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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Age        Simone De Beauvoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Blessay 48: The Ins and Outs of China

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Schartz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

     The Wall and The Books                 Jorge Luis Borges

 

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

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

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

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

Blessay 47: A Need for Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My Soul.   I summon to the winding ancient stair:

Set all your mind upon the steep ascent,

Upon the broken, crumbling battlement,

Upon the breathless starlit air,

Upon the star that marks the hidden pole:

Fix every wandering thought upon

That quarter where all thought is done:

Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?

 

My Self.    The consecrated blade upon my knees

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

Still razor-keen, still like a looking-glass

Unspotted by the centuries:

That flowering, silken, old embroidery, torn

From some court-lady’s dress and wound,

Can, tattered, still protect, faded adorn.

 

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

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

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

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

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

A culture demands leisure and leisure presupposes

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

Is its test; by that the desert knows us.

It is not a question of escaping from life

But the reverse – a question of acquiring the power

To exercise the loneliness, the independence, of stones

And that only comes from knowing that our function remains

However isolated we seem fundamental to life as theirs.

We have lost the grounds of our being,

We have not built on rock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But when mad waves spring, braceletted with foam,

towards us in the angriness of love

crying a strange name, tossing as they come

repeated invitations in the gay

exuberance of unexplained desire,

we can forget the sad splendour and play

at wilfulness until the gods require

renewed inevitable hopeless calm

and our foam dies and we again subside

into our catalepsy, dreaming foam,

while the dry shore awaits another tide.

 

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

 

To me the sea is a continual miracle,

The fishes that swim – the rocks – the motion

Of the waves – the ships, with men in them

– what stranger miracles are there?

 

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

 

Blessay 46: Why Illusions Matter

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

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

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

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

Antonio Gramsci

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

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

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

Iris Murdoch

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

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

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

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

E.H. Gombrich- Art and Illusion.

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

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

Google definition of Freudianism.

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

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

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

Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

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

Blessay 45: The Dunkirk Variations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessay 44: Trembling, not Burning in my Tower

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 1 of a tower block evacuee seriously begins.

Blessay 43: Charleston on a Hot Evening

It was August 1976. I was studying English at Sussex, making notes for an extended essay for my course on “Arts and Letters in Britain from 1900-1930.” But it was hot, blisteringly hot. Not the best time to go for a long walk on the downs. But, heat wave or not, I’d arranged with Michael, a student on the same course, to visit Charleston, in the village of Firle. This was the country house meet-up place of the legendary elite of Sussex artists and Bloomsbury writers. Duncan Grant and members of his family were still living here. The University would have had to have asked permission to grant a student group visit – pretty unlikely. So Michael and I decided to attempt it ourselves.

We started off at 4 and reached Charleston at dusk, sometime after 8. I remember the light being on in the kitchen where a woman was preparing food on a large wooden table. The door was wide open. Out of the darkness of the back garden we appeared: thirsty, hungry and grubby from walking. At the very least we expected to be given a glass of water (I felt like a sentimentally depicted country tramp, of a fifties cartoon, who stops at a picturesque cottage and asks the occupants to quench my thirst.)  The real kitchen occupant wasn’t shocked by tramps or worn-out walkers, nor patronising, but welcoming.

“You poor things, you look done in. I’ll fix you a sandwich and a drink.” The fair-haired woman, wearing an apron, was in her early thirties and her accent was English-rose (without any cut-glass affectation.) She apologised for only making a snack, as she was preparing a large family meal that night. We thanked her and described our Sussex course. She listened carefully, between chopping up vegetables.

“That’s so nice. Both of you studying the old family members of the Bells and Grants. Grandfather will be delighted.”

“And who is grandfather?” I naively asked.

“Why Duncan. Look, Duncan and Paul are having a drink in the studio. I’m sure they’d be delighted to meet two students from Falmer.”

We were led into an enormous room (Grant’s studio) with large windows, a couple of set-up easels, with new paintings, older canvases stacked against the wall, lots of books and some oddly shaped chairs (Roger Fry’s Omega workshop I later discovered). Two men were chatting and we were introduced. They were genuinely surprised and flattered to be included (well really only Duncan) as subjects for a B.A. degree course. For a short time after WW2 Bloomsbury went out of fashion. It took the counter-culture movement of the 1960’s to latch on to its “experiment in living.” Gradually serious critical attention was paid not just the obvious luminaries like Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf, but artists Roger Fry, Eric Gill, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

Duncan, aged 91, with his long beard, smock-like shirt, large body and straw hat looked an impressionist patriarch: a dead ringer for the painter Auguste Renoir. He was very charming. His friend Paul Roche (who I later learnt was his lover) was initially a little suspicious and protective of Grant. Yet once he realised that we were just “students out on a walk” (my words) and not rivals, he relaxed. He was handsome in that old-fashioned English chiselled face manner; wearing a light black-cord suit, white shirt and cravat. Roche, in his forties, was a poet (now largely forgotten) and a renowned classical scholar.

Duncan was keen to show us his new painting whilst Paul holding a copy of one of his ‘slim volumes of verse’ looked eager to read at a moment’s notice. We wanted to talk about Bloomsbury past, but it was Duncan and Paul who did most of the talking. We were plied with questions about our interests, details of our degree, and life generally at University. I also sensed was that they were two kindly gay / bi-sexual men who were looking us over. It was only half an hour of chat, during a freakish heat-wave, but long enough to sense a world of bohemian values still continuing.

Back in the kitchen we ate some biscuits. “I’m sorry that I haven’t prepared enough food for guests, but the whole family’s here. Otherwise we’d have loved you to join us.” She said this with a genuine sense of disappointment. “But let’s top up your wine. I’ll lead the way into the dining room and you can say your proper goodbyes to all of us.”

Michael and I trailed behind her as she carried, on a tray, a huge steaming casserole dish of food. We walked along a corridor decorated with original Picasso and Braque drawings. This was the first time I’d seen valuable works of art in a domestic setting. They looked at home as if they’d been created with Charleston in mind. She opened the door and we saw Duncan, Paul, one older and two much young children seated round an Omega table. Again another book-lined room lit by a green and gold art-noveau lamp. The family beamed with warmth and well-being, not just for themselves but us. Duncan and Paul raised their glasses. And we raised ours back. “Good luck with your studies, young men” cried Duncan. Then we gently closed the door and left.

Going back home on the train, I cherished the image of a family wishing us well. It was a meeting of strangers brimming with affirmation. We didn’t want to impose on them. They didn’t see it as an imposition. We’d glimpsed how they lived and they welcomed us. It was an encounter that had nothing to do with class, power or any celebrity narcissism. It was an epiphany of quiet goodness and generosity. A civilised response to travellers who knock on your door. A country welcome. An empathy. A lovely balance between informality and protocol. An opened reality. And a dream of human kindness.

I’m writing this on a day in late June 2017 almost as hot as it was in the summer of 1976. It’s the fifth day of a London heat-wave. In April I went to the exhibition at 2 Temple Place, London called Sussex Modernism, Retreat and Rebellion: covering (care of the programme note) “radical artists and writers drawn to the rolling hills, seaside towns and quaint villages of Sussex in the first half of the twentieth century.”

There was a great diversity of art, sculpture, film and photography. And amongst them two paintings by Duncan Grant of Paul Roche, posing nude, in Grant’s studio. Seeing that remind me of the very clothed pair of lovers on that Charleston evening, a long gone Bloomsbury idea; the late nineteen seventies with its end of a socially progressive agenda: the winding down of liberal, higher education ideals and the unforeseen shock of an eighties, ‘individualism’ with its absence of political consensus.

Charleston may have housed its artistic elite. Yet those genuinely creative people, with all their human upsets and difficulties, gave us a vision (quite aristocratically privileged) but still retaining much that was spontaneous, inherently decent, kind and generous.