Ground Zero Violence

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Jan 312014


I told you to put that machete down, put it away, hide it from yourself. I knew nothing good would come out of this . . . this mess. Well, it wasn’t so much of a mess until you started waving that machete around. Then it was first my left arm and then my right. The blood flow was deeply offensive and somewhat shocking. I say somewhat because I must have switched into movie mode so everything seemed to be happening to some other poor bastard. So, anyway, I stood there like some advert for blood transfusions or the brilliance of blood as a fertiliser, my legs beginning to feel distinctly wobbly. And I said to you, my voice sounding even to me rather indistinct, could we talk about this? Then I sort of realised that the question was a bit on the late side of things, that things were already sliding dangerously out of control. But you seemed to be enthusiastically hacking at the next poor bastard standing helplessly in line for your ministering care with the machete.

Jan 292014
Ground Zero, Santiago Presidential Palace, 11th Sept 1973

They say it is for your own good.

The cut backs (“The Cuts”). Is it possible to cut too far? Cut far beyond last year’s growing point. Back to the main stems. General wisdom says, the most the pruning saw cuts should be to above the first major stem divide. Hoping for new sprouts the next spring, which will form new fruiting branches in future years.

But it is most important not to cut all the stems of the apple tree at once. Leave at least one or two main stems with live branches. However high and tangled they are. Don’t cut too deep. Or you overstress the tree. In order not to kill it, some fruiting branches need to be left growing off one of the main stem.

In the long conversation on the pruning topic, one of the precursors for a main stem graft, which is widely used today to promise new forms of sustained fruiting, goes by the name ‘Human Capital’. The ‘Human Capital’ name involves the idea of replacing the principle of welfare state universal benefits with targeting and charging but with a philanthropic twist: the selected recipients of state education, health-care or other services are charged on a cost/benefit basis. The benefits are calculated (exactly how is a long running economic argument) so nobody get more than their fair share. Fair share in the context of ‘Human Capital’ means in some sense deserving of receiving but simultaneously being charged, with the state (or privatised element of the state) expecting to get something back in return, like more productivity or bigger and better jobs being done. In other words, state benefits are no longer universal.

It is true the orchard has been neglected over the last twenty years and more, and the branches of the ‘Human Capital’ stem grafts have been romping away. However, the main result has not been more apple fruit all round. Quite the opposite in fact. Ivy has been the main benefactor. First it grew in the shadow of overgrowing hedges and overhanging trees, and then increasingly simply as a multiplying derivative of its own great mass of ever-green shade. The ivy has proliferated everywhere. Serving only itself. Glossy. Green.

Fruits have been poor and sour in recent years.

Cut back one week there is the remembrance that green is a colour Mondrian detested, and avoided using the colour in all of his paintings of apple trees.

The ‘Human Capital’ graft was originally one of The Chicago School ideas of the 1960′s, and was especially successfully implanted in the universities of Chile. The economist Miguel Kast had trained in Chicago 1970-73 before returning to work at Odeplan, the Chilean state planning agency. There he became the architect for the state’s ‘focussed’ anti-poverty measures implemented under the Pinochet regime, being appointed Minister of Labour and Social Security in 1980 .

Cutting back much harder, there is the remembrance of Ground Zero, September 11th 1973 that is (not 2001), the date of the Pinochet coup in Chile: the storming of the presidential palace in Santiago, assassination of President Allende, and the violent overthrow of his democratically elected government.

In the Wordstall archive there are the yellowing copies of old newspapers, the front pages carrying throughout all South America with the headlines of Allende’s fall the day after, along with a graphic full page photograph showed the smoke billowing out of the windows of the palace. The photograph had been wired to the newsrooms of Rio de Janeiro and every other city and provincial town in the region. As the news spread out, it felt like a shadow was descending over every man, woman, and child, although at the time it was impossible to put a name to the feelings of insecurity and fear.

In this respect as in others, Pinochet’s Chile was the precursor: not only was it the first Latin American country to fully privatise the administration of its pension fund in 1980, it also pioneered the conditional safety net, establishing the Subsido Unico Familiar in August 1981. Combining the idea of human capital with the principles of targetting…” (Lena Lavinas, 21st Century Welfare, New Left Review 84 (Nov/Dec 2013), P. 5-40)

These coordinated plans of central government are now frequently given the name ‘Conditional Cash Transfer Programmes’. They have been and are being deployed worldwide in all regions of the world – and closer to home of course in the orchards of these misty isles for many years now.

The task of cutting all the ivy at ground level for every apple tree has now been completed. The main stems and branches have been exposed. They look alive and the next growing season will reveal which of these will blossom, which stems will sprout new shoots, and where new fruit will be set.

Meanwhile, there is a lot of buzzing going on within the hive. The bees are mostly asleep this time of year, but it appears that a fierce argument is currently going on about whether the richest ‘Human Capital’ of the misty isle should pay 50% tax.

Both the quantity of next season’s harvest and the likely sweetness of the fruit remains uncertain.

The Orchard

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Jan 222014

The glossy livid leaves and bunched flowers of ivy hung down in cloud masses from high in the old apple trees. Better to cut through at the stem and let their high branches slowly die. Then break off the thicker stems from the apple tree branches another year, when the dead ivy had died and dropped its leaves.

But the artist Piet Mondrian hated the colour green.

That or hard prune the apple trees themselves. Cut them at mid- branching height. Careful not to take out all the growing ends at once. Leave more than half the main stems and branches for another year’s work. Only cut to two points above last year’s growing point.

Green was refused from the artist’s palate.

It was winter. The apple trees were bare of leaves. Abandoned fruit lay scattered and blackened with rot beneath the trees. There was no grass around the trees. The ground, long shaded by the overgrowing ivy, was bare but for nettles and thorn. Knocked flat by rain, occasional nights of frost and the many footprints of boots, the rain saturated mud had spread out to fill much of the spaces in between the trees.

The artist laid his dry brushes in two neat rows on the studio table.

Two apple trees had been so long shaded they might not recover. There were five other apple trees in the orchard that might come to bear fruit another year. But not this year, it would take a long time for new shoots to grow and thicken. Then prune again. After that the contingent promise that a blossom will set. Depending. The weather for blossom in spring, and the bees.

One larger apple tree could be his single subject. Often there was no background.

One had grown taller than the others. Drawn tall. It was over shaded by the uncut yew hedge close to it, and the young elms which had self-sprouted high in the rough ground beyond.

The retina of his eye receives, as if the optometrist image, dark red with his own blood also belonged to him.

The major cuts had been made to the thick stems branches. There is form but there is no shape. Return in a year to see if any shoots have sprouted from below.

Square geometries also received the wisdom of his eyes in place of seen forms.

The thick-stemmed ivy in the largest apple tree had been sawn through at its stem the year before. The dark rotted stems were broken and prized off the tree. Moss and lichen cascaded down with them.

He was blind in old age.

Bare of ivy, the days of heavy rain had begun to wash the black earth silt from off the apple tree bark. The fresh pruned branches were piled along the upper side of the orchard side in heaps. They refused to burn. Even the long dead wood was too wet.

His colours were delicate light and dark shades of grey.

Lichen enlivened both the main stems and all the higher branches.

Almost surfacing

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Jan 192014



Sunday afternoon and I am caught napping by the sound of brushing. Inside, outside, I don’t know where the sound is coming from in the confusion between the dream which has been banished from memory, the sound, the possible time and day, and where I might be. This morning Gerald commented in relation to a conversation about memory and certainty, he used the word ‘fluid’. A world in flux, a world on which one has little handle. Like Noah we are supposed to grab what we can of our possessions or our cultural heritage and build a boat in order to affirm our potency in the face of the inundation of fluid conditions. I would dearly love to go back to sleep. The residual taste of the dream is sweet and attractive. But the need to discover the source of the brushing demands priority. I must stand up and go to the window and yes, there is a man, a builder by the look of it, crouching down outside my window with his dustpan and brush. OK! He’s working on the windows upstairs and felt impelled to clear up some of the mess he’s made. OK. But sleep is gone. The sky is still blue. A fine winter’s day in the middle of January, in the middle of weeks of rain? Presumably the rain will return tomorrow.

Miroslav Holub says, ‘Go and open the door’. 

The question of sex remains unresolved. Despite the fluidity, nothing has been forgotten. 

‘That shared life of friends is made possible by the grace of justification given in Jesus’ act of declaring us henceforth to be his friends. But the shared life of friends is made actual by the grace that makes us holy; not only do friends “know one another’s business,” they love one another and all else that they love with a shared love, loving with a single will; and they place their trust in one another in the pursuit of the objects of their love.”

(Thomas Aquinas by Denys Turner page 160)

Caritas rather than Eros. Though Eros does not stay still, a slippery shape-changer. Our image of Aquinas is a man, a monk of considerable girth. Weight might be put on to hold us steady, anchor us physically to one spot, one chair. The pope, the king forever on a throne placed above us so that we might have something to look up to. A weight to obliterate Eros, squash him.

On what is our humanity based? The work, the task given to us? Our relationship to reality (God)? Our wish for pleasure? The flood creeps up higher. The lower dwellings are already half under water. Soon the water will be lapping at my toes. Will  I be able to rouse myself into activity?

Perhaps after a nap.

What a Cheek!

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Jan 142014

“Let’s watch”: the ‘O’, the beginning of everything, and the open mouth of sound (as it was described before) is starting. Yes, ‘O’ is for orifice, the original inspiration, then the loud report and vibrating buttocks that gets everything going.

It is a hoot!

We put up one hand. Yes, it was us, we say – using our wind to blow away the thick layer of dust which lies upon the piles and bundles of our coloured and aging skin. What a way this is to start 2014! Then with our other hand we idly trace our index ‘pointer’ finger across the surfaces. Yes, it was us, we repeat with a smile upon our faces.
(NOTE: The smile has no meaning – “Never apologise! Never Explain!” aka Jonny Depp et al).


So without a moment’s guilt I admit that the naming of The Curator Challenge is already in need of correction (the whacky title I gave for my Wordstall 2014 annual folder, and quoting Kafka for goodness sake last week – Ha! Ha!). Yes, it is about the archive, but that is not all, and, although there are the daily personal tasks of playback, and the not to be neglected practice of maintaining our (re)collections, it is at least half also about performance: did we let off and make a good sound?

So better name the folder The Conductor Challenge. Or The Curator/Conductor Challenge even – What pompous cheek! I fart at ye.

Practice and Performance. I happen to be just back from Reading and a first Core Training weekend in Playback Theatre in which these two words also figured large; we form an ‘O’ at the start of everything, there being a containing ritual dimension as well as an art to it; we tell our stories – real stories, the stories of our lives; a ‘Conductor’ is chosen to be the key ritual figure between teller, citizen actors and audience -”Let’s watch” he/she always says when everything is ready; we then see our stories played back to us – sometimes a word, a feeling or a contradictory pair of feelings, sometimes a longer moment or episodes, and then sometimes the whole story; there is also always a third dimension to the work, the social and moral, because everything being played is set in ethical context, as we ask who is the work for.

Who is the work for – Is it for me? Is it for us?

For instance, who is the Wordstall practice and performance for? We also remembered to ask this question of each other at our first meeting of 2014 in Exeter a week ago, or a question akin to it. Exploring our practice and performance we came up with a list of four languages, which we use here for our storytelling, and will continue to do so depending on the context:
1. language of psychoanalysis (safe methods for finding words for all our misery)
2. language of field signs and track markers (triangulations using our differences, when we are lost – (say) in ‘mitteleuropa’)
3. language of faith (humble ways when we deeply don’t know)
4. bare-faced cheek (“Never apologise! Never Explain!”)

And I propose, bare-faced cheek trumps them all – that is the practice and performance of the comic field (if you don’t know, clever dick!)

I’ve also begun reading Rabelais , the 2006 translation by M A Screech, in order to help my practice. Screech tells us ( ‘Homage to Rabelais‘ LRB Archive, Vol. 6 No. 17 · 20 September 1984, pages 11-13) that Rabelais, the fifteenth century priest, physician, healer, clever dick, used high/low and kind/cruel laughter to explore every aspect of life, and to take us where we would otherwise refuse to go; to reach and expose every level of human hell, poverty, war, violence and cruelty; to reach the extremes of illness, terminal cancer and the worst places of dying -even to the foot of the Cross (ie the most extreme place for Christians to go) and beyond; to reach even paeodophilia and rape.

The Rabelaisian proposition of Ethics is thus: that cheek is the best weapon in the world we have against men’s cruelty and violence; and that cheek is the best personal tool to lift each of us out of the realm of human misery and suffering.

Meanwhile I read that celebrity singer Morrisey is in trouble again. “I see no difference between eating animals and paedophilia” he has announced on his fansite a few days ago.

What a cheek (and… only perhaps… he is just a little lost in his own self-importance and could do with a dose of languages 1. 2. and 3. above), I love it!

Some sort of disorder

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Jan 102014

Is this some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder? Obsessive/compulsive tendencies? Sexual dysfunction? The need for a filing clerk? Filing clerk? Surely they don’t exist any longer. In fact the idea of any sort of clerk would seem to be so twentieth century. The tribe of clerks decimated by the incessant waves of digitisation. Drowning by numbers. Or rather paper. “I always dreamed that I would die in a sub-basement buried under tons of paper, lost amongst miles of floor to ceiling shelving.” Quietly forgotten, reads the headstone.

A few weeks ago I bought a shirt which announced the proud fact that it was made from recycled materials. There were no details of what materials these might be. I was slightly curious but not curious enough to initiate a google search. But now with images of drowning filing clerks fresh in my mind I begin to put two and two together. Don’t get me wrong, I like the shirt and have been pleased to discover that it came out of the drier not needing any ironing. Is that the tidy spirit of the filing clerk, ordering and reordering the fibres, keeping fibres in perfect alignment, maintaining the habits of a long working life time.

I am forced to reconsider Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Not, as far as I can remember, that he was a filing clerk, but I do feel he could have been. This is Kafka as  an element in your literary ancestors. Was Kafka a seminal influence? What lurid couplings took place under the cover of dark corners in the library? Kali and Kafka, the Kay twins, twinning and twining, producing spadefuls of text. How about Uncle Walter and Marlene Dietrich together with Hilary Mantel and Tom Waits on a double date in downtown Sacramento.

Hysterical writing is not a real alternative to the solid and steadying work of the filing clerk; a ghostly figure haunting the lower floors of this edifice. Where is he, did you ask? He’s just popped out for a fag.

See You In A Minute

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Jan 072014

It is a fresh start, and at the beginning of each year I begin a new Wordstall folder. Through the year I collect in it handwritten notes, drafts and print outs of some of our posts, newspaper cuttings, book reviews, and other bits and pieces from the internet and elsewhere. Each annual Wordstall folder is given a title. Last year’s folder was called ‘The Coming of Age‘. This year’s folder is called ‘The Curator Challenge‘.

As well as the Wordstall annual folders, I also keep more folders in which other papers, writing on various themes and subjects, and other printed materials are stored, and these are being continually added to over the years. It is a growing, harvesting process. Some of these folders are unnamed but others are given titles, and on occasions a few of these may appear to have a particular connection with the annual Wordstall folders, although the nature of this unfolding relationship is not ever clear. For instance, I already know the relationships to come of ‘The Curator Challenge‘ 2014 annual folder includes three others, and as it happens all these three folder titles have names: ‘Strange Cases of…’ , ‘This Pulsating Mechanism’, and ‘The Cult Container’.

There is the beginning of everything and all the folders have lives of their own. In this instance, the birth and lives of these three folders appear to be related, or inter-related better put, and their origins are spread over three generations like this:

Strange Cases of…‘ is the grandfather folder of the three and began in the nineteenth century of course with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It has grown prodigiously over several years and indeed is now so large that is better described as a bundle. The diverse collection are all stories of nostalgia and obstinacy, troubling adventures with that characteristic borderline mix of fear/excitement, accompanied by a pervasive feeling of loss which possesses all men and women in their lives at certain times. Just now within the protean folder my eye falls on a page of a music sheet , the score of a 1930′s Argentinian tango whose title is Febril – Fever. Or I read these words copied out of a letter written by the North American sculptor Frederic Remington (the original 1904 cast of his most famous piece ‘The Bronco Buster’ resides in the Oval Office of the president to this day): “Jews, Injuns, Chinamen, Italians, Huns – the rubbish of the earth I hate – I’ve got some Winchesters and when the massacring begins I can put my share of ‘em, and what’s more, I will”.

The second folder, ‘The Pulsating Mechanism‘ lives a mother/father adventurer life in a bi-curious kind of way. One way or another the folder is filled with love stories, all are set in the age of late capitalism, and many appear to be of european descent. I say this as I read again the famous Kafka quote off the cover of the folder, “In that case I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it”, and also as I locate again the memory of the folder’s birth, precisely within a second hand copy of a book of poems written by the German poet Hans-Magnus Enzensberger – Mausoleum (1975, tr Joachim Neugroschel 1976) – the moment of conception being the poem A.M.T (1912-1954), which begins as follows:
‘It’s certain that he never read a newspaper; that he knitted his gloves himself; that he always kept losing trunks, books, coats; and that whenever he broke his stubborn silence at meals, he fell into a shrill stuttering or a cackling laugh. His eyes were radiant, inorganic blue, like stained glass.

‘Very well then. Let us imagine a universal automaton…‘ – after Turing, Alan Mathison, who was the inventor of the computer, and who also committed suicide in 1954, in fear of the discovery of his homosexuality some say.

The Cult Container‘ is the third folder’s name. It is the child of the three, indeed it was only born late last year. The title comes from a phrase to be found in the most recent writing of the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, that is the most recently translated into English (In the World Interior of Capital / You Must Change Your Life). The folder emerges as a fully embodied and breathing something from Sloterdijk’s life of writing organic adventures and metaphysical histories of enclosed spaces (eg his vast trilogy Spheres published between 1998 and 2004).

Some lives are spent underground and some lived in the light. It is time for a true story begun in the middle years of the First World War.

It happens that my mother and the writer Penelope Fitzgerald were born in the same year. 1916. There were other similarities between them too. They both had childhood nicknames that stuck with them into adult life. My mother’s name was ‘Ba’. Penelope Fitzgerald was called ‘Mops’. They also both wrote novels, and the two of them were also late starters. Ba, who wrote under the name Rosemary Mackay, had her first novel, The House and the Day, published in 1966 when she was 50. Mop’s first novel, The Golden Child, was published in 1975 shortly before she was 60. There were further parallels. Their publishers considered them both to be ‘amateur authors’, and the name Grace also figured large in both their lives. For Mops, Grace was the name of the house boat on the Thames river in Battersea, where she lived with her family in the 1970′s and wrote when she could find time, which sank twice and was always damp. For Ba, Grace was the name of her mother (my grandmother). She lived in the West of Scotland half of the year and, just like the house boat, Grace could and did on occasions sink other people’s lives. The West Highland being known for its high rainfall, Ba and Mops also shared the damp theme, and liminality too in a way, and in their writing for a time as well.

However, the similarities end there. Ba died in 1995 having filled many more notebooks with her stories, and sent many more typed manuscripts to her agent, but having failed to have any more books published. Mops died in 2000, a Booker Prize winner (1979) and having had 8 more novels published, and famous living writers and reviewers continue to ask today – “So how does she do it”, and “How did she do that”.

They are all asking the same question. How can the whole of time be compressed into just sixty seconds. It is a performance and a practice, and quite bewildering. Such is also ‘The Curator Challenge’ – See You In A Minute.

Adventuring into the Original

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Jan 042014



Continuing to delve ever further into William H Gass’s The Tunnel I find the usual superfluity of quotable chunks but there is a couple that I scribbled down in my notebook and now wish to share: ‘It was I who was supposed to be having an adventure, but it was she who had it.’ (Page 556) and ‘The greatest gift you can give another human being is to let them warm you till, in passing beyond pleasure, your defences fall, your ego surrenders, its structure melts, its towers topple, lies, fancies, vanities, blow away in the wind, and you return, not to the clay you came from – the unfired vessel – but to the original moment of inspiration, when you were the unabbreviated breath of God.’ (Page 560)

It was worth saying that life is about pursuing adventures, but I guess at any one time the role of adventurer is passed around the circle of participants. In the first quotation there is an ‘I’ and a ‘she’; man and woman. This places my view on these last forty years of adjustment to our changed conception of woman and her place in the social matrix. How do we negotiate the question of who is to have the adventure? No longer can we assume that adventuring is something that is for men only. Does that leave men mourning the loss of their monopoly on adventure?

In the second quotation we have that melting centre of intimate life from which we are able to touch something larger than ourselves. Something that Gass identifies (through his narrator) as a breathing something, a something that calls for the idea of original, something from which we came from, something which cannot (should not) be reduced.

I’m looking at the word original. I’m looking at the O that is the open mouth of the sound. The beginning of everything. The beginning of this new day, this new year. A sound which strains to move into this newness. The open mouth of our original inspiration to be the the engagement, the grappling, skin tingling, laughing . . . what do we call it? Being in love? The beingness in loveness, our original commitment.