The Great Derangement

 Posted by at 10:13 am  Echo Effects, Exodus, IN Conversation  Comments Off
Mar 092016

Words! It took only a little verbal cunning in India to acquire the copy of the River of Smoke (Amitav Ghosh’s 2nd volume of his ‘Ibis’ trilogy) from the beloved. She had already started the book, but her visual cortex was so filled with the colours and patterns of cloth and textiles which are to be found everywhere as we were travelling in Rajahstan over the last three weeks, that she had little time and energy for reading and so she gave it up easily to me. I hardly had to plead.

Being in India for three weeks and falling into the colours and patterns of their words, I had raced through the 1st volume Sea of Poppies and was eager for more, my desire being roused further by the multiple languages which Ghosh employs in the service, as Indian people constantly are, of ‘a continuing exchange of words between generations’. He marks out the place of this exchange in The Chrestomathy, being a lexicon to be found as a pdf on his website  (

Then there is the not insignificant matter of the lecture series at Chicago University which Ghosh delivered in 2015 (akin to the ‘Reith Lectures’, a speaker is invited to develop a theme in a series of four lectures). Ghosh’s title was “The Great Derangement: Fiction, History, and Politics in the Age of Global Warming” and the four lectures can be watched on line via the above link. While this celestial decentering manifests itself, Ghosh seems to be saying, words are also not to be wasted…

…And so finally there is the economy of the ’Chrestomather’, which is the Ghosh blog. Posts are infrequent, and in them words and languages are transgressed (not infrequently over fabulous meals involving the cooking of dishes from different cultures and regionalities). There is also a complexity of named categories, and then a large number of ‘Uncategorised’ posts, which may feel familiar to us as we likewise consider our place in countries such as Italy or Ukania, or localities such as Tuscania or Dorset or Devon, or cities such as Firenze or Exeter. And the meals we consume there. As well as our place in Europe of course.

Ghosh comes from Calcutta, and as well as his fiction, he writes critical essays on India as a place from a social science perspective. He will be 60 years old this year. It seems that an ancestor of his was called Neel, and he happens to fall into the narrative of the ‘Ibis’ trilogy. Neel was also the founder of The Chrestomathy in his later life according to the claim of his descendant, who is described as the family’s present ‘wordy-major’.

Sep 052014

L’Eremo di Monte Siepe: Wordstall could meet here early in the new year – next January (say), as we seek to find our new axis mundi and point of balance. After all we seem to be facing eviction and need to look beyond our familiar meeting places. From Totnes to Tuscany?

Monte Siepe is a small oak wooded hill which rises out of a flat plain through which the river Merse flows in southern Tuscany about 50 km from the west coast of Italy. It is also where a man called Galgano (1148-1181) lived. He came from the nearby town of Chiusdino, and chose to retire and live as a hermit for the second half of his life close by on the hill.

For the first half of his life Galgano was a knight and presumably spent quite a bit of his time at war, fighting to keep the peace, as we now say. Then at a certain moment he decided to give up his soldier life and bury his sword, literally in a stone outcrop on the top of the hill.20140903_131235

So this is a sword in the stone story, but different from the King Arthur version. Having been brought to the point where he had buried his sword up to the hilt into the stone, Galgano spent the rest of his life as a hermit, practicing being at peace with himself. By contrast Arthur from the west country of England was chosen for his role by the act of drawing the sword out of the stone, and spent the rest of his life as king. Both were trying to keep the peace and spread it, it could be said.

Two ways of healing splits: Putting a sword into the stone, or drawing one out.

Of course we don’t actually know what Galgano and Arthur were really trying to get up to in their lives, and we should also probably avoid snap judgements that the way of the hermit is in every case superior to the way of the warrior king. Mostly it is romantic myth making of course.

What happened in the south of Tuscany after Galgano’s death? 20140903_131954A beautiful circular chapel was built on top of the Monte Siepe where the hermit had lived and at some point soon afterwards he was made a saint. San Galgano. The Cistercians then quickly arrived a few years later and set about building a huge abbey ‘L’Abbazia di San Galgano’. It took them sixty years to do it (from 1218 to 1288). All to the glory of God.

Of course this also all cost a lot. However, it seems to have been a generally prosperous and peaceful time in this part of Italy, thanks to the influence of San Galgano we might like to think. However, another good reason was that the monks were not only adept at long-term construction projects, they also were extremely good at organising farming and agriculture, taking over land and forming numerous ‘granges’ in the plains and surrounding valley areas. And they were also good at industry smelting iron and and building other factories some to manufacture things for the new abbey like glass. And they were good at trade, using their location at an important crossroads for all routes through the Maremma as a hub for making money.

The Cistercians in fact worked more or less like a multi-national corporation does today, and used the ‘brand’ of San Galgano to maximum effect. Only the local towns-people of Chiusidino where San Galgano had come from objected, keeping their own shrine to San Galgano behind their strong town walls , and refusing to join in the pax, monopoly tax and profit system the monks were creating.

What happened after 1288? World events intervened in the following 50 years: first the plague, then famine leading on to economic and social crisis, the breakdown of law and order, and fighting. War, war, war was back again, and notwithstanding the presence of San Galgano, within a 100 years the Cistercians abandoned their abbey at Monte Siepe and went to live in Siena… 20140903_135407leaving the towns- folk of Chiusidino more or less exactly where they were 200 years previously.

However, we wish to ‘read’ this story of a sword in a stone at Monte Siepe… we can look forward to drawing the parallel lines from 1288 (plague, famine, war) towards the distant horizon and vanishing points*, as we look forward to meeting here in early 2015.
* and long straight roads: I am glad to report that the roads along flat river Merse plain are mostly straight and excellent for bicycle riding, but I do advise thick woolly mittens in January.

Perec Perec

 Posted by at 12:38 pm  Anti-Gravity Surgery, Echo Effects, Exodus, Holy Fool/Hero  Comments Off
Aug 262014
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We often put pairs of words together, and repeat ourselves. Some of the pairs we would like to think of as opposites. Death is not life. Life is not death. And so on. Then we could say Life/Death is an antonym.

But a little on maybe we want to say, “Perhaps Life/Death is a false antonym”. Because we can’t have one without the other. So now we start to think that Life/Death are not opposites. Actually we might even start to think of the Life/Death pair of words as synonyms. Or, hedging our bets, false synonyms, if we think that we are going too far.

Then there is the ‘/’ oblique sign between life and death. Is it merely a signal of the pairing? Or does it also signify? Does it signify a gap for instance, like the caesura in a poem? A pause, which tells us we need to take a breath.

(“…in real life there is always resistance, even though we have to breathe constantly. Inspiration. Brief pause. Expiration. Brief pause. Resistance is probably related to authenticity“) What is our thinking here?

Halfway and we need to take a breather, and continue our search for meaning by other means. In 1982 the Georges Perec published an article piece of longer-form journalism (or feuilleton as we like to call this form of writing) called ‘THINK/CLASSIFY‘ in la Genre Humain (reprinted in Species of Spaces and other Pieces, tr John Sturrock 2008). Note the use of capitals, inverted commas and the oblique sign were all in the title.

Section K of the article is titled ‘Some Aphorisms’, and explores the idea of creating a certain number of formulae for pairs of words (eg using a formula such as: ‘A little ‘A’ carries us away from ‘B’, a lot brings us closer‘, and so on). Perec imagined a computer programme, which it would be easy to construct that “produces ad lib a near infinite number of aphorisms, each one of them bearing more meaning than the last”.

Perec provided a list of a short series of formulae (Page 203) using the words forgetting/remembering to create some aphorisms. Here is the same list now applied to Life/Death:
Life is a malady for which Death is the cure
Life wouldn’t be Life if it weren’t Death
What comes by Life goes by Death
Small Death makes big Life
Life adds to our pains, Death to our pleasures
(I thought about reversing the Life/Death pairing here to Death/Life, but properly resisted the temptation)
Life delivers us from Death, but who will deliver us from Life?
Happiness is in Death, not in Life
Happiness is in Life, not in Death
A little Death carries us away from Life, a lot brings us closer
Life unites men, Death divides them
Life deceives us more often than Death

Perec now asks in the article, “Where is the thinking here? In the formula? In the vocabulary? In the operation that marries them?”

‘LIFE/DEATH’: It may be noted that 1982 was also the year of Georges Perec’s death at the age of 46 from lung cancer. He tells us about his strange experience (P 189) while working on the THINK/CLASSIFY piece: “What came to the surface was of the nature of the fuzzy, the uncertain, the fugitive and the unfinished, and in the end I chose deliberately to preserve the hesitant and perplexed character of these shapeless scraps, and to abandon the pretence of organizing them into something that would by rights have had the appearance (and seductiveness) of an article, with a beginning, a middle, and an end”.

Aug 212014

“I am ready to take the stand”, the middle-aged man said in a gesture of willed objectivity which reminded me of the work of another writer, George Perec. Not Life A User’s Manual. No, nothing so large, I was being reminded of a minor, mostly forgotten piece called Espece d’espaces written by Perec in 1974. The work is less than 100 pages in all, and is to be found in the ficto-documentary collection called Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (tr John Sturrock, 2008).

Perec begins Espece d’espaces with a Foreword. The first sentence goes like this, “The subject of this book is not the void exactly, but rather what there is round about it or inside it (cf fig 1)”. Figure 1 itself is printed on the front papers of the book before the contents and the foreword. The Figure is called ‘Map of the Ocean’, and consist in a drawing of a square on an otherwise blank page, except for the title underneath and then under that in brackets ‘(taken from Lewis Carroll’s, Hunting of the Snark)’.

As much as I know already from this beginning that this is an autobiographical work which Perec is giving in to, so too I knew that the sentence spoken by the middle-aged man was also the beginning of his autobiography. He himself is the subject. Of course like Perec no facts about his life will be revealed, but he will be telling what is round about it or inside it.

Giving in to becoming the subject, and it will seem to us is that it is a void. But not exactly because in this autobiographical work by Perec or a middle-aged man we are already aware of some things. For one thing we are aware of his absence. He is absent from the story, and this has already created an intensely sad atmosphere (what we know from Perec’s life: he was a Parisian Jew born in 1936, whose father enlisted as a soldier and was killed in action by the time he was six and his mother murdered in Auschwitz before the end of the war). He will not provide this information, nor he will add to or adorn his account with any other biographical details because he is confident we already know this sadness simply having opened the cover and turned the blank front pages, perhaps not even noticing the Figure 1 in the first instance.

So too the middle-aged man’s remark, “I am willing to take the stand”. As if written at the start of a foreword to his own work of autobiography, and I know already that nothing will follow, that no narrative will be provided, and no life story is to be told. There is the same absence as with Perec. And there is the same oceanic quality of sadness as in the front papers of Espece d’espace, because he has already told all the information about his life that it is necessary to know. Oceanic, and the sadness seems all in shadows, but just as Perec account of Espece d’espace unfolds, when we look closer and listen deeper what is around about it or inside it is suffused with lightness and with light.

(Espece should have a grave accent on the middle ‘e‘ . Please who can show me the key to write this?)

Apr 082014
Harry K sat in a chair142

Harry Kratchnikov’s face fills the mask:

Did he cry for help as he lay there?

Then after a pause, “Are you there?”

It was only luck that I had the radio on at 9pm, BBC Radio 4 (21/03/2014), began listening to  Four Trees Down from Ponte Sisto (NB click on this link to ‘listen again‘), and found myself instantly transported back by the poetry of Sharon Charde and the music/radio making of Gregory Whitehead. Back where? Back to the place where my older brother lies dying in the street in 1973. He had been hit by a car. Or a van, I think it was.

“There is no end to this”, reads a line in one of the poems of Sharon Charde in the FOUR TREES play/poems about the death of her son Geoffrey in 1987. Or were they her words? Or mine? Whatever, they are among those that I wrote down as I was listening bent over close to the radio in my kitchen three weeks ago. Geoffrey was a student in Rome in 1987. He fell of a bridge. He was 20 at the time. Ferrier (my brother) was 28 when he died in 1973.  He died in Callandar, Scotland. He was on foot, went to cross the street, and stepped in front of a fast moving car (or van). I was 21 at the time, and I was far away out in the pampas of Santa Caterina, Brazil.

These are some of the few things I know for sure. The rest I don’t know. By the time I got back from Brazil three months later, it was long after both the inquest on my brother’s death and his cremation.

Accident or suicide? The question also comes up for Sharon Charde in the FOUR TREES play/poems and she comes down firmly on the accident side. And for Ferrier? The answer to that question is among those many things I don’t know. He had been depressed for a few weeks. That is what I was told back then when I got back, although not exactly in those words. But back then it wasn’t easy to ask or talk more about mental illness or suicide. Or actually permitted.

So maybe I am suicide survivor, and I am glad I find that I can say that now.

Then there is the bit which I recall in the FOUR TREES play/poems when Sharon Charde describes  the moment now all these years later, when she meets new people, and they ask: ‘What happened to your son Geoffrey?’. There is the moment her mind expands as she pauses unsure which way to go with her answer. Like I do too, whenever I am asked what happened to Ferrier, and I also watch the moment expand and think about the uncomfortable conversation which will likely continue whichever of the forking paths I choose to follow in my answer.

“There’s no end to this”. That could have been the very moment I write that line down, and I am grateful because there is the chance to tell my story and his too.

Mar 262014
Harry K sat in a chair142


“Still in the East, yet in the West. Us in the East, them in the West; us in the West, them in the East, from one system to another. Is it another system? How so? Why have I come here? There’s no way back! Time stands still and yet continues. This is a new identity.” (A.R, Penck)

Harry Kratchnikov explores a NEW IDENTITY: Pix NOTE141 024

(This is not PLAYED (or photographed) STANDING ON OUR HEADS)






British Museum, Room 90: Six prominent German artists of the 1960’s and 70s – Georg Baselitz, Markus Lupertz, Blinky Palermo, A.R, Penck, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter
Germany divided Baselitz and his generation.

Mar 202014
Harry K sat in a chair142

‘This is not for Europe. This is for Roads without Potholes’. Here’s ‘Arry – and this what he was writing recently. Here’s Harry Kratchnikov. ‘This is for Victory, the Fight Continues’, he also wrote. And he is on his way home.

Pretend he is just a mask if you like. But he already has a life of his own. HK for Harry Kratchnikov. Harry or ‘Arry. And K for Kratchikov. Or for Kreshchatyk Street, the long main street of the city where it crosses the Maidan. Or K for Kiev. Or Kalashnikov. Or Kraznahorkai, or Kulikowski.

No. It’s K for Kratchikov, sat in a chair, and the face behind the mask is you. Harry K sat in a chair142

When my father was dying, it didn’t feel to me like he was coming home. Mainly it felt that he was already long gone in the nursing home where he was. That is what dementia does for you the last of the six or seven years, and, the way I saw it, the last two he was completely gone. Except that last day, he did come back to die, and for his last few breaths as he went blue. He was back there with us as we listened and watched his breathing. Then the very last breath that felt like a pause rather than an ending, and hung on the air until there wasn’t another one, and then he was gone.

Whether it is better called coming home, or going home, there was something bloody minded about it. Defiance, resistance – not zest for life at all. And now he is due a medal from the Government, the Arctic Star, to add to his row of other ones. And he is up for one from the Russian State too for the Great Patriotic War if he wants it. What would he say to that posthumously speaking? In the Maidan they were looking down at the street like in your photograph, but the cobbles stones are smaller in Kiev. They dug up the street so they could continue fighting, but it is not good for the potholes. Back to the hand drawn placard, ’This is not for Europe. This is for Roads without Potholes’. There’s an irony there isn’t there HK?

Harry Kratchnikov. The name also made me remember the doctor from Kiev we met a few years ago. He was the one we met, who had come over to the west with Oxana his girlfriend, and – do you know – I think his second name was ‘K’. He had been well trained at the KNMU in the 1990′s but was earning much less than the $170 a month, which is what I read that doctors typically get now in the Ukraine. So it was a no-brainer when he got the chance to work in Holland in the 1990′s. He had to get a phony new passport and travel papers because it was before Ukraine joined the EU, but that didn’t cause too much of a problem. The trouble was the job. He was working for a euthanasia organisation and his job was snuffing life. After he did a few, maybe it was over a hundred actually, it got to him and he couldn’t go on. He had broken up with Oxana by then too. So he disappeared.

Now I am jogging my memory, you know I think his first name was Alexei. A for Alexei. But maybe it is ‘Arry now. Anything is possible. And he is coming, or going, home – wherever that may be.

Only there is a problem. They will want to know where the manuscripts were found. And everything that’s in them, and of course where they are now. Manuscripts – handwritten words in x100 Daybook Notebooks – dont turn up on NSA online spying searches do they? Or the FSB (Russia’s state apparatus), or GCHQ/MI6 computers? Yes, they will definitely want to know.

Oh dear, and I did warn you sunshine, but – more bloody-minded defiance – you insisted on publishing the extracts last week. And HK isn’t just an empty mask, is he? He is sitting in that chair right now.