Jun 292012

If, as you quote, ‘You must absolutely be disloyal to be a good writer’ (Somerset Vaughan? You mean Maugham?) then it rather suggests that to be a writer you must turn yourself out of hearth and home and live as a vagabond – using internet cafés to post the latest chapter of your magnum opus or your latest avant-garde incoherence and curling up each night in a cardboard box (should you be so lucky) free at last. And the smell?


We are misled by books and presumably even more by kindles because the stink of the author has been wished away, reduced to leather, ink, paper, plastics, electronics. Writers must have their distinctive smells; a life at the desk or in the gutter – depending on your authenticity as a writer. What would have hit your nostril as you burst in on James Joyce en famille? And even more disturbing/terrifying what would have assailed your nostrils if you had happened to bump into Walter Benjamin in those moments before he committed suicide in the Pyrénées on the French/Spanish border. The mind reels. It’s as though smells have the ability to cut through the sanctity of our illusions, our best wishes. No wonder priests incense the altars, even the congregation, everybody within reach. And I always thought (though without putting it into words till this moment) that Somerset Maugham was entirely fishy, quite literally that of the rotting ocean, the whiff of some archetypal fishwife gutting fish (and you if you’re not quick on your feet) in one second flat – a grim smile on her face.


Recently, in Florence, I heard Michael Ondhaatje and Kieran Desai discussing something the organisers of the conference called vagabond literature. It was the case that the need to translate slowed the proceedings but after some interesting accounts of their ‘roots’ in India and Sri Lanka, their migration first to the UK and then on to North America where they simply morphed into successful novelists. As they went on they had less and less interesting things to say. Ondaatje in particular looking bored and Desai beautifully decorative and trying hard. And the image of a couple of spoilt rich kids began to dominate my reactions to them. Obviously I should have got up close and had a good sniff to find out what they were made of. If in fact they could still be identified as human. Instead I wrestled with possible questions to ask them but then it was all over and we drifted out from the palazzo into the warm evening to wander and chat. But not about smells.


What is the stench of over-privilege? Is it dry or wet or simply out of this world? Something from the far distant reaches of the universe? Occupying the eternal? Do gods smell?


Life smells.


You neglected to demand the answer to a question but I shan’t let you off so easily. Where are you digging? Do you have characters/plots in mind for the grave, sorry I mean novel?


“That Most Terrible Pong”*

 Posted by at 10:17 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jun 262012

OR – A Taxonomy of Malodours in the Context of Vagabond Literature- since Vagabond Literature, you might think and possibly agree, sort of defines our territory. And it is a surprisingly sparse territory according to my latest Google search, The Vagabond in Literature (Arthur Compton Rickett, London 1906) being the most recent contribution to the outlaw corpus. Then perhaps good outlaws are always invisible. Unlike Cosmopolitan Literature, or Flaneur Literature (or Bohemianism) which you will see on full view everywhere – you will find the shelves stacked – Vagabond Literature is out of place and abroad – Mal-arias -

1. Funny Smells:
Nasty pongs as well as being offputting on the dancefloor are also invisible (except perhaps if you are a syneasthesist) jests.

2. Bad Smells:
Those from off the old, which result in the destruction of the young. While we are referring here to the lessons of history, we are also speaking in the present tense: go to the Robinson Institute if you prefer examples and argument from the leftist end of the spectrum (remember those meteorites, the xenoliths, to which I referred last week), or listen to Professor Neil Ferguson, who is giving the 2012 Reith Lectures currently on BBC Radio 4 if you prefer talk from the rightist end (so far I've only listened to the first one, The Human Hive). The bad smells of history are all pervading regardless of political persuasion, corrosive from every viewpoint, as even the great Slavov Zizek wryly admitted recently, "We - by which he meant the old -are visiting destruction upon the young" - through debt, global warning… the long litany goes on and on.

3. Fishy Smells:
These are Strange Cases (the – inverted commas - 'Strange Cases' to which I have also referred before, such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) which are difficult to classify. Like missing persons: go to the Invisible: Art About the Unseen 1957-2012 for a taster. Or visit the asylums of the insane.

4. Foul Smells.
Disloyalty - The foul smell of a traitor – the very worst of smells. As Somerset Vaughan sort of once said, "You must absolutely be disloyal to be good writer".

We constantly meet with examples of all these terrible smells in Vagabond Literature:
    'Bon Soir. Je m'appelle Max, je suis soixante-un ans, j'ai des cheveux brun avec du gris, et court – not long like your pony tail. The tall strongly built Frenchman sits at the table in front of me with his back to me, his large black T shirt filling my vision. je porte un chenise blu d'azzur – light blue – nous sommes le meme. It is what you would call a cultural exchange. Cosmopolitan.
   'The man stands up and takes a white walking stick in his right hand and put his left hand on his wife's shoulder as she leads him towards the kebab restaurant door on a street south of Victoria station in London, but even so he stumbles on the step. No, he says to me in English, we are not the same.
    'There is another group of three people behind where I am sitting, two men and a woman who are also now blind to me. Then a waif Spanish chick girl comes to sit on the next door table with her lover, who may also be her father, he has grey hair, and – now I am thinking what I am writing – I am not the same.
    'Her long dark hair is platted tightly in a pony tail, which, lying over her shoulder, she strokes gently with the fingers of both hands, as if it is living like a cat. She wears a small white cotton top with thin straps over her bare skin, and large glasses with black rims. They order their meal, and – respetto – it is time for me to leave.'

* That Most Terrible Pong -
"That most terrible drug – ourselves – which we undertake in solitude" Walter Benjamin, Protocols on the Experiments with Hashish…


Jun 232012

It’s hard to dance when there is a bad smell. Edward Thomas writes (in the couple of stanzas you quote): ‘That I may lose my way/And myself.’ I have long been puzzled by the phrase ‘lose myself’; it makes me become very literal minded: oh dear, when did you last see it? Losing my way is much easier to get to grips with; it happens a thousand times a day and might well happen during the writing of this short piece of prose but on the other hand as I have little idea of where I am going with it how would I recognise the losing of the way. If I set off for Paris and find myself in Florence then clearly something has gone wrong. Though in this case does the smell alert me: this doesn’t smell like Paris. There is always that handy medicinal standby, alcohol; a couple of drinks and I no longer care where I am. Florence will do very nicely, thank you. And, returning to the question of smell, with a couple of drinks inside me I can ignore the bad smell and get on with enjoying the dance; even losing myself in the wild gyrations.


    I suppose what it might mean is losing some sort of burden; self as burden. What I might be able to do, Pamuk suggests, is to store bits of burden in a museum. Let’s call it the Museum of Innocence. Or why not call it the Museum of Guilt. Little bits of guilt displayed safely inside suitably strengthened glass cases. We don’t want that guilt getting out and interfering with the free flow of glorious dancing life, a life that is free of bad smells. Though the dilemma is that unless I manage to forget your introduction of this bad smell, with or without the help of alcohol, I have to come back to it. And it’s not helped by the fact that you don’t give any clues as to what the bad smell is actually like. Surely there cannot be only one bad smell in the world. Not forgetting that a bad smell for you might be heaven on earth for somebody else. Cannot you, like some refined sommelier (could your butler help you with this? I’m not sure whether you have an actual sommelier on your staff, but your butler, he might be from the nether regions of Glasgow, but I always thought he was an unusually helpful fellow) DESCRIBE the bad smell. Give me some clues as to the subtle notes that reach your nostrils.


    Innocence surely does not smell at all or if it does it must be sweet; that’s what we say isn’t it: sweet innocence. Honey and meadow flowers; not the stuff that grows in the ditch you dug last year which is, by all accounts, already rather rank. Honeysuckle comes to mind; that perfume that pervades the evening air. But what about roses? Now it seems to me that roses can have a more dangerous range of smells. Smells that could lead one into dangerous situations: those assignations in a dark alleys; situations from which there is no escape.


    Let’s be clear and remember that we have an investigation on our hands. The question is: what was that bad smell? Have courage even if it leads you to places you would rather not go.


Shelf above Shelf

 Posted by at 4:15 pm  IN Conversation  Comments Off
Jun 152012

Last weekend was the final chance to visit the 300+ locations exhibiting during Dorset Arts (two week) event. So it was on Saturday I found myself walking along a valley footpath to reach a nearby village to look in at the two studios exhibiting there. I do not know whether the opportunity for a pleasant afternoon walk was uppermost in my mind, or the desire to see what I could see of what was on show before the event ended, but it happened that in the house where the second exhibition was located, I stood for a long time in a kind of indecision in front of a painting called 'On Uncertainty'. It was an abstract work of strong primary colours applied with vigour and energy, and later that evening I recalled the piece again while listening to the poem 'Lights Out' by Edward Thomas, which was being sung during the premier performance of a newly composed oratorio – A Time to Dance - in Sherborne Abbey.

I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose…

…The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
And myself.

Elsewhere and two days later on, on a train to London I was reading Elif Batuman's 'Diary' in the current issue of the London Review of Books (Vol 34, No 11, 7 June 2012, P38-39) in which she describes her visit to the recently opened Museum Of Innocence in Istanbul. It is "the world's first synergic novel-museum", she claimed in her piece, since it consists entirely of 83 exhibits which parallel the 83 chapters of Orhan Pamuk's 2009 work of fiction The Museum of Innocence. The proposition is that the novel's characters which Include Pamuk himself exist through the mostly commonplace and everyday pieces contained in the exhibit cases; the consolation of objects, and so on.

"A place where time is frozen" as Pamuk described it to Elif Batuman.

Pamuk's description of the museum returned me again to the painting 'On Uncertainty', underneath which another exhibit called 'Taste Britain' by the same artist was standing. It was a white refrigerator on whose door as I recall the words "PLEASE OPEN" were printed. So I did open it. The fridge light went on and revealed another exhibition space inside, in which a number of miniaturised objects were being shown on the various shelves and on the different compartments of the fridge door. I recognised a shark inside a cabinet, and I think that there were several other equally iconic pieces in this "place where time is frozen", but I am unable to remember exactly which they are now. My memory is held more by the crowd of miniaturised figures who were surrounding the objects on display, not that I am able to recall any of them individually either, but more that I notice myself identifying with them in their various positions – people leaning back, people leaning forward – as a fellow onlooker.

Pamuk's novel The Museum of Innocence, described by Elif Batuman as a study of sexual ethics, is indeed an exploration whether or not it is possible to escape the feelings of shame which accompany an illicit love affair. At the end of the book a conclusion is reached in which shame is overcome, and a state of innocence is returned to (in which time is frozen). This time as a reader rather than an onlooker, I myself am not sure that the proposed escape is successful, or put another way I think there is a part of me which remains at heart still disgusted by the story told by Kemal the main character. How can I say, there is a bad smell somewhere.

Even for Objects of Innocence the process of freezing time is not absolute. Putrefaction continues even though in some circumstances it proceeds at a slower (or faster) pace than at 'room temperature'.

As if all the above was not enough for one week… on Tuesday I also went to Ta(s)te Britain in London, in order to visit The Robinson Institute, which is on display within a (Hurrah!) free acess area of the ground floor. 'On display' does not quite do justice to the experience and what is demanded of the onlooker and reader (several books are included to open and read at will… eg Robinson Crusoe etc) and listener (Brahms) and watcher (1951 British Pathe film 'Oil for the Twentieth Century') at seven different locations. After two hours I had only covered about a third of what was on show in the Institute, and decided to call it a day and to return for another go some other time.

One exhibit, a meteorite (in an area of the Institute dealing with meteorites) lead me to reflect how much deeper time is frozen in space than on earth, and further to conclude what bunk was Elif Batuman's claim in her piece in the LRB that The Museum of Innocence was "the first world synergic novel-museum". Robinson began his travels in London in 1994.

Wall to wall joys of monarchy

 Posted by at 9:30 am  Atelier, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Jun 092012

The ogres of monarchy must be very pleased with their recent efforts; success beyond their wildest dreams. And there was plenty of rain to test their stolid and plucky English pride.

Once, halfway through the journey of our life

I found myself inside a shadowy wood,

Because the road had disappeared.

                    This is Sean O'Brien's opening of his translation (2006) of Dante's Inferno.

According to his introduction O'Brien had the idea that translating Dante was a necessary rite of passage. Though I haven't yet heard that Ivor Cutler had a go at it. Something or other brought Cutler to mind a few days ago – was he mentioned on the radio? Prior to that he had seemingly slipped into the category of the forgotten. In the Poetry Library I discover they have quite a number of his books. One I pick out is The Flat Man, though the F has been turned back to front. And there is a photograph of the author in a white singlet and a black flat cap. His mouth is clenched – about to burst into laughter? eyeing you, the reader or potential reader. The book is dated 1977 but reissued in 1997. Some years ago I stood next to him at the desk of the Poetry Library. He was dressed in what I saw as a poet-arch-bishop's regalia. A lilac jacket, flower in his hat. He asked me if I was a poet. I refused that identity but did admit that I wrote the occasional poem. He gave me his mystical blessing. In remembering this, it brings to mind a more recent occasion when I asked Paul Muldoon to sign one of his books – he too, peered into me, examined me to see what I might be made of, what words I might be made of.

It's what we are always doing; chasing words that we might make use of.

Ivor Cutler's Lean

People lean back in


But only

if the the chair

has a back.

Backless chairs –

or stools

as we call them –

are suitable

only for leaning

forwards –

or sitting bolt upright.

You would think that

people who really wanted to lean


would use

a stool.

I first heard of Ivor Cutler listening to John Peel – so long ago, it must have been a previous life – and I think Peel must also have been a fan of John Cooper Clark who's been featured on the tv recently.

Incontinent; malicious; bestial;

And mad; – and how incontinence offends

Our maker less, and this incurs less blame?

                (from Canto XI)

What sort of thing was punk? I barely noticed it at the time but have been woken to its excitement through reading Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces. It is linked in to what he calls The Secret History of the Twentieth Century – the Dadaists, the Lettrist International and the Situationists. Those who don't sign up to the dominant narrative. Pina Bausch's work is in that other tradition, insisting on the authenticity of her view, creating a radical way of working that is challenging and painful, was slow to be accepted but now (a couple of years after her death) is wildly acclaimed. On Wednesday evening after being captivated and beaten up by her company's performance of Victor, the audience (including me of course) gave them a long and well deserved standing applause. Détournement as Guy deBord put it.

Pina Bausch's way of working, her using her company through close and personal questioning to arrive at movements and words that are gradually turned into the performance. Seeing the dancers/actors is to see the process – a sort of psychoanalysis – and it makes sense of the hearing about the close attention that Pina gave as a child (from under a table) to the various adults who stayed at her parent's boarding house.

In a recent dream I was teaching a class (young adults) about certain aspects of language (though what exactly has not been retained) when suddenly I am facing a rebellion. There is a young woman who is angry at what she sees as poor teaching and she demands to hear from her fellow students whether or not they have learned anything at all from the class. In those moments of rising into wakefulness from the dream I have the impression that the general consensus is NO.

Under a Low Cloud

 Posted by at 1:51 pm  Atelier  Comments Off
Jun 062012

Or it could be fog. At any rate the tops of the hills are no longer visible, the cloud is solid like a great slab of time, and there is a persistent fine rain. It is June upon the Misty Isle.

Along with another great slab of time, sixty years, what the Chinese call a 'Great Cycle': the Diamond Jubilee, like the weather it has taken us all over this holiday week-end. And along with everybody else, I watched bits on TV, the Jubilee Show on Monday night with the great global minstrel Stevie Wonder singing it like it is.

Happy Jubilee Your Majesty!

And the fly past over the Palace on Tuesday afternoon, the Red Arrows, leaving the red, white and blue streams of smoke hanging in the sky. Then it was all over, the Palace balcony was clear, and the smoke and crowds began to disperse.

Later on the same evening, I was at my desk and searching for what George Szirtes had said about his translation of Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, which has just been published in English (first published in Hungary in 1985). I went to George Szirtes blog to search for more, but was diverted by what he was writing about the Jubilee.

First there was the Jubilee Letter which he posted to the Palace on Sunday night. I recommend it and agree with his heartfelt sentiments, "Thank you for taking me in". In normal circumstances, GZ said, he might go for a republic. But it would seem churlish to have revolutionary feelings this last weekend. And the continental sense he has is that the cruelties of a backward-looking monarchy are likely to be less than those of a forward-looking revolutionary junta. The cruelties of monarch, GZ argues, by and large does not include eating their people…

Then there was his second post on Monday night following the Jubilee Show, harking back to the best in music and popular entertainment over the last sixty years, this time GZ's memory was stired by his recollections of the Tiller Girls at the Palladium when he was boy, and Royal Variety Performances over the years: High-kicking precision. Even Stevie Wonder had to play on time on Monday night!

Franz Josef, as GZ could attest, could not have put on a better show. The great long-lived monarch of the Twin Monarchy ("The United Kingdom of Austro-Hungary") had his Diamond Jubilee in 1914. Sixty Years again, another great slab of time, with all the resplendent uniforms, coaches, horses and high-kicking precision. However, I do not know if it also rained in Vienna over the period of the celebrations.

Franz Josef died in 1917… and after that it was the deluge. Oh Ukania! Yes, your peoples will miss her when she is gone, they surely will!

Threads and Traces

 Posted by at 11:39 am  Atelier, OUT in the WILDERNESS  Comments Off
Jun 012012

I think of networks of nerves and blood vessels, I think of love that touches and enables new organisation to take shape, I think of a sheep trapped in barbed wire; the paths that open out into the journey and those that apparently come to what we call a ‘dead’ end. A few weeks ago I could not help but notice the body of a black cat killed by the rushing of motorised traffic as I cycled out, vulnerable, myself, to the possibilities of the same fate. A mile or two of A road before I can dive off into the network of lanes that connect farms and hamlets, wriggling and clinging up hill and down dale; a maze to disorientate, to visit sleepy hollows, and present new and surprising vistas that I didn’t know existed. The black cat’s cadaver was in the middle of the carriageway, recognisably cat-like, but it wasn’t long before it was flattened, bones crushed, soft tissue squeezed out, perhaps nibbled by creatures that have a taste for that sort of carrion fast-food – crows and the like. Then a couple of weeks later it looked like a scrap of fur rug and by this time it had moved (been moved?) into the edge of the road, more or less right in my path and finally in the last week or two all that remains are three or four scuffs of black something-or-other across the white line; something that I no longer bother to avoid. A mere trace of something that had lived and breathed and been loved.

    Earlier this morning I read Paul Durcan’s The Road to Vétheuil 2009 (from Praise in Which I Live and Move and Have My Being)  and loved how it traces a path of love from walking ‘downhill to the village’ to the opening of the door and ‘we embraced and we burst out laughing.’ And the final six lines:

        ‘We stood face to face, talking nonsense,

        Not having seen one another for six months.

        Delighted to be doing that, and that only,

        And not being expected to do or say anything else

        But simply to be there and nowhere else

        Piping absolute, pure, spontaneous song.’

    Alain Badiou (In Praise of Love) writes (something else I read this morning): ‘ . . . between May ’68 and the Eighties . . . I developed the political conviction I have remained implacably loyal to and for which “communism” is one possible name. But I then equally structured my future life around processes of love that were by and large definitive. What came later, of the same order, was illuminated by that inspiration and its enduring nature . . . That was really the moment when, in between politics and love, my life found the musical chord that ensured its harmony.’

    The image of the project that we call life that is suggested by Badiou's words is that of a musical instrument (take your choice of instrument!). We are given the rough outline and we struggle daily and in our dreams at night to refine the trumpet or violin, to clarify what sort of instrument it is, learn to play it, engage with our resistances – when the teacher says sing, well, sing for God’s sake . . . but no, I can’t, I won’t, leave me alone, I’m in too much pain, I’m too distracted.

    And here is Tonto peering at the traces, the hoof print in the soft earth, the broken twig. He’ll know which we must go