Blessay 53: Magic

I’ve just watched the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts again – the blu-ray edition, on my projector screen, at home. It’s never looked better. There’s some film grain and slight pixilation but the colour and definition have been sharpened. The technology has produced some ‘magical’ improvement. Not alchemy but a shiny cleanup to draw me further into its children’s version of Greek myths. Jason is not the over-real sensation of CGI special effects but a satisfying, not-quite real result of stop motion model animation. And the film magician responsible is the legendary Ray Harryhausen. (1920 -2013)

In the early 90’s at the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead I went along to experience a Harryhausen fest. Ray, himself, was in attendance for a talk, a screening of his early work and Jason and the Argonauts. But it was the interval that really mattered. For then Harryhausen, a very affable man, laid out on a desk, a sample of the models he’d memorably brought to life (Model animation was very long and exacting process of stop and photograph, move a bit, photograph again, adjust an arm and a leg etc.) A diminutive skeleton, on leave from its gaunt army, stood armed with sword and shield. “You can hold it in your hands, if you like.” said a smiling Ray. I picked up the 6 inch high menace and placed it in the palm, of my other hand, apprehensive that Harryhausen could command it to attack my fingers. Yet his skeletal soldier remained frozen, letting me admire its detail before I returned it to its creator.

Perhaps I’m mistaken but I was convinced that I was the only person, that evening, who handled a model. About 95% of the audience were young animators who hadn’t dared to be so physical. They were the newly emerging computer-savvy generation who well understood how the magician had achieved his effects. And that the age of Harryhausen’s stop motion animation was in decline. Very soon the New World of actors and objects, filmed against a green space, in a studio, transmuted to computer screen, and omnivorously clicked over by a mouse, would take-over.

Since the beginning of cinema there’s been a fascination with the filmmaker (special effects or not) as a magician. The tricks of Georges Melies still enchant us (That moon with a rocket stuck on its face is a universal icon.) Few people on the street could name its creator, yet we own his moon, with its injured eye, in our waking dreams as much as the smiling Mona Lisa reinforcing her enigmatic presence.

Marlene Dietrich once appeared in an Orson Welles’s TV magic show. She’d volunteered to be a lady sawn in half. She miraculously survived and Orson roared his thanks as loudly as the saw. As a young child I could never figure out how that was done: with my mind gruesomely tipping over into a bloody accident that was somehow covered up as they gagged her screaming, mopped up the mess and produced a Dietrich look-alike.

Yet, apart from reading fairy tales, my notion of magic came from a comic book version of The Arabian Nights and the Jewish man, with the bald head, carrying a tray of  toys and balloons, who appeared once a month on the streets of Liverpool 8.

The first taught me the responsibility of magic and the second the magic of a playful encounter.

I’d always enjoyed making up lists of three wishes then I stopped (in adolescence) when I realised that what the genie could grant you could be problematic. Most children and adults used to immediately wish for loads of money in paper form or coins (Today it would be the magic of an electronic bank deposit that is never ever queried). All very well to have the cash at home until the taxman knocks on your door and asks you to explain your sudden great wealth. A wish can contain a sting in the tail, an unforeseen consequence, great upset and deep regret. A wish cannot be undone. But you can wish not to have the power of wishing.

I once considered wishing to speak and read every language, still spoken, in the world and even the dead tongues of ancient civilisations or recently erased cultures. Yet if that were ever possible then it would result in a terrible Tower of Babel nightmare. You might find it impossible to decide what language to employ on a daily basis. Your brain tortured by a babble of competing words to express yourself. Italian? German? French? English? Japanese, Ancient Greek or Sanskrit? Hundreds of words to choose from and you cannot make a choice and find what’s most appropriate, overcome the linguistic chaos and make the right rational decision.  But is that possible? There can never be one choice or one way to understand the world: for its consciousness and politics are too fluid and changing: as George Steiner said in his book After Babel.

“The underlying grammar of all human speech forms is a mapping of the world.”

“A single genuine exception, in any language whether living or dead, can invalidate the whole concept of a grammatical universal.”

You’d have to make a second wish to have constraints placed on your power. However the problem with wishes is that they have to be carefully considered alongside of qualifications of intent, cracked open to allow a “but”, words placed in parenthesis, and the inclusion of a “yet” and “however” in certain circumstances. The power to know all languages would have to be scrutinized by lawyers till it was water-tight. Perhaps the granting of a wish or conjuring up of an occult force to reveal our hidden desires is not such a good idea after all. The magic realisation of wishing cannot be that simple or unsullied given the complexity of the world.

It’s easier to stick with make-believe and pleasurably fantasise on the wish being lucidly granted and fully realised: that your deep aims accompany effort, will, belief and ambition to realise the most meaningful project for you. Not to achieve the entire dream but as much as humanly possible, a large chunk of the aspiration. And with opportunities and luck, but not magic, if you get there then that’s fine though you may, or may not, become a happier person.

Magic has to be attempted in a world that mundanely denies its existence. I love the very human scene near the end of Arthur Penn’s film Little Big Man. Indian Chief Dan George lies down on top of the mountain to die. The clouds darken and rain hits his face. He opens his eyes, realising that he can’t magically summon up his own death. It will come when it’s the right time. To the gods, Dustin Hoffman and himself George admits.

“Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

I have to return to the magic of the man in the street of my 50s childhood. No qualifying commas round the word magic here. This kind of itinerant tramp, dispossessed man, who may have had a mental-heath problem or excessive blind innocence, walking the streets with cheap toys, to entertain the kids, has long gone. Both parents and children sensed no paedophile threat. “It’s all right, he’s harmless.” Is what people said. And no evidence, or incident, arose for us to think otherwise.

He made funny whistling noises, played a harmonica; caused pennies to appear from his ears, balloons were blown up too big and many silly jokes thrown at you. It was a crude and innocent magic that held you in its spell. My friends and I magically imagined that it was us and not him controlling the performance. Then the magic could work easefully in the moment: the three genie wishes disappearing, transformed into one wish-fulfilled moment of joy without the blight of complications, guilt or responsibility.



Blessay 52: On the Washing of Clothes

There was a time, way back in the 20th century, when Monday was washday. For generations of housewives (How ancient that title now sounds with its unspoken instruction that women are married to their houses once obtaining their spouses) washday was a hard physical drudge. In the 1940‘s / 50’s / 60’s life without the washing machine and tumble dryer meant the hand-washing of clothes or if you could afford it the washhouse or the launderette.

In Liverpool in 1962 it cost one shilling (5p) to use the council washhouse or 3 shillings (15p) to play and / or play at ‘my beautiful launderette.’ Poorer women chose the first option and stuffed their pram with laundry to wheel together to a kind of municipal communal wash factory. Huge machines, supervised by middle-aged men who delicately poured in the detergent, provided not a consumer product but consumer cleanliness. The stained clothes of the poor were made to shine and smell fresh again: their poor materials were not alchemised into finer cloth, for women only desired the pride and respect of cleanliness, a chat and a cup of tea. This epiphany of pure clean whites only lasted till the next Sunday night when newly accumulated grubbiness waited for dawn and the re-commencing of the Monday wash cycle.

In Lodge Lane, Toxteth, public baths and washhouses were opened in 1878. And from 1909 some of them had film shows as well.* After pummeling clothes on a washboard or dolly tub hot drinks and Kinematographic entertainment was made available. I wonder about those film programmes. Where they themed to be aquatic? Lumiere’s 44 second long-take Washerwomen on the River (1897) or Melies’s Under the Sea (1907)? I suspect it would have been the latter as it’s the famous Jules Verne story. Or maybe filmed water was the last thing that you wanted to see on washday!

*This window for showing films in wash houses only lasted from 1909 – 13. The Livery board didn’t want to renew the licence for Lodge Lane or Walton. Only Garston in Liverpool 9 was approved for renewal. I wonder if the reason for this was something other than class discrimination.  Did clean clothes for the seamen and dockers take priority over other workers because the docks were so economically important? Best keep the housewives entertained with movies as they worked and keep the capitalist wheels in motion.


But what was most personally fascinating for me was to learn not a film connection but a photographic one. In 1962 Henri Cartier-Bresson was in England to help with work on a TV documentary about the Northerners of England. I’ve  been unable to discover if this project materialised. Cartier-Bresson scouted the streets of Liverpool and actually visited Toxteth. (My birthplace) and took a photograph of a group of empty prams just outside of the public washhouse (Not in view) in Grierson street, off Lodge Lane (Go Google images, please.) Our house was at Cedar Grove, just a 15 minute walk way from the washhouse. I was 13 and at school at Princes Park Secondary Modern in Princes Park Road a continuation of Lodge Lane. I would have had no idea who Cartier-Bresson was but three years later, in my first job, and in my lunch-hour, came across a reference to him on reading an article on the French New wave in Sight and Sound.

My imagination wanders. I could have passed this iconic Frenchman with his camera whilst, after school, walking up Lodge lane to visit the library, very close to the washhouse. But no, of course not, it would have had to have been a Monday morning.And Mondays at school were double periods of English and maths. Even if my mother had passed him by, she’d wouldn’t have given him a second glance.

Today it’s Monday again, but not of course my time tabled day for washing clothes. It could have been any day as I stuff my shirts into the washing machine, apply Vanish to their collars, and feed them Daz.

It wasn’t till my forties that I bought myself a washing machine. Before that I took my clothes in my backpack to the Swiss cottage launderette (now long gone). But I was never a person to sit and watch my wash spin round, preferring to visit the library and read the newspapers.

In other photographs from 1962, Liverpool housewives carried their laundry bundles on their heads, Asian style. My backpack was the closest I ever got to being bodily connected to the laundry. There was no 1990’s equivalent of Cartier-Bresson to photograph me, and why would they want too? For I was torn out of any ritualistic context with the group or crowd: no line of guys like me heading for the launderette,

“Under the window somebody was singing. Winston peered out, secure in the protection of the muslin curtain. The June sun was still high in the sky, and in the sun –filled court below, a monstrous woman, solid as a Norman pillar, with brawny red forearms and a sacking apron strapped about her middle, was stumping to and fro between a washtub and a clothes line, pegging out a series of square white things which Winston recognised as babies’ diapers.. Whenever her mouth was not corked with clothes pegs she was singing in a powerful contralto:…He could hear the woman singing and the scrape of her shoes on the flagstones, and the cries of the children in the street, and somewhere in the far distance a faint roar of traffic, and yet the room seemed curiously silent, thanks to the absence of a telescreen.”

1984 – George Orwell


Home and Kitchen Section – – 2017

“But as for washing-up, I see no solution except to do it communally, like laundry. Every morning the municipal van will stop at your door and carry off a box of dirty crocks, handing you a box of clean ones (marked with your initial of course) in return.”

As I Please in Tribune 9th February 1945 – George Orwell

Mr. Eric Blair certainly got around on the washing circuit. To him and the rising up of the Proles, female and male, hanging out their ‘Monday wash’ I dedicate this essay.

Blessay 51: Occupations

I’ve been thinking about identity and roles. Not seriously serious. More playfully serious. Not personal crisis, but what might have been possible and what was partially achieved. What occupations I might have taken up when younger and why I would have. “Occupation” a word meaning taking over a territory or a performing a work activity and, for me, a more comfortable term than career or profession. Those last words often ring-fenced occupation. And in our once again utilitarian age we’ve tended to drop career or profession in favour of getting a job in “The world of work”- as if the UK world only existed to perform work (Not quite an Orwellian concept, though I do think a “job-seeker” working hard to earn their “job-seeker allowance” is.)

I’ve never had a planned, competitive and determined urge for status and money. My vocation was to write. And any other work either aided or detracted me from doing that. I only wanted to be occupied bringing in enough money so that I could be creative. But if I hadn’t been a writer what role would have pleased me? Was there another occupation I could have carried out with some success?

The moment you ask yourself that question, occupations only matter if you had really developed a talent for a different one. This isn’t a question of I wish I could have been a … etc. I’m trying to imagine a different personal history whilst playing with the idea of fantasy fulfilment and real possibility. Being an astronaut is, for me, speculative nonsense. Whilst becoming a musician a lot more probable. I don’t have a passion for science nor the physical or mental aptitude to be shot into space (Even being solitary in my spacecraft would never be the same as solitary at my writing desk.) I do have a sensitivity to music that could have made me a performer, and then ideally, for me, a conductor. Yet whether I could have achieved that circumstances, connections, talent, intellectual and emotional disposition, luck, money (Not always, but often) and the urge to compete hugely matter.

Dancer, artist, social worker, musician, teacher, actor, film director, psychotherapist, doctor, nurse, priest, private detective or interior designer, were alternative occupations for me. If I hadn’t been marked out to write (This dealing with ‘inner demons’ is a either a curse or blessing, creating artifice to entertain an audience -Ingmar Bergman once harshly termed it as a shedding of the snakeskin.) I’d have been fully drawn to these roles. Why didn’t I take them up, as well as writing? Where they real or fantastic propositions? I certainly dabbled in the fringes of these occupations. My trying out was a non-comitial daydream. Whilst my narrower focus on writing was the committed daydream. Here then are my occupation try-outs: real, imaginary and a collusion of both.


Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly for me, rather than Rudolf Nureyev or Joaquin Cortes. Ginger Rogers or Cyd Charisse rather than Margot Fonteyn. They’re my kind of dancers (Nureyev, Fonteyn and Cortes are geniuses but I have problems appreciating classical ballet and I can take or leave flamenco’s ‘fire.’) If Astaire had a consummate insouciance then Kelly had a consummate sensuality. Of course these qualities often overlapped. I wanted to be dancing ecstatically inside Swingtime or The Pirate but I was no good; swirling round the living room coaxing my bulky television to leap of its stand and join me.

I tried hard to learn to dance properly but only achieved a self-taught tepid waltz. I was over-ambitious taking on the tango. And my clumsiness proved too much for an evening class dance group. So I was left with clubbing: that was fine but I failed to connect (In the E. M. Forster Howards End connection sense, I was aiming far too high!) with a partner, a supposed hidden self and the music.

I believe tap-dancing to be an amazing art form that everyone should aspire to: musically agile feet beating the earth is comparable to hands belting out, with spontaneity and precision, jazz-piano. The Nicholas Brothers in the 1943 film Stormy Weather (See You-tube for an amazing demonstration) called it flash-dancing which was an hybrid of tap dancing, ballet and acrobatics executed at a phenomenal level of expertise. Achieving those splits on the stairs, re-bounding their bodies back up and beginning to tap again, was a sight that even Fred Astaire thought awesome.

It feels very natural that human beings ought to dance and celebrate their bodies. When a little drunk I still work-out my clumsy feet. But I wanted to be high up there with the gods or even be a competent mortal instructor.


At school I was good at art. Yet painting didn’t appeal as a profession – it was the off-putting smell of the paints, turps and the messiness. But chiefly the fixity of the canvas felt limited and intimidating (Only as creator not later as a visitor to art galleries.) I wished the image to move unaided by my brush stroke. I wanted animation. I desired cinema. No, not even installation art or happenings provided the answer. I could enjoy all that blue-paint covering people, as they rolled over canvases, so joyfully realised by Yves Klein but would have quickly tired of such fun.

It was too extrovert – a genuine expression of my social make up – but not fundamentally me as a creative person (I hate the fashionable use of the term “to be a creative”. Sounds like an alien being, alienated from the hard craft of creation, only ‘creating’, like emoting, as if taking an aesthetic laxative to constantly produce for friends on Face-Book or the celebrity culture.)

I do love the visual arts (Painting, Cinema, Photography) but tempting though they are they’re not my way to make art.

Social Worker / Doctor /Nurse / Psychotherapist.

Apart from writing, these occupations were the principal way I could have had a strong empathy with others in a professional sense: yet these outlets for human were still dangerously close to control of people. I did pursue healing but not along the conventional route. I trained as a reflexologist and masseur. The reflexology made me concentrate on feet as a map of the body minus any connection to the dancing feet that I so lacked. Whilst massage proved exhausting for I didn’t have strong or thick enough hands to effectively pummel flesh.

Orthodox medicine didn’t appeal because of (a) learning anatomy, physiology and naming of diseases. (b) The long training required to be a doctor. (c) Being a nurse wasn’t sufficient for my curiosity about health and the mystery of human organisms (c) My criticisms of the philosophy of the NHS – it’s still not preventative medicine enough. Yet if I had qualified as a physician, the role-model who would have inspired me would have been Anton Chekhov – both country doctor and writer.

“Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress: when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.”

I envy Chekhov to have loved medicine and writing with equal power and his untiring ‘wife’ and ‘mistress’ not to have cheated on him as he circulated between them.

Upfront, counter service for social work appealed more than being a trained social worker with a case-load of crisis intervention issues. And I did voluntary work in residential care homes, hostels for the homeless and paid work in a children’s nursery.All gave me insights into people. All left me burnt-out from helping people to help themselves.

Psychotherapy would have been a rewarding occupation in so far as attempting to understand the human condition, for this comes close to a writer’s sense of observation and detachment. I would have found continuing self-analysis and assessment by other therapists difficult especially long after I’d qualified. Maybe I could have taken this on board. Maybe not. My writer’s ego wouldn’t have made it through.

I have the disposition to be a therapist or counsellor but not be a writer as well. And anyway I need to creatively lie about others so as to form characters, situations and images.  All those clients. All that material. Potential subjects. The confidentiality. The trust. You could change the names. But? Chekhov not only had the strength to have two professions but be good at them and, most importantly, stay responsible to both. I would have to choose. I did, giving up the complementary medicine path to write again and maintain a caring edge or hopefully disturb readers in the right way.

“I think I am here on this earth to spread a little misery in the world”

That was dramatist Dennis Potter during a TV interview with Michael Parkinson. I love the anti-sentimental thrust of a partly mischievous, yet deadly serious, claim from a man who was such an ironic and passionate healer through words. (It’s a tall order to write convincing dialogue for a female character who’s dying of cancer. Most TV and film doesn’t convey the gut reality of that, for it’s over-occupied in conveying instant, violent death. Potter’s play Joe’s Ark eschews sentimentality, through the writing and the brilliant performance of actor Angharad Rees to convey the dying process more powerfully than I can remember.)

It was one of those rare moments when acting and writing took on such a reality, an almost super-medicinal gaze, harrowing, affecting, wanting to save yet being unable, that shook you to your core. Potter as dramatist and word-doctor fusing art and medicine. Imagining a young woman’s death not to console or shock but simply witness became an act of healing. The other side of the mirror is someone brought back from the dead as in Carl Dreyer’s magisterial film Ordet (The Word). Here a miracle occurs and a mother is restored to her family. As you watch Ordet the illusion of the miracle is so intense that you leave the cinema convinced that a real resurrection actually occurred.

The medicinal-cinematic gaze restores life for Dreyer and completes death for Potter,with both works containing sincere religious overtones. It’s a cliché to call an artist a healer. Yet I feel that here medicine and art were fused. That those occupations became inextricably linked. These are rare extremes when your creative work performs other work too. Of course it’s all contained within a fiction (Film or play) but does that make it a less healing experience and therefore less real for the spectator? Vicarious forms of transcendence. Occupations can miraculously beget occupations.


The role of a priest, in our post-Christian society, is problematic, less sure, though not quite redundant. I would love to be projected back to an early 19th century England (Pre-Darwin) enjoying a priestly role of pastoral care. A country parson, on horseback, visiting his parishioner’s ala John Kilvert’s diary style. It’s a role that would have satisfied the writer in me. As well as being a ‘social worker’ I could have been an earlier poet/priest like George Herbert or John Donne (His sermons are masterpieces of commanding rhetoric.)

In my fantasy pulpit I’d have been a compassionate but uncompromising vessel for the voice of God. Endowed with the vocal authority of an Orson Welles or Richard Burton I may have gone as crazy as the priest that Burton portrayed in Huston’s film of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. His angry denunciation of the congregation always gives me such a high: as if in my English pastoral role there’d inevitably come a time when I’d gleefully, and probably drunkenly, turn my back on the religious establishment. Such a renegade, de-frocked priest, now free-lance and available for hire, would have been my spiritual firecracker! Unfortunately I won’t ever get there as the 21st century version of me doesn’t believe in God.

The few priests I’ve ever met didn’t impress me. They were too eager to please and frightened to offend. The exception being a Roman Catholic priest named Father Bennet whom I encountered in Brighton. During my old friend Suzanne’s conversion to Catholicism I met her converter. Bennet was a tall man in his fifties and had handsome if satanically inclined looks. He also bore a permanent boil on his neck that you imagined contained the pus and poison of his real business. I always felt uncomfortable in his presence and was shocked at how acquiescent Suzanne was towards him. Behind his soft-spoken, but acutely precise voice, lay a chilly force of a man. I’d no evidence of any abuse of power just a disquieting intuition that this priest wasn’t to be trusted (Others sensed this too and mentioned rumours of a sexual nature.)

I accompanied Suzanne, perhaps naively, for her protection to Midnight Mass, drank the wine, chewed the bread and felt not so much his indignation at my ‘playing’ with the ritual but his suppressed fury that I might be guarding Suzanne. Thankfully she wasn’t harmed by the priest. A year later Suzanne gave up Catholicism. But I’ve never forgotten the glance that Father Bennet gave me on the altar that night, “What’s your game then, unbeliever?” it mentally cried out. If I’d ever wished for a religious ‘game’ it would have been to have warned people about priests like him. I may have fantasized about being a dismissed priest but my excommunication would have been on the grounds of questioning clerical authority not shaming it.

Teacher / Actor / Film Director

Few writers make a living from their writing. A second occupation matters – usually an academic teaching post. I’ve done bouts of teaching – English as a Foreign Language and Adult Literacy. They brought in a small income. Yet neither challenged me in the role of being a teacher who really wanted to impart knowledge. Life as a university lecturer didn’t appeal. But Adult Education once did.  I was offered a place to do a teaching certificate but didn’t take it up.

As for acting, I do, as a writer, live in my head (probably too much) and enjoy self-dramatisation. But I have too much of a writer’s self consciousness to be good at professional acting. My writer introspection would get in the way of giving a disciplined performance. I write the inner life of a character. Yes. I inhabit what I create. Yes. But I myself can’t re-enact to make it come alive on stage or film. That’s a job I designate to others.

With a love of cinema and an imagistic style of writing being a film-director might have seemed obvious. I have written scripts to films that were later produced and at one level I could have story-boarded them in my head. Yet directing a film has always struck me as the most stressful of jobs. You have to designate work to others, please actors, calm producers and try to raise money for projects. It takes too long to finish a project and I would have been frustrated by keeping together the collective process.

On one short film production that I worked on as scriptwriter there were times when I wanted to interrupt the director and his DOP and say “You surely don’t want to place the camera there, do you?” But unlike Orson Welles, who acted in so many bad films for the money, that being denied directing jobs, caused his ego to interfere, with the technicalities, I would have let it go. For me directing was a daydream where I might always lose control. Whereas writing allows me to daydream that I’m God and sustain control until a writer’s workshop or editor says that it can be better. Then God’s open to new ideas.

Private Detective / Archivist / Interior Designer

All these activities demand facts, analysis, information and solving a problem or a mystery. Being a private detective, unhindered by the Police authorities, is perhaps an over-romantic role. Being a Philip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes could be a risky business. So I may have occasionally called on the police for assistance whilst staying a loner. It’s the deduction that appeals. The assemblage of facts. And those small details fitting into the overall plan. All analogous to the writing of a novel or play.

Archivist also taps into my analytic powers. I was a public-library assistant for 10 years and enjoyed it. Yet when younger it would have been exciting to have been more specialist, but not with books, but celluloid. A film restorer / preservationist probably working on silent cinema. I’m fascinated by those DVD / Blu-Ray extras that explain how restoration work was carried out. Cleaning up a Metropolis is the equivalent of restoring an Italian Renaissance painting.

Interior Designer is the easiest (unpaid) occupation to take on board. That’s a fantasy role I can constantly work at in my flat as I move furniture and objects around, decorate a room, add a new feature and imagine new arrangements. People talk of harmony and Feng Shui. With me its reasonable order, a small amount of expressive mess (I work and live in this room) and enough comfort. I’m not a minimalist (The photographs of apartments featured in the London Evening Standard property pages make me recoil from their uniform vacuity – they all have such a cold and forlorn exclaiming “My property shall be emptied of extraneous things that make it look lived in”.)


Well, I’m already that. And can now reminisce about the other work I once did. Even write about it. Writing occupies my time and provides sufficient meaning to get up in the morning. And I can’t stop doing it. Not an easy occupation but who said that living was easy anyhow? It can’t be an effortless Summertime all the time as the song declaims.

“When you make music or write or create, it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.”

Lady Gaga

My variant on Lady Gaga’s wild activity is the practice of writing as a gentle but probing anarchism. The freedom I like is when the shackles of occupation are subtly broken!

Blessay 50: Books that Travel

This is my third piece on travelling. Like the previous essays on my mother and China, it’s an old piece that’s been hanging round on my desk. I wrote of carrying abroad lots of books in my luggage. That was in the 70s 80s and 90s. Today we have the kindle and I can now electronically store thousands of texts, but despite its convenience and non-glare screen I still take at least two paperbacks with me. Here’s my account of books and the countries they ended up in.

Firstly you decide on a book, or books, (not counting a guide-book) for your journey. I always manage to do this two hours before I leave home to catch my transport. It’s best to choose a book not in the presence of a partner or friend: for me books have to be deliberated on, and my slow choosing can drive them crazy. (I’ve you’ve read Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller you’ll recall the superbly absurd chapter about endless categories of unread books and the exasperation at to what read next.)  It has to be a novel, for a decent time span and narrative drive. If possible it should flow smoothly with your travelling. Ulysses is a linguistic Everest of a book to get through and shouldn’t be taken if you are thinking of climbing the real Everest; more to be read tottering lost round any great city, but preferable at home, drinking cider, on the sofa. Also beware of over-dense narratives. I love Kafka, but The Castle has always been a hurdle I could never overcome. Three times I’ve tried reading it and only got half way through. It’s an unfinished novel and maybe that’s the point: my never finishing it means I, like K, is doubly less likely to make it to the castle. As K struggles through the snow, ice, bureaucracy and tries to escape from its menacing characters, Kafka’s prose induces an eye-closing tedium. Sadly it was a disastrous choice for my Czech Republic trip.

Stories are allowed (though they’re more like snacks than a meal) and my personal favourite would be editor Alberto Manguel’s stunning anthology of fantasy stories, Dark Water. Reading H.G. Wells’ wonderful story The Door in the Wall in Romania had me speculating on quite a few bricked off entrances in the older streets of Bucharest. (Alas, the white wall with its green door opening into an enchanted world has never been discovered on any of my travels.) Poetry is too reflective and really doesn’t synchronise well when you’re on the move. My only exception was the great Polish poet Zbiegniew Herbert in Poland. His humour, surrealism, dark irony and cutting strangeness partnered well with the sceptical Polish temperament – especially when in Gdansk the month after Solidarity was set up in 1980. Essays are passable but like stories are a quick eat, and if they’re good you just want more and more and end up getting through them too quickly. (There’s nothing worse than finishing all your books within five days of a three-week trip and not finding a single bookshop that has anything readable left in English to buy.)

As for non-fiction, don’t bother. History books and biographies have never worked for, as my mind flits rapidly onto more books to instantly check out about the First World War or Dickens when my book collection or local library can’t be accessed. It really has to be good long novel or three short reads

Having the selected novel with you, during the first stages of travel, presents you with a dilemma. There’s a tense pull between the journey that imaginative prose demands and the journey that your prosaic actions – getting to your airplane seat, and strapping your seat belt –absolutely requires. Whilst the escapist part of you wants to be belted into your book, the realist side suddenly learns that the book isn’t resting on your lap but buried in the hand luggage. Stuffed amongst your clothes and travel guides are a book or two of that druggy stuff called fiction. You un-belt and retrieve it – ‘some author’s’ completed and paper-backed journey of his/her imagination. A yet to be read world is planning to kidnap you and hold you hostage – much more likely to happen than a real terrorist attack.

You get of your plane. Arrive in an unfamiliar land – usually the glaring sunlight of a Spain, Italy or Greece. You stagger round with too much baggage but make it to your hotel.  Up early next day to do the town or an out-of-the-way monument, being quickly exhausted by a dirt track road or tarmac highway. There are the gems in a great art gallery or the remains of a temple to take in. The mind soon begins to weary of its impaling rota – find a room, buy a meal, see some sights, catch a train, find a room, buy a meal, see some more sights, find a room, buy a meal…  Then you remember that you can return to chapter 12 of your Patricia Highsmith thriller. You read on – hopefully persuaded by the writer’s mind that you’ll get safely there and back, that the journey will be good one and you’ll enjoy being its surrogate author.

Why do we take certain novels away with us? Have they already been unconsciously chosen? If so, are they the right books? Does the unconscious lie and control us? Have they been carefully consciously chosen? An exasperated ‘anything readable will do action or ‘let’s return to my original choice, after a dozen wrong ones? My only rule about selection is to be a bit wary of taking the literature of the country you’re about to visit. (I recall reading Homer’s Odyssey in Greece. By a quiet deserted edge of Corfu I kept imagining Odysseus sailing towards the shore, anchoring himself in a real terrain, and me wanting to invent new stories for him.) My Penguin classic’s translation had to be put away, as the grip of the landscape was overpowering. Only after sailing back to Italy did I re-open The Odyssey and allow that amazing Greek to recount his own adventures.

You can pack old English novelists. Conrad, James, Dickens or Eliot in your bag. Or some modern Americans, Bellow, Roth, Ford Cynthia Ozick and Marilyn Ferguson. The beautiful clarity of their English helps calm the mind and expunge it of the terrible pidgin English you’ve been inflicting on the locals and they’ve inflicted on you. It always feels clumsier than your attempts at their language. (This was very apparent in the 80s in Europe. Now English is the dominant second language. Business speak has ‘saved’ the English race from being linguists. In Asia there can be ‘problems’ but less so because of the internet and charm of football.)

I remember being huddled in a tent on a hard Moroccan camping ground. An effusive argument, in Arabic, was raging nearby. I was reading Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady: the moment when Isabel Archer’s regrets having married Osmond.

“In that sense, that of the love of harmony and order and decency and all the stately offices of life, he went with him freely, and his morning had contained nothing ominous. But when, as the months, had elapsed, she had followed him farther and he had seen her into the mansion of his own inhabitation, then, then she had seen where she really was.”

I was 6 kms from Rabat and under the canvas of my cheapo tent. The two Arab men’s argument was getting louder. But the suspense of Isabel Archer’s doubting and the pressing anxiety of her dark night of the soul drew me further into the Jamesian scene. James wrote many stories speaking of the mystery and power of it. It is never properly explained – the heart of the matter or ineffable mystery? That night I felt it pressing in on me.* Was I really listening to that argument or sympathising with Isabel? The language of Henry James and the incomprehensible sound of the Arabs competed for attention. I couldn’t decide where I really wanted it (My story-reading frustration and story-writing yearning) to be. I threw down the book, inserted my earplugs and tried to fall asleep.

Travel brings a constant stimulus both good and bad. A novel pulls you inwards trying to make you forget how hard your seat is on a long bus or train journey. In 1974. I was returning home on the Athen’s express train to London. (It was scheduled as a 30 hour trip but took 36) and was reduced to my last bag of peanuts and a bottle of mineral water. I was avidly reading Lawrence’s The Rainbow. Unknown to me, and my wife, was the fact she was one month pregnant. After a bout of morning sickness, on the train and then boat, she plucked the book from my hands and read some D.H. at his most fecund.

“She faced outwards to where men moved dominant and creative, having turned their back on the pulsating heat of creation, and with this behind them, were set out to discover what was beyond, to enlarge their own scope and range and freedom: whereas the Brangen men faced inwards to the teeming life of creation, which poured unresolved into their veins.”

Half-way through our shared reading of Lawrence we were interrupted by a young sociology teacher. At first we exchanged banalities about the weather. Then he stopped and asked us to hear him out. He launched into a gloomy projection of a severe economic crisis for England after the oil crisis of 1972. His apocalyptic tone was accompanied by the rain of Munich lashing against the compartment window.

Three weeks later Prime Minister Edward Heath was struggling with the miner’s crisis. A three-day working week was coming: forced upon us by people, who in the Heath’s words,” want to change our whole democratic way of life.” That remark caused me to pick up again an other Athens Express read, Women in Love and read this.

“There were always miners about…They belonged to another world, they had a strange glamour, their voices were full of an intolerable deer resonance, like a machine’s burring, a music more maddening than the siren’s long ago.”

One definition of the occult is a form of hidden knowledge that’s miraculously connected to coincidence. Books that travel can play a strange and quite magical role in reflecting political acts. Or being prescient. So even stranger than the Lawrence case was Dostoyevsky.

June 1989 saw me touring the art cities of northern Italy. One evening in Perugia I encountered members of the local Communist Party. They were showing videos on large screens in the centre of town. It was TV footage on the uprising in Beijing’s Tian’ anmen Square. The C.P. had appealed for financial help, sung protest songs and delivered speeches of solidarity with the Beijing protesters. I strolled quietly away wondering what China’s old guard leadership would do next. On reaching my hotel I realised that I’d left my copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils on the table of a restaurant. I hurried back to find it being read by a C.P. worker I’d noticed collecting funds. He looked up and smile. “Ah, my friend. You have the right book here….look what I’ve found.” He stood up to read this paragraph.

“The great writer was most painfully afraid of the advanced Russian revolutionary youth, and imagining, in his ignorance, that the keys to Russia’s future were in their hands, he ingratiated himself with them in a most fulminating way, mainly because they paid no attention to him whatever.”

“That’s exactly my problem to. Wanting to be accepted by the group but staying a free and individual writer. Joining the Communists didn’t help me!” I said that at that at this moment in China people were exerting more power than one writer could ever do, in order to change things. “Yes I suppose that’s true,” he admitted,” But I’d have liked to have written important stuff like The Devils so that people of the future would respect me!”

“You know the novel well then?”

“Not at all. Just read a few chapters waiting for you to return.”

He handed over The Devils – probably the blackest and most savage critique on revolutionary activity in all literature, an uncomfortable text both for Beijing’s revolutionaries, pseudo-Maoists and Trotskyites. I wanted to talk to him but he suddenly left, leaving a CP leaflet on the table.

Never read extremely leisurely paced fiction on bumpy buses or crowded third class Indian trains. The first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past suffered greatly. Its immensely long and allusive sentences, with their challenging syntax, are hell to concentrate on when beggars are singing in front of you, tea sellers are crying out Chai! Chai! and the train screams to a halt and your backpack crashes to the floor. Re-positioning myself in my seat (The long luggage rack that I paid the guard 8 rupees baksheesh for) I once more attempted Proust.

A Hindi voice recited what I thought to be a prayer in Sanskrit written in an exercise book. The old man was closely watched buy a second old man who explained it was a Hindu translation of a poem by Longfellow called The Psalm of Life. He complained that great English poetry was no longer being read by Indians anymore. The man asked me what I was reading. “Just some French book” I replied wearily. For the reader’s Longfellow I swapped him two stanzas of Wordsworth. These were then translated into Hindu.

It was days before I returned to the vicissitudes of jealousy expressed in Swann in Love. In my new hotel room I devoured more Proust and unfortunately some very sweet Indian sweets. I was sick all day and couldn’t handle sentences either very long or very short. Books that travel have to be careful. For their readers may fall ill. And they may go for days without being picked up and loved.

“Its not that great books are not being written anymore. It’s more that there aren’t any great readers.”

Gore Vidal

Nor great travellers to enjoy them too.


* This is my feeble reference to the opening sentence of Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch. “I can feel the heat closing in.”






Blessay 49: My Mother, Dennis Potter and The Language of Dying

With China still on my mind I discovered an article that I sent to The Guardian in late 1994. They didn’t accept it but the “Society” features editor found it touching. A few changes and updates have been made, but the piece remains essentially the same and I’d like to share it with you.

Before I flew to Beijing in April 1994 I carried out two important acts. I watched Channel 4’s Melvyn Bragg interview with Dennis Potter (That later resulted in the book, Seeing the Blossom.) and I visited my mother just after she was admitted into a residential care home. That June, when I returned to London, Dennis Potter died shortly after and my mother a fortnight later. There’s no obvious connection between them but their attitude towards death and the language they used still haunts me.

Dennis Potter (Funny, touching and risky) deliberately ‘stage-managed’ his death for a television audience of millions. With Melvyn Bragg as interviewer, cigarettes and a flask of liquid morphine, he eloquently spoke about his life and writing. By then both the trivial was now more important for him and the important perhaps really trivial.  He thought that a great deal of authentic experience had been cruelly sold back to people (Now termed consumers not citizens) for a spectacle of facile mocking.

“Now, the world that you and I came into, television or radio, when we came into it, I’m not saying it can be preserved as it was, and I’m not saying there mustn’t be change, but that world was based upon a set of assumptions that are almost now derisible. We’re destroying ourselves by not making those statements. Just as we’re destroying our television. Week by week, day by day, I see it.”

Yet the process of dying was giving Potter a perspective on the “nowness” of things.

“…the blossom is out in full now…it’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but its white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’…last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest that there ever could be, and I can see it.”

Potter’s TV ‘death’ was a highly articulate and heroic leave-taking. Manipulative but joyfully so. For Dennis Potter (Probably Britain’s finest TV playwright) no longer gave a bugger about what he said and we held on to his every word.

My mother Florence had none of the philosophical sharpness of Potter when it came to describing her life. She’d left an orphanage and school at the age of fourteen with the most basic of education. Mother was now 83 and her speech was drying up. But when younger she could talk and talk. It was that colourful, if repetitive talk that I now missed. It carried such feeling, stubbornness, enthusiasm and a wilful determination never to be seen as old. She had rheumatoid arthritis, not helped by needing a zimmer frame to get round – the result of two ‘botched’ hip replacement operations. And eight months previous she kept falling down too much and was in hospital for a check up.

On a cold November afternoon in 1993 I travelled up from London to Liverpool. When I arrived I found her sitting in a chair, in a transit ward, staring straight ahead. She displayed a shocking gaunt vacancy. I had to prompt her to make a sound. Then without looking me in the face she asked me questions I’d heard many times before. “Are you going on holiday, soon? Do you like it in London? Its cold today, are you wearing your scarf?”

Dennis Potter needed no rehearsal for his interview. My mother probably did. For her words conveyed an almost valedictory sub-text: lines she needed to internally memorize and convince herself that this was really happening (“My life is finishing. It’s funny that it has too.” Who’d have thought I’d have ended up here…waiting.”)

I tried not imagining this, wanting to shut it out and dump my anger on the nurse who’d left mother, staring in a hard chair, for more than an hour, next to an even older woman moaning in her sleep. Mother never made a fuss. “Why didn’t you ask to moved back to your ward? “ I saw no bell or cord to pull for attention. She tried to crack a smile through the vacancy. “Oh, it’s alright” A sad cadence fell on “alright” forcing me to reluctantly translate it as “I can give up now, can’t I?”

Dennis Potter as a cultural icon, controversial writer and generous man wasn’t going to be opaque and merely drop hints about dying. It was his last interview. And he was smiling upfront about death (Of course my mother was also smiling but I couldn’t see that.)

Mother’s first sign of death was made the previous summer by telephone. She’d given me that third person statement again but with a difference.”Yer mother’s not very well…I don’t think they can do anything else for me…Yer mother will just have to put up with it.” Her resignation shocked me. Made me indignant. How dare she give up? Cease bothering to accept another box of useless paracetamol and ineffective lotion; stop believing that she’d get better by herself (Mother was very strong-willed) beyond her new indifferent doctor and an under-funded heath authority.

On Christmas morning of 93 she couldn’t concentrate on the television and was untypically falling asleep too much. She woke up, barely made it to the toilet, arrived too late and wet herself. I heard her embarrassed crying from the bathroom and my brother Derek helping her. I looked back at the living room. On television Harold Lloyd was performing daring gymnastics on the ledge of a skyscraper. After lunch I prompted her to talk. She sang instead, launching into a sad medley of twenties and thirties songs finishing of with the tacky cheeriness of Ken Dodd’s “Happiness.” She’d always wanted to be a singer.

Potter, the great radical of popular culture, spoke of the potency of cheap songs as having “…something of the Psalms of David about them. They do say the world is other than it is. They do illuminate…” If god exists (And I doubt it) then the tiny divine bit in mother was awake. Potter’s sense of god is acceptable. “…the shreds and particles and rumours, some knowledge that we have some feeling why we sing and dance and act.”

During my childhood Mother’s talents surfaced in her emotional intelligence – a kindness and selflessness to others, her ability to listen and a psychic skill to read fortunes – those tea leaves in a neighbour’s cup being a mere act. “It’s the eye in my forehead” she insisted. Nothing directly artistic. No education. No support early on.Her energy being authentically put, like most women of her generation, into being a good housewife (which she was). No ‘bigger’ meaning than that. None necessary.

By February mother couldn’t manage living on her own. In the same month (ironically on St.Valentines day) Potter learnt of his terminal cancer.

The bright, over-clean residential home was ready. Mother was still in hospital so I went home to sort out a few things for her. In her wardrobe I discovered, inside an old hat box, a miniature brown envelope about a quarter of the size of a weekly wage packet. On the outside mother had written births, deaths and remembrances. Inside where three small cuttings from the Liverpool Echo – funeral tributes to my father, mother’s sister Jessie and her brother Stan. And amidst a wardrobe drawer of old birthday cards, letters and two out of date insurance policies I found my government identity card (defaced by childish scribble) for the year of my birth, 1949.

I packed some clothes into mother’s suitcase. All this rapidly going through her effects felt intrusive. Me (not her) deciding what was needed, what could be junked. It was the first short prelude to death. The putting things in order stage. Mother couldn’t handle it. Dennis Potter announced to his TV audience that he had done so.

“Obviously I had to attend to my affairs as well. I remember reading that phrase when I was a kid. He had time to tend to his affairs…”

The last time I saw mother I wheeled her into her room (Number 15) and tried to relax her. I sat watching her drink the chicken soup I’d heated up. Gradually the glazed appearance she’d caught from the communal lounge (That she hated) began to fade and we had a normal conversation. We returned to our old intimacy. I comfortably felt I was ten years old again, and it was my lunch break before returning to school.

According to Potter he had the most sensitive of doctors to keep him alive. The G.P. “gently and carefully” led Potter to a “balance between pain control and mental control.” He still had two television plays (Karaoke and Cold Lazarus) to complete and realised that working flat-out was shortening the little time left him.  Projects where his priority, his food.

“Morality teaches a serene acceptance of those ills which science and technology are powerless to abolish – pain, disease, old age. It claims that the courageous endurance of that very condition which lessens us is a way of increasing our stature. If he lacks other projects, the elderly man may commit himself to this. But here we are playing with words. Projects have to do only with our activities. Undergoing age is not an activity. Growing, ripening, ageing, dying – the passing of time is predestined, inevitable.”

Old Age        Simone De Beauvoir

Potter’s life-project was his writing, my mother’s was handfuls of courage. Her project was to embrace life and have it vividly self-dramatised in her stories – those repetitive monologues about the past. She constantly looped fact (her two dead sisters) with fiction (Her unseen neighbours). She haunted herself silly with memories. She couldn’t write. She couldn’t dance. Or sing well about it. And when she unwisely moved away from her house to a first floor box of a council estate, the neighbours stopped visiting. Yet she continued to self-dramatise; remain a working-class woman raconteur of limited experience and the life of the distant street. All this was long before the small signs of dementia (conditioned or organic) that preceded her death. Her artistic distraction was an embroidery by numbers picture kit. Her hands threaded the wool, allowing her to dream and remain optimistic, in spite of a struggle against eighty plus years of sad contexts.

A severe stabbing pain came to her right side and she told no one. Only when my brother Derek visited her one day did she admit to its intensity. I think she intuitively knew it was the final pain (the post-mortem said gall stones with complications: brought too late to hospital and I suspect her will to live had gone.) I wasn’t present at her death but my brother was in the ward. He rang me at a quarter to midnight saying they didn’t know what the scan had revealed but it was unlikely she’d last the night. I put down the phone preparing myself for a long wait. But Mother didn’t even make it to midnight. She passed away whilst I’d spoken to Derek.

What am I left with?  The language of her death, months before her real death, tearing through my dreams. I foresaw it on my long overnight train journeys in China. From Shanghai to Beijing she and my deceased father, appearing re-united in death, kept telling me not to worry as during my Silk Road journey they kept falling down flights of broken steps.

I never dreamt of Dennis Potter but whilst travelling two interview words kept ringing through my head. “nowness” and “vocation.” Mother never used such terms. But she was a regular participant in the “nowness” of the moment. Like the loud laughter issuing from her when she remembered such a moment thirty-five years ago. Alone in the house, she’d been pasting a strong vinyl covering on the wall behind the gas cooker. She stepped backwards to admire her work and placed her foot in a bowl of smelly glue. On pulling it out, the paste went and stained her other foot. (At her funeral I recalled the divine comedy of her mad glue predicament)

Finally, the Potter word “vocation.” A career or calling. I write respectful of a need for professionalism but the voice that says you must do it is integral. I knew I was a writer since the age of fourteen (Those absurdly verbose compositions on gardens and the River Mersey.) But the 54 years since then have been stormy, causing me to forget the duty and the pleasure.

Thank you Dennis for reclaiming that wonderful term. Thank you mother for supporting my “vocation.” It was all part of your unspoken vocabulary which I’ve long ago acknowledged, accepted and taken responsibility for. From the language of dying, subtly entwined in our lives, that we silently rehearse from the moment we are born hopefully emerges a way to shape a good life.


Blessay 48: The Ins and Outs of China

I’ve done a great deal of travelling but rarely written about it at length: an occasional essay, material for a poem and incidents that sparked a short story. Guide book travel writing hasn’t appealed.  Extended lyrical travelogue has. I’d loved to have produced a book as illuminating as Lawrence’s Sea & Sardinia or Henry Miller’s book on Greece, The Colossus of Marousi. Yet I’m personally unsure of writing a long travel narrative. I feel happier with scraps of notes backed up by a few photographs.

Travel holds three things close to me – escapism, confrontation and reflection. They’re mental zones I inhabit whilst physically exploring a country’s sights, both famous and banal, during my getting on and off buses, boats and planes. The idea of adventure or misadventure is very appealing. And though I shall never be a keen Lonely Planet researcher I do hold on firmly to the title traveller and not tourist. Too many years of backpacking (though recently the backpack has been replaced by the shorter trip bag) have kept me an independent visitor.

A critic friend of mine has just returned from covering a film festival in China. Her photographs caused me to dig out some notes on my own 1994 visit. Two pieces in all. One about ‘misdemeanours’ in the Peoples Republic. And one on The Great Wall.

(1) It’s 11 am in Urumqi in the North West province of Xianjang. The railway station is as hard and grey as most buildings in this muddy and doggedly ugly city. Train tickets for tomorrow go on sale from 9.30 – 11.45 and then 1.30 – 4. By 11.20 there are still ‘thousands’ in front of my partner and me. But the queue (like most queues in China) is deceptively long. Few actual travellers are queuing. Clustering round every ticket purchaser is an entourage of friends, relatives or black-market hawks. They function as an impatient Greek chorus, minus a tragedy, shouting noisy comments that quickly burst into flurries of rage or laughter. There’s now a large group of people departing to the other side of the steps to examine two pairs of tickets, handed round like precious stones.

11.30. An old man wearing a dusty peasant jacket walks towards us and then stops. He stares in disbelief at his ticket. The evidence of his eyes is nakedly insufficient. He asks the younger man following him to confirm things. “Yes. Yes. Yes. Fine. Fine…Fine” (I don’t need English subtitles to get this) All the crucial pieces fit to transform the old man into a triumphant passenger. He starts kissing the ticket, then lifts up his eyes to the broken station roof. In his joy is he thanking the gods or a high-up railway official? Bribe or answered prayer he turns and happily departs. We’ve been shown it’s possible to come through, become a passenger.

11.40. Now it’s our turn. We trust our smidgeon of ticket purchasing Pin-Yin Chinese won’t be dismissed as being hilariously inept. I’m peering through the tiny arch (designed for small children) in the ticket clerk’s window. I slide through a piece of paper. It has, in Pin-Yin, which no one understands, all my instructions: student double underlined and some carefully copied Chinese characters. Two bright read student cards try to back up my case. The clerk looks doubtful. I reveal a grubby phrase book and mark the word student again. It makes no difference. Our evidence has to be approved. She takes the cards and disappears. A tense two minute wait. She’s back. We are approved. But we want four tickets and only have two cards. Part mime and part speech follows. “Yes. Yes. Four. Yes. Other two students sleeping at hotel. OK?” My hands indicate they’re snoozing. It works. Four Chinese-priced, soft sleeper tickets are handed over.

Like all the good citizens of Urumqi we celebrate, but not with a glance towards heaven but each other, smiling. An obvious black-marketeer stares, peeved at our success (All we’d have got from him was  a hard seat to Chengdu – three nights of the radio always on, lights never off, a squashed fruit and peanut shell ridden floor, spitting everywhere and smoke ridden pain).

Next day 7.30 am at our hotel. There’s a knocking on our door. It can’t be another delivery of vacuum flasks of hot water, which was done at 7. We ignore the persistent knock and go back to sleep. At eight I get up to discover a note (in English) that was slipped through the door.

“Ladies and gentleman, welcome too our hotel! But our hotel haven’t the right that receive foreign friend. So you and your companions can’t stay in our hotel. I must say sorry to you. Today, you must leave off our hotel and paid the room rent. Thank you!”

Two nights ago the relief manager allowed (after some haggling) to let us in. We’d suspected that the hotel might be a Chinese guests only one – they exist throughout China, and if they don’t obtain police permission to take foreigners, would face a large fine for doing so: this still holds true for my Lonely Planet guide to China of May 2013. Yesterday there was much collective grinning and nervous excitement from the hotel staff. Now this message.

Luckily the morning of the note is also the morning of our departure to Chengdu. We all get up and go out to buy food for our journey. On our return we discover a tall policeman posted outside the hotel who prevents us from going in to get our luggage. He stretches out his Great Wall of China arms and says NO. We retaliate, shouting and ‘building’ our own wall of English and American protest. The department manager appears and ushers us back in to avoid further embarrassment.

We are asked to hand over the room keys. We then follow a member of staff to our rooms. She opens them and snaps in English that we have one minute to collect our luggage. We do and step out. She then rushes in to examine the room; probably making sure the hotel property is intact. When finished see looks suspiciously at me and touches my bulging backpack. Does she imagine that the bulges are caused by vacuum flasks and Chairman Mao coasters? Maybe sensing the absurdity of that thought she pulls back. Back in the lobby, she and the manager walk us to the door. We stop. They stop. The policeman reappears with his extended arms. Its time to move quickly on to the station.

After boarding the train, and given the heat of the day, we’d like to have a nap. But the piped music of our compartment is unforgiving. A tape of militant orchestral music, sounding wobbly and off pitch sounds almost an apology for the Cultural Revolution. This is followed by a soupy arrangement of the slow movement from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Being first class ticket holders we naively assume we have first class power to turn it off. But a volume control isn’t to be seen. The distorted Russian soup begins to slurp down into the deepest recess of our eardrums. A guard appears, checks our tickets, discovers the switch, turns up the volume and leaves.

The volume switch is now disturbingly locked. In desperation one of us clambers onto the top bed to examine the loudspeaker. I hand him my Swiss army knife. He takes off its case. Two frail wires are screwed to the speaker cone. They are unscrewed. Silence.* They’ll not be screwed back until we reach Chengdu. There’s a brief reflection on how serious this interruption might be rated in the Peoples’ Republic. Long ago, in the politically turbulent sixties, some of us might have been good Maoists and have been charmed by such muzak. But all the good Maoists of the western world could never quite make it over to the East.

*Our escape from music proved temporary. Four days later, in our Chengdu hotel room, we were woken up at 6am to a communal speaker, placed on a roof, in the middle of town, booming out more military bands to accompany pre-work, keep-fit exercises for the populace.

(2) London, just after midnight. I’m looking out of my window at an intensely clear full moon. I imagine myself as an astronaut returning from the moon and gazing atEarth. The story was that The Great Wall of China was the only building that you could see from space. Alas, this proved to be myth. Even China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei, who went into space in 2003, said it wasn’t visible.

“The Great Wall of China cannot be photographed. It is not a line of stones on the ground. It is an idea. It is not even a wall. It is many walls built roughly over 2000 years by different dynasties.”

Daniel Schartz.

By moonlight I can browse through my large book of photographs by Daniel Schwartz called The Great Wall of China. They’re as hauntingly beautiful as any moon or space shots. The book’s text includes Borges’s famous essay, The Wall and The Books. The first Chinese emperor Shi Haung ordered the building of the wall, to keep out his enemies, and the burning of all books, as his opposition drew upon them to praise the emperors that pre-dated Shi Haung. Borges speaks of a tenacious wall that “casts its system of shadows over lands I shall never see.”- referring not only to Borges not physically being on the wall or other politically repressive spots but the writer’s encroaching blindness.

I have my own photographs of the wall. Without the aid of Schartz’s wide angle lens I still achieved a passable image. My triptych image at Mutinoyou (90 kms from Beijing) glued together from three photographs taken on that hot day in early June 94.

The wall photographs remind me of standing on the real wall. Over the centuries it was a means of fortification and defence from enemy tribes. A metaphor for non-admittance and secrecy. A holding on to its power and knowledge as guardedly as The Forbidden City. Whist Shi Haung’s actions, in attempting to suppress and obliterate what had gone before him, begin his own clean slate of rule with a disturbing blankness – repressing history, self-knowledge and awareness of death.

Within months of returning from a very distant country it’s easy to feel that you merely imagined you’d been travelling. Even with all the photographs, videos and notes the mind sends so much of our experience hurrying down a disssapearing river.

My forgetting or erasure of the real Wall in the real China, began the moment after I photographed it. I tired myself out walking along a very small portion of the wall – a remorseless, undulating structure on rough mountainous terrain, that despite breaks in the wall, offered no relief: it makes for crooked, and when smoother, more vertiginous surfaces and hundreds of steps to climb. And in spite of tired legs and feet I felt I was moving through an idea more than a reality. That the wall’s presence, its form, now lived on as an aesthetic force* more than the evidence of the ethic and cultural control of a deluded Emperor.

“Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belaboured by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.”

     The Wall and The Books                 Jorge Luis Borges


I visited the Mutinoyou section of the wall on my last full day in China. China is not an easy country to travel through. I don’t mean getting to the places that a traveller is forbidden access. The obstacles are its bureaucracy and the Chinese character. Not losing face isn’t just an Eastern cliché but a reality (Arguing about the cost of an item, of clothing or a bus driver not stopping at the right stop and causing a swearing match.) Defeat is not admitted. Walls of resistance are built up. Such walls of Imperial memories and state control (running parallel with the warmth and felicity of ordinary people on the streets of Beijing or say Gansu province – made up of other non-Chinese nationalities and not recognised as citizens of the Republic) do palpably exist.

Yet I can’t end on a possibly intimidating note, for I experienced many pleasures, much humour and beautiful scenery in China. Sailing along the enormous Yangtze River (Before they built the wall of the Three Gorges Dam) where at the end of the journey my plastic bag of rubbish was blithely thrown, with many others, into the river. The cuisine of Szechuan was always sensually outstanding (Though the quality of food throughout China was variable – a street market meal could be delicious whilst some very pricey restaurants served junk.)

The look of horror on the face of Madame Wu, landlady of a hotel and bar in Yunnan, when she realised that it was Friday and her customers would inflict drunken karaoke on her. The  wonderful Tibetan monastery town of Xiahhe, in the hills of Southern Gansu; rows of glistening golden roofs, lines of prayer wheels, donkeys galore, the market and meals in the monks’ café, all unforgettable. My shock at experiencing the Europeanised wharf area of Shanghai for it reminded me of The Pier Head waterfront of my home town, Liverpool. A trip to the desert. The beautiful gardens of Suzhou. And the vast scale of China’s geography. Parts of China are so ancient and uninhabited. Inside its plains, with tremendous mountain ranges, you could fit huge chunks of Scandinavia, and most of the Scottish Highlands, round the corners and they’d still look lost.

*At junior school I was forced to memorise the names of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.” The three that most fascinated me where The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Pyramids of Egypt and The Colossus of Rhodes. The first for its musical sound and image (As Schoenberg’s song cycle, of the same name, revealed to me much later) the second for those pyramid shapes enchanting my child’s eye and the last because the colossus (A Greek statue of the sun god Helios) no longer exists and colossus became a word I loved to shout out in the playground. The Great Wall of China would be my eighth wonder of the Ancient World. To represent the wall’s power I will simply stretch out my arms and encircle you like my hotel policeman, though not taking orders from emperor Shi Haung.

Blessay 47: A Need for Objects

At the end of September I took the train to Higham to walk alongside the Thames marshes and riverbanks of Kent up to the village of Cliffe. This is Charles Dickens territory very close to his former house Gads Hill, 30 miles south of London. In July I’d crossed this off my list of walks but couldn’t enter the house for it’s now a working independent school (I peered through the front window half an hour after the end of the school-day. An old chandelier and Victorian ceiling frieze allowing me to imagine Dickens, arm cheekily outstretched, pointing to the school book-case hopefully containing his complete works.)

Now I’d returned to cover the Dickens churches. St.Mary’s at Higham (His daughter Katie was married here in 1863) and St.James’s, Cooling (the setting for the opening scene in Great Expectations (1861). Aided by Google maps on my phone I walked the bridle path alongside the marshes. No convicts, blacksmiths or would-be gentlemen around. Only a rotting hull of a ship, too much plastic litter, sunshine, a warm breeze and a riverbank giving off a Wind in the Willows charm

After a lunch of garlic mushroom and salad (the micro-waved heat of the bread-coated mushrooms burning my tongue to be cooled by a pint of beer) at the pub at Cliffe, I walked three more miles to Cooling Church. Here lay the body-stones that Dickens used to describe Pip’s family.

“To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle – I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trouser-pockets and had never taken them out in this state of existence.”

I love that sad surreal detail about having “their hands in their trouser pockets.” My literary adjunct to that would be children with pockets of marbles that they never enjoyed playing enough with, owing to their brief life. The church at Cooling was apparently a favourite spot for Dickens: he often had a picnic in the graveyard. Tracing my hand round one of the lozenge graves, I wondered if Dickens had also done so and then placed his hands in his own pockets, standing back and sighing about infant mortality. Then perhaps drinking some wine or beer, eating a sandwich and conjecturing on what he’d write, or by then on what he’d written?

A sensual apprehension of a real and literary past crept over me. Those graves have passed into literary legend. Yet here they were, at my feet as if Pip’s labelled stones had fallen off the page of my Oxford paperback edition of Great Expectations to materialise before me. Or the real lozenges had sprung up, from the earth, to be transformed into words, on the paper of page three of chapter one: real objects becoming art objects. Yet infant lozenges belong to all writers to fictionalise in a story or poem. Though they would never be quite the same literary lozenges again – only things on loan from a writer of genius. The church was of Norman origin, and part of the mouldings used in its decoration was the lozenge. These features of the church, its graveyard and a lozenge shaped cough sweet might be sucked into myself: fertile and re-usable material for the imagination.

That thought made me recall another mythic blend of the real and the fictitious. In 1984 I was on holiday in Southern Ireland in county Galway near the town of Gort visiting W.B.Yeats’s Norman Tower (and home) at Thor Ballylee. As my feet stood on its winding stair I felt I was about to enter not just more of the tower, turned into an Irish Literary museum, but tread the steps leading into Yeats’s poem. I could now ascend or descend into A Dialogue of Self and Soul. My excitement on that stair was mythopoetic. I’d stepped on a poetic symbol enabling a greater inwardness of experience. The old Norman stair became Yeats’s consciousness, his poetic thought process. Yeats, who believed in magic, would have me entranced by the occult power of symbols.


My Soul.   I summon to the winding ancient stair:

Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,

Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,

Upon the breathless starlit air,

Upon the star that marks the hidden pole:

Fix every wandering thought upon

That quarter where all thought is done:

Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?


My Self.    The consecrated blade upon my knees

Is Sato’s ancient blade, still as it was,

Still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass

Unspotted by the centuries:

That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn

From some court-lady’s dress and wound,

Can, tattered, still protect, faded adorn.


Like Dickens’s lozenges the Yeats winding stair was made of stone. And the frisson of stone pulls me back to the door of my own kitchen. Here is a large smooth pebble employed as a door-stop. A pebble from the island of Iona that I visited in the 90’s. I brought it home in my backpack. Iona is seen as the symbolic centre of Scottish Christianity. The island had some famous visitors, including Samuel Johnson and James Boswell writing their Tour of the Western Islands (1786). It’s a fanciful madness to assume that the pebble I brought home might have been stepped on by these luminaries. My pebble is distantly connected to their past and directly my own past. But such a connection between real object and art object can produce an enviable rivalry.

In the 1930’s the great Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid sat contemplating rocks on the Shetland island of Whalsay. MacDiarmid, who was a communist and fierce Scots nationalist, lived there in a cottage and wrote a long poem called On a Raised Beach. (1934). This poem is one of the great unsung masterworks of 20th century poetry in English. I’d place it alongside Eliot’s The Waste Land and Basil Buntings Briggflats. Three years ago, Andrew Marr did a BBC TV series on Great Scots. MacDiarmid was one such Scott. Marr, who as a student had studied MacDiarmid’s poetry, took himself and a camera crew to the island, and enthused. I’m sure, after viewing the Whalsay rocks, he agreed with the certitude of these lines.

“We must be humble. We are so easily baffled by appearances

And do not realise that these stones are one with the stars.”

On a Raised Beach is a philosophical poem. MacDiarmid’s comprehension of the island’s materialism strips down all our defensive layers of culture and civilisation to convey a stark, primal reminder of where we came from. Origins are a sobering shock but we need to acquaint ourselves with their reality, their beginnings.

A culture demands leisure and leisure presupposes

A self-determined rhythm of life; the capacity for solitude

Is its test; by that the desert knows us.

It is not a question of escaping from life

But the reverse – a question of acquiring the power

To exercise the loneliness, the independence, of stones

And that only comes from knowing that our function remains

However isolated we seem fundamental to life as theirs.

We have lost the grounds of our being,

We have not built on rock.

In all honesty I can’t pick up my Iona island pebble and be easily drawn back to the primal ratifications of what constitutes my existence. My relationship with stone has, like most of us, been reduced to domesticity – it’s my humble door stop. I have tamed it to serve me. And its smoothed down readiness, for my chosen function, was prepared by the sea over centuries: whereas MacDiarmid’s rocks gauntly looked back at him, in the face, every day. He wouldn’t, couldn’t, take them back to the mainland. Rocks embedded in the landscape: to be looked at for their mournful comfort and existential unease, daring you to make them a poetic idea as you try to absorb their hard evolutionary message.

On a Raised Beach is a spiritual poem, yet not about Christianity. On Whalsay MacDiarmid was spied on – his Scottish nationalism and Communism deeply concerned the government. Despite this surveillance he produced some wonderful poems; though as Andrew Marr says MacDiarmid was often ‘eating dictionaries’ to write difficult poetry. But every obscure word has its rightful place in his poetry. We make the effort to consult a dictionary for it really matters – they’re exact words fully conveying the sound and the sense of the verse. Like The Waste Land, the more you know and refer to notes then the more pleasure is to be got from MacDiarmid’s poetry. Words such as ataraxia, lithogenisis and haptik cluster round the edifice of the poem that is On A Raised Beach (Do read the poem and look them up, please!) Amidst our knowledge that stones where here before humankind and will survive us, after we are long dead, that they evoke God, or a supreme creative force, well before the trappings of any religious dogma, all makes for a harsh MacDiarmid certainty.

I own a worn-out copy of the original 1736 printing of The Book of Common Prayer. I’m not a Christian, nor a follower of other religions, preferring to reflect between atheism and agnosticism. So my copy of The Book of Common Prayer doesn’t undergo everyday use on a Sunday in church, or any other day. I’m an unbeliever who bought, for five pence, a copy in a charity shop, in Hove in the nineteen seventies. It’s passed through families from the late seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth century. The names of the owners are written inside.

From the Rev. J.Chad – June 9th 1787 –

Inherited by one G.W. Chad at the death of my sister Cecilia Rachel Chad on 28th June 1828 to be given to Marie at my death. This book must have been more than 70 years in use.

I’ve written in my own name and that I bought it in 1976. Purchased but never actively used (I don’t pray) over more than 40 years ago of un-use.

Its probably likely that more people in 1736 owned a copy of The Book of Common Prayer than they did a novel – Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719 with its sense of adventure, enduring solitude and the creation of a material world, on your island, both very real and of the imagined self, giving me greater meaning than a prayer book.

So if I was abandoned on a desert island would any of the objects I’ve mentionedhelp me survive my ordeal? Probably not. Books and things. Words and sources. I’d swap the whole lot (including great films, plays and paintings ) for music. And if I couldn’t have CDs, records or computer files of Bach, Beethoven or Mozart (but how could there be just these three, and only the classical guys?) then I’d listen to the sound of the sea. Though if my beach wasn’t all sandy, then my well positioned pebble would remain. I’d like to hear the pleasurable sound of the waves hitting it and all the others.

Of course, it would inevitably remind me of a poem. Maybe this untitled poem by Basil Bunting, dedicated to Peggy Mullett. Here’s an excerpt.

But when mad waves spring, braceletted with foam,

towards us in the angriness of love

crying a strange name, tossing as they come

repeated invitations in the gay

exuberance of unexplained desire,

we can forget the sad splendour and play

at wilfulness until the gods require

renewed inevitable hopeless calm

and our foam dies and we again subside

into our catalepsy, dreaming foam,

while the dry shore awaits another tide.


No, not that all of the time. Let’s have some Whitman too.


To me the sea is a continual miracle,

The fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion

Of the waves – the ships, with men in them

– what stranger miracles are there?


And I’d still be collecting objects on the seashore. Wood, stone, palm leaves etc to build a home. Protect and shelter me from nature. That would eventually make me pray to be rescued from the island and more importantly the civilising of myself.