Telling Stories

 Posted by at 12:37 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 292010

Starbucks, Marylebone High Street – not a brilliant choice of café but it's busy with working people buying their first coffee of the day and the question that comes to mind concerns constructing a narrative from observed or experienced events. Yesterday another café on the South Bank, waiting for Leah. We had arranged to meet at 10 am in order to go to the Move exhibition at the Hayward. She was on the bus somewhere between Brockley and Waterloo and so I was having a coffee and waiting. So I had sat down, got Like a Fiery Elephant from my bag and started reading when a youngish woman sat down, sort of in my face and in words that I cannot now recall asked me for some change. A lilac hoody with a green tweedy jacket over it, the skin on her face roughened by living on the streets. I shook my head and carried on reading but she wasn't to be put off. This was merely the beginning of her campaign with me as the intended target (my first choice of word was victim but then I decided to find a more neutral term, to lessen the possible aggressive interpretation). On the other hand my intention was to get her to go away from me so I could wait and read in peace and for that matter drink my coffee.

But another story has intervened, here in Marylebone High Street. Four guys, three young white anglo-saxon Brits plus a chinese (Brit?). The chinese is more smartly dressed. They sit down at a table but make no move to go to the counter and order drinks. The chinese obviously has a higher status in the group, he says something to one of the others and he gives up his seat for the chinese and fetches another chair from a nearby table. Is this a meeting, a business transaction? Then the chinese and one of the others go together to the toilet and return shortly after. The chinese then goes to another seat by himself and busies himself with his mobile phone. The other who had gone to the toilet with him hands him what looks to me like a packet of cigarettes, he looks inside and seemingly satisfied puts the packet in his pocket. Then the other two go to toilet and as they are returning one of them is (rather carelessly) stuffing a small plastic bag filled with something white into the pocket of his jeans. Business over the four gather outside on the pavement and all shake hands and go off in different directions. Am I justified in interpreting al this as 'well, they're obviously drug dealers'.

Meanwhile, yesterday, my daughter has arrived and my self-invited friend tells her that I am mean and she checks that Leah is my daughter. The three of us are beginning to have some sort of business meeting too or are we making friends? I say something about how we can be too quick to judge others, meaning to make a general point but then I'm accused of being judgemental. After trying to start a conversation with Leah but failing because the intrusion is too strong I ask her 'what's your story?' and it is predictable. Childhood and adolescence in care, no family, on the streets, unwell, last night in hospital, trying to get into a hostel, a seven month daughter being looked after elsewhere, sleeping on the streets, illiterate. I attempt to engage her with what she might do about the reading and writing . . . after all we each to have start from where we are . . . and after a while I put my hand in my pocket and pull out a few coins and hand them to her. She's getting quite chatty, telling us how she had to give a false name at St Thomas's because 'they know me'. She's got a bit of money from me, she seems almost cheerful and Leah and I go off to the Hayward . . . it's a very engaging exhibition and I was particularly moved by The Ten Thousand Waves meditation on the death of the Chinese cockle pickers a few years ago.

More Knock-about Stuff

 Posted by at 9:03 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 272010

Help! It is a fresh idea; one can’t do this alone.


Let’s set the scene first; not Montaigne, not Derrida, but some time afterwards. Evening. The two of us were sat in the café Buenos Aires, where passable salt herring and cold beer was still being served, two foreigners somewhat the worse for wear. A bit odd that, I thought rubbing my forehead, the fish would have to come a long way to get here. I observed my right arm was around the man’s shoulders.


I can’t do this, he said with a voice that shook with feeling, and pausing between each of the words so that it gave them dramatic effect, Without your, a longer pause and then a little laugh out loud, Help!


Help coughed out like yelp. Don’t worry, I said, I don’t think I can either. I had to think it wasn’t the answer he wanted to hear, and the way I had said it was far too cheery.


In front of us on the table there was a sheet of paper with a neat list of words running down the centre of the page. At the top there was a heading. On Friendship, it said, and bracketed alongside in smaller sized letters an instruction – (Tick) – . I stretched my arm further around his back and guided a pencil between the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand.


Without your, I repeated quietly. What, he said. We began reading the list out loud together.





wise words

There was a pause. I don’t know if I am really up to having these today, he said, putting a question mark with the pencil besides ‘wise words’.

listening ear

compassionate voice










restraining hand




There are some gaps, he said. Yes, I said, It could be incomplete.


Should I tick them all, he asked. I should leave some blank, I replied.


What for, he went on. Later, I said putting my hand over the pencil in his hand.


We fell into silence, staring together at the sheet of paper in front of us. It was yellowed with age, and creased from being folded into four, but not crumpled. In fact it seemed unusually smooth between the folds with a soft sheen, and the corners were stretched as if they had been pulled out like cloth on a frame.

What do you mean, fair?

 Posted by at 10:15 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 222010

    You seem to have found a way to assert a sort of potency without doing any damage; with elegance and an economy of movement and never mentioning fairness or cuts whilst booking your appointment with the nip and tuck man – aging is such a cruelty, darling. Despite the catastrophe of the years there is delight on your face as you bow low in crafty connivance; charm personified with your headwear in hand. It has to be revealed that said hat was rescued from a skip, so outrageous a creation one might almost call it avant-garde. And the teeth, they look almost real.

    So unlike the politicians who would not feel they were earning the price of their corruption if they didn’t do as much damage as possible in the short time they will have in power before we find them unbearable and throw them out. Or should that be until McMurdoch tells us to throw them out like some senile emperor overseeing the bloodbath in the Coliseum. As I’ve heard it said on the terraces, the bitch is hot – see those teeth – they call it a smile of welcome in McMurdoch’s bawdyhouse. It was bad enough in those (now seeming) halcyon days of Maggie’s prison farm, but at least Dylan had managed to warn us of what was coming even if we (in our fever of hope) ignored him and carried on with the party. But now . . . what is to be done?

    I hear the French still have some courage, still willing to take to the streets in sufficient numbers to make the politicians shiver in masochistic delirium.


The Truth Drug

 Posted by at 11:09 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 192010

Ah! You seem to have caught me unawares, and I am not at my best. I bowed low, sweeping my hat from my head in a wide arabesque. I staggered. I fell.

I confess that I have been tippling these recent years, or rather I prefer to call it experimenting. Alcohol of course, that 'Spirit of Life'. Or thiopental when it is more of an anaesthetic I need. Or sodium amytal, when the world has so blurred over, there is no other way to separate the swirling mix of fact and fantasy.

Speech over. I was in faith uncertain in which direction I was travelling, or was it we, I forget now, the moral direction of course, towards a good or a bad end. In faith, whatever, but precious this moment, these helping hands, and kind people taking their time to see me back on my feet, and ask in such kind voices about my health.

The hat has appeared back on my head, and whatever else had fallen from my bags has been restored, all the loose papers somehow pushed back in, along with an odd sock and whatever else, pressed in among the pots and pans. Indeed I have been recomposed, and I have set off again.

A cheery wave, and zig-zag fuzzy, vertigo and nystagmus, the eyes darting from side to side, You and I, and what has appeared to be life's unequal struggle, another speech was coming on, Fellow humans.

The metal shining man was bearing down at speed on the figure kneeling in the road, the shaft of his head beams coming to a point of focus at the mouth that had opened to receive the converging light.


 Posted by at 10:39 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 152010

    An old friend shuffles into sight, an ancient vagabond, watery blue eyes set in a wasted face, grimed in dirt, his breath little gasping explosions, bundled in layers of discarded clothing. He wheels a bicycle festooned with plastic bags stuffed with who knows what – his life I suppose – but look at that bag suspended from the left hand end of the handlebars; it’s full of paper, sheets of paper, bundled, held by those red elastic bands abandoned on doorsteps by hurrying postmen. And another thing I’ve just spotted, that rope around his waist; it has a noose at one end. To look at him you wouldn’t imagine that his mind holds much in the way of memory – he’s made  extensive use of our alcoholic culture but he does carry his memory with him in bundles of paper and cloth and he only has to touch the rope around his waist to remember that he can always catch the night train out of here.

    News comes bundled in an e-mail from the Guardian:

        Chilean miners are rescued

        The West is using the earth’s resources faster than they can be replaced

        The pornography industry is in crisis

        7/7 bombers celebrate

and more and more . . .

    Reading a review (Guardian again, I’m afraid) by Andrew Motion of Richard Mabey’s Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We think About Nature – what a wonderful title! –  he quotes Mabey’s imagining the transition from a hunter/gatherer economy to agriculture: “what is striking in the ecological subtext of Genesis is its sense of bitterness about the arrival of agriculture . . . For at least one group of disgruntled Assyrians their farming labour seemed sufficiently cursed by literal and metaphorical weeds as a punishment . . . and certainly no substitute for the freedoms of the hunter-gatherer’s life.”

    Is our old friend  a weed to be thrown out, composted, rejected or the bringer of good news. Who amongst will take the time to examine his mobile archive, to go through the bundles, to translate his texts that I imagine are full of archaisms, scrawled Latin, disrespectful jokes in Greek. If I approach him will he only spit at me, hurl abuse, and demand more money than I have.

    I see the tyre on your rear wheel has a puncture, can I help you with that?

    I’m not even sure he sees me – he’s flying in mid-thought, held in bondage to vagrancy, his precious bundles, thoughts, papyri, codices, lost philosophical treatises, a few relics of long dead saints and buddhas. Come let me push your load for a while and you can tell me your holy dreams.

    Our breath visible in the night.


Awakened Beings… and Awakenings

 Posted by at 2:10 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 122010

I am beginning to learn to read in a different way. So the books that I find myself opening are often no longer appearing to me from off my own shelves, or seeming to belong in rows in bookshops, libraries, or Amazon (nor even as ‘kindle’ or other forms of e-book), but as a series of bundles, which all share certain characteristics, the chief two being; that the books themselves are all essentially unfinished (unfinishable) and have not yet reached their endings, and that they are all versions of an original, upon which we are all translators (whether as writer or reader) and are continually working as mediators…

… mediators between the tension which joins together writing and doing, both the going back in an anthropological way to uncover a knowledge of the past, including our personal recollections of our recent present, or a social memory of the ‘just past’ (as Uncle Wally would have it), and our actions of going forth, in word or deed, and our agency upon the flowing forward river of time.

So the subject of the poor (This is a big bundle!) – “I can own up to being one of the poor.” – my friend ak begins a paragraph in his last post, before going on to describe the condition of his own poverty.

I might have gone first to St Matthew’s Gospel – Blessed are the poor…(Chapter V, as I recall), but it was to Henry Mayhew’s, London Labour and the London Poor (Volume 1, published in 1851… from the previously issued two-penny versions published in the Morning Chronicle) which I turned, under the title page that stated that it was: – a cyclopaedia of the conditions and earnings of –




The text begins on Page 1:


Of Wandering Tribes in General.

Of the thousand of millions of human beings that are said to constitute the population of the entire globe, there are – socially, morally, and perhaps even physically considered – but two distinct and broadly marked races, viz., the wanderers and the settlers – the vagabond and the citizen – the nomadic and the civilised tribes.  Between these two extremes, however…

… there is the street (etc). The text is clear and consistent throughout, although how far it is (a creative non-fiction) recomposed, it is impossible to know, and the ‘entries’, section by succeeding section, reveal the personal voices of men and women (the voices of the London Poor), often accompanied with summaries, as notes and footnotes, of the statistical evidence of the period (from The Blue Books) and other comments and references.

… and there is the nature of the writing – The present volume is the first of an intended series, the Preface states; ie, it is unfinished.

The different ‘entries’ of the poor do not write or read the same. Many, perhaps the majority, are hopeless, wishless, without expectation, and in despair, and several I found myself having to copy out, listening, as with verse, in order to mediate my own recompositions of the original; in Hebrew, the language of the Lord – Blessed; or in Pali, the language of the Buddha – Nirãsã  – hopeless, and – Assadha  – faithless.

That Christ and the Buddha is also the Perfected Poet, I had not considered before.

Finding the note, discovering the tune

 Posted by at 12:00 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 082010

    As usual I’m scribbling out the first sketches of this blog post sitting in the Barrel House, half listening to bits of overheard conversation and the music, drinking tea, and endeavouring to find the right note, the right key, to open the door into the conversation and to engage the conversation. A further analogy comes to mind as I become aware of the varied thoughts jostling, elbows out, shouting, but there’s also the quieter thoughts, the more reflective, I want to include those, listen to what they have to say: they are the troops, not elite troops, rather boisterous, anarchic prone to practical jokes, cynical, but kindly at times, ready to watch out for the slower ones. My task here is to listen, to capture those perhaps fleeting thoughts and form a few sentences, a couple of paragraphs that are reasonably coherent.

    Tony Judt, in his Ill Fares the Land, writes, ‘In a survey of English schoolboys taken in 1949, it was discovered that the more intelligent the boy the more likely he was to choose an interesting career at a reasonable wage over a job that would merely pay well’ (page 39). It seems we are suffering under a distortion brought about by what we know in short hand as Thatcherism: the reign of the market and its camp followers – the accountants, the bankers, the infamous traders. Markets, the accountants et al, have a place in the grand scheme of things but overvalued, overemphasised and the great ship of society lists dangerously, its moral compass disengaged, so that even when a crisis like the 2008 banking debacle happens, governments can only shore up a desperately flawed system.

    Poor old Pinky was flogging the dead horse of his Big Society the other day, the BBC reporter noting that no applause greeted that particular idea. But, bash the poor, now, that does get plenty of rapturous applause – we know what we like and if we can’t have public hangings at least we can bash those on benefits. We need clear targets for our hatred. We need to know ‘who is to blame’ and with this bunch of scroungers and cheats we can see them when we walk down the street.

    I can own up to being one of the poor. I manage to survive on a couple of tiny private pensions that I paid into when times were better, a tiny bit of work and in a year I’ll be drawing my state pension. So allowing for the admittedly very slight risk of the government deciding to cancel all pension provision, I can see that economic survival is a good bet so it’s down to health, my own efforts to promote health with the backup of a health service. And let’s hope the much maligned NHS survives a madcapped reorganisation . . . wouldn’t it be sensible to reorganise when there’s more money in the coffers? I may be mistaken but doesn’t reorganising cost lots of money that they keep telling us is what the country doesn’t have.

    Pinky and Perky, scrubbed and pink, suave and elegant have been joined by young Ed Duck . . . but if we can’t give them our trust (and that seems like a silly thing to give them) – what can we give them?


Children in their Forties

 Posted by at 1:51 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Oct 062010
And now we have Edward:

"You're all jealous. Edward's better than all of you"
"You're right, Duck. Edward's old but he'll surprise us all!

(from Edward’s Exploits; 23rd episode of the ‘Second Season’)


Old? Well, yes, old is forty-something from the standpoint of a younger generation, and perhaps it is true that in time Edward will surprise us all, now that he has joined the ranks of Pinky and Perky (David and Nick) with their hands so firmly grasping the levers of power.


So the story goes, and, although we are still only at an early episode of the ‘First Season’, they all tell us that they know exactly where they are taking us for the rest of the series. The next episode is due to be broadcast in less than two weeks on 20th October. According to John Lanchester, it is about the ‘Comprehensive Spending Review’, and it is called The Cuts.


The plot, as we have heard so many times before so that it seems like it is the same story every episode, is that it is going to hurt you a LOT MORE than it is going to hurt me, but it is only FAIR.


Angry? Yes, everybody is going to be VERY angry, but it is no good stamping your feet everyone, they tell us again, it is only FAIR. And protest and resistance is futile, they go on, because the story has already been written, and in the end getting so angry will do us no good at all.


And that is probably true about the anger, that getting angrier and angrier does us no good, clouding our minds so that we lose the plot.


Lose the plot? Horrors! What could be worse than that (…whether for creative and other kinds of writers, the older old, young children in tantrums, politicians, or other delinquents)? History tells us and we should know that going Against the System has always been problematic… and it still is. Even if we don’t resort to violence, from the perspective of the seelische (‘spiritual’ – for more, see post for 14th September) our political actions are often jealously conditioned either by existential despair or a ‘short circuit’ vehemence and will to power, where – either way, despair or vehemence – plotting, like in Philip Roth’s Indignation (2008)… or Nemesis (2010), becomes blind.


And few of us, losing the plot quite frequently as we all do, know how to wait… Edward, for the record by the way, is a ‘mixed-traffic engine’.