Friday, 2 September 2016

Carvel's Lies



Carvel had ended up teaching cultural studies at the University of East London. This was a pathetic destination for Carvel, who had always been a good friend, even if he was a compulsive liar. Every time we met, he said things that were obviously not true.  He told me his uncle had been "sewn up the wrong way" after a bowel operation so that shit came out of his mouth. I remember this example because metaphorically this was also true of Carvel who, when he wasn't talking about philosophy or literature, talked complete bullshit. None of his stories, judged individually, were obviously false, for Carvel was perhaps careful to locate them within the circumference of the possible, but cumulatively they added up to a pile of garbage. He told me that he had attended a Noam Chomsky lecture where Chomsky chose to answer a hostile question in Hebrew. But, unbeknown to Carvel, my friend Scott, who speaks fluent Hebrew, was also at the lecture and verified that no such exchange had taken place. Carvel told me a neighbor of his, back in Belfast, kept a pet lion in the back yard and fed it dead pigeons. Or having let slip that he’d never had a driving license, said to me months later that he was doing the Knowledge and planned to be a taxi driver. He told me that he had failed to attend a college dinner because on the way there a car had run over a bird and splattered him with the chattering guts. He told me that he had a friend in the IRA, a one-armed priest, who we could call on should we ever need "a favour".. and so it went on, a concatenation of bullshit. 

Nonetheless, I never challenged him on these falsehoods, which to be honest never bothered me very much. This was because I am perhaps too respectful of the fragile fictions people spin around themselves to make their lives tolerable, and it is not for me to unravel these in the name of “honesty”. In “telling the truth” there is typically a motive which is questionable, which we fail to acknowledge and which we disown by saying, simply, “but it’s true!”. Thus our motive is to judge, to expose, to catch out, to embarrass, all excused by the alibi “but it’s the truth!” I had no wish to expose, to catch out or humiliate Carvel, I had no particular wish to unravel my friend any more than I might destroy the web of a spider or a tortoise's shell. And in fact, in not challenging Carvel I was respecting his mode of life, which was to weave around himself a cocoon of fictions inside which he disappeared. That was his mode of life, just as one might speak of the mode of life of a bat or other creature. We are all creatures in fact, with our webs, our territories, our nests and secretions, even though these are disguised as words and beliefs and habits. Many of our ways of speaking are in fact ways of crying, of scratching, of nuzzling or hissing. Hence my tolerance for Carvel's lies which were in fact spun by some inner necessity as the silkworm spins its silk.

None of this really mattered to our friendship, on the other hand, which consists solely in an ongoing conversation about philosophy and literature, with its own rhythm and its own rules. Outside that there is nothing. The friendship has an evolution and a life independent of me and independent of him. That is the nature of friendship. Friendships have their own personality separate from that of the actual friends. Or at least that was the case before Carvel’s inexplicable marriage. Carvel was certainly the last person I expected to get married. He is no longer the same man, both on account of his job teaching cultural studies and on account of this marriage. Although Carvel's face is roughly the same, his marriage has altered his soul. Similarly, cultural studies had forced him to think about false problems and diverted him into an intellectual wasteland far from his native preoccupations.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Living the afterlife

And him, the cripple in Library, is he still living and where? He was only my age but sickly, hobbling with a stick, an uncombed clump of straw coloured hair. His last years were already furnished and waiting, I thought, all  heavy curtains and evening light, embers and sherry. He was reading Byron and Keats, big leather volumes hauled up from the vaults. His eyes were large and kind. But why does his image surface now, half way down the stairs at Leicester Square tube station? Memory's papers. Vast shelves, boxes and sheets of information. Unsuspectingly a file is pulled out and you're shown a photo, a recording, a voice abruptly released from a folded envelope. It's put in front of you like a Tarot card for your inspection. A face from your Oxford days. The dry smells from the Upper Reading Room, the light through the great leaded windows, the creaking silence, and time drifting slowly like floating dust. And alongside the cripple, another. A bent man in a black tattered gown, with bottle glasses and a greasy combover. He was said to be the bastard son of F.R. Leavis, but this was perhaps only a metaphor translated by time and rumour into fact. He'd enter by the corner door, glancing about like an intruder, picking a book from the reference shelves, frantically flicking through pages, suddenly stopping and sitting to look; his eyes following a nervous finger, as if combing the text for buried sense. But the book would slam shut and he’d steal away... a library bird, picking at fading texts, the limp gown flapping, a curious detail in the corner of our day. The cripple and the madman, signs sent by memory. Like those mocking gargoyles in the corner of medieval illustrations. Figures of what I thought I might become: Frayed and insane, a faint light flickering in a bedsit window; condemned to wander in a world increasingly inward. Living the afterlife.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Grandad's welding goggles



My grandfather gave me his welding goggles. He was a welder before the Second World War. He served in the war as a private. They talked about socialism, the soldiers. I learned my politics from him. “When they talk about bureaucracy it’s always to attack socialism. But what are banks but the bureaucracy of capitalism?” My grandad would counter every lazy thought that fell from a politicians mouth. When people say the working class is reactionary they have short memories. It’s important to have a long memory, historically speaking. To remember that the past sits in judgement on us and not we on it. It tells us 'no, things have not always been thus'. Here are possibilities that were never realised. They wait patiently in the pages of memory, snoozing in the anteroom. Sometimes we need our grandparents to pull us out of the present, to laugh at various modern stupidities we take for granted. I should have asked him more of course, about the war, about Palestine where he was shot by both sides. I should have recorded his voice. There is a local newspaper clipping from 1923. My grandfather kept it. A 6 year old boy from Shipley fell out of a tree and was admitted to hospital. He is expected to make a full recovery. This boy was my granddad. A reality fragment from a different age. I remember visiting him when he had dementia. His smile remembered me but his mind had forgotten. When I told him I was his grandson he laughed. But I still have his welding goggles, his copy of Das Capital, and the story of the boy who fell from the  tree.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

On dreams

 The only time I’m 'in my head'  is at night, when the lids are shut, the light of consciousness gone. But even asleep, free of gravity, we do not slip into ourselves. We cede control to a vital power. It makes things. A horse, a neighbour, a country, a sideboard; a highstreet, a law, a voice. These things have never existed before. The dream, as we call it, invents them from scratch. Last night, for example, in the corner of the dream a tiny detail, a curved length of carved and burnished wood, part of a sideboard. The wood is inlaid with distinctive lettering, hieroglyphsitching with sense. This object, with its peculiar signature, is not from childhood or anywhere else. It has been designed from zero by the dream.  The dream does not conceive and afterwards execute these objects, these people, these counties. It conceives and executes them at once, in the same instant. Our waking selves cannot do this. If we saw these things in graphic or material form, we would say these were the results of someone’s masterly intelligence. But in the dream, whose intelligence is this? Whose creative force? Not quite mine, for waking I can not conceive them nor create them. And when I wake I scarcely know what they are. If dreams are our inmost self, then we do not recognise or understand ourselves. The dream is a dark impersonal intention. This is what we find when we’re deep ‘in our heads’, a demiurge speaking in tongues, works of fine art erased by the sun. If only we could open the valve that would release these original powers, their fantastic arts, if only we could in our waking existence, fashion flesh with such quickness. There is more wild invention in a single dream than a many shelffull of fiction

Monday, 11 July 2016

"Middle class intellectuals" meme

Back in the noughties, there were extensive blog debates about the pros and cons of invading Iraq. One of the more curious memes employed by the pro-war writers was the idea that anti-war opinion was largely the preserve of the middle class ‘dinner party’ left, with their “bruschetta orthodoxies”.  All this seems rather arcane and silly now (for some of us it did at the time) not only because the anti-war concerns were rational and warranted, and non class specific,  but also because those using the “dinner-party” meme were themselves middle-class intellectuals like David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen.  The gesture is one of fake populism, pretending that your own view stands heroically opposed to some nebulous liberal-left middle-class consensus and, by implication, with ‘ordinary people’ and “the bloke down the pub”. This might not be worth mentioning were it not that the same rhetoric is surfacing again with regards to Brexit, where the Remain/ Brexit divide is narrated as  the conflict between a metropolitan/ liberal/ middle-class elite and the “ordinary people” defying them.  Once again, it’s nonsense.

Friday, 8 July 2016

When people speak of death being near they tend to mean in time..

When people speak of death being near they tend to mean in time. For me it's a question of space. Like living in a house near a cliff edge.  It is not an expectation that death will come soon. It is already there, like the cliff edge; or better still, like the sea; or better still like the dark shore across the waters. Living in sight of it quickens the pulse. We are always quickened and sharpened by the presence of a limit. A place where one thing ends and another begins. It is always better to live here, at this limit. For this limit always changes things. A life lived in the presence of its outer-limit, death, will be a different kind of life, a truer life, a more intensive life. It has nothing to do with "living like there's no tomorrow", in the fast lane, consuming a ticklist of pleasures. The opposite is true. You are slower; your senses are more receptive, you are happy to watch the snowflake melt.  You are slower because quietly amazed, and amazed not by the flash and the bang and the whizz but other things ordinarily imperceptible, the church bells sunk underwater. Living in proximity to the cliff edge, the sea, the dark shore means having new senses, new eyes, new flesh... And time is ripe like fruit on the tree

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

My grandmother sat in a brown and gold chair smoking Woodbines..



My grandmother sat in a brown and gold chair smoking Woodbines. Slow tremulous movements. Curling smoke reaching into corners. The ashtray a boneyard of stubs. A girl, riding past the bungalow, lost control of the horse and was rocked up and down. Through the double glazing we heard gasps and shouts of panic. My grandmother couldn’t stop laughing. In fact she spent years laughing at random unfortunate things, before which she’d spent a tunnel of years crying without consolation. She liked watching the snooker. That was the only reason they bought a colour TV, my grandparents. So she could watch the snooker. Her hair was white as sea foam, like a fossil of sea foam. Yet she must have only been in her late fifties then. Sixty one when she died of “complications” following a pitiless sequence of strokes. Our bodies are double agents who betray us to death in the finish.  She was the first of the grandparents to die, and for a long time, through the portal of sleep she walked in my dreams as a blind ghost protesting that she wasn’t dead. 


She had grown up in silence. This is what dad told me. Her father inherited a sum of money, "a lot of money in them days", but then gave up his job and went on the drink. Five years later he’d lost it all.  They fell over into bare unfurnished poverty. No divorces then. Her mother, an Irish Catholic, swore never to speak to him again. Gradually, all her speech stopped, even to her five year old daughter. She would write notes, passed to her daughter, or via her daughter. "Tea on the table". "We need some more milk," “I’m off to bed”. In that cold war my grandmother lived out her moribund childhood. No brother or sister. A go-between in a mime of a marriage. Silence like deep water pressure filling each room and portal. And that silence she passed on I think, in genes or gesture, to my dad, who gave it to me.  


When I think of this story, the story of the notes, the silence, the inheritance, details are missing like in a work of fiction. I can’t ask dad about it now. I can’t ask him, for example, where his grandfather inherited the money from, where they lived, if the house still stands, if she spoke about it to dad directly or whether, as i suspect, my granddad told him. A piece of the past beyond sight of land, bodiless and adrift in the unverifiable dark. Similarly the story about my granddad docking the tail of a dog in the garage with a hammer and chisel, the dog running off yelping down the road and never been seen again. Have I remembered it right? There's no way to know, there’s no one to ask. I should have voiced all these questions when he was alive, my dad. The past, unless recorded, what is it? Tail-lights from another world, dead stars destined for myth or oblivion, or maybe just self-serving stories.