He walks along the river. Its arresting glitter, its teetering laughter of light, reflected as a pale gold glow up onto the high windows of the riverside palaces, some of which are hung with Nazi banners. So far, so good.
Saturday, July 2, 2011
Friday, April 15, 2011
Perhaps the saddest thing about life is that certain moments only happen once. There you are suddenly radiant with life, aglow with blessings and everything in the world is phosphorescent with accessible energy. And then, in the skip of a heart, that time is past, is a letter in a shoebox, a stain on a sheet. But then again you also realise that the concept of once is a primary source of the sustaining beauty life has. Of all the arts it’s dance that probably expresses most eloquently and poignantly the transient nature of life’s moments of grace. And this is why everyone should go and see Wim Wenders’ film about Pina Bausch. Twice I was lucky to see her dance company perform and both times it was like being stripped naked and daubed in mud and pollen by the girl with the most beautiful hands.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
My first impression upon stepping over the virtual threshold of Authonomy was of a halfway house for writers. Cheerful and hygienic it might appear but there's also a furtive sense of dispossession, even seediness; a feeling one has now slipped down a social pecking order. One's most treasured possession – one's ambition - is already looking a bit more ragged here, a bit more moth-eaten. One looks around a little warily at one's fellow inmates. One is immediately suspicious of so much overt friendliness, daunted by the ubiquitous flourishes of self-belief. These clearly are people who have tasted the acrimony of rejection on a regular basis. What the hell have they all got to be so cheerful about? Slowly though one settles in. One lowers one's expectations. One begins to enjoy and look forward to the meals on offer. One finds a chair to one's liking and is content to ignore the world outside for longer and longer periods. One realises one might never get out but there's always that one chance in a million that someone will recognise one's truly unique talent....
Thursday, March 17, 2011
“Do you know what I do now? my old teacher asked, giving me a kind of self-pleasuring wink. “I watch MTV. Does that shock you? Do you ever watch MTV?”
“Now and again,” I said.
“My daughter watched MTV. It was her religion. That’s where she got all her ideas from. I realise now it formed her far more than I did. MTV is all about images. The music is incidental. Once upon a time images were created for churches, now they’re created for MTV. So why go on painting? Images are marketing tools now. Is that why I paint? So that some marketing executive can use my pictures to sell hair products or car insurance? I saw an ad that used the Mona Lisa to advertise a sanitary towel. In Italy of all places. Because even Italy can’t bear to think of itself as old fashioned. Do you know I sometimes imagine Bin Laden sitting in his cave watching MTV. And then I feel like I understand him. I sympathise with his anger and his hatred of the West. I feel like he and I could be friends. Except he doesn’t drink. Do you know what I think? And I’m going to get into trouble for saying this.” He beckoned to me to lean forward over the table and when I had done so spoke through theatrically cupped hands in a hoarse whisper. “The emancipation of women has led to a world that’s interested in nothing but a narcissistic notion of pleasure.” He sat back with some satisfaction in his chair “Is that what women wanted all along? More pleasure?” He lifted his glass. “I propose a toast. To the Taliban and Bin Laden,” he said loudly, monitoring out of the corner of his eye the response elicited by his words in the bar.
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Is it a new phenomenon this mania on the part of people to impart erroneously piecemeal information they have read up on or heard on TV? I have heard a host of so-called facts lately – that asthma is on the increase because we’ve become too hygienic, that every year the earth accumulates 30,000 tonnes of space dust, that one percent of the dancing static on the TV when you zap onto a non-existent channel are residue particles from the big bang, that.21 billion pieces of junk mail are delivered to Britain’s homes each year requiring 3.3 million trees to make. All things someone will misquote to someone else on a bus or in a pub today. Did you know that 21 billion fucking people suffer from asthma and it’s caused by residue particles from the Big Bang?
Sure Barcelona utterly outplayed Arsenal and sure the statistics suggest only one team was ever going to win this game. But, let’s be honest, Barca were struggling in the final third until the officials started to lend them a hand. Two years ago Chelsea were denied four penalties against Barca all of which were more clear cut than the one given against Arsenal last night. As for the red card, it wasn’t a bad decision or a joke: it was just moronic. One silly little man gratuitously ruining an entertainment being enjoyed by millions of worldwide viewers. Fact is twice now in the past three years Barca have benefited from hugely dodgy decisions in their favour The truly great teams of the past – Van Basten’s AC Milan, Ronaldo’s Real Madrid – didn’t need large favours from FIFA officials to progress in the Champions League. So, no, Barcelona are not the greatest team to ever play football. If Iniesta and Messi personify the grace and dazzle of Barcelona, there’s Dani Alves to remind us of their playacting and cheaper tricks. If there's a more obnoxious footballer currently playing the game who is he? You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for whoever FIFA Barcelona draw in the next round – because even if they manage to hold off the blaugrana they’ll no doubt have FIFA officials eventually intervening on behalf of their opponents.
Monday, March 7, 2011
Why do we men always want women to see the pain they cause us? We always want women to feel on our behalf. Because when we feel they don’t give a shit our world caves in. We can’t just go away and weep in private though. First of all we have to make a song and dance of our hurt. We have to pour forth our pleas of please and sorry. We might start off by standing under our jilter’s window in the rain (we like it that it’s raining, the rain gives every entreaty we call up a more impassioned touch of theatre.) And, despite the hurt, the churning hollow wretchedness, we’re also secretly pleased with ourselves beneath the window. We have a soft spot for this emotion. The if-only-you’d-come-back-to-me-life-would-be-beautiful feeling. It’s the stuff that gets poetry written, religions underway. When we’re standing in the rain with our heartbreak it’s as if we’re alone under the spotlights on stage at Wembley Stadium with a guitar around our neck. We’re about to perform and we may well give the performance of our life. This one is for Katherine (or Maggie or Medusa), we say into the microphone. And we hear the crowd cheer and see an ocean of little bobbing flames. We thrash out some elegiac chords, make all our favourite words rhyme and we sing our poor heart out for the departed Katherine (or Maggie or Medusa). And if she’s not in the audience we hope someone who knows her is, someone who will tell her how much pain we’re in because she has decided to go back to her old boyfriend.
Friday, March 4, 2011
A week later we split up.
I soon got a bit bored with ex-girlfriend’s duplicitous charade and suddenly said it didn’t matter if she had sent me a text meant for her ex-boyfriend. That was when she went mental. I suppose it might have been a bit insensitive of me seeing as how much energy she had just expended creating her cock and bull story but even so. After explaining the meaning of every sentence in the text again – by now she was beginning to sound like Carl Jung wrapping up his views on the significance of the king, the queen and the two doves in medieval alchemical etchings - she told me it was the first time she had found my behaviour unattractive, that I was being absurd and that if this was what I was going to be like it might be better if we split up now. She still won’t admit that text was to him, she still gets angry when I bring it up. Women are the same when they betray you. Again something vicious emerges. They might look a bit sheepish at first but that doesn’t last long. Pretty soon it’s your fault. Pretty soon they’ve worked themselves up into a righteous scorn for the eternal inadequacy of your feeling. We can never quite get it right where feeling is concerned. It’s always slightly underdone or a bit on the burnt side. Women like to complain that men have always tried to tell them how to look. So why don’t men complain that women have always tried to tell us what we should feel? It seems to me most men just throw in the towel at a certain point. They can’t be bothered anymore. Disagreeing with a woman on a point of feeling is more exhausting than anything gyms have so far been able to come up with. One assumes the married man learns what’s expected of him, like a schoolboy, and generally comes up with the correct answer. Aren’t those tea cups the prettiest things you’ve ever seen, dear? Is that a trick question? It could be of course. She might just be testing you to see how well she has you trained.
At the beginning of a relationship with an ex- girlfriend she once accidentally sent me a text message meant for her ex-boyfriend. Initially I thought it was for me and its oddness might be explained by a stressful day at work. The text was sprinkled with the kind of affectionate platitudes that were they to be given a market value would provide you with a palm-full of change from a pound coin. Certainly it contained nothing to get jealous about. But when she realised her faux pas there followed an elaborate and increasingly dubious explanation as to how the text was intended for a girl she worked with. She practically told me the entire erotic history of this mysterious girl as if then there could be little doubt that the message was indeed intended for her. But even the stupidest criminal knows that if you’re going to create an alibi, keep it simple. Don’t tell the police that you spent the entire night in question with your aunt Harriet and that you remember it well because you fixed her dishwasher which was only four months old but had already begun to make disconcerting noises, that you then tucked into a vegetarian steak and kidney and pie but didn’t go much for the cauliflower, because, to be honest, you had never really cared for the stuff; and actually this weird image had sprung into your mind, while Aunt Harriet was asking if you remembered driving golf balls at the panes of glass in poor old Mr Conk’s greenhouse at the bottom of the garden, when you were a young lad of not taking a Big Mac out of the packaging, of just putting the whole merchandise, styrofoam and all, in your mouth and chewing on it because that’s what cauliflower tastes like when it’s just been boiled in a saucepan and dumped on a plate; that you finally settled down, you on the sofa, Aunt Harriet in her favourite armchair beneath the three flying porcelain ducks, two of which had damaged wings, and watched the five hour remake of The Ten Commandments but that actually you preferred the original with cant-remember-his-name in it. Even the stupidest criminal knows that’s just the quick route to damnation
Thursday, March 3, 2011
There he stands, chest inflated, nose in the air, arms outstretched with regal disdain towards all us mere mortals, the epitome of smug self-satisfaction. Anyone would think he had just discovered the cure for cancer. But hang on. Wasn’t it you, Wayne, who played like a turnip for the entire duration of the World Cup? Who was largely responsible for making the World Cup a tawdry humiliating experience for every English football fan? So next time you score a goal how about celebrating it with some boyish exuberance instead of nominating yourself for the Nobel prize?
Monday, February 28, 2011
There often, with the benefit of hindsight, seems an inevitability about what happens to people. One believes the clues were there all along, compressed into conversations, encrypted into encounters, like a word whose meaning one was then yet to learn. But one wonders a bit about hindsight. Is it really all it’s trumped up to be? Would I now with hindsight not have stolen money from my mother’s purse when I was ten? I doubt it, even though I was eventually caught and the crime caused some domestic distress. The amphetamine rush of creping into the bedroom while my parents watched television directly below and spying the bag on the bed was a reward in itself. That to me was life on a scale worth living. And the possibility of outrage and punishment was part of the pact. Hindsight hasn’t done the planet much good either. I suppose because, like apologies, it always arrives too late. Sometimes I think history is a bit like Cluedo. This time round it was Professor Plum with the lead piping in the conservatory. So what? Next time it might be Miss Scarlet with the dagger in the ballroom but the plot is always the same.
Saturday, February 26, 2011
When I was fourteen or fifteen a boy at school told me a woman had two entrances – a right one and a wrong one. This of course was an alarming idea. A year or two later, when I realised the girl I was kissing was prepared to go upstairs to the bedroom, the idea was still there in my mind - a grotesque insistent thing with a leering mocking mouth. Therefore I excused myself for a few minutes and made straight for the drinks cabinet. I was as naïve in those days about alcohol as I was about a female’s sexual anatomy. I gulped down the contents of the first bottle that came to hand. The only thing I therefore learnt from my first sexual experience was that it is a very big mistake to frantically drink large quantities of sherry.
Thursday, February 24, 2011
Last summer I spent a few weeks living alone in a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside miles from civilisation and carless. The first time I ventured out on a bike was to be the last. It was all tally-ho fun to begin with, flying down one curving incline after another, with my shirt catching the breeze and billowing out behind me (it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I would have to pedal back up all these fun slopes: I rarely dwell on the likely consequences of my actions). I bumped and flew past the small lake at the foot of the valley where cattle were drinking and began to feel a bit thirsty myself. The thought of a bar became my oasis though I knew it was still at least six kilometres away from any outpost of civilisation. Then I hit a series of uphill slopes, one after another and finally had to get off the bike and walk it. A sign announcing that Paganico, the nearest village, was still five kilometres away and the sight of another steep incline ahead finally defeated me and I decided the only thing to do was to head back. For a while I sauntered back down slopes with butterflies fluttering in my flight path and lines of white gulls waiting for the fields to be sown again but after a while arrived the relentless uphill part of the journey. Even pushing the bike exhausted me and several times I had to stop to catch my breath. When I could finally see the eccentric little yellow house across the valley I was virtually hyperventilating and feeling sick. The flies buzzing in my ears I told to fuck off and even the sweet smells of the wild roadside flowers began to smell like mockery. When I reached the house of the neighbouring farmers I began retching - in full view of their windows and I bet they had a giggle at my expense. Finally I dumped the bike and staggered home. When I could smoke again I made a vow – from now on, I said to myself, I will limit my forays into the realms of physical exercise to carrying my dictionary from one side of my room to the other.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
I open my copy of the King James Bible. If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasure: Then shalt thou understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God. I enjoy opening the Bible at random and reading the first few lines on which my eyes alight. It’s like putting to the test the power of circumstance to body forth an oracle.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
There’s probably a campanile within sight. And at some point a bell will chime – bold timeless strokes which, like light after rain, will give to the moment an undertow. The play of shadows on a medieval wall will draw attention to the history of the stones, the struggles of blood and line they have witnessed. You’ll be sitting at a table with the sun warm on the back of your neck; scooters will fizz past; and then the waiter will arrive. “Cappuccino,” you say. Bliss.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
One's sentiments, one's fidelities are so instinctive that one hardly knows they exist; only when they are betrayed does one realise their power. That betrayal is the end of an inner life, without which the everyday becomes threatening or meaningless. At the back of the spirit a mysterious landscape, whose perspective used to be infinite, suddenly perishes.
Friday, February 18, 2011
Novel’s gone off on its first round of submissions. All the big guns. They were given a deadline to make up their minds – which is today. So today I dare not venture anywhere near my yahoo inbox. Then, after lunch, I came across some very appropriate lines from Byron’s journal on the subject of hope –
Why, at the very height of desire and human pleasure – worldly, social, amorous, ambitious, or even avaricious – does there mingle a certain sense of doubt and sorrow – a fear of what is to come – a doubt of what is – a retrospect to the past, leading to a prognostication of the future? Why is this? I know not, except that on a pinnacle we are most susceptible of giddiness, and that we never fear falling except from a precipice – the higher, the more awful…
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Walking by the sea. I took off my shoes and let the waves wash over my bare feet. Mills, my father’s whippet, was with me. Now and again I raced her over the sand. She would shimmy past me like a rugby wing back avoiding a tackle. I needed to feel like a teenager again. Needed to reassert a vigorous ongoing relationship with the soil underfoot. Finally I sat on some rocks and watched the waves.
When I turned inland I saw two moving white columns in the sky which at first glance I thought was smoke. The two encroaching formations rippled into funnels and then spread out beneath the labyrinthine coral of clouds into fans. My vision blurred for a moment. Then I realised I was witnessing two perfectly synchronised flocks of birds. The abstract shapes they formed were flawless . I stood with my hands on my head as the birds tapered into a long undulating line which gently vanished behind the surface of things. The same thing happens when people die - they vanish behind the surface of things.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
I spent the afternoon in the church of Santa Trinita pretending to be a middle-aged English woman with a guilty secret lodged in her breast. Would all those sacred images have thawed her brittle crust and inspired in her a longing to let out the truth? The wooden Magdalene might have shaken her. The idea of Magdalene with the vessel of consecrated oil is fascinating: it's a metaphor perhaps of the female's power to heal, an emblem of her sexuality and its powers of replenishment and protection, though the Church would not see it quite that way. And despite her wizened corroded appearance the Magdalene in Santa Trinita still has her healing balm.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
The almond trees are in flower - the white flowers like snow blossoming from scarlet buds with tiny thumbprints of golden pollen on the anthers - and something of their wistful haunting beauty now hangs lazily over the city at night. As I write laughter rises up from the bars down below and the smells of Florence at night in springtime....In this rustling air, our bodies quiver. All's possible, all's unpredictable.
Today, up in the hills, out on my own, I was suddenly, as if the wind had made your skirt rustle and lifted up into the air the familiar smell of your skin, granted a vivid sense of your presence. Now and again these moments arrive when we're able to see things as they really are, in relation to eternity and not to the thick fog of our fears, insecurities, conceits and hurts. When I returned to Italy after the summer I had a first class sleeper on the train from Paris all to myself. I was too excited to sleep and didn't. I remember in the early hours of morning the train stopped at a station - there were palm trees and marble platforms and a certain distinctive smell - and my whole body with a joyful shout knew it was back in Italy. Italy in that moment became everything I've experienced here - all the train journeys, all the conversations, all the embraces and all the goodbyes. Everything I had ever strongly felt here was returned to its original purity, endowed with its virgin vitality. It was almost as though I had died. I remember then wishing that you could see me just for a moment, just long enough for me to give you back the smile you so often inspired. In that moment all the horrible aggressive bullying and sermonising I was guilty of fell away and there you were again - curving like a question mark and forging in me a longing to hear your answering voice in the dark. I realised then that in all probability we will die without ever again speaking...
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
This will be the last letter I ever write from my room by the river and it's probably appropriate that it should be to you since you are without question the person I've thought most about within these four walls. I'm sorting through my possessions and have realised how little you gave me, how little tangible evidence I have that I even knew you - two letters, a few photos, a few scraps of paper with messages on them.
Last Saturday I went to a wedding. It was in a beautiful 13th century abbey in the Tuscan countryside. At one point I went outside and sat on the steps - there was a beautiful choir with these ethereal voices silvering the air and the meadows were bristling with poppies and cornflowers and as always happens when life is suddenly too beautiful for words you become part of the moment.
Perhaps I didn't admit it to myself but I realise now there's always been hidden away in me the hope that you might suddenly discover one day that actually you couldn't go through the rest of your life without seeing me again. To imagine that moment - you shyly telling me the more vulnerable truths - enables me to realise how vast still is my capacity to be happy. That's another gift you've given me - because even if it never happens it's very close, like something in a neighbouring field which if I stand on tiptoes I can see and embrace as an inspiration at least.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
Constancy... that small change of love, which people exact so rigidly, receive in such counterfeit coin, and repay in baser metal.
On the money or too cynical? But having come across this quote of Lord B’s in his letters I was reminded of Joyce’s The Dead which I’ve recently reread. For the uninitiated the story undergoes a transfiguration when a husband discovers his wife has always secretly loved someone else. The husband suddenly sees his wife in an exalted light. Joyce loved his epiphanies and some were more successful than others. This particular one always struck me as bogus – an awkward artistic device to arrive at the required emotion, like Hollywood distorting historical facts to give a film more scope for cheers and boos.
But then I thought about it some more. Essentially we demand constancy from our lovers and friends to keep our illusions about ourselves in tact. Ironically though it’s often the act of betrayal that knocks us out of our pinched complacencies into a wider world. So Joyce, albeit a tad clumsily, was right after all…
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Historically nature, like the moon, the sea and sensuality, has always been represented as feminine. Because of its tidal procreative function. Also associated with the feminine are certain traits, like passivity, receptivity, tears, while their opposites, assertion, projection, shouting are traditionally considered masculine. Nature and the conflict between male and female principles has always been the subject of art and literature. Every good book or painting has something fascinating to say about nature and sexual identification if you perform a little archaeology on it. Every period in history also has a distinctive attitude towards nature, often reflected in the art and literature of the time. What is our present conception of nature? In our virtual technological world nature has once again been exiled into sentimental notions – adventure holidays, Sunday afternoon flower arranging, workshop breathing exercises and diagrammed sexual callisthenics. In other words, Nature isn’t the stinking slop in a sewer pipe or the bloody beak of a bird spiking a live worm; it’s the rolling Tuscan hills or a pack of puppies playing in a park. Nature though is a vampire. It exists to suck our blood. The beautiful male vampire is another of our attempts to glamorise and romanticise nature. But, interestingly, an attempt to make Nature male.
Monday, January 31, 2011
At the fork in the road where Costa Scarpuccia begins its twisting descent down towards the river, the dome of the Duomo, the tower of Palazzo Vecchio and the hills that cradle Florence appear like a postcard of themselves. Zinnia takes Felix’s hand and runs with him down the slope of the road until they reach the gravelled forecourt of a church. Next to the church, covered in jasmine and wisteria, is the high outer wall of the palazzo where she once rented an apartment.
The church is now some kind of pristine business centre. It has an automatic sliding glass door. Her shoulders stiffen as she walks past it. She suspects a ten-year-old boy would prefer an automatic glass door to a heavy wooden one. Is the world becoming more childish?
She remembers sitting on these steps outside the church, watching the rain slide down the old door, how its downward course was directed by the grain of the wood. She and Felix’s father often sat here at the end of a night, before they separated. They sat on the top step with their hips touching and she would smell her scent as it would smell for him and there was a dusting of arousal on her fingers as they talked in the dark, a softening of her body’s resistance as if it were half persuaded to shape itself into an embrace.
These two stone steps, she realises for the first time, are a pivotal part of her history, one of the most haunted places in the world for her. The silence of the past is almost a physical presence, a rustling current pinpricking the skin. Then the moment passes, the spell breaks and she sees things as they appear again.
When she rings the bell, Giuseppe, the gardener, appears holding a large cardboard box full of bits of metal and plastic. He still looks as though he sleeps in a field at night.
“Ma che bella sorpresa! Come stai? Quanti anni sono passati…”
He has forgotten her name but his smile is at full stretch and glows with recollection; it’s exactly how she remembers it. He puts down his box and gives her a spiky-chinned kiss on either cheek.
She tells him she wants to show her son her old home.
“Ma certo. Ci sono sempre ragazze inglesi in quell’apartamento. Anche adesso.”
The magnolia tree is still there by the gravel path. She caresses the peeling bark of its trunk while looking out at the enclosed secret garden, the lawn where she read books while the sun trailed lover's fingers along her thighs and over her stomach. Then she descends the uneven steps down to the French windows. It feels wrong that she no longer has the key to open these doors. She peers through the glass into the large sitting room. The furniture is the same but it has been arranged into a different pattern. She feels like a ghost, keenly aware of the betrayals that are perpetrated against the departed. She walks further down the steps to her old window. It is too high in the old stone wall for her to be able to see in to her bedroom, even on tiptoes.
“This is where you were made, Felix.”
She grins at his discomfort.
Sunday, January 30, 2011
The Berlusconi rumpus raises a host of difficult questions about our culture. Not least of all it rouses the puritan in us into argumentative mode. One is compelled to raise moral objections. Of course some people like nothing better than giving their pet puritan a good run in the park. Moral indignation is a favourite emotion of the Anglo Saxon race (far less so with Latins). But along with all my other objections to Berlusconi I now have to add this one – his antics have made me feel puritanical. And not only his antics but also the venal cynical nature of his harem of women. At the moment my fridge contains a jar of ginger left behind by an old flatmate, a half empty carton of milk and some frozen peas. Nevertheless I still wouldn’t sleep with a 74-year-old woman for ten grand. I bet the Taliban are loving Bunga Bunga. You can imagine them passing the words around in a circle and sniggering behind their beards.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
The Waves is about how identity is achieved. Each sentence is as such a building block of identity. It’s made up of what Virginia Woolf called moments of being – or those instances in life in which we make memories. We become to a large extent what those around us make of us and yet at the same remain unknowable. We create each other and then vanish to each other. We are washed up on the shore for a moment and then carried back out to sea. The pattern is repeated over and over again.
One can dislike the alliteration and lyrical cadence of her prose style but few would deny that architecturally it’s a stunning piece of work.
One can dislike the alliteration and lyrical cadence of her prose style but few would deny that architecturally it’s a stunning piece of work.
My favourite character is Rhoda, the tortured creative self-conscious soul –
Yes, between your shoulders, over your heads, to a landscape, said Rhoda, to a hollow where the many-backed steep hills come down like birds’ wings folded. There, on the short, firm turf, are bushes, dark-leaved, and against their darkness I see a shape, white, but not of stone, moving, perhaps alive. But it is not you, it is not you; not Percival, Susan, Jinny, Neville or Louis. Behind it roars the sea. It is beyond our reach. Yet there I venture. There I go to replenish my emptiness, to stretch my nights and fill them fuller and fuller with dreams.
Friday, January 21, 2011
I enjoy observing the world continue without me. I have a talent for the things ghosts would excel at. Venice is the perfect place to indulge this character flaw. I especially enjoy watching the taxi gondola which ferries passengers from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. The male passengers are expected to stand. It’s a kind of macho thing. You have to be nonchalant, even when the boat is buffeted by the wake of water traffic, as if you’re simply standing in line at a cash point machine. Once there was a fat man who caught me looking at him. Half way across, the gondola was rocked by the waves made by a barge and I could sense his body’s need for some kind of rail to hold onto. I felt his precarious equilibrium in my own arms and legs. I sympathised with him. I preferred him to the nonchalant men.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
When he entered his room Gavin Sterling was no longer sure that he wanted to empty himself of desire. Orgasm, after all, was unreliable; it changed your mood, like dreams. Gavin foresaw the probable outcome, saw himself perched down on his knees, quivering above little puddles of sperm sauce. Emptied of anticipation and desire. The appropriation of anything coveted in imagination had a habit in Gavin’s life of falling short of expectation. Sometimes he believed this was the fault of the male orgasm - that abrupt pyrotechnic eviction from the embrace of one’s comforting yearnings and their occult energies. Gavin was sure the female orgasm, altogether less evangelical, less systematic and goal-posted, was a different kettle of fish. But he was a male and the only orgasm available to him was the streamlined provisions of the male one.
Grand Theft Auto was always an option, he thought, practicing some dance moves in front of the polished mirror. Throwing back his shoulders and making imperious flat-palmed signals with his outstretched hands as if putting to rest the misgivings of an entire populace stationed somewhere far below his swaying form he thought how bizarre it was that the otherworldly Evie should appear again just as he was bemoaning his lack of a companion to take to Rome. “Ohyo Ohyo,” he shouted in agreement with the bass heavy rap tune rattling the framed photo of his mother and father by the bed. His mouth puckered like a feeding fish as he punched the air with war-mongering fists and remembered the night his fingers had gone probing inside Evie’s knicker elastic.
Despite his earlier misgivings Gavin inserted the disc into the machine. He held it on PAUSE while he made a vagina in his book case, inserting a soft pouch of pink tissue paper between a heavy biography of Napoleon and the softer, still unread paperback edition of Martin Amis’ Money.
Three men were spying on the plucky peroxide heroine through double-glazed french windows. Speaking into a phone she was dressed in a transparent black negligee and sprawled on a sofa, patterned with garden flowers. Gavin had to imagine what she might be saying since for fear of his flatmate overhearing he had turned the sound down. As the three men unzipped their flies Gavin remembered the excitement of finally convincing Evie to publicly slander his enemy and felt his blood ripple with cleaving dedication. The humiliation he had indirectly received at Felix’s hands still though thirsted further revenge. What did he care if it was no more Felix’s fault than Lord Byron’s himself that his childhood sweetheart had incessantly made plain her attraction to young Mr. Chantley’s celluloid image? What in Gavin’s mind became her marked preference for the actor had incited a jealousy which first undermined the previously facile nature of his self-confidence and then heralded the demise of their relationship.
“Dickhead,” said Gavin, on his knees with his trousers and boxer shorts rucked around his ankles. Grasping the wooden cabinet for all he was worth he continued thrusting his manhood into the handmade pink yoni.
A rather grown up friend is presently reading my novel. I kind of know the scenes he will object to. Certainly the masturbation scene. There are events in this book, the slapstick comedy ones essentially, that will alienate some people. As such I've been compelled to question how much immaturity I want to allow into the text. Because I’m dealing with immature narcissistic characters it seems artistically wrong to approach them from a stately grown up point of view. Shouldn’t I mischievously be seeking to get the reader to empathise with their antics rather than overtly disapproving of them? It’s this ability I admire in writers like Nabokov and Amis – the ability to get us to warm to characters who aren’t particularly likeable. Some writers are consistently and self consciously grown up. We immediately know they are individuals we could trust to behave well at a dinner party. I wanted to be more ambiguous as an author in this novel. I wanted to dramatise my own immaturity as well as give voice to the thoughtful adult in me. As such the book moves back and forth between a satirical and a more thoughtful register. But it’s an interesting dilemma, finding a balance which doesn’t needlessly alienate a certain kind of reader. I’m reading my first Palahniuk novel (Pygmy) which is very much pitched on an immature satirical key. It’s probably a love or hate book – though it inspires neither in me. But it is consistently slapstick.
Monday, January 17, 2011
It’s 1938. A hundred and fourteen years since Lord Byron’s death. A handful of people enter the Byron family vault beneath the small parish church in Hucknall. The vault has been sealed up for over a century. The vault is now being opened for archaeological reasons. But curiosity was bound to get the better of the visitors. Eleven steps led down into the burial chamber. A miner’s lamp was used to light the vault. Coffins were stacked one on the top of the other in piles. The weight of those on top had crushed those below. Bones spilled out onto the floor. Only the top two in each pile were in tact. One was Byron’s, the other his daughter’s who, like Byron, died at the age of 37. It was apparent the tombs had been vandalised. Probably when Ada, Byron’s daughter, was laid to rest. Byron’s coronet still rested on the coffin but its pearls and silver orbs were missing. It was also evident that the lid was loose. As one of the party moved closer, the lid moved. It wasn’t until half past ten at night that the party finally agreed to open up the coffin, an act they were not authorised to do. The outer coffin lid was removed, followed by the inner lead shell which, they saw, had been cut into. Inside the layer of lead was the wooden coffin containing Byron’s body. This lid was opened and there was Byron = recognisable from his portraits, his embalmed body still in an excellent state of preservation.
I immediately thought of Damien Hirst. Next project, wheel out the corpse of Byron. I can think of few things which would excite as much wonder in me as beholding Byron face to face. That’s what I would call a memorable experience. Would it be tasteless to put him on show? But surely as a culture we’ve already made great inroads into the realms of bad taste. We must have reached about Level Nine by now. What harm would a little more bad taste do? There’s also the strong suspicion Byron would have warmed to the idea (as long as his lame foot was covered). Imagine if there was a museum where you could look at the preserved cadavers of the likes of Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven. Who wouldn’t pay to go in there? And, like Damien Hirst suggests, we should probably be looking at death a bit more.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Idly leafing through a copy of Private Eye I found on the seat of the bus I was on. The classifieds:
hypnotherapy helps. Tel 01703 216 193
two frightened, elderly single vulnerable ladies desperately need help regarding a bullying neighbour. Reply Box 181775
Mobile Phone Investigations: spy phones; text message retrievals, names and addresses from mobile numbers and more. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The idea of hacking into my ex girlfriend’s email account or her phone messages was crossing my mind in a flippant hypothetical fashion when I looked down and saw her walking past the Royal Academy.
By the time I arrived down on the lower deck and stood by the closed door I had lost sight of her. The bus was stuck in traffic. It was shuddering like a fat animal that’s just been shot by a tranquilliser dart. I stole a glance at my fellow passengers who seemed in their wary insulation like a congregation of creatures of a different species, momentarily forced to share the same habitat. I’m not an assertive person. You either have to expect to get your own way to be assertive or enjoy not getting your own way. I’m not quite sure where I stand in this equation. But I find it impossible to raise my voice in a crowd. I did not therefore shout out to the driver a request to open the doors. I imagined he would ignore any such request with a silent look of disdain. And I, providing a momentary reprieve from the deathly boredom of commuting, would become the focus of attention for all the passengers. There was only so much disdain my self-esteem could take in a day, so I kept my mouth shut. I succumbed to a moment’s wistful nostalgia for the old red buses of the past that you could hop on and off at will. Instead here was a door I could not open with my own hands. How smugly proud we are of our new-found freedoms in the West – always bragging about them and trying to export them further afield – and yet every year some sly little technological theft of our autonomy is surreptitiously introduced into everyday life. I mean, what better definition of prison is there than an enclosed space whose door you can’t open with your own hands?
Saturday, January 15, 2011
Pivotal political event of the decade and possibly of the century. Shouldn’t we therefore know as much about it as possible? This film for anyone who hasn’t watched it is well worth an hour of your time.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t buy the theories it puts forward. It does no harm to take them on board for a while. It was a courageous act to publicly ask those questions. A sceptical response to the hypothesis of the film is to doubt the ability of those individuals in the know to keep what happened that day a secret. But one might argue that these people’s power is entirely dependent on their ability to keep secrets. This is modus operandi behind freemasonery. And what’s the point of having power if you don’t exercise it? Few people would now dispute the theory that more than one gunman was responsible for the death of Kennedy – Delillo’s fictional account of that event in his novel Libra is probably a lot closer to the truth than any official report – and yet those who know have either kept quiet or mysteriously disappeared the moment they open their mouth.
I don’t think anyone can pretend to know what happened that day but what is apparent is there were an overload of sinister coincidences in the subplot and rather too many suspicious holes in the official explanation.
How close to the truth is the interpretation of events depicted in Loose Change? Disturbingly I found I was unable to dismiss it out of hand.
Friday, January 14, 2011
I’m not a great fan of singling out one character to be a touchstone of integrity – this often seems to me too arbitrary and sanitary as a register - or of forced upbeat endings. Herzog, one of the best novels written in the past fifty years, was almost ruined for me by the forced false ending. There was no imminent possibility of pastoral peace for Herzog. That was a lie.
Magnus’ prophecy at the beginning of the book realizes itself at the end. He is the spirit of the place – so by betraying him any character is also betraying this spirit of place - but I also wanted to show him as being an outmoded principle – partly through his own shirkings and partly through an upsurge of decadence in the times in which we live. In a way it’s Magnus’ time that is past.
The exemplary voice of That Time was always meant to be the setting, the natural habitat – which is why all the descriptive passages of place contain an unrelenting lyrical evocation of beauty. The setting offers vast possibilities of connection, of kinship, of transcendence. The characters though, in the romantic tradition, have all created a world of their own and will not refrain from following spectres and illusions. They disdain the principle of pollen. This was my point of departure. It’s meant as essentially a satirical novel but unlike most modern satirical novels which depict the external world as vulgar and fallen, I’ve tried to create, in part, an exemplary natural world which ought to help heighten powers of empathy and creative understanding but instead is used by the characters as little more than a flattering backdrop for their narcissistic monologues. Essentially I brought modern London to an unspoilt place of immense romantic possibility. It’s my La Dolce Vita. Though the book does not possess a simple code which, if decrypted, will spell out the entire meaning of the text, it does abide by a number of dictums, one of which is the natural living world consistently being ignored or mocked as a touchstone. In fact everyone is warring with nature – but neither do I want to suggest they are entirely wrong to do so.
I think people will have different ideas about which character should be developed more. This is the realm of personal taste. To my mind though, in depth character studies don’t belong in this novel. It’s very much a theatrical novel, shifted through its paces by dialogue. And its time span is very brief. I didn’t want inner voices. (It’s a bit old hat anyway, this business of finding psychological motive). Every character is deliberately limited to the personality he or she has romantically created for themselves. And this personality is always a suit of armour. It forsakes natural springs, the tides of the sea. Everyone is using personality to deflect or cheat sexuality, nature. I kind of sense you’re asking for one or two characters to be more likeable but though I’m aware that none of them are going to inspire unadulterated love I’m not sure that any of them are quite as despicable as you seem to have viewed them, perhaps with the exceptions of Gavin and Rory who of course are slightly caricatured villains. Essentially though it’s the tone, the writing itself, the weave that has to “likeable”. I didn’t mean the text as a whole to be cynical and I don’t think it is. It’s meant more as social criticism, as a criticism of modern romanticism which is essentially just the fluff and feathers.
As for the gambling, I would argue that there’s no need for any precedent. It was essentially a pastime, a card game and Jake was being competitive in front of an audience of attractive girls – all perfectly within his nature. It’s not as if he’s suddenly become a hardened gambler or that his character suddenly succumbs to an unlikely alchemy. His father’s most treasured possession is the pool table – a symbol of male competiveness. The gambling scene shows him, like everyone else, to be incapable of empathy, which is the touchstone of a truly romantic spirit. Romanticism without creative vision is perhaps merely a narcissistic philosophy of life. And I sense that’s what we have nowadays. Hence Magnus, who alone does have a creative vision, is part of the time that is past.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
We were looking at the television - grainy footage of an Asian man inside the lions den at a zoo. He was wearing a white shirt. He seemed to be calmly talking to the lions. It was as if he fancied himself as some kind of missionary and was trying to convert the lions to his creed. There were two lions, a male and a female. They were side by side, about two feet from the man and entranced by him, perhaps a little irritated by his presumption. I looked at Katie. She had a hand to her mouth, another mysterious thing women do. The male lion casually but also warily stepped forward and opened his jaws. The utter passivity of the man clearly bewildered the beast. Nevertheless it gave the missionary a warning bite on his leg. It was an impressive gesture – the electric springing forth, the wide mouth, the sharp teeth, the lick of the tongue. The man sat back on a white rock. He seemed disappointed. His message, whatever it was, was clearly not getting across. He then stood up again and held his arms aloft. The camera panned to a uniformed man pointing a telescoped rifle. Then back to the lion’s den. You could sense the lioness was getting irritated, as much by her mate’s prevarication as the intruder himself. It was like the conversation you could imagine a middle-aged married couple having in bed while a noisy party was going on in the flat downstairs – the wife exhorting the husband to do something about it, the husband reluctant to make a scene. The lion then pawed the man twice and gave him another half-hearted bite, on the arm this time. It was roaring now, showing its teeth. There was then an untidy cut in the film and the next shot showed medical staff inspecting the man’s wounds and then the two lions asleep or dead on the ground.
“It’s not often you see news, is it? Usually you just see someone talking about the news,” I said.
“I’d hardly call that news,” she said. “Poor things. As if it wasn’t bad enough being locked up in a zoo. Can you imagine a woman doing that? A woman would never do that,” she said.
“Why is that? Do you think?”
The lions had restored some semblance of our old relationship. We had something external we could comment on, share our opinions about.
“You tell me. You’re a man.”
“Because half the time we think reality is nothing but an extension of our own imagination? Because there are moments when we need something as fiercely independent as a lion to prove to us that this isn’t the case? I wonder what he’ll do next? The man in the white shirt. That’s the real story. What will he wake up thinking about tomorrow morning? How will he view the whole escapade in retrospect? Why don’t they put people like that on reality TV? People who aren’t sure what reality is.”
“Like you, you mean?”
I raised my eyebrows – my little-boy-lost look. Then I smiled.
Monday, January 10, 2011
It beggars belief nowadays that once upon a time the sex scenes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover were considered subversive. How did the judge and jury at the trial not succumb to bouts of adolescent giggling? Those scenes now make one squirm with embarrassment for poor DH and his hamfisted humourless attempt to find depth psychology in the vagaries of the sexual act.
But don’t all lengthy anatomised sex scenes make one cringe at some point? Isn’t there almost always a point where they cease to say anything meaningful about the characters involved but dilate and blur into the comically humiliating impersonality of any bodily function? And why does sex invariably make an author overwrite? It’s these earnest attempts to poeticise in language the clichéd choreographies involved in the sexual union which are so risible. Watch two pigeons shagging: how much poetry or personality is involved? It’s a depressing programmed spectacle unless you tag it as slapstick comedy and view it accordingly. I would argue that the mechanics of sex, like those of washing dishes, are descriptively gratuitous and will, in all likelihood, turn you into a laughing stock.
Here, to prove the point, are some excerpts from winners of previous bad sex awards:
O glorious pubes! The ultimate triangle, whose angles delve to hell but point to paradise. Let me sing the black banner, the blackbird's wing, the chink, the cleft, the keyhole in the door. The fig, the fanny, the cranny, the quim - I'd come close to it now, this sudden blush, this ancient avenue, the end of all odysseys and epic aim of life, pulling at my prick now, pulling like a lodestone.Anne Hathaway's cow-milking fingers, cradling my balls in her almond palm, now took pity on the poor anguished erection, and in the infinite agony of her desire, guided it to the quick of the wound.
From Will by Christopher Rush
Was that her tongue? Was that what they meant when they said flames had tongues? I was hard all right, and then I was sinew, I was a snake, I changed stone to snake in three simple moves, stoke stake snake, then I was a tree whose branches were all budded knots, and what were those felty buds, were they antlers? were antlers really growing out of both of us? was my whole front furring over? and were we the same pelt? were our hands black shining hoofs? were we kicking? were we bitten? We were blades, were a knife that could cut through myth, were two knives thrown by a magician, were arrows fired by a god, we hit heart, we hit home, we were the tail of a fish were the reek of a cat were the beak of a bird were the feather that mastered gravity were high above every landscape then down deep in the purple haze of the heather were roamin in a gloamin in a brash unending Scottish piece of perfect jigging reeling reel can we really keep this up?
From Boy Meets Girl by Ali Smith
I'm not much of a muff diver, but I can strongly recommend that Kentucky cocktail of Sneaky Pete and strawberry juice. Further down my body, Honey Mackintosh bobbed up and down between my legs, her big soft lips locked around my hootchee and, true to her Scottish roots, she sucked away like she was the last person left on earth to play the bagpipes on Robbie Burns' birthday.
From The Sucker's Kiss by Alan Parker
When his hand took me to my fourth orgasm, I entered a place where everything seemed at peace, and with my fifth orgasm I knew God.
from Eleven Minutes by (the implacably hackneyed) Paolo Coelho
And the aroma of her lily-fragrant perfume mingled with the cat smell of her steaming cunt made me salivate and pant like a lion, my nose tormented by damp fur and hot blood. Still I could not tell where her soft skin ended and her silk began, and the complexity of her vaginal lips was like another elaborate silken garment she had put on for me to stroke. The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro by Paul Theroux
Sunday, January 9, 2011
It was an evening kick off. Probably a Wednesday night. The heart of winter. The closer you got to the ground the more contagious became the excited air of expectation. It was a big part of everyone’s mood, pervasive like a smell. The kind of thing you ought to feel when going to church. My father and I moved through the heat and stink of the hot dog stalls outside the ground. Everyone was wearing blue scarves, even the old men. Age mattered less here. It was probably the first time I had felt part of a community. Not spinning around in an orbit of my own.
The programme, bought for me by my father outside the ground, was like a book of spells. The most exciting thing I had owned – far more magical than any toy I had ever possessed. And perhaps here began my love of turning pages. The moment I first caught sight of the pitch washed in floodlights was like standing on tiptoes and peeping at a world you were forbidden to enter. I half expected to be pulled away and sent back to my room. Never had I seen colours ache with such pristine beauty - the tiny players in their royal blue kits, the green grass and its chalked white lines looked like some magical kingdom beneath the liquid snow of the floodlights. And there was my absolute hero with the number eight shirt. To see him in the flesh, an Olympian god, mixed up the first chemical cocktail of romantic love in my being. I was enraptured but I contained my joy. My father kept looking at me as if to make sure I was succumbing to the appropriate emotions. I became engrossed in the abuse and hatred focused on the away supporters at the other end of the ground. This hatred I noticed was a bond between the males. It enabled them to touch and hug each other, to swear and shout. And there were no women on hand to interpose a fairy story in front of the underlying threat of menace. This was the adult world and I had become a member.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Who the hell gets it? To me it feels like being stuck in a lift and muttering things to oneself - to keep at the bay the feeling that no one is out there - and even if they are they couldn’t care less. And so you hit some buttons – out of a growing sense of Being Lost in Space you hit them all - and they all lead you back to the idea that you’re stuck in a lift and it’s just not going to budge.
Friday, January 7, 2011
After the long walk from the station I was exhausted when, at the end of the mud path, I saw the complex of farm buildings which made up the monastery. I threw my bag to the ground. Nothing in it warranted the pain it had caused me to carry it. I had been tempted to abandon it in a ditch during my cross-country hike. I felt as though it had engraved a permanent furrow over my shoulders. I perched on the gently swinging gate. Something I had perhaps not done since childhood. I had had enough of my memory though so I did not dig out an old picture of swinging on a gate and feed it into the projector. Maybe it’s true that mice learn to avoid harmful situations by memorising warning signs but I was no longer convinced memory was a reliable register in terms of avoiding harm. I’ve done little but harm myself in the name of honouring memory. Now I had arrived at a place where memory didn’t stop at what you could actually remember; here memory was largely what you had forgotten. Your other lives.
Beyond the gate was a no-smoking zone. Guru didn’t approve of wilfully doing oneself harm. That was the way to lose karma points. That was how you got reborn as a goat or a dragonfly. In the near distance I could make out Lulu the elephant. She was in her enclosure outside the barn. She was not wearing her coat of many colours. She was the closest thing to television here. Often it made you feel good to just watch her – when she made a game of balancing on a plank of wood or shook her ears while being hosed down in the yard. It’s always exhilarating to watch the flawless poetry of animals entertaining themselves. I suspect it’s a kind of jealousy that has always induced men to shoot them. If you leave sex out of the equation, the closest we humans have managed to come to mimicking an animal’s high-spirited celebration of the moment is the tawdry pantomime of the dance floor. Proof, I suppose, that if Guru is right and human beings are on this earth to learn lessons, we’re simply not paying enough attention, we’re too busy carving our initials in the dead wood of our desks.
Thursday, January 6, 2011
The act of walking out of Santa Lucia station and beholding the Grand Canal feels a bit like stepping onto a stage and bowing to thundering applause. I always feel momentarily cleansed of all absurdity when I arrive in Venice, found innocent of all criminal charges, proud of myself and my life, as if Venezia is something I had a hand in creating, as if it couldn’t exist without me and my rush of radiant emotion. For a while I always sit by the water and watch the waterbuses arrive and leave, the gondoliers ease their boats up towards the Rialto Bridge. The blue of the sky invariably has a pristine ethereal quality which only Italian skies seem to have. I’m not at all fat, just the opposite, but if I were fat I imagine looking up at an Italian sky would make me feel like I had miraculously lost two stone overnight.
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
I sat back in my chair and lit another cigarette. The light had gone on in the window of the house to my left. I was no longer alone in the universe. I felt a flurry of activity in my neural corridors - the synthesis of clandestine proteins, the overspill of avant-garde chemicals. It was a childhood feeling that was being restored to me. That of being prey to secret conspiracies withheld from the adult world. I was plugged back into my generator of guilt. Who can explain why guilt is often such a mandatory part of pleasure?
The young girl, the simmering witch maiden, stood close to the window. As usual she had stripped down to expensive black underwear. She mimed some kind of hieratic act of surrender to the night sky, as if she were in a TV commercial. What would she be advertising? A hair product? Perfume? A pension scheme with better interest rates? She was advertising sex of course. Everything either advertises sex or safety from harm, immunity from violence.