Friday, October 09, 2020

Carpets, Curtains, Mental Health. A Short Fiction.

Out of nowhere the landlord told me that my tenancy would be terminated in October. He actually used the word “terminated”. This was clearly a petulant response to the ruined carpet. When I moved in, just over a year ago, there was a thick beige carpet on the floor. He made much of it, the landlord, and said that his “one ask” was that I try and keep the carpet clean. In the event of course he had many other asks, including feeding his cat when he was away and not using his favourite cup, even as my own favourite bowl was used for cat food. Of course, I tried to keep it clean, his carpet, as much as one can. But then Ubu, from the poetry class, asked if I could store some curtains in my room. He’d had to move out of his old flat into a new one with blinds. The curtains were beautiful curtains, he said, and belonged to his dying father. I was caught between the Scylla of a beautiful carpet and the Charybdis of some beautiful curtains. Reluctantly I agreed to store them but they were in fact crawling with moths. These curtains were effectively a trojan horse which I consented to store in my room. Gradually the moths bedded themselves into the carpet and destroyed it, creating little bald patches through which the ridged underlay became visible. The moths turned it into their wasteland. The landlord was “well pissed off”. I had to arrange for the council to collect it from outside the house. I forgot all about this until the very last minute and had to frantically pull up the carpet and move the furniture by myself on the appointed morning. There I was, dripping with sweat on my newly bare floorboards. It looked aesthetically pleasing to me, me who does not like carpets. I prefer minimalism in almost all things. Straight lines and an absence of clutter. The carpet signified for me fuzz, wooliness, the muffling of reality even. So in theory I should have welcomed the floorboards, which made available the principles of construction, so to speak. Carpets I in fact regard as a kind of ornamentation and concealment. An unconventional view I realise. I prefer the work of construction to be on display. Nonetheless, having said all of this, the bare floorboards turned into a nightmare. For the carpet was also the membrane separating me from the kitchen below. This kitchen was the activity centre of the house, where the landlord entertained his many guests. Where he drank and smoked and regaled them with anecdotes, where they talked and laughed and coughed in a phlegmy male way. All of this now took place as if in my own room and there was no real escape or separation. The membrane had been removed and my existence was made raw. In addition, the half-eaten carpet, and then the bare floor boards, departed from their literal presence and became a creeping metaphor which invaded my mind and body. That is to say, that the destroyed carpet could only appear to me as a kind of ulcerous skin, as a rectangle of diseased matter, as skin that had been picked at and opened up, a skin that was then removed to reveal the bare ugliness beneath, the boards, stained and scored with pencil markings, the warm and bland carapace removed and the boards exposed, the boards that would one day feature prominently – broken and splintered - when the house was demolished. All of this prevented me from seeing the literal carpet or the literal floorboards, for they were now heavy with what they signified, they were, in fact, themselves pure signs of these things which I was unable to escape and unable to escape also the invasion of a foreign form of life into my life, which is to say the landlord and his male friends in the kitchen below, like some infernal crucible of smoke, lager and banter.   

I discussed all this with Josephine, who I met by chance at Gastro’s. She had been through the mental health system. Of all the people who I have spoken to recently, Josephine is the most congenial. She argued, and quite convincingly, that it would in any case be impossible to perceive the literal floorboards or the literal carpet. The literal carpet would have to be stripped of the name “Carpet”, which overlays the actual carpet, and the literal floorboards, would likewise have divested themselves of the name “floorboards”. It is impossible, or only very rarely argued Josephine, to see things without their names - this is either a mystical or a psychotic experience. The only time or one of the few times we see things literally, Josephine asserts, is when for example we wake in a strange room, disorientated and momentarily unsure of time and place, and an aggressive brown triangle comes towards us and which, before it hits us between the eyes, we recognise as the corner of the bedside table. As soon as we have the word “table” it stops and returns to a stable form. This is the function of names, asserted Josephine, and asserted also that she once had this ability to see things without names and for this she was admitted to the mental health system, at which point we both began laughing, and filled the whole of Gastro's with our laughter. 

Tuesday, October 06, 2020


I called him Ubu, and for no good reason. Perhaps I wished simply to negate his actual name, which was Adam, and maintain distance from him by insisting on my own nomenclature, and also by using a nonsense name, like a child’s scribble over his actual name. He first spoke to me after a poetry class in Covent Garden. I had read my Kafka poem. I was the only woman in the class.  “He came to Prague in a fragile boat, his hair was beetle black,” and so on. He loved the poem he said and suggested we go for a coffee. We talked about my poem. Kafka and his relationship with Felice Bauer. The breaking off of the engagement. The brutal honesty. But not long after that he began talking about his father who was dying of cancer. Thus was I immediately forced into a corner, ethically. It is not inaccurate to say that he weaponised his dying father in order to pre-emptively secure my companionship. As a short cut to friendship. For it’s true that from that point on it was difficult for me to refuse or refuse for very long the offer to go for coffee or even for a drink, as for example at that Egyptian place in Stockwell with its admittedly superlative falafel. All these meetings were in fact dominated by the figure of the father, hospitalised and dying. He was the subject but also, it seemed, the choreographer of our conversations. The father had a house on the coast near Bournemouth. Would I drive down with him to sort through his things in preparation for the inevitable? I could sleep in the spare room. On the day of the drive he turned up late. He’d walked into a lamppost and had a lump on his head. “Are you sure you’re ok to drive,” I’d asked. He insisted she was. Half way there he declared he needed some protein. “put your hand under the seat,” he asked. I found a piece of chicken wrapped in tin foil which I then passed to him. I said that this attitude to food – bypassing its flavours and textures and breaking it down into non-sensible scientific units such as Carbs, Protein, Fat. – was anathema to me. This way of relating to the world, in fact, was anathema to me, I added.

The traffic was so bad that it was nearly nightfall when we got to the house. He began to lay out photographs on the floor, each one accompanied by an almost inaudible commentary, as if each photograph was in fact a magical object drawing forth words from some previously impossible recess of his mind. His eyes were blue and full of grief. Nonetheless, I became more and more taciturn, more remote. I did not want to enter with him into this whirlpool. I was there on the bank, watching and wanting to be elsewhere. He found a bottle of wine in a cupboard. “We should have a poetry reading night”, he suggested, “to summon or placate the spirits, I’m not sure which”. He started reciting Dylan Thomas which he knew by heart. “when their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone.” I’m sorry, I said, I need to sleep. I took myself off to bed. Early next morning he was up making breakfast. I apologised and said that I had to return to London. I took a taxi to Bournemouth station. I reached London in time to get the tube down to Clapham and have morning coffee at Gastros. I entered the cafĂ© like a boat coming into harbour. I was aware of my callousness but also relieved. Over the coming weeks, I refused all calls from Ubu until they stopped. It was the cruellest thing I have done. Until I saw him in a bookshop. Waterstones in Piccadilly, just after its grand opening. I saw him looking at me and I looked back as at a stranger, coldly, and turned away. I sensed his eyes trailing after me. It was a moment of brutality, sadism even, for I took a certain pleasure in it. Such a small pleasure, if indulged, or expanded and incorporated into politics, I thought, opens the door to monsters. In my relations with others I have tried to keep that door closed. But I never spoke to Ubu again.

Sunday, October 04, 2020


My regrets are of an unusual kind. Unusual from the point of view of Others. Even pathological, from the point of view of their Normal. They are incidental, minor things. They are things that do not affect the great narrative of life, so-called. Perhaps the exact opposite. I will offer an example. A regret. But first there is a background. A background in two parts.

There used to be a bar at the corner of Greek and Bateman street. Perhaps it’s still there, I don’t know. But it opened very early in the morning for coffee and pastries. The barista was a surly stick-like Norwegian man and, in my view, one of the best in London. The coffee was superb. Outside was a bench. I would go there in the morning before work, or at the weekends with my wife. I would sit on the bench and gradually feel the coffee quickening my thoughts. Or we’d sit there at the weekends and the coffee would quicken our talk. It was a great place to sit and see the cast of characters that only Soho can offer. One morning, the comedian Arthur Smith, who’d been out all night on a “bender” popped in for a cappuccino. The manager of a local private members club was there every day before opening.

The second bit of background is that I was working in an office in North London, right at the top of the Northern line. I’d break the journey by going to the bar when it opened at 7.30 and then get the Northern Line from Tottenham Court Road. The office had a small kitchen for people to prepare their lunches, with two microwave ovens. Every lunch time I’d microwave a bag of quinoa as part of my lunch. One day both microwaves were out of order. One of them still continued cooking after the door was opened. And so the management placed tape over the door and instructed us not to use it. That lunch time everyone went out for lunch. Except me. I thought I could get away with turning the microwave off at the wall so as not to open the door. Whilst the quinoa was cooking I stood next to the microwave. And afterwards, not immediately but gradually, I began to feel ill. Dizzy and lightheaded. Unable to think. When the manager arrived, I told him that I was feeling unwell and needed to go home. I was sure that the radiation had entered my head. I was convinced that I had been fatally affected by radiation and that I must seek medical attention urgently. The only walk-in clinic I knew of was in Soho. So I got on the Northern line and went into town. The nurse at the clinic didn’t really know what to say. She said if I was concerned, I should go to A&E. And so I began walking down Bateman street towards Soho square and up to Tottenham Court Road on my way the UCL hospital.

You might think that my regret is to do with using the oven. But that is no part of it. Or only a part in the story. On my walk I passed the bar on the corner. It was a warm summer day and there was one or two people on the bench outside. The Norwegian barista was on his phone behind the Marzocco machine. I sped past, anxious and afraid on my way to the hospital. But how lovely it would have been to just stop, to pause, to order a coffee and sit on the bench. That is my regret. That I did not stop and have a coffee outside. That I did not stop and sit on the bench in the warm air and sip a coffee. It is not just the coffee of course. It is the unexpected pocket of freedom. Of time cut loose from the working day. Time somehow stolen and exceptional. There are moments, intensities, grace-notes and supernumerary events which we should always savour, which we should always embrace if they offer themselves to us. And the occasions when I have passed these by are the objects of my regret.  

Wednesday, September 30, 2020


Cal is here again. He’s returned from Australia with a bandana and a faux-antipodean accent. “Ye-ah” he keeps saying for no good reason. He’d taken a sabbatical from his consultancy job to go travelling. His high paid consultancy job with which he’d bought his flat in Clapham years ago. He’d rented it out at some exorbitant rate to help fund his travels. The smell of cigarette smoke rises through the floorboards. So does his voice.The floorboards are bare after the carpet was eaten by moths, but that’s another story. It means that the odours, meandering conversations and even tiny blades of light from the kitchen enter my room, which is intolerable. Cal’s got lots to say about the aborigines and various historical injustices. He’s been humbled by speaking to them. Their resilience and approach to life is amazing. Their wisdom, their sense of time. It’s elevated him but also deepened him. He’s talking about Western this and Western that. Western conceptions of past and future and so forth. Suddenly he’s outside the West seeing things from the point of view of the aborigines. Even though he lives in Clapham. He is perpetually “cheering himself up”, a manic form of self-persuasion in which everyone around him is willy-nilly enlisted. This manic behaviour is fuelled in part by a continuous chain of “rollies”, with which everyone is fumigated, a spontaneous metaphor also for the noxious “happiness” he spreads around, which is not in fact actual happiness but a concatenation of gestures and attitudes from which happiness is supposed to follow, just as Pascal held that faith would follow in the footsteps of prayer rather than the other way around. He – Cal that is, not Pascal obviously - has a fish’s head with oily smoked skin. I find it repulsive, even as I am aware that my dislike of Cal is disproportionate and doubtless symbolic, which is to say he represents something I find abhorrent. A certain middle-class.. actually, no, I can’t be bothered to even conceptualise it. But then, listening through the floorboards, my ear pressed to the floorboards, in my room directly above the kitchen, I learn that he was a consultant for the US government in Nicaragua at the time of the passage from the Sandinistas to the US backed regime, that is to say he was instrumental in assisting in some of the privatisation programmes. All of those programs presupposed the savagery of the US funded Contras, who picked up babies by the legs and cracked their heads against trees. All of this to terrorise the population so that Cal and his fuckwits could come in and prepare the transition to private industry and so forth. So there is it: Cal, for all his mind-wank about the aborigines, was in fact the unwitting – and therefore more repugnant – lacky of state sponsored terrorism, and instrumental in one of the great political tragedies of the last century. Imagine such a man sat underneath me, talking and smoking. Practically a monster. All this over the course of half an hour, with my ear pressed to the floor, perfectly still, listening, when I should be preparing my lesson for tomorrow

Sunday, September 27, 2020


If you had smelled my father’s fingers, they smelled of ash, but also a hint of musty sweetness. I smelled his fingers when he pinned me down and tried to squeeze blackheads from my cheek or nose. But long before that I was aware of this smell on his fingers and on his breath. I smelled his breath when he gave me a “chin pie”, which is when he rubbed his stubbly chin on my face and laughed. This smell was the smell of the world of Men. It was not simply a human smell but a smell of dirt, matter, compost, smoke, metal as well. Men in general and my father in particular are characterised by their commerce with such things. Harsh substances, I might call them. Men have ingested or besmeared themselves with such harsh substances in order to harden themselves. To ally themselves with what is harsh. They themselves become amalgams, party made from tobacco smoke, wood shavings, nails, oil and so forth. As they ingest more, as they smoke more, hammer more, as they place nails or tacks in their mouth whilst fitting a cupboard, or chew a match, so do they assume more and more the carapace of harshness.  As grey blue smoke exits their mouth and nostrils, as they scrub the dried paint off their arms, as the movements of chiselling and shovelling - brute, precise, relentless - become second nature, so are their bodies remade. So do they advertise their alliance with matter and poison. You must understand that each of these gestures has an affective lining, as I call it. A low-level brutal enjoyment, an indifferent violence, in hammering a nail, in splitting the earth with a spade, even if the earth or the wood are not sentient of course. There is still a cold pleasure in subduing, splitting, compressing, which potentially can be carried over onto flesh, so that these actions are always preparations for brutality.  

All of this was true of my father. One thing I do remember though is the smell of tobacco in the tobacco tin, dark and soft and loamy and almost edible, a smell that bore no resemblance to the smell of a cigarette, a smell that I would steal every now and then when he wasn’t looking even though he wouldn’t have minded perhaps.

My father placed maggots under his tongue to warm them up before using them as bait. Or I remember him placing a brandling worm on a fishhook and the worm writhing as yellow fluid came out of its side. Then he invited me to do it. I pricked my finger and it bled. “Never mind that”. This is how it’s passed on. Your body becomes a body capable of such gestures, and the indifference to pain, one’s own or the pain of others. A kind of discipline whereby the boy’s body with its softness and sensitivities is subdued and silenced and remade as an instrument, an accessory to hammers and chisels and spanners, honed or reduced to the mechanics of bone and muscle.

It is true I have refused all these things and more: cigarettes, nails, paint and plaster, fishhooks and WD40, pint glasses and greenhouses, beading and spirit levels. I have refused DIY and car engines, nor do I have a dank hut at the garden’s end full of tools and rust and an ashtray full of buts.

I stay with my glass of wine. I stay with the aroma of coffee that forever quells and suppresses the smell of strong tea and the sight of wet tea bags and tab-ends.

But I have in my pocket his unremarkable silver lighter. Which I always carry with me. There are still a few orange sparks left in it. It is the sole surviving remnant of him. The hard metal implacable remnant. And which I cannot throw away.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

A Note on Creation

One day I had the impulse to write but every time I tried to put pen to paper (for me it is always this first scratch, this moment of contact, and to type is not writing) there was nothing. For me, I cannot speak for others, there is always this lag, that is to say that the impulse to write precedes the so-called subject matter. The impulse - which I prefer to call appetency, a word undeservedly sunk these days, fallen into disuse, but essential to understanding creation - this impulse seizes on the so-called subject matter as Picasso seized a bicycle seat and made it a bull.

The appetency is not a desire to externalise what is inside, to find appropriate flesh for what already exists in ghostly outline. It is a desire certainly but a desire to become something Other. An enlargement, but also a qualitative transformation into something else. And not just one but many something elses. A One becoming Multiple, a Simple becoming Complex..  

This appetency is not an intention with a Telos, a telos which only has to find its appropriate instrument. No. This appetency will enlarge and transform itself in several unanticipated directions. It will sprout and develop according to its own several momentums, and these momentums themselves arise only in contact with the so-called subject matter, and – if one is a writer- with the roots and branches of language. So for example, with Picasso, it was not that the intention to create a bull alighted on the bicycle seat. Rather did the intention to create encounter the bicycle seat and give birth to the bull. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

A Preposterous Day

It was a preposterous day, rain-soaked and sprung with mishap. I burnt the coffee, for example, and then, when I made another pot, someone came to the door. Cal it was, engaging me in pointless conversation, wanting to speak to my landlady. So I skipped coffee and headed out. My bike had a puncture so I had to get the bus. I bought a silk shirt, nonetheless, in Spittlefields market. That was perhaps the highlight of the day. There was no changing room so I was obliged to try on the shirt in front of the mirror, and in front of the woman running the stall. “It shows off your physique”, she said. Empty sales patter of course, but better than nothing. Sometimes the form of a complement is enough. Meanwhile, my intestines turned themselves into a fist lodged to the left of my stomach. Any understanding of me must start from the recognition that my body employs its resources against me. When I got back, Cal was still there in the kitchen, smoking with the landlady. I ran to my room without saying hello. I wore the shirt and tried to write. I heard her in the kitchen, the landlady: “He stays upstairs, rapt in secret studies. Insulating himself against the world.” “the world?” I mutter, "no only yours"; “secret” I mutter, "no only from you". I looked out over the back garden, and into the other back gardens. The rain had stopped to reveal a great silence. But then I could hear a noise from my stomach, a strange noise that I did not recognise. I regretted eating the croissants. Two large croissants I’d eaten for breakfast. I’d intended to soak them in the coffee but of course I had skipped coffee and so they had been dry, too dry for my stomach. A catastrophic error. You think I’m being melodramatic, but you do not understand my body which is not like other bodies and therefore translates only imperfectly into language. So, the croissant breakfast, a roller-skate under the feet of the day. That was it, I think. The intervention of Cal, resulting in the badly metabolised croissant and the petulant decision to begin the day without coffee. Cal was the culpable agent in all this, turning up on the doorstep at the wrong moment, asking me pointless questions about my teaching, then making some joke about the music I was playing, which was Bartok. “Bit high brow for a Sunday morning this, isn’t it?” Cal had quipped. Demanding my complicity in laughing at my own music, which is a subtle form of violence of course. Bartok is in no way “high-brow” in any case. Bartok with his piercing clear blue eyes and delicate frame, who translated so many wordless beautiful things into music. Like his eyes for example, the blue of this eyes. No, he did not translate them into music but continued them in music. He was able to continue his blue eyes in musical form, or what is incipient in his blue eyes was then completed in music. Fuck Cal anyway, who conspired with my own body to sabotage the day. At the desk now, the silk shirt, salmon pink, seems like a souvenir snatched from another world, a miraculous shining talisman from the Orient. I can still hear the noise in my stomach, it corresponds to no sensation. It is free floating and unattached to any sensation in the stomach. And this makes me wobble, this inability to source the noise. To attach it to the body. But then I realise, and this is the only laugh of the day, a laughter of relief, then I realise that it is not my stomach at all but the cooing of a pigeon in the tree outside.