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Sometimes – a great name

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Some people have great names; their names just work; but why, I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

Here’s a name: it’s Anika Propst.

That’s a great name. It reminds me of characters from those difficult places, from out of Kafka or Gunter Grass.

I met Anika Propst the other day. I didn’t know that she was called Anika Propst until the end of a long conversation that I had with her. And the conversation took place in a certain kind of space – a particular and rather special psycho-geography. What sort of space? It was her exhibition in the most recent Fine Art Degree show in the University for the Creative Arts.

As usual the final degree shows were remarkable; always fascinating, often challenging, subversive, confronting, inquiring and always ‘out there,’ ‘on the edge’ – somewhere beyond … The work is terrific because it dislocates and surprises – and mixes tragedy with comedy.

In the Fine Art show I was first struck by some music (a song) that I had heard ages ago in 1967. I was a teenager. The song was ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. (Of course, in 1967 I was captivated by the song, by Birkin’s ‘look’ and Gainsbourg’s insouciance.) I always associated the song with desire.

So, I heard Anika Propst’s show before I actually saw it. It was she who had chosen the song to accompany some of her work. And I had the luck to be accompanied by her as I entered her exhibition.

In fact, she’d arranged doormats on the floor with rather unexpected slogans on them. Her work was, among other things, about the difficulties women face in being a flaneur or strictly speaking une flaneuse. I had only partly thought about this but there – inscribed on her doormats – were assertions about how woman are so much the object of another’s gaze that when they are walking around they get caught up in a perpetual dynamic of being an object/subject.

BUT I was particularly taken by what I saw on a television screen. The screen was large and featured a beautiful woman – walking and walking and walking – through a number of different scenes. Here she was, with her back to us, walking through a desert landscape. And now, she is walking through what may be the city of Bangkok; now she is following a pride of lions; And now she is on the moon. She has a dignified classical beauty. She’s a Greek goddess – Aphrodite – life-giving, proud, and seductive.

There’s no doubt that she is beautiful. I’m happy to look at her. In fact, I’d love to paint a figure study of her.

But seeing a beautiful woman walking naked through a number of different scenes is inevitably really challenging because I could no other but see her as an object of desire. The song ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ only served to accentuate this. Yet she had placed those doormats on the floor adjacent to the screen – and their sheer presence resonated with the idea of how, year after year after year, women have been treated as ‘doormats’. And the propositions on the doormats had an absolutist quality about them. They challenged the idea that a woman – in virtue of being the object of the gaze – can fully appreciate the aesthetic. (I don’t think that’s true but I do think that it must be an awful strain being forever gawped at.)

Anika Propst told me about her fascination with psycho-geography and her interest in le flaneur and la flaneuse. And when I discovered her name – which is a great name – I tried to guess her origins, from where she had come. After three guesses (East Germany? Hungary? Slovakia?) she told me. And we both laughed because it turned out that my grandmother may even have been a very distant relation of hers.

I think her work was – and is – a great success. Then later it strikes me: Is this a work about ‘sleepwalking’ through life?

Postscript: I was not lucky enough to photograph Ms. Propst’s work but there’s a strange allusion to it in the photograph at the top.

Novels and territory

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Not so long ago I discovered that a large number of literary critics had addressed the following question:
Which are the best novels that have been published since the beginning of the millennium?

Their responses were aggregated and a list ordering the top twenty texts was then published.

So, I set about acquiring some of the books – but not all.

I have particularly enjoyed reading three of them. Which three? Well, it turns out they are all deeply connected with the USA. Each book also has a great title: They are:

The brief and wondrous life of Oscar Wao
A visit from the goon squad – and
Billy Lynn’s long half time walk.

Each book provides a scintillating ‘look’ at the culture of the USA – either directly or indirectly. And what a culture it is!

As far as I can tell it’s a world that exists almost solely in mediated reality. (It was always inclined to be absurd but it’s gone beyond absurdity. I’m not quite sure if there is a word for it.)

Billy Lynn’s long half time walk’ is perhaps the most revealing and devastating of the three novels. It shows just how difficult it has become to think clearly and ‘see’ beyond the  veil of belief. And the source of those beliefs is primarily through the media. It’s a brilliant hatchet job.

In its way it’s all about emotion, lies and territory. Hence the photographs – little emblems of the way we are.

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The night the snowman came

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Moonlight; a biting wind; it’s bitter cold.
Wind from the east – in swift arcs –
laden with ordered geometries.

My window shut fast;
I see the snow is falling.
I see the world fall silent.

And then the drifting snow – alive –
in crisp clean snowscapes –
And all about a star-lit fairy land:
Strange luminosities –
As if enchanted – and so the magic can begin.

That night, beneath the moon, the snowman came.
He walked and ran and danced and sang.
A dream-like company.
I watched him through the night –
– all through those spangle hours.

He’d laugh and smile and play the drum
with slender icicles!
And flash his coal-black eyes –
And sparkle bright against
a pale black sky.

The snowman from that other world.

And in the morning,
in the pale pink dawn
before the rising sun …

He was gone.

(Written after reading Marina Warner’s ‘A brief history of fairy tale‘ and the recent snow in the United Kingdom)

Two people, two places – in my home town

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From far across the years she sang:
And you read your Emily Dickinson
And I my Robert Frost.
She sang those words so beautifully
in harmonies of blue and gold –
an old long-playing record, now for sale –
in Oxfam: Helen with the charcoal eyes –
who’s friends with all the waifs and strays –
she loves them – as if her family.
Together we look out at the first drops of rain;
Together we watch the umbrellas unfurl –
and then the streets dissolve –
The streets of evening mists.

In the cool aesthetic entrance to
the Art college – a dark-eyed girl
is waiting – in black leather army boots –
and a long black overcoat:
A work of art: ‘The girl in the long black coat’ –
an outsider, a creature from the underworld.
I gaze at her … and then:
Is that a glare – a deep-black glare – at me?
I was thinking of painting her portrait –
but dared not ask! So now, I’m wondering:
How many portraits are lost through fear?
Alone, I look outside: the sky is sharp and clear –
A bright blue moon is rising.

Footnote:

These lines were written a few days after watching the film, ‘Wild’ on the television.
The soundtrack to the film certainly helped me with the words.

The old long-playing record is ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme‘ and the poets Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost appear in the beautiful song, ‘The Dangling Conversation‘.

 

In the gym the music plays

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In the gym the music plays
And we all move to the beat.
I sit on a machine
I move to the beat.
There are young and old in the gym
The young made more beautiful still
through the grace of fashion.

I sit on a machine
I move to the beat.
Sometimes I’m lost in flights of fancy –
nostalgic dreams.
Then I see him – a reflection
Shaped in the clear glass –
the clean clear glass in front of me.

He’s built like a barrel –
– the kind of barrel I think they use
for flavouring whisky.
He must be about seventy
maybe less. I think:
He’s taking himself back to the past,
His past.

Oh! There’s something written on his t-shirt …
Backwards, I read it: It’s ‘Lonsdale.’
He’s wearing boxing gloves
I can see him but he cannot see me.
He is a reflection.
And then he moves:
He jabs away at a big black punchbag.

Jab, Jab, Jab …
Though, a strange thing: they are
almost gentle jabs – just enough
to make the punchbag sway.
He sways too – they both sway
and I think of a dance, a waltz, softly, a tango.
And the music plays.

He moves and jabs
He moves and jabs.
The punch bag arcs – slowly – like
the curving tips of tree tops.
And then he backs away –
and leans on the ropes of memory.

He moves again; I catch sight of his profile.
But wait! I’ve seen his face before!
His nose – a sloping crag –
His face – forged from earth, from iron
From the granite gravestones.
I can see him but he cannot see me;
He is a reflection.

He’s a rock of a man –
and I’ve seen him before!
Yes – I’ve seen him walk out of
Great Expectations.
He’s Magwitch, he’s Abel Magwitch –
Out from the marshes, where the wind hits hard –
But he’s with me now, a ghost – but not.

When all his rounds are done
When all is said and done –
Someone passes him and stops.
They greet each other and
the boxer speaks.
How are you?’ ‘Good to see you.’ ‘You OK?’ –
All in the sweetest muffled tones
of wild honey.

Abel Magwitch – the music plays –
And we move to the beat.

 

 

A play in London: ‘Heisenberg: the uncertainty principle’

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We say: ‘You can feel the chemistry between them.’ And, if we are in the mood for physics rather than chemistry, we may say that ‘they were electric’ or that ‘the atmosphere became highly charged.’ There is, then, an established way of speaking about character or people-in-relationship that uses ideas, imagery and analogies drawn from physico-chemistry.

Primo Levi investigated the matter further; he took it to wondrous and tragic depths in his famous work, ‘The periodic table’; here, he saw the resemblance between the properties of chemical elements and certain characteristics of human beings; he even found parallels between the inert gas, argon, and the psychology of a certain religious group. At the conclusion of his discussion of ‘Potassium’ he illustrates how ‘small differences can lead to radically different consequences’ and function rather like a railway and its switch points – and he tells us how ‘the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, of knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects.’ (And not only the chemist’s trade.)

I like Primo Levi’s work and I recognised something similar – the same sort of analogy between physico-chemistry and life – in the play ‘Heisenberg: the uncertainty principle’. The play was beautifully staged, recently, at the Wyndham theatre, just off Leicester Square, in London. It’s an exhilarating play – and the acting was (and is) superb. The quantum physics of Heisenberg becomes a metaphor for the fundamental unpredictability found in the very nature of existence.

My programme told me (through a sub-title) that, more specifically, the principle means that we may as well ‘surrender to the unpredictable’. The play was animated and brought vividly and poignantly to life by the brilliant Anne-Marie Duff (who couldn’t but love Anne-Marie Duff’s Georgie?) and the crusty naturalistic Kenneth Cranham. At a certain point in the play the meaning of the Heisenberg principle, for us, is made explicit by Georgie:

If you watch something closely enough you realise you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there,” she explains. “Did you know that? If you pay attention to where it’s going or how fast it’s moving you stop watching it properly.

In short, you can never quite tell where you ‘are’ in a relationship because it’s on the move – or where it is actually ‘going’ because that is yet to happen.

I suppose that the play – or at least Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty – might serve as a deep characterisation of our times: We cannot possibly have any clear idea of where the UK is going to ‘be’ in the next few years. (The decision to leave the European Union demonstrates how ‘small differences can lead to radically different consequences.’) And if we try to describe where the UK  ‘is’ now we overlook the fact that it is dynamic, unfolding and ‘on the move.’

Like they say in rock and roll: You gotta roll with it.

P.S. I thought the play staged at the Wyndham theatre was wonderful and I had a far more positive response to it than many of the critics. The play provided the two actors – Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham – with the opportunity to express the kind of magical interaction that sometimes brings connection and meaning to our lives – and which, momentarily, combats the intrinsic tragedy and ultimate aloneness of our shared humanity.

Through an autumn window

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Summer is over now;
The chill kiss of winter is stayed –
– somewhere to the north, and faraway, in frosted time.
It’s late afternoon – and the sun sets – in autumn.

From my window, and quite nearby,
the silver birch is turned to gold;
The tall tall birch stands in quiet fire –
the birch I planted years ago.

It glitters – and now reminds me, strangely,
of lost treasure chests, all open –
and filled with coins a’sparkle and polished gleaming –
But then a zephyr stirs –
And, one by one, a few leaves fall:
They fall to earth and cast a magic carpet
upon the soft mown grass.

I gaze – and wonder …

And so the leaves lie still – like fallen soldiers –
– just as the poet said.

But, more: a blue smoke from distant bonfires
drifts and ghosts the pale clear sky
in shapes – to mourn the dead and dying.

Just then, a silken mist rises from the fields,
and, against the dying light, a happy band of goldfinches
arrives to dance atop the tall tall birch.

I smile: They’ve saved the last dance – just for me.

Paris, 1962

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When I was very young I was taken to France. The idea was to tour the whole country. I sat in the back of a large comfortable English car: a Humber. It had a huge leather seat in the back. That was where I sat and for much of the summer I looked out at France – at something significantly different from the south-of-England sights with which I was familiar.

In what way was France different? Well, in just about every way that my senses could perceive; France, I realised was decidedly unlike England and I especially liked its aesthetics – from steak-and-chips to the beautiful girls. I liked the design of french cars, the pages of ‘Paris Match‘ and the advertisements for Dubonnet that were painted on the walls of houses…

A few days ago I was reminded of my early experience of France when I watched Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 black and white film ‘Vivre sa Vie’. It’s the kind if film that the lucky ones amongst us became familiar with as the 1960s unfolded. Its focus is upon life, sex, style and culture in Paris. The film was (and is) a pleasure to see – in large part because it surfaces a range of pure ideas: Godard’s film takes the intellect seriously; surface and depth intertwine: it’s an aspect of french culture that may still endure …

The film begins with a quote from the liberal humanist Michel de Montaigne:

Lend yourself to others but give yourself to yourself.

(We pause and think about this.)

It then goes on to profile the life of a young woman (Nana) who is forced to ‘make out’ in the emerging consumerist culture of Paris; Paris provides the stage and backdrop upon which and against which certain episodes of her brief life are portrayed. We see cafes and coffee bars and juke boxes and vinyl records …

We discover that the young woman is familiar with some of the central ideas of existentialism:

I choose. I am responsible. If I do something it is me who has exercised my freedom so to do. I am responsible. If I think something I am responsible.

(We pause and think about this too.)

In one remarkable scene the young woman dances alone – and the style of her dancing symbolises the idea of liberation – or, at least, the pleasure of self-expression.

(We think: When the dances change the walls of the city shake …)

And perhaps the most sustained moments of critical reflection take place when, in the very heart of Paris at the Place du Châtelet the young woman strikes up a conversation with a philosopher. The philosopher turns out to be the actual philosophy teacher of Jean-Luc Godard, himself. He is called Brice Parrain.

The encounter between Nana and the philosopher is riveting. (Do encounters like this happen any more?) Brice Parrain, who plays himself, considers, en passant, some of the deepest features of our humanity. He says:

One learns to talk well only when one has renounced life for a time.”

He considers that the flow of life moves between the ‘everyday’ and ‘detachment.’ We need, he thinks, a detachment from the pressures and problems of ordinary living because:

From everyday life one rises to a life we call superior: the thinking life. But this life presupposes one has killed the everyday” – a life which, for Brice Parrain, is ‘too elementary.’

This was Paris, 1962.

My original idea of Paris and of its role in advancing french culture, was that it valued the insights yielded by philosophy – it valued the ‘play’ of thought – whilst simultaneously cultivating and enhancing an aesthetic sensibility.

Nowadays, in the Paris of 2017, I’m not so sure. Perhaps only the backdrop remains.

 

A bicycle ride in Farnham park

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Above – quite high and overhead – a family of oak leaves is drifting.
They’re drifting on the breeze, on the pale cool bleach of an autumn sky.
The leaves are now quite dry.
The leaves are now quite dead.
And when they come to ground they move: sad and lonely and restless:
They drift like ashen flakes – cast out –
Like those ashen flakes born in the fire storms of Dresden.

I’m cycling through the park.
I’m near the summit of a hill …
Then, too, a gathering of black, tree-top birds –
Jackdaws with their strange pale eyes.
Cut loose, a sudden dashing woodpecker in crimson,
all elegant staccato: peck, stop; and peck, peck again.

After the summit the path descends: I cross a stream –
where the spaniels love to fish.
And then a climb – and then ahead upon the climb –
a man – his tiny dog (I think he loves his dog) –
and his wife. She is lodged in a purple mobility machine.
She cannot get out and walk. She has a lovely face.
(I know he loves his wife.)

Then something extraordinary:
The man, his dog and his wife all try to get out of my way.
She does her best to orient her machine onto the nettled edges.
The man looks at me; his eyes sparkle.
The woman looks up at me with a sweet smile.
There you go,’ he says to me.

I thank them both.
It’s a pleasure,’ he says.
It’s a pleasure – no problem,’ she says.

I think back to the drifting leaves: the quick and the dead –
and then the warmth of that sweet ‘no problem’ smile.

Tea, scones and evensong: a birthday party

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Villiers, my friend and colleague, was about to be seventy years old. He sent me an invitation to his forthcoming birthday party; albeit reluctantly, he would celebrate seventy years of a life; and, at the same time, he would celebrate the beginning of his eighth decade.

Villiers had spent most of the last fifty years trying to make a difference. He took seriously both the idea of the state and how best to design the best possible state. He thought it was worth striving to create (or at least maintain) a safe, just and tolerant society. Villiers – as a certain kind of Englishman – had a deep sense of irony and a version of political realism that usually found itself in sympathy with the conservative outlook. His often acerbic humour saved him, though, from ever being an ideologue. He knew what he liked – and it was a mix of literature, politics, art and idiosyncrasy. All along he was cautious about taking the big questions of life too seriously.

Villiers was mostly a writer. Writing made him happy. It gave him pleasure. He could write plays and novels – or essays and books on serious subjects – like human rights. Although he did other things to earn his living he always made sure that he had something to write about …

Those of us invited to his birthday party were informed that we were to expect tea and scones at the family home in Oxford. Evensong, at the local church, was also on the agenda.

It’s now Sunday – the day of the party.

The family home was (and is) peculiarly idyllic. The large house is comfortable, stable, reassuring. The lawn stretches down to the river Cherwell. By the river it’s as if we find ourselves in one of those wonderful paintings by Alfred Sisley. It makes for a mood: reflective – in-and-out of time – civilised.

As the guests assembled Villiers was full of bonhomie. And things went well. Villiers enjoyed the company of his sister, his brother, and a few friends. He enjoyed, too, the company of his mother who is 102 years old. He enjoyed the company of his partner’s grand-daughter who is 2 years old. So there it was: a century of humanity for tea and scones and the singing of ‘happy birthday.’

BUT Villiers was disquieted. Who had he been? What was he to become? And, most specifically, what future was there for his writing? He reminded himself that the novelist Martin Amis had begun to write about times past; a looking back; as Martin Amis had put it he, Amis, did so as ‘not to make a fool of oneself.’ Villers could see this; there was no point in trying to ape the style of the new generations. That would be entirely false. Yes, so what did Villers have to say? What was he to communicate?

When the time came the birthday party moved on to celebrate Evensong in the lovely local church. What is it about Evensong that is so consoling and yet so tinged with sorrow? The church was lit by the soft-light of a hundred candles and, from time time, Villiers experienced a kind of reverie – a moment of enchantment …

On arriving back in the family home, Villiers detached himself from his guests. He went to choose a record: something he might even take away with him if he were to find himself on a desert island. (Sometimes he even thought that it would, after all, be best to live on a desert island. He’d make friends with the migrant birds; he’d welcome a refugee or two; in fact, he’d organise a camp for god-knows how many refugees (and stateless persons) and help them with their metaphysics …)

What record should he choose? Rachmaninov’s piano concerto came to mind. But then he paused. It was his birthday. And, where was he? I mean, where was he in the space and place of his psyche? Where? He was back with that ‘Famous blue raincoat’; he was back with Suzanne and Marianne; he was back with ‘Songs from a room’ – and the beautiful girl on the cover,; he was back with all to play for; he was back on ‘Boogie street’.

It wasn’t any old CD that he chose. It was a sleek black shining LP; it was Leonard Cohen’s ‘Twelve new songs’ – and as he caressed the record from its sleeve he started humming – just to himself. He watched the river glinting in the dying moments of the late late summer.

Leonard Cohen’s ‘Boogie street’ began. Yes, Villiers was back on ‘Boogie street.’ And as he listened to the words he thought of his next piece of writing: it began: ‘Now, as a man grows older …

Footnote: Here are the first verses of the song ‘Boogie Street’ by the late Leonard Cohen:

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we’d meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it’s done:
I’m back on Boogie Street.

A sip of wine, a cigarette,
And then it’s time to go.
I tidied up the kitchenette;
I tuned the old banjo.
I’m wanted at the traffic-jam.
They’re saving me a seat.
I’m what I am, and what I am,
Is back on Boogie Street.

And O my love, I still recall
The pleasures that we knew;
The rivers and the waterfall,
Wherein I bathed with you.
Bewildered by your beauty there,
I’d kneel to dry your feet.
By such instructions you prepare
A man for Boogie Street.

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