Tuesday 30 November 2010

A paean to practice

November is a bloody month. Cold starts to scour your guts and damp to demoralise, and winter is nearly all to come. So whoever thought up the idea of writing a novel in a month, or if not that then writing something every day, or if not something then just writing, just creating... it was a good thought. Still, I wasn't going to do it this year. Tired and demotivated. Thence the blank space here on 1 November. But, then, somehow, since others were - Lorianne and Lucy and Fire Bird (and they have all created much of beauty and interest in the past month) -  I did too. Just doing it, of course, is the best way of all. Inhabiting the moment, not the end. Who knows why, but writing practice, photography practice, like any daily practice, are supremely worthwhile, their own purpose and justification while requiring neither. Make a space and pour words into it, pour pictures. Make it bigger, keep pouring. What it is, where it goes: we don't know. The mystery. We know, though, that it is. A little every day is very soon a lot.

Monday 29 November 2010

The Way Home

I like it when one thing leads to another, and the other is somewhere you wouldn't otherwise have gone. American crime novels (apart from Sara Paretsky, whose latest probably merits a separate blogpost) have tended to attract me much less than 'Eurocrime', which is almost a separate genre. I'm never quite sure why I read crime novels so avidly anyway. Violence, after all, appalls me, and being gobbled up and spat out by a tightly wound, frenetic plot often leaves me drained and faintly disgusted. If there is a reason beyond habit I think it's a more tangential one - or is this in fact the main attraction for many readers? I keep on reading crime novels not for the gore and horror and suspense, but for quite other pleasures. It's the prescribed structure of an outsider/ investigator, be they a character in the novel or, as here, merely the voice of the writer (where is here? I'm getting to it, really), entering a defined community and having a good, curious, persistent look around; the way that endless variations on this narrative give permission for detailed and penetrating description. A story of investigation is like staring for a long time at a painting, exploring every corner - a Dutch interior, a Constable landscape or one of those crowd scenes by Brueghel. This association probably accounts for the number of novels where the clue to a mystery lies in an old painting (my absolute favourite: La Tabla de Flandés / The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez Reverte). It's a key, too, surely, to the historical crime sub-genre: so apparently unquenchable is the appetite for these that British novelist Susanna Gregory, for example, has successfully branched out from her justly popular series set in medieval Cambridge to another that unfolds in Restoration London - richly drawn, engaging voyages into environments of which there is just enough historical record to guide writer's and readers' imagination. And it's why a goodly sub-genre has come to be a vehicle for social criticism.

None of the above really explains why, while gorging on American fiction in general (how not to gorge? - there is so much of it), my crime habit has largely confined itself to European writers. There needs to be a hook of the familiar, perhaps. Is it precisely within the tension between familiar or imaginable environments and unimaginable fear or horror that a crime story flourishes? And the American street is just that bit too unfamiliar? That would explain why the refrains of Baltimore vernacular floating through my head after recent immersion in borrowed boxed-set DVDs of The Wire led me to pick up for the first time a novel by George Pelecanos, whose name had flashed before me in the writing credits for a couple of the later series.

The Way Home, his latest to come out in UK paperback, is what I've been reading this week. It's an odd book, this story of Washington teenager Chris Flynn going off the rails, drifting into drugs and petty crime and finally prison, his concerned and loving, but far from perfect parents, and the wider social forces acting on them all. It reads more like reportage than fiction. The dialogue is stunningly well written, with just enough suggestion of DC street talk to evoke its cadences believably, not enough to become tiresome, as faithful representation of dialect too easily does. But much of the rest is flat, sociological description of urban transformation, family dynamics, the psychology of the adolescent male, interspersed with equally flat physical description and the whole quite without the shape or rhythm, at sentence level, that I'm programmed to expect in the narrative of a novel. I keep reading because I care about all the issues evoked, because the perspective is clearly liberal, humane, concerned. The project at whose service the talent and reputation of George Pelecanos are here placed is one I admire. But, then, don't I therefore wish all the more for the characters and story to be more dramatic, less baldly presented, in order to grip and persuade in a worthy cause?

But, wait. Although I have found a lot of this prose so flat, those fiercely detailed, factual descriptions have built a remarkably clear and lingering picture in my mind (back to the painting analogy). There is a power in this kind of writing. I'm intrigued and rather impressed, too, by the slowness and spaciousness of the plot (and this is perhaps a departure for Pelecanos, rather than typical of his previous novels). There is the requisite very nasty crime, coming near the end and pulling the reader towards it. But the main dynamic of The Way Home is a slower and more ordinary tale of family tensions and societal problems visited on the younger generation - why one young man gets into trouble, how he slowly gets out of it, how the price of redemption, in a society that seems resolutely unsupportive of the better instincts, is not so much smaller than that of disaster, but still worth hoping for and being glad of. It's a book that keeps me thinking, which is rather exceptional, really, in a genre that tends to pick you up and spin your mind and drop you, leave you not thinking.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Saturday 27 November 2010

Friday 26 November 2010

Alice Neel from a safe distance

It's so easy to take nice photos in art galleries because the light is always usually lovely. Taking photos at the Michael Hoppen Gallery reminded me that, being so gutted at the time by the paintings, I never did post anything about the Alice Neel show in London earlier this year and therefore didn't post the photo I took there either. 

I still don't know if I can say anything about her paintings. The adjectives come to mind alright: humane, bold, powerful. I love to think that a woman artist did such powerful work and fume to think that she went unrecognised until near the end of her life, that nearly twenty years after her death this was the first major show in Europe. The problem is that, as well as not finding words adequate to my feelings, I can't just point to the paintings. Online reproductions, even those at the excellent website of the Alice Neel estate, don't really give you much idea. You'd think this work, characterised as it is by bold, clear lines, colours and moods, would come across well in reproduction, but really it doesn't.

Above, for instance, is a painting of her daughter-in-law, Ginny, whose mother had just died. It was painted not long before Alice Neel's own death. And it's all there in the painting - breathtaking, primal grief and fear and sadness. It's hard to stand before this painting. It chills your heart. You can't see but a fraction of it's impact here.

 Or this one. A portrait of her younger son Hartley, Ginny's husband, as a young medical student assailed by doubts - she left this on record - about whether he was cut out to be a doctor. Here is the posture of openness and vulnerability, but the evocation of that vulnerability in the original painting is almost unbearable.

Or here, in this early portrait of a young man with TB, that rare ability to honour, but not tame suffering, not unlike Robert Bergman's photographs. Not only the portraits have this almost savage power, though they are justly considered her great works. The interiors have it too - the story of the woman artist with young children and no money for childcare; shut in, lonely. 

Alice Neel's older son, interviewed in the superb film biography made by her grandson, Andrew Neel, speaks with love but also with bitterness of how the artist, the bohemian, may not be a very safe parent. The film was showing at the Whitechapel Gallery last summer; I had seen it already, sought it out after reading blogger Peter Clothier's review. I liked everything he liked about it, and also everything he didn't - the self-reflective dimension.  I'd never heard of Alice Neel when I read Peter's piece last year, and I'm so glad I read it, or I might have missed the film and later that memorable exhibition which continues to haunt me and to loom large in my perspectives on art.

There is much I could write about colour, line and composition (excellent essay here, one of several on the website) and, of course, about the mid twentieth century as the worst ever time to be a figurative painter. But, even months after seeing the paintings, that's not what I feel like writing about.

I found the photo I took and it made me smile, so obviously in retrospect does it betray the impulse to stand back from and to put a firm frame around these grand, painful paintings! 

Thursday 25 November 2010

Happy Thanksgiving...

...to my blogging friends in the US - you are my America, and I'm deeply thankful for all of you!

(photo: strings of festive lights on the art deco facade of Peter Jones department store in Chelsea)

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Moon, frost

high cost
of living

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Old stuff

Too many months after moving to the new blog template, I got around finally to
posting some longer pieces of writing from my previous blog at the Memoir and Fiction tabs above. Three and four years after the writing, they stand up ok, I think. Writing makes me happy. I so wish I could find the mental space to do more.

Monday 22 November 2010

Flowers of winter

 They remind  me of this - very Bloomsbury colours and shapes. 

Sunday 21 November 2010

Two photographers

I'm not sure what the Michael Hoppen gallery were thinking when they decided to show photographs by Mary McCartney and Robert Bergman at the same time, and I'm not sure what I think either. I liked Mary McCartney's  beautiful, personal, subtle photographs of her rich and famous friends quite a lot. This one of Tracey Emin as Frida Kahlo is a triumph. But after going upstairs to view Robert Bergman's visceral portraits of what appear to be street people, my appreciation of the other pictures was eclipsed by a wilder feeling. I'm not convinced that the beauty in the ugly is morally superior to the beauty in the beautiful, any more than I am of the opposite. Perhaps this is precisely the point they were wishing to make. On the whole, though, I think the juxtaposition did Mary McCartney a disservice. Trying to keep the two exhibitions separate, then, I'm very glad to have seen both.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Friday 19 November 2010


Summertime, the third volume of J.M.Coetzee's 'fictionalised memoir', has been surprising and impressing me. It packs a huge punch, this fragmentary volume of notes and interview transcripts by a fictional biographer pursuing traces of a younger 'J.M.Coetzee' in South Africa, after his fictional death. What an undertaking! - the Nobel laureate imagines how relations, friends and lovers might have seen a version of himself in the 1970s, a quiet, odd, unmarried teacher and barely published writer, returned to Cape Town and living, in his thirties, with his widowed father. It's told mostly through their voices, yet always entirely his own harsh, eccentric voice. It's something we could all do: speculate on how our intimates might describe us. But, think about it, put yourself there... I can quickly see that I'd do one of two things: construct a rosy, seamless image - the wish-fulfilment version, or go way the other way and indulge my darkest fantasies of how they all disliked and despised me really.

This seems at first to veer towards the latter extreme, as all these different voices evoke a sad and unappealing figure. But, then, why do we warm so much to 'John Coetzee' and laugh and cry for him? (well, I did). Why do we start to ponder on the limited perspectives of this lover, this cousin, this colleague of his in the setting of Apartheid South Africa that now seems so far off? These characters are on the liberal side, no stalwarts of the system, but deeply affected by the brutality and isolation of that society, their expectations narrowed by the coarser aspects of provincial Afrikaner culture. The pictures they paint - the shabby, unkempt house of the two men, the polite poverty of the 'coloured' servants and farmworkers, the haunting vastness of the Karoo - are compelling. But they are patently unreliable narrators. They remark on this themselves when the fictional biographer reads back to them what they said at their last meeting with him. So, then you think (well, I thought), aha, that's the point, it's a clever plot to get you on his side, make you like and feel for this outsider figure despite it all! But it's not that either. It dips between layered viewpoints, grips and repels and grips again and constantly disconcerts. It endlessly subverts, but a steely and uncompromising bottom line resists subversion - the core image of a man loathing and refusing violence and oppression and all that stem from and perpetuate them, and of the way in which a persona based on refusal may become stiff, carapaced, unreachable.

About fifty pages in, I realised I love this book - the way it's quiet extremism speaks to mine, the way it pushes both emotions and intellect in all directions at once. I love it so much, it makes me hate all the books I've read lately that weren't this one - outrageous feelings of affection and partisanship for an ambiguous, delicately woven, but nonetheless bald and shocking work.

Thursday 18 November 2010


Still at the British Museum:
what the young woman in the previous post would see if she looked up.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Inspiration, eternal moments

There’s so much good writing on the web that I scan through much too fast. I’m happy to have access to these riches, but regret the speed-reading to which the medium lends itself. Some writing, though, is just so good, so eminently itself, with its own tone and pace, that it won’t let you speed-read. Such are the infrequent, but wondrous blog-posts of Parmanu. Looking back over the past year or so, they’ve been about once a month. But they stand out in these times when every damn thing is evaluated quantitatively as pieces of writing that count but cannot be counted. It’s writing full of thought, care, presence. It leaves me sighing with satisfaction and teased long afterwards into further musings and reactions. It’s the kind of writing we need to welcome, value and disseminate on the web if online writing is not to conform to all the worst stereotypes perpetuated by those ‘real’ writers and critics who continue to dismiss it – and I don’t, I absolutely don’t, think it has to conform.

His latest piece, which inspired this outpouring, is an account of a visit one rainy Sunday afternoon in Lausanne, Switzerland, to an exhibition of paintings by Edward Hopper. It's a deceptively simple piece; in fact deep, layered and exceptionally engaging. His own photos from the afternoon in question both set the exhibition in a sense of place and are in tune with the paintings and the writer's thoughts about them. They made me think of a photo of my own, taken at the British Museum back in 2006, not so long after I started blogging and taking photos. After much rooting around, I found it and post it again here (re-cropped a little - I see I've learned a bit about composition in the meantime). It's a poor-quality image taken with a crappy little camera, not printable, but I think this was the first time I saw a moment, a light, and took it. I didn't know why it 'worked', though I could see it did. I know more now and can see in it the germs of those elements Parmanu admires in Hopper's paintings and hopes to embody in his own photographs (and often does) - the figure's stillness and isolation, the tones and shadows, the light and the inclusion of its source.

I don't know that I completely agree with the polarisation he draws between Cartier-Bresson's 'decisive moment' and what he describes as Hopper's 'eternal moment', endlessly suspended and repeated. Aren't all those photographic 'decisive moments' as eternal as they are fleeting, both in themselves and because the picture makes them so? What is certain is that my attention comes to rest here in the eternal moment of this short essay. It makes a space around the reader, both flooding your senses and setting off absorbing trains of thought - my idea of a perfect blog post.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Monday 15 November 2010

Language and Place blog carnival

I'm delighted, since both language and place are preoccupations close to my heart, to have a recent piece in the new >Language >Place blog carnival whose first edition has now been published. The new carnival is the brainchild of prolific writer, editor and photo-video artist Dorothee Lang. She's German, but most often writes for web publication in English and her work has strongly appealed to me since I first discovered it. It's no coincidence, I think, that many of the web writers and artists whose work I most enjoy are bi- or multi-lingual, bi- or multi-cultural.  I need only think of some posts that moved and intrigued me just last week, from three of my long-time, very special blogger friends, Natalie, Marja-Leena and Beth, which drew deeply and beautifully on their experience of multi-cultural backgrounds and moving from one place and/or language to another.  It's all about history, layers, disjunctions and consequently heightened sensibilities. 

This is also true of many of the multi-cultural and cosmopolitan bloggers I've now discovered through their participation in the new carnival. It's a rich array of contributions, skilfully curated to bring out connections, correspondences and contrasts both obvious and less obvious. The writers' own summaries are combined here with a division into different areas of commonality. I use the word 'curated' advisedly - it's like being guided into different rooms in an exhibition. I very much enjoyed every one of them. I love this project and look forward to seeing what it may bring together and how it may expand in future.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Under the Square again

It really was unpleasantly wet and I unpleasantly tired, but, finding myself once again in Trafalgar Square on a rainy day in November, which is when I photographed them before, a year and two years ago, I found myself looking for the people under the Square - and there they were. The last twenty or so photos here, from the building facades onwards, are new ones.

Saturday 13 November 2010

The Water Theatre

Litlove's interesting and generous proposal to set up a blog aggregator for book-related blogs led me to look back into how often I write here about what I'm reading - would I qualify, even for one of her proposed 'mixed content' categories? Well, no - I found to my surprise that I hardly ever write about books. Before the recent piece on All Souls, it had been months. I read so much, I really I had the impression that I did this much more often! So I thought I might try to post a book review every week. No idea if I'll prove capable of this or have anything to say worth reading, but anyway, here's the first one.

The Water Theatre is a new novel by Lindsay Clarke, a name I'd known for many years, along with that of his 1989 Whitbread Prize-winning work, The Chymical Wedding, which I'd inexplicably never read. It's a shame I didn't read him twenty years ago because he writes the kind of thing I've always enjoyed very much, but perhaps now enjoy less.

The Water Theatre is a long, romantic, first-person fantasy with depth and intelligence. It flows between two narratives, one set in the present of a burnt out, aging journalist back from conflict and disaster in Africa and the other in his past as a clever working-class 18-year-old in an industrial town of northern England, the dramatic surrounding countryside and grand, shabby country home of his friend from a middle-class, left-wing intellectual family. The story of the past is founded in place (Lindsay Clarke grew up in Halifax, Yorkshire, in the period described), in the social history of 1960s England and the wider history of decolonisation. It weaves a convincing, moving web of characters and relationships against an equally convincing backdrop. The story of the present is consciously more schematic, contrived to spin off into myth and symbol, as the friends of long ago meet up again in a fairy-tale Umbrian landscape and the jaded journalist is led on a strange, ritual journey into his past and into the underground tunnels of the water theatre, an ancient grotto in the grounds of an Italian contessa's country house. Here is ancient folk myth and Jungian symbology, as he crawls through the terrifying tunnel of his own damaged psyche and emerges to resolution in a more hopeful place.

I often find novels that switch between two narratives difficult and unengaging, but this is very well done. It's a lovely, deep and complex novel, imbued with Lindsay Clarke's vast knowledge of ancient myth and Jungian psychology and invoking myth and fantasy not in isolation, but as the deep, dark heart of personal and political history.  This is the kind of tale you need to be enchanted by, utterly sucked up by, suspending disbelief even while seeing it for the parable it is and absorbing the wider meaning. It beguiled me, but ultimately not quite enough. I can't ignore the fact that these days I tend to find myself less sucked up - enough to keep me reading, but not enough to make it an entirely satisfying experience. It's kind of like sex without love - not necessarily less compulsive, but somehow less meaningful.

However, this is an unusual, absorbing, blessedly unfashionable and finely written book, with a significant and heartful project of re-grounding a life of our times in enduring imagery and values.  If it was worth the effort for a tired out, choked out mind like mine, it's certanly worth it for more moderate and less sated readers.

Friday 12 November 2010

Her again

First encountered some months ago, she lives not far from me. I'm irrationally but completely convinced that this fine feline specimen is female.  (Update: apparently not irrationally - see comments!)

Thursday 11 November 2010

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Tony Judt

Yesterday a friend and colleague sent me a link to Tony Judt's latest piece in the New York Times, a short and sparkling essay on global cities and why he loved New York, from his latest book, The Memory Chalet. The books and articles continue to appear regularly all these months after his death. He must be much better known to a wider general readership and beyond the US, where he lived, than he ever was, thanks to the enormous outpouring of writing on subjects from the broadest to the most personal in that final year when he was paralysed by ALS (or Motor Neurone Disease, as we'd call it in the UK, where common speech tends not to distinguish between the different kinds of this cruel disease).

I first read him when another blogger friend highlighted his NYRB piece describing the long, immobile nights of his last months, when shocking generosity dictated he should let his carer sleep unless he was choking to death, not just alone in anguish. I couldn't stop thinking about it. Such an honest, painful, terrifying account, made bearable, indeed beautiful, by the strength and skill of the writing.

What an extraordinary thing he did and legacy he's left. He makes me proud that he was British by birth (and I don't often succomb to nationalist sentiments). Even though his fate was so terrible, he buoys me up on a morning when I listened - stupidly - to half an hour of radio news of torture, corruption, fear, poverty and spite. Why do we hear so much about cruelty and ineptitude and so little of heros? I'm glad I heard, and continue to hear, from this one.

Update: I see that the friend who sent me that latest essay blogged about him yesterday too! The admiration fills you up, I think, so you have to express it.


Tuesday 9 November 2010

Monday 8 November 2010


Autumn's awkward mix of climates,
bleak within and bleak without,
but withall the lingering flash of
colour - with, without... without.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Saturday 6 November 2010


A nineteenth century Japanese wooden statue of a monk in the current British Museum exhibition of Buddhist art. In a room full of fragile, precious things - thence the low light - many were too intricate and laden with religiosity to speak much to what Buddhism means to me, but this and some other nineteenth-century figures of monks, from Japan and from Burma, I found very beautiful and affecting. 

(mmm... so much for choiceless awareness)

Friday 5 November 2010

All Souls

This post is included in the first edition of the new >Language >Place blog carnival, published on 13 November 2010.  

My friend who died last winter was the one with whom I shared Spanish novels. In tandem, we devoured the complete works in Spanish of Arturo Pérez Reverte, Matilde Asensi, Almudena Grandes - two middle-aged British women on a jaunt into a language and culture we both loved. We shared the cost, too, of Spanish paperbacks, which aren't cheap. Now it's just me, embarking alone in autumnal London on this winter’s ‘escape’ into the hefty, much praised oeuvre of Spanish novelist Javier Marías (pictured), and I wonder, all the time I’m reading it: would C have liked Todas Las Almas / All Souls, his quiet, rambling, cerebral novel about a visiting Spanish lecturer at an Oxford college? I'd been thinking for a while that I should read Marías and picked this one to start with when I saw it on the shelf at Grant and Cutler, just off Oxford Street, because it's only two hundred-odd pages, and because of its setting (a non-British colleague had just been recounting her recent experience of an Oxford college – some archaic and exotic features evidently persist). I only found out while researching this blog post that the author's three-part magnum opus, Tu Rostro Manana / Your Face Tomorrow, has the same protagonist. I've ordered the first volume.

The nameless first-person narrator of All Souls is deeply introspective, the incarnation of that lovely Spanish word, ensimismado (insideyourselfed) - interesting that the famously sociable Spaniards have a word for that. Since the word describes me too, alas (ensimismada), I liked this. The story unfolds entirely from within his copious, complex musings and memories. The narrative view is through the corner of an eye, the corner of a mind, events related not as they happen, but as the Spaniard thinks back on them at random moments in the future. At the heart of it is the story of a love affair, but the start of the affair is never seen, only the first, wordless meeting at High Table and memories of scattered later occasions. Digressions and theorising swirl around like fog, clearing now and then to reveal a sparkling scene or character sketch: a limping man comes down the street with his three-legged dog; a glossy, eminent old scholar stands in his riverside garden discoursing at length while feeding the swans; our hero lurks behind a pillar at the Ashmolean Museum, spying on his lover on an outing with her father and her young son, all three of them with the same face. Diamonds in the mist: I don't need to page through the book in search of these scenes for they stay with me vivid and whole. Marías is brilliant at writing conventional narrative, but doesn't do it very much. What he does is much more dense and challenging, but isn't dry. The resonances of this novel, slowly evoked through a layering of images, allusions and meanderings, ripple slowly outwards - resonances of one man, a Spaniard abroad, and of his lostness, rippling outwards to merge with the shadows of many lost souls.

After dinner I went up to Cromer-Blake’s college rooms for a while, for a last drink before going off to bed, and while he was getting out the glasses and opening a bottle with sure and methodical movements, still wearing his college gown, I was thinking: "It’s not just that I’m a stranger here and nobody knows or cares anything about me, nothing of any biographical importance, and that I won’t be staying here for ever, the most serious and decisive thing is that no one here knew me in my youth or childhood. This is what I find so disturbing, this no longer being in the world and not having existed in this world before. That no one here is a witness to my continued existence, as if I’d just come out of the water. Cromer-Blake knows something about me, has done for some time, through my predecessors from Madrid and Barcelona. But that’s all, facts acquired when I was still just a name, without a face. But this is sufficient reason already – this second-hand friendship – to condemn him to serve as my strongest link to this city, the person to whom I’ll put those questions that have to be put and whom I’ll always turn to while I’m here if a problem comes up, some illness or disgrace or real madness. He’s the person I’m going to ask right now about the woman at dinner, Clare Bayes - as soon as he’s poured the drinks and sat down I shall ask him about her and her husband. Cromer-Blake, with this greying hair and pale face of his, with this always doubtful moustache that he allows to grow and then shaves off every few weeks, with his inimitable English diction which his admiring students say evokes the BBC ‘of yore’, with his biting wit and his extraordinary interpretations of Valle-Inclán, with his look of an excommunicated churchman and his complete lack of any family feeling, is condemned to be both father figure and mother figure to me in this city, although he didn’t know me - not in any way – during my childhood or youth (I’m over thirty now, so he didn’t know me in my youth). That woman at dinner didn’t know me then either, but somehow, I don’t know how, she saw my childhood and allowed me to see hers, to see her as a little girl. I know, though, that I won’t be able to count on her to serve in this city as the father figure, or even the mother figure that we all have to have at all times and in every place, however old, however worthy or unworthy we may be. Even the oldest and most powerful of men, until the end of their days, need such figures - however hard it is for them, however impotent they are to pin this role on anyone, their need, their fantasies, their feeling of something lacking, their demanding and hoping and imagining never lessen".
This is my quick translation - really difficult, those very long sentences! The published English translation, which I don't have, is by Margaret Jull Costa, so it will be excellent. Here she talks about the challenges of translating Marías.

I was struck by this passage because, having long ago abandoned my birth family and thereby seemingly lost the facility for sustaining any relational context for very long, the feeling described here is the way I feel all the time, wherever I am.  I'm attracted to southern European cultures, of course, because of what the Spanish narrator in Oxford is fiercely missing, that sense of family and community that remain much stronger there than in England. The novel speaks profoundly, if obliquely, to my sense of homelessness and lifelong attraction to abroad (both the physical abroad of foreign travel and the mental abroad of foreign languages), to the fruitless, contradictory, simultaneous quests for home and away, familiarity and novelty, for something that has long since proved to be 'not here'. It speaks to this quest both bleakly, as the narrator finds emptiness and dislocation in Oxford's quiet streets, eccentric souls and strange rituals, and beautifully, wherein perhaps lies some redemption.

So would C, a woman of considerable intellect and zero intellectual pretensions, have liked this novel or found it dull and pretentious? It pleases me to think she would have liked it's combination of deep, wandering thought and spare, but emotionally powerful storylines, one of which (oh, creeping up on me near the end!) turns out to be a story I know, about the premature death of a good friend.

Wednesday 3 November 2010


I've been listening to this over and over again - can't get enough of it: Couperin's Les Barricades Mysterieuses arranged by Thomas Ades. Utterly, utterly delicious and mesmeric. Thank you, Alistair!

Britannia rules the cranes

Tuesday 2 November 2010