Thursday, 29 January 2009


Shows like this one by these guys remind me why I fell in love with theatre. I've been getting a bit jaded recently, and this was the antidote. The venue itself helps a very great deal - the Southwark Playhouse is a wonderful space, under the arches of the old London Bridge. It smells of damp and must and ancient brick. The trains go over and round and almost through it, so it vibrates every few minutes. I love that kind of thing, unconventional, atmospheric, a space out of time - all the things that theatre should embody in itself. The gilt spaces of the big West End theatres just don't have that. Black boxes, even, don't achieve the same harmonious background that places like this do. I thoroughly, thoroughly recommend a trip.

The play itself is deceptively complex. There are three characters on the stage, more or less the whole time. One of these is not explained until the very last few minutes, but he does provide a live soundtrack to the piece. That was a really nice touch - soft guitar, reminiscent of Damien Rice, gentle and acoustic and carefully complimenting the action on the rest of the stage. The other two actors form a couple at various stages of a relationship, which again does not completely fall into place until the very end of the play.

The text is tightly structured, in a way is consciously theatrical. It really was difficult to see what parts of the action went in what order until all were laid out, and this drew you along with the story - it made you constantly try and piece it together. THAT is something I want from my theatre...audience involvement. Not shouting boo and hiss, just demanding that you join in. It leaves you with a sense of achievement, like solving a puzzle. An engaging little story is rendered more so by the way in which it's told. It's laugh-out-loud funny in places (the 'proposal'), and it made me cry, too. It really is the oldest story, about falling in love and how hard it can be, but it drew me totally within itself, despite knowing what must happen from the word go.

Given the text is so theatrical, I found some elements of actual performance unnecessary. Like the thing with the lights at the start - I'd actually forgotten about it until now. I would lose that. Not that it took anything away, but it didn't add anything. It made me wonder about lights I suppose, for the rest of the show. Was that the point? But I didn't get the light symbolism, if I was meant to. It was used to change the scene, yes, but was there more? I could probably dig up something about that I guess, but I don't see why I should, really. Was it just there to make a divide between pre-state and show? There are more subtle ways, if so, and this is a subtle play. The dance, later, was similarly conscious on one level, but did not intrude in the same way. It stopped just short of the point where it would have broken the illusion. It brought out the playful childishness of the couple at this point in their lives, and I loved it. Almost too far, but the gamble was allowable. The other point where the theatrical was nearly too big was during the argument, where distorted echoes of the things that are screamed are played back. It's a conceit often used to indicate madness or breakdown (see A Streetcar Named Desire for the most obvious example I can think of, but there are many), and it seemed a bit hackneyed. Suddenly, I was in a theatre and there were sound effects. The pain of the characters at that point didn't need such emphasis. I appreciate that a certain sort of madness and confusion are of central importance to the play, but there has to be a better way.

But there were conceits that did work, like the one sided phone calls to the nosy mother - they provide a huge amount of humour and pathos. The mother's character is clearly drawn even though we don't hear her say anything, and her relationship with her daughter is similarly vivid. I also like that they didn't feel the necessity to use actual phones, which could have created a forced awkwardness. It does help that that actress has a particularly sublime Scots borders accent. I could have listened forever. I'm not sure quite how much the use of screens and white noise behind the phone calls contributed to all of this, except perhaps to create a different space for them to happen in. I think I would have missed it a bit if it wasn't there. Sign-posting the complexity of the structure? Maybe.

I loved this: it was really inspired, beautiful theatre. The things I've picked up were so tiny, in comparison to the holes I usually manage to find in things that are produced with far more money. Pared down and perfect.

'Love is in three parts. First you love the quirks, then they drive you made, then you can't live without them.'

'Sometimes we're the birds in the sky; sometimes we're the statues beneath them.'

I'd go again, but I'm only free tonight and going to London two nights in a row is not on the cards. But anyone else who's free in London for an hour or so one evening between now and Saturday should go and have their lives made brighter.

Deathless dower.

Sonnet XIX - Silent Noon

Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass,
The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky:—
So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above,
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

These are the words set to music in a piece by the same name by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I'll put a recording up if someone will show me how and/or find me somewhere to leave it for a bit. I was going to sing it in a recital that never happened. The words only tell half of the beauty of this - the music is something amazing. I cling to moments remembered, trying to live in them and extend them beyond their natural length. The poem isn't about that; it's about enjoying a perfect moment with someone else with no mention of what happens after that. But when that moment is gone, what else can you do but hold on to it, for a never-dying promise between the two of you? Even if it falls away and apart, intangible, if you hold too tight.

I saw a play this evening. I need to write about that, too, but it's late.


Yay! Carl sorted me out with somewhere to put some mp3s for a bit - recording here.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009


I've written about clothes before, but it's a subject that fascinates me. The whole thing is to do with costume. Do people ever dress anything other than aspirationally? Aren't you, whatever you put on, choosing how the rest of the world is to perceive you? If I'm wearing old tracksuit bottoms and ancient t-shirts for sitting around at home, it's because I want to feel comfortable and not on show and the clothes underline that to me and anyone else around. The removal of my public self with the removal of my public clothes. I can be much freer, dressed in soft tracksuits that I've had for half my life. People who see me dressed like that, I have to be incredibly comfortable with, because I have to trust them not to judge the clothes. It's like people seeing you in your pyjamas. I do on occasion go to the supermarket or whatever dressed in the more presentable version of lying around the house clothes, but in a way, I'm still lying around the house - it's still not public, at some level. The amount I feel on show to some degree correlates with how much discomfort I'm willing to put up with, I suppose. I'm the least 'dressy' at work (aside from at home), always in ancient trainers and often quite baggy jeans and t-shirts. I would dress up even more than that to go to the ADC or wherever, unless what I'm doing when I get there is a get-in. I don't wear hoodies to work, or tops that are definitely designed for sport, but that's about my only concession. I'm not on show at work, much. And it depends on my mood. I don't usually have the energy to put the effort in. The more tired or fed up or stressed I am, the less colourful or considered is what I wear. Probably the less low cut, too. I don't want to attract notice in any way when I feel like that, and the easiest way is to dress as dully as possible, I guess. If I'm going out or going somewhere or going to see someone or am going to be in a situation about which I'm not entirely comfortable, I will dress up. Lower cut tops, skirts, boots, colours, scarves, jewellery. It's hard to unpick why those things should make me feel more confident. Something about the clothes doing some of the talking for you, or distracting from the actual impression someone might get if they had access to the unshielded character underneath. Glamour in the archaic sense, I suppose, though I sort of hope to be subtle about it.

But all of these aspects of clothing make nudity incredibly intimate. I suppose that's why we as a society find it quite so sexy, beyond the crass 'I can see your BITS' routine. Because being naked with someone is access to their most private self, without a projection or any attempt to mislead. That's not about sex, though I suppose when there are people you feel that intimate with, sex is a progression. But being naked, in itself, is a big deal. Vulnerable, snails without shells, a declaration of trust. Even being naked alone, for something other than washing, is significant. Isn't it? Something about being able to look at oneself and know oneself. Symbolic only, I think, but not nothing. I suppose plastic surgery would ruin the ability to be naked in this sense - you would never be able to take off the image. I have no desire for tattoos or surgery, and am uncomfortable about the idea of dying my hair, in a way. Though the hair-dying is mostly to do with the fact that my hair is fragile enough without soaking it in chemicals. Something about the recognition of self.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Good to know?

I spend my life looking for answers. I wish I didn't. There aren't answers. Like true scientific thinking, where everything is only a theory. You can prove beyond 'reasonable' doubt, but that is different from proving beyond doubt. I want there to be certainty, but there never will be. It's why I envy people who really have faith, I guess. They know at bone level that something is true. Feel it, not have to know it.

I have felt like that about some things in my life. Do feel it, about some things. Though I have never felt it about the existence of God. In fact, I have certainty that there is no life after death, which kind of scuppers a lot of believing in an existence beyond the here-and-now, wordly, tangible. But I think it's part of that certainty that makes me determined to get the most out of every passing moment, because there is no way back and only a finite number of days to experience. But I also feel certain that there is always hope. I was once told that that's a bad thing, because it means that one will never be satisfied with the situation as it is. I seem, most of the time, to be able to live for the moment, because the moment is important, but to look beyond and out and up. I suppose I'm optimistic. It's quite a surprise to find that in someone who has bouts of clinical depression and anxiety, I think. But it makes it more obvious that depression is an illness and not the person I am at the base.

I know, bone deep, that the world is an amazing place, filled with amazing people. Sometimes, that gets forgotten, or obscured by other things. Perhaps the answers that I'm looking for are more to do with finding the great big Answer* to everything, and so I look to explore the world and to share it with people who are looking for the same. To connect. To touch and be touched. To be vulnerable, because that is how one can really feel, but to be allowed to see the vulnerability in other people, because mutuality is everything. To be part of it. What's the musical with that song in it? I'm sure there is one. That probably betrays quite how cheesy the sentiment is. But it also shows that so much of the world wants the same from their lives, no matter whether they choose to put that desire into cheesy music or films, carve it onto trees, write it down in a way that survives aeons, paint it on canvas in abstract shapes that are all but uninterpretable beyond the artist and a select circle. I suspect that many people don't express it at all; they just find echoes of the desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, to love and be loved, to know, in bad TV or slushy novels or the aforementioned musicals.

No answers, only potential consensus? A parliamentary majority? Who knows. There has to be an arbitrary cut off point at which one goes, 'this I am going to call knowing', or 'this I am going to just believe and hope'.

*Comments about 42 not the point here...

Sunday, 25 January 2009

The day with several meanings.

Not just for me, because every day has several meanings, but it's Holocaust Memorial day today, as well as Burns Night. I suspect that's why I can never remember when Burns Night is, because I nearly always have events of some sort for Holocaust day. The most significant of all of those was Kindertransport. I played the little girl when the Company of Ten* in St Albans did it, and we had an invited audience on the relevant day of local Jews, including some people who had been on the Kindertransport. It was an incredibly moving experience to be part of. The south Herts and north London area is home to a significant Jewish community, and it felt like a very important thing to do. We then did the play again at school as part of our A-level drama, this time with Jewish girls in the cast, singing ancient Jewish songs and texts through it. Makes it all very real. Of course, Holocaust memorial is not just about remembering Hitler's genocide - there have been others since then. Rwanda. Bosnia. Darfur. Iraq. The Greeks and the Turks and the Armenians, though that's part of Bosnia and goes further back than Hitler. Israel, Palestine and the Holy Land in general. People killing one another for senseless reasons. If there are ever sensible reasons. But killing people for what they are perceived to be rather than who they are - for a lie. But then you're always killing for a lie. I'm not sure you can ever kill for really honest reasons. I'm hanging a lot of shorthand on that little six letter word 'honest' now. I've interrogated it enough for one day though. Perhaps I'll try again sometime.

Today, after singing the Eucharist this morning, Sam grabbed a selection of people to try and get hold of someone to do some singing for the Great St Mary's/Michaelhouse commemoration come vigil this evening. Michaelhouse regularly hosts worship for both Jews and Christians, so it's quite a symbolic place all by itself, and there was a (very small) mixed congregation there tonight though most of the form was Christian with a few Jewish prayers and Jewish translations of the Old Testament. I ended up doing 'Oh rest in the Lord' from Mendelssohn's Elijah, which was nerve-wracking but ok. I need to learn to be a better soloist. There was a woman reading, who made one of the other singers cry. It was something she had written herself, nominally poetry though I'd have called it prose. It was very good, just mis-defined. It was mostly concerned with the recollection of an 82 year old man who had been in the camps and survived. It told the story of the cremating of the bodies of people who had died in the ghetto at Terezin. Cremation is something that Jews don't do, so that in itself is a bad thing for them, but the camp leaders actually made them carry out the burnings of the bodies of their friends and fellows, and then, themselves, pour the ashes into the nearby river. The poem thought about one of the boxes, one with the speaker's mother's name on it, splitting in the speaker's hands - leaving the last scraps of the body of the mother on the speaker's hands. And the phrase that stuck with me was, 'How do you brush this off?' Gruesome, perhaps unnecessarily so. The poem needed finesse, because that line doesn't focus the mind on the precise issue I think she was intending it to. But it drives home the horror.

We should remember this. We should remember it and keep it fresh in our minds. Less for the people who have died, though I do not belittle their suffering in any way, because they have gone and nothing more can be done to them; more for those who are alive or yet unborn, so that we as a race are never, ever, responsible for such a thing as this again. If anybody reads this post end to end, and spends a minute on the links, then it has served a greater purpose than much of the other tat I post on here. Maybe they'll pass it around, carrying the memory a little bit higher in their minds for a while, and in a very very small way, maybe that will help a little in keeping humanity from utter barbarism.


Other people's thinking. Auschwitz should stay, and the cost of it should be born as a memory.

*They NEED to sort the website out. Gah. Maybe I should *ACTUALLY* learn some html and go and be useful, because that's horrid.


The following is by C17th English poet George Herbert. I studied it repeatedly during my degree, because it's an interesting conceit and I could feed it nicely into T.S. Eliot's religious stuff. I like the tone and the image is comforting. It's one of the most beautiful rationalisations of the figure of Christ that I've ever come across, no matter what you believe.


Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack'd anything.

'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:'
Love said, 'You shall be he.'
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.'
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
'Who made the eyes but I?'

'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.'
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'
'My dear, then I will serve.'
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.'
So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert, 1593-1633

An honest Burns Night.

I've actually never been to a proper Burns Night. I think it would be fun, though I draw the line at meaty haggis. Veggie haggis is actually really quite good, so I don't feel the need to eat too many innards. Even if it's slightly against my principles to waste parts of any animal. I come up against an ick factor too strong there. If you're curious about the actual content of a haggis, try this though (Guardian picture gallery with amusing captions, not too gruesome I promise!).

I also feel that at some stage I should try and read some Robert Burns, rather than just the famous stuff. The poem below is one of the famous ones, often sung or recited after the meal. The sentiment is sort of the hackneyed 'poor but happy' one that can be rather unpleasant in the wrong circumstances. Burns avoids the patronising tone by refocusing the idea on 'poor but honest', which is much less unpleasant.

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

If you're after the more unintelligible Scots, try here. It's not perfect, but it should allow the sense of the poem to come through.

I like the pragmatism that comes across in this poem. It celebrates a independence of mind, common sense and self-respect as those qualities that make a man. The implication in the poem is that being a man (read, 'human') as hard as you can is the height to which we must aspire. I like the note that a prince can make a duke or a lord or whatever, but he can't make an honest man; that comes from somewhere else. It comes from the inside, and that is more powerful than the most outwardly powerful man in the world.

Honesty is important to me. The more things that happen, the more I believe that. I've had conversations about this several times recently. Some people suggest that hiding things from people for their own benefit is to be valued. I can see the logic. It's one that says, if you really care for this person, you will save them pain as far as possible; you will bear whatever it is for them. But this only works if you have faith in your ability to keep things to yourself and your ability to deal quietly with the ball of knowing that inevitably grows the more you don't talk about it. I'm hopeless at keeping secrets, and hate for other people to be keeping things from me - if I suspect there is something there, and I'm good at picking things like that up, I will needle until I know, even if it might be bad for me. It also depends a bit on the nature of the secret. If it's something that's going to fester, or that won't sort itself out on its own, then hiding is no help. Easy to say; damn near impossible to do. It's taken me a very long time to learn, in my bones rather than in my mind, that it really is better to find that way of sharing, no matter how hard the search might be, because otherwise the mass of the secret gets so large it completely blocks out everything else and there is no way forward. Relationshipness. Difficult.

I think that hiding things, in work, in relationships, creates suspicion - because anyone perceptive will sense something hidden, and anyone curious will try and find it out. And they might find out the wrong thing in the wrong way. At least if one does the telling oneself, one can make sure that things are put in the right way, and no details are confused. I think it saves worry in the future. If there is something that requires lying about or hiding, then it is something wrong, with virtually no exceptions. Keeping things from people for the purposes of surprising them and fun and whatever is entirely different. That goes for honesty with oneself, too - if there is an issue that has to be not thought about, then there is something to think about. Avoiding the issue does not make it go. This is something I have yet to teach myself, properly.

It's kind of hard to explain it. The level at which honesty is important to me goes very deep, and it's always hard to fit words around deep things. It's something that I remember my dad telling me in a 'lessons for life' kind of way. Not patronising or pompously, just telling me because he felt it was an important thing to say. If you're honest with the people around you, and with yourself, then you can't go too far wrong. Yorkshireman.

The importance I give to honesty feeds my need to share quite as much as I do with all sorts of people. I should perhaps do less of that, because other people think it's odd and sometimes intimidating. I did hide things, for a very long time, and all I found it achieved was pain of various sorts, so this is part of trying something else. But there's something about having no qualms about telling people things about myself, because it feeds an honest impression about me in their eyes, and because they're things that I have looked at for myself and feel comfortable about, I guess. That, and I appear to have had a fairly dramatic life over the last six or so years. Not stupidly so, in the context of some of the horrendous things that happen in the world, but enough I hope to have come to an understanding with myself about what is important and what can't hurt to share. And the more that people share of themselves, the better we will all understand one another and the more we can help one another. This is the number one reason, for example, for discussing mental illness and depression. It should be so much less of a taboo, because if more people were able to talk about their experiences then fewer people would feel alone in their pain, and the world would be a better place.

This post is preachy. I'm sorry if that's really how it's coming across. I'm more intending it as an interrogation of something I deeply feel. I'm not trying to convert anyone else to the same beliefs, though I am trying to explain myself a bit. Probably to myself more than anybody else.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Hidden for a while.

I'm going to not exist as myself for a while, or try to. Or at least stop trying to be myself. Be less than that. Rest a bit, I guess. So here's a piece of profound nonsense. I need another new poetry resource. I think I'll buy Rapture at the weekend, lest I publish EVERYTHING Jeanette Winterson thinks is good.

The Blue Guitar

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, 'You have a blue guitar,
You cannot play things as they are.'

The man replied, 'Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.'

And they said then, 'But play, you must
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.'

Wallace Stevens

UPDATE: I just found that this is a tiny excerpt of a much longer poem! I'll have to read it sometime and see what the rest of it says...

I like the silliness of it, and the highlighting of the moment of realisation that people have when the way that they perceive the world is shown to be wrong or not the whole thing, and the excitement of finding a new way of seeing or hearing.


Coming back to this after an evening of thinking about it, it becomes apparent that my assessment of the poem is woefully incomplete. Which I would have picked up if I'd spent more time on my posting. Again. But it could be read in many more ways than the one I chose to focus on yesterday. The people could just as easily be demanding that the guitarist plays things as they are, not acknowledging that things are different on the blue guitar. There could be anguish in the poem from the fact that the musician cannot possibly do what the world demands of him. And there are more interpretations than that, too - it's impossible to pin down 'things exactly as they are' in the context of the poem. Perhaps that's the point.

Is it bad that I'm quite pleased to have learnt more html? I'm sure I'm losing street cred. At some point, you never know, I'll have a go at making this page look a little less generic, but I wouldn't hold your breath.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

When the wind changes.

Today, I'm slightly irritated with the world. Frustrated with its solidity. Confined by it. Cross to have come up against boundaries I don't often have to remember are there. I'm bright, and my family is reasonably well off. I live in one of the most enlightened countries in the world at one of the most enlightened times in history. If you argue with that, find me places that could be better. I have always been able to believe that I can do whatever I want. Not in a selfish way - well, I could, but that's not what I mean. I have more opportunities than very nearly everybody else in the world. But still, there are limits. Where is the infinite, that the child knows? Today I can't see it.

I'm restless. I need to move on - pick a different life and live it for a while. Not sit couch potatoed in this rut. Find the energy to pick up new ways of being. I could try and do that in ways that perhaps nobody else would notice, but I am getting toward needing to do something big. I need to gather the energy for it. Wind myself up for a trigger. But I know from long experience that I can keep winding for a very long time before I set going, and there's no guarantee that something won't snap or unwind all at once with no progress. For a woman, I'm surprisingly bad at doing two things at once. Thinking two things, fine, but less good at doing them. I will find it difficult to give the energy to finding a new way while I'm still stuck with this way. I suppose part of my difficulty is purely my indecisiveness. I have made unequivocal statements here, but that doesn't mean they're the side of the argument that my ever-divided mind will eventually come down on. So much is dependent. A pot that could boil over or keep roiling away never quite making it but never settling. That's not a perfect metaphor.

I am going to switch my mind off, in the hope that a break will make the decision. Leave things in limbo. I dither, always, because I need to find a way of going forwards that does not cut off the way back. Continuity is a necessity for me. If I don't have it, I will become unstuck.

I suspect I have stopped making a great deal of sense. That life switch off button.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Today Barak Obama became King of the World.

Or so it feels. The romance that has become associated with this whole handover of power seems to come from some medieval French story about chivalry and honour. Le Morte D'Arthur and elements of the Pentecostal Oath. In fact, maybe that's appropriate. Here is the man appointed by some higher order, who has come from low degree, or at least his race has in the history of America, recognised by a token and the hope of the people. But the Morte D'Arthur is not about a truly great king. It is about someone human, who make mistakes and is cruel and hurts his fellows - whose private life is a mess. There are disasters to which Arthur does not necessarily react in the best way he could, for all the veneration he earns and still does. I would rather Barak Obama tried to adhere to some of the values of chivalry that we do still espouse as a global community, than try to be the perfect image of kingliness that has transmuted itself into the idea of statesmanship. Of personal integrity, defence of the weak, fighting for right or, just as importantly, fighting against wrong. If he can do half of that, he will have earnt a measure of the hope that we as a world have allowed ourselves to vest in him.

Just food for thought, that I found the other day. See here for the reference.

What If

If you can keep your money when governments about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.
If you can trust your neighbour when they trust not you
And they be very nosy too;
If you can await the warm delights of summer
Then summer comes and goes with sun not seen,
And pay so much for drinking water
Knowing that the water is unclean.

If you seek peace in times of war creation,
And you can see that oil merchants are to blame,
If you can meet a pimp or politician,
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you cannot bear dis-united nations
And you think this new world order is a trick,
If you've ever tried to build good race relations,
And watch bad policing mess your work up quick.

If you can make one heap of all your savings
And risk buying a small house and a plot,
Then sit back and watch the economy inflating
Then have to deal with the negative equity you've got.
If you can force your mind and body to continue
When all the social services have gone,
If you struggle on when there is nothing in you,
Except the knowledge that justice cannot be wrong.

If you can speak the truth to common people
Or walk with Kings and Queens and live no lie,
If you can see how power can be evil
And know that every censor is a spy;
If you can fill the unforgiving lifetime
With years of working hard to make ends meet,
You may not be wealthy but I am sure you will find
That you can hold your head high as you walk the streets.

Benjamin Zephaniah

I actually prefer the original of this poem. Zephaniah is reactionary and specific, and for technical poetry the Kipling beats him hands down. The Kipling has rhythm and drive and sense missing from the update. But there are things in the new version that remind us how important the old one was, too. It acts as a critique. The final verse, I guess, is what I'd like to imagine as the life manifesto for someone in a position like Obama's. Very similar to the Pentecostal Oath, really. Speak for the common people. Keep your head. No arrogance. Work hard. Fight for justice. Have compassion. Be clear-eyed. Please? We, the world, need this from you. Perfect success is too much to hope for, but a worthwhile shot shouldn't be. What we want from our leaders hasn't changed in a thousand years. Have a crack. Like a strongman contest. Can YOU make the bell ring?

In an aside, I miss my copy of the Malory. I love that book. I need to re-read it, again. It might be written in C15th English in the Caxton edition, but it's such a wonderful story and really not impenetrable. It is, incidentally, one of the earliest works of fiction to be published in England (definition of 'work of fiction' dependent on your feelings about the Bible). If you can read Shakespeare, you will find this easy. I wrote so much on it for my degree - I ought to know chunks by heart. I probably still do. All of those images that you heard once, of knights and round tables and great deeds of adventure and love and betrayal, come from here (bar the odd French source of a similar period). They might be hackneyed now, but here is the first fresh telling of the tale. Go. Read like a child! I did.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Wildness and exhilaration.

I am glad that there are things of which we still are not in control. This is a terrible thing, for all that nobody actually died - don't get me wrong. But the sea is still somewhere where we do not have full control, where there are pirates and dangers and little is easy. And that is exciting. Our world has become so much more controlled. The touring cruise ships try and carry that bubble of security with them as they cross the oceans, but it is fake - witness the Titanic. That was landlubbing luxury carried onto the sea, where it dissolved. And the laws of the sea are ancient and piratical, too. If I've understood it correctly, and I may well not have, whichever ship rescued the one that was floundering is automatically liable to claim unspecified and often large salvage costs from the one in trouble. That was how people were once encouraged to rescue one another at sea - because the reward was so extravagant. There are some truly horrific tales of when this has gone wrong, because the skipper of the boat in trouble won't accept assistance because his vessel will then be forfeit and people die (I believe laws of salvage and contracts for it were amended considerably after the Penlee disaster in that link). But the sea is a law unto itself. Enormously exciting; enormously terrifying. No risk, no gain. Large risks - large gain. A gamble every step. But we use it every day, especially in an island nation like ours. The sea is prosperity and disaster, requiring bravery and guts to traverse, but addictive to those who understand it. Not that I am one of those, even if I probably have more idea than some given my hydrophilic family.

I am glad there are wildnesses that we really will never tame; that will never be totally safe and sterile. I am exhilarated by the risk of them - even me, who often seems to be distressed by things like that, love that sense of adventure.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Old things, re-found.

Edinburgh in August

Gentle, shiny August evening – a Saturday so no hurry.
That sceptre of our land the umbrella is held loosely in hand,
And jackets are removed to hang beside.
The passersby slip serenely through glinty shimmering tunnels of air
Towards evenings of blameless conviviality and simple pleasures.

I’m curled up half tired in a seat by the door to this weekend world;
Eyes squinting against the westering glare, musing
With a sort of unhurried elation, like familiar morning sex,
On simple, smooth, and gliding words to describe in glistening lines
The luxury of one evening’s decadent freedom.

The trailing fingers of the sun brush the hills and hollows of the town,
And warm breath leeches tension from frenetic life.
Through my half-closed eyes, I watch brilliant fireworks of orangey gold
Slipping behind buildings with a silent magnificence
That drowns the bumbling traffic and the bleating human voices.
I shiver a little as the light dims and the twilight lethargy fades out
To the glare of darkness.

This must be 3 years old at least. I can't find the original date. I remember it though. I need to find that simplicity again. I have it, but never the leisure to put it down.

Do I dare?


Uninvited, the thought of you stayed too late in my head.
so I went to bed, dreaming you hard, hard, woke with your name,
like tears, soft, salt, on my lips, the sound of its bright syllables
like a charm, like a spell.

Falling in love
is glamorous hell: the crouched, parched heart
like a tiger, ready to kill; a flame’s fierce licks under the skin.
into my life, larger than life, you strolled in.

I hid in my ordinary days, in the long grass of routine,
in my camouflage rooms. You sprawled in my gaze,
staring back from anyone’s face, from the shape of a cloud,
from the pining, earth-struck moon which gapes at me

as I open the bedroom door. The curtains stir. There you are
on the bed, like gift, like a touchable dream.


I like pouring your tea, lifting
the heavy pot, and tipping it up,
so the fragrant liquid streams in your china cup.

Or when you’re away, or at work,
I like to think of your cupped hands as you sip,
as you sip, of the faint half-smile of your lips.

I like the questions – sugar? – milk? –
and the answers I don’t know by heart, yet,
for I see your soul in your eyes, and I forget.

Jasmine, Gunpowder, Assam, Earl Grey, Ceylon,
I love tea’s names. Which tea would you like? I say
but it’s any tea for you, please, any time of day,

as the women harvest the slopes
for the sweetest leaves, on Mount Wu-Yi,
and I am your lover, smitten, straining your tea.

Carol Ann Duffy, Rapture, 2006 Winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize

The images of new love are brilliant - the idea of enjoying the small things about someone, particularly visible in the second poem, is exciting and real. Of enjoying NOT knowing, knowing that you are going to learn. In the first poem, it is the idea that someone else can walk into your life seemingly unaware, unaffected, while you have to hide from the earthquake of their presence in the ordinary that is most effective. But if it's really love, then the invader and the invaded are the same person. That first poem speaks as an individual - that feels odd. One only has one's own feelings to write about, certainly, but an impression of mutuality is missing from the first poem. Isn't it? Though it is possible to love someone who does not feel the same. Is that really loving? Doesn't love demand some interplay between two people?

I have found a new resource for poetry, having nearly exhausted the books I keep around me. I have found a few things in it over the last few weeks, and inspiration for a few more things. She's a peculiar woman, that one. I'd be intrigued to meet her, though I wonder whether or not I'd actually like her. I get the impression I'd have got on with her younger self but not the person she is now. She has had a hard life, but that only makes her more interesting. I haven't finished with that site yet.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Café day.

The man on the next table sat down, wrenched open his bag and snatched out a thick book. Not cheap crime fiction, this, but something altogether weightier. You can tell by the paper. He sat on the edge of his seat, leaning forward over the little plastic table, and ripped it open - still wearing his outdoor clothes. It flopped to reveal a Tweetie Pie bookmark in purple and yellow, and he impatiently pulled at the pages, throwing Tweetie aside and finding his place. Then, twiddling his glasses restlessly, he began to read.

I was envious of him. I have had that feeling myself; the urgency and need to read, to know, to understand. To be so involved with a story that the everyday world feels faint - the words on the page become so much more real. Ah. He closed the book: it is revealed as War and Peace, which I've never actually read. Never really felt inclined to - very long, C19th serialised novel in translation? All turn offs. But berhaps now I'll pick it up, having seen the effect it had on someone. Ha - this guy's fickle. He put down the Tolstoy and picked up Words of Mercury by Patrick Leigh Fermor, of whom I've never heard but who sounds interesting from the Wikipedia article. It seems he is erudite. Which is hardly surprising in this city. Slouching over his seat and peering over his glasses, he'd be an attractive Cambridge arty type, if I found Cambridge arty types attractive. The slack-jawed vacancy of his reading face and the uncontrollable fidgeting offset the self-conscious brown cords and tweed jacket and make him altogether more likable.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Not enough time to deal with hurting.

So here is, yet another, poem.

Comeclose and Sleepnow

it is afterwards
and you talk on tiptoe
happy to be part
of the darkness
lips becoming limp
a prelude to tiredness.
Comeclose and Sleepnow
for in the morning
when a policeman
disguised as the sun
creeps into the room
and your mother
disguised as birds
calls from the trees
you will put on the dress of guilt
and the shoes with broken high ideals
and refusing coffee
Roger McGough

The things that take you away from comeclose and sleepnow are not your mother, or someone so completely external. The guilt isn't for a simple one night stand. And there is more at stake than one simple night of happiness and comfort. It is the rest of life. It is everything, that is at stake. It isn't fleeting. That poem can only be read once. Comeclose and sleepnow. It only happens with one person. It doesn't. You dream it with others, and the speaker could be dreaming it there. It is only real with one person. Don't go. Don't go. Don't go. Don't go. Don't go. Don't go. Don't go. It was the nightingale and not the lark that pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear. Believe me, love, it was the nightingale! I'm sorry. I will have to take this down in the morning. But now, I don't care.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Not time.

So here is, yet another, poem.

Comeclose and Sleepnow

it is afterwards
and you talk on tiptoe
happy to be part
of the darkness
lips becoming limp
a prelude to tiredness.
Comeclose and Sleepnow
for in the morning
when a policeman
disguised as the sun
creeps into the room
and your mother
disguised as birds
calls from the trees
you will put on the dress of guilt
and the shoes with broken high ideals
and refusing coffee
Roger McGough

I love the cleverness with words. It could have been self-conscious in the playing with homonyms and rhymes (gilt/guilt, heels/ideals), but it just seems to be pleased to be able to play. The elision of certain words has the same playful feeling to it. I love the fact that the the dress of guilt and the broken ideals are things one has to put on - it's a show, not real, taken up at the insistence of external forces. Neither are things that, underneath the trappings, one really feels. The light of day hides the honesty of the night. The darkness is happy, the day is guilty. 'It was the nightingale and not the lark that pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear. Believe me, love, it was the nightingale!'* It is not until the policeman-day creeps insidiously into the room that there must be guilt, and consequences, and no coffee.

I love the image of 'talking on tiptoe'. I think it was about seventy percent of the reason I wanted to post it. It seems so appropriate for the moment where there has to be talking, but there is no wish to disturb the mood or the moment. Delicate, gentle. More than that. 'Comeclose and Sleepnow' couldn't happen if there wasn't the fragile and insubstantial softness of talking on tiptoe. I think the elision adds a childlike quality to the writing, and the sleep is very innocent because of it, despite the fact that we know that this is a poem that starts after sex. The sex is innocent and pure and childlike. The morning, the running away, is hard and external and disturbs the honesty of the two people and their feelings.

*Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 5.

What I think it means to be alive.

Do other people understand what I do by reality, and being awake, and experiencing? I know some do, but they seem few. It's like the Oscar Wilde quote - 'Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation.' Maybe other people just don't talk about it in the way I feel compelled to. That is why I want to make more of those quotations than just posting them here without interrogation. They are there to try to interpret my 'passions', but they fall so short.

By reality and being awake and experiencing, I mean living not existing. Living is about honesty. About feeling. About noticing. It is not about 'pastimes', which is a turn of phrase illustrative of a way of thinking I don't like. Nothing in real living is undertaken 'just to pass the time'. Time is incredibly precious, and not to be squandered on things that are not worth every second it takes to complete them. Complex value. Real life is about being switched on to the surroundings, poking your head above the crowd. Seeing the architecture above the glitzy shop fronts. Hearing the wind or the birds in the cities. A violin from a 4th floor window. People having sex in a field as the train goes past. Living is about living like a child, where the world is still raw and everything is interesting and new and equally fascinating. It is about thinking just a little bit further than the next pay check or the next task. It asks why? of everything. The answer is never 'because'. That is one of the biggest lies-to-children that adults perpetuate. Even if the answer is unknown, it can be a story, or a dream, or an idea. It tells children to accept that there are things that they are not to examine and try to comprehend. It quashes imagination.

Living is painful. Which is why we, I, shut it off. The painful parts, honestly experienced, are nearly more than we can bear. Feeling properly, it seems we cry every tear in our bodies and then some more. Ever cried so much you've been sick? But the flip side of that is that when living is beautiful and perfect, you get to experience the incredible buzz. High on life. Really high. Where everything becomes brighter and purer and clearer and just breathing can be exciting. When every sense is enhanced. You have to take the highs and the lows. And know that that is reality. The fog in which most people seem to pass their lives is not real.


I read this back, this blog, and it is insipid. I censor things, so as not to hurt people. I have other writing that's more personal, but even less considered. In some ways it is less important. I want to think harder about what I write and make more of an impact. I hide behind quotations of various sorts. I do group them around things I'm thinking about, but I have been failing to interrogate them properly, so that nobody else understands them (which is partly in self-defence, that I wish I could get past), but it means that I might forget why I found them important at a particular moment, too.

I try and write blog entries in half hours, and I need to find several hours. Time for finding the references that have influenced my day or my week or my life, time for typing them up (!), time to sit down and think about why they are important to me. If I did that, though, I would find all of the points where the quotations I use are not enough for the thoughts I'm thinking, and I'd try and write my own. Which would be a good thing, but I'd need to be writing all day, all of the time. I found the poem I wrote when Paddy died, after a bit of a hunt. I was pleased with that, despite how painful it was to write. I could concentrate on writing about the fear of a damaging love just then, because I was escaping from feeling for her to a certain extent. Still feel I should have done more for her. Another story. But I wrote that fast. I often don't write very fast, not that kind of writing. I have a million ideas for thinking about, and can't get them on to paper before the next one comes along. I end up sloshing prose, or approximating with other people's poetry, when what I want to do is focus and distil and make pictures that say what I think and feel.

I have lost something unbelievably important. At least lost in one way. I know I haven't lost it entirely, because I have also for a while had possession of the greatest thing anyone ever can have. It is lending an urgency to my need to write. This height of feeling does not, must not, last, and I want to be able to remember the shape of it, while I can just bear the pain of it. Before I have to put it aside and forget about feeling for a bit. I must be numb for a while, in order that when I come back to all of this (I will come back to all of this) the raw edges of the wound where it has had to rip away have had a chance to heal a little.

I'm sorry. I probably share too much. I'm safe enough while few enough people who know me and my life well read this, and I need to say these things, somewhere. Not just to myself, where I can imagine I imagine. I could go back to LJ and lock things, but I don't like LJ. Let me know if (when) I go too far.

Out of context.

I'm in the middle of thinking about something else. I wrote this when a friend of mine died, as a way of hiding from it, really. It isn't about her. It's about something entirely different. Fear of loving, I think. I just wanted it somewhere I could find it. I might have posted it on here before, but if I did I didn't tag it properly. Sorry if you've seen it before! Like I said, it's not relevant at the moment, but I just wondered where it was.

Wrap me in cotton wool: don’t let me touch
You lying there in your matchbox disused -
Where your sting’s curled in tight to your belly
And your hands are balled in to your heart.
You – circular, insular involved in
Yourself – don’t let me close, to protect
By entrapping, in an empty case
Once so full of quickened fire but no more.
You didn’t hide me or smother me
Or sting me and drive me back from you.
You didn’t move, and I closed the trap:
Your empty shell now lies in my lap.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009


I Am Not Yours

I am not yours, not lost in you,
Not lost, although I long to be
Lost as a candle lit at noon,
Lost as a snowflake in the sea.

You love me, and I find you still
A spirit beautiful and bright,
Yet I am I, who long to be
Lost as a light is lost in light.

Oh plunge me deep in love -- put out
My senses, leave me deaf and blind,
Swept by the tempest of your love,
A taper in a rushing wind.

Sarah Teasdale, written on the eve of her wedding to a man she didn't love, in 1914 when she was 30.

No agenda. This poem was set to music in the concert I was singing in tonight, and it just struck something. Enjoy.

P.S. I've edited the previous post with some more explanations...

Monday, 12 January 2009

Life as art. Control of existence. The thrill of the individual.

'One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.'
Oscar Wilde, 'Phrases and Philosophies for the use of the Young', first published in Chameleon in December 1894

'What is abnormal in Life stands in normal relations to Art. It is the only thing in Life that stands in normal relations to Art.'
Oscar Wilde, 'A few Maxims for the instruction of the Over-Educated', first published in the Saturday Review in November, 1894

'To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.'

'It will be a marvellous thing - the true personality of man - when we see it. It will grow naturally and simply, flowerlike, or as a tree grows. It will not be at discord. It will never argue or dispute. It will not prove things. It will know everything. And yet it will not busy itself about knowledge. It will have wisdom. Its value will not be measured by material things. It will have nothing. And yet it will have everything, and whatever one takes from it, it will still have, so rich will it be. It will not be always meddling with others, it will help all, as a beautiful things helps us by being what it is. The personality of a man will be very wonderful. It will be as wonderful as the personality of a child.'

'The message of Christ to man was simply 'Be thyself.' That is the secret of Christ.'

'There is no one type for man. There are as many perfections as there are imperfect men.'

'Man has sought to live intensely, fully, perfectly. When he can do so without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever, and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilised, more himself.'
Oscar Wilde, 'The Soul of Man under Socialism', first published in the Fortnightly Review in 1891

'I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art. I altered the minds of men and the colours of things; there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder: I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet, at the same time that I widened its range and enriched its characterisation; drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty: to truth itself I gave what is false no less that what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase and all existence in an epigram.'

'At every single moment of one's life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been.'

'It is tragic how few people ever 'possess their souls' before they die. 'Nothing is more rare in any man,' says Emerson, 'than an act of his own.' It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their life a mimicry, their passions a quotation.'

'...every moment should be beautiful, that the soul should always be ready for the coming of the Bridegroom, always waiting for the voice of the Lover.' (NB the references here are to the The Song of Songs)

Oscar Wilde, 'De Profundis', the letter written from Reading Gaol to Lord Alfred Douglas in the spring of 1897

'Preventing oneself from dying is not living.'

'Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting.'

'I am among those to whom the superfluous is necessary.'

Théophile Gautier, from the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, published in Paris in 1835


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley, 1849–1903

I'm tired today. I suspect some people will read the Wilde quotations especially as displaying a great arrogance in the man, which they do, out of context. But he was a great artist and an incredible man. What's the difficulty with him realising that? He was in enormous pain of the soul when he was writing 'De Profundis', and died not a great deal later. These quotations are, to me, about the relationship between living, truth and art. Ways I would like to be able to be, I suppose.

Here is the opposite, to the optimism of 'Invictus' above. We've moved on by more than half a century, and I suspect the pride and might and strength that was Britain in the late C19 has given way to post-war, post-colonial modernist and post-modern loneliness. I almost feel like writing a piece of comparative practical criticism, there's so much that could be taken from the two of them. If I ever have to set an essay for an English student of any sort...

Both poems express the isolation of humanity, but 'Invictus' imbues the solitary state of man with a proud dignity, whereas in Gunn's poem the 'individual' is resolute, guarding and wary. Both figures are soldiers, and imagery of war is present in both. The soldier of 'Invictus', though, is stalwart, proud, almost optimistic in the face of the enemy. Gunn's soldier is a guard; suspicious, alert - surrounded by mercenaries whose motives and intentions are not to be trusted. The figure is cut off and waiting for things to happen. He seeks, but does not find. 'Invictus' is much more engaged with his world - things happen to him. He is a victim of chance and circumstance, and suffers the buffets of time. But whatever menace the years bring, this man is certain of himself and his mastery of that. Despite the undoubted influence of chance, he himself has control. Gunn's speaker is not certain of himself, he tells us that he 'must/ Find out the limitation/ Of mind and universe.' He does not even suggest why, just that he does not know. There is no mastery here. This is the point at which the dates of the two poems can most clearly be felt; post-Freud and psychoanalysis, the self has become a frail thing. Before the 'discovery' of the subconscious, a man could be certain of his own mind. He need not be scared of it. Undoubtedly, many people in the C19th did feel scared of their own demons, but it was a much more nebulous and less universal thing than it became with the modernists.

The two endings are interesting, partly for their similarity. The epigrammatic two lines at the end of 'Invictus' must be some of the most oft-quoted in all English poetry. Their triumphant air in the face of the adversity of life is uplifting. But it is unrealistic. We know that we are not masters of our fates or captains steering the unknowable course of the soul. The Gunn ending is far more enigmatic but far more realistic, it seems to me. We are born into an unknowing, unformed, vaguely sinister existence - a fog, perhaps a barren wasteland or the possibility of a wasted existence - walk without assistance and alone through all the might-bes and the might-have-beens - all the hypotheses. The final line could be read bitterly, decrying the fate which cuts us off from the world with moats and sentries and darkness, or it, too, could have an element of triumph about it. By the end, the poem has moved past the point where the speaker is 'condemned' to individuality. It is recognised that no problem must be faced until it has occurred. Therefore, with eyes open, despite the fog, which echoes the darkness that Henley recognises in the other poem, we walk through our lives for ourselves - individual, in control, with nobody else responsible for our path. The thought is comforting and terrifying, and the two pieces catch the nuances.

Human Condition

Now it is fog. I walk
Contained within my coat;
No castle more cut off
By reason of its moat:
Only the sentry's cough,
The mercenaries' talk.

The street lamps, visible,
Drop no light on the ground,
But press beams painfully
In a yard of fog around.
I am condemned to be
An individual.

In the established border
There balances a mere
Pinpoint of consciousness.
I stay, or start from, here:
No fog makes more or less
The neighbouring disorder.

Particular, I must
Find out the limitation
Of mind and universe.
To pick thought and sensation
And turn to my own use
Disordered hate or lust.

I seek, to break, my span.
I am my one touchstone.
This is a test more hard
Than any ever known.
And thus I keep my guard
On that which makes me man.

Much is unknowable.
No problem shall be faced
Until the problem is;
I, born to fog, to waste,
Walk through hypothesis,
An individual.
Thom Gunn, something like the 1950s (I WISH I could find better references for this poem, I'd love to read the rest of whatever collection it's in)


a part. Again. I have this feeling sometimes. Divorced from the world, being two different people, somehow. Acting cheerful and happy and hyper and ignoring the screaming part of me that wants to do the opposite - curl up in a dark place and make myself small and hide and cry like a child. Or being miserable and weepy when half of me is saying 'go out and play', though that is less common. Acting happy is a way of staving off real misery for a bit, of packing things away that can't be dealt with until they're at greater distance and better able to be understood. Sometimes it falls apart, usually when I'm tired. If I was being particularly successful at being happy, sometimes I haven't realised the pain is there and it all crashes down at once.

None of that is happening, nobody worry. I have epic mood swings, as anyone who has spent ANY time around me knows, and it's not like the world has been exactly stable for the last few months. It was just a thought that occurred to me, really, about things that sometimes happen.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

These are the days of miracles and wonder.

Music's amazing. How are there people that don't listen to it or play it? I come home, I put something to listen to on. I listen all day at my desk. I put it on in the car. I listen on the train. I listen walking about. And if I haven't got phones in my ears, I'm listening in my head, or singing out loud. I look forward to choir practice, to spending time with a piano (for preference) or failing that nearly anything that is tuned so that I can practice songs I adore. The title of the post comes from a song called 'I know what I know' from the album Graceland by Paul Simon. I did nearly call it 'Thank you for the days', from the song 'Days' by The Kinks. Either sentiment fits what I want to say, but I like the sense of immediacy of the one I chose. Now is the moment. Carpe diem, and all that - you will never get it back. Now is for living in, don't wait. But The Kinks line is necessary, too. It is just as important to realise what you have had, how you have lived - what happened, what it means, what you take from it, how you apply it to the days that will happen in future. That sounds really clinical, when I write it down. It was quite a poetic thought in my head. At least I avoided the use of 'evaluation'. The lyrics of that song are fantastic. Simple, but effective. I can't work out the song's mood though, probably because I can't work out my own. Up and down again.

Music just has a way of underlining existence. Oli Robinson had something when he put together Something about life and music.... I have become addicted to Graceland. I have listened to it at least once, most days, since about the middle of November. I know it by heart. It's part of the experience of my life at the moment. I couldn't tell you why, though. Why THAT album. It's undeniably great. It has pathos and power and melody and harmony and tune and lyrics that intrigue and captivate. It wavers on the border of old fashioned and almost modern pop in places. It carries folk and elements of rock. It's of its time, in the recording quality if nowhere else. (And in its obsession with potted drums - lots of clipped tight noises, which I think sound hopeless...what's wrong with acoustic?! You just stop it sounding real. But that particular sound dates it for me. Not that we don't have that around now, but I don't really think it sounds the same.)

But actually, the lyrics of the songs don't resonate specifically with my life. Well, they do, but I could find more emotive things to hear, I think. The album flicks between moods. It's young, but learning; it's attached to life but sees the pain. I think that's it. It's romantic, even though I don't think it's really about love. During SAL&M, Sarah Lambie said it was something she and her Dad had listened to it while driving around the Peak District, when she was a kid. That's her connection to it. And it IS good driving music - the songs seem to have that movement to them. They don't finish where they started. I can't explain it, you'll have to listen and see if you can hear it, too. It's also enormously American. There's an enormous scope to it that seems silly in England. And I want that scope. Not that I think England CAN'T offer it, but it is different. Here it is slow. There is an immediacy to Graceland that seems odd in this country that can be so ponderous. Too much weight of history. Mostly, I love the history, but sometimes it seems like it might be limiting us. I don't know. I don't know anything really about America. I'm working from a nebulous folk impression of the place, of which Graceland has become inextricably part, now. That, and Stephen Fry's America programmes that were on in October and November and were fantastic. I become more in awe of that guy all the time.

I've talked about music for ages. Which is hopefully a little more interesting than my slightly excited countdown of simple things that have made me hungover happy this week. You get both...
  • John and I cooked the pheasants Will shot for dinner on Thursday. It went SO well. I was so pleased. Not that it was complicated, we just covered the things in bacon and butter and roasted them with pears and onions and juniper, and served them with mustard roast potatoes and parsnips, with spicy cabbage and a mushroom and white wine vinegar gravy. It was a bit hotch-potch because too many people had been in charge of shopping and we didn't have quite what we really wanted. Worked out pretty damn well though! I love watching people eat food that I cooked. It's satisfying. Yes, probably even satisfying some maternal instinct. A very old way of showing people you care, but there are reasons for that. This event made me hungover, however. We started with G&Ts mixed by John, then moved on to the wine (there were six of us, and we probably drank 3 bottles of wine...not THAT bad...yet), and then started on the port. We drank 2 bottles of port. And then went on to spirits... Good job work is REALLY dull at the moment and only Jenny was in the office on Friday, really.
  • I went to London yesterday, to see Pete McDonald, mostly. We had lunch at Wahaca in Covent Garden, which was fantastic fun, then saw Slumdog Millionaire in Leicester Square. The film is billed as something like 'the feelgood film of the year', which is a load of rubbish...I cried a couple of times, but then I'm soft-hearted. It's fantastic. Cheesy in places and occasionally lacking much sophistication, which is unsurprising given it has Bollywood roots, but still a wonderful thing to have seen. India is a place of extremes. It frightened me because I couldn't get to grips with them. I shouldn't have been trying. But it was brilliant.
  • We then wandered over to the National Portrait Gallery, because we had some time to kill and figured it would be warm there (it was -5. I didn't have a hat. I wasn't impressed). They had the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize on display. It would have been more powerful if it had been less busy (the whole city was heaving yesterday - I had difficulty finding a seat on my train in), but it was still an experience. At a very simple level, technically brilliant photographs of people that are blown up more than life size are always going to be arresting. Some of them were generic images, in terms of facial expressions or of pose or whatever. Or some were over-worked, trying too hard and falling down - like the iconic picture of the girl with the plastic bag on her's too didactic. I don't feel I have the same lack of comprehension about photographs that I do about paintings. I think I know more about what I like, and more about the process and everything. And so I feel a bit more able to judge, at least against my own measures. I suppose that in photography I HAVE my own measures. I know what I'm trying to achieve when I take pictures for myself. Though if you actually asked me a bit more about what that was I'd find it hard. There were some that spoke, that you wanted to know more about, that drew you in to their eyes or their story.
  • I then headed off to meet up with a few other people and catch up with the world over girly dinner. I always go to London feeling the need to make the most of the time (especially since they've put the damn fares up again...not long now before a Young Persons' Travelcard from Cambridge will be over £20...), and I'm always shattered when I come home again. I love the whirlwind experience though. I met up with three sets of people, all of whom come from different areas of my life. I love the interaction of all of that. And meeting up with lots of people almost guarantees too much when I got back to Cambridge at 1am I was pretty shattered. And THEN there were people online to chat to, to complete the social events of the day. 'Social events' has a derogatory tone to it. My Saturday had nothing derogatory or generic or ordinary about it.
Oh, and I had some luck in my exam on Wednesday. It has been a week of extremes. Bit like the film. Bedtime.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

So I don't forget what I did...

Apologies if you were expecting a deep and meaningful analysis of life today, but I have to put this down somewhere. Also, I need to pay attention and get some things ready for tomorrow. I'm not procrastinating AT ALL. Ahem.

Chilli Pork Stew

The following was adapted from a Jamie recipe I've liked the sound of for ages, but I wanted to make it with chilli spices rather than goulash spices, because those were what I had... Amounts only differ from his recipe when I used what I had to hand rather than what he required, and as I say I've changed the flavourings. The kidney beans are extra, mostly added because I knew my piece of pork was a bit small. However, I thought they worked quite well anyway because their slightly more solid and grainy texture contrasts nicely to the soft silkiness of the stew.

- 1.5kg pork shoulder, fat on (mine had skin on too, I spent a while taking it off and leaving the fat on - would have made ace crackling! Came from the pig lady at the Sunday market, who grows free range pork about 20 miles away, if that, it's ace.)

- 5 large peppers, ideally a mixture of colours

- 2 large red onions, sliced into half moons

- Quite a lot of hot red chillis. I used a random selection of types, including some smoked chipotles and some canned chipotles I was kindly given, but if I was doing it again I'd probably go with 2-3 habaneros? Or 6 ordinary red ones? The dish makes about 6 servings, so if you go with about how much chilli one person might eat and multiply it up, and then add a bit it should be about right. I think that this dish was considerably less spicy when I tasted it at the start than it had become when we sat down to eat it, and anyway once you add sour cream it's a lot softer... I think the smokiness was particularly good, actually, so if there are smoked chillis go with those. I might have added some smoked paprika if I hadn't had the chillis, that seems easier to get, but I have found it quite overpowering in the past. Toasting dried chillis in a pan until they go black is another technique for getting that flavour, I believe, but I haven't tried it.

- NO GARLIC (I only add this point because I was surprised that I was cooking something with no garlic.)

- Half a large (350g) jar of roasted peppers, drained and sliced

- 1 tin good quality peeled plum tomatoes

- A bunch of fresh oregano/marjoram. I had dried, and used about 2 dessertspoonfuls...

- 1 heaped dessertspoonful of cumin (I LOVE cumin)

- 3 tablespoons sherry vinegar (The recipe actually calls for red wine vinegar, but Sainsburys annoyingly didn't have any. This seemed to work fine!)

- 1 tin kidney beans in water, drained

- Olive oil, for frying

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade. Score the pork through the fat right down to the meat and rub all over with salt and black pepper. Heat a slug of olive oil in a large stew pot with a lid (like the one my parents bought me for Christmas, it's BEAUTIFUL), and fry the meat fat-side down on a medium heat for about 15 minutes to render out some of the fat.

Remove the meat and set to one side. Add the onions, stir, and cook for 10 minutes until softened. Meanwhile, toast the cumin seeds in a dry frying pan until fragrant, and then crush in a pestle and mortar. Add the fresh peppers to the pot (in stages, if like mine the pot is only just big enough and you have to cook the peppers down a bit (about 20 minutes with the lid on) before trusting that everything will fit!), and then add the oregano, chillis of whatever sort, NO GARLIC, cumin, tomatoes, jarred peppers and the vinegar. Season well, with loads of pepper in particular (I add so little salt to my food unless I'm cooking lentils or beans, which seem to need it more than anything else - I just add vinegar or citrus juice to other things, and pepper if I'm cooking Western food. I do use a load of salty ingredients, like cheese or soy sauce, or the canned chillis here, so it's not like there ISN'T salt. I am more or less guaranteed high blood pressure though, so I probably under-salt things out of trying to behave more than I would if I was purely cooking for taste...), stir it all around and bring to a simmer for 5 minutes or so.

Return the pork to the pot, put the lid on, and shake to mix everything together (again, my pot wasn't quite big enough, and it's also bloody heavy, so I just took about half the things out of the pot, put the meat in and pushed it down among the veg, and put everything back on top). If the meat isn't completely covered, top up with hot water or red wine if you happened to have some open, then stick the pot in the oven for about 3 hours.

Test towards the end of the cooking time - the meat should be completely falling apart. If it's not, put it back for a while. I suspect it's pretty hard to over cook; such things are. Shred the meat up a bit with two forks, so that it's easy to serve and everything is properly covered in sauce. Add the drained kidney beans, stir, and return to the off-but-still-hot oven to warm through while you cook some rice - brown is actually better then white for this, I think. Just something about the texture.

Serve with rice, soured cream, garlic bread which should be eaten with everything*, and a sprinkling of parsley if feeling decadent.

I was REALLY pleased with this. And spent too much of today dreaming up more stew recipes. Have to go and find the right piece of meat though. The fat content is so important - fat and flavour, and all of that. This will be a trip, finally, to Andy Northrop's the butchers on Mill Road. About bloody time. I also need to try and use the veg in season. Peppers from Spain are not de rigeur in any sort of eco-friendly sense. I know that Spain is nearer than Israel where other out-of-season peppers come from, and therefore not so bad on the airmiles counter, but there are serious water issues with Spanish veg. I don't know a great many of the details, but it's the kind of thing my mum knows about. Something to do with water imports and rationing and the water management of the entire Iberian peninsula. I probably ought to look into it, because I may arbitrarily be not choosing my veg from Spain when other European countries have their own issues, but I'm pretty sure that the Spanish situation is quite important. So, it's UK-grown root veg, leeks, cabbages and mushrooms. MANY mushrooms. That's a beef stew, there. All served with cabbage or spinach or something like that. I could do a Chinese flavoured pork thing with those stir fried and added at the end. Tinned tomatoes and tinned butter beans and chickpeas, with some harissa and citrus (I MUST try and pickle some lemons, it's SO easy...) and red wine for a lamb tagine thing maybe. Rogan josh. I sent the old Robinson crew a very long email detailing stew plans this afternoon - I was bored in the middle of our discussion of the reunion later this month. Right. MUST get on now...

*It may have come to your attention that I have just remembered what the html tag for strikethrough is and am overusing it. Hush.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Link day, and something about guts.

This amused me at work today. It's a lovely little story, if you take it from the children's point of view, though their poor parents must have been frantic. It's an attitude I would have love to have to life, really. The childish simplicity of 'I want to do this. I'm going to do this. I'm not even aware of the fact that it is impossible.' There's a slightly hackneyed saw out there that says something about everything being possible until someone tells you it's impossible - that the idea of impossibility is a learned one. Terry Pratchett suggests that the answer to achieving the impossible is never to find out that it is so - because if you try something, believing it to be possible, it might prove so. Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass underlines the importance of believing the impossible by having the White Queen pitying Alice, who is already exhibiting the grown-up tendency to categorise as impossible things which might merely be unlikely, especially if one tried hard. He suggests that one has to practice believing the impossible - implying perhaps that without practice the knack leaves us:

' "I can't believe THAT!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said: "one CAN'T believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." '

Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, 1871 (UK originally, available on Project Gutenberg - see earlier link for text)

The 'six impossible things before breakfast' tag is one of the most quoted in the Alice books. A quick google reveals a load of blogs with it as the title. I seem to remember a series of religious lectures and/or pieces of writing with that title, too, though I can't seem to find many references to them. I'm sure they are there - it's too tempting an idea to pass up, for similar reasons that I've found it such a useful quotation to use here. I dislike it as an argument for faith though, I think if faith must be reduced to an 'impossible thing' requiring merely belief and no interrogation, then it is not worth it. I'm not trying to get at that here, there's a difference between coming at something with a fresh and open and unhindered outlook, and merely trying to believe the impossible if detailed scrutiny of the subject in question does not in the end encourage you (personally) to believe it. Of course, if detailed scrutiny of the object in question leads you towards belief, if you've come at it without any agenda whatsoever and evidence that satisfies you with regard to accepting the hypothesis that God exists, then belief is by all means to be encouraged. The jury's out, there. But that's another story.

I showed that link to Jenny at work. She called it dumb, and said that even at 6 she would have realised it was a bad idea. I thought that was kind of sad, actually. Limiting your younger self, holding back its freedom to have been innocent of any idea of constraint. I sort of hope that if the idea had occurred to me and suitable friends hadn't dissuaded me, I might have done something like it. Of course, practical things like remembering you would need a plane ticket are likely to have hindered me - the perils of being organised even as a 6 year old (though I'm not sure I was a very organised 6 year old, I think I grew into that particular element of my personality). I suspect that's where Jenny was coming from, really, even if it wasn't the way it came across to me in the Skype conversation where we talked about it. But something else, equally adventurous, I hope I might have tried. Wishful thinking, maybe, to envision in one's childish self ways of existing that it would be nice to embrace now. Something about, if they'd existed once before, it being easier to dredge up and reinstate those traits in one's current self.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

In the eye.

People don't look one another in the eye. It's not just me, I'm sure. They shy away from the intensity of that contact. For good reason, I guess. You can give so much away in your eyes - things you aren't ready to let out into the world. Everyone is hiding so much of themselves. Your eyes make you vulnerable to interrogation. Interpretation. That's why it's so damn sexy when someone actually LOOKS you in the eyes. The barriers have to come down, and you submit yourself to their analysis of you. But if they're looking at you, too, then you're doing the same thing. So much goes between you in so little time. It's like falling. Terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time. Tearing yourself away is impossible but necessary - until you can find the freedom to just let go, anyway.

Everyone should watch The Hours. It's the second time I've watched it - I loved it the first time but haven't watched it again because it affected me badly. Was watching it at a bad moment, then, but I appear to have reached a point when such thinking is necessary. It's beautiful. David bought it me for Christmas, and I found Mrs Dalloway in a cheap bookshop the other day. I haven't read it for ages, but I will do. Woolf will complement the Winterson I've been reading, anyway. Must buy Orlando, too, I've not read that for ages. I've always thought it was possibly the most interesting thing Woolf wrote. I need to watch it again with a pen (not crochet) in my hand and take the quotable quotes down. 'Looking this life in the face and knowing it for what it is' was one I wanted to remember. There were more, they might come back to me.

Saturday, 3 January 2009


Would you ever give yourself a new name? Like, just start introducing yourself to new people as something different and answer to that? I can't work out why I'm attracted to this idea. I'm sure it's something about wanting to be different and to change - pop-psychology for you. I dislike the idea that this would just be to escape from this self. I don't think I think that. Maybe I do? I had to work very hard not to hack my hair off with scissors yesterday. I mostly didn't because Carl was lying across my legs. I wish I had the balls to do some of these things, and do them properly. (I shall resist on the hair front at least until I can afford to go to a hairdresser and get them to do it properly. I know what I want it to look like, and I've wanted it to look like that since LAST time I got it cut. Trouble was I didn't know until I got home and realised that what I'd asked for wasn't what I wanted. Bah.)

I just like the idea of the freedom of having an entirely different name - somewhere, with some people. It could never be EVERYWHERE. But wouldn't that be cool? Wouldn't it give you license to be a completely different person somewhere? Or is it a recipe for some sort of split personality thing? (No Discworld references, I'm *actually* being grown up...)

Maybe I will. I was reading a book today and found a name I just thought would be fun. Just a first name, I don't need to quarrel with my surname. I'm not QUARRELING per se with my first name. I just fancy being someone else for a bit. Next time I meet a whole new set of people, maybe I'll just introduce myself as that. No, I'm not going to tell you what it is, that's the point...


Two different people in the last week have noted that I have lost weight. Now, I knew I had, but didn't think it was enough to be noticeable. Maybe I should take the extra TWO INCHES of space in my (albeit always a bit baggy) jeans more seriously. I have no idea what I actually weigh now, since I don't have access to scales, but yay! For reference, I suspect that purely developing an aversion to food for a few weeks is probably not the most healthy way to shed pounds, but it seems to have been effective. NOW I just need to keep it away. I'm thinking about going to play lacrosse again, if I can find a club whose schedule will fit in with mine. Trouble is, I think the nearest two are Welwyn Garden City and Hitchen - neither VERY near. Potential for playing with people I knew at school is reasonably high. Also, if I'm going to go and play lacrosse, I might need to go and have a go at the contacts thing. I can probably see well enough to play for a bit without glasses, but it will annoy me and probably give me headaches. So. We shall see.

New Year's resolutions, since several people have asked:
  • Finish the jumper. It'll get there, depending on the length of time I have in front of the telly.
  • Write more. We've covered this.
  • Move out of Cambridge and have adventures. Only ordinary adventures, about jobs and life and love, but adventures nonetheless. Meeting new people - lacrosse and theatre and singing. I've never been able to limit myself to just one of the standard extracurricular directions, why did I feel that I should?
  • Not move house so often. That shouldn't be hard, right...?
That'll laundry's cooked. And Martin's making me STEAK for tea. :-D.


Have been watching films with Carl. I've lost my Black Books, which is something of a disaster. We drank half a large bottle of vodka and made inroads into the whiskey. He liked my pork chilli-cum-goulash stew thing, that I made to christen the new pot my parents gave me for Christmas. I was pleased with it, and shall repeat. We watched Fight Club and Garden State. The first I love, until the kind of twist at the end, at which point I would rather live in the fantasy. The second is very high up in my top ten films ever. I cry from half way through until the end, but in a kind of good way. Heh. That's never going to make anyone watch it. It's one of the most beautiful and touching films ever made, without being sentimental or pushy or anything. That and the soundtrack is inspired (Simon and Garfunkel, The Shins, Iron & Wine, Nick Drake, Coldplay...are all of the artists I can remember...). I love the end. You should watch it. Beauty in simplicity.

I've had too much to drink and it's early in the morning. I need to sleep. I've needed sleep for days, but am not very good at it. Must practice more...

Thursday, 1 January 2009

A post I can't make.

There's a section in the middle which tells the stories of each of twelve princesses who marry twelve brothers. It's my favourite part of the book, and they're all very cleverly constructed - some around literary conceits of one sort or another, and some around other ideas. The one below is quite a simple thing, but its simplicity is incredibly powerful. It is virtually emotionless - the greyness that the protagonist describes is echoed in the ordinariness of the prose, but it is this ordinariness that illustrates the heroism in an everyday situation.

"When my husband had an affair with someone else I watched his eyes glaze over when we ate dinner together and I heard him singing to himself without me, and when he tended the garden it was not for me.

He was courteous and polite; he enjoyed being at home, but in the fantasy of his home I was not the one who sat opposite him and laughed at his jokes. He didn't want to change anything; he liked his life. the only thing he wanted to change was me.

It would have been better if he had hated me, or if he had packed his new suitcases and left.

As it was he continued to put his arm round me and talk about building a new wall to replace the rotten fence that divided our garden from his vegetable patch. I knew he would never leave our house. He had worked for it.

Day by day I felt myself disappearing. For my husband I was no longer a reality, I was one of the things around him. I was the fence which needed to be replaced. I watched myself in the mirror and saw that I was no longer vivid and exciting. I was worn out and grey like an old sweater you can't throw out but won't put on.

He admitted he was in love with her, but he said he loved me.

Translated, that means, I want everything thing. Translated, that means, I don't want to hurt you yet. Translated, that means, I don't know what to do, give me time.

Why, why should I give you time? What time are you giving me? I am in a cell waiting to be called for execution.

I loved him and I was in love with him. I didn't use language to make a war-zone of my heart.

"You're so simple and good," he said, brushing the hair from my face.

He meant, Your emotions are not complex like mine. My dilemma is poetic.

But there was no dilemma. He no longer wanted me, but he wanted our life.

Eventually, when he had been away with her for a few days and returned restless and conciliatory, I decided no to wait in my cell any longer. I went to where he was sleeping in another room and I asked him to leave. Very patiently he asked me to remember that the house was his home, that he couldn't be expected to make himself homeless because he was in love.

"Medea did," I said, "and Romeo and Juliet, and Cressida, and Ruth in the Bible."

He asked me to shut up. He wasn't a hero.

"Then why should I be a heroine?"

He didn't answer, he plucked at the blanket.

I considered my choices.

I could stay and be unhappy and humiliated.

I could leave and be unhappy and dignified.

I could beg him to touch me again.

I could live in hope and die of bitterness.

I took some things and left. It wasn't easy, it was my home too.

I hear he's replaced the back fence.'

I wrote it all out, but I couldn't post it. It will talk directly to Traci and I can't do that to her. The woman in the story is Rachel's character, and Traci would see herself as the man. I have to draw the parallel, it's glaring me in the face. The sadness and the emptiness of the woman is a horrid lump that couldn't be erased. I worry for Rachel anyway - what would happen to her if Traci DID leave? She's clearly still thinking about it at least on some level, as witness last night's texts. Traci not coming to me - well, I'll meet someone at some stage, even if I never find anything that works so well as she and I seemed to have the potential to. But Rachel? She's going off to a new country, where she will know very few and not speak the language at least to start with. How would she find someone new? She hurts. She has the self-esteem issues that make it hard to trust anyone, including the self. She would be alone, like the woman in the story, looking over at where the fence has been replaced. I don't know her well enough. She is the most passive person of the threesome constructed around her, and it seems enormously unfair to damage someone for something they had no say in. It's not as though what happens to Rachel is in my gift or choice any more; it's in Traci's, as it has been all along. But that story reinforces my flagging resolve not to push this. But also, nobody should expect to be happy who completely ignores their own desires. Trying to make other people happy by doing something that entirely disagrees with what one wants oneself doesn't work. One has to be aware of one's own desires and what makes one happy, or everyone will be miserable. So I'm standing here, where Traci can just still see me, not cutting the strings, because I want her to be certain about what she wants. I'm probably being unfair, because her decisions would be made just a little bit more black and white if I went away. But there are still huge things to resolve for her and Rachel, even without me. And I still don't think I can give her something comparable. But only she can have any idea exactly what she wants and what will bring her closest to it. I only know that the understanding she and I had didn't appear to be imagined, and was unrepeatable.