Monday, 29 August 2011


When there is mental confusion, colours, patterns and symmetries seem more useful, somehow, than any words.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Beans, potatoes, Bach and Lydia Davis

I'm reading the collected stories of Lydia Davis, as highly recommended by the most discriminating of my American friends. The UK edition from Penguin has just been published and I fell on it. I don't think of myself as a lover of short stories. Whilst I can admire them, I've rarely found in them the absorbing, awe-inspiring pleasure of the best novels. Too short. Too small. My yearning to be overwhelmed and transported by fiction too great. Only Raymond Carver, perhaps, does it for me with his short stories, and his is the voice of someone so damaged that I also find them deeply upsetting. Lydia Davis, though - yes! These exquisite, excruciating stories are crafted enough, intense enough to satisfy.

Surprising in a way that short stories have hitherto failed me, when I so love the notion of multiple small portions, when mezedes or tapas are my ideal meal. I guess I've never found till now the papas bravas, the gigandes of literary cuisine. This is it, though. I'm going to love this, have myself a long, lingering, indulgent feast on this fat volume.

These are all about form. But it's like listening to Bach suites - the form is so fine, the pleasure so visceral, that it takes me to a place that is all about content: heart, gut, emotion and the occasional mental orgasm.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011


So much rain - everything keeps growing.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Friday, 12 August 2011

Canalside Leeds

In an unmanageable world, canals are contained - a stretch of water just a few yards across, a narrow, manageable strip of accessible earth on either side - but the boundaryless sky above and its reflection in the water ensure that they never feel enclosed or limiting. They have a gentle, complex aesthetic with oft-repeated features, characteristic constructions and vegetation, constantly varying with the light - a light that is always muted and subtle. They have a history that's intricate, defined and melancholy: labour, industry, transport, deindustrialisation, decay. They've emerged into a present that's a kind of a low-key happy ending - cleaned and rehabilitated to a basic level for bourgeois leisure boats and bohemian houseboats, for walkers and cyclists on the towpaths and for dwellers - mostly young and transient - in fashionable waterside apartments. I'd like to go, one day, and walk the length of a canal with my camera, then turn and walk it back with all the views reversed. In the meantime, a few more photos from Leeds.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Views through blue

One of these should be a  book cover: Views Through Blue - a sequence of stories or poems. A major reason for recent trip to Yorkshire was to see the new Hepworth Wakefield art gallery, which I loved, and some time soon I'll get around to editing and posting some photos (took far too many). But these views of a fenced-off, canal-side building site were, I think, almost as aesthetically satisfying as the gorgeous new gallery.

(When I typed this a few days ago, I guess I didn't know just how much 'blue' I'd be viewing through by the time I posted it)

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Linking minds

As the radio told me the riots in many parts of London were moving closer and closer last night to where I live, I was frightened, and chastened by my overwhelming interest in my own safety. Voices other than those shouting 'no excuse - pure criminality!' will be much needed in the days to come. Not that there is any excuse, or that stoning and burning buildings and buses isn't criminality. But there is so much more to say when you feel every day the pain and rage, the cultural and material impoverishment, the chaos just beneath the surface. Reaffirming the power of hearts and words feels like one of the few things I can do at this moment, so below the photo is what I was going to post today anyway, and here are a few more subtle voices on the riots: 

Stafford Scott in The Guardian
Camila Batmanghelidjh in The Independent (about Camila's work)
Nina Power in The Guardian
James Meek in the London Review of Books blog

I like to read and absorb things before linking to them, so it's taken me unconscionably long to point out the latest  >Language >Place blog carnival, hosted by Walter Bjorkman at Qwik-bake Synthetics and revolving around the theme of 'poetry of place'. It's full of rich and multifarious and lyrical poetry, prose and images. Lovely. So nice to be part of this, and to see it coalescing into something different every time. Submissions for the next edition are open now and until 20 August.

Meanwhile, the latest BluePrintReview is also appearing, a couple of features at a time. This never disappoints. I like everything in the new issue, but my favourite is the story which a photo of mine was chosen to illustrate, Balance by Alex Bernstein - a fine, sharp treatment of a theme that hits home with me; I couldn't be more pleased (if also a little discomfited).

So good that such things sprout from international connections across the Web, and good to have a tiny part in them.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Open City opens here

Becoming a regular reader of the literary and other writing by established, less established and newly minted writers available on blogs and other online spaces has been a wonderful part of my life in recent years. It’s deepened and expanded my knowledge and tastes in fiction, non-fiction and poetry. It’s not the same as reading books (and books are my dear, lifelong friends – I don’t believe they’re about to die out), but online reading has been just as powerful and brought its own strong appeal of freshness, informality, variety and, of course, interactivity. So it’s not a total surprise to see a friend first encountered through the different blogs he’s kept now find considerable success with his first novel. Not a surprise, but a new and engaging experience.

Teju Cole’s novel, Open City, was published yesterday by Faber and Faber in the UK, six months after its launch in the US, where positive reviews in small and more specialised newspapers, magazines and blogs were followed by great praise from James Wood in the New Yorker and a continuing stream of appreciation from all kinds of readers and critics. And now the UK reviews start, with a buzz of thoughtful enthusiasm, from Pankaj Mishra in the Financial Times, Petina Gappah in the Guardian, Max Liu in the Independent, Adam Kirsch in the New Statesman and anonymous endorsement in the Economist. Already available from UK online retailers, it should be in the shops any time now!

I’ve read the novel several times. I’m both too close to it and haven’t yet got close enough to write easily about it. I can point to the reviews linked above, especially James Wood’s, which was one of those that make you hug yourself in glee because they say the things you thought, but could never have articulated. And I can mention, perhaps, some of the things that particularly drew me. The intense, detailed and specific narrative, unravelling inside the mind of one man, Julius - a young Nigerian-German doctor completing his residency in psychiatry in a New York hospital - brings the city to life in a different, slower, deeper way from anything I've ever read. From this detail and specificity, it reaches out widely to the global flows of our fluxing, ungraspable world, personified by the various immigrants and asylum seekers he encounters. It reaches in, too, to touch the reader's mind and senses and emotions. The restrained, intellectual voice of this protagonist-narrator is also sensitive and compelling.

This is not one for the fan of plot-heavy pageturners, perhaps. Julius spends much time alone, walks a lot and thinks a lot, about art and memory and history. He sees a lot, as loners sometimes do, and has strange, surprising, significant encounters, as loners sometimes do. His story might seem to go nowhere much. Yet, in his journey to Brussels, his journeys of memory back to Nigeria, and in the mouths and memories of those he meets from far-flung places, it goes to Africa, to Europe... and to places in the heart. It travels too, through his observations and reflections, in time and political and cultural history. Full of seeming digressions, it digresses in fact not at all, but is a seamless deepening through detail of the whole picture and atmosphere of today's global city. And it goes to a sharp inner twist that you will not forget.

There are scenes that remind me of those Hungarian photographs (and an exhibition of photos by Munkacsi features in the book), scenes so sharply, delicately detailed that they become a picture, a pattern, that is not only figurative, but not less human or humane for that – more so. Here Julius recalls arriving, with his then girlfriend Nadège and a group from her church, to visit a detention centre for undocumented immigrants; they disembark from the hired bus at a bleak spot in the outer reaches of Queens:
It was then that I saw Nadège’s uneven walk. It was, in a sense, the first time I had really seen her: the slanting afternoon light, the vicious landscape of wire fencing and broken concrete, the bus like a resting beast, the way she moved her body in compensation for a malformation
There is lovely writing about art, and I’ve been noticing recently how often this is central to the novels that most affect me; Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved and Deidre Madden’s Authenticity spring to mind. A favourite section of Open City that floats perfectly in my memory is at the American Folk Art Museum:
Standing before Brewster’s portraits, my mind quiet, I saw the paintings as records of a silent transaction between artist and object. A laden brush, in depositing paint on the panel or canvas, hardly registers a sound, and how great is the peace palpable in those great artists of stillness: Vermeer, Chardin, Hammershøi. The silence was even more profound, I thought as I stood alone in that gallery, when the private world of the [deaf] artist was total in its quietness. Unlike the other painters, Brewster hadn’t resorted to indirect gazes or chiaroscuro to communicate the silence of his world. The faces were well-lit and frontal, and yet they were quiet…
…for the moment of the painting, and, therefore, for all time, he is a little boy holding a bird by a blue string, clad in a white chemise with a carefully observed lace frill.
I kept thinking, too, that reading this book felt like listening to music: the repetitions, variations, transitions and resolutions of the structure and the way I’ve been reading it over and over with increasing pleasure, both bits and the whole, which is what I do with the latest musical enthusiasm, not so much with books, which are usually a one-off (however powerful) experience. And then I read the piece in Largehearted Boy blog that quotes Teju Cole:
Open City owes more to music than it does to other books… It is Mahler… who provides the mood for the book… but a greater influence on me in terms of compositional structure was Mahler’s great rival in the 20th century symphony, Jean Sibelius… Big forms and small forms are intimately related: listening to the violins scurry away on a theme, one becomes aware that the basses are ambling along in a patter than unexpectedly fits… That was the moving target I was chasing all the way through Open City: how could I get one sentence to open up to another in a way that was organic, but not predictable? I spent a long time thinking about the very beautiful end of the first movement of the Symphony No 3 in particular. I wondered how to use that kind of ending in a prose work: not merely a quiet ending, but an ending that sounds like conversation between three motifs, none of them loud.
I’ve been wondering whether, just as I’ve only grown in recent years to love some of my now favourite novelists – Sebald, Coetzee, Josipovici, as well as Hustvedt and Madden - I might have been less engaged by Open City twenty years ago, when I was the author’s age. Or perhaps I might have loved it just as much, if for more limited reasons. Full of complex ideas and wide intellectual references, it’s also accessible and moving. Alongside the crafted formal qualities and the dizzyingly wide allusions, there’s the aspect neither intellectual nor formal, but of character. Julius is, among other things, a person damaged by estrangement from his mother – or estranged from his mother because he is damaged. As someone in that same position of estrangement from family, which I experience as an amputation of part of the self, this is a psychological portrait I find wrenchingly convincing.

Open City does a rare thing, I think: it both challenges moral, aesthetic and narrative assumptions and holds a space for the reader to face that challenge by leaving us not alone and empty, but consoled (perhaps that is too soft a word) and accompanied by music, art and language. As James Wood wrote, making me a fan of his for life: 'what moves the prose forward is the prose – the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing'. I hope lots of my friends and compatriots and fellow Londoners from everywhere will read it, now it’s here.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Standing in the sunshine

Well, right now, I'm not standing in the sunshine. Not physically: it's raining. Not metaphorically: in my soul it's worse than rain. But this shot, from last evening in the park just before sunset, is a joyful thing. The consolations of photography.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011


Trying is a funny thing - essential, but never enough. If you don't try, not much will happen, probably. Equally, though, trying can expand to fill all the space, to crowd out hope, imagination, openings... and thus ensure that all your efforts will be in vain. It's finding the balance between doing and being, I suppose - something our culture isn't very good at.