audiences – did these people not see, did they not realize, how physically and spiritually close was this sport to the idle unmannerly barbaric behaviour of nose-picking? Were they not sickened and shocked by that racket-swing, carrying as it does all the echoes and contours of the nose-pick?

Such confusion, however, troubles me no longer: I now realize that those similarities are in fact precisely responsible for tennis’s summertime-middle-class-popularity: that is to say, tennis is the very license for otherwise-respectable people to indulge in their basest and most repulsive desires, desires tamed and veiled by the forces of civilization and decency, but desires which can never be truly vanquished, and which still reign and resonate in the hidden recesses of people’s minds: desires for the pick act.

Vaughan was beyond my capability to satisfy. He who had adopted me into his nose-shaped universe; he I could never repay, never please.

One time, together in the car, we stared ahead along the stylized road. I attempted to impress him, by relating one of my theses on nose-picking; as my medium, I imitated his sadistic raconteur voice.

“To swing that racket-head back, to move it in a stylized circular motion, to etch geometry upon the air, to achieve lift-off and collide the centre of the racket with the soft green sphere and send it shooting off through the air, over the net, past your opponent, finding the very corner of the open court before skidding away into the distance, a clean winner; to do all this is as purely satisfying as is the perfect pick act, in which one’s fingertip ends up crowned triumphantly with a green near-spherical blob. Executed well, both tennis shot and pick act are infinitely pleasing – the shape, the symmetry, the sound, the feel, the knowledge – although, in point of fact, I would nominate the pick act as the more satisfying of the two.”

Vaughan did not react. Within seconds, I knew I had committed some grievous mistake. I attempted to rescue the situation, by telling him some anecdotes:

“The ancient Polynesian tribesmen, who would pick the noses of their dead enemies with pick-axes, in a stylized ceremony celebrating the possibilities of a punning arithmetic: a logic of post-fatal extremes, celebrating the symmetrical contours of the nasal cavity, even as it divorced the sacred marriage of natural geometry: tearing deep through the atrium and vestibule, shattering the anterior nasal cleft and hard palate below, rearranging the equations of the matching conchae either side of the nasal septum, and doing collateral damage to the maxillae and frontal bone, as if in a bizarre exercise in search of a new mucosa – a mucosa not of nasal contents, but of nasal implications.”

This too seemed to leave no impression on Vaughan. Now becoming desperate – and my desperation becoming a cipher for a ripening anthology of perverse possibilities, as if the complex postures of my desperation mirrored the codes of a stylized technology in its shifting proportions, equations, the exaggerated kaleidoscope of modulated marriages of the apex of this perfect geometry – I hurried on to my next tale, my ultimate anecdote:

“Lady Gaga, singing ‘Poker Face’ at the Elizabeth Taylor memorial concert, sings so hard that her ethnoid and maxillary bones crack and break, her paranasal sinuses collapse, and she finds herself with an immediate urge to nosepick, which she satisfies with all fingers of both hands, in front of a worldwide audience, reaching and clawing frantically through her nasal bones, ripping apart the nasalis and levator labii superioris alaeque nasii to get deep into her nasal cavity, all the way back to the nasopharynx, to shovel out mucosa- and mucus-soaked conchae, cartilage, hard palate, soft palate, submandibular nodes, angular veins and arteries, infraorbital veins and arteries, ophthalmic arteries, the infraorbital branches of the maxillary divisions of the trigeminal nerves, and hurling the pulsing chunks of sticky mashed-up nose stew out onto the stage before her, where, as if dog shit to flies, they attract the instant approach of famished spectators, who clamber onto the stage before her bountiful death-dance, and dive into those turds of agglomerated nose-muck, clambering with rapt expressions over to the nosepicked mounds of their idol’s nasal catalogue, reaching their own hungry fingers into the piles to pick those mucus- and mucosa-seeped piles for themselves, falling atop each other in their greed for nasal bone, arteries, veins, nerves, and musculature, while Lady Gaga shrieks and battles on, her flailing hands picking in ever wider circles and to ever deeper depths, grasping hold of frontal processes of maxillae, frontal lobes, superciliary arches, glabella, superior and inferior orbital fissures, infraorbital foramen, lacrimal bones, orbital plates of the ethmoid bone, orbitral surfaces of the maxillae, orbicularis oculi, orbicularis oris, zygomaticus minors, levator labii superioris, frontal belly of occipitofrontalis, olfactory trigones, optic nerves, temporal poles, optic chiasma, cribriform plates of the ethmoid bone, orbital gyri, the pituitary gland, emninges, lacrimal ducts, and even clawing deep into the longitudinal cerebral fissure, prising apart her cerebrum in her frenzy of nosepicking, all the while hurling chunks of this unique porridge down upon the stage for her ravenous fans, who coo in delight and slobber with lust, who pick the globs into smaller pieces, until Gaga can pick no more, and she slumps to her knees, her face wide open, a gaping, glistening, teeming pit, extending to a width and depth far beyond the original form of her nasal cavity, now the defining feature of her erstwhile face, a head gaping-open in vividest testimony to the wild satisfaction that is, and can only be, the pick act.”

This time, Vaughan gave me a stylized look, and I knew I had erred again. Maybe I was, and would only ever be, missing the point. I hung my nose in shame.

Vaughan sniffed. His little nose was like a drugee’s, from all the years spent vainly nosepicking. Now – as if continuing from my tales, though in fact breaking from them utterly – he said, simply: “A young girl, brushing her teeth, tries to pick her nose at the same time, spilling toothpaste from her mouth. As a result, her teeth are not cleaned as much as they would have been.”

He had so much more to teach me. But soon afterwards, he died.

I wish, when he had lived, he had been happy with his nosepicking. But his mucous was meagre and unyielding. Some people’s noses give more gold than El Dorado; they put their finger in their nose, and they find they have the Midas touch. But because he so exhausted a nose that had little enough within it to begin with, most of the time he drew forth only black and bloody flakes; and, upon perseverance, sticky slimy blood, tainting his fingers crimson. Maybe this was why he so obsessed over other people’s noses, other people’s pick acts.

It was the morning of Vaughan’s death. Vaughn was dead, as he already died earlier that morning. It seemed strange to be outside on a quiet bright morning, birds twittering softly as I roamed the suburbs. I strolled down an almost-deserted street, and my thoughts blossomed out from the snot-seed of Vaughan’s death, spreading to more general, philosophical subjects – spreading out not only as Vaughan would have wanted, but as his very snot-soul was now doing too, having impregnated itself in each and every aeroplane that had departed from a London airport since his death. Soon enough, I was almost blithe in my musing on the nature and delights of the pick act; and only an intrusion of a foreign life-form was enough to break my reverie.

A tabby cat – or maybe a tom – trod languidly across my path, before slinking away out of sight. I wondered, at that moment, Do cats pick their own noses? After a moment’s contemplation, I realized with not a little disquiet that I had never before witnessed the occurrence: had never before seen a cat pick its own nose, or even attempt such a thing. The conclusion was obvious, but defied logic – cats did not pick their own noses. How could this be? How could it be that human beings had such insistent urgings to clear their noses of accumulated mucus, while cats had not even so much as an inkling thereof? Moreover, cats were often bored, with nothing to do, and I knew from experience that boredom was one of the prime motivators of the pick act, satisfying and savoury as it undoubtedly was. There were other explanations, of course: cats could just be very good at disguising their nose-picking, even more ashamed of being caught than were humans – anxious to maintain a pretence of unflappable dignity, as the feline race most manifestly was. But this did not quite add up; upon further consideration, I realized that cats’ proportions were all wrong, were wholly unsuited to pursuit of the pick act. Yes, their legs seemed to me – though no expert on cats, I confess – capable of the contortions necessary to carry out the pick act. But their tiny sharp claws, on their furry little paws, were not, it appeared to me, sufficiently dexterous, or extensive enough, to fit deep inside, and rummage about within, a small feline nostril. Thus, so it seemed, cats’ yearnings to clear their nostrils, and to gain the satisfaction of producing a big bogey, must go forever unsatiated.

Poor, wretched cats.

My thoughts progressed, naturally enough, onto the next question: if cats could not pick their noses for themselves, could they enlist human assistance? For sure, of all the people I had ever tried to pick the nose of, none of them had ever reacted favourably; the right to pick one’s own nose was one of the most jealously-guarded on the planet, even if it had little theoretical literature to its name. Most people seemed to consider the insides of their noses to be sanctuaries inviolable by transgressive foreign fingers. Cats, however – their pride notwithstanding – were not in a position to indulge in such fussiness; the depths of their nostrils were, so I thought, inaccessible to their claws. They would thus have to take whatever nose-picking they could get, even if it meant offering up the insides of their noses to the aforementioned transgressive foreign fingers so despised amongst humans. No sooner had I reached the conclusion that humans must pick cats’ noses, I perceived this too to be implausible. Human fingers were too chunky, and lacked the care, the finesse, necessary to penetrate a cat’s nostrils, poke around, and extract the nasal mucus. If I tried to pick a cat’s nose, I would end up just prodding it. My impotent, blundering fingertip would eventually cause the cat, fed up or frightened, to turn tail and flee.

So a different strategy was needed, and one which I lacked the requisite skills to carry out. I was thinking, of course, of a caesarean nose-pick: of making a surgical incision, to prise open a hole in the cat’s nose large enough to fit a human finger into. Indeed, such surgery, I thought, might even have to remove the entire outer layer of the cat’s nose, or perhaps leave it hanging on by a flap, to be opened up whenever the cat’s nose needed picking (the cat would alert its owner with purrs and meows when such a time was upon it) and then closed again once the pick act was finished. Deficient as I was in the necessary skills, I observed that I would require the services of a vet.

Accordingly, I envisaged myself lifting up the cat, calmly and methodically, and carrying it off to the veterinary surgery. Upon entry, I placed the cat down on the operating table, whereupon the vet – who, without so much as a word or signal, knew instinctively my intention – administered the anesthetic. The cat, I thought, had no need of it – it too was eager for the pick act, it would not cause any trouble – but the vet was taking no chances. I handed him a crisp wad of cash – illicitly, under the table – and stood there, picking my nose, relishing the flesh-on-snot-on-flesh action, as I waited for the vet to count up the money. Having done so, he paused, consulting his conscience; and then, still silent, he pocketed the cash, and proceeded to his stylized work.

It was only a short job, performed with clinical efficiency, and it left the nose hanging wide open. As the vet stepped backwards, I stepped in, and barely even registered his hasty departure. Beneath its drooping, woozy eyes, the cat’s nose was open to me, raw and inviting – like a vagina, or like what I might imagine a vagina might look like if I took the trouble to imagine such things, which I don’t. Blood dripped sickly from this fresh new bloom, but I was after a substance more solid, more valuable. Feeling as if I was achieving a climax, I had to wait several agonizing minutes – or what seemed like minutes – as I steadied myself, steadied my vital right index finger, and stared rigidly into the gaping, glistening nosehole, flanked with dull sleepy eyes and sitting atop a pursed-shut mouth. So intent was I upon my goal, so absorbed by the task at hand, that I was not even aware of my flaccid, lank penis, hanging down my leg. Finally, I reached in, moving my finger slowly forwards, but had to stop as a new shudder convulsed me. The nasal cavity was open before me – all that I had read about, all that I had dreamt of, was there, right there! Like a diagram, a cross-section, but real, pulsating! The hard white nasal bone, the curled protrusive nasal conchae, the nasal crest, the priform aperture; the complex of cartilage, the musculature; the olfactory bulb, glistening with clandestine life; meninges, atrium, vestibule – all of them dark, but all now exposed; and the shameful, seductive maxillae! I trembled, I gulped, at this intimate paradise, unfolding before me in infinite suggestiveness.

Breathing deeply, I soothed myself once more, and wondered if I could bear it. But then, it wasn’t my nose; I would not be the one paying the price for any damage caused – or would I? Well, it didn’t matter – I could hold back no longer, I was going right in; ecstasy, elation was mine! I stabbed in my greedy finger, picked and wiped around, stroked and caressed, plucked and poked; I gloried in the feeling, urgent and intense, of flesh and of snot; and, after what seemed like a time too short by millennia, found my finger free again, removed from the gaping nose, coated in soft nasal mucus.

I had succeeded. I had done it. I had performed the pick act.



Leo Shipp, 23, is a teaching assistant at a north London secondary school. He has had a rap-style poem published in the poetry journal Magma 58, and a few of his older short stories are available to read on Wattpad at wattpad.com/user/Yodageddon.