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Two uses for a cardboard box

Out walking the dog, evening sky, Farnham.

A space for walking the dog, evening sky, Farnham.

Dogs come in fashions. Not so long ago there were hundreds of German shepherds everywhere. At the moment there’s a fashion for border terriers. This is a good thing: when it comes to dogs, border terriers make for a great choice in compact all-round dog-ness.

I passed one the other day. It was still a puppy and it hadn’t quite cottoned on to the idea that its freedom was limited by a collar and lead: it was being half-dragged along the pavement by its mistress. The puppy rekindled the memory of a holiday I once spent in the north of England during the month of August. My brother and I loved running around the heather of the moors – and we even enjoyed spending one whole day picking bilberries. At the end of the holiday my parents bought a dog, a border terrier. They called the dog ‘Barnabus’ or ‘Barney’ for short. And so, at the end of the holiday we piled into our car and brought Barney home. He was placed in a cardboard box – and my father made sure that Barney was made comfortable by adding a soft woollen blanket to in the inside of the box. My brother and I spent the whole of the journey home fussing over him. We picked him up and stroked him endlessly – our hands still stained with the blue-purple juice of the bilberries that we had so recently picked. We hoped that he would not be too lonely now that he no longer had the company of his brothers and sisters. In this respect I think we were quite successful.

Barney had a good life. He had friends everywhere.

But one day on a hot afternoon in June he was run over by a van. By way of closure, the deceased Barney was returned to our house in a good-sized cardboard box. The box was noticeable larger than the one which had been originally used to bring him home when he was a puppy.

Pale-orange break-up

Farnham - blue sky/pale-orange

Farnham – blue sky/pale-orange

Day 1.

He was holding a pale-orange plastic carrier bag when I first saw him. He was walking down the street that passes in front of my house. He had the plastic bag in one hand and a mobile ‘phone in the other. He stopped every once in a while and I noticed that he looked very unhappy. His face was reddened and slightly coarse – but nonetheless he had a strange kind of appeal. The pale-orange transparent bag seemed to hold a few groceries; the bag looked like a water-colour sunset – a soft lament to the end of the day. When the man reached a point opposite my house he stopped. He looked at the ground; his thoughts seemed fixed on something. He spoke into his ‘phone: I heard him say:

“No, please, please stay. Please just listen to me.”

And then he said, loudly and desperately:

“I’m so sorry. I need you. You know I need you. What can I do without you?”

He waited for a few moments in silence. Then he said:

“I’m standing here pouring my heart out to you. Please don’t go. Please, please wait for me.”

And then he moved on up the road. He moved unsteadily; his eyes were fixed on his thoughts; he was blind to the world. Occasionally he made wide sweeping gestures with his arms. Sometimes he strayed off the pavement and walked in the middle of the road. I watched him continue up the street until I lost sight of him.

Only once before, in my life, had I ever heard a man speak with such naked desperation in his voice.

Day 2.

It was just before three o’clock in the afternoon. Parents always begin to assemble at this time in order to collect their children from the school that lies opposite my house. I was sitting upstairs and I watched the first of the parents arrive. I saw that the man with the pale-orange plastic bag was among them. He was still carrying a pale-orange plastic bag. This time the bag seemed to be holding some sort of coat. Maybe it was a coat for a child.

I saw the man leaning over one of the railings at the entrance to the school that the council has put up to stop people falling off the pavement and into the road. Then I noticed that he was crying. A couple of his friends were with him. The crying man just looked down at the ground in front of him. He didn’t make much of an effort to hide the fact that a few tears were rolling down his cheeks and falling into the gutter. He looked dismal. He looked resigned. He looked defeated.

One of his friends reached out and gently rubbed him on the back. It was the simplest and most basic gesture of support. No words were spoken. A few moments passed. Then the three men made their way into the playground to collect their children.
Sometime later I saw the man with the pale-orange plastic bag wander slowly, ever so slowly, down the street with a child. He looked empty of hope. He looked as if he was walking towards oblivion.

Day 3.

I arrived home at eleven o’clock at night. I had one or two things in the boot of the car that needed to be unloaded – so I spent some time unloading this and that. It was a clear night. The moon was shining; I was reminded of the mood created by Coleridge in his poem ‘Cristabel’. It seemed to be that sort of night.

Then I saw three men walking down the street. I recognised one of them as the man who carried the pale-orange plastic bag. This time his bag was stuffed full of bottles of wine and cans of lager. He and his friends were very drunk. The plastic bag was swinging from side to side. I wondered if the bag would ever make its way home.

Still, the men were able to say something to each other despite the fact that they were very drunk.

“She’s gone. She’s gone,” moaned the man with the pale-orange drink-laden plastic bag:

“She’s broken with me. She’s gone. That’s it.”

He walked on. He walked past my car.

Then he howled in one last cry of pain and defiance:

“She’s gone … but I’ll always love her.”

The football pitch – a boy, a dream …

The impossibility of finding nature without culture

Farnham park: A field, a dream …

Sometimes in the quiet of the deep deep dark there’s a brightness. And sometimes in stillness I hear the roar of the crowd.

The storm has long gone; above, the sky has turned to sharp bright crystal. The sky is a mirror. Below lies the football field, now still – but carried off in memories. There are no players. There is no crowd.

Around the edge of the field stand graceful, loyal, stately trees – as witnesses; the branches clap their hands at the cut-and-thrust, the moves, the goals. Now they reflect – in silence.

There’s a distant cry dying on the breeze.

A small boy walks alongside the trees. Alone, he walks onto the pitch. Then he turns: he looks at the goal. He looks at the goal in wonderment.

Someone parks a beautiful Citroen outside my front door

Rolling Stones - Hyde Park, London

Waiting for the Rolling Stones – Hyde Park, London

Someone parks a beautiful Citroen outside my front door. It’s a lovely car and immediately reminds me of a moment in the past when the world was still an enchanted place. It also reminds me of a charming retro film ‘Les femmes du sixieme etage’: there’s a gorgeous Citroen in that too – a film that is set in the year 1962. ‘Les femmes du sixieme etage’ recreates the atmosphere, class divisions and distinct aesthetics of Paris in the early sixties. I always like the way such films serve as micro-case studies that both re-describe the past and raise questions about the way we live now.

Another film, a brilliant film – this time set in 1980s East Germany (but with beige Trabants rather than slinky Citroens) – has a particular power to make me think about the culture of England. The film is called ‘Barbara’. Even though it’s about some of the experiences of living within a paranoid and cruel regime I think it surfaces some fundamental issues about life and culture, now, in England.

The first issue concerns the relationship between the individual and the state: a telling dialogue between two doctors (one of whom is Barbara) highlights the fact that the making of a doctor is not possible without the arrangements, the structures and systems of the state. It is the state that provides the education, the security and the resources which ensure that the theory and practice of effective medicine is possible. It follows that the individual has some sort of obligation to the state. But, as far as I can see, England is not a place where any such sense of obligation is felt. Yet it is the state that has educated us and kept us safe. The schools in England are wonderful places; by and large our social arrangements ensure that the environments in which people learn, study and get their skills are enabling rather than disabling. The state has, in fact, served us well.

The second issue that the film Barbara profiles concerns the value choices that an individual makes. There’s a basic choice – between care-for-others (or, at least consideration for others) and the pursuit by the individual of the psychological and material benefits offered by the ‘free world’. In the end, Barbara, despite her wish to escape the paranoia, constraints and dreadful surveillance of the communist regime, suppresses  her own desires in order to help a desperate and helpless person. I admire her for it.

The third issue is about human ingenuity: in the film we discover that one doctor has created a laboratory in which he can make his own serums. The other, Barbara, is a gifted pianist. She mends her bicycle, outwits the informers and the secret police. The film tells us about the basic resourcefulness and creativity of human beings. So, how, is it that so many people in England, instead of building things, making things, or changing a part of their world for the better are sitting passively in front of stupid television programmes – just waiting to be entertained and getting fat?

And lastly there is a moment in the film where we are invited to consider a painting by Rembrandt. The painting, ostensibly depicting the dissection of a dead man by a group of medics and anatomists, shows us, instead, ways of looking at the world: the dead man is, in fact, a victim of a rotten system of justice. He’s not just a thing serving the interests of others. He’s where he is because of the sociology of a time and place. So, I ask myself: ‘How are ‘we’ looking, how are we seeing, in England?’ – and it seems to me that most of the enchantment has gone: the world, for so many people, now seems a resource to be ‘set upon’ and exploited.

Ca donne a reflechir.

Footnote 1:

Barbara is a 2012 German drama film directed by Christian Petzold. The film competed at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival in February 2012 where Christian Petzold won the Silver Bear for Best Director. The film was selected as the German entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, but it did not make the final shortlist.

Of course it should have won the Oscar.

Footnote 2:

And here’s that Citroen parked outside my front door …

The red citroen

The red Citroen