Blessay 46: Why Illusions Matter

Accepting reality for what it is, and not what we would like it to be, is not an easy business. I don’t necessarily mean the political and social reality we inhabit – though this has a profound effect on our lives and decision making. I’m thinking of our private thoughts, dreams, intimate wishes, and their idealization, in the face of cynicism and excessive criticism, which can colour our view of the world. Too much reality messes up our ability to dream. Too little reality brings fanciful dangers. This all gets very complicated in close relationships, especially during the early stages, or ‘honeymoon phase’ (do we need such a term of marital correlation?) that pushes you to a point where the impulse to say something negative rears up. Until then there had been the illusion that things were fine. (Not that we should idealise our relationships by slipping into being in love with the idea of love.) I think we should allow ourselves to work towards an ideal. That it’s a process stemming from an authentic aspiration bound up in a state of love and trust. Even though both parties are controlling their feelings (over-anxious to please) and desperately don’t want to risk being hurt.

I once dated an Asian woman who said, very seriously, that she wanted to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I wasn’t so much the charity work she did or her work as a lawyer but the expectation, rising up within her as she spoke; eyes glowing, with a very serious expression, that she would soon be the recipient. This wasn’t a pleasant delusion but a certainty. I didn’t dismiss her passionate belief. I simply asked her why she would think that she’d possibly be awarded such an award when her chances of doing so were very slim. She really took this to heart. I now realise that it was really nothing to do with the Nobel Prize but recognition of her energy, talent and ambition. Energy and talent are admirable. Personally I have a hard time with the idea of worldly ambition, preferring inner explorative ambition. I’d dismissed her in a cavalier manner. The remark probably damaged any potential romance but wasn’t enough to discourage a good friendship (of course my dismissal of the Nobel Prize probably had an element of projection about it. That it was part of my grandiose plan to be awarded it instead of her.) Anyway who am I to say to anybody get real, please? I’m a creative writer and a fantasist. The last person, in the world, to attack strongly held illusions.

I was pulled up sharply by that. My critical stance, or feet on the ground, no nonsense realism, can clash against illusions coming in all shapes and sizes. In her case the illusion might have been (to employ a song title) “an impossible dream”. Maybe we should discriminate between realistic and unrealistic dreams? Certainly I should have noted more carefully how she spoke, how she looked, facial expressions and body language. To put it bluntly I ought to have respected her illusion without making her feel disillusioned.

“The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without being disillusioned.”

Antonio Gramsci

Transpose Gramsci’s modernism idea into 21st century life where so many more ‘free’ and busy people want to aspire to so much and it leaves you with a conundrum for democratising our dreams. As the Rolling Stone’s song cries out “We can’t always get what we want!” And what we want may not be what we really want. Entitlement has to be earned. Plus there are a lot of well educated competitive people out there in the real world.

Perhaps what we aspire to, rather than what shapes us, gives us the motivation to carry on. We all have our mental repository of sweet identity, but that’s not enough, for we wish to act upon our desires. We must be permitted to dream a possible good for ourselves without harming others. Dreaming shapes our lives – see the theatre of Calderon or Pirandello. If life is a dream, dare we wake up the dreamers all of the time? Dissatisfaction with the world might just be a springboard to greater happiness and change.

“We live in a fantasy world: a world of illusion. The great task in life is to But given the state of the world is it wise?”

Iris Murdoch

Many years ago Anna was my partner .She was one of the most reasonable people I’d ever met: highly tolerant and wonderfully fair but not always rational. She often expressed a ‘romantic’ un-fulfilment (a need other than the ‘fulfilment’ of our relationship). At first I thought that this was a nebulous feeling. Some stage in all of the shared “sentimental education” of women and men. (Sentimental Education, Flaubert’s great novel still remains uncomfortable reading about the danger of excessive passivity). Yet in Anna’s case it was an issue of femininity. She was attempting to throw off the negative influence of her Jewish mother, with a psychological makeup that contained the horrid late -Victorian implants of a disciplinarian grandmother. The influence was a fiercely moralistic voice encouraging the most obvious stereotyped femininity – wearing make-up, high heels, dresses, being servile to a ‘nice’ Jewish man (and I wasn’t that guy). All stern commands, to her daughter, and then granddaughter were pushed towards a very controlling extreme. Anna rebelled and led her own very independent life. And because she couldn’t find within herself the means to love or even forgive her mother she repressed and guarded her emotions.

Once, on holiday by the sea in Wales, Anna asked me rather timidly, almost not believing it of herself, about the need to be always in the moment and wanting to dream. And that urgent dream was a compulsive urge to travel. She and I did a great deal together, until I eventually slackened off, and she travelled alone to Borneo. Her ambition was to drift. “I want to be a beachcomber” she declared as seriously as my friend who desired the Nobel Prize. I challenged Anna with humour and then suffered a hard silence, through the rest of the day, for dismissing her illusion.

Writers are ‘wounded’ with the urge to discover some overriding truth, amongst competing truths, about a situation. This can mean being carefully analytical, in the company of friends, whilst in private stripping away people’s illusions. This isn’t done to be vindictive but a little more salvatory. Of course that can suggest intentions of hubris and control. For whom are you saving these people? Yet I really think it’s more a childlike need to be disarmingly honest. A kind of radical innocence. To seize the apparent ‘truth’ of the moment. Not so much expose it, but bear it. And that bearing it for the comfort of its presence, and at the same instant its transience, is the sadness of our condition. The moment that you apprehend the passing ‘reality’ you then wish it would stay longer or become something other: then the comfort of illusions return to console making you celebrate the un-real.

“It is the power of expectation rather than the power of conceptual knowledge that moulds what we see in life not less than in art.”

E.H. Gombrich- Art and Illusion.

As a writer I can chose to do something, or nothing at all with my daily material. You can bring the truth in from the factually cold and warm it up with fictional lies and pretence. This insight finds a home in a story, poem or novel. It’s not an answer to the mystery of the self. But a small clue to our actions. And why some of us, unconcerned with making art, or living more creatively, get anxiously hung-up on wanting to be happy all the time.

“In Freudian psychology and psychoanalysis the reality principle is the ability of the mind to assess the reality of the external world and act upon it accordingly as opposed to citing on the pleasure principle.”

Google definition of Freudianism.

Most of the time a writer is undertaking an intuitive leap with the information gained from a real person in order to use him or her as a piece in the puzzle to make up a complex fictional character. Always attempting to understand and grasp what is ultimately fluid and unknowable. To invent characters (playing their roles) without judgement, or prescription, and make decisions as to what’s best to be done with their fates inside the bigger ongoing narrative that may, or may not, be questioning that very reality.

Illusion. Reality. To hold sanely onto both: whether you’re an entity inside a book or film without much caring if you are believed or not. Or it’s yourself, a friend, relative or passing stranger who risks embarrassment, in real life, by giving expression to their dreams: knowing they are not deluded aspirations, but a desire to be respected for what they believe can one day be realised – illusion or not be hanged! It’s the strange process of dreaming of a more deeply fulfilling reality, perhaps an illusion itself, which matters, alongside the very mystery of being alive and having such concepts in the first place.

“You do yet taste some subtleties o’th’isle, that will not let you believe things certain.”

Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Simon Russell Beale playing a gruff, very human and vulnerable Prospero, said that last week in the RSC production of The Tempest at the Barbican. We all need an inner magician, so as to prosper, with as much finite time as possible, to perform humane conjuring tricks on the island consciousness we call home.

Blessay 45: The Dunkirk Variations

My parents, who lived through WW2, hardly spoke of that time. If I questioned my father (who’d been an ARP warden and a fireman) tears would well up in his eyes then he’d firmly tell me to shut up and switch on the television. Whereas my mother would occasionally gush, for half an hour, just before Dad returned home from work, about the terrible people she endured in the air-raid shelters. Especially the ones that snored very loud, got drunk or barely tolerated an unwashed, old woman who habitually began her ‘crazy act’ by starting to tear of her clothes.

As a curious boy I probed them, assisted by war footage shown on TV. I attempted to drag them out of their slumber of forgetting. For several minutes the words, blitz, rationing and Dunkirk triggered apprehension in my mother and a quiet fright in my father who’d light his pipe and quickly leave the room.

The real Dunkirk never registered as an event in which a relative had suffered (though in a home as secretive as mine even a friend of the family might have been killed in the conflict and I would have never been told). It was Dunkirk, the film, not the often mythologized actual defeat, that played on mother’s nerves and father’s guilt.

Aged nine in the early summer of 1958 I spent a week with my mother at Rhyl, in North Wales. This was a holiday and a temporary ‘evacuation’ from the misery of my Dad who emotionally hid away from his family. It wasn’t the then excused violence of physical blows but the many brooding silences, lies, secrets and neglect. Since her recent return from hospital mother was weary of her husband’s un-concern. So we absconded or ‘evacuated’ ourselves, leaving the ‘head’ of the household stewing in his irascible mood swings.

Going to Wales was my first trip to a foreign country. It made me feel a sharp sense of displacement from Liverpool. I sensed Mother’s unhappiness and probably physically clung to her, over that week, more than any other time afterwards. It was all a very needy mother and son love. I can’t recall the sea-side or the town of Rhyl itself: only the breakfasts of bacon and eggs, a vase of freshly picked flowers on the table and the warm laughter of my uncle resonating through the house.

Yet it was the after-effect of seeing a film that exposed the true state of my mother’s helplessness. It was the Plaza cinema in Rhyl and the film was Dunkirk. Ten minutes before the end, my mother began to cry. This coincided with the screen death of actor Bernard Lee, playing a sceptical journalist and small boat owner, unexpectedly killed by a German aircraft whilst attending a service held on the beach. It wasn’t simply the poignancy of the scene but the intense pain, in my mother’s legs, that caused her tears. She didn’t seek help from an usherette but said it would be better once she was outside the cinema. Mother stoically made it to the bus-stop, laid herself down on a bench and moaned. Her sounds cut right through me. I didn’t know what to do, nor did she. She hoped the pain would lessen soon as the chemist was now closed to buy aspirins.

A stranger appeared. A well dressed middle aged man wearing a trilby. “My legs.” Was all mother was able to say to him. All he said in reply was “It’s a taxi for you luv.” When the black cab arrived the stranger paid the driver in advance plus a small tip to take us home to Uncle’s. Back home she went to bed, took painkillers and drank hot, sweet tea. I entered the bedroom and lay down beside her. She hugged me saying, “Those poor young soldiers in the boats. And your mother with her pains. What’s to be done, eh?

Nothing to be done for the actors in the Ealing film. And for my mother, only stronger tablets from our doctor once we were back in Liverpool. The diagnosis for Dunkirk was a good, sometimes stolid, British war film. The diagnosis for Mother was the beginning of rheumatoid arthritis. I and my older brother became her occasional ‘carers’. Father was the passive onlooker. Mother the frustrated patient, who in old age gradually slipped into infirmity.

Last week I saw Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, at the Imax cinema in Swiss Cottage, and inevitably thought of Leslie Norman’s project housed inside the art-deco Plaza cinema. I found the new version to be a very good film, though not the masterpiece that some critics would have us believe. It’s impressively staged and photographed. Hans Zimmer’s overwhelming soundtrack / soundscape makes the greatest impact. Nolan’s visuals are finely crafted but very few memorable images stick in the mind afterwards. The problem is the director’s intention to turn this story of survival into an ‘immersive experience’ Dunkirk is a moving film, even though, like the 1958 version, the agony and gore are absent (Whereas the great anti-war films do very sensitively depict such horrible scenes.) But was my 2017 Nolan / Dunkirk involvement more because of the brilliant mechanics of cinema than its inherent semi- tragic story of military defeat? On that I am divided.

Despite its more linear and conventional narrative, the tone, rather than the technique of the 1958 Ealing film also proved ‘immersive’. Dunkirk has a glum and bitter flavour of endurance that accorded with a national response. That stoicism (both admirable and yet potentially repressive) suited the emotions of cinemagoers in the 1950s, upset my mother and intersected with her pain.

Yet there’s a further parallel between the two films and what happened to me on that day in Ryhl. Innocence and Experience. Not shining in neon lights, but contrary states subtly infiltrating both screen time and real time with an affecting power. Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) the experienced newspaperman is an innocent when placed in the field of conflict. His death in Leslie Norman’s Dunkirk feels arbitrary and futile. The ‘innocent’ young man Frankie (Sean Barret) who accompanied him runs to tell the newly experienced boat owner John Holden (Richard Attenborough portraying a man shaken out of his former indifference to the war effort) of Foreman’s death.

In Nolan’s Dunkirk its George (Barry Keoghan) the innocent schoolboy son of boat owner Mr.Dawson (Mark Rylance) dies from injuries caused on board by a scuffle with a British shell-shocked sailor. The experienced sailor father doesn’t attack or judge the soldier. Although solemn and resigned to his son’s fate, Dawson’s stoicism never descends into the category of stiff upper lip fortitude.

Both scenes in both films are intensely moving. Bernard Lee’s more so for that’s when Mother and I began to leave the cinema. (Impossible to imagine my mother, if she were still alive, sitting through the Dawson boat sequence of the Nolan film. The ‘noise’ of the Zimmer soundtrack, if her hearing had still been intact, would have had her leaving within minutes of the film starting.)

I see mother and me as innocents. Unprepared for the onset of arthritis. Unprepared for that screen death. Unprepared for our evacuation from home. Our Dunkirk experience revealed to me the vulnerability of the body and the chance intervention of compassion (The stranger who got us home in that taxi will be dead now, but his generosity outlives him, trying to be caught in this essay).

A small postscript – my encounter with a man in his eighties in the bar of the Regents Cinema, London. I happened to mention I’d seen the new Dunkirk film two days ago. Dave told me that in 1958 he was a soldier doing National Service. And that the producers of the “John Mill’s Dunkirk” needed real soldiers as extras for the beach scenes. Dave, with many unpaid others, had to run up and down the beach for two days of filming. Many of those scenes were long shots. Unfortunately Dave never got to see himself close-up. “It was really tiring.” He said. But his face revealed great delight. I suspected his unintentional pleasure was a highlight of an otherwise mundane National Service. Here was another conscripted young man, battle dressed for the part, innocent of participation in the real Dunkirk, yet gaining experience, for a fleeting moment, in its reconstruction. All quite immersive, in its way.

Blessay 44: Trembling, not Burning in my Tower


It’s been six days since the evacuation. I lived on the 20th floor of Bray – a tower block on the Chalcot Estates in Camden. I’m trying to make sense of my ‘escape’ without a single flame in sight.

It’s Friday 23rd June 2017 after 11 pm. I am checking my e-mails. A friend says BBC’s Newsnight is reporting that residents of the Chalcot Estate tower blocks are being asked, by the council, to leave their homes. Disconcerted I leave my flat to check things out with my neighbours.

Jackie, a black woman, living in a bedsit, is perplexed. Not having seen her for several years the crisis is creating neighbourly contact. Ray, a cheerful man in his early thirties, appears (I regularly encounter him in the lift, that great social hub of the tower.)

‘What are we going to do?’ I look at Jackie. Then back to Ray. ‘I’m staying put’ I say, quietly determined. Ray’s mother enters, bewildered and suddenly mute, as if she, like us, were dreaming all this up. We stand there, joking, moaning and calmly inactive.

Enter John from the Tenants Association. ‘Have you lot decided to leave?’ he asks. Stay, here, not sure and still deciding are the balls we juggle. ‘Is it compulsory?’ I ask. ‘At the meeting they said it was. Hold on, I’ll ring the Deputy Director.’

John dashes down the fire escape to his flat and landline. Five extra minutes of uncertainty. He returns. ‘The Director says that we should all evacuate.’

I decide to sleep on it. Just before bed, two Camden Council workers knock on my door advising me to leave. ‘We can’t make you but….’

‘I’m not going.’ Saying it three times seals my decision – anyway a mattress in the gym of the leisure centre (called Better) doesn’t promise very much sleep! It’s an hour before I can nod off: images of a stern police force peering through the letter box, locking the door, then opening it to discover the tower’s last refusenik, bombard me.

Next morning, after breakfast, I remind myself this isn’t an absurd dream. On Radio 4 Sajid Javid is being grilled by John Humphries who reminds him of people who’ve been living for over forty years in unsafe buildings. Javid ignores Humphries. I cry out loud to the radio that the renovation of Bray was completed 10 years ago by Gordon Brown’s PFI renovation project just before the economic crash and the grinding austerity measures. And now the neglect of all governments and the effects of de-regulation is being felt. (On the day, after the night, that Grenfell tower became an inferno, it was still pouring out black smoke, that I watched from my living room window, 6 miles away. )

I’m suddenly aware of a strong stench coming from the kitchen. My kitchen bin needs emptying. I tie up the bag. A gentle knock on the door. Three East European council workers (A burly Romanian and two skinny unknowns) ask me if I want any help packing. Their English is not so good so I write my refusal on their form. Now back to tying up the bin bag. Once done I have a shave, pick up some CDs and a book to return to the library.

Descending in the lift I meet the Romanian & co again. He tells me that people in only 7 flats in Bray have decided to stay. Then he gives me a big smile, probably delighted by my declaring that I’ve been to Transylivania and found it very beautiful. I wonder if they have many forest fires? I leave him to drop my rubbish bag in the communal bins, now over flowing with last minute stinking deposits.

Outside Swiss Cottage library and the Leisure Centre swarm the international media, national TV companies and the local press. The smart, sexy looking ones, with smart microphones (The TV hounds) plus all the unglamorous rest clutching notebooks and pens. Cheerful policemen mingle with evacuees swopping stories and and some inevitable accident junkies. Walking back to Bray, I recall that lots of Hammer horror movies, shot at Bray studios, usually ended up in a fierce conflagration.

People are now crisis-crossing my path with their phones.

‘And were things drilled properly to make the holes for the gas?’
‘This is such a mess. It’ll be hard to pin the blame on one person.’
‘I’m trying to book something now’
‘We forgot some spare clothes for the baby.’

More new faces at Bray especially a woman, holding a clipboard, who tells me I have half an hour to pack. She persuades me that it’s only matter of time before the building will be emptied. The image of me being a solitary inhabitant plays on my mind: being checked every day by security staff.  Eiree and unsettling. It makes me think of Charlton Heston, the sole survivor of New York, securing his room in  The Omega Man from the vampires. I decide to decamp to avoid any emergency court order of removal.

I ring my friend Jayne who lives in Catford, South London. She has a large house with a garden and is willing to put me up for a month. I pack some shirts, trousers, underwear, toiletries, a few novels, a cd of Mahler’s 3rd (why?) passport, money, and four plastic bags of fruit and veg. The gas is turned off, electrical appliances are unplugged, save the fridge freezer (No flooding please. Would the cladding survive that?)

I’m pressing the lift button. With my backpack on, daypack in one hand and bags of food (broccoli dangling dangerously out) in the other: feeling split between a ‘refugee’ or ‘escapee’ status.

Downstairs I’m told there’s a fleet of taxi cabs parked by the Leisure Centre. Outside people are still running round with mobiles clammed to their ears. I pass a man who nods sympathetically. He offers to carry my plastic bags. Good. He turns out to be Tom Foot, the deputy editor of The Camden New Journal and he’s holding a small recording device. I don’t mind being interviewed. We arrive at the taxi point to find no welcoming fleet. I remember being told that I will need to get a registration number before I can have transport.

At the leisure centre l’m asked to go downstairs and speak to Melissa, another woman with a clipboard. Dozens of mattresses have been laid out in the sports hall. There are families, council workers seated behind tressel tables, children playing and lots of tied-down balloons. Melissa is on the phone. ‘M & S will have to send us some hot food. These people can’t just live on sandwiches.’ Off the phone, she tells me to go back upstairs and check in at the transport desk.

The still functioning cafe has become a transport depot. Lots of police around and admin staff seated behind desks next to piled up boxes and furniture. I see the transport sign and clamber over any obstacles. A forlorn young guy is searching on his tablet. I ask about a taxi and he directs me to Jim who tells me that I need to go downstairs and be registered. At this point I am hot, tired and poor Tom Foot’s still holding my shopping like some faithful servant. My outraged officious voice takes over. It’s middle class volume raised as I insist in having a taxi. Jim disappears. Three minutes later he’s back saying they can do me right away.

I sit with a black British Red Cross worker filling in a form. I can never remember my post code. Is it NW3 TJ or JT? The interviewer fumbles through forms. It must be absolutely right before we can continue.

Religion? None. (Evacuation isn’t covered as an act of providence!)
Next of kin? Brighton? Why don’t you stay with them? Because Brighton’s too far away.Where does your friend live? Catford. The Red Cross man looks unsure. His eyes seem to say that family ought to come first.

The form’s completed. I show my registration number to the taxi co-ordinator. Tom and I head for the ‘welcoming’ fleet. We arrive to find a large Sky TV van and two cabs. We sit and wait for the driver – scouting for more passengers.

I sit and chat to Tom who today is working unpaid. I discover he’s the son of the late Paul Foot the socialist and author of Red Shelley (A book I’ve read and enjoyed). Paul was the nephew of Michael Foot, once leader of the Labour Party. Tom tells me that he’s just heard that Jeremy Corbyn is at Glastonbury and that he’s reading passages of Shelly’s The Mask of Anarchy. ‘That’s something we were spoon fed by Dad when we were children.’ I tell him that l’m a fiction writer, blogger and  poet. I might write Tom a poem for the New Journal. It’s possible title, ‘Trembling, not burning'(stealing cheekily from poet Stevie Smith.)

The taxi arrives. The driver looks pleased. A cab fare to Catford’s good money for the firm! Seventy five minutes later I stagger into Jayne’s house. First priority is to stuff my food inside her fridge freezer.

Day 1 of a tower block evacuee seriously begins.