The Big Smoke is what people who are not from London call London. Tadhg Muller is not from London, yet altogether a Londoner. For now that is true geographically, and forever in another way, whether he likes it nor not. I wonder if he ever called us the Big Smoke?
If he did, he probably wouldn’t have called it the Big Smoke in front of me. And I wonder if he’d admit using it before he became a Londoner? Probably not. He’s guarded like that.
That guard, the inclination to withhold, an amount of smoke and mirrors, is why it was with some surprise that a few years ago on a circular table, our hands rubbing at pints like potters, he laid out a fiendish plot. He wanted to launch a literary publication that bridged writers between London an
d his homeland Tasmania. Did we have a common message? He wanted to find it. I was unsure. I asked him if he minded if I went for a smoke.
“How long have you smoked for?” he asked on my return.
“Not long. I don’t know. I guess long. 20ish?”
“Do you know that Oscar Wilde putdown?” I asked, leaping widly, as I do, “’I don’t care if you…'”
“I think that was Sarah Bernhardt putting the down on Wilde.”
“Oh right. Oh yes.”
Transportation came to be of course. Two anthologies. And they bridge that gap. Not just between London and Tasmania, but Iran too. I edited the London-based writers, and none of them, not even the Tasmanians, ever called London “the Big Smoke”. Writers, I have to admit, on the page, are pretty good at not saying the wrong thing. That’s the craft, right? And not just avoiding the wrong words, but finding the right words? Not just not calling London the Big Smoke, but finding something better. Not for the sake of it. For the sake of clarity. For the sake of saying what we mean, not what other people mean. But not saying too much of what we mean in too obvious a way. Smoke signals work better than HELP! in the sand.
If there’s one form in which you need to make sure you’re saying exactly precisely what you mean, it’s flash fiction short-short stories drabble microfiction.
Tadhg’s not long for London. He’s off. He’s taking to mainland Europe. He likes his wine. I’ll miss him. Or he works in wine. It’s hard to know; he’s guarded. He has an inclination to withhold. Off he’ll go, a magic trick, in a plume of smoke.