Monthly Archives: April 2013
Warning: this post may carry traces of incoherence. Wash your hands when you leave.
When I am under pressure to do one thing, my brain starts doing a million other things.
‘Let’s not focus on that,’ it says. ‘Let’s do this instead. Far more interesting, doncha think?’
I used to call it procrastination, but it’s not really. Or if it is, it is procrastination in a jazz improvisation style. Which means you still produce something, but whether it is good or bad is entirely debatable…
This means I’ve been busy. I’ve been busy doing the things I didn’t mean to do, but which just took me over. It feels like my brain, when it is told to go off and make a nice quiet pork pie (no jelly), suddenly starts throwing out a wild and misshapen string of noisy sausages instead. Jazz? sausages? I did warn you.
So now, instead of a nice neat chapter I’m surrounded by poems, a load of photographs, a big load of catching up with Immanuel Kant (who I barely understand a sentence of, but thanks to Professor Sandel at Harvard, I adore) and the beginnings of a short story.
I quite like the short story. This is the opening passage. I might finish it.
She’s dying. At the hospital. Switching the m/c off.
We couldn’t understand it at first. It was Sunday. The radio was on, playing something hip-hoppy. Easy Like Sunday Morning? We might all love it (secretly), but you can’t live your life in some throwback cliché, can you? Especially when middle-age shakes you awake in the mirror each morning.
‘Those wrinkles. Grey hairs. Already? But I’m not ready.’
We might be able to keep Lionel’s chin and the Commodores at bay in our house, but texts about death? They will come whether we like it or not. We don’t. It used to be in the post: death, like taxes, or at least a polite knock on the door, or a phone call. Now it’s via text, announcing itself with a dissonant bleep. Or, worse still, Facebook.
When I was first introduced to Philip Larkin, I took a violent dislike to his work. I don’t remember which school or college it was in, but I was left with an overwhelming impression of distaste as the teacher (male) deconstructed the poem Sunny Prestatyn with a leer.
I slapped an embargo on the lech Larkin and would not let his poetry past the gatepost. You can’t live life like that though; that is to say in a knee jerking, reflexive state. The reason you can’t is because it closes your mind to other possibilities; in this case some of the beauty, down amongst the dirt of Larkin. And ain’t that life, whether we like it or not? Turning our face from the facts, also removes the closest we can get to experiencing life through someone else’s feelings – something that helps to keep the heart open and the old knee jerks at bay.
Having said all that, and more than once recently I have been called a hippy, if some perving teacher tried to teach one of my daughters Sunny Prestatyn, I’d be straight down the school in a highly reflexive mood. Be warned.
It’s Sunday morning though, let’s forget the world with a little High Windows
“Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.”
In a horse, temperament is going to make one’s life harder. In a daughter: same. I cannot complain. Any aspect of temperament that my eldest shows has probably, in part, been handed down to her from me – her father being the most sanguine of people one might ever, and I mean ever, hope to meet.
It makes life interesting as they say, although I am never far away from thinking of that saying, that is a curse in disguise, may you live in interesting times. Anyway, so far today we have not had too many flashes of the famous temperament. A little snapping, yes, but thankfully no shouting or storming. What we have had is the most delightful expression of a minor artistic frustration to the mundane parental question, ‘What did you learn at school today?’
And so began a little outburst about the art lesson, which surprised me because this is one of her favourite subjects. It turns out however that now she is ten, going on eleven in a few weeks, she has not only a love of the subject, but an artistic view. It went a bit like this.
I do not like Mrs X at the moment because all she makes us draw is geometrical drawings, maths drawings. Last week we even had to draw the climbing frame. I like natural subjects, not maths drawings and we haven’t drawn living things for ages. And then, once, Mrs X picked the shiniest red apples from the tree, the ones that we aren’t allowed to eat and she put them in her oil pastels box. So we weren’t allowed to eat the apples and we weren’t allowed to draw them either. What a waste!
Here’s a silver birch tree close up. I would never want to eat one but I didn’t want to waste the beautiful textures.
I could talk about the engineering of the rail transport in Chicago: how some of it is elevated and some of it is subterranean. How underground you could be anywhere, how above ground you can only be where you are. I am not going to talk about it though, because there’s nothing to say, not really.
I could mention how the weathered wooden platforms on the elevated sections remind me of Baltimore by Nina Simone and how I am always afflicted with a desire to photo the treads and risers on the staircases, both here and abroad. I could mention those things, but it might make me seem weird, so I won’t.
Public transport by train makes me think about my Grandpa and the red Central line on the London Underground. It makes me think of being gently rattled out of Leyton, after waiting for a train for Epping, or a journey in the opposite direction, Going Underground at Stratford on the way to Bethnal Green.
In Chicago you can go to Harlem and California on the Blue Line; in London, Mile End and Holborn on the Red. Both lines intersect with those of a different colour, travelling in different directions. In London I spoke to Americans returning to Atlanta, in Chicago I spoke to a black man about Marcus Garvey; all of them strangers, me the most. Taking a city train is a meditation, with some psychedelia thrown in, when you open your eyes.
Or maybe that’s just me. Like I said, I could talk about it, but I won’t.
My friend Enkunalma is off on her travels tomorrow, so I wanted to wish her well with a song. Now, she is doing some high-level managerial tasks at the moment (aka the budget); so if I were to burst into her (blind-up) pizza den (aka the office) and start warbling it might give the lovely people who make the place their home-from-home a laugh, but it would not be an especial treat for their ears… which is why I am opting for a You Tube event.
Recently I have been going through a real period of musical nostalgia, kick-started by the fabulous Rodriguez. He reminded me of something I had nearly forgotten: I love most music, but sometimes you don’t want crashing drums, screaming guitars and electronic gizmos. Sometimes, all you want is a bit of guitar gently strumming and the human voice. That falls under the category of folk music apparently. A folk song is one that has been handed down over generations, both the tune and lyrics, a song that is pre the recorded music industry. So, I was thinking that’s the kind of song I wanted to send Enkunalma on her way with. And the song I really wanted was ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, because it starts with the leaves coming into bloom, like they are now, and that’s what I hope for her at the other end when she gets off the great white bird and is reunited with family and friends, and no doubt some Finnish dogs and cats she has taken to her heart too.
Finding the right version of the song has proved tricky… I am heavily influenced by my youth, so the Corries’ version was right up there. And then I listened to the country singer Don Williams who has a version with the pipes and The Chieftans (sadly, too slow), James Taylor (my heart aches for his songs but he makes this song a bit too easy listening), Joan Baez (too scratchy and a bit bubbly on the high notes for my taste), Bob Dylan who is doing a great vocal job until it gets a bit too acrobatic in the epiglottis towards the end, and then there were the videos that contained a myriad of soaring Scottish scenery and uncredited voices which it was hard to turn down… But in the end, and I have surprised myself, I have gone with this version.
I’ll tell you why. It’s because I wouldn’t have expected him to have done it and he renders a beautiful folk song in its most simple form: a young man performing traditional songs without fuss or a rock star fanfare, for free on the radio. It reminds us that amidst what sometimes feels like chaos the world keeps turning, spring keeps arriving and what ever happens in life some things don’t change and those things are good.
Have a good trip!
Of course as I have mentioned on here before, in the words of Fran Landesman, spring can really hang you up the most, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t pleased to see it, when it finally does show up.
It’s awful late this year; I wonder what kept it?
I asked the sapling buds, but they didn’t seem to know, referring me directly to Mother Nature. I called her on the phone but she was out, playing bowls or golf -probably with Old Father Time, so I left a message on the machine.
I’d tell you what I said if I could understand it myself but all that came out was my whistle on the wind.
It’s true: Spring really can hang you up the most.
Blue cleft in two
By one white vapour trail…..
Above the pink pegs,
A grey-headed gull
Surfs translucent thermals…..
And a silver birch stretches
Blinking into the blue
And I am reminded…
Of all the other blue skies
I have spent time under
And I wonder
If they are changed?
Or the same?
Is fixed as a collection of memories
In a daylight constellation.
It’s been a ridiculously intense week; both here and so tragically around the world. It’s so much so that I’ve lost (or gained) a day already. Yesterday I was confused because I thought it was Tuesday, today I’ve been thinking it must be Wednesday. It was a jolt to the system to realise that the paid working week ends tomorrow and I feel like I’ve really not done any work at all.
Of course it looks like I’m busy and things have been done, hopefully as they should have been. But inside? No, no actual work has been done at all. I realise that I am at that point in my life where my purpose and my work are more and more enmeshed. Maybe that is what they call a vocation. It’s sounds horribly pompous; it’s not meant to. It’s actually more a source of confusion. How can I be so busy doing things that are in the diary, teaching, writing, trying to plan but not actually feeling like it’s work. Work, to me, is that thing you leave when you walk out of the door at that place called work. I suppose it’s partly a by-product of working out on the community, seeing your learners on the street, doing a lot of keyboard-based work after the school run, or before I leave the house in the morning. I suppose it’s because my interest is not confined to a professional one. People, how they tick, how they learn, the stories about their lives… is there anything more engaging? For me, it seems not.
Given that seems now to be the case, it is even more necessary to carve out time where I am not actively thinking which brings me to the title of the post. I was describing my recent experience on a street corner in Chicago, where I had to just sit for over an hour to get my life back together. I was explaining how in that hour, I experienced myself and the world in a very different way. She said that is like the story of the Aboriginal man who, after his first ever trip in a car, got out and sat on the ground. When asked what he was doing, he replied, ‘I am waiting for my soul to catch up.’
Now, after everything I’ve experienced, I get that. And I am sure there are many other people out there who do too. I also now get the idea that the self we create and come to know is deeply rooted in a sense of place. I learned by accident today that there is a name for that: embodied situated cognition. Of course, that is just a fancy name for things indigenous tribes practised long before we came along with our jargon. I know I am not describing anything new or controversial, I am just experiencing something ancient for myself. The sit spot is a place you pick out to go, out in your part of the world, in nature and go to sit and just be every day. Like meditation, or learning, this is not a passive process, or vegging out in the cabbage patch; it is an active intention to get to know every aspect of your sit spot in all the seasons, in all weathers. Which way the sun catches it, depending on the day. Whether lichen grows on the stones and where. The stones themselves, for they all have a name, even if you don’t speak their language. If there is water nearby, the songs it sings, drop by drop. Birds: resident and tourists. Insects, grass, flowers. The trees’ conversation through the leaves or the short snap of brittle branches. All of it and everything, under any circumstances.
The sit spot and the the soul catch up.
Off to find mine…
Yesterday we had the American flag featured in the Robert Rauschenberger piece Short Circuit. There was obviously a reason for his including it – I think it was done by Jasper Johns – and it’s thought-provoking for that reason. I find the study of flags, for which there is a term vexillology interesting in an abstract sort of way. The designs and motifs included can be informative; I have used them with children and adults to talk about symmetry to interesting effect. Flag flying, however, is a symbol I struggle with and I am not sure why. I think it is something to do with my confusion around the purpose of the symbol. If someone hoists a flag outside their front door, or in their back garden, what does it mean? I think it’s when I don’t know what it means I become unsettled. It’s not like we have a flag flying culture in England hence my confusion. And then of course I am sensitive to other implicit motives. This is probably peculiar to our culture. The American culture takes a different attitude, the Danes another again. As much as flying a flag says something, so does our relationship to the symbol being flown.
Anyway, that was a bit deeper than I meant to go with this, but it has been borne out of an anger I felt this afternoon when driving home from work. As I waited at the traffic lights at Victoria Circus, I noticed something outside the Revenues and Customs offices, a not inconsiderably sized office block: the Union Flag flying at half-mast. What annoyed me, is that there is never a flag outside that building. They had bought a special one for the purposes of flying at half-mast for today’s funeral of Margaret Thatcher. I continued, fuming, down Victoria Avenue. The Civic Centre – same. A flag on the top of the building and another outside. Again, these poles are normally empty.
I was incensed on so many different levels that I still don’t quite understand it myself. The point of flying a flag half-mast is to signal respect or mourning. What the purpose of buying a flag to fly half-mast and then presumably remove is some other sort of fucked up symbolism that messes with my head (and the public purse). Perhaps in my head it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Ten million quid on the main event in London and then new flags all round – out of our council tax. You can’t just use symbols willy nilly like that because it’s staged. It’s exploitative and disrespectful. We don’t fly flags outside the Revenue and Customs office normally, so don’t start now. It’s a red rag to the bull’s horns of austerity that the public are being gored on.
I am not against flags, but they are too potent a symbol to be used casually, for the purposes of spin, to dictate a mood to the country that we mainly do not feel. Margaret Thatcher was an old woman who had a good life, who knew no especial hardship, and whose convictions seemed, too often, to be partly based on absence of empathy. She was an old woman whose time has long gone, but had the power to cause a lot of social injustice which remains. She was an old woman, loved by her family, who died in The Ritz hotel, aged 87. She died of a stroke and, I imagine, knew nothing about it. It’s not a bad way to go, as things stand.
I wouldn’t mind it so much myself. There is, however, no specially purchased flag necessary.