Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Old Colombe's poison was really taking the pickaxe to him

The piece on l'Assommoir (Émile Zola) is now in some sort of finished state, check the Brief History (right) under 1876. It's not too late to turn me aside from my more brutish errors.

Measure for Measure is about three quarters there.

I'm sensing a silent pressure to deliver the reviews of Lisa Samuels and Rosanna Warren - they will be next, I promise).


Monday, September 26, 2005

Sketch of lieder - deaf clouds

What this meant, I realized, was the piece of cotton wool that you take out of your ear and the beneath is golden as if from a sunrise.

I want to fling them all away just like this! Straight into the bin!

The second song begins with me throwing open a window - the oil is too hot, the onion is smoking. On the window-sill I catch sight of a neatly folded handkerchief that isn't mine. It belongs to my darling who was here not long ago. I go to pick it up, I want to put it somewhere so I'll remember to give it back. (The pan is still burning, that's what's really on my mind.) But as I pick up the small handkerchief it seems cold, it's actually damp, for a moment I can't think why, it seems to be water not snot, and suddenly I know that she was weeping and couldn't tell me why but went away lonely.

In the third song autumn leaves are lazily spiralling, conkers are making a "thunk" noise in the park. Then the wind blows steadily and the leaves go flying sideways from the tree like the mane of a horse. Finally it is really a tempest, the red leaf whirls up into the sky! It is afraid, but full of longing, the red leaf of my soul that longs for its adventure.


Monday, September 19, 2005

green alkanet

Green alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens) is one of those plants that you find around the place and you never quite know what you did to deserve it. At some point in history it was really used as a dye plant and that's when it became naturalized in the north. The dye from the thick, deep roots was red, which kind of makes sense because "alkanet" is based on the Arabic word for henna. The flowers of course are blue with a white eye, so its common name is pleasingly off-the-wall. Presumably "green" has got something to do with "sempervirens" and it certainly is a plant that seems to be always there and always busy.

A few years ago green alkanet happened to sprout through an air-brick that was lying in Maria's rockery. It might not be everyone's idea of a good centrepiece for the garden but there are significant compensations. Fairly obviously you get a continuous supply of really blue flowers from April to October, and unlike forget-me-nots this plant never gets mildew*. It's hard to imagine those tough bristly leaves getting any disease at all. Of course the plant is far too vigorous among the alpines so Maria cuts it back two or three times a year, and then it just starts over with more flowers. It's in just about the sunniest spot in the whole garden (received wisdom says the green alkanet is useful for semi-shade, and it probably is, but the bristliness and the Spanish homeland says that this is really a plant equipped for sun). It is the favourite plant - the overwhelmingly favourite plant - of a crowd of small bumble-bees. There are certain lemon-yellow ones in May-June that spend all day around it. It's beautiful to see the plant then in those spring afternoons, and to hear it too. But I remain uncertain whether the constancy of those bees is a tribute to perpetual satisfaction or perpetual dissatisfaction. They just can't make up their minds to leave, they keep taking off and orbiting and dropping onto another flower - but usually just for a quarter-second. It seems like they are impelled by the hope, which must sometimes be satisfied, of chancing on a flower that has miraculously been overlooked and still contains a full charge of whatever drop of ecstasy the plant secretes in there. Or perhaps the promise inscribed on those blue flowers is just too mesmerising. No insect, it seems, is able to remember what flowers it has already visited, and the whole business of dithering around a plant with many small flowers seems to have no rational beginning or end to it.

Elsewhere I have often watched the voluptuous flowers of the woolly thistle (Cirsium eriophorum) crawling with slow bumble bees, and noticed a few that have stopped crawling and in fact are just dead, presumably from too much bliss. - But that is a later time of year, not long before all the adult insects die out anyway, much like summer blooms themselves.

The only plant in the garden that seriously divides the loyalty of these small bumble-bees is lavender. Different kinds of insect like different plants, of course; different types of bumble bee like different plants. Big bumble-bees generally don't go for the same plants as small bumble-bees, though sometimes they'll bend themselves into a U-shape so that their mouth and feet are all bunched together; then they can approach a flower they're really much too big for. When the fennel comes into flower small wasps appear from nowhere, and when I examine the goldenrod it seems that all of its bees are actually "bee-flies", I mean those diptera species who have evolved a resmblance to bees in order to deter predators. These are everyday observations, and casual ones. Even though bees keep similar hours to ourselves, it must be no easy task to watch them methodically as they interact with an environment that contains overwhelming variables. As a scientist it's easier to get a fix on the simple lock and key of Darwin's orchid and its moth. But that's a prehistoric sort of set-up - one species for one species, mutually and utterly dependent on each other. Bumble-bees in a garden go browsing like shoppers in a mall, requiring nectar in some form or other but over-supplied, leisured and choosy. The language of psychology, hidden persuaders and obsessions supersedes the language of measures and survival.

Now in September the green alkanet, a few weeks after its latest chop-back, looks exactly like it did in May, its big leaves untroubled and its flowers directing their unblinking assertion to the eight corners of the earth. I am reassured. But the consort of bees has dropped away. Craneflies rattle in the shed, we cart large armfuls of buddleia and ash to the hump behind the factory. We have to get up while it's still grey outside and, in the shrinking of the season, we sign up for evening classes that will change our lives.

*Not quite true, I've realized. Green Alkanet does get mildew sometimes, but it's rare.


Monday, September 12, 2005


He remembered glasses of orange juice, choosing a bed, taking out loans he was still paying off. It was a busy, blurry time at work; that never changed; she was still in the thick of her course at the time. They went camping with her cousins; it was only a long week-end. He wished they had done more. God, it seemed so long ago!

Revolving those days in his mind, it was certainly possible to think that their marriage could have gone along just as transparently as it started, right up to this very moment. He would, perhaps, be up and showering now in a new house, a little tired from sitting up with their little girl. Instead he was driving early towards work from another direction, along a misty road where no-one knew he ever went.

He blamed Beatie. Of course it was Beatie who had done for all that simplicity. Himself he had never been looking for anyone – why would he? He’d only been married six months. Beatie had hunted him down, lured him off course and trapped him into sharing a lift one evening after a heavy dinner with a client. It all seemed like an accident but somehow she had made it happen. It was just terrible luck that she’d looked at him in that way. Every married man knew there was just one look – just one look. She laid her wondering eyes on him and stood her ground, putting the question. Her fine dark eyebrows were as level and calm as a line of writing: he read the words: we are going to have each other.

For nearly two years, once or twice a month, he had been travelling uneasily to and fro along this road. He called it “the portal”. He had two mobile phones – nobody knew this. When he was twenty minutes into the portal from home, he switched his normal phone off; that was the point when it was no longer possible to explain where he was. The Beatie phone came out of his briefcase and onto the passenger seat. It was never seen at other times. It lay in the bottom of his brief-case at work; when he got home he transferred it to his filing-cabinet. It lay between his old university papers, where no-one would ever look. The Beatie phone was always on silent. When she texted him she didn’t sound angry at all but when he turned up on her doorstep it was a different matter. How he pitied her! She was self-absorbed, distressed, she found life difficult. He got sucked into her theatre, her whirlwind. They spent most of their evenings naked – she had curves everywhere and when he arrived his hands were pulling at her clothes straight away, his hands thirsted to reach all over her.

So there was no little girl, and they never needed to move into a bigger place. Their marriage was treading water. He didn’t know what she thought. They started going on holidays further afield and then he enjoyed the feeling of constancy – in the Seychelles there was no portal. They seemed to draw closer, it flowed. He loved his wife dearly. She was slim and pretty, but he believed she was a strong, level-headed woman. Most of their talk was about friends and work, but running through it was a kind of intimacy; he could feel it. Oh yes, they definitely had something. If only Beatie would silently melt away so they could get on with making their home and their lives in the same kind of way they fooled around rigging up a shelter on the beach. When they dressed up in the evening she was elegant and fun, sitting across from him in the restaurant and swishing her foot around his ankles. His lovely wife.

But Beatie would never go silently.

While he was in the portal he was completely alone. It was a longish drive and he could listen to a whole quartet and a concerto. Then he got to the point, twenty minutes from work, when he switched the home phone on again. He prayed there would not be any messages or missed calls; he dreaded feeling that he’d been remiss.

Work was busy again, but at nine thirty he got up and went along the corridor to the toilets. He pulled his trousers down and sat on the cool toilet-seat. Then he carefully took out the two phones and laid them side by side on the floor without a clatter. He sent two loving texts – “thank u, it was unbelievable” and “I missed u so much, I can’t wait to be with u”. He felt grey with tiredness. He had to get back to his desk. For some strange reason, holding a phone in each hand, he suddenly held them screen to screen and made them kissee-kissee. It excited him, sitting there with his boxers round his ankles and neither of them ever to know. Somehow he was still holding it all together.


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