Friday, April 18, 2008

a beautiful goal

I am at my mother’s in rural France. She has been ill. I am here to look after her. She is at the stage of her convalescence where she is not well enough to move, but is well enough to express opinions. We are discussing tonight’s TV. I have discovered that the second-leg of the Champions League quarter-final between Arsenal and Liverpool is being shown here. I am delighted: I had feared the urgent summons to my mother’s sickbed might mean missing the match. It is a crucial match. I ask my mother if she would mind me watching the football.

Of course not, she protests. There’s nothing else on. Except, she mentions quickly, a Claude Chabrol film. On the other side. At the same time.

Later that evening, we are watching the football. I should really have suggested that we watch the Claude Chabrol film. Ordinarily, I would have been very happy to watch the Claude Chabrol film. But I am still angry at having had to suspend my life in London – unnecessarily, as I see it – to come to rural France to look after my mother. I am angry with my father who refused to cut short a drinking jag in London to come and care for her. I am angry with my mother for not taking up the kind offers from neighbours which would have obviated the need for me to cancel everything and come here. I am angry with myself for cancelling everything and coming here. And I really want to watch the football. To distract my mother from the fact that we are not watching the Claude Chabrol film, and to compensate for the guilt I feel, I take care to share the experience with my mother, to involve her in the action, to explain the significance of the match given the result of the previous leg, and Arsenal’s recent poor performance in the Premiership. I talk about the players: how Adebayor seems to have lost form since cutting his hair, how I hate Gallas for his petulance and divaish behaviour which does not seem to be substantiated by divaish flair on the pitch and how Gilberto made the better captain – better even, than Henry, himself a diva but one whose right to act so could not be denied – and how I think Gilberto looks like a noble kind of dog.

My mother decides she is going to support Liverpool. She claps her hands with childlike delight and whoops gleefully whenever they score. Which they do. Often. We lose. I am clearly upset.

How did you get so interested in football? My mother asks. You never used to be.

Two years ago I experienced a period of depression. A rapid succession of emotionally demanding events, some of which I have written about on this blog, had left me hollow and exhausted. During this time, I experienced the typical symptoms of depression. I cried a lot. I felt weightless and adrift, and could see little point to anything. I became reclusive. I followed a regimented daily routine and would write out very detailed “To do” lists: 8.00am, Get Up. 8.05 am Brush Teeth. These periods of regimented existence would be alternated by bouts of wild and destructive drinking. There seemed little point in either mode of being. I feared going to bed and would stay up until 4 or 5 in the morning, trawling websites for effective and undetectable means of self-murder. I found a post on one site from a man who signed himself off as “Barry from Slough”. For a fee, he would assist in a client’s suicide then “dress the scene” to suggest a violent robbery, thereby sparing the deceased’s family the true facts of the death. I considered contacting Barry, until I thought that perhaps death by a violent intruder was possibly more traumatic for friends and relatives to consider than the fact that their friend or loved one had simply been too exhausted to continue with the business of living. I thought about swimming out to sea. Just swimming out as far as I could, but this seemed a lonely and frightening way to die. I wanted to be comfy. I considered doing it in the bathroom of a luxury hotel. I would write a note and pin it to the bathroom door. I would get the note translated into Polish, for the benefit of the chambermaid.

And then I discovered football.

I had often tagged along with P to watch games, and listened as he patiently explained (several times, in the case of the offside rule), the manoeuvres, the motives, of the players on the pitch, but I could never really care about the outcome in quite the way he seemed to. But now, suddenly, I could.

What had previously seemed a pointless past-time governed by arbitrary rules, valuing a specific set of skills which had no relevance to everyday life, suddenly made perfect sense to me. I found comfort in the statistics. I immersed myself in the dramas and the personalities. I mediated difficult emotions – rage and fear and frustration – through the actions of the men on the pitch and gave myself up to the pure life-affirming joy of the beautifully scored goal.

I would go to the pub and sit alone with a pint and watch game after game, comforted by the connection I felt with a group of strangers who demanded nothing from me. This is my third season as an Arsenal fan. After a glorious start to the season, we end it, after some painful moments of cruelly raised - then crushed - hopes, with nothing.

But you get up. You start again, with hope.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

the things that wouldn't last

Outside it is snowing and the trees look like broken umbrellas and it’s that odd kind of light which looks old, somehow. And that is how I always think of the light in photographs – old – as though the light will never look that way again and that is why, here in the study I share with P, the walls are bare. I won’t have photos on the walls. I cannot think that the light will never look that way again, when I write.

D’s office wall is covered in photos of himself, his friends, family, travels. He keeps them there to remind himself of who he is, where he has come from. I would feel crowded out by them but D is a cameraman. He thinks in images. Without them he is lost.

There was a time when, feeling a little lost myself, I took to taking long walks with a borrowed camera. It didn’t matter that the resulting photos were disappointing. The motive was the seeing; the walking around and the seeing. I saw huge, spiked jackfruit in the market, a man in a wheelchair inside a van - his mobile workshop - fixing broken electrical goods, a black cab all smashed up, the underside of a tree – the leaves like washing on a line, a misplaced trolley in the park which seemed as though it were grazing. But I began to feel self-conscious with my apparatus and preferred instead to look at other people’s photographs than to take them myself. That is, until mobile phones came with mobile cameras, after which I took to taking photos constantly so that it became a kind of mania for me – photographing the things that wouldn’t last – the flowers D bought me in Tallinn and the breakfast he brought me in bed from the hotel buffet (I am a big fan of hotel buffet breakfasts – they are the height of civilization, they make me want to fall to my knees and say grace). And D being a cameraman, would also take photos most times, but sometimes, he would refuse to: I want to remember this, he’d say, putting his camera away.

And then after losing too many mobile phones and the photos I’d taken with them, and now no longer spending time with D, I seem to have lost this compulsion to photograph, and the beautiful little digital camera he bought me from Tokyo goes unused. At least it seems that way until I realise that to try to write in the way that I do is informed by as desperate an impulse to record, to frame, to remember.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

a writer's writer

There is a space between waking and sleeping when I sometimes feel myself falling into what Douglas Coupland referred to in his first novel, Generation X, as “disasterbation”. offers two definitions of this neologism, the first referring to the voyeuristic thrill experienced on witnessing natural disasters; the second, unintentional physical injury sustained after dangerous pleasurable practices, not necessarily onanistic.

Might I stress that I refer here to Coupland’s definition, which, not having the book to hand I cannot quote verbatim, but as the word – a contraction of disaster and masturbation – suggests, relates to the practice of indulging one’s neuroses by letting the mind explore dark fears relating to the self or loved ones: imagining my dog, if were I to own one, being run over, for example, or my best friend P falling off his bike and being killed; this being the “disaster” part of the equation, with the “bation” bit relating to a healthy mind’s ability to self-heal with consolatory images.

So, in the case of my hypothetical dog, after the image of him laid flat in the road, he is immediately upright and alive, his back legs replaced by those mini-trolleys you see sometimes on maimed dogs and which make you long to know how they cope with running downhill. Or, in the case of P – no backwheel scenario redemption possible in this instance, this being, in my nightmare visions, the way he meets his end - the moment when I step out before a gathering of his friends and family and deliver, through barely held-back tears, the eulogy at his funeral.

This eulogy comprises a single quote discovered in a Joyce Carol Oates essay, Reading As a Writer: The Artist as Craftsman, about the notion of literary influence in writing; or, rather, the notion of seeking out literary influence, the practice of a kind of applied or active reading, of reading, as the essay title suggests, as a writer. The quote is taken from a letter by Chekhov to a friend in which he writes of Tolstoy’s illness:

“I dread Tolstoy’s death. If he died, a large vacuum would be formed in my life. In the first place, I never loved any human being as much as I do him. I am an unbeliever, but of all faiths I regard his as the nearest to me and one that suits me best. Second, when Tolstoy is part of literature, it is easy and agreeable to be a writer; even the knowledge that you have not accomplished and never will accomplish anything is not so terrible, for Tolstoy makes up for all of us. His activity justifies all the hopes and expectations that are pinned to letters…”

So much of my friendship with P is mediated through our reading and our writing; so much so that we often give each other gifts of nice metaphors or lovely phrases. And sometimes, we give each other books. This Christmas just past, I found a book in our local shop which seemed to me the perfect present: an anthology of essays by writers on their friendships with other writers.

I bought the book and wrapped it up and hid it in my room. But I am terrible at keeping secrets: shortly before we were to exchange gifts (his to me turned out to be a jumper from ebay with a hole under each arm), we were browsing together in this same shop when I pointed out a copy of this same book. Wouldn’t that make a lovely present for someone, I said. P sniffed disdainfully. He has a big nose: it was a big sniff.

I unwrapped the book and returned it to the shop which they exchanged for a book voucher. P exchanged the voucher for a book by a writer I don’t much care for.

And Chekhov, I am happy to say, did not outlive Tolstoy.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

fictional estate

I have just moved to London Fields. I like the idea of living in a place named after a Martin Amis novel.

But the area of London Fields where I live bears no resemblance to the place in Amis’s novel: there are no Keith Talents here – except for the gallery of the same name in the street next to mine – only Freya Glints in bug-eyed shades or Josh Brokers in Carhartt. It’s the habit of a writer to fictionalise what they encounter, or to rewrite it at least - to reshape experience into something coherent, significant even – a reflex which explains my activities on this blog. But this reflex is redundant when it seems as though everyone around me has already fictionalised themselves, given themselves a character, a story. I do this myself. As we step out into Broadway Market we are all as aware of this as we are of our privilege which we wear with self-conscious nonchalance, slouching on battered leather sofas in cafes with our feet up on the furniture, trying to read one another.

It’s different on the estate where I live, a council-owned low-rise red brick block. The sections of communal walkway look like strips from a reel of film, I think as I sit out on my balcony looking across at people passing or down on the stories unfolding below me.

The other day some boys were digging in a mud-filled ditch. They found a dog’s skull which they stuck on a stick and brandished, charging into a group of small girls who scattered, screaming.

I watch the mothers of these kids, prematurely aged, young grandmothers already, hanging out their washing. I watch their teenaged sons, hanging around, on the watch for something I can’t see. I make up stories too about this – about what I can’t see out here: the men. The teenage girls.

P tells me that the idea of theatre balconies arose from the desire of the rich and powerful to put themselves on display. They were not so interested in the action onstage: after all, balconies afford only a limited view.

But when P and I sit on our balcony and watch the activities of our neighbours, to whom we have ascribed whole life stories, characters, relationships, names, we watch as though invisible ourselves: it has never occurred to me until now that people might be watching us in turn, that people might have names for us. Everyone on the estate looks too involved in the daily business of living to bother looking up.

Yesterday, very early in the morning our household was woken by a loud, jubilant calling. A man stood out on his balcony, calling out to nobody we could see. He might have been calling to God. It was so early in the morning we guessed he’d been up all night. We could not understand what he was saying but it seemed to make a kind of sense to him because every now and then he would laugh. It was like music. We went out on the balcony to watch him and found that our neighbours were doing the same. No one was asking him to be quiet. Everyone was listening as though he were performing for us. But then a police car pulled up. Two policemen emerged, then disappeared into the block, reappearing on the balcony alongside the man. He was quiet then, almost meek. And then someone on a nearby balcony shouted out to the police, Hey you, white boy. I’m watching you. Don’t you bully him, I am watching you.

The man and his police escorts disappeared from the balcony.

Then an old man, immaculately dressed, leaning on a cane, hobbled into view. P joked that he looked like an extra, that he seemed to have emerged in response to a director calling out, “Cue old man with cane”.

After that, a police-van pulled up. The doors were opened. The inside of the van looked like a space for holding animals. And then the doors were shut and the ignition turned on. Perhaps, we thought, the man had quietened down so that there was no need for the van after all. It looked as though it were leaving. But no, it simply reversed and backed up close to the entrance of the block, making it easier to get the man inside, making it impossible for anyone watching from their balcony to see the man being put inside.

I write this blog in order to exert some control over the things that happen to me and around me, or at least to give myself the illusion of control.

But sometimes stories write themselves and I can only watch.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


I like boxing.

Each man I meet who professes to share my interest in boxing checks out my stance then corrects it, so that in fact they are not correcting me, so much as correcting the last man who corrected me. Then they invite me to spar. I hold back but they laugh and ask for my best shot but when I land a punch that draws blood they hold their noses chins lips and wave me away when I rush up with tissues, upset. I am not in control. I am not a good boxer.

P likes boxing. He likes watching it, reading about it. He doesn't like doing it. The other day P told me how he'd used Ali's tactics against Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle as an allegory for his periodic bouts of depression when explaining it to someone who didn't understand. It's like this, P had said. Ali knew he was a dancer while Foreman was a slugger. Foreman expected Ali to dance around him. Ali told Foreman he'd dance around him. But he didn't. What he did instead was just lie on the ropes and keep taking Foreman's punches, taking them round after round until Foreman had exhausted himself. Then Ali hit back. He finished Foreman off. He did not dance. That's what it's like, P said, when you're depressed. Dodging won't help. You've got to just lie on the ropes and take it and take it and take it. Then you hit back. Then you finish it off. But first, you've got to take it. You don't dance.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

idioglossia 2

I've started reading W G Sebald's Austerlitz.

The narrator, arriving at Antwerp railway station after visiting the city zoo, wonders if the main hall of the station shouldn't include cages for wild animals, given the fact that so many zoos feature miniature railways.

A while ago P had been staying at mine. Early in the morning he heard me mumbling in my sleep. Apparently I mentioned something about the mini-trains which run through zoos, and how there's always one kid who looks slightly too big to be riding it and how I was always that kid.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

flint knapping

This was explained to me by an archaeologist.

It's the art of working flint to make tools. It's the beginning of technology, he said, It's the reason you're here now. To knap flint is a skill that requires you to think several moves ahead.

This same archaeologist beat me at chess.

Later, I ran my hands over him, his biceps, his well-turned sides. Hard and shaped like a piece of worked flint.