Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Repas d'un midi lointain

From the first chapter of a discontinued, hopelessly autobiographical fiction. Set in the mid 1970s, in a village near Nice. First blogged in 2006. Whole chapter here. Re-posted as my submission to Issue 12 of the >Language >Place Blog Carnival, which has a special theme of food.

Delectable though it was, the food was not the best thing around that table. The best things were the conversation and, well, the love.

Here is another day. The midday meal is simple - hard, spicy sausages cooked long and slowly with finely sliced white cabbage and juniper berries. Louise, the cook, her arm pinioned close to her chest by the scars of surgery, asks Antoine to ladle everyone's portion from the deep pot. Steam wafts around the table, the heaps of cabbage glisten damply on our plates, hiding the dark chunks of sausage, nuggets of strong, satisfying taste. It is subtle, not to be hurried. I get lost in the nuance of scent and texture and juices, but surface to notice the nuance of words and looks, how Antoine and Jean-Paul dive into the food, smacking their lips and full of praise, only the edges of their eyes betraying concern for Louise, only the tiniest flicker of fear and dread at seeing her flinch in pain.

Louise is telling Jean-Paul which Alpine foothills farmer made the sausage, debating the merits of various breeds of pig, the hardships of small farmers. They debate everything - pigs, parenting, politics - in the same tone of passionate enjoyment. They care, the thought comes to me - for the food on their plates, for each other, for Marielle and Laura's future and the future of France. Despite their smiling irony, their fierce awareness of how little difference their caring makes, they care. They experience themselves as part of a family, part of a class, a region, a country. In this they are utterly different from the people I grew up with. No wonder their food and their smiles taste so different.

They speak of strikes and factory closures, of protests against nuclear power. Giscard, they spit. Mitterrand, they spit, with a sadder, more intimate anger. The long shadow of 1968, the failed, receding revolution, overlays the shadow of Louise's cancer and the shadows of Marianne's breakdown, Jean-Paul's infidelity and guilt. So many shadows, but so much warmth and light too. Here we are, around the table in my memory, a scene in chiaroscuro.

Here is my own pale, curious face, breaking into indignation as Louise points behind me. While Marielle distracted me with chatter, Laura has been picking out the chunks of sausage from her plate and feeding them to Obélix, the cat. Whiskers shining with grease, he looks over-full and slightly sick. Laura smirks unrepentantly. I am chagrined. I'm a bad child-minder. I didn't see. Louise puts her good arm around me. 'No, chérie, it takes a lifetime to grow eyes in the back of your head. I can see you love my grandchildren. Have some more sausage before that damn cat eats it all. Antoine, give her some more sausage. You like it, huh?'

Marianne is smiling too, one eye on us, one on Jean-Paul and his father who are onto their constant bone of contention. Jean-Paul and Marianne support the mildly trotskyist Unified Socialist Party. Antoine supports no one and nothing but the native cunning of the individual working man and woman. 'Middle-class,' he says. 'sectarian. Even if their hearts are in the right place.'

'Well, some of us are middle-class, yes, Papa. I suppose I'm middle-class now. Middle class and workers together, and we see the need for organising in the unions, for building consciousness, building a vanguard of support for change, even if it's going to be a long haul now, and perhaps a long haul to nowhere. You're becoming a nihilist in your old age.'

'I'm no nihilist!' Antoine waves his fork with a piece of sausage on it. 'I believe in the hearts of men, the strength and humour I've seen them show in the face of hardship. If you'd seen what I've seen, on the docks in Marseille... ' Louise is nudging him. 'Mm? Yes, yes, have some more sausage.' He puts down his fork to serve more sausage and take a deep draught of wine. 'You must eat, my little Laura, not give it to the cat. Eat and grow big and strong to make a revolution!'

Impossible to know where laughter, pain, sincerity, performance meet and blend.

'Revoloo... loo... loo...', Laura sucks on the syllables, hungry for long, spicy words, if not yet for spicy food.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Telescope, periscope, microscope

Poetry is a telescope, bringing us closer to what is very far away, an inverted periscope that takes us down to what is hidden, a microscope that lets us see what is invisible to the naked eye, a precision lens to make what was vague and confused come clear.
Antonio Munoz Molina
(rough translation from his blog, which Blogger, in its wisdom, will not link to - it's on my Links list, above, if you read Spanish).

Wednesday, 16 November 2011


Some of the strands are turning. So
the willow behind the house is streaked
yellow and pale green, in the wash
of the Fall sunshine.

My life is so crowded with ghosts
that they don't even trouble me now. They stand
wistfully at stairways, vanishing if
I turn to look at them.

What can we say? That God, for his own
purposes, saves us for his own ends?
Better surely to take it for granted, than
to take it for that.

You sat at my feet and lovingly
laced up my shoes. I read you a poem.
The sky changed; the light moved
and crossed the room. If only
I could have died then. The rest is
footnotes and addenda: the last chapter
of a biography, which you read out of duty,
since they are all alike. He got sick and died.

It's dangerous to talk too long to willows.
Their arguments are twisty turny, and
they flicker in the sun. They will soon have you
agreeing that there is no difference
between a sparkle in the air and
the life of an honest man.
Trees don't think like we do.

Light through the yellow leaves,
the rattle of twigs in the shifting wind;
the creak of branches, rotten but green,
the sift of the crumbling bark.
Don't breathe the dust. Don't listen to the whisper.
Some things we shouldn't know.

From Dale Favier's first collection, Opening the World - published by Pindrop Press.

Review to follow.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Shedding light on difficulty

(and scraping the barrel for a relevant photo)

It’s proving such a struggle to try and post something here every day this November that my chief motivation has become defiance of its very difficulty. Why so hard? Why do my simplest words go limp and numb, with a single sentence sometimes needing endless revisions? I read a short poem – The Past is the Present by Marianne Moore on wood s lot (also here). The tone, the multiple allusions, the line-lengths and the rhythm: so small, deep, satisfying is a poem, such a complex dance with words both studied and abandoned. A poem, or a paragraph of crafted writing, may be a small thing but need quite a lot of space. The image comes of my mind stuffed and swollen, throbbing with facts and worries and ‘to do’s’. Thoughts and feelings jammed together in a tight, constricted exit, waiting, tiring, with no food, no light. Oh. Magnanimously granting them a daily slot for speech, I guess, is not enough! I shall keep trying: breathe, let in some light and space, but may have to stop and let my mind rest until the swelling goes down.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Awaiting new use

Awaited inspiration did not come today. So here are some photos I took back in the Summer of a disused mill in Leeds, awaiting reincarnation as fashionable, upmarket apartments or offices.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Reading Winnicott

It's a while since I took this photo in the park, as you can tell from what they're wearing. Aesthetically, I was attracted by their dark skin and blue clothes against the almost-black hedge. Mostly, though, I know that, like many adults with painful childhood memories, I'm often transfixed by iconic scenes of parents and children interacting successfully. I do have memories of my dad doing exactly what this one's doing - and riding a bike is one of the few life skills I mastered fairly normally. Anyway, the photo remained on my computer, occasionally mouthing 'blog me', but demonstrating little relevance to anything... until Litlove's comment below about the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and his concept of 'transitional space'.

I remembered reading Winnicott back in the 1970s, when I first became interested in psychology and psychotherapy - someone rather humane and progressive, less grating on a feminist than most of the mid 20th century 'mother and child' merchants. Details had faded, though, so Friday lunchtime found me in the workplace library. They don't study humanities where I work, so although I'm right next door to a big library, I rarely make much personal use of it. They do study psychology, though - social psychology, but social and clinical clearly overlap. So there was plenty by Winnicott, it transpired. I went home with a couple of not-too-heavy collections of talks and articles and spent some of the weekend reading them. Reading and wincing, because here is a story told in elementary terms of 'good enough' parenting and consequent normal development, and I know a lot of it was not my own experience. It's dispiriting, but horribly fascinating to contemplate how long ago it all went wrong.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Clapham Common

On the grass, a flock of crows around some abandoned, unspeakable package and a flock of humans swigging from cans of beer, lolling on coats discarded in the afternoon's surprising warmth. It's a weird warmth, without light, a grey day with darkness closing in at 4 pm. Uneasy. You can see it in the scuttling steps of locals with their dogs and shopping. Only looking upwards at the statue and the rooftops and the last leaves does all seem calm and as it should be.

Temperence & Providence, 1895

Friday, 11 November 2011

Photos of Venice

by Hiroshi Watanabe

Intent on salvaging a bit of yesterday, I remembered late-night opening at nearby Somerset House, where they’re showing the Real Venice photo exhibition, on tour from the Venice Biennale and in aid of Venice in Peril. Finding the Embankment Gallery - two floors down from street level via many minimally signposted corridors and flights of stairs - was unnecessarily arduous, but the gallery, once found, is a lovely, old, low, vaulted space with wooden floors and subtle lighting. As for the photos, wow!

I suppose any half-way decent photographer, never mind this select group of very famous ones, can’t really go wrong in Venice. Still, the variety and impact of these was really gorgeous, intelligent and emotive. A quick selection can be seen here. For a longer look at all those on show in London, and more, go here.

Only Robert Walker predictably made me wince, amidst joyful engagement with the whole two long rooms of big, lightboxed photographs. I often don't care for lightboxes, but these were so superior and the gallery light so lovely also, that it wasn’t an issue. My favourites, perhaps, were Tim Parchikov’s and Nan Goldin’s (the latter not a photographer I can always warm to, even while much admiring her work). Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s almost abstract landscapes also forced me to rethink my instinctive recoil at the sight of his name. Fabulous really, and only £5. I hope I get to go back for another look.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Ho hum

I just had a completely unexpectedly horrible day. Deeply upset. Walking in circles in Oxford Street in floods of tears, bumping into people. (No one died). And you know what I realised – I can deal with difficult stuff! In the face of a real challenge, I actually tend to behave like a grown-up. I was upset, and then I did what needed to be done. Whatever the outcome, I think I learned something: that the worst part of my life is the lack of challenge in it. I am so depleted by tedium, by having nothing demanded of me but patience and endurance. It makes me smaller and more scared and helpless every day. Counter-intuitively (because the more depleted I feel, the less I feel capable of), I need to get out there and face some hard things – it’s the only way to be less scared. I probably knew this already, of course - It’s rather obvious. Experiencing it is something else.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Change and willpower

radiating energy

I was intrigued to read Leslee’s post this week about a new book on Willpower.

Oh god, willpower – I don't have much! I think I know why. I can flash back all too easily to the passionately wilful, screaming toddler I once was, the fierce rejection she met from her carers, the repeated warnings that they would abandon her; submit her will to theirs, or men in white coats would come and take her to the well-known insane asylum just outside the city where they lived! She did. She went very quiet and her will got lost. No will: no willpower. Of all the things that long ago went missing, it’s perhaps the one I’ve found it hardest to recuperate – my lifelong burden a bottomless inertia that must be struggled against every day. I know what I’d like to strive for, but lack the energy: this has so often been the story. Passive resistance, endurance: I’m good at those. Goal-setting and sustained positive effort: no.

I’m so scared and anxious and distracted since I decided to leave my job. Mobilising the energy and direction required to make anything positive of this decision feels so very far beyond me. Knowing it is really, this time, a question of sink or swim does not seem to be enough. Anything that might help deserves a look, so perhaps this is a book I need to buy, along with Switch, which Dorothee linked to and which I already ordered. Or is reading a book about it more of a substitute for action than a spur to action?

As I write, at lunchtime, there's a student demonstration taking place in central London, against the recent huge rises in university tuition fees. Helicopters circle endlessly overhead and we learn that streets are lined with police in riot gear and armed with plastic bullets. In these times, it's even harder, and even more crucial, to be strong and clear and in full possession of potential strengths. We must not let ourselves be crushed. Not by an increasingly repressive state and not by our own demons. Every time a rebellious soul succombs to despair, the forces of repression have won, without firing a single plastic bullet. Sigh. I'm getting too old for such thoughts. I know: you're never too old for such thoughts.   

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Writing haiku

 the haiku is where they overlap?

As well as trying to post here every day in November, on TRAIL MIX I'm trying to write daily 'small stones' this month in the form of something approaching haiku (photo above illustrates today's). I've been reading about what distinguishes haiku from other micro-poems or, at worst, ditties: simplicity, present tense, a break, a shock, an existential element...  What I've mostly learned from reading other writers is that clearly this must be learned through practice.

So I'm hoping that with practice I'll get somewhere near enough to the feel of it by the last weekend of the month, when I've signed up for a zen meditation and haiku writing retreat with a much loved and admired teacher of both. It's a challenge to give my best efforts and attention to this while knowing that feelings of competitiveness and wanting to impress can only be deservedly counterproductive. And while knowing that, fraught and frightened in the wake of recent decisions, I've rarely been less mentally equiped... for anything at all, really... Of course, that can be the best of starting points, as easily as it can be the worst, depending on how willing you are to really be in this raw place.

Anyway, writing a daily haiku is good because it must be fetched from a part of my mind that is not full of self-obsession and fear.

Monday, 7 November 2011


Because the Autumn light on water shows the way into a softer world.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Finnish music

(no credit found for this very evocative 
photo of Kaija Saariaho)

I have so many plans for the weekend, and then I lie in bed like lead and can't get up. So Saturday and Sunday mornings lately have been times for listening to a lot of classical music, and led to increased listening outside those times too.

My Finnish friend had told me about the growing fame of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, whose music she likes very much. I found I did too - and how great that Saariaho is a woman our age, we both thought! So she invited me to the first London performance last week of Kaija Saariaho's Leino Songs, programmed alongside Sibelius, notably his Third Symphony (sending me off to reread Teju Cole going on about that very work). It was a beautiful concert: Sibelius renewed, all fresh and open and mysterious alongside Saariaho's wild, haunting music, where the voice almost seems to fuse with the orchestra in a single long sound. Here's one of the Leino Songs.

For a country of small population, Finland seems to have a great flowering in many of the arts. Perhaps their much admired education system has something to do with it.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Get behind myself

keeping busy
feeling tired
get behind myself
and push

Friday, 4 November 2011

Rain haibun

Six thirty in the morning. Marching grimly through the dark and rain the mile to the 37 bus-stop, on my way to see the shrink before I go to work. Damp, bleary thought: will I shrink in the wash? Mute incantation against those paroxysms of rain that get under your waterproof, umbrella and boots - I can't go home and change for thirteen hours, you know!

It was a warm night and I slept with the window cracked open, waking from weird dreams and each time lulled to sleep again by steady drumming and splashing.

These past few months of getting up at six on Fridays have been... different. A early-morning world I've never been familiar with. Closer to the earth, out here before the city mayhem gets going. Closer to the air and breeze and slowly growing light. This is the first time in heavy rain. Stride out, then. Oh, but here beneath the Linden trees the footpath is all slimy leaves!

Made it to the shelter of the covered bus-stop. Shaking my umbrella and my wetter sleeve, the left one. My trouser-legs are soaked and steaming - ugh! The water falling in sporadic sheets from shelter roof to ground, pooling and gurgling round my feet. There's not much traffic; waiting in the quiet and wet.

the rain whispers
damp little words
like trickle and drip

(bear with me - first attempt at haibun. haiku written a while ago for TRAIL MIX)

Thursday, 3 November 2011

What do we want?

Are there any other stories? What constitutes another story, as opposed to moaning about the prevailing and utterly disempowering discourse?

I’m often excited by what Slavoj Zizek chooses to write and speak about, and often disappointed by what he writes and says. After more than thirty years of trying, I still struggle to understand psychoanalytic and post-structuralist thinkers. Not to mention his apparently extreme case of ADHD. But on this year’s protests and riots, he seems to have found a more accessible voice and it’s as innovative and exciting as I always thought it might be. And he seems to have been speaking and dialoguing ‘on the barricades’, not just viewing the action from the towers of academia.

Reading this piece on the LRB Blog this week – an especially punchy version of what he’s been saying all over the place - was one of those ‘Yes!’ moments that sadly seem to get rarer as you get older. After evoking with devastating clarity the dynamics of globalisation and ‘democracy’, he goes on to address just as clearly the universal criticism of the anti-capitalist protesters’ lack of a concrete agenda:

The Wall Street protests are just a beginning, but one has to begin this way, with a formal gesture of rejection which is more important than its positive content, for only such a gesture can open up the space for new content. So we should not be distracted by the question: ‘But what do you want?’ This is the question addressed by male authority to the hysterical woman: ‘All your whining and complaining – do you have any idea what you really want?’ In psychoanalytic terms, the protests are a hysterical outburst that provokes the master, undermining his authority, and the master’s question – ‘But what do you want?’ – disguises its subtext: ‘Answer me in my own terms or shut up!’
Great stuff – thank you! This is so much what I’ve been thinking: let’s not condemn the lack of an agenda. Of course, there has to be an agenda. But there also has to be a beginning, even if this must be without one. Zizek’s metaphor is such good one. Think of a woman (it’s usually a woman) steeling herself to leave an abusive partner: does she generally know already what she wants instead? Should she hang around until she does?

Elsewhere, Zizek says:
There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions – not questions of what we do not want, but about what we do want. What social organisation can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders do we need? What organs, including those of control and repression? The 20th-century alternatives obviously did not work.

… What one should resist at this stage is precisely such a quick translation of the energy of the protest into a set of concrete pragmatic demands. Yes, the protests did create a vacuum – a vacuum in the field of hegemonic ideology, and time is needed to fill this vacuum in a proper way, as it is a pregnant vacuum, an opening for the truly new.
There is also resonance here with Buddhist philosophy and practice: the willingness to ‘sit with’ doubt and questioning, the famous ‘don’t-know mind’. It’s not a negative or passive thing, but hard and brave and necessary.

Coincidentally, I find today a perfect image of this state in Dave’s poem and another in Roselle’s.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011


( Cambridge: playing Cat Stevens songs!  - video )

A super-busy day, and already I feel tired and discouraged at the thought of daily blogging in November. So this is just links, but extra good ones.

On the very wonderful Spitalfields Life blog, terrific photos and thoughtful words from the Occupy London camps at St Pauls and at Finsbury Square. Thinking a lot about how when I leave my job I’ll perhaps be able to join in some physical acts of protest like these.

Thinking too, though, how every small act of creating words or images is also a protest – not a rejection of reality or an escape from it (well, perhaps sometimes just a bit of an escape from it), but an expansion of reality: “yes, but look, there is this too!”. If this is magnified and becomes a small bud of a movement when creators get together, blog carnivals, in their continuance and regularity, are more like saplings with many buds. So, from the defiant carnival of the protest camps to blog carnivals: there are new editions of both the >Language >Place Blog Carnival (the first anniversary edition!) and the Festival of the Trees (Edition 65!). It feels so good to link our stuff together. The commitment, knowledge and creativity converging here is a joy. Hope I’ll have time in the future to contribute more.

And then there are the places where inner and outer protest seek to become one, like this, from the Dark Mountain Project.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


Heavily obvious metaphor. It's what most of us want, I suppose: a path like this, a pretty one, with no dangerous traffic, defined, contained, with a long, clear view ahead. That there never is a path through life needs no saying - it's bloody virgin jungle! The path is a story we tell ourselves, a necessary one.

My free newspaper, picked up on the bus this morning, tells in shrill tones the endlessly repeated terrible tale of the financial crisis: mutual recriminations, irreconcilable aims and no path forward. This kind of story, so prevalent in our media, only spreads cynicism and disempowerment.

It's November, month of writing and blogging challenges, and I've been thinking of how happy writing makes me, how I need a writing project for this month and don't have one. Perhaps this is the project: to keep poking about and muttering until I find, buried somewhere in the fallen leaves, the story I need to tell myself of the immediate future.