The Human Orders

 Posted by at 12:11 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Nov 302010

It is all here now in the café Buenos Aires.

The young fresh faced lad being supervised by his tutor and setting the older man’s heart on wings. The two students at another table in T-shirts facing each other in earnest conversation over their open and green-pen highlighted copies of the Bible. The couple in their thirties with anxious faces unable to find words for each other so that the silence stretches towards a minute, between his devouring eyes and her reluctant sideways glance. The two older women with their dark, sad eyes and thinning hair, who only whisper to each other. The barking voice of the thin, young dark-haired woman, as if she has to shout to prove the continuing existence of her friend sitting opposite who happens to be hidden from view, and the curiosity that her almond eyes, which have beauty in their form, are made unattractive by the thinness of her mouth. And sat about and alone, the solitary staring figures with their laptops open on tables, or mobile telephones pressed to their ears.

All these “tolerably well-defined objects” – I am here quoting a famous phrase of Darwin (The Origin of Species. Ch V1. Difficulties on Theory) – as if I, I am and I am not here at this given time, and in a position to speak for them.

To sum up, I believe that species come to be tolerably well-defined objects, and do not at any one period present an inextricable chaos of varying and intermediate links…

Except for the above forensically observed environmental classification – the eroticised, the ecologised, the biblicised, the monologised, the sentimentalised, as well as of course the lonely technologised – the opposite appears to be the case in a constantly shifting scene of metamorphosis between different human orders, a process in a field from which I am also unable ethically speaking to stand apart, at one and the same moment informed decision-maker considering what words to write down, threat-exposed organism primed for fight, flight or freeze, and beneficiary of the social conventions and contracts at work in this building which houses the café Buenos Aires.

In a word – it is all here now -  politicised.

In walkingtalkingwriting politics out in the world my friend habitually takes bigger risks than I, and skirts the fringes of despair and his own destruction (see last published post!) because, while we are politicised, we are not partisan. And the satire invoked here by us – remember; It is a joke and it is serious! – has ‘word slayer’ power in all directions, including our own.

So for the well-being of all human orders (and since it is less than four weeks to Christmas… and like everyone else we need to get ourselves out into the shopping streets), we paint the letters of this conjoined phrase in capitals on to the cloth of our green and red (“walk” / “don’t walk”) flag –


Nov 292010

But let me tell you the right way to live . . . well, I will at some point but perhaps not today. Somehow or other the defences are breeched and the doubts swarm in over the ruined walls, whooping and hollering, gobs open wide in derision. Of course doubts don’t kill, not exactly, their particular skill is in undermining, digging under, cracking the reinforced concrete of what, a few moments before, had been certainties. So the challenge is to stay alive, to keep breathing as the pressure on the rib cage intensifies, as the mind swirls in the blizzard of demands and it’s downhill, all the way to the cliché of disaster. But then one must ask the question, is disaster too easy an option? Certainly Pinky and Perky have very successfully spun their spin of a disastrous recession (oh let’s blame that Brownian government and for God’s sake don’t mention the bankers) so that they can get their sledge hammers, chain saws, crow bars let alone the JCBs in action to attack those they judge too politically weak to make much of a fuss.


What fun politics is! Is it a joke or is it serious? Let’s have a joke and make it a tragedy. Surely Pinky and Perky are a joke. Public school pranksters, a bit smarmy, and you wouldn’t trust them with your granny, but I’m sure they don’t mean any harm. Where did they come from? They look alarmingly ‘out of the same mould’ as that other slippery character: grinning-all-the-way-to-the-bank-Blair.


But let me tell you the right way to live . . . I will, tomorrow, maybe.


Climate Despair

 Posted by at 11:47 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Nov 232010

Is this a joke or is this serious?

You are right to challenge me; Am I (are we) affirming meaning in the experience of either tragic loss or comic hope. Because you are right, there is a lot of talk around (as 'millenial rhetoric' there always has been), and there is an apparant ethical duty to make up our minds. Either doomladen mass extinction. Or one last hurrah for science.

Climactic despair, I can't decide.

Last night I went to the ENO to see Simon Mcburney's production of A Dog's Heart. It is a Russian satire based on the 1924 novella by Mikhail Bulgakov, the title would translate better as 'Heart of a Cur-bitch', and the story tells of how a stray dog metamorphoses into a man after having the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead man transplanted into him. The dead man's name is 'Pig-Iron', which was close enough to 'Steel' (=Stalin) for the soviet commissars to confiscate the manuscript so that it was only published in the 1960's, and Bulgakov lived out a life of internal literary exile in Russia therafter. Stalin retained a soft spot for him however, it is recorded that Bulgakov's epic The White Guard was one of his constant bed-side favourites, and the Great Leader is said to have telephoned him to offer… encouragement.

A Dog's Heart was an opera with the music having been composed by Alexander Raskatov. Yes, I hadn't heard of him before either, and the musical component was disturbing, one of the solo voices singing through a megaphone, others (according to the programme notes) asked to provide rauco (hoarse) or scollato (shaky) effects, and so on so that I could not describe of having experienced a single dominant form, balance, or measure in the music. The composition seemed to encompass many without allegiance to any.

Satire: a story of tragic loss…. and comic hope because in the end the dog, finally returned to doggy form by a further surgical operation, survives. And tomorrow. Tomorrow, who knows, albeit worse for wear from the surgeon's knife, the dog may, with wagging tale hanging on to its precarious perch in the Moscow household in which the evening's entertainment has been told, continue to lick the soft hand which offers it fresh sausage to eat.

Getting it Right: Part 37

 Posted by at 11:37 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Nov 192010

    There’s a song playing, I’ve no idea who the singer is, the refrain of which is, ‘love makes a fool of us all’. And as so often with this ‘love’ word we can slide our attention across to the ‘life’ word – life makes a fool of us all – yes indeed! I thought you were serious – no I was joking. I thought you were joking – no, I was serious. Life and love, love and life. I liked the sound of The Art of Ending – were you serious? – but then within the space of between ten and twelve seconds, I’m thinking is it a joke? And we’re straight into the arms of the self-help industry: get it right, make sure you get it right, you too can get it right. You mean the rocket takes off without you realising that this was one hell of a mistake! Like the absurd notion of closure which is rolled out to accompany any claim for pity and a handout. Come on we’re all beggars now. I just wanna li’le closure baby.

    Come on, we do what we can, we do what’s in our minds, but if it’s not in our mind there’s not a great deal we can do about it – not until it is in our mind . . . but then the moment has passed and we think, oh well I can learn from that and next time . . . but the next time is always a new time, different. It’s why we watch our elected representatives blindly wallowing around in the swamp of events, clearly not knowing what they’re doing but trying to laughably kid us that they’re on top of everything.

    Is this a joke or is it serious?

    We could refer to some sort of bureaucratic wishful thinking; smoothing out all the wrinkles; the completely joined up government of getting it right. But maybe we’ve got a right to get it wrong, a right to our wrinkles that we’ve so richly deserved from the uncountable millions of the mistakes that we’ve made.

    The Art of Failure: not so far down the road to the Art of Loving.

    There’s a very funny review by Julian Barnes in the current LRB (18 November 2010) in which he examines in detail Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary (Penguin). Though not only her translation but every translation that has been attempted and, of course, translation in general. I don’t think Barnes wrote this as a comic piece, it is serious and pedantic and must have cost him much time and study, but it’s funny in just the sense that I’ve been trying to elucidate above – the attempt to get it right. But how do we try to get it as right as we can without making a clown of ourselves. Surely it can’t mean that any old botched job is good enough, but it does turn out to be that every job is to some degree a botched job and we must laugh at the comedy of it all – a balancing out of this and that – the weighing of the flour and the sugar and the butter. And it’s true some cakes are certainly better than others.

    To shift somewhat (but how far?): your letter addressed to **** (a four letter word? Love, work, f**k or what?) highlights one of the difficulties with gaining meaning from the written word. There has to be a certain specificity, like hand and toeholds on a treacherous ascent, otherwise I just can’t get a grip and I find myself still at the bottom looking desperately for something to grab. Somebody I might or might not meet at some indeterminate time in an unknown future. OK.

    Over to you, Jimmy.


It is an Ending, and it is not an Ending

 Posted by at 5:06 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Nov 162010

I am back from the 4 day men’s group (Big! Can you imagine – 34 – both young and old) in a house in sparkling wild country near Buxton (Derbyshire), and warm messages from several missing you.

Was I caught out? Checking in, I did indeed ‘out’ myself with the very first words I said. I have retired, I began. A moment of relief to get that over with, and two back-flips later (you know the way my mercurial mind works), but I quickly tripped over the doorway of the next questions, What to leave behind, and what to put aside and keep. Fitful sleep was the only answer. But by the next day I had collected dried leaves to bury and rot, and decided the coloured jewels to return to my back pocket. What jewels? Well, the power of metaphor for one, and my singing voice for another, so that, for example, when I checked out I did it in song. The song, a simple one and newly composed by me for the moment, was called The Art of Ending.

So the work was the practice of crossing thresholds, and also asking for help, which I did in Flaschenpost (‘message in a bottle’) style, and I can report was amazingly and improbably found. And tiny glimpses of a possible future, so that later it occurred to me The Art of Ending is also a possible new name for the charity I look after which has been inactive for the last two years (UK Reg’d no. 1120811, primary charitable purpose ‘EDUCATION AND INFORMATION ON PALLIATIVE CARE AND END-OF-LIFE CARE IN THE UK’). I purchased / site names today.

I also began a personal letter today:

Dear ****

We agreed on a ‘buddy’ basis to continue with our conversation, which began towards the end of last weekend, when I also invited you to meet with me here, where I can also offer, if you like, to introduce you to my blogging co-writer (ak), with whom this particular stretch of the dialogic writing ocean is shared.

Introductions over, I can move on to the main area of our conversation two days ago; about aloneness, or perhaps better said, about aloneness and friendship. You and I were talking about this in the context of what it is like to be perceived to be absent, or ‘not there’ at an arranged meeting. To be accurate about this, of course you are there in physical person, but not otherwise according to the observation of certain people attending. Caught out, our reaction to your apparent absence is an irritation, even a disgust (yes, I own to that feeling too), which it is almost impossible for any of us to put into words, and, when words are tried, they are translated into various kinds of negative viewpoint and critical utterance.

And you say that you have heard all these before!

There is an assumption about meeting, like the laughing Rumi says, “Out there beyond all ideas of right and wrong, there is a field, where we meet”. At which point I leap. What assumption, I ask. And there you are at that moment, clear in the aloneness, like a sparkle upon the seawater, like a glint from within a slanting light.

It is something that I have experienced before, but now is not the time to tell you the stories, and aloneness is a subject, which both ak and I have, as best we can over the years, directly and indirectly written about quite often here (after all, we receive almost no outside visitors to our stretch of the dialogic writing ocean!). Aloneness, and, I find, often in the same breath intertwined with brokenness in the seelische ('spiritual') sense; during these see-through moments when our personal spirit is in some way broken off, and the aloneness stands clear of any supporting form.

And a friendship based upon this capacity for seeing, and being seen in this way. You will notice from our blog ‘strap heading’ that we describe ourselves as “two city vagabonds on pilgrimage”… Well, you are welcome to join us any time you like as we go along, as well as (or alternatively of course) continuing our ‘buddy’ basis conversations in private, as you prefer.


My letter ends with some personal remarks, which I do not wish to make public.

Nov 132010

    You’re off to the men’s group, eh Jimmy. To check out what’s going down. To discover the latest buzz words. To identify the enemy. Let’s hope your mission to uncover the uncoverable is successful. For no matter what the sum of present knowledge we might possess (possess?) we continue to push on into the unknown, the wilderness, where by definition, we can be caught out at any time. Caught out? Outside of what? Outside of some secret inner circle? So what is the initiatory test for inclusion? And which in-crowd are we seeking to be part of? The poets? The drug dealers? The people on the street?

    I watched the Guardian video clip of Wednesday’s student demonstration, moved by these fifty thousand or so students (my daughter amongst them) doing something to voice their opposition to the vandalism of Pinky and Perky and the rest of the Bullingdon Bovver Boys as they dismantle a century of gradual assembly of the complex machinery of an interwoven system of education and social care in an orgy of destruction. The rest of us shrug and hope we can get through, beneath the radar, unseen by all those CCTV cameras.

    Can the next sentence I write come a little closer to what it is I’m struggling to say? To put it another way, will I be visited by the muse of inspiration. Probably not, but don’t despair – inspiration is always close, like God, I guess, and just as much out of reach, invisible, unheard, except . . . well, there are always those moments when the veils thin, the breeze tugs at them and we catch a briefest glimpse.

    So what if those cameras, constantly on the look out for celebrity (of one sort or another) catch us and expose the extent of our charlatanism. Help, we cry, it’s true, it’s a fair cop officer, I’m barely real, lock me up straight away – guilty as charged.

    Or is it simply that I’m in need of a bit of a fight. As soon as I find myself on the inside, then I see the enemy, get them in my sights, and then I’ll show them I’m real enough. But come on, look what happens, check out the history; they’ll turn and ask me, ‘what are you talking about?’ and another voice will chime in, ‘you just have to accept that this is how it is and get on with it’. Is my fighting merely a way of covering up the paucity of my identity, a token fig leave to cover my nakedness, as I squirm by, seeking the shadows of anonymity. And then it occurs to me: see my paintings, see what I’m really made of.


Exuberant Pheromones

 Posted by at 10:06 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Nov 082010

It is a delicious phrase you will admit (taken from a poem I was reading by Elaine Feinstein called – Old Poets – which I found in her 2007 collection Talking to the Dead).

Celeritas! And perhaps a similar sort of experience to yours in the thrilling fresh air of Dartmoor, on a bicycle up and down hill, because last Tuesday evening I was still in London -

Heading for the Poetry International 2010, Imagining Peace event at the Southbank Centre, Thank you for cumin, said Simon Armitage in Pennine-speak as he began his introduction of the six overseas poets assembled to give readings that evening, which included a late replacement, I confess his name now lost to me, a fine Columbian poet complete in not-to-be-removed overcoat, thick scarf, and pony tail, who read in lyrical Spanish, pausing from time to time to glance up over his shoulder to look at the text of each poem being translated on a large overhead screen behind him, and laughing nervously to himself as if considering whether perhaps we were able to read his mind

- and also flagging. Or was it flinching? These days whenever I am in the city there is a persistent thought that starts at the back of the mind and remorselessly grows, Am I being observed. Even disreputable me, darting from shadow to shadow, up to no good I admit, but as skillfully anonymous as I can be, and surely, as I think it, of no interest to anyone else as I dawdle zig-zag-wise along these anonymous streets, galleries and shopping arcades, but still underneath the CCTV cameras, and the recurring thought, What if they have me under surveillance. And the guilty feeling like flinching arises, akin to cheating at school, What if She can see me cribbing (… for more on ‘flinching’ and ‘cribbing’, see below *).


 And none of the poets, and nothing that evening, matched the maximal internal economy of Anne Carson. Striking odd how it worked, soberly dressed as she was in dark gray wool with her gig like academic spectacles and fluted voice, while she read from her most recent published work, textual references relating to obscure classical sources, long lexicographical translations, and verbatim records of personal letters and reported speech, all formatted in a notebook list of entries.

Afterwards the same illicit ‘flinching’  or ‘cribbing’  feeling arises as I join the lengthy queue to obtain a signature from her for my old copy of If Not, Winter (Fragments of Sappho, translated Anne Carson. 2002). Hello, I say and she gives me a dainty smile and asks my name in the same fluted Canadian voice, and close up, as she writes my name and then signs hers on the book’s front piece page, I observe that behind the glasses her eyes glitter like fires of coal.


 * from the PANOPTICON WRITINGS  (1787) of Jeremy Bentham [ref: a.]

 Letter XXI:  (“Knives, however sharp, are very useful things, and, for most purposes, the sharper the more useful.”)

 Flinching would then be as impracticable in a monastery, as cribbing in a school. Old scores might thus be rubbed out with as much regularity as could be desired; nor would the pride of Toboso have been so long a-disenchanting, could her Knight have put his coward Squire into an inspection-house.

Neither do I mean to give any instructions to the Turks for applying the inspection principle to their seraglios: no, not though I were to go through Constantinople again twenty times, notwithstanding the great saving it would make in the article of eunuchs, of whom one trusty one in the inspection lodge would be as good as half a hundred. The price of that kind of cattle could not fail of falling at least ten per cent., and the insurance upon marital honour at least as much, upon the bare hint given of such an establishment in any of the Constantinople papers. But the mobbing I got at Shoomlo, only for taking a peep at the town from a thing they call a minaret (like our monument) in pursuance of invitation, has cancelled any claims they might have had upon me for the dinner they gave me at the divan, had it been better than it was.

If the idea of some of these applications should have brought a smile upon your countenance, it won't hurt you, my dear ****; nor should it hurt the principle. Your candour will prevent you from condemning a great and new invented instrument of government, because some of the purposes to which it is possible to apply it may appear useless, or trifling, or mischievous, or ridiculous. Its great excellence consists in the great strength it is capable of giving to any institution it may be thought proper to apply it to. If any perverse applications should ever be made of it, they will lie in this case as in others, at the doors of those who make them. Knives, however sharp, are very useful things, and, for most purposes, the sharper the more useful. I have no fear, therefore…

[Ref. 'a'] Complete online text

Making friends – another sort of day

 Posted by at 2:44 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Nov 052010

    So, friend, not in the city any longer, yesterday I cycled out to Two Bridges, with Wendy. A bit of a challenge to break through boundaries of what I believed I could do; a round trip of about forty strenuous miles. I arrived at Wendy’s at the agreed time of 8 o’clock to find her and Ruth searching in the garden for her hearing aids and it began to look as though our adventure was set to come to an end before it had begun. She thought that they had dropped off her tea tray on her journey from the hut where she had slept to the house when she bent down to pick up some apples. Ruth believed they were in the house or the hut, and so it turned out for Wendy discovered them under her pillow. Buoyed with this success we set off, Wendy speeding along the cycle path to Dartington and me peddling along behind and noticing the slight differences in her choice of route to the one I would use. For example she took a footpath through woods rather than use a new section of cycle path. Have you noticed that eco-warriors often seem not to like it when their campaigns bear fruit. Is it the habit of opposition? Soon we were on the lane from Hood Manor that winds up and down and wriggles whenever possible out to Buckfastleigh. Then it was through to Buckfast and in no time we had reached Hembury Woods and the long and steep ascent passing the earthworks of the castle.

    Wendy sailed along the flattish stretches – not that there’s many of those – but admitted that these days she gets off and walks up the hills so a pattern developed of me cycling up the hills and then waiting somewhere along the way for her to catch up.

    It had been a bright morning, even patches of blue sky, but we could see the low cloud enveloping the higher moors – just where we were going. Up and up past Venford Reservoir and on to Combestone Tor, a switchback down and up, and then down again to the Forester’s Arms at Hexworthy where they kindly gave us coffee in spite of not being ‘open’ at that time. The golds, yellows, reds and browns of Autumn were at their most vibrant as we dropped down further to the West Dart and then a fairly gentle ascent along the exposed moor westwards into the wind to Two Bridges. About four hours including the stop at Hexworthy, exactly as Wendy had anticipated. It’s a ride she knows because her sister and brother-in-law live out there in a fairly isolated cottage which is where we headed for a cup of tea and sitting in front of a log fire and chatting and then, a surprise to me, we were given some lovely home-made soup and bread and more chatting and for me getting to know them before we felt we had better hit the road once more if we were to stand a chance of getting back in the light.

    Outside the mist had come down, soaking everything and off we sailed, putting on lights, with the wind now behind us and not only that, but the return journey is obviously mostly downhill, altogether a drop of about 400 metres. Though there are still quite a few demanding climbs to attack, there are many more delicious descents to hurtle down – courage and conditions permitting.

    How glorious it is to cycle over the moors, in the world and making friends with the world and sad to see the cars as coffins with their occupants trapped inside a glassy stare.