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Helen and Robert – a play

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Scene 1
Inside an Oxfam shop specialising in books and music.

Helen is speeding around checking this and that – and then pauses to examine a new in-take of books. Robert enters the shop and picks up a book that he finds in the late summer sale. He then looks through the records and chooses an early LP by Joni Mitchell, another by the B52s and a copy of Bob Dylan’s ‘Greatest hits’.

Helen: Well hello! And where have you been?
Robert: Goodness! Hello Helen. Hang on – Let me put these records down here …
Helen: But where have you been? I haven’t seen you for weeks! Ages! Years!
Robert Where have I been? I’ve just come back from Berlin.
Helen: And?
Robert: Well, I’m still in Berlin – as it were. All in a dream really …
Helen: So what was it like?
Robert: Well, I’d like to live there.
Helen: So you’re all ‘Berlin’ at the moment.
Robert: Yes.
Helen: And where is your gorgeous wife, Joleen? Is she still in Berlin too?
Robert: No; she’s at a french ladies’ do.
Helen: Oh yes, I remember – their regular lunch thingy.
Robert: Yes – but now that you’re here and I tell her you’re here she’ll probably pop in to say ‘Hello’ – perhaps tomorrow …
Helen: Good. Listen listen listen: It’s finally happening: after all these months they’re opening the new Oxfam shop here – and this one is moving up the road. I love this space. It’s a dream – perfect. So this is what I’m going to manage when they move. I’m so happy. I’ve been waiting for this for nearly a year.
Robert: Comme il faut: I’m really pleased. Yes – you’ve been waiting months for this. You could turn it into a very special space. Anyway, how’s things?
Helen: Just a mo. I’m not supposed to hang around talking to customers. It’s about ‘work’ here. Not too much levity. I’ve been told not to be frivolous. Work. And more work. The atmosphere is different here, quite different. It’s more reflective – all rather serious. Work and more work and not dallying with customers. No repartee.
Robert: What? Oh. Well never-mind. Talking to me is work.
Helen: I’ll be back in a mo…
Robert: You’ve got so much energy. Always on the go. You turn on a sixpence. This woman Helen – a blitz of a girl …
Helen: Come and sit down. I’ll stick prices on these books.

(They sit down on a somewhat dated but stylish vintage faded-lime-coloured sofa. Helen is seated on the right as you look at the sofa and Robert on the left. A pile of books lies between them. Helen begins sticking prices on the books.)

Helen: And how are your girls?
Robert: Well, first tell me about how things are with you.
Helen: Nothing much that is new – except everything is new: Daughter number 1 has started teaching maths at All Hallows; my son is teaching to level 3 at you-know-where and daughter number 2 is off in Tanzania doing charity work for Save the Children – And my lovely grandchildren are growing up quickly. The eldest is now 8. So nothing to complain about.
Robert: (After a pause of a moment or two) So, although things were really tough for you as a youngster, you know, when you were growing up, you’re a really successful person. It’s impressive. Three children all doing good things. I’m not a successful person – but that’s another matter …
Helen: Robert, what are you talking about? You’ve got a gorgeous wife and two stunning daughters.
Robert: Yes – but I can tell that none of them is settled or fulfilled. I wonder if I lumbered them with the fall-out from my psycho-pathologies. (He pauses again) And anyway, after the ethos of Berlin I wonder what on earth I’m doing here. I mean here in the UK. Brexit has really left me feeling fed up. Cheesed off. And the visit to Berlin just rammed it all home.
Helen: See – you’re all Berlin Berlin Berlin at the moment. It’ll pass.
(Helen continues sticking prices onto the books – and then)
Helen: Who on earth reads …
Robert: … this rubbish. Incidentally what are these books about?
Helen: Don’t ask me, Robert.

The manager of Oxfam books and music appears in the near distance.

Robert: Helen you’re doing loads of work. You’d put the workhouse to shame. A Mars a day helps you work rest and play. And may the Lord see your good works … Work makes one free …
Helen: Yes Robert we get the idea ..
Robert: And in Berlin I listened to Kraftwerk
Helen: Shut up Robert
Robert: OK, I won’t mention W – O – R – K again. A propos of nothing – have you bought anything new recently?
Helen: No.
Robert: Not even hair dye.
Helen: Well of course I buy things like Hair dye.
The manager: Are you two doing a sit-com?
Helen: (to the manager) Can’t you see? It’s soon to be released.
Robert: This is just a first take.
Helen: First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin.
Robert: I went to Hard Wax. I had to go for a Hard Wax.
Helen: (Laughing – and perhaps blushing) What in the world is Hard Wax? Robert, this sounds a little bit, well not quite right…
Robert: Hard Wax is the edgiest coolest – at least that’s what they say – record store in Berlin. You get the hard-core techno stuff there. And so I went to Hard Wax.
Helen: But who wants to listen to that stuff?
Robert: God knows. James does – apparently – so I went to get some stuff for James. And I asked the young woman who was working there at Hard Wax what was the best most recent hard core techno music and she fished out some records and Jo and I listened to them and Jo actually thought they were really good. I bought three.
Later I taught a dog to do the hokey-cokey to a hard-core techno beat. Not in German though. That’s why it failed.
Helen: Robert, what are you talking about?
Robert: I’m talking about my dog-sitting in Berlin.
Helen: What? You dog-sat in Berlin?
Robert: Well, I didn’t expect to – but ‘yes’. I did some dog-sitting in Berlin. That’s where the hokey-cokey came in.
Helen: Like this?

She gets up and does the hokey-coney. Then she sits down on the sofa.
Robert gazes at Helen. Helen gazes at Robert.

To be continued.

Berlin – September 2018

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Berlin is almost certainly a much better capital city in which to live (and appreciate) compared with London, New York or (of course) Paris.

First of all, it really does seem to have a distinct culture that is different from the rest of Germany – as well as the world’s other capital cities.

The people are decent, thoughtful and leave you to get on with whatever it is you want to do or to be. One of the most attractive features is the fact that education is free. So I met lots of people of various ages doing different interesting degrees at different levels. The person in Hard Wax (the best place on earth for contemporary off-beat vinyl) was doing philosophy and the next year she told me that she will be specialising in aesthetics; another who lived in Neukolln was writing her Masters’ thesis on Power, people and the machine

Because the city is extensive and spread out one hardly ever gets the sense of a scrum or of people rushing about. Unlike other places there isn’t much pushing and shoving. There are wide and safe bike lanes – and so many open park spaces – that large numbers of people cycle everywhere.

The look of the people from 15 to 50 – or even older – is as individual as they wish to adopt and to portray. This is a great relief because no one gets overly bothered about what other people look like or about being looked at and being judged. We saw large numbers of alternative society types – but it wasn’t an aggressive sort of person – just people who felt that the whole drift of modern living was absurd (which it is). Mauer Park on a Sunday has an amazing open-air festival atmosphere; and this, along with the mood around the Landwerhkanal (at the end of Kottbusser street) and the arts/social centre in Mariannenplatz were just about my favourite places to enjoy. (And probably far better if you are under 50.)

The public transport system is excellent; after a day or two it’s very easy to master.
I also liked the different character of the various quarters – although, for me, Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Prenzlauer Berg – as well as Neukolln were probably the best.

The clubs for dance and trance and techno are legendary. Just go to any of them.

My wife, Jocelyne, had one of the best meals she’s ever eaten (!!!!) in a Vietnamese restaurant – in Prenzlauer Berg – whilst I had the best chilli burger I’ve ever eaten in a Mexican restaurant – also in P.B.; in fact my cheese-topped chilli burger came with chips, various sauces, all sorts of salads and other bits and bobs as delicious garnishes. It was all so huge I had to take about an hour to eat everything.

Terrific places to visit are the Berliner Galerie and the Martin Gropius Bau. The former has explanations about the art on display – written in perfect english, an english that is better in its quality than most people in England can ever achieve. All around there is high art, an elite art that requires hard thinking, and more intimate kinds of art that deal with local or even national issues. The range of styles is enormous. I saw one exhibition devoted to cartoons and which, surprisingly, included a room full of chickens. The ‘Topography of terror’ (a long extended exhibition with a special focus on the year 1933) next to the Martin Gropius Bau is obligatory – although it caused me to have a subsequent disturbed night full of dreadful images. I spent about four hours there.

The history of Berlin carries a charge, that makes it unique and creates an ethos – which encourages everyone who is there to create and think – and to enjoy being alive.

In fact, as I’m writing this, I have to ask myself why I’m having to live in the idiocy of post-Brexit Britain. The deep-psyche of so many English people is pretty dreadful. It really is shameful. I’d certainly rather be in Berlin.

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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.

Version 2

 

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.