Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Cal

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

Father

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.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Prague

A long evening at P’s flat. Exactly as he was at Oxford 15 years ago. Over-eager to display his knowledge. I tried to communicate my experience of Prague, the sepulchral gravity and dark magic of the buildings above and behind the tourist chatter, but he countered with various facts about Prague, the Czech Republic, the Velvet Revolution and so on. “Why do men always know things?” Alice once said to me. It’s true, although I have always prided myself on knowing very little in this sense. These men, who know things, always want to refer any disagreements to the judicial body of Facts, and thus close down interpretation. They want to shut down debate and also ally themselves with the cold indifference of the factual, as they perceive it. They are like the facts, they identify with the facts. This is their fantasy. P was precisely such a man. Weighing me down with endless facts and statistics, until I could take no more and was bent forward, like some pale and crooked caryatid, under the countless units of information. I tried to put forward my theory about Men and Knowledge, as briefly adumbrated above, but he of course was not interested in Theories, or in Theory with a big T. It was futile. All this was exactly as it had been at Oxford. As was his face. His face had not developed and matured, only cracked a little, and greyed at the sides, as if done by a make-up artist. There had been no deep aging, which is to say living, precisely because he had sought refuge in facts and information in retreat from the riddles and ambiguities of existence. That at least was my thought. Anyway, I wondered how he felt, at the end of the evening, P, after performing this role as dispenser of facts, as spokesperson for the Facts, but then remaining behind empty handed, starved of human contact. I was looking forward to thinking about this on the way home.

In order to facilitate this thinking, I decided to get a cab. For sometimes there is nothing better than giving oneself the unexpected gift of a cab ride home, and a prime box seat from which to watch the city and its nocturnal personality. This, I imagine, is what Iggy Pop did when he wrote The Passenger, which is exactly the soundtrack to be played whilst travelling by cab through the city late at night, somehow both a spectator of the city but also its very essence. He is right, Mr Iggy Pop, that the sky above the city is derealised or made “hollow” by the cupola of orange and red and silver lights from cars and buildings. You contemplate this great cupola from under glass, or of course you can slide the window down and hear the rush of the wind and the drunken voices it catches and discards like litter. None of this of course would mean anything to P, who would doubtless know Iggy Pop’s real name, and when and where the song was written.

In any case, I had prepared to contemplate P and the role of “facts” in the Male imagination. But as the cab journey began, all I could think of, suddenly, was that time in Prague, walking home along Karlova, after going to the Jazz club, when I was nearly knocked down by a man on a bicycle, skinny with a black cap and goggles. What he was doing, racing late at night along that bone-shaking cobbled street I have no idea. I hardly had time to register the near collision than he’d disappeared, and the receding whirr of the wheels died in the whorl of my ear. Silence closed in once more. I took this, at the time, this cyclist, to be some kind of herald of Death, some kind of minatory herald sent by bony and nocturnal Death. For our imagination seizes on phenomenon and turns them into metaphors almost before we have time to perceive them in their literal state. This was all I could think about for the cab journey home, and in fact I asked the driver to stop early, about half a mile from the flat, so that I could walk and get some cool air and clear my head of this demon from Prague. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Gastro's


Today, Monday, I joined hands with a lost habit, afternoon coffee at Gastro’s. It must be two or three years. Parking the bike in Sainsbury’s car park, nodding to the old clock at Clapham station, 4.40pm. The same as before. The habit was there waiting for me and I too was suddenly the same as before. The table inside right by the window of course, as if slipping back into the contours of myself, when I used to be myself so perfectly and without thinking.

I catch my reflection in the window and, surprisingly, I look exactly as I would want myself to look. Dark and saturnine, curls falling over my face, the brow creased; the eyes downcast, serious but long-lashed and therefore almost boyish, innocent, protecting themselves. Like a little allegory of Contemplation, I think to myself, then laughing at the phrase.

A woman comes in with her girlfriend. The sunlight streams in through the open door, silhouetting her in brilliance at the same time as it darkens her already dark hair. She has eyes only for the girlfriend. She suggests the table outside, and so they sit together on the other side of the glass, right under my nose. The thick arc of her eyebrows. But then the sun goes behind a cloud and the face is suddenly different, scarcely the same person.  

An hour later and I’m still there. There’s now a man on the next table. Completely bald, short, with a large grey hat that he’s placed in front of him. His small blue eyes animated and vigilant behind round thick rimmed glasses. His voice is too loud, insensitive to context, and he himself, in his whole body, is awkward and keen to assert himself. “It’s a non-sequitur!” he’s yelling, “a complete non sequitur”! He’s with a younger nodding man. A few drinks later they’re laughing. They too leave in time.

This was always my little corner of France, right here in London. That was my fantasy, that I stepped through the magic portal into France, and drank café au lait and ate the sweet pain au raisin, and looked at my face in the window, with a stripe of sunlight running down it. And Cooka the waitress bringing me a second coffee without my asking. And the old snow-haired man always sat at the bar as he might do in Paris, and morning coffee served in bowls and the French onion soup and soft baguettes.

Everything real that we are most attached to, the reflected face in the window, the small French café, is simultaneously the furniture and habiliments of our inmost fantasies. Fantasies to which we are fastened even as - and because - time carries us off elsewhere

Monday, September 07, 2020

Desire, a short fiction

The other day, I can’t remember now where it was, unless it was Notting Hill Gate before or after teaching, I caught from a passer-by (although I was unable to identify exactly which person it was) the whiff of that perfume which S. used to wear, and I was suddenly back in those warm September days when desire was ripening slowly, too slowly, delicious in its pure potentiality, which was how I preferred it in those days of course, as also with L. Remember with L, you sat across from one another in her lounge, her sundry aristocratic paraphernalia of antique books and original sketches and woven scenes of country life, saying to her “seduction involves ostensibly talking about one thing when you both know that you’re talking about something else.” What a typically involuted, self-referential conversation it was, and me enjoying that painful circuit of suspended desire, as I always did until well into middle age. Remember also that time when you stayed in her London flat when she was on holiday. She’d left on her desk an open notebook and there I saw my name, raised and insistent, as it were, but deliberately avoided reading, feeling it had been lewdly left open for my attention - there was no other conclusion. Even though it was meant for me, I did not read it. I preferred the perverse refusal.  
Anyway, in Notting Hill, briefly, I was for an instant flushed with that feeling of approaching passion, the tremors of “something happening”, the signpost to somewhere unknown. I was there, for an instant. But that brief perfume did not return me to S. herself, as an object of former desire, it did not make her present to me once again. I was, as I said, returned not to her but to that state of blossoming, all the more tasteable and precious for having been divorced from S, to whom it had been temporarily fastened, back then. People are ultimately dispensable, and our nostalgia is only for the beauty of the waves or ripples they leave inside us, or the light as it plays on the waves or ripples they leave inside us.