Lungo i Portici

 Posted by at 1:56 pm  Old Men Travelling, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Jun 192013
blog photo

What are the older men looking for?

Squeeze up, make some more room. No, we can’t! There isn’t any.

The thing is that there are too many of us to fit one street bench, and there’s a limit especially for older men with our spreading waistlines. Even if it is a long one, and the bench in the square looks that it is longer than usual. Demand exceeds supply.

Added to which it is obviously uncomfortable for us to sit on. The bench is made of stone, with a hard flat seat, and there’s no back to lean against. Of course it looks attractive lined up with the stone sculpted round balls, and functional too, but it isn’t possible to sit there for very long, even with the ingenuity of older men.

Maybe if I sit on my jacket. No, better not. I’ll get a terrible ticking off if I do, and it is all creased when I get home.

In fact, it is the clever ones who stand. From there they have a better chance of hearing more of what is being said. More than those sat at either end who can’t hear a word of what is being said more than two men away.

What did he say? Never mind, my friend. You don’t want to listen to him.

And stood up there’s also a better chance of making a monologue and dominating the conversation. The seated ones may wave their arms more trying to get their share of the speaking air space, but it is the stood ones who can control things.

Except that the driver sat in the white taxi parked behind the bench, a small thickset woman in a light blue shirt and black trousers, has turned up the car radio, and the mushy pop music is playing so loud that it is drowning out all the older men’s conversation.

At least they are out of the house! So she can get on with her chores, and the unmarried children and unemployed grandchildren who are still living at home can get on with their work, playing on their computers, or business, whatever that might be.

There’s one younger man stood behind the bench where the old men are sat. His mobile phone rings and he begins speaking loudly. As well it is an intimate conversation about sex, as if the old men don’t exist.

Shall we have sex too?

I don’t think your father is feeling well today, she says to her grandson. What is it Papa? Nothing, nothing. I am just going out now.

Don’t forget to buy the lottery tickets, she shouts after him from behind the front door which has just been slammed shut.

What are the older men looking for?

Each household gives us a job to do, a small task to perform while we are out. It is nothing too important, mostly  something to keep us occupied.

It means a journey into the city centre. And at least the authorities are making an attempt to help. We can take the senior citizen free bus pass to the city centre, and walk from the bus stop and cross the road in reasonable safety now that most traffic has been excluded from the roads.

Apart from the bench it is empty in the square where we like to meet. Although the white stone bench’s design and civic location has its obvious shortcomings, it has been given a fine Mission Statement:

Needs (wellbeing, lifeskills, social capital) – helping to meet
Happiness (fairness, social justice, participatory politics) – contributing towards
Gaps (intergender, and intergenerational) – speaking across

In a word, community. Fine words…

But it has to be said that we recall with longing the old days when we could sit on the steps in the arcades, smoke our cigarettes, and look up the legs of the passing women as they came out of the smart shops with their shopping bags.

Oh, I shouldn’t have said that!

Get Real

 Posted by at 10:57 am  Atelier, Fundamental Perversions, OUT in the WILDERNESS  Comments Off
Jul 262012

At the worst of times I’m an anti-poet atheist; at the best of times I don’t give a monkey’s; it is so irrelevant that my mind remains unblemished by such filth. And more importantly I’ve got to get out of this place – the lyrics of a song swirled briefly – if it’s the last thing I ever do. Did the words refer to the factory the singer, or at least the song’s writer, worked in, still living, squashed, in his parents terraced house; dreaming of a future with his girl friend? Poetry, of course, is simply smashed up prose. What some people do instead of getting to grips with the real world.

To be honest I have no idea how many ‘floors’ I have already descended. Didn’t she say two floors down? Continue reading »

Jul 202012

I zipped up, waited a few seconds, grabbed at some oxygen, sighed and shrugged, then turned to face my interrogator. Expecting something altogether more solid, more muscular I was surprised to see a girl, well, a young woman, who could have been no more than seventeen, overwhelmed inside an oversized uniform, dark, black or possible navy, her waif like face locked in uncertainty was a striking contradiction to the questioning, challenging voice I had been subdued by.

    Are you, by any chance, looking for the Kazoo Dreamboat, her voice had mysteriously become dream like, soft.

    Perhaps she had a colleague with her, somewhere in the shadows, a senior colleague who was supervising her on her first day in the job.

    Kazoo Dreamboat? I wondered about the strange name but decided to press on with my mission to reach the conference on the ninth floor.

    I’m trying to reach the ninth floor.

    A sheaf of papers had appeared in her left hand. She carefully examined them.

    Apparently you must go down to the fish wharf, three floors down.

    Erm, I rather was hoping to . . . I need to  . . . erm pee. I never did like the word pee, so prissy, so pathetic, but my vocal apparatus had got strangled in the effort to say piss.

    Sorry, was all she said and waited for me to leave.


Jul 192012

As a committee member I had been invited to a specially conformed conference to discuss matters of the utmost international importance. Held as it was within the solid imperial splendour of Victorian limestone, the entrances watched over by uniformed staff, ex-military, ex-police or even ex-G4S, my expectations rose to dizzying heights as to not only the outcome of the conference but my own status which I had always thought to be of a rather doubtful nature, skirting as it did both  the gutter and the lower ranks of the aristocracy. Now this, I thought optimistically, now this is where I belong, and squared my shoulders as the commissionaire held out his hand so that he might examine any documentation I might have. My first attempt was a failure because he merely shook his head and moved as though he intended to send me marching back out the door that I had so recently entered through. From my voluminous pockets I was able to produce some other papers. I could see he was sorry that he didn’t have any latex gloves to handle such a doubtful offering but he was willing to take a chance and drew them towards his highly trained nostrils. After many dramatic contortions involving all his extensive facial musculature he cleared his throat. I had assumed he would then return my papers but his hands were now empty and he withdrew into an official indifference as to my existence and if I did indeed exist what actions I might take.

    There was no reception desk and no receptionist but fortunately I had been informed my text message that the conference would be held on the ninth floor so I cast about for the lifts. As you well know the public transport systems in that distant city do not include much in the way conveniences so it was imperative that I discover the whereabouts of the gentleman’s conveniences fairly hastily. But I now seemed to be alone so seeing some stairs descending off in the shadows to my left I decided on that course of action. Two flights down I had the notion that a Virgil was needed to guide my steps. Did I have to go down in order to eventually end up on the ninth floor? Had I once again made the wrong decision? But, no, there is a door, heavy dark wood, perhaps mahogany, and though there was no sign on the door my spirits were lifted at the prospect of relief of urinary pressure. And what a delight it was to see a long row of gleaming urinals arrayed along the length of one wall, with gleaming copper pipework and glass splash guards to protect my admittedly unpolished shoes. Unzipping, as one must, in such circumstances, I was surprised by a low cough behind me. And then a woman’s voice:


    ‘Are you Pring, the poet?’ Almost a purr, even a hint of growl.


    ‘N-n-no,’ I stammered.


    ‘Are you Peliot the poet?’


    ‘No,’ no longer a stammer, but in fact a hint of anger that I was being delayed in self-producing the wished for relief.


    ‘Are you a poet at all?’


    ‘No, no, no I’m not a poet but I have to get to the ninth floor.’


    That might just have been the wrong thing to say.


                    (To be continued)


Jul 162012

Christopher Turner (LRB 5 July 2012) in his review of the Barbican exhibition: Bauhaus: Art as Life, quotes Gropius’s manifesto that called for a unity between art and craft, a unity that would ‘rise one day towards heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystalline symbol of a new faith’ and to facilitate ‘a community that wanted to create a new man in a new environment.’

    Where do any of us stand in relation to this linchpin of an ambition? What sort of work or practice would it take to bring enough light into our beings to make us ‘better’ people? Do we even believe that it is possible? And what is the evidence for change in us?

    Visiting an old friend recently, it seemed to me that he was much the same as he was when I met him more than forty years ago. There was the same strong ethical thread informing his behaviour as well as being an opportunistic chancer who was able to charm his way across social, professional and bureaucratic boundaries. And when I, in turn, reflected on any possible changes in me that I could detect, I see the same short sighted, shy individual with a poor instinctive sense of reality, who has to rely on books to aid him in building some useable concepts of reality. Sort of.

    Because there is a strand of doubt which hardly believes that locked into our subjective/objective tensions we have never and will never finally describe reality. And this idea or belief is central to this blog and then, of course, there is a but, quite a big but:

    But we can be tantalised, seduced, persuaded, entertained, enraged and engaged as we pursue these strange and surprising, not to say outrageous, gods of language. 


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?


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.