Biography of a Ghost
By Alan Morrison
Stanley Tantalus (indeterminate time - unspecified departure) failed to make his presence truly felt during several decades haunting his now derelict digs at 41, St. Anthony’s Street, Tipton. The obscurity of the many undocumented achievements in his profession as Insubstantial Tenant at this only latterly recognised address classically illustrates the timeless theme of the polarised, struggling ghost; still a much-deprecated community role in our unreceptive technological society. Tantalus, an already doubt-afflicted fiction was driven to inverse solipsism at his complete invisibility and ultimately handed in his lack of notice. His absence wasn’t missed.
It is indeed shocking to meditate on the disturbing reality that throughout his entire posterity on earth, the full achievement of Stanley Tantalus’s prolific absence failed to capture the light of celebrity.
In recent times however revisionist mediums have begun to reassess Tantalus’s long and significant obscurity; the full metaphysical extent of which has only just begun to attract the critical notice it so giftedly eluded when transparently manifest at that now legendary bed-sit. All the more legendary for the fact that it was bulldozed down last year by a sub-contractors who refuse to be named, acting on the orders of a well-known high street retail company, who also refuse to be named, as part of an inner-city redevelopment, the details of which both the sub-contractors and the retail company refuse, emphatically, to divulge. Nevertheless, an un-intrusive shrine to Tantalus’s mythical home, now a pile of sub-contracted rubble, has since been erected by some of the more fanatical disciples of his in-growing cult phenomenon. This powerful gesture has ensured that both the address and Tantalus himself have tipped into the arena of popular folklore.
Stanley Leonard Tantalus, known indifferently to disinterested neighbours as ‘that work-shy loafer from number 41’, was frequently forgotten for his unmemorable, neutrally toned, threadbare cardigans. He was always missed by passers by, a morning paper crumpled in his armpit, spindly roll-up protruding from fish-lipped mouth, which puckered involuntarily in its gash of brillo-pad stubble whenever he smoked – a sort of smoker’s stammer. His unrecognised catchphrase, ‘If you’re out of Lambert & Butler I’ll have an ounce of Old Holborn and some blue RIZLAs, ta’ has passed into the popular unconsciousness and is now the stuff of void; it has almost become a ghost of the modern vernacular. This quintessentially idiosyncratic ‘Tantalism’ of alternating between straights and roll-ups never succeeded in attracting anyone’s notice. Tantalus was an emphatically self-effacing, inoffensive individual, who was often mistaken for himself in the street.
It is a testament to the vast vacuum of Stanley Tantalus’s contribution to modern Western society that an unmanned museum has recently been erected on the site of his demolished rented dwellings. The Tantalus Museum attracted much media disinterest on its unofficial opening last December to a throng of hard-hat sub-contractors, clipboard-waving surveyors and handpicked street beggars, all struck dumb by the complete absence of any building. Sponsored by the Tipton Spiritual Society, the new museum has been omitted by local architects for its striking innovation in design, lovingly built along the late Tantalus’s own forgotten spiral-pad specifications, constructed on the foundations of his lost thoughts.
‘The museum is built to last the ravages of time,’ stated site manager Derek Lepidus on the building’s incompletion. ‘Yes, we had a poor turn out at the unofficial veiling, but on hindsight we perhaps should have waited till the spring. Invisible buildings don’t tend to attract much interest, especially in late December’.
Similar sentiments were expressed by the museum’s undedicated curator, Lindsay Carus, or would have been, had she been aware of her appointment to such a post.
But the Museum has attracted a priceless accolade from an itinerant ex-architect through raising his methylated spirits in the wake of this ‘highly significant Post-Modern comment on our times – its transparent scaffolding, a masterful irony (anon.)’.
There is no doubting the seductive appeal of the breathtakingly un-researched detail of this unusual museum: no one could fail to be un-fascinated by exhibits such as Tantalus’s second-hand typewriter with its missing r, i and p; his precious pilfered Starbucks’ ashtray; and the coffee-stained sofa on which he composed some of his most obscure suicide notes which he un-famously scrolled into empty Unigate bottles every morning for the milkman to collect – all of which are tantalisingly un-manifest in the museum’s main gallery, The Rubbish Dump Room. Stanley Tantalus was indeed a prolific suicide note writer, having committed suicide on at least three occasions throughout his life.
But despite these recent non-commemorative developments in memory of the early Stanley Tantalus – ‘the unsung cultural stalwart of Tipton’ (The Morning Dodo); ‘the very sinew and bone of these disinterred Tipton streets’ (The Daily Spectrograph) – the incarcerated legacy of this most unremarkable of men is best absent-mindedly meditated on with a thrown, empty gaze at the burial mound of rubble cordoned-off with yellow tape under the auspices of a new urban rejuvenation initiative. The site, we have on good authority, is currently sub-contracted to a reputable high street exorcists who have requested to remain unnamed, as competition is currently at an all-time high due to a slump in business.
Predictably and poetically, too, the grossly overgrown pauper’s grave of one Stanley Leonard Tantalus, is also unnamed. It gathers mildew and molluscs in the shadow of its unmarked headstone – though the more feverish of Tantalus aficionados claim the incumbent’s initials are clearly visible in the eerie serendipity of snail spoors. There has even been the grisly rumour that some members of the local community were now able to recall numerous sightings of Stanley Tantalus whilst he was still alive.
Contemporary social theorist Julian Cruickshank, irritable at being asked to expend oxygen on the subject, interprets these ‘Tantalus witnesses’ (sic.) as suffering from ‘…a collective false memory syndrome triggered by the sudden wave of hysterical media neglect regarding the, until now, un-credited absence of one of life’s faceless understudies’. Cruickshank even goes so far as to describe this outburst of sudden communal mourning as ‘…uncannily similar to that of the disciples Christ’s body was interred in the sealed tomb: unable to accept their leader’s death, they experienced a collective hallucination immortalised as The Resurrection’. Cruickshank continues: ‘Of course, this Christianity itself could easily be explained as the culmination of centuries of Chinese Whispers. Or, indeed, Russian Dolls. The rational mind dismisses eschatology as myth. We don’t even know for certain whether the collective hallucination which inspired this myth ever actually happened either’.
[Note: our sympathies go to the family of Julian Cruickshank (late) on hearing news of his suicide last week, just as we went to print. Mr Cruickshank Phil, MA, BA, BC, AD, took an overdose of St. John’s Wort washed down with a litre of White Lightning, only two days after the launch of his latest publication, The Impossibility of History. His suicide note simply said, ‘I’ve lost my faith in doubt’, and was signed in barely decipherable, spiderish scribbles, only the ‘Phil’ and ‘MA’ recognizable in his list of academic distinctions.]
Whatever one’s tilt on the subject of Stanley Tantalus’s non-existence, even sceptics are unanimous on most points: that something failed to happen; someone failed to make any impact; some number of people definitely witnessed nothing, and that this nothing was undeniably something; that this something must have been hugely significant to have inspired so much speculation as to the nature of its unapparent substance; that this substance emitted a strange, eerie, gas-meter grey aura, and that this aura shimmered with some sort of non-energy, or lethargy, that clearly wasn’t visible but was there; that this energy, or invisible apparition, uncannily resembled the anonymous face of someone; that this anonymous someone was completely unrecognisable but yet they KNEW it was Stanley Tantalus because they couldn’t remember what he looked like, nor indeed who he was, and yet all three of the witnesses swear blind that the apparition said it was Stanley Tantalus and bid one of them give him a fag; that as Stanley Tantalus dragged at his cigarette, he coughed out a billow of phlegm-green smoke, wiped his stubbly face as if shaking off some cobwebs, and told them to forget that they had ever remembered to forget him, go forth and spread the word that purgatory has a public smoking ban, angels have to save up for halos with easily mislaid coupons, your dead relatives bombard you with nonsensical gossip under the subterfuge of ‘catching up’, everyone speaks in infuriating tongues reminiscent of Born Again Christian bashes, if you can’t get a haunting job you have to go on a Ghost Training Scheme which is insufferably patronising and ill-equipped, and, most unimaginably of all, those who once looked straight through you now acknowledge you by asking you to autograph your obituary for them, while they politely look the other way and congratulate you on a superior work of fiction…
And so the caucus story of the unfashionably early, fashionably late Stanley Tantalus finds its infinite closure in a paradox of ifs, buts and maybes, and not least of all butts: Stanley Tantalus is the only prophet to have been glimpsed after death having a transcendental fag-break.
So the mystery remains, to no one’s particular notice, and the words of those few who testified to his little known resurrection continue to tantalise sceptics: we didn’t know what he looked like but we KNEW it was him, because he introduced himself…
This, no doubt, will go down in the annals of hearsay as perhaps the cleverest double bluff of all time. And who knows, it might even spark a little piece of history which some day in some plaque-yellow backstreet pub, the friendless, stubbly, fag-wafting drunk sat in the corner, who never manages to be seen through the cloudy ponds of clinking pints, might be the only person to know that piece of pub quiz trivia, and finally be sculpted into being by the perception in the other punters’ eyes.
Published in Headstorms magazine, 2005
Alan Morrison © 2005