Out of a Book

I was reading Elizabeth Bowen’s essay Out of a Book, and wondering (as I often do … sometimes I wish so badly for the spontaneity of my seven-year-old self and for what he’d be doing, having read that essay, right now. Up a tree maybe? Making something out of sticks in a wood, with bits of string and wire. Drawing … which became the eventual move to writing … as a last resort … enough …) why I had decided to find that essay this morning, quite out of the blue (looking back over this sentence I think I need a typographical convention for over-long parenthetical wondering). I finished reading it, which is the trick, not to let the wondering disconnect me from the reading, just to stay in it, and of course it came to me, written as it was:

The apparent choices of art are nothing but addictions

Out of a Book, 1946

I was going back to the same old thing.
        Addiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Usually it is. Most usually it comes about as a way of coping when someone starts to feel overwhelmed and hasn’t really had the best advice. Falstaff, rather than Shakespeare, for example; a good reason not to get lost in a character, but to read really closely.
        So what do I learn from this, speaking as someone who likes to learn as much as possible about life? Perhaps Bowen gives me a very good idea of where my life has come from. As a child I read so much: some things, even, that I have no idea what I took from them. I read Kafka at a really weirdly young age because my mother, who’d started an OU course in literature, left a copy of his short stories lying around with what looked like a picture of a beetle on the front. As it happened my primary school playground seemed to attract a lot of stag beetles, so I was drawn to that book as much as I was to the other one that always seemed to be lying around, a compendium of photos of the dark side of the moon. But that’s for another time.
        This week I have a story, Heidi’s Advertisements (or the return of the Mouse Folk) published in Minor Literatures,  a piece of writing that cleaves from Josephine the Singer, or The Mouse Folk, Kafka’s last storySo I imagine reading Bowen’s essay again has much to do with that.
        And it could also be connected to the fact I woke up wondering how much, in my imagination, I still identify with Spock, the Nimoy version, from Star Trek. He was half human, and I’ve been thinking about my humanity … and in many ways, growing up with a father as intensely foreign as mine, that was how I started to feel. Not entirely human; and that’s never entirely left me. More than that though, which is after all a little psychological, I look around me, especially at work, and I think Im wise not to forget about how utterly obsessed I was with Start Trek. It isn’t just books that shape our lives in the ways Bowen suggests (and she doesn’t limit life to books, either, she just loves them).

I may see, for instance, a road running uphill, a skyline, a figure coming slowly over the hill – the approach of the figure is momentous, accompanied by fear or rapture or fear of rapture or a rapture of fear. But who and how is this? Am I sure this is not a figure out of a book?

Out of a Book, 1946

Well …

 

Deny It

Fortunately the first thing I read in the Observer this morning was Jarvis Cocker remembering an episode of the old Batman TV series where The Penguin runs for mayor of Gotham City. He points out how horribly similar the fat bird’s schtick is to the Presumptive Nominee’s. It was only when I glanced at The Observer’s sports section, and having tossed it onto the floor picked up the magazine, which I then also tossed onto the floor, that I wished I’d never bought the newspaper in the first place.
     How can a campaign like Trump’s fail when as far away as this side of the Atlantic an allegedly thoughtful newspaper prints a sports section without a woman on its front page, and a magazine with just one woman on the cover:  a Victoria’s Secret model?
     Something’s happening all over again, and it’s happening all over. All of those column inches of ink spilled out in the liberal press over the last fifty years and was it ever a form of denial, a kind of word-wrap trying to contain a feast of unthinkable wishes? Boys still wanted to be Boys, and wanting girls.
    Things have changed but in ways that seem to channel a past that couldn’t happen. Society was too structured, too policed. There was even a Wall, the Berlin Wall, like the one Trump says he’ll build now; and thank God it was smashed down – but now what?
Whatever now is has emerged … what are we going to do with it? Can we be honest and try to notice how little has changed?  If I sit in a cinema watching ads before a film I feel as if I’m in a dream of the 1970s (I grew up in the 1970s; I didn’t imagine them, did I?). This morning I open a newspaper and see men playing with themselves in the sports section and a magazine selling itself on the strength of an attractive woman whose job is to sell lingerie. This is the past in a weaselly, half-hidden way. The Observer and Trump, they appeal in different ways to a lowest common denominator. We need a different kind of debate and I wonder where I’m going to look.

 

Mood Altering Substances: Shakespeare & Frank O’Hara

I was on my way to meet a friend for lunch yesterday and realised my mood had spiralled downwards after a run of irritating things. Tuesday had been patchy to rotten, yesterday morning was rotten to patchy, both in spite of (or perhaps exacerbated by) some lovely moments. Then a colleague showed me a picture of a kiss. I told her about a kiss I’d seen yesterday: Tom Hiddlestone as Henry V kissing the French princess. I wish I could show a link here but perhaps it’s best left to the imagination, and Shakespeare, to whom I think the actors somehow managed to remain faithful:

(KING HENRY V)

Kissing her

You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French council; and they should sooner persuade Harry of England than a general petition of monarchs.

That got me back on my feet. I then found some Frank O’Hara:

Having a Coke With You

And love healed all. I felt free to enjoy lunch with my friend.

Puerile Chaffing

We don’t appear to have politicians any more; we have clowns trying to shame each other. What can you do? Point and laugh?  Maybe that’s the all you can do. You see Boris Johnson, you point and you laugh. Or Trump? Or Tony Blair. I can’t imagine they’d react well: implode somehow. That might usher in the next act … what comes after clowns?

Reading, Trauma

I have a thought that the act of reading is detraumatising. The most current forms of trauma treatment involve bilateral movement, where someone is anchored in the present moment while they consider memories. When I read the focus of my eyes moves across a page, left to right. I turn pages, right to left. even when I’m lost in a story, and I notice this. Sometimes I find reading unaccountably difficult, but if I move through that difficulty I often feel exhilarated. What’s the trauma? There’s all kinds of trauma, all of the time. Life’s traumatic even if it isn’t dramatic.
     I see the symptoms as far as I can, and sometimes other people see them for me. The way I touch my face before speaking sometimes, I could tell you where that comes from. Other things, you’ll notice them if you’re around me long enough as much as I’d notice things in you, and their effects. Hopefully I know enough of these things and what they create to make my life less chaotic than it could be. Many things I discovered in writing, after reading. The effect of a book on me.
     Screens worry me: TV screens where eyes don’t move and flat screens where pages don’t turn. Where’s the anchor in the now? If you can’t get into therapy then read something on paper. Read some stories by Colette. She’s amazing and they’re wonderfully short. Just don’t let the difficulty of a book stop you. Addicts: read books. Find a way to read a whole novel, every page without skipping, and then talk about it with someone. Talk about what happened.

Things Happen in Places

Things happen, and they happen in places. They don’t just happen. I could probably riff on like that for a while, some odd little trumpet solo (I do play the trumpet, in case that sounds a little too gratuitous). But things happen in places. Many things, once they’ve happened, I can’t imagine them having happened anywhere else.
     I’m in a new town training and something seems to have come into focus for me rather differently than I ever imagined it would. It’s something arising from the people I’m with, and something from the people who aren’t here in person but who very much are in my thoughts. But would I be feeling and thinking as I am now if I hadn’t walked in from Stony Stratford this morning, wondering when I’d look at something and not notice the design  of it. Not the look of it but the design; not the sense of the building, the road, the artifical lake, the fence, the oversized technopark shed thing itself but of the lines, the shapes and the forms its maker saw?
     After leaving the old village where I found a room (there’s a network rail conference going on at the training venue and the attendees appear to have spilled into  almost every hotel I rang. They were playing Spirit in the Sky at Lunch Time; the version by Dr and the Medics.)  everything seems so new: everything living’s coming into leaf or bloom now its spring; almost everything built’s been around for less time than me. And I’m not that old. It’s so strange, looking around me and wanting to see something from before me. I could say there’s the earth but first there’s the grass … and the trees, most of the trees, they seem young.
     I feel so outside of here it’s peculiar. I’m not surprised a lens has somehow sharpened, turned, kaleidoscoped. Every so often we need to unplug and reconfigure in strangeness without our comforts and securities, and I’ve always found that most possible when there’s only a slight twist to things. Not another country or another culture but this country and a pocket in this culture. Too strange and somehow hatches are battoned down. This way something nearly tricks me into believing nothing’s changed – and even when I see the differences there’s a lag in my believing; a disbelief I can’t control in the idea that it’s not the same.
     I tell myself this is different and what seems similar shines back at me in a slightly gaudy way, a bit of a dream. And a whole way of thinking becomes clear that had previously kept itself at least half-obscure.