Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A Letter to Gog, Paris, 2016 [Short Auto-Fiction]

Bones. In the Bastille. It’s not there anymore. A dark place, but beautifully lit, like furnaces stoked by subtle demons, or like that intriguing painting, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump”. Nothing frilly or fancy. Bare wooden tables and bare stone walls. The visual rhetoric of nakedness. Of exposure. The pipes and machinery laid bare. Smoke without mirrors. We took our seats in this stark mis-en-scene.

You had the lamb’s heart. Tender and pink and unnervingly intact. I went for bone marrow and liver. We ate giblet puree and white pudding. And that wine. A friend of the waiter had a vineyard. A natural wine. Raw with a fizz in the tail. A wine Baudelaire might have drunk. It was one of those places, Bones, a cell in the city, always a cell within the body of the city but also and abruptly its own little world. Hissing and clinking and conversation. And the clinking and the chatter moved to the rhythm of the same bass drum.

The energy of the place, the hubbub bigger than the room and therefore bouncing, or escaping into the cold night as someone walked in. Each bubble of conversation adding to the great effervescence. Each conversation, feeding off this noise but having to turn against it, became thereby more intense. This hubbub, I thought, I fantasised, must be close to the hubbub in the Flore all those years ago. Different conversations connected by the self-same energy. That hubbub which has left the Flore and repeats itself here instead. This is how it works. The Globe for example. Pointless. The energy of theatre, the rites of theatre, can only be repeated elsewhere. We should not get hung up on location. On architectural shells. No matter.

I ate as never before. You inducted me. Offal, crisp fat. My stomach, for years so reticent. Me with my patra leaves and lentils, me with my nettle tea and yoghurt. The great caution, extended over many years, now locked out, banging on the window, made finally homeless. Suddenly I lived the word voracious. The reticent stomach now drunk and loquacious. The appetite itself chewing and gulping. I would not have been able to stomach it before. It would have jammed up my guts, as my guts were jammed up on our second date. But now, I said to you, I could crunch on bones and drink blood. Appetite, appetite, appetite.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Train copies the Thunder [Short lockdown writing]

And of course, I took to working from home, or working "remotely", and joked that I’d been “working remotely for years”, a weak repetition of my other joke that I’d been “social distancing” for the past 40 years. Which actually isn’t a joke. But yes, I didn’t mind it at all. And every day, me and my son would go for a walk along the river. In those days of suspended summer. The summer, like a great plane of time between the present and the Catastrophe. Walking along the river to Wandsworth bridge. And he’d tell me about his “guards”, his small company of guards, such as Eric, and Fence, and several others, each one with its peculiar ability, or unique disability. But their powers, these guards, were extraordinary. The power to mend, to turn back or accelerate time. Eric was the main guard, but “Fence” was my own personal favourite, if only because of the name, which Hector, using his own magical powers, had confiscated from fences themselves - which would now need another name -  and bestowed it on his precious companion. He lived, Hector, since lockdown, in a world of guards and traps. Populating the actual world of locks and delimitations with its more reassuring imaginary equivalents.  

So, one day there was a downpour, a sudden and shocking downpour.  A great bank of black cloud had advanced across from Chelsea by stealth. Us, me and the fella, in our summer clothes. We ducked under the railway bridge and I put some music on my phone. “Lust for life”, which we’d played at his naming ceremony. And we both danced manically, indifferent to the unrelenting hiss from the sky. And he had my phone and took some pictures of me. You realise how a five-year-old child sees the world. So tall and looming, so wide and threatening. There are ones of me in a blurred silhouette. I’m an antic giant, a dancing bear. He took hundreds in fact, as if he was trying to snatch the moments like raindrops.

A train went over our heads, a freight train I imagined. “ooh, Daddy,” H. said, did you hear the thunder? He was gleeful and scared at once. “I think it was a train,” little man, I said. “Well then daddy, I think the train copied the thunder”. And it was as if, between the noise of the train and the noise of thunder, in that brief interval of comparison, I heard the noise itself unadorned, the noise that was neither the noise of  thunder nor the noise of the train, but just the noise itself. This is how poetry works, I thought. Or some of it. It liberates things from their objects. Red from its blood, green from its leaf, babbling from its brook. “Can you remember that phrase?” I asked H., “I want to write it down when we get home.” “no daddy,” he replied, “but I’ll ask Fence to do it."

Friday, January 01, 2021

Bashful Creature [Short Fiction]

There was a creature lodged in my stomach. Or actually just to the left. Like a badger in its den. I could hear it at night when I was in bed. Defying my parents by staying awake, curled up under the covers. It purred and squeaked. The next day I carried it with me to school. That was okay because it slept in the daytime. Its breathing vibrated right through me in assembly. 

The maths teacher once told me about her favourite writer who said that we all carry a room around inside us. When we’re alone we can hear the pipes knocking, or a mouse scratching behind the skirting board. But I did not hear this room. I heard only the creature inside me. In my guts. Just before bed I looked forward to lying down and envisaging it. I said to myself, relishing the moment, “let me envisage it”. I enjoyed this word, envisage. It suggested some sort of magical power. My creature had long eyelashes. He was bashful. I can’t think of long eyelashes without thinking of the word bashful and visa versa. In fact, long eyelashes are more bashful than the word bashful. If you want to tell someone what bashful means, then the best way is to draw some long eyelashes.

I should say that the word “bashful” to begin with was an alien word. It was a word used about me by grown-ups. " A bashful lad". I was not entirely sure what it meant. My personality was outside me in this word “bashful” that they passed between themselves. I wanted to snatch it from them and eat it, as if it were a fly. Well I have eaten it. I say with pride “I am bashful”, like my creature.

No matter how hard I tried I could not envisage him speaking. He was dark, small and wordless. Only purring and squeaking, which is odd, because generally, the purrers of the animal kingdom do not squeak and the squeakers do not purr. I have never had a pet but my grandma had a dog, Bobo, who was run over by a car on the dual carriageway where Uncle Peter lived. He was a crazy dog. “Bobo the dog has gone stark raving mad,” I used to sing.

So what happened to the creature in my gut? Something extraordinary. He exited; I don’t know how. I think he turned to liquid. Like in chemistry. Everything turned briefly to liquid, even his glassy eyes. His long eyelashes, his glossy black pelt, his teeth like tiny toothpicks, the white cage of his skeleton. He turned to liquid and I sweated him out, I cried him out. And then he was there outside me, looking at me, his fur covered in slime. It was an odd kind of look. Suspicious but thankful. Needy but fearful. He shook himself and then took off into the wild. I felt like I'd lost a part of myself. 

I will remember him. I will follow him. Perhaps I can make him speak

Monday, December 28, 2020

Shooting Zombies in Brighton [Fiction]

I wouldn’t want to repeat it, but nonetheless it was among my favourite experiences of this year. This long year. And it happened right at the start. Me and the little fella and our trip to Brighton. I took him to see a school. We thought we’d be moving to Brighton of course in the spring. That was before it all began. The great caesura, the great suspension of everyday life. Death arriving like weather, and people hunched under their umbrellas not wanting to move.

Before all that we, me and him, went to Brighton on the train. He went on a tour of the school for two hours. And I ducked into a café, and sat downstairs by the fire, and wrote about the phrase “working the room”. I wrote that if someone asked me if I understood this phrase, "working the room", I would have to say no. I would say no in that to truly understand this phrase “working the room”, I would have to be part of the world, the micro-world, in which people “work the room”. To understand this emetic term, I would have to be complicit with this world and operate within its parameters. But no, I refuse this world, and therefore refuse to understand “working the room” as a phrase, even as I hear a chorus of people explaining to me that, in order to be more successful, I should accustom myself to “working the room”, at, for example, a book launch. I retort – to these imaginary interlocutors – that I would only attain success as defined by the same people who talk about “working the room”, which would be pointless as I have no interest in joining that world, or in using this expression, “working the room”.

Of course, I wrote about much more than this, about how certain phrases, like “working the room”, are not neutral and descriptive terms, but the garb and passwords, the joints and beams of a particular community, a particular world. If, for example, we no longer use the word “rake” to mean a man inured to immoral conduct, it is not simply that there are no longer any such men, but that the particular sense of “immoral conduct”, and the kind of opprobrium through which such men were seen, were all part of a world that has now been superseded. And so the air that the word needs to breath no longer exists. Hence, it’s dead, a fossil. But the world in which people “work the room” very much does exist. And if I have been overzealous, above, in repeating the expression “working the room”, it is only to bleed it of meaning by bashing it against a wall, and to try and accelerate, however infinitesimally, its fossilisation.

But this brief two hours of outward calm in the warm cosy nook of the café was not what made this the favourite experience of the year. It was something quite unexpected. When I picked him up from the school, my son, we headed to the pier. Not everything was open of course, as it was early January. The indoor part was open, if largely unpopulated. He chose a number of games to play. Various speeding cars, various monster games. But then, there was a game where you had to shoot approaching zombies with a water gun. We played it together, me and him, shooting the scraggly army of the undead, both of us laughing maniacally and hysterically as we obliterated them one by one, his rolling laughter infecting me, rolling into me, a wave of laughter that traversed us both. We were both the same, no longer child-adult, interchangeable, outside ourselves, shooting zombies giddy and delighted, as if, plugged into this zombie shooting machine, there was a single circuit of joy running through us and the machine. A single circuit of joy.

You can’t of course repeat such things. Or rather, not by returning to Brighton pier, and not with that intention.  

Saturday, December 19, 2020

A Woman Who Never Wore Hats [Fiction]

Dislodged from her context, which is to say that beige-stone terrace up in Bradford with the long back garden, she spoke differently, felt things differently. Drank differently. She divulged various family secrets. The reason we moved from our village, Heptonstall, to the shit-hole estate with its rows upon rows of beige-stone terraces, for example. She tossed it toward me across the table, this secret, like a cigarette packet.  Now I knew everything. Why we ended up there, of all places. The sinister Wormwell and his pumpkin headed brother who got stuck up a tree in our garden. He ended up working at Morrison’s. They all fucking did. The Hewsons and the Belchams, stacking the shelves of hell.

We sat outside that café on Old Compton street, and watched the cavalcade of individualities passing by, also Rupert Everett, with his Kintsugi mask and magnetic wound. Masters of Drag, shady little weasels with crack rocks under their tongue, ancient Greek and Chinese merchants, starched and ironed tourists as conspicuous as they would be in Morocco. Soho, a hub of diverse particulars amalgamating into a bright new world, but also an older world, bustling and characterful.

We’d dined at an expensive restaurant, Marco Pierre White’s. There was a £4000 bottle of wine on the menu from 1948. Pierre White, who I used to see in the Blue Room on Bateman street, with his adorning troupe, holding court with dark energy, sounding a lot like I did. Me, also from Leeds. His gaze like a nail gun. So, there we were in his restaurant. The waiter brought the bill. “Here he comes, the smiling assassin” my mother quipped, laughing hysterically, as if her two nostrils were valves that had just been opened, quivering as the laughter escaped.  

We saw a young man emerging from a brothel. “Ooh the naughty pup” my mother said, laughing again as she drank her last glass of wine. There was only joy and celebration, even for this narrow and hooded brothel creeper. I made her drink an espresso. She screwed up her nose and shook her face with mock revulsion. “I feel like a beatnik” she said, relishing this word, beatnik. I always had the impression that my mother, despite being young in the sixties, never lived the sixties as a cultural event, an ongoing cultural event that loosened the old verities, chiselled off the old, encrusted certainties, allowing the dancing flesh to kick and breath. But suddenly, now, in Soho she reached back into the sixties and retrieved this word, beatnik, and wore it like a wide brimmed hat. And she was a woman who never wore hats.

People are not machines; they are in fact the exact opposite. However, we can speak figuratively and say that people are machines that work completely differently depending on what context they are plugged into. Suddenly, in the Soho context, my mother operated in a different way, she was lit up in a different way and seemed differently wired. Different parts of the machine were activated. When I was 18 I left Bradford because I needed to plug into a different context to be a different self.

Buoyed by drink, I spoke at length about this machine metaphor to my mother. “I wish I hadn’t left school at 14,” she said, “working at General Electric. I wish I’d had the chance to go to university like you,” she said, “and have these intellectual discussions”. But she did leave school at 14, and worked in a windowless factory, and was married by 17. And to this, in part, I owe my life. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Espresso [Short Fiction]

Things are never simply things. They are obstacles or facilitators. Promises (the armchair is an offer of rest), reassurances (the spluttering kettle, the same as it ever was), reminders (the old wooden floor recalling the labouring ancestors). They are the peremptory forms given to moods we never knew we had (the tall windowless building like unscalable frustration). They are means of transport. The cup of espresso, for example. Remember when I first had a cup of espresso. I was with A_ in a café in Oxford. The one on St. Giles, the Italian greasy spoon where posh boys “slummed it” and liked to pretend they were enjoying a proletarian breakfast. But it was the only, or one of the few, places back then, in Oxford, with decent coffee. The first time I went there with A_, believe it or not, I had only ever drunk instant coffee. At home, in Bradford, we only ever drank instant coffee, such that for me, instant coffee simply was coffee. But suddenly I was presented with a number of options which A_ talked me through.

Which is better, I asked her, cappuccino or espresso? Well cappuccino is nicer, I think, but espresso is cooler. Of course, I chose espresso, I wanted to don the mantle of “cooler”, however briefly. So, firstly, it tasted repugnant, a mouthful of ash. This is what growing up involves. Ingesting things that one initially finds repugnant. Beer, whisky, cigarettes, olives. You overcome it, this initial revulsion, you overcome and metabolise it, and feel augmented, fortified. There’s no way back. And each cigarette, or whisky or espresso you have, over many years, contains - however faintly or implicitly - the memory of this overcoming.

A_ told me about espressos. A_, who was herself a part of the world of which espressos were another part. Café tables and animated philosophical discussions, but also shots of pungent fuel drunk at the bar by workers and industrialists alike. A_, whose mother lived in Paris. A_, whose husband used to teach philosophy but was now a painter and decorator.

It is difficult to communicate what it meant for me, that small white porcelain cup, with the crown of crema, and the dark potency beneath. It was a tiny perfect escape hole, and through that hole I would exit England. When I looked into that small white cup, I saw the portal through which I would travel into Europe. The idea of Europe. My desire for an espresso was also the desire for this idea, for a shelf of Les Éditions de Minuit, for a Galois cigarette smouldering in an ashtray like a white stick of time, for wine decanted into those small Duralex glasses served in small local bar, for gold rimmed tables advancing into the boulevard, the passionate energy of conversation making the world malleable. And each of these things was, and is, linked to yet more. Each one is the part of a whole which is never complete. For desire is not simply for the single thing, but for the world of which the thing is part, and desire amplifies itself through all of these plural components.

Of course, in reply to all this, there will be a chorus of English voices crying “pretentious”, that much is obvious and as it should be. But that is a sign you’ve escaped. If you can hear those cries then you’re already on the plane, and the cries of “pretentious” are simply the transient ringing in your ears as you ascend up into the new blue sky.  

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

A Blind Man in Victoria Station.

She said there was a blind man in Victoria Station kissing his dog. What’s wrong with that, I’d replied, he’s probably very fond of the dog. No but I mean really kissing his dog, she’d said, like a French kiss. Snogging the dog. The commingling of salivas and the touching of teeth. She was disgusted by it, of course, and so wanted to pass on this image to me. It’s still there, twenty years later. Suddenly the universal, Disgust, is overly present in the particular, the man and his dog. One realises the force of the universal, the general concept of Disgust, when it comes too close to us, pressing its hairless white belly in our face, as in the present example. The same is true of Beauty, and all the other great universals. Suddenly they reach towards us like Gods, through the portal of the particular example.

It stood out for me, this anecdote of H’s, because mostly she spoke of theatre and art, and people’s “foibles”, or, for example, a rather “rakish” man she’d met. She inhabited a world, or clung onto a world, where it still made sense to speak of “foibles” and “rakish” men, where “terribly” and “perfectly” were common adjectives. It was a world - the world that accompanied and supported these antique lexical items - that no longer existed, , or existed residually in certain woody aristocratic enclaves, such as those she inhabited, the world of the ancient Catholic aristocracy that had survived Henry VIII. She was a friend of the late Auberon Waugh and other patrician grouchy old men and their stoical spouses. But the dog and his owner could not be inserted into that world. In fact, the sight of the man snogging his dog had clearly punctured this world. It was a detail she could not integrate using her antique vocabulary. Even the word “snogging” she’d handled with kitchen gloves.

But I’m trying to fathom why it’s her, H., who still appears in my dreams, very casually and intermittently. We cross paths and converse. She lives in a country house and I find myself outside it. Or she’s sat on a bench by an overgrown path reading a notebook. I sit beside her. She reminisces about Sligo. The old scholar with the hidden wound. Or a book review she wrote for the Tablet. I talk about my children.

I should have written down these encounters. Not as a way of recording my dreams, but of documenting the continuation of the friendship, in this nocturnal form. For just as there are people who have an epistolary relationship, so there are people who have a dream relationship. There is a Czech myth, told to me by an old exile, her blue eyes set deep in a puzzle of lines and wrinkles, about a prince and his peasant lover who arrange to meet in their dreams, having been forbidden to meet in person. And there are other tales too, of people who arrange their rendezvous in this way. And this is the case with me and H., although there is nothing forbidden of course about our meeting. I could easily find her. These days it is all too easy to find anyone and everything. But I prefer not to.