Saturday, 30 August 2008

Red in the water

(About to respond as usual with a sigh to a friend much given to puns and such, I realise: oh dear, blogging has activated this reflex in me too...)

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Growing soft

"The easy path of aging is to become a thick-skinned
, unbudging curmudgeon, a battle-axe. To grow soft and sweet is the harder way."

James Hillman
from The Force of Character and the Lasting Life

via Whiskey River - apposite as ever.

Yesterday I saw some old friends I hadn't seen for years. They no longer live in England. I'm always pleased by the thought of seeing them, pleased but also apprehensive. They are deep, complex people, not superficial, and once we knew each other rather well.
Supposing one of them asked: So how are you these days? How are you, really? They probably wouldn't ask. Our contact now, after all, is scanty, more an honouring of memories than anything. But supposing they asked?

I might make light of the question: Ah, as I get older I'm less and less able to answer that. Don't you find the same? Or I might find myself saying: Not so good. It's so hard. Why does it not get easier? Although I still feel I keep growing, getting stronger, it only gets harder.

I might say: You know, I think what it is, however fucked up and stunted you are, if you stick at life, keep trying not to turn away, not to harden your heart, not to hate and blame everyone but yourself, you slowly get stronger and more sorted. You take more and more pleasure in music, literature, nature. The colours of the world get sharper, even as your eyes grow dimmer. What's more, though, your defences keep falling away and your loneliness and failure, entrenched since you were young - my loneliness and failure - hurt more and more. Would I put the defences back? I don't think so. But it hurts.

They didn't quite ask. Or rather, they sort of asked. And I sort of gave a 'what... doing' , not a 'how... being' answer. And then we talked of other things. But if they were interested, they'll have seen the answer in my face, I suppose, as I saw in their faces much more than we spoke of.

Monday, 25 August 2008


This exhibition of British Orientalist paintings from the 17th to 19th centuries has been on for ages. I only just got there before it closes, and was glad I did. So beautiful. So uneasy about finding it beautiful.

Like most woolly-liberal white European anti-racists, I've more or less internalised the basic thrust of Edward Said's famous book, although I haven't read it. That I'd not wish to be found, in my turn, exotic is absolutely incontrovertible. (Come to think of it, I have been found exotic - in some African countries my extreme whiteness was clearly exotic. It didn't feel good; had so little to do with who I am. And, of course, this wasn't in the context of a power relationship heavily weighted against me).
Mrs Baldwin by Joshua Reynolds, 1782

And yet, and yet, I found many of these paintings beautiful, exciting, strong and innovative. Some of them made my heart sing. Such force, skill, colour, emotion and lyricism. They represent much that I'm uncomfortable with, but also convey the genuine joy and inspiration of repressed, uptight British artists discovering landscapes and cultures
more intense and vivid than their own. I identify so much with this. I identify, too, alas, with their narcissistic urge to dally with another culture, dress up, pretend to be part of it. I've known both this joy and this narcissism from the moment I stepped out into foreign travel from a narrow working-class background where no one travelled.

So I left the gallery both pleasured and troubled - which I suppose is what you look for, really, in a worthwhile cultural outing.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Ghost in the office

My office at the university is a small, narrow room with a window at one end and a door at the other, sideways on to the desk. People appearing in the doorway register first as a presence, an outline, at the limit of my left-hand peripheral vision. I have to turn my head to see who it is.

In my dream last night I turned, at my desk, and stared, puzzled: who was this bulky figure bundled in a big overcoat, woolly hat pulled down over the brow? I looked again and gulped to see it was a old love, unseen for many years, much older now, his face wan and blurred. He stared back. I opened my mouth, but no words came. His face wavered, grew increasingly blurred, and then I woke up, my mind vividly retaining the vision and the memory of feeling, in sequence, puzzled, confused, alarmed.

I've never had such a dream. I woke wondering if he'd just died, or yelled out somewhere in anguish. When hearts have been close, when you've felt another's consciousness beating next to your own, I don't think the link ever quite dissolves - alone and together, we're much more than we know. But, equally, it could have been a thread of recent thought that led to a random memory, sparked a synaptic connection in sleep.

In the office this morning, I found myself casting sidelong looks towards the doorway, a bit bothered.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008


So this is what hope does: feeling tired and sick, trouble concentrating, most upset by an unexpected dose of virulent criticism, although rational judgement says it's not very justified and mostly the critic's 'stuff'.

Going home to another house last week, I saw a potential me, the same but different, happier. Sitting in the meditation hall on retreat, I saw a potential me who gave more of her heart to this practice, happier. Reading, writing, thinking, I saw lately what I would like to take my mind more deeply into, happier. A 'different me' is not quite it; more like just fewer boundaries, limitations. The merest intimations of such a thing make my soul curl up in fear, leave me weary, ill, unfocused. How tight is the grip of habit, the fear of letting go!

So drawn by this stripey building, I kept taking photos. It's not even a nice building, a gaudy, plastified warehouse across the canal. What I love is the way it's not just one thing, but alternating opposites. Its shimmering, stripey reflection draws me even more.

Wanting to embrace my own stripiness, but it's so hard: hard work holding the illusion of one solid, monochrome self, but harder still to let go and let your stripes shimmer.

Monday, 18 August 2008

The other way

I walked along the canal the other way, which was quite different: no backs of houses and flats, but hedgerows with flowers and people picking blackberries, scrubby open land and small, shabby industrial buildings, more barge-dwellers, in scruffier boats on makeshift moorings. Only the still, dark water and the narrow concrete path the same, and another sunny day with storm clouds flitting over.

click to enlarge

Change the frame and everything looks different. That's what I found, too, staying in another house most nights this past week or so, cat-sitting. Going from there to my office and other accustomed haunts, nothing felt quite the same: a small, quiet shaking up that made things lighter, less oppressive. We sink so deep in our daily ruts, the view out gets harder and harder to see. Enlightening.

It wasn't just this. It was the recent two-weeks retreat, which was my longest ever. I think it was also blurting out to friends the other day some bad, bad feelings that I never mention. That didn't seem a big deal, since I think those things every day. But something seems to have burst, a painful pressure diminished.

So, what with one thing and another, a lifting and opening of mood, more words, more life. There is even a small germ of a not-so-small plan for... well, let's see if it comes to anything. Who'd have thought?

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Blue Studio: performed in language

"We write to find what we believe and what we do not believe: there are things we believe or want to believe or think we believe that will not substantiate themselves in the concrete materials of the poem", said George Oppen.
Message-bearing poetry where the message has been fixed beforehand, not tested in the acts of language, will make me, as a reader, fly away in the other direction and hide in the eaves. One might then subscribe to the loosely projectivist idea of discovering content/as form and form/as content in the act of writing, or in the practice of writing. This is my position. But I can't be naive as all that. I know damned well that poetry is full of ideas and positions that preceded the writing of any particular poem... people have ideas, and they don't put the ideas aside when they write. So what am I talking about? Is it that the ideas are enacted or performed in language, as if discovered anew in language and structure, inside all the means and mechanisms of poetry? Yes, something like this. As if the language discovers that these ideas are 'right' - right for this poem, right here, right now. The poet forgets and then remembers. The reader may remain agnostic, or entranced... I think that the poem I want is the poet's real struggle on the page inside language, inside poetic traditions, inside ideas, inside her time and place.
from Blue Studio: Gender Arcades
Rachel Blau Du Plessis

I love this. I think I love Rachel Blau Du Plessis, feminist, scholar, poet, refuser of boundaries and assumptions (thank you, Wood s Lot!). I hope she will not prove too often too difficult for me. I seem to be coming around to some of the kind of writing and thinking that defeated me all those years ago as a student.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Reading Malamud

There's a large shop near Waterloo Station that sells remaindered and discounted books. It's a lucky dip: what can I get today that looks interesting for £2.99? The only time I don't pretty much know what I want, the author if not the title.

That's how I came to read Dubin's Lives by Bernard Malamud, attracted by the nice green cover, to tell the truth. A name I was only vaguely aware of, and I'd never read any of his eight novels (all are out of print in the UK). And, oh, it's rather wonderful! A late novel, published in 1976, and he died in 1986, it's really fine writing. The opening pages, which paint a Vermont landscape and William Dubin's inner landscape on his daily walk through it, are as close to perfect an opening to a novel as I've ever read and what follows didn't disappoint.

(I love this photo, which I found on the web - uncredited. Very painterly)

His style reminds me of no one else. Such a strong, particular use of prose, often skirting the sense, taking several passes at it. Disconcerting, but it weaves in the end an exceptionally rich and satisfying picture. Hasn't he said this already?, you think. No, he said something a little different, and complementary: a pentimento, a shadow line.

I gather that his earlier novels sit squarely in the great American tradition of second-generation Jewish immigrant literature; this one doesn't necessarily, I think - although there is a back story, and the back story sheds subtle but important light on the foreground story.... It does, I suppose, sit within a tradition of American novels with laconically gloomy, lost, self-deprecating middle-aged male protagonists. But it's infinitely warmer and more redemptive than most of these, whilst just as lacking in self indulgence. (I was recently reading Richard Ford and I really, really couldn't take him. He's too casually grim). It's very funny too: read it with a wry, aching smile.

The skill and depth of the writing in Dubin's Lives is such that I wasn't put off, as I might have been, by the 1970s hippy morality of the tale (aging male writer has affair with a woman his daughter's age. His wife finds out, has an affair with her psychotherapist. Inconclusive ending). The characters are complex, believably confused and changeable, sweetly drawn, and reap bitter rewards for stupidity and hypocrisy. Malamud's morality is not really of the '70s at all (though critics suggest the story may well have autobiographical elements), but something older, darker and more ambivalent.

A tense, riveting few pages where the protagonist gets hopelessly, dangerously lost - entirely his own fault - in a blizzard in the fields right near his house (deeply metaphorical) stay with me particularly strongly. I could pick out many more sections. The long, meandering whole, often claustrophobic, but often spacious, hangs together exceptionally well. It was so good that, having torn through the novel once, I started again right away and more slowly. Might I really get a handle on the wretched habit of devouring books without chewing? [This is not a happy metaphor in the context of beginning the same book again. Ed.] Writing of this quality and lucid complexity just might help me to do that. It's sobering to wonder if such a lengthy, dense, inward and circular work, but so full of life, would now get published. I suppose it might, if the writer had a long and prestigious career behind him, as Malamud did by 1976, but I do wonder.

I've no idea if I might like Malamud's other novels as much as this. But what an unexpected gift to chance upon something so very, very good. Perhaps someone who knows his work would like to suggest which of his other books I should read?

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Impression, cat

The colours made me think of an impressionist painting - and the photos were blurred anyway...

Monday, 11 August 2008


click to enlarge

I'm cat-sitting in West London, a foreign country to me. I've lived in North and South London, worked and had many friends in East London, but West: where's that? So I'm taking the opportunity to explore a bit, went to Little Venice, where I've never been in all my 27 years in the city, and for a walk along the Grand Union Canal. On a sunny, blowy, sometimes stormy afternoon, it was varied, surprising and - with its still, dark water full of reflections and bordered by the chaotic backs of things - rather wistful.


Last look

OK, with one last look at the place, I'm going to change the subject.

Sunday, 10 August 2008


click to enlarge

Kind of edenic, isn't it? Which is why I can't yet quite let go of the two weeks I spent at Gaia House. Stillness and beauty are an amazing and profound combination within which big thoughts and feelings, as well as big, clear ponds of no-thought and no-feeling, arise.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Strong colours, strong light

Strong light and shadow on everything, flowers emerging from the bushes like spotlighted jewels. Deep green in the shady gardens and along the lane between the trees, then coming out into wide, intense sunlight, blue sky and golden, prickly hay as the path slopes up across the fields.

Strong light on the countryside a pleasure; strong light on me not so easy to take - quickly sweaty and burning, but not so much that as the light on responses, thoughts, habits; in the long hours of quiet, the seeing myself and the 'ouch. I do that. yes'.

Buddhism is a psychological method, a patient feeling into the self, not in order to be self-obsessed, but in order to breath beyond the self, to see that self and all the rest are not different - all you have to do is be, stop flinching.

Stop the inner chatter. Go into the moment. And it grows more and more intense. Beautiful. Frightening. But if you stay with it, the fear dissolves.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Countryside in black and white

Not obvious. What has stayed with me most strongly is the green, green, green and the many bright colours of the flowers and butterflies. But when I think a little more, the blocks of dark and light and the strong outlines stay with me just as strongly - the contrast and clarity in many things that I seem to have brought back with me from the powerful, open spaces of the countryside, and that other common relationship of light and dark: those dappled places beneath the trees where you can scarcely tell them apart, but where it's important to remember there is both.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Less is more

The retreat, which was not an organised event but a self-directed stay in a silent retreat centre, was not demanding, with just a few hours of sitting meditation every day and many hours of sleeping and reading and walking in the countryside. With lots of rest and only very, very whole, whole foods, no alcohol, no coffee etc, it was really as much of a rest and detox cure as a meditation retreat. I left Devon a little less grey-white in the face and flabby in the belly, and feeling healthier than I had for rather a long time, got on the train for a 4 ½ hour journey – crowded train, very hot day, air-conditioning not working properly – and got off in London with all the symptoms of a lousy cold, which has had me rather ill for the past week.

Perhaps the discomfort and high fever, along with the usual major backlog of work that follows a holiday, account for the tone of my blog posts. Reading the comments, I thought: oh dear, do I sound depressed? I’m not actually depressed. More the opposite, actually. I’ve noticed for some years now this rather disconcerting syndrome: when I’m ill I get more done, and with less anguish! I can see exactly why this is. It’s because with only about 25% of my mind available it just all gets on with the job in hand, perhaps a bit slowly and perhaps not very imaginatively, but gets it done. Out of action is the other 75% which normally busies itself frantically with reflection, self-reflection, reaction, over-reaction, thinking it all through again and again, assessing and reassessing the many alternative approaches and priorities, rejection, anger, boredom, obfuscation… Aiee. Are many people like this, I wonder?

Sunday, 3 August 2008


A friend asked me: why don't you write the kind of stuff you used to write on your blog? Well, I suppose it's either because I grow more overworked and older and tireder and have less energy for it by the day, or because I can only write about myself and there isn't anything left to say, or a bit of both. Which is quite depressing, isn't it? Ho hum. (there was a man, a long, long time ago, who used to say 'ho hum' a lot. I was talking about him to the same friend yesterday. Funny how these things, long forgotten, come back to you.)

Friday, 1 August 2008


Retreat lets in the light, light on the awful, destructive absurdity of the way I carry on, the way a lot of us carry on, the abuse of body, heart/mind and environment.

I read this while I was away:

The most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small daily acts of courage which help to preserve a person's self-respect and inherent human dignity.
Aung San Suu Kyi