Thursday, 2 February 2017

The English (from a fiction in progress)

The English never get beyond their teenage glee at being able to drink. They go out in order to “get pissed”, and they “get pissed” in order to release pockets of emotion which, made ugly or maudlin by suppression, stink of mothballs or sour milk, and evaporate with first light.  The English hate anything which doesn’t return them to the prosaic and the everyday. Grand passions and intellectuals are automatically suspect. They live under the sign of Necessity: "What can you do?" they burble, "It's a funny old world". They permit themselves the sole freedom of mockery.  To a script written and edited by others, they make ironic additions in the margins. By deprecating their own existence and “not taking themselves too seriously,” they silently abstain from living. They relinquish control of their fate, placing it in the hands of a They about which they can cynically complain – "They are now saying butter is good for you, They’re saying it’s going to be the hottest summer for 400 years, They're introducing a new tax".. and so on.  The English vote without thinking it will make a difference, for only They are voting. Each English person thinks of their own vote as superfluous. Politically, the English are among the most passive in Europe if not the world; or, if they are roused to passion, it's to rail against foreign bodies that threaten the stolid familiarity of what exists. The English, with few exceptions, are a nation of sleepwalkers. 

The English may have a “good sense of humour” and a historic litany of  many comedians, satirists, ironists of the best mettle. Fine. But the forfeit they pay is intellectual castration. The critical impulse, the philosophical force of the Negative, which might once have fomented revolution or toppled the King, is instead turned on themselves, shrivelled  to mere carping and grumbling.  The regime’s faults are inevitable; such is the way of the world. Whereas the Gallic shrug says "who can tell?", the English shrug says "What can you do?" The former shrugs off the world to win a yard of freedom, the latter is an act of surrender. The laughter of the English is their measly consolation for a world beyond change. It is not the laughter of Joy, of surplus vitality, like a baby's laughter when it discovers a new trick, but the laughter of deficit, life’s perpetual deficit and defeat, life’s perpetual falling short. 

Monday, 2 January 2017


I am, I will admit, very susceptible to injury. I don't mean physical injury, but injury ensuing from harshness of tone, sneering, or disrespectful remarks; being treated, in short, with lack of human courtesy. There are a number of incidents over the years, which have lodged firmly in my mind, like little wounds, or scars that can be easily opened and once opened freshly bleed. 

I remember very clearly one time, some twenty years ago, I was travelling back from university to Bradford on the train. I had a heavy cold and was sniffing and sniffling, full of phlegm. Across the aisle was a man not much older than me, in an expensive suit, with papers spread out before him. He kept trying to buttonhole me with a bold stare, some sort of high velocity stare he was, doubtless, accustomed to firing at people who annoyed him. "Excuse me," he barked "you're making some disgusting noises. Why don't you get a tissue?" I was very taken aback of course. You don't expect to be addressed in this fashion on public transport. “Thanks for pointing that out,” I replied, with a faintest aftertaste of sarcasm. But of course, he wasn’t just “pointing something out.” He was very far from “pointing something out”, just as most acts of “pointing something out” are also acts of another sort entirely. In this case, the man, to whom I assigned the name Godfrey, wished to posit me as an object of disgust, as the source-object of his disgust. It is clear, and commonly agreed, that “disgusting” objects are of a certain category, thus: things that are excremental, various form of discharge and disjecta, things that have irreversibly exited the body - the guts of a squashed bird, a steaming pile of faeces, or the clot of cold blood I saw this morning in a public urinal near Beak Street. This is what the man was invoking in speaking to me, grouping me with such things, treating me, very precisely, as a piece of shit. What is more, of course, he was asking me to go along with this, as when someone says "pick up the litter, vermin,” where to respond by merely picking up the litter is, by that exact same stroke, to posit oneself as vermin. In my case, to respond with "sorry, yes, I'll get a tissue," would, of course, be to accept my status as an object of disgust, to define myself as such. What sort of person asks another to do this? Only a sadist.

This was, in fact, one of those "micro humiliations" of which I have spoken, the microsadisms that people get away with, or assume they can get away with: inflicting on others the worse kind of indignity by forcing people to collude in their own humiliation. Any such person, a person who posits another as an object of disgust, is the very worst kind of person, and the fact that he (it often is he) operates within the law only makes worse his crimes. For the worst crimes are those committed within the law. This is easily illustrated. The law is a high perimeter fence, beyond which there are acts of murder and theft, fraud, embezzlement and vandalism. The fence has many policemen, guards, sentinels, wardens, beadles, bureaucrats, judges, and so forth. It’s no surprise that few people venture beyond the fence. They are threatened and penned in. But inside the boundary of “What is permitted,” people can do as they please. There is no law against laughing at the beggar who asks for money, blanking the friend in mental distress, meeting someone’s evident pain with cold logic or polite condescension. These are the true crimes, and such a criminal was this Godfrey man on the train. After my brief reply, I blushed and blew my nose. But the barb was still in my side, and after his words had bubbled in my belly for a while, my anger rose and reddened, my skin blushed and tingled, to the extent I could no longer stay seated. I rose and left the carriage

Of course, it was not possible to kick him in the kidneys or break his nose. I walked instead to the buffet car. I ordered a black coffee, "extra hot please, extra large." And, as I returned to my seat, I tripped, or "tripped" I should say, I took a tumble, and the violent coffee darkened his belly, his papers, his crotch. He squealed like one of Circe’s pigs, his face a blazon of Pain against the rushing light. Then, such a furore of shouting ensued, with “You fucking arsehole, for fuck’s sake you idiot” and so on.. So much rage released through his mouth. I rolled out the expected apologies, offered to call for assistance, a few clockwork phrases to serve as an alibi.  He was still shouting and balling, something about suing me and so forth.. Just a wall of sound really, I wasn't listening.

He took with him his Mulberry bag to the toilet and returned in tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt, stripped now of his symbolic integument, de-feathered, ashamed to be merely human. He asked for my address, which was an act of laughable imposture, as if he were the official registering the event, as if it had to be registered by him before it existed, before its meaning solidified. Anyway, I gave him the address of my doctor in Broad Street. When he rang the number, and heard the receptionist, there would be a dawning realisation of the wool pulled over his eyes, which would also be, at the same time, a subtle adumbration of my smiling face looking down on his, as Ali looked down on Liston.

My actions in this anecdote might be thought "extreme", but I had only caused temporary anger and pain. I had scalded his skin, ruined his paperwork and parboiled his bollocks, whereas he had asked that I deny my humanity, which no one can ask, by acceding to my status as an object of disgust. At no point, by the way, did he think my action was deliberate. But when he left the train I knocked on the window and he turned around to see me laughing, as one might laugh with a friend, reminiscing about the old days.

Friday, 30 December 2016

Birmingham/ Italian {from fiction in progress}

The only person I saw there was an old Italian man in a pale blue tailored suit and matching fedora; a man who doubtless "cut a dash" in his day, a man on the wrong side of retirement, which is to say the right side of retirement, blossoming as only the retired can do, knowing that work is behind them, enjoying the new vistas of earned freedom, and sketching each day with a free hand. He was all croaks and gesticulations, gimlet eyes and knocking joints. He'd sit at the bar, sipping espresso slowly as if to summon the Old Country, like Tiresias in the underworld drinking the blood. He would chat to the baristas, this old fella, about football and food. I could only catch half of it. I was learning Italian, or making gentle and respectful forays into Italian, which I had always thought the most musical language, for in each phrase there is a quiet rapture, a slow and rising ecstasy, or, alternately, a note of plaint, of maternal lamentation. For illustrative purposes, we can say that this is, in every respect, phonetically and rhythmically, the exact opposite of the Birmingham accent, wherein one hears only the murmur of diurnal disappointment, and which, defined by bathos and anti-climax, is quintessentially English.

I had occasion to visit Birmingham very recently. There was a woman on the bus reading a newspaper. Apropos some article in the Birmingham Mail, she turned to her neighbour and said "You can tell they’re a murderer by their eyes," where in that final word, "eyes," such a sad misshapen diphthong, which rhymed almost with "toys", you could hear not only all the air escaping from the end of the sentence, as from a punctured tyre, but also the pneuma escaping from the body, and, finally, hope escaping from the world. And someone unfamiliar with English, would infer from the cadence alone that the speaker was entirely crestfallen and defeated. And these words, so flat, so despondent, would stay with me for the rest of the afternoon, tracing through my soul their falling arc, again and again, so that by evening I was appreciably sadder.
If there was a child who grew up half in Birmingham, half in Italy, with a Birmingham parent and an Italian parent, the result would be a monster, a living contradiction, confused by its own existence and barely able to speak. A bum note would stop every rapture, “Bonjourno” would skid and sink on the second syllable. The truly gormless fact that Birmingham has more canals than Venice (a fact that must immediately cede to parenthetical laughter), can only remind us that Birmingham is not so much the opposite as the active negation of Venice, an attempt, point by point, to invert and destroy the impulses and principles that built St Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace, as if what was causing Venice to sink, inch by inch, was not natural subsidence and rising water levels, but the building of the Rotunda and the 'modernisation' of the infernal New Street Station.
In any case, in my efforts to learn Italian, I'd meet with Faustina from the university, we'd have lunch and work on an Ungaretti poem. She was an administrator, but had a better understanding of poetry than most of the faculty, which isn't saying much. Poetry can be taught to an extent - the techniques, the metrics and forms. You can measure the distance from ordinary language, or the rediscovery of ordinary language via a different route. But to be a poet is to have a certain kind of soul and only those with a similarly disposed soul can truly understand you. Poetry, the faculty members fail to see, is not just a form of words but a form of life, a form of life which, if it blossoms, must blossom in words. It would not surprise me if the old man, wizened but twinkling with life, had such a soul. Such souls cannot be easily put out. As I say, he was the only presence in that cafe, in the early hours, in the pause before day gets started. Until Cahun started coming. Then the old man left. I saw him a few times in Bar Italia. Cahun had driven him out. Cahun as an emissary of the contemporary world, Cahun as a destroyer of language, an anti-poet. 

Thursday, 29 September 2016

The Death of Gilles Deleuze (from a fiction in progress)

When I was midway through my degree I read a news report in Le Monde about the death of Gilles Deleuze. Needless to say, the death of a philosopher was headline news in France, a country where "intellectual" is not exclusively a term of derision or immediately prefaced by the prefix "pseudo", as in England, which is above all others the anti-intellectual country, it's critical faculties withered to defensive irony and self-deprecation. I have over the years read a number of reports of Deleuze's death. He jumped from the window of his apartment to death on the pavement below. It is odd that there is a word, defenestration, to refer to the act of throwing someone, yourself, out of a window. Apart from this curious fact, I have also noticed that people take suicide to be a kind of verdict on the life, a refutation, even, of the life. The life and its works are seen in some way to have failed. Yet the word  "suicide", like most words, is an abstraction, and covers not one but many exits, many reasons, many relations to life and death. And I have always felt, in relation to Deleuze; even if I cannot state it clearly, even if I cannot exactly explain it, that his suicide was a suicide carried out precisely in the name of life. People, especially those with an axe to grind, a point to make, are keen to say that Deleuze, the great philosopher of Life, of Vitality, nonetheless kills himself at the finish, snuffs out his own light. As if it calls everything into question. As if it were a counter-proposition to everything he'd done and said. This is the usual anti-intellectual sloth, employed by boneheads full of resentment, using not argumentation but biographical anecdote to dismiss thinkers and philosophers. "They had an affair, they had soviet sympathies, they hated their mother, therefore.." Therefore nothing. Do the work, bonehead, do the reading. 

He could barely breathe, Deleuze, with his one lung, the blind cancer invading his veins, "chained like a dog" to an oxygen machine, prevented from writing or thinking.  Death held its pillow over his face. But Deleuze surprised death by jumping out of the window, he escaped. A last grab of life from under death's nose. The agility of the thief, the child snatching candy when the shopkeeper nods. I say again, however nonsensical it sounds, a suicide carried out in the name of life. 

 An everyday picture, people sat on the cafe terrace, couples strolling. Then in the corner a jagged detail, something that doesn't fit, something alarming. A man falls from a window. Deleuze, in his writings on cinema called such a detail a demark, like the seagull in Birds, that suddenly falls from the sky to peck at the head, a seaside scene, familiar enough, framed and organized according to conventional themes, but then something drops, deviates, makes the picture wobble. Deleuze in his final minutes was such a seagull, breaking the picture of everyday life, something senseless that stabs at sense. Perhaps in every conventional picture there is a man falling from a window, a bird descending in anger, a puncture wound in the skin of appearances. This is what we must look for if we are to continue to think and to feel. 

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.