A brief encounter with left melancholia, and how Auden showed me the way out.

I tweeted, prior to the election results, that I was worried that the election would go like the scene at the beginning/end of A Brief Encounter – where Celia Johnson watches Trevor Howard walk out of her life forever. That all this would be was a brief touch on the shoulder, that Corbyn would haven taken the piece of coal dust that is austerity and tory policy out of our eyes, and then we would have to board the train in the opposite direction, and go back home to our boring husband and awful children. I’ve thought about that parallel a lot, since.

It’s perhaps a bit too much of a reach, but the aching melancholy of it, the almost, might-have, could-have-been-ness of it, felt too much for me. Like this was the turning point, the fork in the road whereby we might have changed something, but we didn’t take the turn, and carried on instead. We let Jeremy Corbyn (cast as Trevor Howard in this re-telling) leave with a brief shoulder squeeze and no words, and I (I’m obviously Celia Johnson, come on) have to sit with a friend i didn’t even KNOW was a tory and just listen to them babbling on, completely unaware that the result had completely gutted me (not that my tory friend babbled really, it’s just very fitting because of Dolly Alderton).

Anyway. Back to Celia Johnson. 

When she’s on the train with her awful prying friend, she says “this can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself.” I think of my own anger, misery, and dismay, and the fact that it is, ultimately, futile in the long run. Being angry and depressed about the result will bring me nothing. Being divisive about who voted for whom, will only drive everyone further apart, and we are already a country divided. What is necessary now, is that we come together, that we use all these feelings of anger, frustration, heartbreak, as a way to motivate ourselves through the mire, instead of flailing about in it, and talking about the failure of the left.

Celia also says this: “there’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore. When I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No. no. I don’t want that time to come, ever. I want to remember every minute. Always”

I want to remember every minute of hope that the Corbyn campaign ignited in, not only me, but so many people in the country. Everyone who was out canvassing, and talking, and trying to make the world just a tiny bit better. There will never come a time when I am not angry about the country’s failure to make the right choice for everyone in it, instead of focusing on brexit, or not wanting to pay £20 more a month in tax. 


I feel as though the world had shifted, it looked different: darker, and less hopeful. I wasn’t even at home, and yet I felt somehow that everything had skewed in the wrong direction. I had gone to bed in one world, and woken up in another. 

“It is as if 

We had all left our house for five minutes to mail a letter 

And during that time the living room had changed places 

With the room behind the mirror over the fireplace’

Here, auden is writing of a kind of existential dislocation. We are not where we were before, it looks the same, but it ostensibly isn’t, and it can’t become the same thing again. It is fitting that this Auden line fits so well, it’s from For the Time Being (which in itself is a funny phrase by itself, for is time ever being at all, or are we all being time, and if time is being, is it being itself or something else?). Everything crumbling away into nothing much, tossed out into the cold. “Winter completes an age” ravaging the land, casting us all out, rendering everything to nothing. 

“Like wheat our souls are sifted

And cast out into the void.”

Auden’s poetry diagnosed a sickness in England, a “country where no one is well”. In the 1930/40s we had a similar problem to the one we have now. Bubbling dissent, rife racism, a nationalistic and isolationist drive. I’m not saying it’s a carbon copy of the time, because it’s not. But Auden’s diagnosis, of a world switched into its uncanny double, revealing the worst bits of ourselves in a bid to claim something as our own (a country, a house, a job, a headstone) is easy to see as still valid, now. 


But now I’m thinking that perhaps I am clinging to hard to the failure of the labour party to enact the changes they pledged in their manifesto, rather than looking for opportunities in which I might be able to make a difference. Government is not the only way to enact change. 

According to Walter Benjamin, ‘left melancholia’ is the state of the revolutionary, who has become more attached to a political ideal, than ever actually seeking and seizing real opportunities for change. So attached to it, that even clinging to its failure is more preferable. We ought not to cling so tightly to Corbyn, to the failure that 12th December brought to our feet, but to focus on true, real, and actual opportunities whereby we might make a difference. 

We’re don’t need to fight each other, we need to help each other. 

I’ve been thinking about these Auden lines a lot, too: 

But the new barbarian is no uncouth 

Desert­ dweller; he does not emerge 

From fir forests; factories bred him; 

Corporate companies, college towns 

Mothered his mind, and many journals 

Backed his beliefs. 

The new barbarian is the contemporary tory, fostered by the state to believe that it is purely their worries that matter on the whole. No one else’s. Just theirs. In the factories, the college towns, the corporate boardroom. Why help others when the government wants to just help you? You’re doing alright, why can’t everyone else do the same? The new barbarian is suited and booted, and walks past the dying with their hands outstretched; seeing, but not caring. The new barbarian is James Grieg’s “your boyfriend” on twitter. He’s the guy at the pub who told you “I don’t like Boris either – but I just couldn’t give my vote to corbyn, even if I do like some of his policies.” They’re also the person who’s always lived in the town you’re from, and can’t see a world outside of it. They remember Blair, and the war in Iraq, and they conflate the huge stock market crash of 2008 and the last labour government into one issue, when they’re really two. They’re kind of everyone. The new barbarian is all of us. 

Except the journals don’t back the beliefs, now, but create them. Our newspapers, and twitter feeds, and facebook feeds, and pub gardens, and coffee shop queues all incubate and create the same views over and over again. 

I’m reminded of Mark Fisher saying in a lecture once that we’ve not entered the 21st Century yet, but that we’re just rehashing 20th century culture on higher definition screens. We won’t stop watching friends, or wearing mom jeans and chunky trainers. This is, in itself, something I’ve spoken about before (and so have many other people far more eloquently than I ever have or will) But it is worth mentioning again, briefly. If we fall into the trap of continually rehashing the past, then it creates zones in which we enact our dissent without actually challenging the systems of control. Capital then feeds off of these performative acts, by directly profiting from the spaces which enable them. It creates a “safe space” within which to be anti-capitalist, without having to actually do anything about capitalism. 

So what do we do with the “new barbarian”? For starters, I should probably not use that phrase, as its problematics far outweigh the poetic Auden link. But really, how do we convince those who voted Conservative that Conservative policies serve no one except the very rich? How do we get out there and actually enact change? 


Auden was writing in the 30s. A time of similar political unrest, of rising inequality, and rising violence against marginalised groups. A time in which unions between countries were collapsing. Crisis impending. If we can see parallels between then and now, then knowing what happened in 1939; what is about to happen, now? 

I’m put in mind of Auden’s “Consider This and In Our Time”, which I would have liked to have quoted here in full so that you might read the whole thing, but I will link it here. It’s my favourite Auden (apart from stop all the clocks, but that goes without saying)

As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:

The clouds rift suddenly – look there

At cigarette-end smouldering on a border

At the first garden party of the year.

Such a cinematic opening. Full of impending doom and dread, caught in the tumult of weather, of the viking sounding hawk and helmet, and the close up on a cigarette smouldering on a border. What border? Between where and where? A garden party, which sounds like such a tory endeavour; perhaps a border not between places but between people. 

The beginning sounds like the beginning of a war, hitting the unaware. I need you to read the second stanza, because it sounds to me like a political campaign, a cross-section of the country called out into the open to be told a lie that will fill them with ‘immeasurable, neurotic dread’. 

Is it the left’s fate, then,  that 

“After some haunted migratory years

To disintegrate on an instant in the explosion of mania

Or lapse for ever into a classic fatigue.” ?

Will we fall apart, or lapse into inertia?

I’m afraid my analysis might be weaker than I’d have hoped, but the unease of the poem is palpable. It teeters on the edge of something, and feels so foreboding to me of the events that followed. The poem is dated 1930, and feels prophetic. Borders, and helmeted airmen, insufficient units, in uniforms, and furs; and uneasy. The whole poem seems a portend for what came after; so what warnings can we wring from it, now, with hindsight? 


The last few months of 2019 were a brief encounter with what might have been – indicative of a left melancholia embedded in hauntology, and unable to dislodge itself from its failure. Would we ever make it work if we actually managed to get what we wanted? 

To return to A Brief Encounter, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are always already thwarted, it will never work. I often wonder, when I’m watching it, if the two of them ever actually want it to happen at all, or if the suggestion that it might is the true seduction. Do they actually want to feel the heartbreak of the almost-neverness of it?  Doesn’t this smack of left melancholia itself, so attached to the ideal that even the failure of the ideal is as intoxicating as its possibility?

Perhaps Auden’s poetry, too, is a warning which, unheeded, could lead to the cyclical returning of previous events. Auden warns against the cyclical returnings of things, whilst A Brief Encounter enacts them.  History exists to tell us what not to do, so why aren’t we listening? The swing to the right will result in more of us dying. But perhaps there’s no use in trying, perhaps it is destiny to circle around the drain before slipping into it.

Either way, on that morning, Friday 13th December 2019,I felt the future that could have been putting its hand on my shoulder, walking out the door, as some incessant tory babbler lectured me that magic money doesn’t grow on trees, and the nhs can’t handle how many people use it. But none of these things are true. Money isn’t real; and the nhs could function better if it hadn’t been stripped of its reserves by. The. tory. Governments. It’s all a numbers game that results in some people getting rich, and most people dying poor.

That friday morning I kept thinking ‘he didn’t go… any minute now he’ll come back” it won’t be over, we can do it all again. But I have never won an election in my lifetime, and I don’t know how to imagine winning one in the future. This is the inertia I feel now. Even the Labour leadership campaign feels inert, I hadn’t even heard of Keir Stamer before this week, and suddenly here he is favouring a “broad church”. Where has all that fire gone? Why aren’t we actually still seeking methods and moments of change?

At the end of A Brief Encounter Celia Johnson nearly jumps in front of the train that doesn’t stop.  Would that have been the exit to the system we could have used? I’m not suggesting a mass left wing suicide, but a clean break, perhaps not a jump in front of the train, but what if there were a way to jump on to it? What if we sifted up our own souls like wheat and jettisoned ourselves out into the void, riding the tail of a train that stops at no stations but the one that takes us outside of the systems of control: no timetable, no scheduled stations, no tracks, no destination? 

Maybe I’m labouring this too much.

Who fucking knows.

I feel like this might have been a confusing ride through my post-election thoughts, and I know that I’m nearly a month late in posting them. Maybe I’m sorry for making you read them at all.

I’ll leave you with a note on transience, which I’ve lifted from Freud. In trying to remain positive, I remind myself that all things are transient, all things end. 

“When once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of [what might have been] has lost nothing from our discovery of [its] fragility, we shall build up again all that [austerity] has destroyed, perhaps on firmer ground, and more lastingly than before.”

 

Pebbles and Becoming

Pebbles are transient things. Always caught in the half mess of becoming, between mountain and dust. Always in the process of being carried somewhere by tides or inquisitive hands or brimming pockets or sandy buckets. Things of all four elements, caught by fleeting sunbeams as they play on the horizon line of ocean, heaven beams like searchlights seeking one armed swimmers not waving but drowning, and here on the shore I have found six pebbles. Small and round and delightfully palm sized; my pebbles, come into being to be held by me, and made smaller by the holding. Made smoother. I take them up to the top of the head and toss them over in an act of prayer. Tipping each one back into the ocean it was borne upon in the act of droplets of holy water dropping from my fingers into the well at the door.

Were I still of the faith I would make a sign of the cross, but instead I drop a pebble for everyone I’ve loved and lost, and send a thought of them out to sea. 

I hear footsteps on the shingle below the cliff edge but I am too far back to see who walks the line of surf below. Marking the territory. Beating the bounds. Perhaps one of the lost wanders there, but this shoreline is too peopled and joyous to be ghostly. Or, perhaps it is the snatches of laughter and song and friendly, family talk that makes it ghostliest. Here are the voices of family caught up and encapsulated in wind and sunshine and bluster. 

The weather is transient and transitory today. Sunshine fleeting and filtered through clouds which bank mackereled and then rise to cumulous, and then dissipate, and roll back to us. The sky a great theatre, reflected and refracted by the water below. Two great mirrors performing together.

This island, my home, is transitory too. Always changing shorelines, always changing identity. National identity itself means nothing, it’s a made up thing, handed out to us as three lions on a shirt, and henry the eighth as a ladies-man, and queen victoria, and the second world war. All of those things are over now: transient. All of those things are pebbles worn to sand, a tricky foundation upon which to build an identity, in my opinion. 

Walking the cliff edge there are little markers every few steps. Flowers laid, photographs buffeted by wind, benches inscribed with names. We are all transitory things, though less like flowers, and more like pebbles. Always on the way to becoming something else. From vertiginous mountains to friendly pebbles, to hold your hand, or keep you company in your pocket, or to be carried from a beach to a mantlepiece, to guard the dormered anonymity of estate windows, or to wind up forgotten in a box that, when opened, spills out old photographs and the smell of brine and seaweed.

There was a bench on the head that had a bible verse about remembering our fathers. I took a picture of it, but I can’t find it now, I can’t even remember the verse.

I threw a pebble into the sea in memory of my father, and hoped the thought reached him, if thoughts reach the dead at all. 

I threw a pebble into the sea for me, too, so that I might remember that I am always being shaped by the hands that hold me, and will in the end become the sand that bare feet run across on the sprint to the sea. To be bathed clean in salt water, and reborn anew. 

I thought about the turn of the decade. I put my face into the sea and thought of my own rebirth, a new beginning again, always beginning again. Then I thought that I’m not beginning again but continuing on at last, up the path, over the head, past to beachfront to the cafe for coffee and home. To rejoin the tide that sweeps us out and continue the journey outward, horizon bound.

I took a pebble home so that I might remember that sometimes it is not always the tide that weathers you.

I put it on the mantle so that a little piece of me in the pebble might keep my mum company.

I had hoped that this would have some semblance of narrative, but really I just want you to feel the way the head felt that day; salt on the wind and sun breaking through and my family laughing. The day open wide like a window, or a door, or a great crack in the world through which I might move. The sea like a mirror, and the sky like a wall, split between cloud and blue. The sun a hint of summer, a balm.

The coffee hot.

The car cold.

The home journey full of my sister’s music and me trying to read worzel gummidge in the waning light and snaffling chocolate from the picnic basket.

Happy new year.

 

IMG_2466

 

Autumn and it’s unbecoming becoming

Written at the very end of August 2019

On my daily cycles in and out of Oxford, up the gently sloping woodstock road, around the Wolvercote Roundabout, and out along the A40 to my village and home; I have seen the dusty turn of the summer slide gaspingly into the autumn.

Strewn along the pavement, now, are the first fall of golden leaves, not yet crunching to the asphalt. Windfall plums, apples, and a rare pear, lie stricken in the curb. Oxford has always been a kind of country city. Out past Wolvercote, the fields beside the cycle path grew tall, went golden, and have since been razed to stubble. Wheels of gold dotting some of them. Others bare.

This is summer’s dog-end. The last few drags, dragging themselves out, and we’re sucking it close to the filter. Is it summer? Or is it autumn? is it becoming-autumn – then neither nor seasonal inbetween.

In between winter and spring there’s a similar sense of becoming, but one that feels exciting; and one in which there seems to be an almost pin-pointable turn. You’ve stopped wearing your jacket out without even realising it. The crocuses have been out a while, the bluebells already hazy, the birds already singing the sun up.

Autumn/winter and spring/summer have no true cut-off. They merge into each other. It’s Hallowe’en and then Christmas and then valentines day before you’ve even taken stock of things. Time slides under you like water, or ice, or wind.

The same happens for spring to summer. You have a blisteringly hot day in March where all the dads are in the park with their shirts off drinking beers with eachother, their little white bellies getting pink because it’s 21 degrees. The ice cream van is singing through streets newly warmed, it’s almost like spring was never here at all (except it will snow in April just to mess with the usual procession of things) but spring itself just slips into summer, like dipping your hand into water that’s blood temperature.

Summer, though, is the season we watch leave; trying to hold autumn back. It’s a season of endings, of coming to fruition, and of maturity. Yet, due to years of conditioning and school it’s a season of new beginnings, too.

Autumn, when it arrives, exists in stasis. It’s Elysium.

 AUTUMN – John Clare

The thistledown’s flying, though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying, now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain now boils like a pot;
Through stones past the counting it bubbles red-hot.
The ground parched and cracked is like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is, bents dried up and dead.
The fallow fields glitter like water indeed,
And gossamers twitter, flung from weed unto weed.
Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

Blanche

Waking up earlier than expected after a Friday night’s excursions, the dimmed light of a Parisian courtyard morning streams into the room; dusty sunbeams reaching eyes glued shut with lack of sleep. I reach out for the phone to text a friend, and wind up unrolling myself from the duvet, dressing haphazardly like a child let loose in a parent’s wardrobe, and descending to the street below; passing through the concentric circles of flat, building, courtyard, street before exiting into the city outside.

Walking through the streets between my house and his, the sky is still bleached by the suggestion of light, and has a similar hue to eyes caught in bright sunlight, or faded jeans. Not quite blue enough to be blue yet, but somehow blue all the same. The late September air makes the pedestrian beginnings of this Saturday morning seem dreamlike; old ladies carrying their empty shopping bags down the street for filling; the men who’ll laminate literally anything you want for €2 are setting up their trestle table on the corner of Rue de Faubourg du Temple, where it joins on to Boulevard de Belleville; the birds aren’t singing, but perhaps it’s too late in the year for that now.

My friend lives a few short streets away, past a school, and a bar that sometimes puts Jazz on, but this morning seems to have shouldered off the night to be standing oddly naked on the corner. The hum has already begun, although perhaps it never stopped. Fringes of conversation brush at me, music flowing from car windows, I am buffeted – or perhaps carried – by a current of noise. Ushered onwards by it. Hold the line. In french, the phrase used for keep in touch is Tiens au Courant. Hold the currant. Whether that means hold it at bay, or hold onto the current so you might be reachable later I’m not quite sure. Make yourself a damn so that the current collects in you; or merge yourself with it so that, whilst you’re waiting to hear, you’re in the flow.

I reach my friend’s flat, I punch in his digicode and enter through the first door. Through to the courtyard and the the second code is given, and I move to the stairwell. From here I ascend through layers of house. Old bannister in the centre looping itself in what seems like ever tightening circles from which different lives and different flats stream off like a web. Each loop splintering into different branches like a family tree except most of these branches communicate so rarely with each other. Each loop a distinct microcosm of self and space; I’ve met his neighbours on the stair and besides the bonjour/bonsoir greeting and response we say no other words to each other. Existing and not existing within each others’ worlds. Flashes on the rim. Sparks in the ether.

I greet my friend at his door and we pass some hours eating breakfast (which itself consisted of about three courses and cured any thought of a hangover).

His flat is bathed in misty sunshine. The suggestion of other lives being lived behind the ranged windows of the apartment buildings outside clamour at his small balconetted window. Immeasurable lives being lived in the same conditions as ours, rumbling along, the hum of each other’s bodies like a collective heartbeat, a collective breath. The jagged edges of roofs cutting a ragged silhouette into the opening expanse of sky. After breakfast, we sit talking, nursing a mug of Earl Grey each and the conversation turns to his impending purchase of the flat next door. He asks me if I’d like to see it, and being nosy and loving a bit of architecture, I’m obviously going to say yes, so he gets from the draw a big old key, and leads me out of the front door, and immediately to our left to an apartment bearing the name Blanche D’Arceneaux.

Blanche’s flat is like the Marie Celeste. Cast adrift in time behind a door bearing her name, we enter into  a space that seems untouched in the last 20 years. The morning mist seems to press heavy at the windows, cutting it off from the rest of the world. I think if i turned and opened the door again now, I’d find the same mist behind it; the corridor of his apartment building behind ceasing to exist.

Photos of Blanche’s daughter are placed around the flat, so that it seems that at any angle she might be visible. Inside the cupboard are some conversions for the old franc into the euro written in the slightly shaky handwriting that seems unique to older women. Still elegant, but somehow without the old grace of a fluid hand movement.

She could’ve just walked out of the door.

She could have just left, on a September morning in 2002, to take the freshly printed euro notes out to the marked on Boulevard de Belleville. She could have been any one of the elegantly turned out women on the street, breaking the freshened air with their chatter and cigarette smoke, clattering the wheels of their little shopping trolleys over the haphazard cobbles.

On a receipt roll attached to the wall in the kitchen, a shopping list has been begun. Eggs, bread, milk, potatoes, oranges, onions remain unbought.

The world outside Blanche’s flat seems to recede. It could be 1999 out there. It could be 2050. In here the feeling that Blanche has just left through the door we entered is palpable.

In her bedroom, her clothes are still in the little cupboard by the bed that’s half open, boxes and boxes of what I think must be photographs are stacked on shelves behind a little curtain in the other cubby. The bed itself looks freshly turned, though it can’t have been slept in, in years. The Lino is peeling up under the window, and the original terracotta tiles are peeping their ruddy faces up through layers of dust.

Who was blanche?

What did she do?

In my mind she is wearing a navy skirt made of that heavy kind of wool, that always looks like it would be rough but is actually secretly soft. It’s lined in a similar navy, and fastens at the back. My grandmother had so many skirts like this, that it’s hard to imagine a woman of a certain age not wearing one. Gran used to wear them to church. So, I imagine this woman on a Sunday now, making herself ready for mass. She wears a navy skirt, and a white shirt that is functional, but also quite pretty. Over that she throws one of those royal blue cardigans you often see older women wearing, with brocade on the hems and gold buttons. Her hair, though grey, hasn’t a piece out of place, and she’s made her face up in the mirror, looking out onto the street below, and the flat of the building opposite. She’s got black shoes on, and a handbag that’s become more like a companion over years of use.

When she smiles, there’s a suggestion in the eyes that she’s in on a joke that you haven’t quite got yet. That something funny is about to happen, and Blanche has had prior warning. When she laughs it’s that throaty laugh that comes out like a cough, but is actually a guttural chuckle. When she speaks it’s quiet, but becomes riotous in good company, and in high spirits.

Her hands are small. She wears big rings. She’s always got a cigarette in the left.

She’s so real to me, now that I’ve conjured her from her surroundings, that I can almost imagine her poking her head out of her tiny kitchen to make eye contact with me and my friend in her dining room. take a seat she’d say, I’ve put the coffee on. I’m sure I’ve something nice to nibble on in here too.

Oh no, Blanche, don’t worry we won’t be staying long. Besides we’ve just had breakfast and we don’t want to disturb you.

And she’d reply: Do sit down. I get visitors so rarely now. It’s nice to talk.

Then she’d disappear back into the kitchen. The clatter of cutlery, of coffee cups being arranged on a tray, of the cafetière being filled with coffee, and then with water, and then the whole lot borne into the room by the tiny woman I have dreamed into existence for a second – a vision in blue/grey – like the morning before it has broken. The steam of the cafetière, merges with the suggestion of cigarette smoke, becomes just eddies of dust caught in September sunlight, streaming from the kitchen window into the tiny hall. Blanche herself has dispersed into the air again. Just dust. Just mist.

My friend says it’s funny, how it seems like nothing’s changed.

I think it would have been nice to sit in here a while. Maybe make a coffee in Blanche’s kitchen and drink one for her. I saw some in the cupboard, a black and gold brick on top of a packet of coffee filters. Not a cafetière woman after all.

We stay a little longer, looking at the last remnants of a person left behind. Remind me to make sure my flat is clean before I die, hers is immaculate. I don’t feel intrusive though. it doesn’t feel like that at all, really. It strikes me as strange, being intensely private about my own personal space, that I wouldn’t feel the unease I usually feel in someone else’s without them there.

As we make our way out of Blanche’s flat I think I catch a glimpse of her crossing the back of the dining room into the bedroom. It was lovely having you. It’s so nice to know your neighbours; people don’t do that any more.

and we’d say – let us know if you need anything, Blanche, five flights is a long way up and down and we’re nipping out later.

and she’d tell us not to worry, and have a lovely day, and stop by again soon

Bonne journée say we; Bonne Journée, A bientôt says Blanche.

as we’re leaving I think I hear her say Tiens au courant. And I think that we’re all always in the current, we just need to put a hand out. Hear the hum. Listen.

We both go out into the hall and cross back into my friend’s flat.

The hour is late. We’ve days to be getting to.

I pull my coat back on and leave his flat for the stairwell and trundle down the stairs, down through the vine of lives, hand steady on the central branch of bannister.

 

On the third floor: Bonjour Monsieur, I say to a man coming out.

Bonjour mademoiselle, says he.

We follow each other down the stairs from the 3rd to the ground. I open the door and hold it for him to go into the courtyard.

Apres vous, say I

Merci, says he

De rien, say I.

 

Crossing the courtyard, he then holds open the door to the street,

Apres vous, says he, laughing.

Merci, say I

De rien, says he.

We laugh and say Bonne journée to each other and we each go a different way at the door.

 

I turn right, for boulevard de belleville, and he turns left. Probably heading out to a boulangerie to pick up a baguette or a croissant for breakfast. He might have been going to work – but he had a slowness of movement that suggested easing into the weekend. Perhaps he needed to pick up eggs, bread, milk, potatoes, oranges, onions.

Walking the few streets back home, I pass the ladies who went out with empty bags, returning with full ones. The two men with their laminator are smoking little brown cigarettes and laughing loudly with someone who wants to get something very small laminated. I wonder what it is.

 

The sky is actually blue now. The sun fully up, holding court with the clouds.

 

I put in my code and enter into the first circle of home.

I go from the courtyard to the stairs.

I climb them.

One flight.

Two.

Flat one.

My flat.

Turn the key and I’m in.

 

I wonder if a Blanche lives next door to me.

Manhattan

I wrote the following on a wet, rain drenched, wind blustered evening in Manhattan this may. It has languished in My iPhone notes until I arrived in Paris with no WiFi. This is pretty much exactly as it came to me, then.

Being as I’ve taken to writing about knowing cities, I felt like this was quite an interesting first impression of a place. Expect thoughts on Paris to come.

Walking along the avenues and streets feels like crisscrossing the electric grid. Off grid, on grid, always on grid. And I’m never really sure how it works, or where I’m going, or how far anything really is, even though the streets don’t wind away from me, and I increase or decrease sequentially always.

Looking down the avenues feels precipitous. Like you’re on the fold of a page, and the downward sides fall away from you, and you’re standing on the ridge, balanced. It’s the most vertiginous place I’ve ever been.

On top of that I am tiny. The scale of it is so tall, and in each street I am a tiny atom, bouncing like Brownian motion through tumultuous crowds, buffeted, ceaseless, tidal. Bursting out onto roads via crosswalks like riding waves. I, a city surfer, rolling on the beat, surfacing, descending, delving, diving, coming up for air, gasping, reeling, running.

Like the blues, like Gershwin, I am the clarinet solo, rising for air, reaching the sky, spinning.

Except somehow, today, I felt like I was learning to ride the waves. Surefooted on the concrete surface, I felt like I walked on water, street furniture flotsam and jetsam on the surface. Asphalt ocean, streaming through the grid, covering everything, and the New Yorkers riding the waves without checking their footing. I will always have to check mine, this is not my city.

The city folds away from me again, and I balance on the ridge. What If I’m not really on it at all. What if I’m balanced on it. What if I fall?

I lost my mother on a walk at home, once – in that interim period between Christmas and new year.  I wondered this thought then: What if I am a ghost?

I think about it when I’m travelling too. Sometimes I’ll be doing something like riding a train homewards, gazing out of the window at the sun sinking lower into the horizon , listening to Heroes at the point where David Bowie sounds like he’s going to cry, and I think I’m going to cry too I wonder if I am real at all.

In the distance, where low banked clouds always look as though they’re blocking out the sun, shafts of light pierce the gloaming grey, and in the blurring nature of the blues springing up in the landscape itself, I seem to see myself out there instead of in here.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m gone from these places already – and every visitation is a revisitation – an upward spiral through my life. Perhaps I’m always already a ghost – moving through my life in a meandering pattern from childhood to my deathbed and back again – like in quantum leap Sam leaps between the points of his life – I am leaping through the points of mine. Always already a memory.

Perhaps all the times I feel I am a ghost, are all the times I will return to in my last moments. Perhaps this is just a comfort that I might get to relive all this again. That life might not always have to end.

I felt like a ghost in New York. In our hotel room in Manhattan, whilst she was out getting something for dinner, or just seeing the sights, or spending some well earned moments alone, I fell asleep facing the mirror on the door. I couldn’t shake the feeling once I’d woken that I wasn’t really in the hotel room at all, and that whilst I’d been sleeping, my reflection had been watching me sleep. For, when I opened my eyes, I instantly made eye contact with it. Looking at me, looking back at it, my own face, my double looking out of the bed in the mirror right at me in my own bed.

I wished she would come back. My corporeality were thinning away, and I wondered if she never came back at all what would become of me. Where would I go, and what might I become? Locked in the loop of looking at myself looking at myself. Looking at me, looking at me.

The door opened.

I am angry about Capital A Art

I’ve been thinking about something and I’m really fucking angry about it. I’m angry about Capital A Art. Art made into money maker. Art made into pontificating on a BBC documentary. Art made into summer insta moments whilst pretentiously making some statement on climate change.

Why is it that I often feel like I never see actual poor people, like me, in art galleries. Why don’t I see kids from different backgrounds in galleries? People who’ve got no money. Kids who’s mums and dads haven’t got any money.  And I know, ur gonna say that you can’t tell when people are poor, or from a council estate or from the shit bit of the village, or the city, or from the big fat poncy houses on the Woodstock road when they’re in a gallery space.. 

Well you bloody can if you’re standing in the Olafur Eliasson show and a dad turns to his son and says: “oh hugo won’t it be lovely when you can tell all your new friends at Harrow that you came to see this show”

Despite the constancy of being told so, access to culture has not been made available to all. People in poverty, people from working class backgrounds, people without more than a secondary school education, are made to feel like art isn’t for them. Accessibility is a huge issue – as @cioconnor v. eloquently put in her massive twitter thread about disabled access at the Tate, that you should definitely read. Institutions rarely think about anything outside of the middle ground. This means anyone functioning at that level and above accesses things without any hindrance without realising their privilege. Anyone operating below this middle bar, either financially, educationally, on the basis of ability, or LITERALLY ANYTHING that means you find going to an exhibition d i f f i c u l t is at a huge disadvantage.

Further to this, the institutions which showcase art are actively made inaccessible to people without money, education, or free time. 

This is, I think, because of three things: 

  1. the language used by the institution, the way the exhibitions are set up, and the prices for the paid exhibitions are engineered in a way to make art hard to access. I’m not saying we need to “dumb down” art – because working class does not equate stupidity. But I do think there needs to be less of an expectation that everyone in the world is gonna enjoy the stuffy, middle class, and quite frankly gate keeping way we talk about art. Like it’s church, or capital or something. Art is everything, and we should be able to talk about it like it was last nights episode of love island bc it isn’t far off most of the time. 
  2. Exhibitions are stupid expensive. How can u expect a family of five to take all their kids to go and see an exhibition at the tate when it costs £20 each for adults and can be another £15 for three kids? Even if you’ve got less kids, or there’s only one of you – sometimes finding £18 for an exhibition is too much. Esp. where the concessions price is £17 which is a MEASLY £1 discount. £18 is a weekly food shop for some people, man.
  3. WHO has actually got time to go see a show, tho? Yeah yeah yeah – I know ‘you’ve got to make time for art’ – but if you’re working three jobs, or your job is physical and takes all the drive out of you and on your days off you’re recuperating – or you’ve a young family and taking care of them takes up all your time – please tell me when you’re able to experience art and culture for yourself in an institutional environment? Tell me. Mark it out on a calendar or something. I need to know.

Capitalism has made art a commodity. And it shouldn’t be. It’s for everyone. It’s a vital resource that everyone should be able to access without bars. 

The fundamentals for a life without poverty are five things: 

  1. Food
  2. Shelter
  3. Clothing
  4. A job and the necessary education
  5. Time to spend not doing your job or learning things directly to do with your job.

 

Without free time we’re not out of poverty. 

Without a job we’re not out of poverty. 

Without adequate housing (a home. Not a ‘unit’) we’re not out of poverty

Without healthy food we’re not out of poverty. 

Without adequate clothing we’re not out of poverty. 

 

TIME is something that’s not addressed. Time. so simple – let’s get everyone back in work again by giving them 0 hour contracts and unstable working situations… but that means no one can have any time to DO anything because they might be called upon to pick up a shift. or they might lose vital hours at work so they don’t have enough money to do anything.

time is so important. It literally IS money to a lot of people. The phrase isn’t just an old saying. I don’t get the bus to work bc If i did I may as well have not worked for half an hour that day. I ride my bike. I could take time off work to go see an exhibition – but I also could b at work earning more money to feed myself and to pay my rent. I worked out once that my rent costs 3 weeks of work. I only have one week of work to spend on myself and that’s also eaten up by bills. An exhibition at the Tate is two hours work for me. If I was on minimum wage it would be three.

Art should be there to alleviate the pain of living life. To reflect you back to yourself. To show you something new. To change your world view. To be beautiful. To make you cry. To make you hate it. To be ugly. To be amazing. To be fucking awful. It shouldn’t cost you three whole hours of your working day. An Exhibition should cost you one hour at the most. 

What can we do about it, I hear you ask. We’re not legislators or big important people. But that’s just the point. The big important people are few. There aren’t very many of them simply because they don’t like to share. There are loads of us. Loads. Who don’t have any money, who don’t have any time, and who can’t do anything aside from scratch out a measly little living on the surface of earth. Life is about so. Much. more. Than that. 

The Art World talks about art like it’s church. There’s a reason no one goes to church any more (apart from those of us who do but like that’s not v. many of us tbh) less than a million people turn up to their local CofE churches. English Christianity has a certain kind of doctrinal language about it that alienates people. I think that The Art World does the same thing. It’s like putting the bible in Latin when we talk about art using the next big word, the next big movement. It’s like saying ‘dont ask too many questions. Just believe. Believing is most important even if you doubt your belief.’ If God is real u should be able to question him. If Art is real (i am using capitals here. Capital G God. Capital A Art) then you should be able to question it and you shouldn’t be shouted down because you don’t know what the difference between Pop Art and Op Art is. 

My sister’s a mum of three with a full time job and full time child care commitments. She literally doesn’t care about hauntology. She doesn’t know who Derrida is. She doesn’t care that Foucault is really important when you’re trying to understand  Y or Z artist. What she does know if that she likes David Hockney and she thinks Rothko is beautiful and it would be really nice for her if she could see more art. I have friends I’ve known for years, who I’ve worked in Bars with, or in Sainsbury’s with, or at McDonalds with who all LIKE art when they look at it, but always said stuff like: “art is boring”, “art’s rubbish”, “art’s for girls, “I just don’t get art”. I used to think I didn’t get art. In my first year of uni i had this weird chip on my shoulder that I just didnt understand how you could read a painting because its not a book and thats because people spoke about art in a way that alienated me. People didn’t talk about books like that because books had stories. I could read them and feel things. I felt things when I looked at paintings, but I couldn’t understand the way people spoke about them. 

One day it clicked in my head. I went to see some art show with my mum and we talked about art, and I realised paintings are like books and really there’s no fundamental difference between them. Everything is art. Music is art. Books are art. Installations are art. Life is art. You don’t need to understand this way of talking about art, that you get taught at university like it’s some big boys club and suddenly you’re allowed in, in order to LIKE art. Art is just there to be looked at and thought about and it’s okay if you don’t understand it because the artist is dead anyway what do you think about it. What does it make you think about. What does it make you feel? There is no understanding art. Art just IS.

If I’m honest, and this is one hell of an admission, I don’t think I really thought about thinking about art until I watched Mona Lisa Smile and realised that art isn’t stuffy old boys talking about the portraits of kings and queens, or paintings of boats. That you don’t need to regurgitate a textbook in order to look at art and think about it and E N J O Y I T

You shouldn’t need a masters in contemporary art theory from goldsmiths, and a big bank balance to take yourself and maybe your family to the tate to look at some paintings or some sculptures or any fucking thing thats on at a big museum somewhere. Even small places alienate normal people. You’re going to look at art to learn something about art. To feel something about art. To love it. To hate it. To have your mind changed by it. 

If you already KNOW everything why would you even bother going to an art gallery? 

Who fucking cares? 

The more we keep art out of compulsory education. The more we tell people it’s not important. The more it becomes a “rich people thing”. The more people think it’s not for them. The more thay think it’s not important because it’s not business, because it’s not going to serve them any purpose in getting a job and being a good cog in the wider machine of “nation”. 

Art is for everyone. Whether it’s a stupid sculpture in the middle fo a room. Or a painting of clouds that makes you cry. or , i don’t know, it can be literally ANYTHING. A poem that describes how you’re feeling. A piece of video installatio that makes you question your humanity. Something that shows you how someone you thought was completely different to you is actually fundamentally the same. Feels the same. Has the same responses. 

The more we make art divisive. The more we stop and hinder people from being able to access it freely. The more enclosed and inhibited society becomes. 

Art is for men who drive lorries. 

Art is for kids who like football. 

Art is for girls who climb trees

Art is for girls who like to go clubbing

Art is for swimming teachers

Art is for boys who aren’t v. cool. but is also cool enough for cool people.

Art is for single parents

Art is for the unemployed

Art is for those with six jobs

Art’s probably there for billionaires too, but they mostly own it all ANYWAY.

Art is for kids and mums and dads and aunts and uncles and grannies and granddads who’re just getting by. 

Art. 

Is. 

For. 

Everyone. 

And I am angry that right now it’s not being made available to everyone. 

Memphis – Public loss, public mourning.

Memphis is one of those cities where its history feels much too close to the surface. The blues seeps underneath your feet like a pulse, as though you were standing on the back of the beast, and the blues were its heartbeat. The ghosts of those gone by walk, ‘up union avenue’ or, can be found standing in rows, sitting on corners, writ large upon the pavements (or sidewalks as I become increasingly able to call them) unforgotten, and unforgetting. Elvis, Martin Luther King, BB King, William Sanderson, and countless others. I guess this is the case with all big cities, except in Memphis I feel like there’s a distinct lack of tourist activity which I found nowhere else, apart from maybe Jackson Mississippi which was even more of the same, but more down at heel.

I arrived in the early hours of a Sunday, sky tinged blue orange with heat, and a haze of humidity settling about the place as though to suffocate it before it awoke. Stepping down from the train my feet hit the red surface of the station platform, and tiny little clouds of dust kicked themselves up in small clouds, as though my arrival were causing an actual physical disturbance to the surrounding area. Green foliage so vivid that it looked more alive than any leaves I’d ever seen. The air hummed; with the train, with the sound of the city, with birdsong.

All over the hoardings surrounding the works being done on the town are the lyrics to songs which mention Memphis. “they’ve got catfish on the table, and Gospel in the air’, ‘if you love somebody enough, you’ll follow wherever they go, that’s how I got to Memphis’, ‘I’m going to Memphis where the beat is tough. Memphis, I can’t get enough’, ‘Memphis in June, a shady veranda under a Sunday blue sky’..… ‘Memphis’, I will be told later in a piano bar at around 2am, drunkenly, over someone butchering Mark Cohn, ‘is the most sung about song in the history of songs.’ All over the sidewalks, and on plaques on almost every corner are tiny little bits of information about streets, or buildings, as though the town itself were giving you a guided tour. The territory is suffused with the history of slavery, of emancipation, and of the fight for civil rights which is, as far as I have seen in my short time in the south, a battle still being fought.

I’m giving you all this information of my arrival, though, because I want you to understand what it felt like to step down off of a 9 hour train journey, onto an almost deserted train platform, to walk into a deserted waiting area that looked like it had been cut out of some old film about the south (think Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, or Driving Miss Daisy, or even something like Steel Magnolias.) Memphis felt, from the minute the train door swung back, like opening the dishwasher mid cycle letting in all the hot damp air, like dipping yourself in memory. Not necessarily in a hauntological sense, though. I keep thinking of that Ranciere line from Metamorphoses of the muses which goes something like ‘we should leave the ghosts alone for the time being, for they have a tendency to say too much for themselves’ which, at present, seems an apt sentiment to hold.

The ghosts of Memphis are… a different kind of ghost, I think. Rather they’re a kind of resonant energy, not hauntological in that they’re a nostalgia for a lost future, or even that they are in and of themselves nostalgic, but that the city feels like its full of the lives its lived, and uses them to propel itself forward, as opposed to engaging in the perpetual return of hauntology.

I have no personal connection to Memphis so perhaps this might be different if i did.

Mourning is an interesting turn of phrase, too, because Memphis itself is not sad. It is so full of joy in music, joy in being alive, in talking to each other, in reaching out and making connections. Yet, in all its southern hospitality, and kindness, I still feel the great weight of oppression, collective loss, and cultural grief when walking the streets, coupled with a strength in the face of adversity driven by the kindness of strangers, and the power of resurgence, and rebuilding evident in the pervasive culture of sound.

*

Memphis is defined by two great losses. The first, and perhaps the most culturally significant loss for African Americans in the 20th century (or maybe perhaps ever) was the assignation of Martin Luther King Junior at the Lorraine Motel Downtown. Here’s a man who symbolises the hope of a whole group of people; who symbolises strength, and calm in the wake of great oppression, violence, and racism; who offered opportunities for change, and for the reclamation of humanity in the eyes of the oppressors. For him to have been lost in Memphis, whilst fighting here for the rights of working people, and people of colour at the hands of a skinny white boy with a gun in a boarding house opposite leaves a mark that cannot be wiped away.

The museum tracks the oppression of people of African Americans in American society from the very beginning of the transatlantic slave trade in brutal detail. Laid out here are all the atrocities of white ownership, and of white supremacy for all to see. How anyone could fail here to see these as abysmal treatments of fellow humans is beyond me. Yet this great centre for knowledge, which not only details the very states of oppression, and how these have been overcome, but also offers a space specifically for artists of colour to exhibit their work, and for people to learn about this history in a way that does not feel like some kind of gore-porn meant to absolve you of white guilt, or punish you for these crimes, but merely ensure that you know about them.

In the museum’s final section you learn about MLK’s assassination, and his final “the mountain top” speech in which death plays very heavily to the forefront. ‘I may not get there with you, but you will make it to the promised land’. The promise of hope, and the feeling I had of his knowing his own matyrdom, was overwhelming. He was cut down at 39, cutdown looking out in the direction the bullet came, resolute, strong. What might the world have looked like had he not died? I think he knew, I think he knew he might have to be the sacrificial lamb for the movement. His final speech, the mountaintop speech:

‘Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.’

He knew.

Yet, I couldn’t help but think about how much hope had been born out of that loss. How the museum itself had sprung up in the wake of it. Full of knowledge, of learning, and of a promise that these rights will not be scaled back, and that one day, at some point, true equality will be afforded to all.

Even blues, the city’s beating heart, winding out of the cities open doors, and down its gridded streets, flashing in neon reds and yellows and greens, smoky and rousing, was born out of the grief and mourning of the transatlantic slave trade; a translation of traditional west African music, made blues, made Jazz.

All of this, the rebirth of the motel from the ashes, bearing the hope of MLK’s words; the continual rebirth of blues; the cyclical return of the 8 bar format; to be lost in the music; are public losses, mutual experiences of grief that are played out accessibly in public spaces, so that no barriers of personhood have been transgressed. The civil rights museum, and the bars on Beale offer a public space within which to process that loss. The museum offers knowledge, recollection, memory, and understanding as ways in which to process; where Beale offers joy found in the darkest of spaces, and finding it at the bottom of beer bottles.

Compare this to the experience I had at Graceland, though, and its an entirely different story. For ‘some reason I cannot explain’, Graceland had become a symbol of my recovery. Perhaps because I listened to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ almost exclusively last summer when I was chronically depressed. for Paul Simon ‘had reason to believe, we all will be received at Graceland’ and so, upon my arrival in Memphis, I sought out that white pillared house in order to be received warmly and safely there. The ‘ghosts and empty sockets’ of my transatlantic journey, which itself symbolises my recovery, really, bearing me on to those musical gates. In a way, Graceland, had become a symbolic kind of heaven.

I arrived to some kind of Disneyland frontage, plastic-y and devoid of personhood, a diner called Gladys’, sticky floors, ‘Suspicious Minds’ being tannoyed out over the place tinnily like they’d trapped Elvis in the speaker and made him sing Suspicious minds every hour on the hour for the rest of eternity. This was, to me, not the promised land I had hoped for, but a corralling ground filled with hundreds if not thousands, of middle aged white couples coming to see Elvis’ house, take some photos, and tick it off the itinerary.

I don’t really know what I had expected, but this wasn’t it.

In a direct contrast to the uplifting presentation of collective loss presented in a public space in which there is enough space and time afforded to you in order to absorb the weight of those losses for yourself, this was the loss of a single man who, whilst yes, very talented, hadn’t really changed the world. I have never been, myself, much of an Elvis fan. I can bop along to blue suede shoes as much as the next girl, and Always on my Mind does make me cry; but that’s about as far as it goes.

I felt like an intruder, not on the enjoyment of the other people wearing their headphones and milling between their timed spots from room to room, but an intruder on one man’s private space. They had hooked up the TVs to all play one clip from Elvis’ interviews in which he says “the greatest times of my life have been with my family. I just can’t wait to go home.’ And here we all were, in our thousands, milling about in his home, his bolthole, gawping at his things, hearing about how he made peanut butter and banana sandwiches that ended up contributing to his weight gain, seeing videos in which he is so clearly off his face and self medicating against some kind of issue, and only hearing about how the public loved him. I couldn’t shake this horrible feeling that he had been an incredibly sad man. That despite it all; the fame, the planes, the cars, the house, something wasn’t quite alright with Elvis himself, and we were all intruding on his rest.

Unlike in the Civil Rights museum there was no opportunity to feel inspired by achievement, or to feel motivated to enact the changes you want to see in the world. No. I felt dirty, like i’d spied on him getting changed, or peeked under his death shroud and found rotting flesh. I was in my group of audio tourers and accidentally getting in the way of their selfies in the Jungle Room, and their snaps of his grave. Feeling more and more like I had walked into a nightmare, where I felt like something was very very wrong and nobody else did.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I really do think it has a lot to do with the difference between public and private space, and the ways in which minorities experience loss, and the ways in which the oppressor experiences it collectively. There was a consumptive quality to the way in which Graceland was set out that wasn’t present in the CRM. Those at Graceland wanted to bite a bit off and take it home, I felt like if they could have stolen it all in their tote bags they would have done. If they could’ve gotten into his grave and taken a bit of him back they would’ve. I sat in the meditation garden for a while before I realised that they’d buried him there, and that every twenty minutes another group comes a long to snap a photo of the words ‘Elvis Presley’ written there. I didn’t look at the grave myself, so I don’t know what it says there.

When does public grieving become possessive?

We saw it in 2016 when so many celebrities fell to the wayside of age and disease; David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Carrie Fisher’s mum. The possessive nature of loss, even when that loss is not personal, but cultural. Elvis’ loss has no direct ramifications on the lives of “fans”, and so the performance of grief in the space of his home becomes disconnected from the ways in which we process real loss within the sphere of our personal connections.

In answer to the question: public grief becomes possessive or consumptive when there is no opportunity for regrowth, or for the cycle to begin, or for progression to be made.

Memphis lives and dies in an 8 bar cycle, again and again repeating the refrain. one song ends allowing the next one to begin. I felt this in the Civil Rights Museum, too, that MLK’s death was incendiary to the movement, allowing greater progressions, allowing more steps to be taken towards the promised land. (I also wondered if he knew. If he had foreseen it somehow, that he would take up the shroud of Matyrdom for the cause he was fighting for). Such a great tragedy, but still the things that spring up in his wake are new refrains, new modes of strength against oppression, new modes of breaking the system.

Graceland, on the other hand, festers. No longer home, nor hearth, nor safe space away from the world; but a highly trafficked tomb to excess, spent to alleviate what seems to me to be a hole unable to be filled by possessions, or drugs, or peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

If he wanders the halls of his home, I bet he’s yelling ‘fuck off’ as loud as he can.

*

I have been writing this in view of the Mississippi River, and gazing out at it from the city side you could believe that it hasn’t changed in 100 years. It has. It’s certainly a much more inclusive city than it seems to have been, and being majority non-white, the focus on African American culture is higher than anywhere else I’ve been whilst I’ve been in America. Yet, it seems evident to me after visiting the CRM that the fight that was fought here in the ‘60s, and countless years before that, and many subsequently still needs fighting; in Memphis, throughout America, and throughout the world.

It is important, too, to remember that we are all complicit in perpetuating injustices so long as we continue to try to ‘just get by’ without rocking the boat too much. By saying ‘I will stand up later’. The greatest stumbling block for African American’s in the fight for civil rights, according to MLK himself in his letter from Birmingham Jail is not ‘the white citizen’s counsellor, or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.’

The fight I saw in the CRM, all the people going out of their way, putting their lives and livelihoods at risk, coming together in order to help each other and themselves is something we need to pick up and use, especially now when the bellies of the unions have been ripped out. Whilst flying from New Orleans to Los Angeles I watched Knock Down the House on Netflix, chronicling the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a grass roots movement to take down a previously unopposed Democratic candidate in the Bronx.

She, and many other women like her, stood up in the face of oppression an adversity. Strong, working class, and fully representational of the communities they were standing in, and whilst only Ocasio-Cortez got through the barricades of the establishment, at least someone did.

There is so much we could be doing in the face of the great political tides of the now. In the face of classism, racism, sexism. institutional takedowns and lashbacks against establishment regimes that we are not collectively doing. We are many, they are few. I feel moved to be guilty. Guilty that I am not doing enough, and by not doing enough I am complicit in institutional oppression. More than this though, I feel motivated that one voice can change the world, if only everyone would get behind it.

This is not the time for mourning, though. Now is the time for action.

To end with Martin Luther King Junior:

The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” “If I do no stop to help [others] , what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

Brexit Weathers: isolation, ice and ‘The Wanderer’

What follows is a section of my upcoming book Spectral Weathers: on grief, place, and self in English Landscapes that didn’t quite make the cut, tbh. It didn’t seem to quite fit anywhere, and whilst I’ve cut it I thought it might find a home here!

Weather is written into the surface of English landscapes; even from the first English writings there seems to be a preoccupation with it. As Alexandra Harris writes in her text Weatherland: ‘English Literature begins in the cold.’ The wet and dismal stereotype of English weather haunts us from the 9th century, where ‘The Wanderer’ is exiled into an icy ocean to be haunted by the memories of a life before banishment. In a way I feel like we’re reenacting this process of banishment and exile, albeit semi-willingly, by trying to enforce a new kind of national isolation on the whole of the UK – England, dragging Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland out by their bootstraps to the seemingly vast amusement of the rest of the EU. All of us hanging on by our fingertips to the edge, before jettisoning out. ‘The Wanderer’ contrasts the warmth of home and hearth with a ‘wretched solitary landscape’, and whether or not the poem’s protagonist is truly rowing through ‘frozen waves’, or those frozen waves stand as a metaphor for the totality of his isolation (or ice-olation) it is impossible to say. Even in England’s first written text there is a duality of landscape and loss, and here earth, sky, space, place, and memory are all intertwined to give the sense that there is a very large something missing – and in its absence from the wanderer’s life, he is almost haunted by it. His frozen exile is all the icier because of the absence of the warmth he had once known.

I have always read this as something of a warning against conscious isolationism, the choice to separate oneself from others. The plight of the Wanderer, cut off from his family, and from all those who can help him, seems suffused with an awareness that ‘every modern society is aware of its own ephemerality’, haunted by the fleeting nature of what it means to be a nation, a populace. I wonder if we should be more comfortable with this notion of ephemerality due to the changeable nature of our weathers, and the inconsistency of our landscapes. Despite a seemingly national urge to turn back the clock, and plunge ourselves into isolation in much the same way as the wanderer rows out to sea without tethers, I think the cultural scene of England, when it is actively engaging with itself, is, like most other places, one defined by changes and shift. England is often seen as stuck in a time warp; yet historically it has been a place characterised by great social change, and shift – despite its lack of revolutionary drive as seen in its close neighbours.

Only time will really tell how this will work – but if, at its core, English landscapes are defined by a sense of variety, perhaps its people might learn to unanimously accept that variety in its culture too. For a place that has, for so long, sought to align itself with the sky, it strikes me as odd that we would spend so much time looking at our feet, and arguing about who shares that small space with us. It would be folly to follow the wanderer into his boat as a systematic objection to the connectedness of globalisation. Or, at least, I think so.

Watery bodies: at Hampstead Ladies Pond

Grass green under fingers, dead ringers for frothy fringe on the waters edge, dead ringers for green tinged limbs rippling under the surface of that grey green water at once reflecting sunbeams and thoughtless skies. I step out unclothed onto a concrete diving board to fling myself over the parapet into the pool beneath. A baptism of London wild water. This is the only church I attend, now. The sun, glittering off of the wetness of my arms as they dry is a blessing; a balm. I am soothed by the dappled shifts of shade over the bodies ranged up and over the hillock around me.

I have never in my life experienced the simplicity of being in the same way as I do in the summer at the ladies’ pond. I took my first dip of last year in April, in 11 degree water. It was so cold I felt like I had been stripped bare of my skin, and left the water as bones, chattering in the spring sunshine like teeth, or snow. 

Nor have I experienced such a quiet celebration of femininity and of what it is to be woman. There is a lack of self-consciousness here that isn’t really achieved anywhere else. Bodies are bodies and we are all bodies, all one breathing mesh of womanhood spread out over damp grass. For a few brief hours in the sunshine, we are;

‘strings of inseparable sisters, warm and wet, indistinguishable one from the other’, ‘weaving through ourselves, running rings around each other, heedless, needless, aimless, careless, thoughtless, amok.’

That’s Sadie Plant I’m quoting, from Zeroes and Ones. An excerpt of what it was like before our bodies separated from one into many – I feel that, at the pond, I am returned there to one big watery body. Despite the TERF-y narrative of the pond in recent years, I feel it should remain a space where all women are welcome, and where woman is not defined by people who have internalised the misogynistic doctrine of what a woman is, but rather by the simple fact that a woman is, whilst an arbitrary distinction really, simply someone who is a ‘woman’ cis, trans, or otherwise. All the bodies of women are one body of woman, and whilst each has its own distinct needs and privileges and oppressions to be addressed, all are encompassed under an umbrella term, and bathed in green-grey waters, and drying on sunbathed grass, are one watery body at once.

I wonder if, in this space, there is a strange kind of witchery afoot. Water magic, built to weave us together for an instant. Flash burned into the retina by some sun-photography. Instead of women always as Echo, frozen into muteness by Narcissus’ love for himself; here, woman is power, woman is voice. Narcissus has not been permitted entry, and Echo is free to fall in love with herself, over and over again, reflected and refracted on the surface of the pond.

More than anything, water ties our bodies to the earth. It makes up 70% of us. It’s what we were born from, all those millennia ago, all our cells existed in the primordial oceans, and they exist now. It is a conduit, a mode of connection, a route through which we are haunted by pasts and through which we haunt the future. From Astreida Neimanis:

She also says that water ensures that our being is always becoming. The water in us shifts always, replaced and then spent again. Just as the bodies in the body of water I see through the reeds are replaced in whoops and shouts and splashes of entry, and the blue lipped, shivering invigoration of exit.

Here I can feel that all of this has arisen from the same primordial soup, the trees that shade us, the bodies that are shaded. More than that, we were all born from the amniotic waters of the womb, which, whilst warm instead of freezing as they are in the pond, connect us all. The amniotic pond within the body of mother, which is also a body of water, that was gestated itself, and born when the waters broke and overflowed, flooded, like the banks of a river are breached and broken after too much rain. Even the rain is the same body of water, locked in a cycle of being rain, and being ocean, and being ice. ‘But there are tides in the body’ writes Virginia Woolf – ‘borne like a frail shallop in the deep, deep floods’ out floats the narrative, to be consumed by its bearers – sunk under the tides of bodies, the tides of the bodies.

Here the water allows us to ebb and flow cross time and space. The next time I go in the water it is high summer. I get in and lie on the surface like a star fish with only my face above the water. I tip my head back and the water is so cold that I can’t convince myself I’m not drowning. It takes me ages to relax so that I can feel a part of the surface, dissolve myself into the grey green of the water.

I keep thinking about water’s ability to metamorphose, to transform. It is damned here by the edges of the pond, unable to spread. Yet, were we to free it it would smoothen itself out and spread, absorb itself into things – if it found another vessel it would mould itself to that. ‘Woman’ is as definable as water – as formed as water, as mouldable as water – and yet water remains resolutely itself always.

 

a few disconnected thoughts on the Notre Dame burning

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As I write, fire has consumed the Notre Dame in Paris. The spire has fallen, the windows have melted or been blown out, reports say the bell towers will not be long in joining the rest of the structure in a blaze. Sure, it’s just a building; but to many it is so much more than that. When a house burns down, you don’t just mourn the building, you mourn your home. This structure is the heart of Paris, a catholic icon, 

It has stood for 850 years,  built over 100 years, touched by so many hands. Soaring arches, quiet sequestered cloisters, incense winding smoky way to the ceiling arches, a voice raised in song, light seeping in through the rose window; dark, quiet, peaceful. A symbol of sanctuary, of hope. It is not so, now. Now, a raging fire rampages through it. The roof; gone. The Rose window; gone. The pews; gone. No more voices, no more prayer, no more quiet reflection. Just the fire burning into the night.

Media has changed the ways in which we process grief. When a natural disaster happens, or a celebrity dies, or something awful is enacted upon others we’re able to access the moment of its happening over and over again. We relive the moment of impact, the great blow, over and over again through the news, and that great blow ricochets outwards in the structure of society, shifting its surface forever afterwards. The purpose of a monument made in memorial is almost always to bring solace or closure to mass grief, yet what happens when we lose a monument itself, what does that mean?

9/11 shifted the course of events. The whole world turned on its axis after that, ricocheted off course like a stray newton’s Cradle ball.

The fire at the Notre Dame feels similarly resonant; and for it to have happened on Holy Week, right at the beginning of the decline into ashes and dust, before a rebirth feels, to me, oddly prophetic.

On Ash Wednesday, when many Catholics will have arrived at the cathedral to have crosses in ash placed upon their foreheads the line: ‘You are dust and unto dust you shall return’ will have been repeated ad nauseum. Over and over again, the thumb, into the ash, to the forehead, in the sign of the cross. ‘Unto dust you shall return’. It feels, to me, like a cycle. An act of returning, or consumption, or rebirth – it’s a terrible tragedy; but the point of cathedrals is that they’re composite totalities: layered. This is a 12th century monument of religion, begun in 1160, finished in 1260. Then, following the revolution in the 1790s, the church was desecrated with much of its religious iconography destroyed. After that, Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831, and popular interest in the church was revived, and it was restored to its former glory. The church returns to dust, and will be reborn from those ashes.

Easter itself is a great festival of mourning, or at least when I was a practicing Catholic, that is how I approached it. A whole week of the year is dedicated to mourning those you’ve lost , to mourning a lost faith and perhaps finding it again, to mourning the loss of Jesus himself, sitting in a metaphorical garden of Gethsemane every Maundy Thursday repenting of your sins, and keeping a vigil. Good Friday is the ultimate day of mourning, you know what is coming, and it comes. Holy Saturday is mourning again. The tabernacle is empty, and you enter for mass to a dark and empty church, unlit candle in your hand, no music, nothing on the altar.  By the end of the Mass, your candle has been re-lit. Hope flares in the darkness. Then of course comes the Sunday, and the rebirth – but whilst that is the important bit in Catholic Doctrine, I always felt that the motion of repentance, and of mourning before you are eventually forgiven was altogether more important. What does the Notre Dame repent for? What is it to be forgiven?

I feel struck by the fire at the Notre Dame, that it should come at a time that is so important for Catholics feels like it might be indicative of some other great change. ‘Where were you when the Notre Dame burned down?’ will be a question your children might ask you – ‘where were you?’ This Holy Week more people than ever will be thinking of the Notre Dame. The whole world watching as a single building is brought to dust.

How will the cathedral be reborn, though? If it took 100 years to build it, will it take that long to restore? Will it be possible to restore it?

I wonder, though, and this might be a bit of a reach, but I am reminded of watching Grenfell burn on the news in 2017. A pillar of fire stretching into the sunrise, with people throwing their children out of windows, and hammering at them – the level of human casualty at Grenfell was so much higher than I presume is at the Notre Dame (though may live to eat these words). It seems to me to be disingenuous, the level of mourning I am seeing globally for an empty building, compared to how quickly Grenfell has been forgotten by mainstream media. How quickly will the world raise money to restore this national monument to religion, and to imperialism – when there are still people, two years later, who haven’t been rehoused…

I am also put in mind of all of the monuments, and artefacts currently being destroyed across the world that haven’t been given a similar coverage – despite the fact that they were as significant culturally. I am thinking of the Palmyra, destroyed by fire in the Syrian civil war. Or Jonah’s Tomb in Iraq. All lost, all as significant as the Notre Dame. It is possible to mourn the loss of such an incredible symbol of Catholicism, whilst still remaining aware and remaining critical of our mourning when we fail to adequately mourn sites of equal significance elsewhere.

When we are reduced to dust, what have we left to rebuild? Should we rebuild it?


Some other small thoughts on burning and fire

Fire’s symbolic undertones range from a symbol of destruction, of knowledge, of sexuality, and of purification.  It is all of them, enacted on a single building, creating a wound in culture.

What of the Water they’re pouring on it? Water is also such a symbol in the catholic faith. I crossed myself with holy water every Sunday upon entry into the church when I practised , I was baptised into the faith with holy water – symbolising purification, birth and the waters of the womb, spiritual cleansing.

In other words, I can’t shake the feeling that the Notre Dame burning down is meant to be deeply symbolic too. I don’t believe in god any more, or at least I don’t think that I do. I also do not practise as a catholic anymore – but there’s something about this happening on holy week that throws me off kilter, and makes me feel out of joint.