Blessay 59: Tremble and Transcend (1)

This will be an essay about classical music and how this great European tradition has affected me. It won’t be a condensed history of music or a description of how music accompanied me as some soundtrack to my life. A few years ago, writing in The Gramophone, Simon Callow berated the latter idea. For me, and I think Callow, music exists as a mysterious means to satisfy a cultural hunger and thirst that doesn’t need to be pinned down as a marker for a significant chapter in your life.

The moment you met someone who could be your partner; experiencing the death of a loved one; the birth of a child or simply having a fantastic holiday: all can be celebrated but why should these moments need triggering by music, apprehended at the time of the event? Why should music’s core function be the heightening of significant chapters in your life?

It’s not a question of your location, and what you were doing, when you first heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. More to what space did the Brandenburgs transport you to? Such a space may have had little to do with an intense real memory: far greater than the pull of nostalgia can be a re-living or re-experiencing of this state. And though my thoughts and feeling might be different on each listening to Bach what also delights me is a musical epiphany or frisson. In other words music can frequently posses you irrespective of the special life circumstances you find yourself in.  

I need to provide some dictionary definitions of epiphany and frisson.

EPIPHANY:  (1) The magnification of a supernatural or divine energy.

                       (2) Any moment of great and sudden revelation.

FRISSON:     Shiver. Thrill (An aesthetic one)

James Joyce gave the word epiphany to some of his early fiction and poetry.

“Go seek her out all courteously,

      And say I come,

Wind of spices, whose song is ever


That is verse X111 of Joyce’s Chamber Music. And Epithalamium means a poem or song written to celebrate a marriage. Perhaps there’s a marriage occurring between the experience of an epiphany and a frisson when listening to classical music: what’s heightened (the self) and the heightened effects (the self’s perception).

What follows is a list of moments from 6 classical pieces that for me always create a powerful high as they have the disarming ability to make me tremble at the beauty of their form and content.

(1)   Orfeo by Monteverdi.

The toccata opening of Monteverdi’s opera is a confident announcement, a grand proclamation played on drums, trumpets and strings. The toccata is repeated thrice within a time-span of less than two minutes. Monteverdi’s Orfeo was one of the first operas to be written. In a lovely self-conscious manner this new art form is being announced and the toccata fulfils its function to make me stay and listen to the opera that will follow. But it also does more. Its rhythms propel me into the narrative. The curtain opens (there were no stage curtains in Italy in 1610) for the overture has finished (This toccata is not an overture, the first one written was by Lully and probably for his opera Thesee.) My epiphany is the sense of a great moment in musical history and Orfeo’s toccata frisson is from me imagining I’m witnessing a landmark event.

(2)  St. Matthew Passion by Bach.

The beginning of the passion sets the scene for a drama that for believers and the irreligious has had such a profound effect on Western art and music. The booklet

supplied with my old recording says this is the greatest story ever told. These days

that sounds hyperbolic but the Christ saga is still emotionally gripping.

  “Come ye daughters, share my mourning;

    See Him – Whom? – The Bridegroom Christ

    See Him – How – A spotless Lamb.”

The chorus immediately proclaim the protagonist Jesus. This is followed by the chorale (A boys choir) singing “O lamb of God unspotted / There slaughtered on the cross.” and end with “Have pity on us, Jesus.”

This counterpoint of a double chorus is astounding. The adult one speaks of purity and holy innocence whilst the other boy chorus cries out at the victimisation of Jesus. I find this alternatively shocking, serene and dramatically intense. The passion will have to make both human and musical sense of this son of God’s suffering. Bach does just that. His music convinces us of the rightness and inevitability of a senseless crime, supplying majestic meaning alongside of a harsh drama of betrayal. This music of stark accusation, despair, joy and tender concern are wonderfully presented in these opening choral forces: musical frissons clustering round such beautifully seductive voices almost chilling in their earthly ‘damaged’ joy.

(3)  Symphony no 7 by Beethoven

The conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler detested Arturo Toscanini’s conducting and is known to have called him a “bloody timekeeper”. Too often I do find Toscanini’s conducting to be hard driven, even relentless. Yet I can forgive him all when I listen to his 1936 recording of Beethoven’s 7th symphony. And especially in the last movement, marked Allegro con brio. Both composition and writing are phenomenal. Toscanini’s interpretation is a precise (though not dogmatic) attack producing an energy that spirals through my body. I can only describe it as having the power of an electrical storm madly dancing inside of me. And Beethoven’s writing delivers a trembling transcendence to leave me both exhilarated and exhausted.

(4)  Symphony no 5 by Bruckner.

The epiphany is to be found in the first movement, marked Adagio – Allegro with its pizzicato effects. Not just Bruckner’s writing for the strings but the sound produced by a clarinet that, for me, conveys the beating of the heart. There are times when I’ve set my CD player into repeat mode to hear this again and again. There is always a pulse in music and great conductors quickly get to this. Yet here a ‘heartbeat’ becomes an extra musical idea – almost as if the strings were pumping blood into the wind section of the orchestra. This is barely audible on most recordings but in the RAH 1971 live performance, BBC symphony orchestra, conducted by Jascha Horenstein; it’s clear, pronounced and highly effective. Of course I can’t just linger on the frisson it provides but follow the whole symphony to its logical conclusion with the great fugal working out of the last movement, frisson after frisson, where heart and head creates such an organic architecture that you sit back, beautifully stretched by the structure, praising Bruckner for his wonderful compositional skill.

(5) Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartok.

All those seven locked doors, of Bluebeard, that the curious Judith wants to be opened. Each one painted in a symbolic colour; the first a torture chamber and the last a room of wives. Bartok’s opera was once described by a critic as having “a blood drenched lyricism.” At the white door no 5 Judith reaches Bluebeard’s kingdom of far vistas and blue mountains and is dazzled by the light streaming in. Her cry or scream (depending on which recording you sample) is followed by the tremendous sound of the brass section, blaring out its ‘blood motif’ (in the minor second) with the organ played underneath, quickly followed by ominous strings. Bluebeard sings of his country having “Sun, moon and stars have dwelling. / They shall be thy deathless playmates.” And Judith’s response is, “Yonder cloud throws blood-red shadows / What are these grim clouds portending?” What they portend is Judith’s death, along with Bluebeard’s previous wives, once the last two doors have been opened.

Bartok’s music has often been used in horror films (most famously in Kubrick’s The Shining) yet though he is a master composer of the sinister and violent, I think we have to interpret Bartok’s famous “night music” as not so much pushing us towards the grand guignol but conveying a psychological darkness that has much to do with Bartok’s own private nature. Whether it’s expressing the opera’s source, Perrault’s fairy tale, or other influences I feel such a great visceral power every time the music and its two singers unlock that fifth door of Bluebeard’s Castle. A Bartokian frisson sends a shiver down my spine and projects gaunt thoughts of dread.

(6) Symphony no 5 by Vaughan Williams.

I feel a pride at being British, with Celtic antecedents, but not in a nationalistic way – more a soft-power patriotism. I’m no royalist or a follower of football. The BBC, the NHS and our countryside reinforces my attachment to England. And the English classical music that colours that patriotic identity is that of Ralph Vaughan-Williams. As much as I also love and enjoy Elgar, Britten and Purcell it’s RVW who has proven to be the most persuasive, often irresistibly so.

The visionary impulse, melody and attack of his music has been with me since the age of twenty. After being wooed by his The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, Vaughan-Williams’s 5th symphony is the serene masterpiece that I return to more than those works and his other, differently wonderful, symphonies.

The third movement of the fifth is called romanza. The definition of romanza is “a short instrumental piece of song-like character.” Song is probably a keyword here. Vaughan Williams is famous for his collecting of English folk song. Musical themes from his opera The Pilgrims Progress are to be found in the symphony and in the manuscript score there are words by John Bunyan “He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death.” These words were sung by Pilgrim in the opera. Yet it is the gentle introduction of the cor anglais in this movement which replaces the human voice. This theme is then developed by the wind section. The introduction of the strings brings a Sibelius-like mood, yet as the music progresses its soft-hued, but resolute, climaxes evoke, for me, a very English and deeply visionary sense of the land. It’s as if my reserved spot on the landscape is speaking to me to come and stand or lie there and receive great peace and serenity as things spiritually connect.

The fifth came after the abrasive violence of Vaughan Williams’s fourth symphony. It was premiered in 1943. Astonishing that such a tranquil work was composed during the Second World War. Yet like the 3rd symphony (Pastoral) its healing surface hides conflict. The composer Anthony Payne said of the fifth that the agonies of the fourth and sixth symphonies “lie beneath its spiritual radiance.” To ‘bathe’ in its almost Blakean mysticism and Bunyan rightness, of the pilgrim’s journey, touches me deeply. I don’t believe in God but such music gives me a spiritual identity that I can comfortably live with. 

Of course there are more than six great moments in classical music. Already another dozen or so need mentioning. And many more. Another time. Another essay.

I haven’t done the obvious and given readers a YouTube link to this music. You will of course find them there. But I recommend that you seek out the cd recordings. For me the sound is preferable to the now second-hand vinyl. But what recordings?  There are so many performances in the catalogue.

Here are my personal favourites.

Monteverdi: Orfeo – The Ensemble Vocal et Instrumental de Lausanne conducted by

                                  Michel Corboz.   (Erato – 2 cd set) 1968 re-mastered 1989

Bach: Saint Matthew Passion – Munchener Bach Orchestra conducted by Karl Richter

                                                 (DGG – 3cd set) 1959 re-mastered 1994

Beethoven: Symphony no 7 – The New York Philharmonic conducted by Arturo

                                                Toscanini (RCA – I cd) 1936 re-mastered 1991

Bruckner: Symphony no 5 – BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jascha

                                             Horenstein (BBC Legends CD) 1971 re-mastered 2000

Bartok: Bluebeard’s Castle – Hungarian State Opera Orchestra conducted by Janos

                                             Ferencsik. Bluebeard – Yevgeny Nesterenko (bass)

                                             Elena Obraztsova (mezzo-soprano) (Hungaroton – 1 cd)


Vaughan Williams: Symphony no 5 – London Symphony Orchestra conducted by

                                                           Andre Previn (RCA – 1 cd) 1972 re-mastered


There are of course many other recordings. I have some of those as well. But these six are very special: some of my first purchased vinyl, and then cd, encounters with great music. I hope you discover them too.

Blessay 59: Tremble and Transcend


Blessay 58: Dogs, Babies and Flowers

What are hard things to describe in a story or poem? The political state of the nation; climate change; the atrocities of war; sex without bathos; metaphysical conjecture or the sub-atomic building blocks of existence? All ambitious themes. All worthy of the attempt. Yet it’s toward ‘smaller concerns’ that I’d gravitate: very human and, by comparison, almost minutiae, set against those grand, and potentially grandiose, narratives.

Dogs, babies and flowers would be on my list. These are subjects that require a rare empathy, charge of imagination and an intuitive leap of faith. Too few writers have attempted and succeeded in convincing me that they can pull it off. After many years of reading for me only three writers have come through, Thomas Mann, D.H.Lawrence and Edith Scovell.

Firstly dogs. I have to admit to having read very few full-length books about canine adventures. Putting my childhood memories of the written and celluloid heroism of Lassie (the wonder dog!) to one side there is J.R.Ackerley’s memoir My Dog Tulip (described by Christopher Isherwood as “the greatest masterpiece of canine literature”). It’s a very good book but deserves an essay all to itself. No, instead I’ve chosen Thomas Mann’s 1918 short story, A Man and his Dog, which you’ll find in the Penguin edition of Mario the Magician and Other Stories.

A Man and his Dog concerns Mann’s relationship with a dog call Bashan – a German short-haired pointer. Some critics have said this work is as much about the mind of its author as well as a dog’s psychology. Certainly it’s an affectionate account of Mann’s love and respect for the canine. Bashan is a “manly” looking, hunting dog whose owner calls by whistling “in two notes, tonic and lower fourth, like the beginning of the second phrase of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.” (Thomas Mann, always so magnificently passionate, in his novels, about preserving high Western culture, can’t resist such a reference even in his ‘doggy tale’).

There’s a lovely moment in A Man and his Dog when Mann finds it difficult to write for Bashan is very much an attention seeker.

“(Bashan) would smudge my freshly written page with his broad, hairy hunter’s paws. I would sharply call him to order and he would lie down on the floor and go to sleep. But when he slept he dreamed, making running motions with all four paws and barking in a subterranean but perfectly audible sort of way…For this dream life was obviously an artificial substitute for real running, hunting, and open-air activity; it was supplied to him by his own nature because his life with me did not give him as much of it as his blood and senses required.”

The owner both adores and reprimands his dog, especially about his hunting prowess and stamina. Mann is very funny when he’s arguing with himself over whether Bashan would be handled better by another owner. The dog whines at Mann as if to say he’s a “rotten master.” At other times Mann calls Bashan a “murderer” for eating a mouse and then lavishes praise on his hunter pose. “like a clumsy peasant lad, who will look perfect and statuesque as a huntsman among his native rocks.” A Man and his Dog conveys power and authority, submission and control, master and slave relations and peasant and aristocrat associations in the hunting grounds (beautifully described) of post-WW1 German gentry. I have never read such a powerful and fluid account of a slipping in and out of consciousness between a man and his dog. In this profound love/hate bond Mann astutely understands their differences and similarities playing off each other

“Animals are more primitive and less inhibited in giving expression to their mental state – there is a sense in which one might say they are more human: descriptive phrases which to us have become mere metaphor still fit them literally, we get a fresh and diverting sense of their meaning when we see it embodied before our eyes.”

I’m personally more of a cat lover than a dog lover but Thomas Mann convinced me, admittedly in the guise of the over-masculine hunter / gather role, of our long deep connections with the canine. Yet one day I will have to seek out a literary description of the hunter character of the cat. As far as I can discover Mann didn’t investigate the feline consciousness. Maybe that was too independent and aloof for his sense of patriarchal control?

And so onto babies. I’ve greatly admired writers who can convey the sensibility of a new born baby (It’s much ‘easier’ to write about older children or teenagers). For me only D.H.Lawrence and Edith Scovell have realised this well.

Lawrence will always be a controversial novelist for some readers. Yet even his detractors admit he had extraordinary powers to detect the poetic thingness of things, both animate and inanimate: making so much live and project their existence on the page. Lawrence had a great sympathy for all forms of life. Exploring his Collected Poems you can find accounts of rabbits, gazelles, snakes, cats, fish and babies.

“And I wish that the baby would tack across here to me

  Like a wind-shadow running on a pond, so she could stand

  With two little bare white feet upon my knee

  And I could feel her feet in either hand

  Cool as syringa buds in morning hours,

  Or firm and silken as young peony flowers.

That’s the conclusion of the poem, Baby Running Barefoot. We have the movement of the baby delicately expressed (“Like a wind-shadow running”) and her feet, on the adult’s knee, that when touched feel like lilacs or “firm and silken” peonies – representing romance and prosperity. It’s as if the baby is bestowed with a firm foundation on which to flourish and develop.

And then there’s A Baby Asleep after Pain.

“My sleeping baby hangs upon my life

      Like a burden she hangs on me;

  She who has always seemed so light,

          Now wet with tears and pain hangs heavily,

          Even her floating hair sinks heavily

                   Reaching downwards;

  As the wings of a drenched, drowned bee

           Are a heaviness, and a weariness.”

Lawrence beautifully conveys the weight of a baby held by its mother or father. And this is a baby asleep after some upset. Unlike the dead bee, of wet wings, the baby will awake soon, renewed by sleep to forget what hurt it so. In both poems a metaphorical connection is made with flowers and insects so that the baby is innocently placed in a protective world of nature. Lawrence, often a pantheistic and visionary writer, able to inspire or hector, doesn’t need to shout out loud about what he sees here only tenderly and quietly observe.

Edith Scovell (1907-1999) was one of the great, unsung female poets of British poetry. Her sensibility is not so much feminist but feminine guided by a careful, compassionate precision. Her unerring eye for detail ranges over poetry about the sea, flowers, childhood and old age. In her Selected Poems we find Poems on infancy where for me are two of the greatest poems ever written about a baby. The First Year and A Baby’s Head have a perception and insight that equals and often surpasses D.H.Lawrence. I love the sense of wonder at birth expressed in these two questions that make for verse three of The First Year.

“What should you do, new born, but fall

  Asleep, in sleep disclosing all?

  What can you do but sleep, an hour from birth,

  Lacking an answer yet to give to earth?

These metaphysical questions set up the mystery of the first year of birth, presenting them like a philosophical proposition. Yet this is no cold enquiry but a journey of warmth and discovery. Mother places her finger in the baby’s palm – “closed again (as they must) on mine, to a bud” sensing the baby’s helplessness and immaturity. She arrives at a state where “I am absorbed and clouded by a sensual love / of one whose soul is sense and flesh the substance of Her spirit; and her thoughts, like grass shadowed by the wind’s flight.”

   Scovell evokes Walt Whitman with his praise of lush grass in A Song of Myself without ever being Whitmanesque in style, instead alluding to The Bible (“For all flesh is grass and the glory of man like flowers”). The core of this poem is to be found in Stanza six. The poem’s title The First Year – is a time when a baby isn’t yet fixed in its comprehension of the world: no babyish word or action is attempting to make sense of things. The questions pile on.

“Whom do I know? Who learns from me to kiss, to play?

  Who answers sound with sound and looks with eyes of friend?

  Strange that this long first year of life, this standing day

  In which you are set like stone in ring, in which we meet, will

       more than end;

“Will drop far out of sight, and you become another,

   Sister and stranger to this self, changed without motion,

   Caught in acquirements, calling things names, calling me mother,

   But lost this lucid year, dropped out of sight, this key dropped

          in the ocean.

Those last lines “this key dropped in the ocean” is an exquisite finishing off to the baby’s first year, now redundant, in order to prepare for the coming of less pure years: its growing up, the assuming of a social identity, first with mother, and then with the larger world beyond. Scovell conveys regret at the passing of this unique time.

In A Baby’s Head she describes with a lyricism, devoid of sentimentality, the baby’s face in order to speculate on her future looks. “In fifty years if you have beauty it will be / Words written on your face, abstract as history.” Yet in the poem’s final verse Scovell pulls back to admire once more her child’s head in the present.

“Only for a moment your cavernous human brow

  Will dwell in the word of sense as naturally as now,

  Beautiful with no meaning, but that it commands

  Those to love, who hold you in their hands.”

Alongside of Lawrence Edith Scovell shares a mystical perception of the world. You sense that behind appearances is a spirit animating our behaviour. Both treat what is really beyond words with deeply tender words. Unlike Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight its baby subject is not one that stirs an excited, though anxious, concern of a father for the future welfare of his child. Coleridge’s baby Sarah will grow up. As will Lawrence’s baby (the imaginary one?) and Scovell’s (the real one). And all three poets are impelled to celebrate and reflect the glow of a new presence in the world.

Finally arriving at flowers I’ll digress to my childhood and my mother. My family didn’t grow up with a garden but a very floral-naked backyard. Whenever a relative called round, usually on a Sunday afternoon, with a bunch of flowers, to chat, Mother was pleased. I felt strongly indifferent to cut flowers in a glass vase, banged down, by father, on the kitchen table. Mother wished for a garden and I would transplant, in my head, Wavertree Botanical Gardens (Or at the very least a patch of roses) to the yard.

I had close access to excellent parks in Liverpool. However the cultivation of a garden first struck me most when as a teenager I read the remarkable poems of Andrew Marvell. In his case flower imagery could be seen as a highly refined order, a lost Eden or even function as military metaphor – A Garden: written after the Civil War. Yet many years later it was Scovell and Lawrence’s flower poems that I found much more human and inviting.

Four Scovell poems have made an indelible mark. Summer Night, Night Flowering Jasmine, The Evening Garden and Shadows of Chrysanthemums. Instead of attempting a careful exegesis of them (I haven’t the space in this essay) I will only take the last four lines of The Evening Garden to sum up Scofield’s achievement.

“The lighted room is small.

  Now we exist; and now we fashion

  A garden and a girdling wall,

  Our salient into wild creation.”

With the dual meaning of salient as angle or projection Scofield states her perspective on nature and the flower kingdom of her garden to be a “wild creation” of flowers that continues to fascinate similar to the roses in Eliot’s Burnt Norton that “had the look of flowers that are looked at.” We may create a barrier between ourselves and the garden. Yet Scovell’s wall is a girdling one suggesting girdle, a woman’s corset, and the mark, left on a tree trunk, after the removal of a ring of bark. This is an encircling of the feminine with nature, a need to hold back a higher world of flower-beds. The wild is tamed and cultivated: now its night and the gardeners have left to continue their existence in a small lighted room. We’ve fashioned what of nature we can and the flowers, that cannot speak, may look back at us.

I have to admit that one of the supreme flower poems Lawrence’s Bavarian Gentians does cheat: for though it realistically describes the gentian it is its symbolic power to illustrate death which is highlighted. In this poem the reader is drawn down into the unconscious power of a tiny flower with its torch-like petals.

Lawrence’s great poem is so resonate with meanings that I have to include it intact.

“Not every man has gentians in his house

  in soft September, at slow, sad Michaelmas.

  Bavarian gentians, big and dark, only dark

  darkening the day-time, torch-like with the smoking blueness of

         Pluto’s gloom,

  ribbed and torch-like, with their blaze of darkness spread blue

  down flattening into points, flattened under the sweep of white day

  torch-flower of the blue-smoking darkness, Pluto’s dark-blue daze,

  black lamps from the halls of Dis, burning dark blue,

  giving off darkness, blue darkness, as Demeter’s pale lamps give off


  led me then, lead the way.

  Reach me a gentian, give me a torch!

  let me guide myself with the blue, forked torch of this flower

  down the darker and darker stairs, where darkness is awake upon the dark

  and Persephone herself is but a voice

  or a darkness invisible enfolded in the deeper dark

  of the arms Plutonic, and pierced with the passion of dense gloom,

  among the splendour of torches of darkness, shedding darkness on

           the lost bride and her gloom.

This is late Lawrence and is often viewed as a poem about the approach of death – D.H.L. was dying of tuberculosis. Yes, I suppose so, but it’s also a highly generalised poem about death symbolising the end of summer and an edging towards winter. It’s Michaelmas (the 29th September) and on the cusp of autumn.

Bavarian Gentians descends into “the passion of dense gloom” revealed by the small torches (gentians) of darkness whose blue darkness (never hopefully turning to black?) reveals in the unconscious “the lost bride and her groom.” Why lost? Will death finally marry the feminine and masculine inside us? Yet it’s her groom. Which could mean partner or complement, a last configuration of both sexes, as Persephone, the goddess of spring and the queen of the underworld, becomes “a darkness invisible.”

And in this subterranean darkness the gentian assumes a mythopoeic force, a torch to guide you to “the passion of dense gloom.”  Here I love the duality of the word passion. This could be the sufferings of Christ from his last supper to his death on the cross but also passion as anger or an ardent love or affection. I’d go with the latter two definitions over the former, for if there is one word that describes D.H.Lawrence’s writings it’s passionate. And here he is, with a sombre passion, transforming Bavarian gentians (epitomising sweetness, passion charm and ‘flowers of victory’) into dark aides leading him to his and the poem’s ending.  

A dog, a baby and a flower. Three daunting subjects to be creative about or simply watched, enjoyed, perhaps only tolerated, as they forcefully confront most of us, if we are fully awake, on a daily basis. I shall watch out for cats too.

Blessay 57: My Power Failure and Daphne

The trouble with constantly writing is that I’m never left with enough energy and time to pause, stop and seriously read the completed creative efforts of other fiction writers. Pinning down a poem that resists every alteration of a line or replacing stilted dialogue in a story doesn’t make me want to reach out to examine, and enjoy, how others have succeeded in what, D.H. Lawrence termed, are “the big books of life.” I grab at newspapers, magazines, music or films. Some are deep cultural containers some are shallow distractions: yet they don’t judge me for what I’m at – struggling with slippery words on the page.

Three weeks ago a power failure at home coincided with me feeling creatively tired. My inner creative box and electricity fuse box gave up on me. I still had my mental powers but seven of my flat’s power-points had failed. As Camden Council and the local electricity authority wouldn’t define my problem as an emergency I was given a routine repairs appointment. This blow-out happened on a Friday. No one could call till Monday. I had a hospital scan booked for then so the repair changed to Tuesday. Apart from a portable radio this meant no computer, TV or hi-fi distraction.

I scanned my bookshelves and came across Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel and The Birds and Other Stories. As I knew and loved Rebecca (both book and film) I threw myself into reading My Cousin Rachel which was published in 1951. My Virago paperback has a quote from The Guardian, “A masterpiece of suspense.” and compares it to Rebecca. “Unputdownable” states Sally Beaumont in her introduction and she was right. For two days (only broken by eating, sleeping and exercise) Du Maurier’s novel clung to me like a greedy lover. I couldn’t stop reading (Not so fast now Alan, you need to savour the elegant prose) about the virginal and orphaned Philip Ashley, brought up by his cousin Ambrose, and experiencing emotional turmoil, after Ambrose’s early death: even more so after meeting his widow, the enigmatic Rachel. “Despite himself Philip is drawn to the beautiful, mysterious woman. But could she be Ambrose’s killer?” This cover blurb made it all sound too pat – only a gripping crime novel. 

However things get more complicated in a cat and mouse game of attraction and repulsion between Philip and Rachel. My Cousin Rachel is no murder mystery but a suspenseful account of the psychological collision of male and female control. Right up to the novel’s tragic ending we just don’t really know who was right or whose authority won through. And it’s not so much a clash of innocence and experience but whether the protagonists are consciously in control of their actions. Rachel is a strong, clever woman who needs money but is she a murderess? Whilst Philip’s sexual identity is complicated. A virgin young man of twenty six highly influenced by the misogynist Ambrose: vexed at Rachel inheriting Ambrose’s property and money, yet drawn, like a magnet, to the oedipal lock of desire which Rachel opens. Rachel as mother figure, imagined lover and femme fatale disturb his emotional life. And although Rachel sexually rejects Philip her feminity is of a passionate nature, heightened by her Italian identity, money, profligacy, property and self esteem.

The power of Du Maurier’s writing lies in its moral ambiguity. Du Maurier is often misunderstood as simply an author of popular gothic romances. Yet she is a marvellous psychological novelist of great skill and insight who averts and subverts melodrama as she questions the motivations of men and woman pushed to extremes other than those of romantic love. Hearts and minds are disturbingly tested: beyond the reasoning of Du Maurier’s plotting lies the wider mystery of human intent.

“Those things can never be explained, they happen. Why this man should love that woman, what queer chemical mix up in our blood draws us to another, who can tell me? To me, lonely, anxious, and a survivor of too many emotional shipwrecks, he (Ambrose) came almost as a saviour, as an answer to prayer.”

But did Rachel slowly poison Ambrose? Credible evidence is provided yet, in this fascinating anti-thriller, we are left unsure. And My Cousin Rachel certainly cried out for Hitchcock to have filmed it. He produced screen versions of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and The Birds but Rachel (with its sense of vertiginous obsession) was strangely ignored.

By day three of my power failure it was very satisfying to be absorbed by the printed page and not the over-bright screens of electronic devices. I lingered with the craft of Du Maurier. The Birds and Other Stories is an excellent collection of six stories. Again I sensed Du Maurier’s natural affinity with Hitchcock. Not just the The Birds but the story The Little Photographer. A beautiful and bored Madame le Marquese is on holiday, with her children, by the French Mediterranean coast. She meets a humble photographer, has a secret sexual liaison with him and when he wants to keep seeing her, after her vacation, she recoils, says no and pushes him right over a cliff. It’s a beautifully observed story packed with astute reflections on money, sex, power, class, guilt and privilege. The sting in the tale is that the already suspicious sister, of the photographer, turns up to blackmail Madame. I’ve read that the story was turned into a play. Yet I think it would have made a perfect TV film for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents Series.

Of course, we have the famous The Birds. Both Hitchcock’s film and Du Maurier’s story are brilliant in their different ways. The story, set in Cornwall, is very disturbing – its written accounts of the bird attacks are as powerful as the filmed ones.

Hitchcock’s isolated Bodega Bay has no sense of the authorities (in the form of the police or army) intervening to fight off the feathered apocalypse. Whereas the story depicts the English government failing its citizens (No six pm radio broadcast to communicate what they are doing). As Nat’s wife, on the farm, hopes that we will call upon the Americans to help us, her husband pauses.

“Nat listened to the tearing sound of splintering wood, and wondered how many million years of memory were stored in those little brains, behind the stabbing beaks, the piercing eyes, now giving them this instinct to destroy mankind with all the deft precision of machines.”

I left re-reading The Birds to the last and soon it was the morning of day five of the power failure. A cheerful South American electrician arrived to discover that my electric kettle had caused the trouble. “You don’t need it. Just boil water in a pan on the gas stove. It’s cheaper that way. “Thanks.” I replied putting down Du Maurier’s fictions and reconnecting to my electrics, wanting “the deft precision” of my real machines to aid, comfort and never attack.

No disturbance then till bedtime when I opened Dark Water, my all time favourite anthology of fantasy stories, edited by Alberto Manguel. Once more I read Du Maurier’s superb story Split Second where a anxious woman experiences a fatal time-slip very close to Hampstead Heath. But I’ll leave off describing that fiction, with its Twilight Zone comparisons, for another day, now that home-power has been restored, my devices still threaten to fragment my book-reading and the urge to write a new poem is returning.

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.


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!

















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


Home and Kitchen Section – – 2017

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

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

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

Blessay 51: Occupations

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Social Worker / Doctor /Nurse / Psychotherapist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Teacher / Actor / Film Director

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

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

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

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

Private Detective / Archivist / Interior Designer

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

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

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


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

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

Lady Gaga

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

Blessay 50: Books that Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You know the novel well then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gore Vidal

Nor great travellers to enjoy them too.


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