To Paul at the Washington Post – Part 2

 Posted by at 2:06 pm  Atelier, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Jan 292007

After the first post to Paul, he emailed me back, his message ending with a question about my past – "I’ve wondered what waw (sic) it like to be a child in the library at Glen Cruitten?".

Glen Cruitten is in Scotland, and is – for readers who do not know the location – a large house in the West Highlands on the ridge of a hill overlooking the sea to the west, a channel of water some twenty kilometres wide between the mainland and the island of Mull, where I was not brought up as a child, but visited, my grandmother and aunt living there during the summer months, for family holidays. The library however with a three metre wide bay window at the end of the room points east, and therefore does not enjoy the fine sea views. It is a large room with high ceilings, wood panneled in oak throughout, and unfurnished the room is long enough to give the appearance of a ship’s deck, with its wide oak-planked floor and books shelves tiered from floor to ceiling on either side, but some of the oak panels are so intricately carved with foliage birds and fruits that it might also at times appear a forest, and then turning to look at the west wall of the room, completely filled by the engine and apparatus of an electric organ, two keyboard tiers, stops, large pipes, and oak panels with traditional ecclesiastical designs topped by angels at times it might also seem a church, but mixed with the secular, something between a chapel and a music hall.

For a child therefore the library belongs in its own world, interior to the house and not belonging to the surrounding location, and the shelves now filled with books, and tables and desks, beautiful ornaments, sofas and armchairs designed for its space, it is become an invisible city, a place apart. Literally as it happens, the room being located upstairs on the first floor, to reach it therefore is to pass by the bedrooms of older women, and to smell the scent of aging talc make-up powder and stale rose-water that repulse more than they attract, and hurry a child on, as within the library itself the large portrait of the white-haired and kindly-faced old woman sat in front of a piano that is positioned over the central fireplace, a great-grandmother of whom the child is ignorant, she having died before he was born, creates dislike and an urge to go beyond.

For all is to be risked, and for a child, beyond the landing of bedrooms, there is the long, dark, windowless corridor, searching for the location of hidden light switches and leading up to another half landing, the dimly lit threshold. Place of fear; it is the darkness of the brown glass in the leaded windows; it is the eighteen Buddhist Lohans on the wide window sill, several incarnated as half-man, half-dragon in fearsome aspects; it is the shelves of books on the Dark Arts, witchcraft and demonology, as well as on poetry, and bibliographies and those on the printing of books, but the room too dark to distinguish kind from kind, and the child, now hurrying though the smaller oak panneled corridor surrounded by apparatus of the organ towards the double door entrance to the library itself, is focussed on reaching the light.

Within the library, the child mostly looks at the spines of the books, the hardback reprinted  literature complete-works series, Conrad, Stevenson, Balzac and Tolstoy, the late eighteeneth century editions of Shakespeare and Pope, the bound Scottish histories journals, and the twentieth century private press limited editions, among the other books on travel, Florida and in French the works of Baudelaire and Verlaine, and spines with exotic titles as ‘The Ban of the Bori’ and many more unremembered. The child is not an energetic reader, unless exploring again the fear of the threshold, when he will read an MR James book of Ghost Stories late into the night and shiver himself to sleep, or discovers his desires through the private-press erotica , the paintings of DH Lawrence or works of Casanova, none of the glass-fronted bookcases being locked or there being any restraint on his searching, the master of the library, my grandfather, having died twenty years before.

Here in the library the child is free to roam. Therefore he begins to love the shadows of corridors, and half-landings, and the places in between, to learn the art of reading and writing undertaken where it is possible to pause but impossible to stay. He learns to love the dread of thresholds. He learns to love the made-up pleasures, the heightened attraction of invisible scents, of younger women and the wisdom of their corrupting age, in the library,that is ship and forest, mechanical apparatus of song, chapel and music hall, here where he is free to wander the invisible city, a young vagabond.


Raw Materials

 Posted by at 11:37 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 292007

I can see God walking–well, let me be clear about what I can and cannot see because there’s two views alternating in some systolic, diastolic rhythm: God, an old man with regulation long beard, ambling, comfortably but with a certain elation, a certain pride in his step; and then the more difficult image of walking itself–there is walking, an archetypal activity . . . God as pure mind, ummmm. For the moment let’s stay with the old man (okay, I know there’s going to be problems with this for some of you, but I think there’s going to be problems whichever way I play it). So, where was I, oh yes, God walking, walking along a pristine beach in his newish creation. I love that word, pristine; it makes me think of arriving home with a new shirt, purchased perhaps only an hour ago, the receipt’s still in the bag, but then very quickly the shirt’s no longer in the bag, it’s out, but still pristine in its clear plastic envelope. I remove it, search out the little plastic clips, the cardboard under-collar, undo the buttons, the shirt opens out, emanating its new smell–newness and pristinity shine out of it. Of course, I have to try it on, feel it, begin the process of wearing it in and wearing it out.

Loss and suffering are already prefigured.

To Paul at the Washington Post

 Posted by at 1:32 pm  Atelier, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Jan 242007

I took your advice Paul.

After meeting on the water returning from Burano (11 January 2007)…Pix_2007_014 

… I bought myself a copy of The New Yorker at Waterloo station on Monday night to read on the ‘last train’ back to the West Country. It was full of words – just as I remembered – especially the lengthy fiction, so many that I did not have the energy to read them all. I still liked the cartoons the most – also just as I remembered, when aged about 8 I fingered my first copy of The New Yorker. My granny had it posted from America to Scotland for the summer months where we went for our family holidays, before she went back over the pond in the autumn. That was 1959. It is nice how some things don’t change. I read on…

(A Life, The New Yorker, January 22, 2007, page 68 & 69 – Zbigniew Herbert, translated, from the Polish, by Alissa Valles) -

I was a quiet boy a little sleepy and – amazingly-

… the poem began. I liked the poem best stopping there, and losing the rest along with the title to the poem. Miraculous, like a Sappho fragment.

As it turns out Paul, when we met on the water, I happened to have a copy of the Fragments of Sappho (If Not, Winter, translated, from the Greek, by Anne Carson, Virago 2003) in one pocket of my overcoat. In the other pocket I had a copy of Venice botteghe, by Michela Scibilia (translated, from the Italian, by Giles Watson, 2006). The two were perfect guides for the city, especially the Golden Staircase that leads up from the prima piano to the seconda, where I read in the guide that "every symbol was put to the service of the rei-publica".

Finally Paul, since returning to England, I have begun reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (translated, from the Italian, by William Weaver, Vintage 1997). I had already bought a copy of Le città invisibili (Arnold Mondadore, 2006) while we were in Venice. I cannot really read Italian, but on the back-cover Italo Calvino is quoted – "Penso d’aver scritto qualcosa come un ultimo poema d’amore alle città", so anything is possible.


The poem began

 Posted by at 11:02 pm  Atelier, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Jan 232007

… "un ultimo poema d’amore alle città", so anything is possible:


alla pan tolmaton // epei kai peneta

(apologies, I can’t find a Greek script)

goes the last line of Sappho’s fragment 31 , that Anne Carson translates (If Not, Winter, Virago 2003)


But all may be risked, even by a person of poverty.



The rest is lost, but enough is there in the silence after peneta - a person of poverty – to bring us to our knees.



 Posted by at 11:09 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 232007

Yesterday (chilly, wasn’t it; the cold surprising after what seems weeks of storms and mild temperatures) I stepped into Moonlife–a local shop for those seeking longer or different lives–and was confronted by A, a pretty, red-haired, 30 something American woman, who not only works in Moonlife, but teaches arcane forms of exercise to a simliar clientele (like me). In fact the last time we had met, she was my teacher, I her student.

‘Hello.’ I said, smilingly pleased to see her (the flattery of talking to a young attractive woman) ‘you’re in another of your many roles today.’

I could sense the life in her bouncing about seeking expression in humour and words.

She found a word: stocking.

‘I’m wearing my stocking cap today,’ pointing to the imaginary cap on her head and the array of shelves. ‘Not,’ she added, ‘stockings . . . ‘ her face lighting up with mischievious humour.

But before I could find a response to this unexpectedly flirtatious punning, another customer barged in demanding to know where some obscure culinary sauce was kept.


Imaginary factions

 Posted by at 10:45 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 232007

Tessa Hadley writes in the current London Review of Books (25 January 2007):

“The preparations for the magical act of imagining the past, the pre-absorption and the researches, are crucial, but not sufficient in themselves.”

It appears that we cannot look at, approach, a subject without the help of our imagination. What we have is the play of pre-absorption, researches and imagination whenever we attempt to enquire of the past, present or future.

There is something about the way our minds get to work on an experience; a sort of chewing it over between the jaws of memory and imagination–making it more pleasing and satisfying to ourselves and hopefully others.


Is this a new beginning?

 Posted by at 5:47 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 222007

There are certain impossibilities. There are certain questions of memory and facts. We like facts, don’t we . . . the fact is . . . it means we have for a few moments at least the illusion of standing on solid ground. For example, did I miss the First World War hiding in cellars, gnawing crusts of mouldy bread, or was it, rather, that I wasn’t even born then, or is it possible that I was there in the trenches, going over the top with the rest of my mates?
It seems a small matter to take a tiny sideways step from imagination to memory. How can I be sure it didn’t happen? I could, after all, call it the recovered memory of a past life, even if it can be proved that I wasn’t born in 1890.
What I can be sure of (well, almost sure) is that there was plenty of sex, much joyful coupling. But what I’m not at all convinced of is that I should indulge my suspect inclination to reveal details of my erotic activities. Two reasons come to mind:

1) It’s private, mind your own business stuff, and

2) Aren’t we sick of the whole business. We’ve seen so much sex on TV, in movies. We’ve read about it in books and magazines. Consequently, we’re bored silly with it (is that really possible, I ask myself) and in any case do I have a new angle on it? The answer is probably not.

A year ends

 Posted by at 12:58 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jan 042007

It must have been about half past eight last Saturday morning (30.12.06), as I was finishing breakfast and readying myself to leave home on my way to a funeral in Bristol, that my eighteen year old daughter, checking her e-mails via Yahoo, announced that Saddam Hussein had been executed twenty nine minutes earlier. Hanged.
An unpleasant, unwelcome shock that was no shock, left me chewing on lead pellets, under heavy clouds, and breathing air from which most of the oxygen had been removed.

The funeral I was heading for, was that of a dear friend of thirty years, Sheila, who, at the age of 86, had slipped away on Christmas Eve.

Thirty years is fifty percent of my life . . . the thoughts that emerge to give order to big events.

Sheila, born in 1920, I met on a psychotherapy training course – it’s what the seventies were about – straddled the generations; actually part of my parents’ generation but she felt part of my (our) generation. At the same time her memories gave access to that longer life, the thirties, the war years, connections to the Bloomsbury group, years of analysis, family histories. Stuff that fuelled our conversations through our regular meetings over fifteen years, then more occasionally after she moved to Scotland in the nineties.

Opposition, resistance, civilised values . . . trying to see, trying to make sense of, making a stand. The Bloomsbury group forging one of those paradigmatic shifts. The Upper Class world of hunting, shooting and flogging challenged by the Arts.

And there’s my five year old self looking out at the world, a world that had just emerged from the cataclysmic events of a second world war, looking out at the world and finding the question of what’s right and what’s wrong. When did my pride at not only being on the winning side develop, but being on the ‘right’ side; the side that embraced civilised values. And what do we call the ‘other’ side? Barbaric, mad, inhuman? An eruption of all the devils in Hell.

In a word, Iraq. Iraq, that’s been turned from one sort of hell into another sort of hell.

And it’s more complicated. There’s history, there’s who did what to whom, there’s the big boys in the playground and us little lads try to keep out of their way if we know what’s good for us, but maybe one of these days we’ll be big too.

In the Memorial Woodland Burial Site, a few miles north of Bristol, I was glad to be part of a very moving service that remembered and celebrated Sheila. At the end of which we assembled behind the hearse to walk in the pouring rain, through the growing woodland, to the open grave, readied to receive Sheila’s body.