Blessay 56: On Queuing as a Phenomena

 

Firstly a definition.

Queue – A line or sequence of people or vehicles awaiting their turn to be attended.

(noun)

Concatenation – a linking or joining together into a chain.

(verb)      takes ones place in a queue

“In the war they had queued for food”

(Why is this always only attributed to the British? The Germans also had rationing and queued for food. Perhaps it’s part of the ‘myth’ of the blitz to propagate the image of fortitude / waiting that the British people have now morphed queuing into a tolerance bordering on a national virtue – but is this not also a conditioned response?)

I have more problems spelling the word queue than standing in one. Often I write qeue or queu. Is this a defiant gesture? Do I refuse to join the queue? Pull back, once in line, when some authoritarian voice shouts Next!? (As it does so cuttingly in the Scot Walker version of the Jacques Brel song as the harshly instructed soldiers queue up to lose their virginity in the army brothel truck – only it’s not sex I pull back from but obeying orders.)

It all depends on what I am standing in line for: whether it’s for pain or pleasure. And if I’ve freely chosen to join a queue and not been made to. This essay could be re-titled “Great queues I was in, wasn’t in (missed) but wanted to be in and those I left.”

My queue musings began two days ago when I experienced a void in the afternoon. I’d arrived at the back-steps leading up to the Albert Hall. I’d gone to collect a cloakroom ticket number for my Arena Day Ticket Place in the queue for that night’s concert. It was 3.30 and there was no queue in sight. A steward informed me that the new rule was that once you have a cloakroom ticket you then only return to begin to form a queue at 6pm, for moving in at 6.30sh – an hour before the concert begins.

I’ve learnt that since 2017 (post – terrorist incidents in Manchester and London)that a long straggling queue, outside of the RAH, is considered a security risk. This has proved to be deeply anti-social. Part of the charm of being a promenader has been to join a queue, for a longer and more leisurely time, with its aim to meet people who are also passionate about music.

“There are no great conductors anymore, only musicians who occasionally deliver a great performance.”

“The territorial attitude of some people in the Proms arena creates a defensive, Little-Englander clique.”

“Thirty years ago you could stand even closer to the conductor on their rostrum –  remember that pause between movements in Bruckner’s 5th when Bernard Haitink, wiping the sweat from his face, glanced down at us, smiled and said “Almost there.”

Aside from the nerd-queue arguments and anecdotes once upon a time people shared food and drink and allowed their queue to operate as a slowly moving vehicle into the RAH – that also functioned as a high-class pick-up joint.

The Proms queue was a concatenation that broke the links of its affable chain. It regrouped and co-operated with stewards who were once more eccentric, or less stressed, characters. I miss that often meandering line broken up by picnics and card games on the pavement. We still have a rump queue – a 40 minute assembling. Yet somehow the Proms queue, as a piece of performance art, has been horribly foreshortened (BBC2 once filmed a documentary about the Proms queue – maybe including too many Prom ‘characters’ – yet, exaggeration apart, this very human queue was seriously considered as a newsworthy phenomena.)

It appears that a genuine, democratic ‘peoples queue’ that might spiral ‘out of control’(Such was the Proms queue of 1984 for the Leonard Bernstein Mahler concert that went all the way round several streets, near the hall, ‘taking over’ Kensington) has to be avoided in our age of terrorist threats. Therefore any long queue, spilling into the borough’s space has gone as someone, driving a truck, might now plough into you.

So what of the other queues which have shaped my life?  Here’s my 10 best list.

1. The Proms experience that ended in 2016 in its purest form (Even though by then               Proms queues where a pale reflection of the Bernstein event, but reduced or not we           had more control, steward assisted, on the shape and size of them.) I hope it returns           one day.

2. Queuing in 1980, by a butcher’s shop in Warsaw, for their daily meat ration. I was              waiting, with a Polish friend, and hoping to buy some scraps of stewing steak for his          mother. It was shortly after Solidarity had been formed. When people realised I was          English they thought me mad to join in with their ordeal.

3. In 1965 a new fish and chip shop opened in Liverpool 8. The owners held an                        introductory sale of fish, chips and mushy peas at 50% off. I stood for ten minutes              until some spots of rain and my teenage restlessness made me abandon the idea of           a bargain bag of chips.

4. My overnight queuing outside Harrods in London in the 90’s. I hoped to get a cheap, portable colour TV set. I didn’t. In fact I ended up buying nothing, convinced that every item was over-priced even after its reduction. My ‘reward’ was not a material one but a Guardian newspaper photograph of me rushing through the opened doors of Harrods. From the staircase shot I appear to be in full flight with the leaders of the queue. But I was soon knocked to the ground by a burly Chinese woman. Dazed, but not confused, I re-joined the mob pouring into every floor. Things now looked like a posh jumble sale where people physically fought on another for a scarf or coat. Twelve long and sleepless queuing hours for zilch!

5. Joining the queue for passport control at Luton airport. I opt for the faster queue                dealing with electronic passports. It never works for me. Maybe I don’t position my            body correctly for their camera or they’ve screwed up the micro-chip in the passport.

6. Realising that the word queue is not part of Indian vocabulary. I fell into the path of a hysterical mob that attacked a local Calcutta bus. My orderly line mentality was                  junked by a mass force intent on physically possessing the bus. It was the last one              out-of-town that day. I joined in with the attack.

7. Queuing at school. I was a queue controlling prefect on the steps as the younger kids made their way up to their classrooms. I never sent back children who disorderly or noisy. The queue moved on and upwards. I stood there hating my job, trying to dream.

8. The dole office in Renshaw Street, Liverpool, in 1970. You stood in a long line to                  sign on. It was a vast building: like an aircraft hangar overtaken by hard benches and counters. I always thought of the Soviet Union – a Stalinist, Gulag Archipelago of a building where you were expected to wait for them.

9. My queuing for a Bob Dylan concert at the Brixton Academy. I was surrounded by              too many Dylanogists, of all ages, who extolled Bob’s triumphs but never                             mentioned  his mistakes. When the queue moved my partner and I were benignly              pushed forward, moving us further to the front. Inside we ended up inside                            standing only three rows back from the stage. That panicky surge and queue re-                  assembling propelled me past the English Dylanogists towards a small group who              spoke their fervent Dylan gospel in Japanese.

10.The description of the queue in Kafka’s The Trial and visualisation in Orson                         Welles’s film version. Frightened clients wait for an appointment with their                         advocate. Of course this is the queue pushed to its aesthetic extreme. And I was                   never in it. Except of course in my imagination, where I’m forever a miserable and             anxious client.

And speaking of Kafka, there is now a distributed streaming platform called Apache Kafka. It’s a sort of queue software for computers.

Apache Kafka is used for building real-time data pipelines and streaming apps. It is horizontally scalable, fault tolerant, wicked fast, and runs in production in thousands of companies.”

Google definition

Elias Canetti once wrote a brilliant book called Crowds and Power about the sociology of the crowd in history and a lot more besides. However he didn’t have anything to say about queues. If he had done Canetti might have thought a queue to be a reformed or contained small mob itching to be an unruly crowd?

Canetti is now dead: but ought to return to us to write a new chapter on the queue and technology. In this members of a queue for a train, forced by a poor service, ignore any queuing and rush to get a seat or standing place, in order to get to their offices and work on PCs all queued up and ready for us – being now so “horizontally scalable, fault tolerant and of course “wicked fast”.

Hurrah for the new virtual queue as we un-merrily stream along!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Blessay 55: About Trees

I’ve been thinking about trees. Due to the current heat-wave I’ve been using them for shade. Camden has a healthy tree population. On Fellows Road (right hand side) is a line of big trees that shelters me, almost all of the way, walking to Swiss Cottage tube station. They’re impressive trees equal to the village ones next door in Belsize Park.

Of course I can experience further trees on Primrose Hill and Hampstead Heath. That involves a longer walk or bus ride to have more intimate pleasures: trees are not just for shade but inspection, touching, leaning against and reflecting on. (I draw the line at New Age hugging but agree to a responsible climbing.) Sitting under a tree and reading a book is a very pleasurable activity. The pages I turn come from a tree – perhaps one far away in a forest in Finland. I can thank the tree for giving me the paper to make possible my paperback. A tree was cut down for that purpose (and other things) but hopefully another tree was planted to make up for its killing.

The glossy advertising leaflets put through doors (or where I live often dumped on a bench opposite the lift in my high-rise) make me mourn for the nobility of all trees struck down for that purpose. But like most of us I repress my guilt about waste. Hopefully more trees are planted to provide us with oxygen and grew upwards, magnificently indifferent to our ephemeral paper-needs, and a few will live longer lives than ours in our relentlessly materialist age.

The oldest and most memorable trees I’ve seen on the planet were not just those from my trip to Finland but Tasmania, Germany and Liverpool. In a Finnish forest you can imagine a location similar to the land of Shakespeare’s Tudor England. Whilst in Tasmania some of the tallest trees ever hit the blue overhead like a skyscraper. I’m not sure of the exact age of trees in a Bavarian forest but they seemed to me to have existed in medieval folklore long before they become part of the disturbing iconography of the Brothers Grimm. As for Liverpool, well those two yew trees named Adam and Eve, thought to be about 500 years old, standing in the Tudor court-yard of Speke Hall, were the first, of my childhood, to remind me that experiencing the four seasons, through that many centuries, wasn’t to be my fate.

I’ve mentioned climbing trees. You don’t see much of that today in Camden. The health and safety of people and the protection of tree arms are paramount. However such risk aversion feels like a cultural loss. If mountaineers come out with the cliché about climbing mountains because they are there, then why not the smaller scale ascent of a tree? But do we really need hour-long tree climbing workshops and be equipped with a harness and rope? For that fashionable ‘adventure’ you will have to buy yourself a tree climbing voucher costing £20. It’s just so institutionalised to make a profit. It’s all part of the ‘adventure experiences’ we are sold (Like a night in a museum or dressing up as a cavalier and roundhead to engage in battle.)  I mean you don’t have to go very far up a tree to feel exhilarated and even bump your head or graze your knee without supervision or A & E.) Why an organised show when we should be more spontaneously active?

Outside of the Royal Parks of London, other parks have a law relating to trees.

“No person shall, without reasonable excuse, climb any tree.”

The gentle anarchist, inside of me, would ignore that and the professional guide would stand back and sigh.

The tree I climbed, as a child, near the cricket ground, in Liverpool’s Sefton Park, might still be there. I wouldn’t be able to recognise it now. In my dreams I climb it still. It’s a mental image tree not quite turned into an imaginary tree. Poems and films have many vivid examples of those. The thoughts, feelings and philosophy of nature explored in Wordsworth’s poem, The Tables Turned powerfully set in “a vernal wood” still resonate. As do the trees in Paul Nash’s haunting book of photographs called Fertile Image and the would-be hanging tree of Waiting for Godot.

In the late 1990’s I was walking in Regents Park. It was a grey and chilly spring afternoon. I saw a tree, well away from other trees, and it was on fire. The sight repelled me whilst the heat attracted. I moved closer. The flames were roaring up its branches. It had a stark beauty that moved me to tears. A park warden pulled me back. They were coming to put it out. I think it was a case of arson. Within days I’d written a tree short story called “The Possessed.” that found a home in my collection.

The trees destroyed on the Sussex Downs, during the great storm of 1987 near Park village, the student accommodation I once lived in.

The deep absence of trees I experienced in Iceland. (Like the sea, river or a lake I can’t live comfortably without a nearby leafy presence.)

The aroma of Cyprus orange trees as I ran through a grove.

The quietude of cherry blossom trees in Kyoto.

The great tree in the garden I may one day own.

Other trees I’ve forgotten and those yet to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blessay 54: Words Towards Music

 

In Schoenberg’s great dialectical opera, Moses and Aaron, a despairing Moses cries out for a sign, a symbol or word to reveal the presence of God. “O word, word, word, that I lack.” This need for a hidden key – some proof to explain what’s stubbornly ineffable exacerbates the Jewish leader’s frustration. An image, shaped by Aaron into a golden calf, has been made – materialism is the immediately available god now worshipped by the children of Israel. The word made God turned into flesh and fashioned as a thing of gold. Then Aaron points to a burning bush as a signal not showing God but the way to God. And Moses denounces what he perceives as a Godless image.

Instead of calling on a supernatural agency to be manifest perhaps Moses should have asked for words to describe music, as some creative music of the spheres radiating from God’s invisible presence. Desiring such a Pythagorean force might have proved difficult but not impossible. Many classical music lovers often refer to J.S.Bach as God, for if God exists then this is the transcendental music he would write: an angelic counterpoint, composed in Bach’s Lutheran age, which mathematically and musically constructs a spiritual world. So why ask for a word to describe God? Moses, transported to our time could listen to a performance or recording of the B minor Mass and feel the presence of God.

But which 21st century mortal is most capable of describing the effect of music in words? Is it the written statement of the composer, the musicologist, the performer, or listener? Yet wouldn’t that be a redundant exercise? For does music have any intrinsic meaning other than being its own glorious abstract self?  Humans are self-conscious creatures. After listening to say Bruckner’s 9th symphony, John Coltrane’s Ascension or an Indian classical music raga then the flow, the turbulence or river of notes disappear and on reflection we want to interpret the experience. Words either fall away, or attempt to enter our brains to ‘explain’ the meaning to ourselves or other music loving friends, though this might be an irrational and absurd act.

“As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing notes are faculties of the least use to man…they must be ranked among the most mysterious with which he is endowed” That’s what Darwin said in The Descent of Man.

Mysterious certainly. But is music of the least use to man and woman? Society can certainly function without music but not without words (Yet again if we follow the argument of a Levi-Strauss then before we constructed language our primal sounds made music. That our brains and tongues imitated the sounds of apes and birdsong leaving their phonetic musical fingerprint.)

Is there not an uneasy relationship between words and music twinned in performance? Certainly in popular song or poetry words can be harmoniously companionable. However the tensions dramatised in Sprechgesang (prefiguring the aural battery of rap) with its contrast of spiky speech and song is interesting to consider here. But still employing words, out of a musical context, as some sophisticated after-thought, to describe musical notation can be problematic.

“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain…music expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, never those themselves.”

For Schopenhauer “quintessence” is the pivotal word: a word that for me brings poetry into the discussion. Good poems, working well, contain, within their imagery, sensibility and music, a move towards being essentialist  as well as quintessential. The less said the more conveyed. Art is often a supremely difficult process of editing. It’s no surprise to learn that Samuel Beckett, a master of the pared-down text, loved both his involvement in cricket and playing the piano. As he tensely waited for more action during a long match or played a Schubert impromptu perhaps these activities both strained and relaxed him. Yet afterwards, when writing, did Beckett think his words mattered? He once famously declared he was here to make “a stain upon the silence.” Perhaps music is the biggest creative stain on the silence. And the silence of pauses, written into music, and to be respected after its performance, might be the loudest stain of all. For Beckett creativity was a bleak, but also very amusing operation in the void. For readers and listeners, bringing their everything and nothing responses, art becomes a distraction, an entertainment, a summing up of experience until it reverts back to a challenge. And then unlike Beckett we crave for aesthetic fulfilment over emptiness.

I own many recordings containing booklets where writers explain the technicalities of a musical composition, what the composer was experiencing at the time of writing the work and attempt to describe, in perhaps literary, often poetic terms, just what the music is trying to say. Actually very few music commentators have a strong literary background (An Edward Said on opera, Stephen Johnson on the symphony or a Bryce Morrison on piano music are an eloquent rare breed.)

“Music, as has often been said, is meaningful without having a paraphrasable meaning, is expressive without necessarily communicating something denoted by any linguistic expression…Leaving the concert hall after a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, one is unlikely to say that the music is without content. One may be inwardly shattered, having understood the music very well and precisely for that reason refusing the clichés by which program-note writers struggle to articulate its link to a verbal discourse.”

That’s an extract from Julian Johnson’s 2002 book Who Needs Classical Music? I agree that to understand a work like the Mahler 9th you need go away in silence, overwhelmed if it’s been a good live performance, realising that you’ve been through a journey (Each time I hear Bernard Haitink, live and on record, conduct this piece I discover and reclaim its mysterious power.)  But I disagree about any attempt to write about the music; once you have ‘understood’ it will always result in a cliché response. I think that the musical journey is like travelling on a long trip in a foreign country where hours or days, after returning home, you need to reflect on what you’ve heard and jot down a few travellers’ notes.

For some people it’s not just the absorption of feelings, emotions and ideas of music which matters but a search for words to convey how your perception of the world has been subtly altered or changed. Having a musical epiphany does not necessarily mean describing it with a hackneyed phrase – for the act of listening deeply to music can raise your desire, then your expectations, hope, and skill with words to write as well as possible. We may have had a transcendent moment but paradoxically feel the urge to ground it on earth.

I’ve deliberately not included any examples of words attempting to describe, or even philosophise, about the string quartet, concerto or symphony. I didn’t want to contrast and compare writers’ examples. For behind all the metaphors that listeners employ is something so very difficult to capture – the pulse of music. This is a living, breathing concept that great conductors like Wilhelm Furtwangler instinctively knew you had to grasp.

Every time I hear that moment, when the flute enters, in the first movement of Bruckner’s 5th symphony (As highlighted on the live performance by Jascha Horenstein and the BBC Symphony Orchestra) its hidden pulse is revealed. Each note, repeating the pizzicato effect of the strings, is not just the work’s musical core but what makes Bruckner’s composition live – a simple yet profound equivalent of a human heart-beat. This heart, neither sentimental nor indifferent, beats on, adopting different guises in other instruments, particularly the brass, right through to the magnificent chorale and fugue that concludes the symphony. As you listen to Bruckner your heart beats a little faster to accompany this mysterious life-pumping energy that is called music: a force appearing to be beyond language but strangely asking us to provide a verbal or written response: a memorable phrase.

“We had the experience but missed the meaning.

And approach to the meaning restores the experience

In a different form, beyond any meaning

We can assign to happiness.”

Working on his 4 Quartets T.S.Eliot was greatly moved by listening to the late string quartets of Beethoven. Writing about listening to music we remain caught in that creative flux wanting our own very different and individual forms to try to convey its inexpressible power. Or maybe what only seems to be inexpressible. I think the gap’s to be filled. And often.

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

24 x SPRING CLOTHES LAUNDRY WASHING LINE AND PEGS & BASKET WITH HANGING HOOK by Orwell. £6.17

Home and Kitchen Section – Amazon.co.uk – 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.

Dancer.

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.

Artist.

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.

Priest.

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”.)

Writer.

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.”