Sep 302011

Retirement, whatever that is!! I can see the old bedraggled blackbird must have dropped something sweet on your head whilst you were dreaming and your equipage was not up to the job. Semi retired, I don’t think you should get away with that!

    Meanwhile, back in the boardroom, I would agree with you – our cleverness and stupidity are infinite in their mutually self-cancelling effects and unintended consequences. But it’s not easy focussing on something enough to make a difference and at the same time keeping an eye on the bigger picture. As we peep into the knockabout, Punch and Judy world of politics, seeing the impossible positions politicians find themselves in as they wriggle and blag, skewered by some version of the Paxman. We know they don’t know what the hell they are doing and we know that they know that we know . . . yet we all (mostly) have an interest in maintaining some sort of belief in the show because the alternatives are probably worse. We “want to believe” in the virgin birth, at the same time “knowing” that it’s a bit of nonsense – a dream, a hope, a metaphor.

    Retirement (dream, hope or metaphor) is, of course, a giving up, a giving in to the overwhelming challenges of life at a time when the energy is not what it was and the wild energies of our children and their mates are swirling around, mopping up . . . in other words doing exactly what they should be doing: taking over.

    Maybe we should be kicking and screaming at this imposition of retirement but we may feel a little weary and we are rather in love with the idea of permanent holiday. No longer do we have to look forward to a holiday in so many months: it’s here right now.

    There is a brilliant description of retirement (without ever using the word) in Georges Perec’s, Life A User’s Manual. Winckler, an extraordinary craftsman, gradually gives up his craft – the project that he has been involved in – making fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzles for the millionaire Englishman, Bartlebooth, has come to an end. He gives up going out to his regular restaurant for meals, gives up playing backgammon with his friend Smautf. His world contracts until he doesn’t move from his armchair. Neighbours make sure he has food and is generally looked after. I suppose it’s a giving up and waiting for death, but in Perec’s hands it has a sense and a dignity. The stages of retirement no doubt are dependant on health, wealth and the condition and facts of our familiar relationships.

    We peer into the mist trying (stupidly) to second guess our fate.





    The river is moving,

    The blackbird must be flying.


A Bang on the Head

 Posted by at 11:52 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Sep 272011

Sitting unhappily on the floor because something drastic had happened, although I couldn’t quite understand what. Had the chair broken under the body’s weight? Or was a loose chair leg being swung by somebody, one of those bawdy girls perhaps in the tavern, or somebody else on a street corner, as we like to put it, somebody in authority. Either way the end result was a painful bang on the head, so that we are forced to think about the work of understanding and judgement.

One gets the feeling somebody is trying to knock some sense into us. Elsewhere in the latest LRB there is a review of Julian Barnes’s latest work, which refers to the characteristic “stupidly intelligent” nature of the English. I doubt it is a peculiarly English characteristic myself. The whole world is stupidly intelligent in my opinion, meaning this oxymoron aspect of human nature is universal. A trap we all fall into, only we English have our own perverse ways of engaging in the work understanding and judgement. Or of misunderstanding and non-judgement for that matter. Stupidly intelligent.

Take the NHS. These days, for want of giving a longer explanation, I sometimes call myself a semi-retired doctor; an English way of apologizing for the fact that I am no longer working for the NHS, but equally making it clear that I have not sold out to taking the private medical shilling. I am trying in a rather shifty sounding way to suggest something else, that I am still in work, but that I am not in gainful employment. I could call myself a writer by the same definition, but I lack the essential qualification of having been published. Except of course here. Semi-retired writer then – would that work just as well as semi-retired doctor?.

I am ashamed at this moment how poorly I am expressing both my understanding and judgement. It is that old customary habit of us English, an excitement and that sense of shame of course. Bend over boy, this will hurt me more than it will hurt you. And so on. Punishments for your (or even our) own good that make us cringe, and other corrective measures (indifferent whether these are right wing or left wing corrective measures). Like treatments, as I recall when I was a working properly as a doctor, which I was and still remain ashamed of. Not the science of course (the treatments sometimes worked!). The science was always persuasive (stupidly intelligent).

But ashamed of the one level of morality I had for life, and the other for the bedside. They used to call me a caring doctor, and I think I was, but that only made it worse. So eventually (and prematurely… officially they call it early retirement these days and the pension – albeit reduced – is offered at 65… or maybe it is 66… or 67), the white coat had to come off: a sort of public self-outing.

The shadow of his equipage. Once, a fear pierced him? Welcome under the shade of my kiosk.

Let’s make that a louder and sharper cry

 Posted by at 11:28 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Sep 232011

But oh dear, I didn’t really want to be woken up. No sweet nothings. No rich harmonies. Only discordant clangs and thumps. So let’s go down to the bawdy house. Perhaps getting drunk and indulgent will ease the soul’s pain, the anguish of humiliation, the realisation that we’ve been shafted yet again. How does it work? The ideological thrust of the political class has little to do with their proclaimed manifestos. Is it merely the unexpected demands of power or are they lying from the moment they glimpse the possibilities of power. All those hours practising their tricks. Marching to their own agenda whilst pretending to march to ‘we’re all in this together.’ Like hell we are.

    What has happened? Well, I had the rug I was standing on pulled out from under my feet. And of course I was left rather winded and lying on my back. I shall explain: I read an article in the current LRB (22 September 2011) by James Meek concerning what is becoming clear, the privatisation of the NHS. He traces back the ongoing changes to economist and Pentagon whizz kid Alain Enthoven. His ideal was something he called ‘managed competition’ and in 1985 he wrote a paper for the Nuffield Trust suggesting it could work for the NHS. Picked up with greed and frenzy by the soon to be gone Thatcher crew, like a baton it was passed on to Blair and his eager eyed acolytes. And here we are the whole programme is now in the hands of Broken Britain Tories.

    The whole article is definitely worth reading to highlight the way in which ideas come to power. A seed is planted in fortuitously fertile ground. So many ideas fall on stony ground (thank you Jesus for the parable) and the question that came to my mind is: was the fertile ground hatred of the ‘socialism’ of the NHS? Was this another example of the battle between socialism and capitalism? The choice for us is, or was, between the propaganda of the Party and hapless consumers of the advertising industry.

    Sitting unhappily on the floor, rubbing my head that banged on a chair leg I am forced to try to think about understanding and judgement. I was part of an anti-judgemental generation, sick of the moralising authority of the old guard. But we cannot do without judgement. It feels like if I simply take up the work of understanding I need never stick my head above the parapet. All I do is work quietly away in the consulting room. One day we will be over this sickness and be fully alive and able to pick up the reins. Not good enough. And that means engaging in this work of judgement: what is right and what is wrong? What are my values?

    It was also rather alarming to see the trailers on Channel 4 advertising a Despatches programme examining what our old friend Tony Blair has been up to: making huge amounts of dosh whilst being some sort of ambassador in the Middle East.

    What is the actual resistance that we can engage in? The training to behave ourselves is forever being rubbed in our faces – and then we mumble our apologies for being such a frightful nuisance.

    Poetry, perhaps, is one form of resistance:




    He rode over Connecticut

    In a glass coach.

    Once, a fear pierced him,

    In that he mistook

    The shadow of his equipage

    For blackbirds.



The Bawds of Euphony

 Posted by at 8:06 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Sep 202011

How delicious, to hear the swish of a corrective hand from the first, to cringe from a clip behind the ear from the second, and to start from a nose tweak from the third, along with some collective shrieking reprimands from the plump ladies upon our arms, the slatterns, or, as I have sometimes found myself calling them before, meretrices. It was 'Jane Austen Festival' in Bath last weekend, did you know?

Do you want a good time then?

No, it certainly isn’t goodness with a capital ‘G’, but only some fragments or crumbs, still amounting to a provocation, like a jab in the ribs at the sight of an improbability as one might describe listening to Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate on BBC Radio 4.

Or coming upon the extension to The Holburne Museum in Bath which I did last Saturday morning while strolling the city streets. “Where Art Meets Park”, it said in one of the publicity posters inside which showed a picture of a composite man, top half bewigged Regency gent, bottom half football shorts and boots and hairy legs.

Improbable meeting place. The Garden Café on the ground floor was open on three sides through floor to ceiling glass plated windows, and seemed to hold up the museum spaces on the floors above without visible support, open doorways also leading from front to back, and back to front.

Mirroring the inside and outside, as well as the old and new, strength and softness, classical and modern, backward looking and forward, a green wine bottle was brought to my table when I asked for some water to have with my coffee in the Garden Café. It was absinthe.

Outside, the surrounding plane trees had begun to show some autumn colours, and the large green rectangular tiles hung to the walls also appeared to have no means of support, their surfaces crazed with bronze undulating lines.

Controversial according to the press, some people do not like it, flying in a green light, light, open, accessible – free (no entry charge!) – and transparent.

The online images don’t do it real justice at all.

A sharp cry in the night

 Posted by at 2:51 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Sep 172011

What about fragments of goodness? Your capital G Goodness is, well, rather daunting, if not downright terrifying.

    The current Radio 4 interest, not to say, enthusiasm, for Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, has provoked me into re-reading it. Linda Grant (Start the Week 12.09.11) claimed she has read it four times, unlike War and Peace, which she has never managed to finish.

    Chapter 8 (pages 80-93 in the Harvill edition) is a letter to Vityenka from his mother – a Jewish doctor – in a Ukrainian town overrun by the German army which immediately set in motion the Nazi policy of disappearing the other. Nazism is our paradigm of evil. Whenever we need to remind ourselves what evil is we look to them. Before she has even walked to the ghetto her non-Jewish neighbours are grabbing her rooms, her belongings. She has full awareness of what is going to happen to her. Forbidden the pavement the Jews walk in the road to the ghetto. She writes to her son:

    ‘I saw many faces I knew. Some nodded goodbye, others looked away. I don’t think any eyes in that crowd were indifferent; some were pitiless, some were inquisitive, and some were filled with tears.’

    How do I stop myself from turning some ‘you’ into the enemy and forget that we are brothers/sisters; in other words, family with whom I have solidarity. Is it like taking a step and then realising that the step was wrong and withdrawing it? The necessity to slow down time, re-examine the situation . . . remembering kindness. A problem may arise when kindness demands courage.

    If I imagine myself on the pavement, what do I do, what do I feel, what is revealed by my facial expressions, gestures, posture? Us bystanders are forever caught in a moral dilemma, almost a vacuum; caught between perpetrators and victims, barely able to breathe. Us bystanders have no idea as to the future because we are not engaged in making the future. We have no idea that in a relatively short period of time the Red Army will be streaming back across the lands they so recently vacated.

    I am a bystander: sometimes indifferent, sometimes compassionate, sometimes angry, sometimes thankful that I’m not a victim, and please let me never find myself a perpetrator. At the same time there is the need to make a stand out there in the road, to rediscover the sense agency before retirement becomes the totality of my life.





At the sight of blackbirds

Flying in a green light,

Even the bawds of euphony

Would cry out sharply.


How Goodness Travels

 Posted by at 3:56 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Sep 122011

… at the speed of a snail, or so it is said. That was the Mahatma’s opinion, and in my opinion I think he was about right. Concerning the manifestation of Goodness in the world, the pace is always slow.

But not imperceptible, hence the need for the discernment word, there is always some movement going on, which we are able to detect if we stay still and simply keep watching for long enough.

About slowness the Mahatma was also referring to the processes of achieving social and political change in India, being an activist, who was intimately involved in shaping the decisive political events of his lifetime.

Although I dare say the great man himself was in a rush sometimes, and equally overtaken by the speed and unexpectedness of events; ordinary, just like the rest of us, no saint.

He had also hardened the culture of discernment as he experienced it around that particular drama of history which was the liberation movement which was destined to lead to the end of British colonial rule in India.

Walkingtalkingwriting discernment lacks the grand narrative approach such as an India and a liberation movement might provide. Ours is made up of lighter and more “smoky” substances, and the goodness in it is not hardened or stuck down to a particular question of redemption.

No totalizing betterment! There is a blackbird tracking across the sky, and Wallace the poet has been asking us to follow its progress with our eyes.

A glink in the conversation as it were, across the deep interstices of consciousness anthropologically speaking, a wilderness not commonly crossed where spatial stories are able to be told.

And we sometimes feel better for the telling, a feeling of Goodness similar in many respects to a form of life we knew when we were in our twenties, quite free and unencumbered, except of course these days the energy of youth is missing.

Peering into the smoky globe

 Posted by at 10:56 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Sep 092011

In your circling and cycling of riots and memories and sadness, that old word “discernment” comes to mind, drifting up from a few years past. Then it was about discerning whether or not a late vocation was the course to take. Yes, it seemed to be, but no it wasn’t. So now the word comes to mind in relation to riots and good governance.

    Discernment is rather like peering into the smoky globe of the fortune-teller and whilst discernment often possesses a questioning of possible futures it is also trying to see into current events and the metaphors of events. In the “event” of the riots there is a mirror held up to whichever government is in power and the question of, where is the destructiveness of their policies. Not only in the violence visited upon foreign peoples in actual war but the effects of domestic policies when policy makers are seized and trapped within ideological perspectives which have drastic consequences for the rest of us.

    The trappings of appearance may be different: hoodies as against impeccably expensive suiting – but, of course, governments may “legally” visit violence on all sorts of people with a confident self-righteousness (picture Tony Blair) and will rarely be held to account.

    And surprise, surprise, you remember the eighties and yes indeed, another Tory government and riots . . . how the times change – driven as usual by anxiety and greed and the curious blindness that we actually inhabit though we always pretend to be seeing quite clearly.

    On Wednesday evening of this week I went to a presentation by Combatants for Peace, a Palestinian/Israeli group intent on bridging the chasms between the alienated communities of Palestine/Israel: Jew and Arab. There was a short film of their activities – demonstrations, community work – followed by an example of how they use theatre/psychodrama to explore and work with (and through) the conflicts of perception/emotion. This in turn was followed by three of the group sharing a fairly brief account of their lives and how they came to Combatants for Peace.

    I noticed in myself an initial reaction of wanting to sympathise with one side rather than the other but then found, as I listened on, to discover the broader sympathies of our common humanity. Yet another example of the need to refuse the temptation of paranoid ways of thinking.

    On we trudge – can we go a bit slower – speed may be another temptation to be refused; a refusal to rush into action. Except when it is a clear emergency. In this regard, Pankaj Mishra wrote a timely piece for the Guardian (3.09.11) Review: an overview of this decade since 9/11 – the appalling consequences of American (and British) blinkered action.


It marks the edge of one of many circles

 Posted by at 11:21 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Sep 062011

That Good Things emerge from Bad Things: these last few weeks I have been searching to find where the good things are in The Riots that took place last month.

As an older man, riots and rioting are not new to me. I was living in south London when the Brixton Riots took place in 1981 (Do you remember? Maggy Thatcher was just finding her most chilling prime ministerial voice at the time; “Nothing, but nothing, justifies what happened”). I kept well away from the area, but I watched the glow from the street fires lighting up the London night sky.

Then there was the raw and sometimes dangerous music scene later in the 1980’s in which warehouse parties and raves took place often on or well over the edge of mass violence and criminal behaviour. One way or another, (perhaps it was an age thing, since I was now well into my 30’s) I began to have the feeling I did not belong there either.

So there is nothing new to me about groups or gangs, to which I may or may not belong, rioting and doing bad things on a large scale. Sometimes the violence is close enough to where I am to make me feel afraid, but most of the time I keep myself well out of harm’s way.

I feel sad of course, like I do now about the recent August riots. By and large I quite like scenes that are raw and dangerous, but not the violence. The violence always makes me feel sad. One way or another, (and this is not a just about being an older man) I would imagine that everybody feels some similar sadness about the riots too.

I want to recognise this sadness we all have in common, and to make something of it, to claim some solidarity through it. No, I am not interested in creating another (older) Men’s Movement to do something about all the bad things in the world. However, I am interested in the power that emerges when sadness is not instantly reacted against or tried to be made better, but allowed to slowly ripen.

What kind of power is that? It is the power that makes me feel safe and welcome when I walk into a bicycle shop in south London last week and I have a great chat with the locals about the best ways of getting about on two wheels. It is the power that makes me think that even at my age it would be fine (if I was given the present on my next birthday in two weeks time!) if I went out dance music clubbing in Ibiza.