Blessay 11: Swimming Away

To swim is to renew and acknowledge our beginnings. We evolved out of the oceans. And our life, before birth, is in the amniotic fluid of the womb. I sense a primal connection each time I move through a swimming pool, lake or ocean. That’s not to say that non-swimmers can’t know that as well. Yet to swim is to physically touch the watery starting point.

As a boy I struggled to learn to swim and didn’t quite get there. My swimming instructor couldn’t persuade me to even achieve a dog paddle. Swimming was mysteriously dropped from the school timetable, leaving me both relieved and frustrated. Any motivation to continue didn’t come from my parents, as they’d never learnt to swim.

Between the age of twelve to fifteen I read books where heroic boys and men swam. Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn had islands you swam towards or a ‘swimming hole’ you jumped into. I wanted to laze in the idylls of Johann David Vyss, Mark Twain and Daniel Defoe. Yet to build a tree house you first had to be able to swim to the wrecked ship, make a raft and bring it ashore. I could do none of those things. So I read many books and stayed dry.

At twenty-two I went abroad for the first time. Italy – Venice. I camped near the Lido. One afternoon my girlfriend and I went into the Mediterranean. She swam whilst I paddled and waded. The sea hadn’t the stench of Venetian canal water. Yet in my mind it contained a whiff of chlorine; reminding me of Liverpool’s Lodge Lane swimming pool. But there was no bar to hold onto. Frustrated I returned to the shore. Back home, my resolve to swim was akin to an earlier (now accomplished) need to lose my virginity. I paid for six swimming lessons, quickly mastered the basic strokes and completed my first full length of the pool.I rate learning to swim as profound an achievement as learning to walk. Water quickly became my home as much as the land. Of course I walk and run more than I swim. Swimming’s not an everyday habit but a thrice-weekly ritual.

Some works of art, featuring swimming, fascinate me. Jean Vigo’s Taris (an amazing, poetically filmed short film about an Olympic swimmer), references to swimming in Walt Whitman’s erotically charged poem, The Sleepers, John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer and Vaughan Williams’ haunting piano piece A Lake in the Mountains (That swimming connection being my real swim, many years ago, in a lake in the mountains, in the Brecon Beacons. I was alone and it was a hot day with a clear sky. Moving gently through the lake I felt an intimate bond with the landscape around me. For half an hour I swam back and forth in a state of bliss.) But words and images can’t adequately convey the effects of swimming, with its constant watery temptation to close your eyes; be submerged by origins, safely dream of beginnings and swim away.


Blessay 10: On Not Growing Up

Last night I went to see the Regent’s Park Theatre production of J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan. It was a spirited event. Wendy was good at being an unsentimental mother. Peter was good confidently flying to Neverland and back. Tinker bell, a hand-held fairy muppet, tried to be good for her operator. Hook was good at his cursing and hooking. And the children were all good at being responsibly naughty. Lots of First World War soldiers kept running on to the stage to strap Peter and co. into their flying harnesses. When they were not doing that they sang Great War songs. (Not sure the soldiers worked at the end as ‘the lost boys’ surviving the war, to marry, settle down and become responsible parents.)

‘Peter you won’t forget me, will you?” were not Wendy’s final words but ‘Of home…to the awfully big adventure.’ Wendy’s probably right that we have to grow up and accept our adult world. Nevertheless  I would have liked some doubts about her domestic certitude.

In psychology circles people are defined as being in a Peter Pan or Wendy syndrome. Such Jungian formulated, out of control, boyish Peters’ and highly controlling mothering Wendys’ sound pretty awful. Un-nuanced case histories. I’m sure such people exist. Yet I’m more interested in those smaller Peter and Wendy traits in myself; people I’ve encountered and how we can deal with them. No sensitive person has fully grown up, doesn’t reflect on some horrible adult actions, tries to keep childlike, and not childish.

It’s time I inserted a poem. This is an old bad poem of mine. Very juvenile doggerel. Apologies. Yet it still makes a crude point about keeping a child’s view of the world.

‘Don’t grow up. Don’t grow down. Stay this size. Always clown. Always laugh. Always sing. The bell is in an old grey place. Don’t stop when your hear it ring. It cries for a child to lose its face. It cries to stop you playing, join grown-ups who stare. But they see nothing in air. Don’t, don’t grow up. Don’t grown down. Roar ‘I’m a child!’ and play out of town.’

It’s balance I mean. That it’s healthier for the growing up adult to take time out as a kid. We are all growing up since birth and only fully grown up just before we die. The level of maturity we achieve being dependent on many genetic and contingent factors. Some of us gain much insight. So of us very little. So long as we have the time and emotional intelligence to sift through it all: then act, in our best interest, without harming others.

‘Consequently not any self-control or self-limitation for the sake of specific ends, but rather a carefree letting go of oneself…Not caution but rather a wise blindness…Not working to acquire silent, slowly increasing possessions, but rather a continuous squandering of all shifting values…This way of being has something naive and instinctive about it and resembles that period of the unconscious best characterised by a joyous confidences: namely the period of childhood.’

Rainer Maria Rilke

I love Rilke’s idea of existence as  ‘a wise blindness.’ Unfortunately we can be childishly blind. When I don’t act on my intuition I’m annoyed that some stupid inhibition got in the way. Either my parental adult voice said NO to a positive childlike impulse. Or a timid child inside of me said YES to parental constraint, and I let the opportunity go.

Yet what annoys me more is people being supposedly uninhibited. Too often I find them to be either drunk and/or being a bully. That they have a childish propensity not to cultivate a Neverland but destroy it. I once had a line-manager at work who would get at me with her Wendy bullying. She perceived me as being too laid back. This was aggravated by my simmering silences. I never let a showdown happen and have the fight she wanted: preferring my passive anger to dismiss her ‘authority’, which wound up her sense of wanting to control.

I suppose I colluded in her mis-perception of me, by adopting a Peter Panish cavalier approach to parts of my work. Whilst other jobs were done in a sober (Bank manager father of Wendy manner) that equally confounded and frustrated her. Most people in the office thought her a good manager who got things done. I inwardly dismissed her as lacking in social skills and asserting herself to be uncritically liked. She was obese, in her late thirties, wasn’t in a relationship and lived with her elderly mother. I heard that the mother was often unwell and could be very demanding. If only my line manager had occasionally got drunk and relaxed the Wendy imago inside her head.

Shakespeare’s Falstaff is an obvious example of a huge rampant character whose hedonism is quasi Panish. He indulges in a untrammelled sensual existence. Adult responsibility’s kicked out the window. Eating, drinking and whoring being his routine in a time zone as ‘endlessly’ long as a modern child’s school holiday. Neverland desires are transformed into an Everland of Rabelaisian excess.

If I remove the womanizing then a friend, of a friend of mine, fits this image. He would probably claim that he achieved ‘a wise blindness.’ That he was squandering all shifting values with a philosophical relish. Alas, it was apparent that he just squandered his talent and ambition. Or he’d never wanted to develop a project, in the world, beyond his ego being in a state of alcoholic delusion. The man has a super-human liver, the constitution of an ox and never gets ill. His fraternal outpourings draw you in, asking  to praise drink and the world. It’s a repetitive invitation from a man who never confronts change and matures. Not that I’d wish him to grow up locked inside Wendy’s house. More he was sensibly sober in a Voltaire managed garden.

Barrie’s Peter Pan came a few years after my own Littleland encounter with Enid Blyton’s Noddy and Big Ears. Both experiences being on the cusp of change – the violent scrapes of Popeye and rebelliousness of Just William were round the corner. Today the boyhood I’d like NOT to grow out of is more Richmal Crompton than James Barrie. Instead of flying through Neverland I want to be naughty and reveal adult hypocrisy in my own William-Land.

‘Why should not old men be mad?’ said W.B.Yeats. Why not an old man as a mad kid again?  Defeating his imaginary Peter in a friendly fight.  With a reconstructed Wendy, and her Darling parents, looking on in the shadows.

Blessay 9: How I Fell back in Love with the Tie

I have returned to wearing a tie. Five years ago I hardly did. Back then I owned two ties. A stylish Austin Reed tie that I bought, on a whim, in a sale back in the eighties.  I knew a friend in the shop who gave me a further discount as it was ‘going out of fashion.’ ( Still find it hard to understand that ties, unlike shoes or jackets, can undergo sartorial rejection.) And there was a black clip-on tie, lent to me by my brother, that I wore first at my father’s funeral, my mother’s funeral and, full circle, back to my brother’s funeral. I think that very old tie might have been my dad’s. But I don’t want to consider what funerals he clipped it on for.

Neither tie was right for interviews. For that I borrowed plain, or neutral patterned, ties from a friend. Anyway they were inoffensive and didn’t sabotage my job prospects. My interviewers probably summed up my tie in a micro-second and my presence in a minute. The actual jobs I got didn’t require the wearing of a tie. As for my social life, the new ‘informality’ of the last 30 years has tended to keep ties hidden in drawers, waiting for necks to return.

It was the temporary Japanese girl-friend that did it. Her dressy elegance revealed the first warning signs that my clothes looked a bit sloppy. I needed sartorial re-invention. So after the new suits, coats, shirts, trousers and shoes came the tie. None of this was meant to be a conservative uniform re-haul. It was a simple balancing out of fashion. Stylish formality requiring the stylishly casual. The jeans and t-shirts had company. And the small object of clothing desire (the neck tie) lay knotted between them.

From two ties the number slowly increased to fifteen. The price ranged from £2 charity shop bargain, £10 department store reduction and £35 new at an Italian menswear shop in the Finchley Road. Some ties came with a shirt, online Amazon order from China. But most were stray ones. The last tie on the rack, or in the final reduction stage stuck at the back of the window. One tie cost me nothing. I asked the manager for a reduction, for paying by cash, for a coat. My haggiling didn’t work but he genially threw in a tie.

Ties have an unconscious effect on the viewer. A badge of status and/or personality. Yet I haven’t deliberately used them for that. The aesthetic match being more important than any human catch. Yet my £35 tie proved to be powerful. It’s coloured gold with 45 degree angled black stripes; has a subtle sheen with no hint of flash. I wore it with a white shirt against a dark blue jacket for a cultural event at an important European bank.

Drinking some amazingly good Latvian wine and eating canapés, of a high order, I was approached by a young well dressed and I suppose junior Latvian banker. He was deliriously eager to meet me. “I recognise your face from Berlin. It was last autumn.” I let him linger on my face in Berlin. “Markets have been so unstable since we first met.” They could be unstable for another minute. “Remind me of your business” I had to remind myself, now. Silence. “The wine is good…yes?” It was and I needed more.

I saw that his eyes were cast downward.. Not at my ‘banker’ chest but my gold tie. It appeared to dazzle him. After ten deluded seconds he took my glass to get me a re-fill.  The tie had cast a spell. I innocently luxuriated in the Midas touch. On his return I revealed my banker dis-connections and said I was a writer. Eyes opened wider. Renewed glance at hypnotic tie. He wasn’t a bit disappointed. Creativity and gold just exuded a different power.

Non of the other ties have had such an effect. Yet even the knotting of a tie has the frisson of a small punch.  It’s the last act of dressing just before putting on your jacket. Call it clothing’s power to re-new, a symbol of smartness or merely making an effort. That Windsor knot action – probably not named after The Duke of Windsor, but his father George V – is purposeful, and the result is confidence.

I am not a royalist. I’m not into status. The assertion of the tie should be egalitarian. “Dress to Impress” the advice given on websites to the ‘better’ bars is limiting. It ought to be “Dress to Re-dress” and open to all, irrespective of the bulk of their wallet: with the tie having a fun sartorial role. ( I remember the 60’s when young long-haired men wore Bridget Riley, op art, pop art and psychedelic ties. All employed guys with disposable income, and admitted to bars, minus bouncers doing age ID checks and searches. The sexualized tie exploding into different shapes and colours – well at least in Liverpool they did. Part of a déclassé assertion of youth, more gentle and freshly anarchic.)

Fifteen ties. Wide and narrow. Cheap and expensive. Acqua blue. Dark green. White, black, grey, silver and gold. Flower patterned and striped. Neck ties on a rack in search of a shirt. As for the shirts…..I’ll pause. This is turning into a healthily narcissistic blog. The shirts, trousers and shoes are for later essays. All part of the surface fashion of a Japanese shadowed “floating world.” Their non-fetish day will come.

Blessay 8: Favourite words in The Tower Of Babel

In my last Blessay on William Faulkner I mentioned the word peremptory. This made me think about some other words that I especially like. They are still in my dictionary – Collins English Dictionary, second edition 2000, latest reprint 2007. But I wondered if they had fallen out of fashion. Or been substituted for less colourful words. Or didn’t quite fit into our technocratic world anymore.

PELLUCID – adjective – transparent or translucent, extremely clear in style and meaning, from perlucere – to shine through.

The first time I encountered pellucid was during a Sussex university seminar on Blake’s Songs of innocence and Experience. My tutor, Tony Nuttal, a delightful man and a great scholar, spoke of the shining clarity of Blake. That his songs had a pellucid depth. The word made my day. It’s beauty of sound had me singing it loudly in the bath that night.

Sadly no media authority voice shines. No politician exhibits translucent charm, preferring numbing evasion and controlling dullness. Maybe the rhetoric of President Obama can sometimes dazzle (his speech celebrating 50 years of the Civil Rights Bill.) But a grand assertion of its rightness doesn’t mean a clarity of intent, to keep building on a necessary law.

And where are the pellucid poets hanging out these days?

NEFARIOUS – adjective – evil, wicked, sinful.

I only seem to hear this word on Radio 4 when there’s news bulletin about a judge’s summing up. The label heinous is often reported in tandem with nefarious. Usually applied to a serial sex offender or terrorist. Never an errant banker or corrupt politician. Never an unjust law. If only a Shadow Home Secretary were to attack nefarious legislation. And do it in a ‘nefarious’ manner that shocked the ruling elite. But that only worked when there was a social coercion to believe in the divinity of law and religion.

As for nefarious poets, can we have another Baudelaire on stage savaging the literary establishment, please?

PROLIX – adjective – so long as to be boring, long-winded.

Certain politicians delivering Party Conference Speeches, East European embassy bureaucrats introducing a concert and the prose style of Salman Rushdie: all horribly slouch round a corner of my mind. I have dozed off in front of the television. Got needles and pins in my leg sitting on a hard embassy chair. Never got beyond the first six pages of Midnight’s Children. Their first rank prolixity turning them all into ‘prolixators’ – hungry to kill all that reeks of concision.

Too many poets give tedious introductions to their poems. So much longer and prolix than the poems and therefore killing a poet’s performance. Can we ban introductions that exceed one awful prolix minute?

COGENT – adjective – compelling belief or assent; forcefully convincing.

I’m sure that cogent was a buzz-word of the seventies and early eighties. Did it disappear once those ‘cogent’ social policies, based on free market liberalism, were put in place? Almost as if it was irrelevant. As the brave new laissez faire  world soon become a self evident truth. The market had a temporary crash. But nothing has yet replaced it.  Now the Euro zone project wobbles and we become nostalgic for 70’s style leaders, once much freer from the shackles of cogent banker beliefs.

The cogency of the poetic voice. Tennyson and Yeats were not affected by a loss of confidence in their poetic and public roles. Can we dispense with sentimentality, tenth-rate post modernism, pastoral cosiness, urban angst, hermetic cleverness and have a cogent poet or two back in the social arena?

Four words to savour. Not just for idle reflection. But to be retrieved for dissemination throughout our culture.

Dissemination. That’s another word beginning to fade away.

DISSEMINATE – verb – to distribute or scatter about; diffuse.

My favourite use of dissemination and my first encounter with it was through a record sleeve note by the composer Luciano Berio writing of his composition Visage. He described radio as being guilty of ‘the greatest dissemination of the most useless knowledge’  This was many years before some highly opinionated, and low informed, ranters invaded social media.

Berio’s Visage (1961), available to hear complete on You-Tube, is a work for the female voice (Cathy Berberian) and electronic sounds. Here is an extract from Berio’s notes.

“Visage can also be regarded as a transformation of real examples of vocal behaviour that go from unarticulated sound to syllable, from laughing to weeping and singing, aphasia to types of inflections derived from specific languages: English and Italian spoken on the radio, Hebrew, Neapolitan dialect, etc. Thus Visage does not offer a meaningful text or a meaningful language: it only develops the resemblance of them. A single word is pronounced twice “parole” (“words” in Italian).”

PELLUCID, NEFARIOUS, PROLIX and COGENT. My four “parole” for re-introduction amidst a babble of competing words in a maze of meanings. Four words I love for their sound and incisive sense.

Finally I mustn’t forget VISAGE – noun – face, countenance or appearance. First savoured on the Berio record sleeve.

Everyday I am reminded of the appearance of the very rich when I pass a huge luxury block of flats, in Swiss Cottage, named The Visage (one of the ugliest new buildings in NW 3) jutting out its ocean liner design, to proclaim the beaming face of wealth.

Blessay 7: Those Bright Books of Life

What shall I read next? For people who still love books and are able to devote large amounts of time to reading, this is an important question. Not the next current and anxious non-fiction read in our increasingly utilitarian culture (I once worked in a library where the most issued books were on how to write a CV, how to invest money properly, how to lose weight, how to be a better parent and how to overcome depression. All self-help books casting their long shadow – the fear of failure and how to avoid it.)

What I want to always keep reading is the novel. The serious novel. You could argue that it also helps the self. That it provides comfort and understanding. Well, yes and no, or maybe. Let’s drop any medicinal role for the novel. For me that’s prescriptive and conformist. For most great novels are often about disappointment and failure. (‘How to still be a Semi-Romantic and fail well in a Brutal Society’ might be a title I’d permit to join the self-help book gang. So long as the author pointed to difficult and disconcerting novels to assist you.)

I don’t want comfortable reassurance. I want energy and challenge. I’d like the novel to be as D.H.Lawrence declared’ one of the bright books of life’ where for him our sympathy ‘flows and recoils’; can determine our lives and reveal ‘the most secret places of life.’ So it is to the old bright books that I now return. And re-reading, or re-visiting an author’s territory is an imperative as I grow older.

William Faulkner has been opened up again. I first read Faulkner at the age of twenty. It was The Wild Palms. Jean-Luc Godard had enthused about the book’s distinct narratives. It has these two disparate stories placed as alternate chapters. For me this had a disjointed effect, akin to experiencing the ‘jump-cuts’of a Godard film. It was all very cool and I was moved, excited and puzzled by The Wild Palms. This made me read As I Lay Dying, that moved and excited me, but puzzled me less. Yet attempting to read The Sound and the Fury I was only puzzled. I couldn’t get my head round its famous opening chapter where the story is told through the eyes of Benjy – a man with the mental age of a six year old. After that, apart from dipping into a collection of his short stories, the Faulkner file was closed.

A month ago I bought a copy of Light in August and was enthralled. Here was still puzzlement but the enigmas were more familiar, more to do with my lived experience and, by now, greater awareness of modernist literature. In Faulkner I encountered temporal and spatial perspectives that were sensual, absurd, vivid and strange.

‘The sharp and brittle crack and clatter of its weathered and ungreased
wood and metal is slow and terrific: a series of dry sluggish reports
carrying for a half mile across the hot still pine windy silence of
the August afternoon. Though the mules plod in a steady and unflagging
hypnosis, the vehicle does not seem to progress. It seems to hang
suspended in the middle distance forever and forever, so infinitesimal
is its progress, like a shabby bead upon the mild red string of road.’

Such writing, veering on the wonderfully odd, and later on the grotesque, is fused with a tragic and mythic grandeur. Take this other passage from near the end of Faulkner’s book.

‘He remembers it now, sitting in the dark window in the quiet study waiting
for twilight to cease, for night and the galloping hooves. The copper light has
completely gone now; the world hangs in a green suspension in colour and
texture like light through coloured glass. Soon it will be time to begin to say
Soon now. Now soon. ‘I was eight Then,’ he thinks. ‘It was raining.’ It seems
to him that he can still smell the rain, the moist grieving of the October earth,
and the musty yawn as the lid of the trunk went back. Then the garment, the deep folds. He did not know what it was, because of his dead mother’s hands which lingered among the folds.’

Both extracts have a poetic density. Faulkner’s view of the American South of the 1920/30’s enters some timeless mythic realm. And like all great writers he makes you see things you never noticed before. In terms of racial inequality the south was a ghastly place back then. Yet he was always experimenting with form, and his heightened imagination pushed back the social realism of a character and situation into modes that were biblical, classical and certainly archetypal.

Now I’m able to appreciate his literary vision. Whereas at the age of twenty it was ‘merely’ the cinematic cut of his prose that grabbed me. (The only film adaptation of Faulkner that works for me is Clarence Brown’s 1952 film of Intruder in the Dust, mainly because this book has a more linear narrative. The other Faulkner films fail because they tidy-up any ‘stream of consciousness’ making it maddeningly linear. Faulkner does have a ‘cinematic complexity’ but it’s too far too interior to be filmed. Unless you were to ask certain French directors of the 60’s to have a go, especially say Alain Resnais – alas, deceased.)

I now felt confident to try The Sound and the Fury again. I finished the tour de force of the opening chapter and pushed on into Faulkner’s descriptions of Benjy’s family. They are some of the most unforgettable characters in American literature. Faulkner fragments time and memory round the Compson family. Incidents and conversations overlap and interrupt, narratives collide, converge or diverge in their tragic history till you feel they are fatally caught in traps of time.

‘The three quarters began. The first note sounded, measured and tranquil,
serenely peremptory, emptying the unhurried silence for the next one and
that’s it if people could only change one another forever that way merge
like a flame swirling up for an instant then blown cleanly out along the
cool eternal dark instead of lying there trying not to think of the swing
until all cedars came to have that vivid dead smell of perfume that Benjy
hated so.’

Behind Faulkner is Proust. Yet not the Proust of soaring lyrical sentences but a recorder of time kept in check by the moral stopwatch of a Conrad. His characters can’t escape their destinies. They have to confront the often brutal and violent consequences of their actions. Sartre admired Faulkner for his depiction of the difficulties of right action and right reflection. Faulkner’s work is full of harsh contingencies of circumstance battling alongside his tender concern for men and women, as they try so hard to relate.

A word often appearing in Faulkner is peremptory. I first learnt of that word through The Wild Palms where Faulkner writes of a peremptory knock on the door. It means ‘urgent or commanding’ or ‘admitting of no denial or contradiction.’ But in Faulkner’s world there is plentiful denial and contradiction. Redemption, of sorts, does reside in his dark humour but Faulkner’s tragic intensity, that insistent pounding on the door, is obligatory. I hear it loudly and have to respond. Read him. Re-experience a world more confrontational than consolatory. Again I open the door and enter his Southern Gothic house.