Mid day I walk up & down Church St, a street the business of which takes place at other times. I walk up & down looking in shop windows until I reach the Rose & Crown at the junction with Albion Rd. Three or four paces ahead of me a young woman tries door after door, but everywhere is closed. Clothes shops, toy shops, book shops, shops which stock just nicely-designed things. No one wants to sell her anything. She can’t understand that. Once or twice, we acknowledge one another, exchange a shrug. What can you do ? we seem to say. Is this London we find ourselves in ? & the unspoken conversation ends there because we have so little else in common. It’s pleasantly empty in the Rose & Crown, just a couple of old men with big white beards drinking beer & someone else ordering a whiskey & coke at the endless bar where it starts going away into the shadows & chalked wine lists. I have a Becks; a packet of crisps, Irish cheddar with onion chutney flavour. Though the contents have never been anywhere near cheese or chutney or Ireland, those things are a pleasant fiction we can all have a piece of. The word “flavour” is printed in smaller letters than the rest. I am really & honestly very content with that, & with the view down Church St, which hardly seems awake & which looks as if it ought to be at the seaside. It didn’t look like that last time I was here. It was a dark fraught place & I was in a poor state too. Those days I had little connection with the scenes in which I found myself. What connection I could manage was through a kind of terror. It was my condition then to believe that I was haunted: but I was the haunting, & understanding that eventually taught me a lot.
S sends me Vanessa Gebbie’s Words from a Glass Bubble. I am captured instantly by the first three paragraphs of the title story, which begins–
The Virgin Mary spoke to Eva Duffy from a glass bubble in a niche halfway up the stairs. Eva, the post woman, heard the words in her stomach more than her ears, and she called her the VM. The VM didn’t seem to mind.
You think this is a voice, but it isn’t: it’s storytelling. You can’t easily find the point where “style”, “plot”, “characterisation” & “worldbuilding” separate, because they don’t. The result is, literally, to captivate. Myslexia called Gebbie’s “a blithe and energetic narrative drive”. I’d have called it that, too, if I’d been clever enough to think of it.
Meanwhile, far away from this, in Insane Town, the Guardian (& I’m sure every other corner of the media) is exemplary on how to make a panic out of a warning that people might be panicking about something. Is this the ultimate sophistication of the media’s relationship with politics ? We couldn’t squeeze enough panic out of the health panic, so it’s time to go for, yes, meta-panic. Surely we must be near the end of all this ? By which I mean not this particular panic, but the insistent ratcheting-up of mediation (which is a kind of panic in itself, the panic to know, the panic to tell) ? There are human characteristics which just don’t benefit by amplification, just as there are human systems which don’t benefit from being tuned.
If you missed Jo Cammack’s The Time of Their Lives on BBC4, it’s still available on iPlayer. Watching it, I thought: Would it be possible to kettle the women of the Mary Fielding Home for the Active Elderly ? Somehow I doubt it. There’s an interview with Jo here. & of course you can go to the Camden New Journal & read Rose Hacker, who, on top of being a tireless campaigner for a better world, had a cooler name than anyone in a William Gibson novel.
During my recent eczema of list-making I forgot Thin Air, by George E Simpson & Neal R Burger. How could that happen ? When you’re tired of military-industrial horror-science conspiracy fiction written by non-sf writers you’re tired of life. I mean that sincerely.
Looking forward to Alexander Masters’ book on Simon Norton, not just because Stuart: A Life Backwards was so good, but because, who knows, it might help me understand the Monster Group. (Even writing the words “help me understand” gives an unrealistic picture of my condition–the fact is I feel dizzy & have to sit down if I even think about it.)
Another bulletin from the bookshelf. Many favourites here, from Dubliners to Down There On A Visit. Am I going to compare Tree of Smoke with Dispatches ? I am not.
John H Holland
The rawest item on the shelf has to be Of Walking in Ice. When Herzog discovered that Lotte Eisner was dying in Paris, he decided to walk to her from Munich, “in full faith, believing that she would stay alive if I came on foot”. His shoes fell apart quite soon. This act of commitment has additional resonance if, like me, you are reading David Constantine. But Constantine’s characters aren’t so confrontational, even as they confront the world’s implacability. They are tentative, hurt, rueful, & a kind of pliability or resilience gets them through & allows them to make the discoveries.
She has so many emails from writers, the bookshop owner says, that sometimes it’s hard to get any work done at all! In those few words the Calder Valley clamps down on you as relentlessly as it did on any Victorian loom operator & you’re deformed instantly by some geographic-claustrophobic metaphor for the whole Ted thing, or the whole Sylvia thing, or both–or, just, it would seem, the whole writing course masterclass booklover thing. With a frisson of fear you feel Ted & Sylvia perch on your shoulders, their claws down to the bone, their raucous cries filling shop, town, valley, this whole Darwinian arts initiative zone between the owl-haunted moors. Soon, like everyone else here you’ll get work operating one of the new cultural machines–like say an interesting cafe bar in an old woollen mill, or an old woollen mill converted to sell woodcuts. Terror causes you to grab the first thing you see that you could bear to be seen with–The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler–& pay, & exit the shop. But there’s nothing to fear! the valley will not fold shut on you! Because you can always go into some woods somewhere & run the steep little leafmould tracks between tree roots like black wet plastic cable & gritstone slabs at angles & the sound of your breath like someone shovelling coal in 1952 & everything coming at you in short perspectives bounded by beech & holly slopes. Tannin colours in the stream below.
(But in the end it would be safer to go somewhere else. & when you get home you Google the wood just in case Ted or Sylvia ever wrote anything about it, because it would just be so embarrassing to discover that.)
Under the title Grumpiness Is the Fifth Truth Condition, Infinite Thought has this–
Heine recalling his meeting with Hegel in Berlin. Heine, expressing his appreciation of the night-sky, was met with this response from Hegel:
‘The stars, harrumph, the stars are only a gleaming leprosy on the sky.’ – quoted in Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, p. 119.
Always the life & soul of the party.
I’m off now. If you want a quarrel with me over anything it’ll have to be next Tuesday. By then, hopefully, I’ll either have drowned in rain or be so stuffed with endorphins I won’t care what I say. Or both.