Vogue Rot

 Posted by at 1:48 pm  Catastrophe Games, Fundamental Perversions, ON the STREET  Comments Off
Jan 092015
PC faded151

What is ‘Vogue Rot’? Some kind of fungal disease found in cold and dark conditions, a form of wet anaerobic decay, or what? It sounds unpleasant, and it is. Fair warning.

Preamble: for some of us there is the sense that nothing ever happens (one could call this a peculiarly English sense of personal and collective history). We think we long for something to happen, but we spend all our energy avoiding the possibility and living our lives as if they form a single narrative. Occasionally however we meet someone whose life  has been so fractured by an excess and constant happenings from birth and early childhood, that it breaks and collapses this idea of a single narrative.

I was lent a book last Sunday. It is called Ariadne’s Thread, In Memory of WG Sebald. It is a ficto-documentary written by Philippa Comber (‘PC’), using her diary and charting her encounters with ‘Max’ (as Sebald chose to call himself) from the time they first met in Norwich in 1980.

Sebald would not have liked the book’s title: Ariadne’s Thread smacks of mythological mish-mash, and exactly the kind “adornment” which he detested in writing and the pretence of strands woven into a single thread.

I began to suspect – In Memory of – was this a love/hate work? However, my mind was clouded by sentimental feelings for this particular writer who had first opened my eyes to the many strands and ‘constant happenings’ streams of mitteleuropa post-war literature. I also saw that PC had the advantages of speaking German, had lived among and knew the academic worlds of German literature, and she was a psychotherapist so she had the language of analysis at her disposal as well. So I opened the book on Sunday night and began to read.

I immediately noted the lack of any photographs in the book, of the kind which Sebald always included in his work, the images reproduced being faded through a particular process he employed of repeated photocopying. Here are some more sepia facts which were also omitted from the book. WG Sebald was born in Germany in May 1944 and died in a car crash in December 2001 in East Anglia at the age of 57. He married an Austrian born women called Ute in 1967, and they had a daughter, Anna, who was badly injured in the same car accident in which he died. His main translator was Anthea Bell with whom he worked collaboratively and simultaneously, Sebald sending her the first draft of chapters written in German, which she would send back translated into English with comments and feedback as he continued to write the later chapters. None of these facts are in the book, and the impression given is that PC was the only real woman in Sebald’s otherwise solitary life.

What is Vogue Rot? It is a kind of British monthly fashion magazine filled with photographs of models standing in various poses, and appeals to a particular aspirational social class of women. The magazine has been going for a very long time, and old copies are difficult to get rid of. Thick and glossy, they hardly burn even in a hot open fire, and natural decay takes a very long time. They rot very slowly even if added in a rich compost. Finally all text and images dissolve , but the resultant layer of grey wet dust adds no goodness to the soil.

An equivalent term to Vogue Rot might be “Utter Mess” – it was a favourite phrase of Sebald in conversation. Vogue Rot is also a style of English writing…

…Early on (p. 10) PC writes that from young adult life she liked to accumulate old copies of Vogue magazines, and that they filled her life and travelled with her in piles of “bricollage”. She says that Max enjoyed seeing these piles when he first visited. Rather than bricollage, the preferable word would have been in German (I am ignorant of what it would be – aka ‘grey wet dust’), and connected Sebald to the writing strand of Trummerliteratur (‘rubble literature’) and a post-war writer such as Heinrich Boll. Alexander Kluge (b 1932) continues in the tradition…

…Pulverised, wet, and in after shock from childhood. ‘In Memory…’ is not the way the likes of Penelope Fitzgerald would have researched and written a life of Sebald as Blue Flower, nor Anselm Kieffer painted a recollection of life in Morgenthau Plan land growing up like him in post-war Germany. Instead what PC tells is a singular English story held in the memory of a romantic crisis. This occurs shortly after the death of her father in 1981: she is in a “fair old turmoil”, contacts Max who she has been seeing quite frequently by then, and is rebuffed. The charged, as she puts it,”erotic” moment passed, but the pain has lingered on in the memory, analytically speaking her desire for comfort during this extreme experience of loss perhaps being aroused to resemble something else…

…Like an Ariadne’s Thread. I read to the end that same Sunday evening, not every word of course, but as much as I could bear to in the presence of this phenomenon Vogue Rot. Shudder of disgust, and unable to sleep I turned on Radio Benjamin and listened to one of his stories for children. It was called ‘On Swindlers’.

“Today I want to tell you about a great swindler…”, it began. A blessed transformational revolution swiftly followed and I soon passed into dreamless oblivion.

The book has since been returned.

Nov 262014
MAX Mug 2014 No1 - Head (Small)

At the BIG Mens Group (Hargate Hall November 13-17) this year I met Tom Falkner for the first time. He and I were in a small (x4 man) group together. Tom is about 70, Canadian, and the father of Rob Falkner. It was his first time at this men’s group. However, it was certainly not his first experience of men’s groups as Tom had been in the thick of them in London in the 1970’s (‘encounter groups’ in those days and more!).

There were many things I immediately liked about Tom, especially:
1. Turning up and being present
2. Being direct (“I can’t understand you Brits when you are are too subtle with your words”, he’d say)
3. Talking about the porous quality of ageing.

It is the last – the porous quality of ageing – which has really struck a chord and lasted with me. Of course when Tom spoke about this aspect of ageing, he was far more direct. “It is about loss and my lack of attention”, he said.
“Loss and different qualities of attention”, I replied and we talked about a question which I have been turning over in my mind: What if the whole of my/our ageing happens for a purpose? Tom and I liked the shift of emphasis.

Loss and different qualities of attention.

Don’t get me wrong, the worst of ageing – decline and the body’s deteriation – is no joke. But what if ageing is also about revealing our true character? This is where we also connect with a porous quality: What if our ageing is about becoming leaky for a purpose? Leaking in, and leaking out energy and passion to colour the world bright.

(“And her dark pubic hairs”)
Before we parted Tom and I agreed to continue to explore this further together, and under the above call-sign (NB: including the brackets). (“And her dark pubic hairs”) – the phrase comes from Norman Mailer’s 1984 novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance. For more see http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12469.Tough_Guys_Don_t_Dance

Leaking in: a voice has also told me recently to ask for help – “Help us to all tell our stories”, it told me to say. We invite others to join us in the exploration of loss and different qualities of attention. And using different kinds and forms of ficto-documentary activity* .The voice went on, try face to face, on paper, privately and publicly, and online. Here is a recent example of one storytelling style:

“But the histories are rubble now and mostly lost in time, and there are only a few surviving fragments of individual stories, broken narratives, a dusty blue atmosphere of men’s past sadness, and a few lasting things like photographs”.
This is a sentence I wrote recently from out of one of three stories I have to tell about men in my family who mean the most to me – Grandfather, Father, Brother. See previous post and below to find out the blogs where you can read them and more.

* On Loss and Different Qualities of Attention: different kinds of ficto-documentary activity

- “Ageing is no accident” Theory
David Hillman. Force of Character, and the lasting life (1999)

- Who Are You?
Grayson Perry at the National Portrait Gallery (until 15th March 2015, FREE Admission)


- Blogs and ‘CAT and the Listening Tree’ websites to listen to stories and share our own



Jun 032014
Pix NOTE141 024

The clash of her sparkling rings and painted nails: there is something indecent about us all as we grow older.

I know she is a shocker with her flashy jewellery and clumpy ornaments, and bright hair tints and high colour make-up, but Agnes still has the way of drawing me in. Yes, let’s talk about indecency.

Starting with me! Just take a look! Pot belly, saggy tits and spindly legs. I am not the picture of your western hero am I?

The thing is I doubt I ever was. Fighting the road? There is the inertia of my ageing days! I like to think that nobody gives a shit, and least of all her. But I know that isn’t true either. She is still so demanding. I need to get away.

There is the famous story that the soothsayer Tiresias went through a similar change in older life. Grew big breasts. Became just like a real woman. I asked him about it that time when I made a journey of a very different kind – katabasis - and had the opportunity. What did your wife think afterwards, I asked. What did she say?

“All I know is this:
he went out for his walk a man
and came home female.”
(Mrs Tiresias is a poem from The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy published in 1999)

At the end the wizened old crone had given me a knowing wink, as ‘she’ left me. A wink, as if to say that the two of them had eventually worked it out. Living together. I don’t think Agnes would be so forgiving. “Stand up and be a man!” would be more her kind of thing.

When I am alone I sit for long periods of time in front of the door. It is almost closed. Almost closed, but not quite. There is the slither of a gap, and a dim light on the other side. I can believe.

Oh dear, but nobody is going to knock from there, are they? Who would knock from the other side, and ask to come back here? I mean really, some kind of frickin’ idiot it would have to be.

And nobody is going to answer if I start knocking either. Knock as much as you want. Bloody your knuckles, nobody is going to answer. OK. Because I’ll let you into one of my dirty little secrets. I’ve tried, and I’ve learned that it is not the way it works (‘held fast by Justice’).

Still, I could insert my little finger if I tried.

The trouble is the hinges have all rusted. That is what I think as I look into the mirror, and see the pair of frightened eyes staring back. Lost.

That is the issue. The children I mean. However much I have been trying to forget. Forget them, especially the one whose name translates along the lines of “Born Far Away”. And the prophecy of course. In these epic cycles there is always some damn oracle isn’t there? Some jack-ass in the story, who gets put up to give out a dire warning.

And spoil things. Otherwise in many respects my life would be fine really. Real fine and dandy. But it is too late now. It is because of what I know. That along he comes one day and spoils things. Don’t believe in death?

I want you to know that in this story, apart from the indecency of the father, I haven’t really done anything wrong. After all mostly with Agnes it is all make-believe, smoking mirrors and magic. We are not talking Oedipus. But just try telling that to the child.

And I would. Tell him that is. If I could have the chance. Honestly I would. But this story is broken. Lost. And all there is, is this door that isn’t quite closed. Not quite. And a dim light which I keep trying to make myself believe is coming from the other side.

Not in Our Life Times!

 Posted by at 6:08 pm  Anti-Gravity Surgery, Echo Effects, OVER and BEYOND  Comments Off
Dec 042013

The lost book has been found, the last writings of Walter Benjamin! It is out: Charles Baudelaire: Un poeta lirica nell’ eta del capitalismo avanzato (in Italian and edited by Giorgio Agamben and others). I gasped as I read that it has been out since December 2012, (London Review of Books Vol 35, No 22 (21 November 2013), P 21-22).

I am even more shocked to read that the missing manuscript was found over 30 years ago, since Uncle Wally for many years was wont to whisper in my ear that it was in the black briefcase which he always carried with him. And there were plenty of other eye-witness reports who would swear an oath to say that was true, and that they saw him with it when he fled Paris and on his way to the Pyrenees. That was Susan Sontag’s view too as I have it from what she wrote, and the idea of the loss of his briefcase in which were contained his last written words in 1940 had entered into a kind of folklore of our imaginations that had added to the poignancy of his failed walk to freedom, and the desolation of his subsequent suicide on the border between France and Spain.

I am shocked with the cold water of disillusionment, and the awakening to the ‘now of knowability’, as Uncle Wally is wont to say .

The allegorical element of history does provide us with a necessary context (Theses on the Philosophy of History) and corrective – the hare drinking pauses to observe. But that hysteria over, another expands as I realize that there is no English translation, nor likely to be one soon (apart from the Italian version, the German edition is not now expected until 2016 at the earliest). I begin to calculate my years, and distantly consider how the delay to the ‘now of readability’ for the anglophone world of this last book may continue long past my own sell by/read by date.

So I die and I don’t die.  Slowly re-awakening to life the hare resumes drinking from the “common pond”.

What is meant by the phrase “common pond”? One might say that the pond is no larger than a tea saucer or even less, sufficient to be scooped up and fill the palm of our left hand. Tradition, as Uncle Wally might have added if he were here at this moment, has it that we are extending the fingers of our hand in a gesture where simultaneously the index finger points towards a recollection of death, Momento Mori, the middle finger is reaching forward in vulnerability to meet with you in the strangeness of all our differences, the ring finger is for the recollection of our breath, and the last finger is for the recollection of our bodies, including the elements of earth, air, fire and water.

Here begins ducks and fishes and all creation. And it is equally right to say that we will not be here to see the end of this beginning.

Sep 112013

Stop right here for a conversation between fox and crow - or rather Mr and Mrs Fox on Passagiata having some words with a close call relative of crow.

We are walking along the seashore not far from Chesil Beach last week in the afternoon of one of the last warm sunny August days of this long summer, when we come across Raven. Shining black of course we recognise him at once, being too big and clever to be just crow. He is eating ice cream. Nothing strange about that either, as we are close to a beach café, well known to the locals in these parts where cold drinks, freshly fried fish dinners, and delicious flavours of local ice cream are to be had. Nothing strange about that, or the care he takes eating, Raven doesn’t smash his beak into the cone like crow would do. No, that would never do, Raven has good manners and carefully puts his long beak into the cone to suck out the liquid inside. Sticky, white streaked with red – strawberry vanilla.

Hello Crow, Mr Fox says kicking sand with his toes , Raven to you, he says giving Mr Fox the eye, Don’t get too close to him, Mrs Fox says grabbing Mr Fox by the arm, Sorry Crow, Mr Fox says. There is a tense pause.

Slowly turning his head and taking his beak out of the ice cream cone for a moment, You don’t get it do you, says the bird. His beak is glistening white with the wet cream liquid, white and flecked with streaks of red.

Yes, I agree, it has been a bumper copy – the last late August London Review of Books (29 August 2013) that is. It almost reads all of piece; just like a modernist novel, the various voices of the narrators criss-crossing through the narrative.

The first calamity it begins. Stawberry vanilla ripple. How was it for you, Mr Fox asks Mrs Fox, but the calamity the reviewer is focussing on is the First Wold War (‘…the calamity from which all other calamities sprang’ quoting Fritz Stern). The summer before, the original August, and all explanations are improbable, and equally opaque – it is history as ‘raw modernity’, the narrator says. Mr and Mrs Fox are also wondering how far Raven’s glistening white beak would be able to sink into any one of their bare leg. Which of us will be first, they both are thinking.

How do you know that, Raven asks, strawberry vanilla rippling, mimicking what Uncle Wally constantly keeps pointing out over all our shoulders – fragmented causation. The next section is called ‘Rah, Rah, Cheers, Queers’, in which Terry Castle names her dirty little secrets, or is it next chapter of this golden notebook August LRB issue. What a weirdo, Terry writes in italics. It is Mummy speaking, the self styled “Reverend Countess Mavis the Portable of Frome Valley”, according to pieces of her writing that Terry found.

We live there too, Mr and Mrs Fox say together, turning towards each other in amazement. The Frome Valley, what a surprise! Raven is back sucking more ice cream out of the cone. Have you come for therapy then, Raven asks, The August 1913 postcard from Marcel Duchamp to Max Bergman comes as the next section/chapter: the great icon of modernity – the postcard is from Herne Bay.

Now that is strange, you say confusing reader and writer for a moment, but not really when you think I was so close by on the Kent coast only the week before in August. It was Ramsgate, and I wrote about it here. There is a ‘need for rotating circles’ we are told Duchamp put in one of his notebooks afterwards, indicating something possibly to do with the pavilion and pier (which blew down in 1973).

Zugwang (‘almost complete’), the succeeding sections/reviews/chapters spin by: Unfinished Business, Half-Fox, Vanity and Venality (including the review of Wolfgang Streek’s Gekaufte Zeit… who we first met speaking at an International Conference in Florence 2 years ago – the transcription issued in the NLR and reported in a previous feuilleton here), … , … , Adrenaline (actually this is the name of the book reviewed), Five Star Billionaire, and then finally – Diary – the piece you dealt with last week too… “In or around June 1995″.

Mr and Mrs Fox continue to watch Raven finish his ice cream, expertly sucking the last dregs so not a single drop falls on the sand. On The Concept of History and so on, and while we are on about coincidences or causation, as it happens there are also bits of Ted Hughes’s poem ‘The Thought-Fox’ in the Oratorio being sung in the Frome Valley – Cattistock Church 0n Sunday October 6th, 4pm. Mr Fox is singing the tenor line: ‘…Each shred a wound and a petition. Pity, Terror, covert before Oedipus Rex…’. Or at least I think the words are the poet’s but I am not always to be trusted. You need to check.

Welcome to my world too, says Raven warmly putting his sticky white red flecked beak into the extended right hand of the rippling Uncle Wally, And do please call me August. In my opinion, the great bird continues, Rebecca Solnit goes on too long in that Diary piece, at least far too long for my limited attention span, and her piece could have done with the BIG RED PEN. And, while we are on about it, stop pretending time has not always come in fragments and shards – been in “deteriation” as you put it – far longer than the last 20 years, at least since 1913.

Sep 062013
2007-2008 008

The telephone went dead, and a few moments later the door bell went. Should I answer it I thought or try to get the call back? Perhaps they will go away, but the redial failed, the mobile signal had disappeared.

Crossing point – Uncle Wally who was rippling at my side would call this an instance of fragmented causation. Does history work any more I longed to ask him: your words were written down in notebooks long ago in your cramped handwriting, some left in bundles on dusty shelves in a Paris and Berlin academies, others in boxes in friend’s or fellow writer’s apartment, and then found a generation later, every scrap brought together and made into a collection, is this what you intended?

Hello, is there anybody there? I heard the man’s plaintive voice. I was naked. It was another fine Indian Summer day, perhaps the very last, and I like to strip off this time of year to enjoy the last warmth of the sun. If I lie still perhaps he will go away, I thought, but he didn’t, going on rapping at the door and asking again and again.

I didn’t know the meaning of the plaintive either: the knock on the door and summons in his voice, perhaps he had come to read the electricity meter, or was it to make some other demand, I asked, my bared body ready to be mutilated, riddled.

How wild is the wildest, and how tame is the tamest? I went on asking myself, and no wonder these days of late summer sunshine we liked to attend to the effects the ripples of Uncle Wally’s words have on our bodies, and the pleasure and at the same time burning stroke of his phrases and quotations, breaking them off from the pages where they are found to drop them into our own sentences, queer.

But in this instance I had preferred  some words by FK: “In that case, I’ll miss the thing by waiting for it”. I took the phrase from the frontispiece of Satantango, the book written by Kraznahorkai some 20 years ago for a seven hour film by Bela Tarr in 1994, and recently translated by George Szirtes into English.

In short, Work Finds Itself a Voice

 Posted by at 11:32 am  Atelier  Comments Off
Feb 222012

Readings out of Walter Benjamin’s Selected Writings, this time it was Volume 2, part 2, 1931-1934, but the selecting and making of quotations appeared wrong to me. A feeling of transgression, I wanted to quote it all, as if the only honest response I could think of as the reader was to transcribe the whole volume from start to end, or beginning from wherever I had begun dipping into, and then over and over again. This honest response, my honesty or the lack of it today, being the question of morality; of the ethical position of writer and reader.

In short, (how) work finds itself a voice. The phrase is found in a piece in Vol 2, Part 2, called Diary from August 7, 1931, to the Day of My Death. Unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime, “This diary does not promise to become very long,” Benjamin begins and it is true that it is brief, amounting to only about two thousand words in all. But the phrase about work and the brevity of his pieces seems to offer a kind of salvation.

Or put another way, which Benjamin did using a similar phrase within a later, and this time even shorter, piece called The Newspaper, this time published in Der öffentliche Dienst (Zurich), March 1934, and totalling less then five hundred words. “For since writing gains in breadth what it loses in depth, the conventional distinction between author and public that the press has maintained (although it is tending to loosen it through routine) is disappearing in a socially desirable way. The reader is at all times ready to become a writer – that is, a describer or even a prescriber. As an expert – not perhaps in a discipline but in a post that he holds – he gains access to authorship. Work itself has its turn to speak.”

As it happened, being both in and out of work last weekend, I was staying in a large house along the southwest coast of Wales. Located perhaps not so far from where WG Sebald had described the lonely childhood of his middle-european hero in his last novel Austerlitz, the house had been extensively rebuilt in the nineteenth century around a cavernous hall and great wooden staircase, so that on first entering by the front door the wide stairway in the centre of the hall immediately presented itself, leading upwards to a half landing and then dividing against the distant seeming wall to both left and right, a far wall upon which an enormous oil painting happened to hang like a cinema screen covering the whole surface and capturing a moment from antiquity, it was in fact the entry of Alexander into Athens upon a chariot with a near naked Diogenes shown lying outside his barrel in the foreground, and the divided stairs then turned again rising without visible means of support in parallel flights back on themselves towards what is hidden to the onlooker apart from their wooden embossed and geometrically patterned undersides, rising to an obscured landing, and the hall itself was also very dark adding to the sense of foreboding, the only natural light penetrating from above the staircase and giving the impression that further flights of stairs might continue to rise higher and higher towards the sky, but all was hidden from view.

Where is this staircase leading to? I asked myself more than once during the weekend, having found myself in a state of being equally in and out of place. Because the staircase was clearly not going nowhere, for instance, I could grasp the notion that the staircase was located in a house which was a home, and I could rely on there being bedrooms on the first and perhaps higher floors. But although I could also fix upon a date for its construction in the 1870’s, the question remained, neither wholly in or out of mind, since the purpose of the staircase seemed to transcend domesticity, and my thinking split like the divided staircase itself towards nightmare possibilities of a fantastic architecture, and other imaginative purposes which also impressed themselves on me in cinematic fashion like the story from antiquity being shown in the great picture on the far wall, but again whether my attention was meant more for Alexander or Diogenes I was unable to tell, and split in many other ways to do with its seeming continental minded design and past, and so on without end.

But whether in or out of history, I seemed entirely unable to post the staircase along the river of time. “Run-of-the-mill history answers more questions than a wise man will”, Benjamin writes elsewhere in the diary entry for August 7th (1931), and then continues. “My attempt to explain a theory of history in which the concept of development is entirely supplanted by the concept of origins.  Understood in this way, history cannot be sought in the riverbed of a process of development.  Instead, as I have remarked elsewhere, the image of a riverbed is replaced by that of a whirlpool.  In such a whirlpool earlier and later events – the prehistory and post history of the event, or, better, of a status, swirled around it. The actual objects of such a view of history are not specific events but specific unchanging statuses of the conceptual or sensual kind – for example, the Russian agrarian system, the city of Barcelona, population shifts in the Mark of Brandenburg, barrel vaulting, and so on.” Or the status (state, condition or situation) of this staircase I thought as I paused in my reading. “ If this approach is determined by its firm rejection of the possibility of an evolutionary or universalist dimension in history, it is determined internally by a productive polarity.  The twin poles of such a view of the historical and political – or, to point up the distinction even more sharply, the historical and the event. These two factors occupy two completely different planes. We can never say, for example, that we experience history; nor can we maintain that a historical account brings the events so close to us that it has the same impact as a historical event (such an account would be worthless), or that we have experienced events that are destined to become history (since such a view is journalistic).”

The image of a whirlpool, or a turning staircase at whose bottom we have arrived (in media res inadvertently revisiting) upon entering the darkly lit hall, and ascend to the first landing mid-floor, where it divides in two along the productive polarity of parallel flights, because – Yes! – the world is otherwise bewildering.


Have I slept? I am just falling asleep.
(- Karl Kraus, Words in Verse IV)