Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Two squalid old men

I say to George Bush at the time, you may insert the joke.'.." Kalle came to a dumb-faced halt.

"Victor said that?"

"No, you're not paying attention. Mushtaq, the guy he met in Damascus."

"You used Victor's voice."

"I did not use Victor's voice."

"Do you mean Victor went to Damascus?"

"There was a cricket match, he said."

The wind was pushing rubbish around in the square - the cardboard was overflowing. Palms waved frantically; it was an overcast, blowy day and citizens or what passed here for citizens were swept into huddles on the street. All the same it was bright as salt. The sun glittered on hard-hats along the new sky-line and glittered too on the whitecaps flowing across the distant scene at the end of the street, which was all that now remained of a sea-view.

"Mind that step, it's like an ice-rink. I sometimes think, Victor's memoirs are not as you would say pinpoint-accurate."

"Did he mention the head gasket? They are notorious on the name of the car he drives, I have been told."

"There was no need, I was right behind him when it happened. In the agent's car. We were coming down the long straight behind Mil Palmeras. Both lanes disappeared in a cloud of steam. It was like being in a Formula One motor race."

"It's been on its last legs for ages, but now the last legs have really come home to roost. Those were his very words. It looked like baby-shit in the sump, more water than oil."


"Creamy yellowish-brown - the consequence of their addiction to milk. As veal is to beef."

"I don't remember. I have not seen nappies changed more than once or twice since I was a baby myself." A maudlin sigh escaped from Kalle's unhealthy face. They carried on up the stairs.

"He'll have to get the head scoured."

"At least I talk about the utter failure I have made of my life."

"It's an odd day really. Weatherwise, I mean."

In the distant scene a flare of spray exploded on a rock, but the sound didn't reach them.

"That's like a supernova when you see it through a telescope. Or when you burst a bloodvessel in your eye. Why don't we have a rest?"

Kalle had already sat down in the middle of the stair.

"Don't make a scene."

"I don't make a scene. There is no audience."

"There's me."

"There's not much of you."

"Dear God. Oh dear dear dear."

"Go away. I want to talk."

"That doesn't make any sense, my friend."

"Go on up."

The lift-door shone: it was brushed steel. Whenever someone went past the lift, no matter what they really looked like - for example, the conserje's brisk, unfriendly daughter-in-law with her trolley and the lethal mops - their reflections on the lift-door were all the same sort of diffuse, soft-focus, eviscerated mandorla.

Kalle sat opposite the lift and watched it absently, thinking his sad thoughts. Then he chuckled again over the joke. No-oh. No no no. That one's a no-no. Not that kind of show.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

my big book

Over the last week I've been stealthily printing out a new hard copy of the Brief History for the only person, probably, who's ever read it that way - in other words, as a real book rather than as an archive that you search online.

It must be five years since the last time I printed it, and in the mean time it's somehow grown from about 100 pages to about 500 pages - forbidding, densely packed pages, too. It took several furtive evenings because I realized that if I was going to bother with this chore at all I wanted to print it double-sided, which turned out to take 17 times longer than single-sided printing. [Other printing tips: make sure you've selected the frame with the text in, not the Geocities advert frame to the right (which you've probably just moved out of the way, so therefore it's selected until you click back into the text frame), then check "Only the selected frame" in Print / Options.]

Holding this book in my hand - well, in my arms, it's a bit heavy for a hand - it's like being reunited with a child that I've unaccountably farmed out to foster-care. It's mine, but I don't feel altogether familiar with its features. Naturally, I couldn't resist a good read of my own prose in the middle of soup-making, so the butternut squash ended up being more baked than usual, but this is fine because it makes the soup come out better.

The most actually useful articles within the Brief Hist are probably the pieces that weren't really written for it, i.e. the articles about contemporary poetry. Of course I never got as far as those, but lingered in earlier centuries. Since all constraints have been blown away and I am being recklessly self-indulgent, the articles that I was most pleased with were the ones about Hester Lynch Piozzi's Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson and Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop, though of course these are both easy topics.

Update (29/10/07): As of today, you can read my review of Peter Riley's The Day's Final Balance in Stride magazine. Forthcoming: articles on Catherine Daly, Elizabeth Willis, Rob McLennan and John Gay in Intercapillary Space - and in the Brief Hist there will now or tonight be some new articles on Anton Chekhov, Jean Giono, Giorgio & Nicola Pressburger, and probably some others that I've forgotten about.

Monday, October 22, 2007

folklore in autumn

Because when I started running I was in Spain and it was midsummer, I'd pretty much come to feel that the cooler the weather the better. I wasn't prepared for real cold, for air so fresh that it hurts to breathe it in, for your whole head feeling squeezed by cold (this is also known locally as "brain-frost"), for aching ears and thumbs without feeling. So in the market I bought some gloves, a kind of garment that I've done without happily for many years, though they would have been helpful a year or two ago when we climbed St Sunday Crag and it was all ice. The truth is that I have an aversion towards gloves, the same aversion that I have towards sun-glasses and headphones: an un-Berkeleyan reluctance to sacrifice unfiltered sensory data, as if that alone keeps me in touch with what the world is really like. No doubt, then, it was unconsciously deliberate that I immediately lost the gloves and next morning ran the "Seven Hills of Frome" with the sleeves of my fleece hooked over my fingers.

This resonant name for my favourite route is merely my own invention, but fully in accord with all the other towns and cities that are proverbially said to have seven hills. One has a lot of incentive for thinking about gradients while running. Most inland towns are located in valleys on rivers, so a circuit of the town is bound to involve at least two dips when the river is crossed upstream and downstream. And since a single hill is almost an imaginary concept, experienced in practice as a whole series of ups and downs, you can see how the folk-number "seven" would be acceptable as a loose description of what surrounds almost any town.

Certain pre-Christmas rituals emerge in my own life during this part of the year. One of them involves clearing up the last remnants of last Christmas, such as the bowl of mixed nuts in their shells, which needs to be emptied to make room for this year's bag of nuts. I don't know how many nuts ever do get cracked on Christmas day, though I'm sure it's very few: providing the bowl of nuts is just one of those rituals I can't rationalize. As the year wears on, this object soon falls into utter disuse. The time has now come when I realize that this stock of food, in order not to be wasted, needs to be consumed. Most of the contents, inevitably, are almonds, the proverbial hard nut to crack. (This is because they are really kernels, not nuts at all: the almond-tree does not intend them to be eaten.) Indeed, breaking an almond-stone with nutcrackers is barely possible - you are as likely to snap the handle of the nutcracker itself. Since it's turned out that this year, like every other year, has never contained enough time to savour this challenge, I now resort to the quick treatment, which involves putting a handful of almonds on a breadboard, covering them with a drying-up cloth and smashing them with a hammer. It's great fun, though not for the neighbours.

Another minor ritual, in preparation for Christmas jollities, is that I work out an arrangement of another Christmas carol on the guitar. This year it's going to be "God rest ye, merry gentlemen", which sits very nicely under the fingers in E minor. Unlike last year's "See Amid the Winter Snow", this is not really one of my favourite carols; I hardly know even the first verse. But it does have quite an attractive melody of a folk-song type, really in the Aeolian (La-)mode though on the guitar I'll no doubt play around with some harmonies as well as thinking about how to address those long sequences of crotchets.

The choice is appropriate in a way because I've got more interested in folk melodies this year. It happened (like the runnng) when we were in Spain for five weeks. We had no recorded music and a rather random selection of books, mostly not in English, so I suppose it was cultural starvation that drove me inwards to discover what melodies and words I actually had in my head. A lot of them turned out to be folk-songs, ancient or modern. I had come to know them a long time ago and they took a lot of patient retrieving: The Raggle-Taggle Gypsies, Waltzing Matilda, Danny Boy, Streets of Forbes, The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, Clerk Saunders, Mr Fox, and The Gypsy - these last two, compositions by Bob Pegg for the brief firework of a band (also called Mr Fox) that he formed with his wife Carolanne - some of the other songs I knew from June Tabor's versions.

Usually I try and learn to play something Swedish as well: a familiar Christmas song or something in the spelman line. My mother can sometimes be cajoled into singing bits of an immense repertoire for all seasons of the year, but especially Christmas and Spring. Like everyone else in Sweden, she also knows a few of those singalongs that accompany the drinking of brännvin (grain spirit) and are known as Snapsvise (visa = song, folk-song, ballad, melody, tune). In a land without bars, social drinking is mainly a domestic custom, and this custom of taking turns to perform a snapsvisa, each one followed by a communal Skål! and the glug of down-the-hatch, is a means of encouraging joining in and of pacing the intake. I recently found a CD containing 100 snapsvise, but there must be new ones all the time. Only a precious few are old folk-melodies of the modal type; many more are adapted from popular melodies in their more familiar majors and minors: anything is fair game - pop, country'n'western, Franz Lehar or O Tannenbaum or Ol' Man River; and of course, the familiar Christmas and spring songs with words adapted to the praise of små nubbar (little shots) and the generous sensations of a belly filled with warmth. The important thing is that everyone knows the tune. The nearest British analogy I can think of is soccer chants. Some are spoken rather than sung. Nearly the briefest of the lot is just two words.

Titta! Taket!

(Look! The ceiling!)

A snapsvisa surely within the compass of the shyest participant, but a one-word alternative is merely "Nu!" (Now! - satirically attributed to Finland-Swedes).

I have another personal ritual: for some reason I always notice that November 26th is St Catherine's Day. Noticing it is in fact the limit of my celebration, though St Catherine is (mainly on the basis of the South English Legendary) my favourite saint. Perhaps I was also influenced in this choice by reading somewhere that her rather doubtful legend might have originated in the martyrdom of a pagan princess at the hands of Christians - it seemed to add an interesting slant. But however pointless in itself, this marking of the season has an important meaning for me. The darkening days depress me, and I constantly try to cheer myself up by pulling spring towards me. On St Catherine's Day I know I'm just about there - my mood changes. It is almost Advent, and the wood-borders are already green with fresh new plants. It is not impossible, I like to dream, that in some exceptionally favourable spot a first snowdrop could show on St Catherine's Day. In defiance of the calendar, I really consider Christmas a spring festival.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

morning crowds

It's like they're mirages beamed across England. As I set off down the road, there they are, the two girls walking with their showy backpacks, one khaki-green and the other pink, the showiest bags in the whole school. They walk stolidly - average girls to look at, not plain but not stunners, already verging on portly, already making a united front for values. Walking together, matching their bags (is it competition? or security?) they form an oiled cell that slides past the motley collection of other schoolchildren without any other contact. Choices are being made - have already been made.

Seven miles and twenty minutes away, I drive into the next town and there they are again: the khaki bag and the pink bag, the two girls walking stolidly (they are never late) with the best bags in the whole school. A little further on I meet them again. Now they're a couple of years younger. True, one of the backpacks is now red-and-blue floral on a cream ground - but they're making the same kind of appearance, with the same exclusivity and the splendid bags. The same (if I can use a plant metaphor) form of growth.

These backpacks are big and roomy, and not cheap. They were all bought at the end of summer for the new term, and they still look new. The designs are camouflage or hibiscus (last flourish of the surfing-lifestyle look that began to fall from grace three or four years ago). But now here's a gang of boys hoofing it along the street. The colours and designs on their backpacks are relatively hard to describe, just the odd flash of white in a sporting stripe, or a Nike tick, the colours mud and gunmetal. What's noticeable is the way the backpacks are worn, with shoulder-straps elongated to the fullest extent so the bag bumps along on your arse (copyists! I did this for years when the buckles on my canvas straps wouldn't hold up).

Every weekday morning the schoolkids make a black ribbon along both sides of this road, - while in between there's a rush-hour queue of vehicles backed up from the roundabout, stealthily leaking exhaust-fumes. The black is because of the uniforms, which everyone is wearing, though with the usual essential adaptations: trousers sagging, shirt-tails flying, and skirts hitched into minis by rolling them round the belt.

A bus pulls up and shakes from side to side as all the pupils pile out of it. The two boys at the back are in that carnival gear of broad-striped tracksuit bottoms, baseball caps and England soccer regalia that tells you they've bussed in from the town's roughest and remotest estate. It's clothing that hasn't been in fashion for twenty years, if ever, but it still carries with it an electric charge of "the wrong side of the tracks". With their thin, unhealthy faces they look different from their round-cheeked peers, and they walk differently. They look like they're going into college like all the rest, and they look the same kind of age, but their clothing suggests they're done with school - it's a puzzle I can't work out.

Two Asian boys come up the street: remarkably like all the others and yet not quite: it's that big green box that at first I mistake for a lunch-box. Then I realize it's a class project, but it's too elaborate to go in a backpack. And they're already tapping on a phone, earlier in the day than anyone else. Then there's the one black boy - this isn't a black area - who stumbles along in an ungainly way on the outskirts of a group of five, towering over his class-mates. I feel sorry for him. It's drudgery being on the outskirts, even if they are your mates; doing all that listening and never getting a chance to speak up except if the others invite it by making a joke about you.

The Polish children are difficult to spot. I know there must be many because the meat-pie factory, the cement factory, the renowned local brewery ("a taste of Olde England"), and the aggregate depot at the railhead, are all staffed mostly by Poles. I recognize the look of the kids' elder sisters, tall, blond and sharp-cheeked, browsing along the shelves of Asda, but that's only because then I can hear them talking. It's quite suddenly the commonest non-English language in this part of England, so much so that I'm beginning to feel politeness now demands learning at least a handful of Polish phrases. The only word I know is "Czesc" ("Hi" - pronounced "cheshch").

Here comes a bunch of clever girls - slouchily dressed, modest, all shapes and sizes, their faces like shop fruit, hilarious with mockery of everyone else. Socially they have a low status, but they make me smile. Then there's a group of boys with one girl, who is very pretty and confident; dominating them, but with an air of making sure she's seen to be successful by, for example, the famous bags on the other side of the street. Whatever may be claimed healthwise about this daily stroll among the car-fumes, it's a great arena for establishing social presence. And everyone's behaviour, I suppose, is more or less energised by some level of awareness of the captive audience in the queue of cars.

Now here comes a flock of boys on bikes, yawing along from side to side with each push of the knees, somehow recalling the step-machine in a gym. The social principle is clear: you always ride your bike standing up on the pedals. The seat is only used for sitting on if the bike is completely stationary, for example when everyone is pulled up at a street corner in the evening. This principle can indeed be laid aside on the rare occasions when you're gunning from A to B on your own, but that isn't the bike's primary function. It's for social display, like the accessorized cars of their elder brothers.

For the moment the kids own the street. A runner in a light fleece (someone who works odd hours, perhaps a nurse) cuts through the throng, lost in music. The fat boy walking on his own has ear-phones too. A boy and girl walking together; tall, dignified, a little dull like all early pairers. But I've shared enough of my stereotypes; the day after writing this, I drive past the same crowd and see how much I missed in my description, how much I had shaped the facts into the stereotypes which are the eye's only available tools for making sense.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

No, it's gone again. I thought I had it then...

Under the shower, half-asleep, the pounding piano of "Laura" came out of the crackling fuzz of the tropical-fish shower-radio.

I tried to name the band to myself, but my memory locked. Since I put aside childish things at the long-overdue age of 33 I don't know what's going on in pop in the same obsessive way that I used to. Even so, this wasn't exactly advanced knowledge, and in fact I could reel off a surprising number of facts about Scissor Sisters, but not their name. The trouble was that knowing the names of bands on the radio had become such low priority. Under my lathered scalp the words "Kaiser Chiefs" came into my mind. So did the words "Throwing Muses". I knew that these names referred to different, you might want to say extremely different, bands from the one I was trying to name (Throwing Muses, in case you don't know, were a US band from the early 80s - I think I bought three of their albums before - there were so many bands like this - I became finally disenchanted with the trick of slightly unusual ideas that never turned into anything more substantial).

Where is your love? ...

I knew that these incorrect names that were impeding the true name from coming to the surface were also clues to it. But what kind of clues were they? Was the association something to do with the sound or look of the words, or was it something to do with their meanings? In hindsight, the clues do make perfect sense: the phonological resemblance of Kaiser to Scissor, the semantic connection between Muses and Sisters. More significant still, all three band names turned out to share the rather uncommon feature of being plural names that it would be uncool to precede by a definite article (unlike, e.g. The Stone Roses or The Pointer Sisters).

Still, I couldn't crack it - it wasn't until the following morning, again under the shower, that the true name came to me, instantly and without effort. But while I was fruitlessly pursuing the clues I was doing something that, unrelated to poetry, was akin to close reading of a poem: I was trying to become aware of every aspect of the words in the clues, unable to dismiss any aspect as certainly irrelevant, with the single exception of their literal referents, which as I already knew referred to the wrong musicians. The point I'm labouring to get at is this: that the poetic use of language is not an invention ab nihilo but is something already instantiated in nature, not in everyday spoken or written language but in the way that our memories are organized by fuzzy association.

But is this argument valid, based as it is on the behaviour of my own memory in particular? Long years of close attention to language through reading poetry may themselves have influenced the character of the associations my memory employs. (Just as I often discover in my dreams something suspiciously literary and un-dreamlike about their well-turned narratives and patent allegorical significances.) A different person, groping for a name that's just out of reach, might find themselves presented with clues of an entirely different kind. Somewhat disturbing to think, the habitual reading of literature may not give us a "deeper" experience of our life but may simply alter our experience of it, and who knows if for the better?

Monday, October 08, 2007

written in a different building

This is not a long term assignment. I've been very good and not played on the internet at all while I've been here. But before I go, I'm going to register the space, which is a large open-plan office in a large local government HQ. I'm in a hot-desk area. There's no-one opposite me. A UTP cable pokes out of the modesty-hole. As with most old cables (and old bodies) the internal structure has gradually come to the surface as an external kink or twist like on the bole of a sweet- chestnut tree. The retaining clip has broken off the RJ45 plug. The colour of the plastic sheath is somewhere between window-putty and the cream-coloured garment dye that is not a dye and so is called natural (e.g. the Bomull* range if you are an IKEA addict.)There is a large simple knot of the pretzel or half-a-granny type half-way along the cable. This is to stop it slipping back down the modesty-hole. The lettering along the sheath says:


This script is repeated every meter. Disappointingly, there's no incrementing meter number. (This was once a handy trick for calculating the length of a cable without measuring it.)

As usual, arrival at the building in the morning catches us unprepared. Three of us shelter from the steady rain while groping in our bags for the photocards that can be pointed at the plaque beside the door to open it. The card is worn round the neck on a ribbon. Putting this pendant over my head as I climb the stairs is how I formally renounce the distracting personal thoughts that I brought with me from the car-park.

The stairs however are lovely and wide. They are highly polished terrazzo. In this theatre where my personal life does not exist, there remains a ghostly residue of unattached passion, which can be fanned, for example, by later following down these steps, though at such a careful distance that for the most part it is only my ears that are intrigued, a tall woman in highclicking heels.

In the cafeteria the men are having fun. In a loud sotto voce, they say

"while we've been waiting here over an hour to be served!"

"She ought to get a faster machine."

"She's pretending she's not listening."

Finally it's their turn.

"What can I do for you boys something nice?"

"Or naughty, if you've got it."

"A Jordan baguette!"

"Got any Jordan baguettes?"

"I'm saying nothing!"

"A Jordan bap, more like."

"Two, if you've got 'em."

Up here, there's talk of a movable feast. This doesn't mean Easter or a mobile sandwich service. What it means is a task in a plan or calendar that never happens. Such tasks accumulate and in the weekly planning meeting they all get pushed back another week. As the task comes up for discussion and then someone says "Oh, that's a movable feast", a perceptible shadow of depression passes across us, so that the word "feast" becomes bleakly ironic. These non-events call into mocking question the whole basis of our project management (and, even more, programme management), our insanely negative methodology of trying to anticipate and face the stress of everything long before it happens or, just as often, never does happen.

"Movable feast" is a Christian term. Easter, whose mobility is the root cause of all the other movable feasts, is the only one that still has a flicker of meaning for most people, because it supplies us with the Easter week-end. At school I remember that several attempts were made to inform us about Whitsun, but these evidently failed since I have no idea why Whitsun was singled out for this emphasis. I understood that it was an oddly slangy, Cockneyish and unchurchly way of saying "Whit Sunday", and that this was when the Holy Ghost set soft flames above people's heads, very like the gentle teardrop flames along the rear of an oven or in the little niche at the foot of a calor-gas heater. This was the source of my lack of interest. It was not that I disbelieved in the Holy Ghost, not at all, but my materialist imagination was completely unstirred by the spiritual sphere in which he appeared exclusively to operate. He seemed never to interfere with grass-blades, cherry-stones, racing-cars, spiced cakes, teeming rain or marble basins. It would be a very long time before I experienced the attraction of the immaterial and even so, it was a sensual attraction, as in Byzantium:

          flames begotten of flame,
     Where blood-begotten spirits come
     And all complexities of fury leave,
     Dying into a dance,
     An agony of trance,
     An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

* In Swedish, literally "beam-wool" (presumably because of association with mechanized fabric manufacture?), the word means both "cotton" and "cotton wool", i.e. plants and plant-products of the genus Gossypium.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


I’m not saying you can go now. There’s a pattern of fallen leaves

on the rainy green. There’s a strew of leaves, and the biggest are the yellowest

- Banana boats. Fell out of the bunches in the branches: each consists of 30 green leaves and one yellowy leaf that’s about to fall. Leave the leaves, leave them to last without us and be their palette; crowds all fled inside.

There’s a sliproad with double yellow lines; waiting, wipers mop drizzle.

The leaf-fall is apparently unacceptable where it falls. A man wearing yellow ear-protectors and carting a blower tidies some of the leaves back under the tree. (this is called an “air broom” – some leaf blowers function either in this mode or in leaf collector/shredder mode with vacuum.)

    What jury? (he asked) Variation ivies,
    arrowy, squat; and still one spray of flowers

    unseasonably sang in the dense, big shrub.
    Why shouldn't I go? No-one else does.

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