Near Window 11

… an interesting question.

This time last year I was resurfacing from a pretty deep depression. I know this because I remember, but I was reminded of it because my Instagram archive decided to display some choice pieces of last spring for me to look at. Most of my content last year was me waxing lyrical about birds or trees or light. Here’s one:

——— imagine here a brief hiatus in which I went deep on my insta and sent my friends photos of us from 2015 with captions like « omg so long ago » and other such vibes. I won’t bore u by including them here, but I can assure u that they’re good pics of me with varying lengths of hair and at varying degrees of sobriety ✌️it’ll probably be charged about in another vidéo -Apéro that I’ll have with my best pal sometime again this week (that’s drink wine & face time to u)

Anyway I spent an inordinate about of time looking at last spring today. Looking at the sun drenched, green robed fields of home. A ghost spring of recovery, silver streamed into my retinas whilst the depopulated spring outside my window battles the war for us. Paris occupied again. Here, there are two springs existing at once. One in my phone, one outside my window, and neither of which I am actually IN. The one in my phone is huge, i walked about ten miles a day with the dogs, over hill and down dale and across streams and through woods. I was documenting the wild magic of becoming. The one in reality small, one room, two windows, a courtyard, a corner of sky.

So many shots of chubby knees and heavy docs striding through fields growing progressively greener. Shots of the dogs running, begging, smiling, tongues lolling. shots of brickwork, of country pavements, of pub signage, or birdsong, or birds, or blossom, or blooms or new leaves. Where I’d been I’ll I’d posted relatively little. In coming back to myself in recovery I posted more and more. A minds eye view of both the return if the spring, and my return to myself. An almost « real-time » video essay: what does it mean to become in the season if becoming? An interesting question. One I have no answers for, except the list of shots I mentioned above. One which is still being answered as we never cease to become. Either way it is spring on my phone, and it is spring outside, and even though I am inside in my flat in Paris, in my phone I am running through fields in England. I am both. I am all.

In reality though this compulsive Instagram documentation is not a video essay, in that I have not consciously created it to have structure and form like an essay is supposed to have. More accurately you could call it a video notebook, like the stacks of notebooks at my mums and the two I have here that have every single thing I’ve ever written in them in pen and paper form. A video sketchbook: some light, some birds, some sky, a song I like.

I read a paper by Simon O’Sullivan called « Fictioning Landscape » (it’s on his website) about the relationship between landscape and fictioning in the form of video-essays. He particularly focuses on weird examples, that unpick the fabric of reality and posit weird fictions of the past and future within them. The examples he examines present a « porous border between fact and fiction » and insinuate a foreground of temporal shift; futures that won’t happen, pasts that didn’t quite. The notion of the then-spring encroaching on the now-spring implies a layered temporality, too: now-spring is all-spring.

O’Sullivan discusses some brilliant examples of audio-visual essays including Justin Barton and Mark Fisher’s On Vanishing Land and Victoria Halford and Steve Beard’s Voodoo Science Park. J would highly recommend looking them up – the book of voodoo science park is brilliant – highly recommend.

My friend, Josh Vyrtz, makes video-essays – you can look at them here. They each possess a kind of fictioned surreality, whether theyre about painting a landscape as toilet graffiti or sitting on a bench from 9-5. There’s a joyous kind of whimsy to them, that’s tinged with a melancholia, and a hunt that there’s some kind of Magic going on, links to external spaces, spaces outside of the frame.

Thé above photo is a still from my favourite of josh’s performance/video essays. It was about his dad, who died. About his own self discovery, and about learning about Switzerland where his dad is from. It was also not about this at all, but about vulnerability, and masculinity. In the film josh was himself and his dad and a plastic gnome. In the performance he was himself a cab driver, and a whirling dervish of emotion. It was a performance, an essay, a film, and a thing of beauty. To my mind josh was create a fictional past in which his dad had shown him Switzerland, and a future in which he had been shown. Fragile, vulnérable, wishful. It made me cry.

Of his video essays « what would be the soundtrack to my life? An interesting question » is my fave on YouTube – I’d urge u to watch it. It’s only about 5 minutes long.

I’ve written a lot about music over the last few days; being inside all the time, it’s one of the few things I can always do without getting bored of doing it. This video essay of Josh’s starts very close to his face, like the moment at the end of a party when your smashed and on a sofa chatting shit:

« there are some songs which, when I listen to them, make me feel like the lead in a movie »

Cut to josh blue lit, by fountain, gazing around , telling us, conversationally, and in response to the obvious question « which songs? » the top five songs on the soundtrack of his life.

Cut to josh silhouetted against a pink dusk, London skyline rising jagged on the horizon, and josh freewheeling in his bike, bare arms conducting the symphony of a London bike ride: wheels ticking, bike creaking, wind blasting, river rushing. We don’t hear the songs he mentions, just the sound of the city, and of the weather. It’s joyful in its release, melancholy in its près back sonic element. It makes me ache for London, and ache for the outside, and for riding my bike. I don’t know why the lack of music makes it feel melancholy, like a dream. What do you hear in dreams? Music? Real life noise? Quiet?

Josh’s video essay turns the wind and the river and the bike into the soundtrack of his life, they become the music; that actual music may change that’s playing through his headphones, but the sound we hear never will. It makes a temporal shift. Josh will hear these sounds on every bike ride he goes on, and for someone who rides his bike almost every day pre confinement, that seems to me to be the true soundtrack of his life, if he ever manages to hear it. In the film josh makes the city an orchestra, the weather the symphony: himself riding no-hands-on-the-handlebars conducting the sky. The fiction here, though an aesthetic one – (re)making a conversation we’ve had before – enacting a freedom and joy of riding through the city in fine weather – creates a performance journey. One that exits real time and creates a « music-time » or a « film-time » as much is I created a « spring-time » within my phone. The film is saturated with residual emotion, and by not providing the music, Josh allows that emotion to speak for itself in the box of film time we can all dip into with an internet connection.

Both of Josh’s films that I’ve mentioned here are hugely emotionally charged. They both alter space-time and allow something to speak « not to us but to something within us » which is how fictioning works: creating a space-time in which the truth is made not true, and by which we can pro rated ourself on the plane of now. Whilst they don’t engage with the weird in the same way as O’Sullivans examples, they engage with a melancholia that seems ever present (I would call this grief-space)

like listening to a song u thought was happy but is really sad. Like Dancing Queen, or Boys of Summer, or Loaded by Primal Scream. Joy and melancholia: two sides of the same thing.

In these uncertain and tumultuous times, where the news is often based on « post-truths » it becomes « crucial to produce other and better » fictions than created by the state or the media « by which to orientate ourselves within our world.

Near Window 9

Caribou, confinement, and the coming of spring

“It is spring, that is to say that it is approaching THE BEGINNING”

Scrolling through Twitter at some god awful hour this morning I saw a green and yellow painting of daffodils. Mottled grey blue of sky and brown thatch of distant trees reminiscent of the arrival of spring in William Carlos Williams’ Spring and All :

Under the surge of the blue

Mottled clouds driven from the

Northeast – a cold wind. Beyond, the

Waste of broad, muddy fields

Brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

David Hockney, confined in Normandy, has painted the archetypal spring view, reminiscent to me of Lent fasting, of school holidays, of spring fairs. Of the becoming and the returning of the spring; new and old at the same time. He’s called the painting Do remember they can’t cancel the spring. The painting is joyful, yet there’s a restraint in Hockney’s iPad stylings that isn’t usually there, a pared back response to the view he’s been presented with. Hockey in confinement paints in starker, more drab colours. There is no true joy in the coming of this uncancelled spring. The joy of yellow cannot combat the sadness of brown.

I went out today, into the quiet of a Parisian morning, cold edged air like the cracking of an eggshell. The streets are deserted as they never have been, everyone inside and fearful, but the morning is as glorious as any one I’ve seen. The sun barely up, the sky itself pale with its own becoming. I had that familiar loosening feeling, of the ending of the long winter, and the upward spiral into spring; and then I remembered I had one hour within which to move around, to buy bread and loo roll and milk and then turn on my heels for home. I was unreeling from my insides, but tethered to the safety of home. Out on furlough for eggs and bread.

A few weeks ago, pre confinement, Matt @xenogothic tweeted something about Caribou’s new album Suddenly, that resonated with how I felt about it: full of spring bops, but tethered to an innate sense of melancholia that seeps through the alum with every subsequent listen.

The album stakes its emotional territory lyrically, and through the clever use of windy samples in “lime”, or Sunday morning soul in “home” to place you in a memory, whilst making the moment of that memory happen in the present. In a google hangout yesterday my friend was talking of the semantics of nostalgia making the memory always already present, so its tatters to the past become meaningless almost in the act of remembering. Another friend with whom I’ve been writing letters has written some questions to me about this to, like :

How do you know what was real? How do you protect memories from new feelings that will ultimately twist it? How do you travel in time throug memory without altering the memory?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I don’t think it’s us who travels in time, but the memory. We’re always on the surface, weathered by the ghostly returning of past/future moments: spectral weathers (if you’ll let me name check my own book?)

Suddenly is suffused with memory, with a retrospective glance inward, and feels, when listening to it, like an album made inside someone who’s been listening in on pop music and has made an album that orbits it: not part of it, but born of it. Apologetic soliloquies to sisters, mothers humming lullabies, the four to the floor of the club still reverberating in your bones as you lie in bed waiting for the room to stop spinning, an elegy to emotion, and rawness. Dan Snaith (the man behind caribou), when he sings, seems to me like he’s whisper singing in the confessional, or right into my ear. The fragility of his voice caught in close miced glory, and more often than not without reverb or delay. Dry, soft, and conversational, like whispering in the night to keep anxiety at bay.

I especially get this feeling in “Sister”, the albums opener, where Snaith whisper sings:

Sister, I promise you, I’m changing

You’ve heard broken promises, I know

Like a conversation had late at night, in response to a sister saying they’re worried about you. The rolling progressional chords and steady heartbeat like rhythm seeming a metaphor for revolution, and not the kind of revolution that overthrows governments or changes the world, but the kind that turns the world again, continues the revolution of a cycle. It feels like a mirror held up to life in confinement; the beating of my heart, the tick of the clock, and the cyclical shift of the sun as it revolves in the room. 

“You & I” has a sense of the opening approach of spring, the synth chords warm and bouncy like the first day you can go out without a coat on. The arpeggiated chimes that punctuate the verses and chorus sounding like sunlight through freshly grown leaves, calm and calming, yet its chorus and outgrown derail this feeling of warmth and comfort by pushing us into a feeling of high tempo anxiety, discordant rush, snatches of voice. The end feels like the upcycling of a Bond climax, all running and car chases and guns and thrill. A final sampled “Hey!” Echoing into the void before opening into the inherent melancholia of the opening of “Sunny’s Time”. The piano warped like an old record rattling on a gramaphone that you’ve left too long in the garage. The speakers are damp, and it sounds as though the sound has to travel through time to reach the present moment; from the becoming of its recording, to the moment of its hearing. 

Spring whilst seeming like the happiest of new awakenings, freshness, beginning again, it also seems to be suggested with the melancholy of endings. There’s an old English folk song I heard sung once in my local pub by a man with no teeth that caught, for me, that sense of euphoric release; albeit one that knows it cannot last. 

The primrose blooms, the cowslips too,

The violets in their sweet retire,

the roses shining through the briar,

And the daffodown-dillies which we admire will die and fade away.

These lines, in acknowledgement of the temporary nature of the coming of spring are reminiscent of the scant lines sung by Snaith in “Sunny’s Time”

It all found me since I’ve been gone.

I’ll be back when this is all done.

“Sunny’s Time” slides itself into “home” with a relative danceability. It feels like coming throug the door with a baguette, and an avocado and a box of eggs, the coffee on to brew, windows flung wide to let in the new spring breezes; but with the bitter sweetness of wishing there were someone there to spend that morning with you, and a particular someone at that. Like the first lonely Sunday morning after a breakup, when you’ve gotten past the getting drunk phase and your friends have deemed that you could do to be left alone a bit, you wake up with not much to do, and a wish to do not much with someone that isn’t satisfied by eggs on toast. It’s the beauty of a good morning undercut with a lonely melancholia; like putting on happy music that only makes you cry. This is further compounded by the sample of Gloria Barnes singing “Baby I’m home, I’m home, I’m home”. The final time you hear this sample, it’s cut short with a gothic cut off, sending an echo like a door slam into the following guitar chords, pitch shifting like a memory. It’s like someone’s last words, like they’re ready to tap out: baby I’m home. 

Perhaps this melancholia is part and parcel of spring, a cruel season, in that it rips us raw: raw winds, on new skin. This is how the wasteland starts, 

Breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain

Like parents whipping us up and pulling back duvets to get ready for school, the world outside the cocoon of duvet is still too brutal, too cold, and too concrete. Winter, though brutal, is the season for dormant dreaming. I spend the three months of hibernation waiting for the spring, though – dreaming of bluebells. Is it as Emily Brontë says: that “there’s a spell in the purple heath” that burrows down inside us, “to wildly; sadly dear” that yearns for its partner found in springtime? Brontë mourns the coming of spring when she is without it. The “cold sun” with its “chill” beams, the “dreary sky” is “frozen”. The long winters make me feel this way, too. Chilled to my bones, warming myself at the first few rays of sun, almost kissing the daffodils and bluebells when they first show their bright faces above the mud. It’s driving me mad to be so separate from it. Yet even Brontë notes the “transient brilliancy” of spring, and of spring sunshine sliding swiftly over the garden wall. Spring is beautiful in its ephemerality. The Hauntology always revenant whose joy in arrival is tempered and haunted by the knowledge of its passing. 

In “Never come back” the lines “and you never come back, and you never come back to” are repeated ad infinitum, it’s the feeling of losing the spring once it’s come, like being at the afters , intertwined on a sofa in someone elses’s house whose name you don’t know. Early morning sunshine beaming behind closed curtains, a sliver of dust filled gold breaking onto a table littered with beer cans and ashtrays.

In Williams’ spring and all, “dazed spring approaches” almost unaware of itself, with “the stark dignity of entrance”, dually reminiscent of Hilary Duff standing at the top of the stairs in A Cinderella Story, and of the procession of the cross at the beginning of mass, leading the priest from sacristy to altar.

“Magpie” from Caribou’s Suddenly is reminiscent of this duality, and of that tethered freewheeling sense I had walking to the boulangerie this morning; a loosening of the self, whilst still being tethered to home. The song wheels in circles, shining aurally like sticking an ear in a kaleidoscope. In a way it reminds me of the beginning of “Entangled”, the second track of Gensis’ A trick of the tail. At about the half way point, though, Snaith opens out the filter on the track, which takes it from 1975 to the present moment, and it releases you from the constraints of its first half. With the shift in tone, you’re released out into the depths of sound like into an ocean, or a huge crowd. The song de-isolates you, by disconnecting you from the self and connecting you with something outside of yourself, something that sleeps back to you, and almost cradles you.

The mood of Suddenly is almost entirely sweet, the chord progressions are so warm that, listening in my bed under a square of sunlight, I slip in between the grooves of the songs and hang there. Strung out on synths. Snaith’s control, and measured pacing, and restraint almost feels like he’s in confinement too. Like there’s something holding him back from unspooling himself into the tracks. That’s the feeling I had with some of the tracks on Our Love and Swim. In reality I feel like he’s in a space as small as mine, with the front door locked and the windows open only a crack.

The final track, “Cloud Song” is the only song that really embodies a release, a slack in snaith’s tight control. It opens with the close miced voice that seems to characterize the album, just him singing in my ears as the synths return to that cyclical pattern as found in “Sister”, the album turning and returning to the beginning as the chord progressions do. “When you’re alone with memories”, he sings, “I’ll give you a place to rest your head.” The place to rest your head is here. Not to be away from memory, but to converge in a collective practice of remembering. Dan Snaith’s personal traumas are writ large upon this album, but sung softly and quietly. His traumas become our traumas, and the act of opening them out allows us to share in them, and share ours within them.

The cyclic return of the chord progression is as smooth and azure as the water on Suddenly’s cover. Kaleidoscopic and rushing into the build of “Cloud Song”, the music slides in between me and the world: trills of synth like birds calling, or radio signals clogging the airwaves. Dissonant in repetition. Sliding.

He sings:

“Nothing’s granted an eternity, nothing lasts it all will fade.

And yet it always ends too early.”

The spring outside the window rises like a Gershwin clarinet solo in response, so clean and clear I feel I almost pour out into it. What of the spring un-sprung, of the world unturned? Rather, what of the world turning without me, and me unable to break the winter chrysalis. Spring playing out there, and orchestra without audience – an unheard soliloquy – a film with the sound turned down.

The first spring of a new decade, unexperienced and lost. A necessary loss, one we must do, but a loss all the same.

In a way Caribou’s Suddenly is 2020s perfect spring/summer album. Seeking an escape, but confined. A spring sounding elegy to lost moments, lost memories, lost things. “I wish that you were here by my side”. “Do you ever miss me like I miss you?” I listen to it and I hear all the moments I won’t have, and I hear all the moments I am having, and all the moments I have had and will have, all existing in the cacophony of now.

In my apartment the spring turns his shoulder and shifts his weight away from the window, sliding himself into another crisp March night. The north wind blows chill through the window, and I close them. I put on “Sister” and begin the cycle again.

And yet, it always ends to early

Near Window 7

Divine moments of friendship

Just now I accidentally barged in on a friends meet up in the Houseparty app. She’d sent me a link to be her friend on it and like some fucking boomer I was fidgeting around clicking buttons and SUDDENLY there I was in their little hangout. Embarrassing. I wanted the digital world to swallow me whole like a slightly too hot sprout at Christmas. Weird metaphor… moving on.

Poor girls – all they had was an image of me sat on my bed like Gollum looking at a new app. What a shock to see this face pop up whilst you’re talking about ur secrets (genuinely no idea what they were talking about – heard nothing just popped up like so:

Hello, police? Why r my lashes so smol?

It’s weird being in confinement. It’s a week since confinement proper. Last Monday, Macron “nous sommes en guerre”’d us all and we’ve been inside for seven days. In that time I’ve had more FaceTimes than I think I’ve ever had. The first one was a 6 way google hangout with my oldest friends from uni. I lived with them for a year, and they’re among the people I feel most comfortable with. It was strange to be tuning in remotely – like some weird Marty McFly moment, chatting to my pals on a huge TV. Except it was my old iPad Cos my computer is dead.

We talked for two hours, each of us pinging about in google hang outs, with dodgy internet connections and weirdly lit rooms. It was like being in a pub where we all had weird cubicles in which we we sat with a different mood lighting. One of us inside a pink synth wave track, another in a spy movie, one with the lamp making it look like heaven, the other bathed in an ambient green, and two in a warm, quite sunny, yellow.

6 of us

I had a beer. Green had two. Yellow had a few. Pink rolled around and showed us his knees, spy movie left early to cook broccoli or some shit, and yellow – well yellow threw a party and one half took their shirt off. What a time to b alive. What a time to cook broccoli and miss out on the true moment of friendship: naked knees and tinny raves and It teacher ponytail jokes. It was like having them in my flat with me. It was like old times and it was the future.

Yesterday my flat mate and I played remote control monopoly with another friend of ours. She lives 1.3km away but cos of the lockdown in Paris she can’t come over; she used to come over almost every day, and I miss having her capering about with her big fringe, huddled by the radiator, cackling cigarette edged nonsense.

What does it mean to be friends at a distance? To close down the arterial routes of connection that previously linked us? I guess I’ve mostly been answering these questions for a year since I went mental and moved home, travelled America, and then moved to Paris.

It means making an effort to communicate; but it also means you’ll still accidentally barge in where ur not wanted and keep urself up all night thinking about how a group of people you hardly know saw your ugly mug pop up in their private conversation (a part of real life I thought was only in the physical realm – turns out not so)

@xenogothic wrote and published a book that, whilst being about Mark Fisher, is really, I think, about friendship. About seeking connection in a lonely world, and about, in the end, finding it.

The book is more obviously focused on a moment of grief than this is, though the unfolding disaster of the surrounding world will result in grief too. But he quotes a line of Bataille around half way through.

“To hold, without elusion, life to the standard of the impossible demands a moment of divine
friendship” – Georges Bataille – the unfinished system of non knowledge

I copied it down in my notebook at the front. What is a divine moment of friendship? I believe it is a pure one, based on love and mutual respect and understanding. It’s also a moment where everyone in the group chat piles on on an inside joke, or the moment you come together to express sorrow, or congratulations, or happiness, or just simply that you’re all there, doing the same stuff.

Each of these moments of connection, from virtually stumbling unwanted into a friends “houseparty”, to trying to play remote monopoly, to having a beer with my friends whilst all being scattered in a 500 mile radius, are all moments of divine friendship. I believe that before I isolated myself by moving to a different country, and then after that having to stay inside every day and not go anywhere, I had underestimated the power of my community, of my friends. I will hold all of my life to the standard of these few moments: of the outpouring of love felt across an ocean, of a friend showing me his rose tinted knee, another winning monopoly from afar, another laughing as I duck out of the chatroom. All divine moments of coming together.

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.

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.

 

 

Upward spirals – cultural returnings, and depressive ontology.

I think it’s very interesting that whilst I’ve been returning to the late 1990s and early 2000s through my writing, all of a sudden things that were popular then, are reappearing everywhere for me now – and I’m speaking specifically about popular things from between 1998, and 2003, rather than the general 1990s nostalgia that’s been pervading the current cultural production for the past few years now (do you know anyone who doesn’t own a pair of mom jeans now?)

This year, two albums are coming out that seem to be speaking to me from that time too. When Mum drove up to Yorkshire to give us the news that dad had died in 2002, we only had two albums in the car for the return journey. Dido’s No Angel, and David Gray’s White Ladder. These are now my ‘sad music’, so I only really listen to them when I’m in the mood for some catharsis. However, it is really interesting to me that Both David Gray, and Dido are releasing new albums now, that seem to rehash the techniques and styles of their previous ones, just as I’m delving into the history and happenings of that same time period. As though the universe were conspiring – or I was unwittingly bitten by some zeitgeist-like bug that is making me think I want to write about the early 2000s.

We’ve lived through a lot of cycles through culture, the re-birth of the 80s around 2008 where I happily bought a ra-ra skirt, wore a lot of frost pink lipstick, and was obsessed with synth-pop and British New Wave. The 90s/70s revival which we’ve been living through now: sliders, and mom jeans, and rave culture, and flares, and flannel – although grunge has been conspicuously absent. I wonder if we’re about to enter into a rebirth of early 00s culture. Whilst this could be quite funny (everyone is now thinking of low-rise jeans, and footless tights, and putting foundation on their lips instead of lipstick – I can feel it) I wonder if it is part of the seismic returning and recycling of culture that has come to define the last 50 or so years – and what will happen when we come to try and recreate the 10s? What will we re-appropriate for the new decade ahead, when a lot of the cultural expression has been recreation of old ideas, in music and fashion in particular?

I wonder if my current fixation on that period of time, being obsessed with my dad’s movements in the months preceding his death, the depths his depression took him, and the concomitant production of my own depression born out the fissures created by that trauma still resonating within ‘my life now’, are symptomatic of a return culturally to the products and feelings of the late 1990s, and early 200s. The twin voices of Dido and Gray, which are synonymous for me to the production of my own grief, and became a way of coping with that, are now present in the surface landscape again – spectral weathers from the deep. Yet their albums were produced at the same time as these feelings of inward reflection, and time travelling memory were brewing in me.

‘watch from the wings as the scenes we’re replaying’, Mark Fisher quotes Ian Curtis’ lines from ‘Decades’ by Joy Division, as an illustration of depressive ontology. In that we always return to the same simulations, ‘like a junky hooked on every kind of deadening high.’ Yet I think it is perhaps a little more pervasive than that – I am a depressive, but it is not just me cycling through the last five decades of cultural production. There seems to be almost a sense that everyone is saying ‘but there is nothing new to make.’ but there must be always something new – otherwise what is the point of it all? what are we doing?

Obviously, it seems to me that it’s just the production capital over all else, that drives the production and reproduction of old products. What is the point of making new things, if you can get people to buy something that’s already been made before, and call it retro. We’ve got tonnes of old radios at home. Dad used to refurbish them, patching up their bakelite, and replacing their valves. Yet, I’ve got a new Roberts digital radio that I was given for my 21st birthday, and it looks like the old ones, but functions like the new ones. ‘Classic Design’ you’ll say – yet everyone’s house is starting to look like a reproduction of some Swedish writer’s retreat in 1961, all midcentury modernism and pale woods. I went to the London Art Fair this year, and even there the Piper and the Nash paintings were in full force: so out of fashion about 15 years ago, and yet returning. Fisher says that Ian Curtis wrote with the iron certainty that everything we do is pre-scripted. I don’t know if that’s true – or if it’s just that everything we do has already been done, but we do it anyway just to be seen to be doing something. These are like the upward spirals I wrote of in ‘An Open Letter to a Lost Future’: a constant returning to the same moments, but layering them each time with new iterations of those moments.

This is the first time that the cultural return cycle has reproduced things that I remember from the first time around (which in their turn are probably just recycled from the time before and the time before and so on) – but it is odd to me, it doesn’t seem to bring about the happy nostalgia, which I saw described on The One Show as the newest business model of the coming year. They had cultural theorists there saying that nostalgia, as big business, points to a need for the country to feel safe within memories of childhood – like fully grown men building late 80s gaming rooms in their basements. It was comforting, they said, to return to the safety of youth, and the cultural pastimes of that time recreated that feeling of safety.

I don’t know that they do make me feel safe, though – they make me feel unsettled, caught in stasis, preserved artificially for testing later.

Perhaps the cyclical returning is more indicative of the pervasiveness of the will to live, though. I wondered if that’s what Mark Fisher was getting at when he wrote that ‘whatever you do, you can’t extinguish it, it keeps coming back.’ But then Mark died too, so the truth in that is sort of marred anyway – because quite clearly, with Mark, and Ian Curtis, and countless others, it can be. Maybe it’s not the life-will that is always returning, but some kind of force to keep us going as long as we must, until we needn’t anymore. That feels a little like i’m saying there’s something guiding it, and I’m not sure that I think there is, but I can’t work out why we’re repeating moments over and over. I remember watching K-PAX for the first time, where Prot says that, due to the expending and condensing of the universe – we’re doomed to repeat everything over, and over, and over again, in exactly the same way – so we’d better make sure we get it right the first time. But if we’re repeating it, always, then how do you know that this is the first time you’ve done it? How do you know that there isn’t an alternative to what you’re doing already? How do you know, that you’re not doomed to fuck it all up in the end anyway?

Fisher states that depression is just a way of looking at the world, which it is. But he also positions the state of depression as a production of capital – and I think that this cyclical returning is so clearly symptomatic of that. Jodi Dean spoke, in Mark Fisher’s Memorial Lecture, that so often an alternative to the production of capital in this way, is ignored because we can’t see the alternative. This is also symptomatic of a depressives way of addressing issues – or at least I have found it to be so. There’s an alternative, should I be able to think without the ontological lenses of depression obscuring everything – but I can’t, because I can only look through those lenses.

Dean spoke tirelessly of ways in which we can combat capital. She’s right, there are ways to combat it – and her Q&A, though battling people who seemed just so Goldsmiths about their approach to Marxism, and their etymological issues with the word ‘Comrade’ seeming to dominate the discourse, continually expressed that there are routes of exit, should we wish to ‘dice with death’ and undertake them, and the involve a radical dissection of our actions within capitalism, despite our raised voices decrying it.

My issues with Dean’s lecture aside, I think the core message, of coming together politically to mobilise against the machinations of capital is inherently positive, and entirely possible if we are to move against the dissociative slide towards the depressive. Depressives, inherently, isolate themselves. I know that I cut out the depressive sides of me, and give a sunny face to everybody else. Combating the depressive’s view of the world as something that cannot be changed will only come if we unionise depression. That sounds mad. But I wonder if there’s something in it. I’m not calling ‘depressives of the world unite’, or maybe I am… But the view that the world turns without care back onto things that have already happened, and that we cannot interfere with this cyclical returning is what capital relies upon. It has to. We have to remain hooked in, feeding off of the ‘safety’ message that monetised nostalgia is offering.

What if we didn’t?

The question: ‘Is there alternative’ from Mark’s Capitalist Realism relies upon us to answer it.

 

 

LossScapes

 

I have just returned from a weekend in London. I don’t live there anymore, because for a while I couldn’t handle the threads of connection that seemed perfectly positioned to trip me up, entangle me, and not let me go. My histories were bleeding through and, in not having any defences left to keep them at bay, I became absorbed within them. I was raw, and I felt like I had lost any hard shell that might protect me from being affected by memory. I was grieving, for a loss I had experienced 16 years prior, and I wasn’t doing very well at it. Anyway, in going back, I re-experienced these places without feeling raw – and I found that I was almost unaffected by them – memory wasn’t tugging at the edges to try and come through – and it got me thinking more about the ways in which we process grieving, by attributing our feelings of loss to particular places.

Linguistically we refer to grief almost entirely spatially. It’s not a feeling of loss within ourselves, but rather a feeling of loss in the perceptible outside world. When someone we love dies, we lose them, they have ‘gone to a better place’, ‘passed on’. This is fascinating to me – the creation of an unforseen place where those we have lost have gone to and can only be reached by getting lost ourselves. An ‘outside’. Even ‘lost’ has a spatial connotation – to have journeyed somewhere and strayed from the well known path, unable to be found again. I wonder if this is because our environment is so key to understanding our relationship with others. We begin our interaction with discussing the weather, or the state of the roads. I am reminded of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, where Mrs Dashwood’s advice to Margaret is ‘if you can’t think of anything appropriate to say you will please restrict your remarks to the weather.’ Relationships are defined spatially, too, our nearness and closeness to others needn’t be geographical, but that is still how we define them. When someone close to us is lost, that closeness feels somehow false – there is no way to connect spatially at all, they are outside of it. This is true, too, of people we didn’t know well either, for the potentiality for connection is lost as much as they are.

John Clare’s poetry is saturated with this kind of palpable loss, a grief for something missing in the landscape, and the grief of not being able to connect with others through it too. Paul Farley, in his introduction to Clare’s poetry wrote that ‘landscape and place are so important to an understanding of Clare, because [he] ended up so ‘out of it’ – he somehow exited known places, and was lost. His first terrains, sliced up and changed irrevocably by the 1809 Enclosure Act, produced in him a grieving that goes further than the nostalgic ache for childhood lands. Further to this, when he contracted Tuberculosis and needed to be admitted to a sanitorium and leave his home for a town only a few miles away – this displacement produced a further loss. He was like a fish out of water, a bird in the wrong climes. Environment, it seems had so much to do with how Clare related to others, and to himself. The later poems are full of it, that desolation of one displaced.

Thomas Hardy, too, filters his Wessex landscapes through trauma and loss. I find this most arresting in his poem ‘The Shadow on the Stone’ written after his wife Emma died. In the garden, in which Hardy is in repose, stands a druid stone upon which ‘the shade of a well-known head and shoulders/ threw there when she was gardening.’ Almost in response to his reminiscing, the garden itself produces her shadow for him offering the sense that she is standing ‘at his back’ and, upon attempting to speak with her, hears nothing ‘but the fall of a leaf’ and, ‘to keep down grief’ he leaves, without turning to see if she is truly there. This, to me, is the closest to explaining the presence of absence. The surety, that somehow by their not being there, they appear through hole – some strange spectrogenic hologram of moments gone flickering through – a final apparition.

I have felt this; not wanting to turn to find that the space which feels occupied, is empty. Or, sometimes, I wonder if I didn’t want to turn and look just in case it was full.

 

Which would would be worse?

 

In not looking, they are both there and not there. A Schrodinger’s cat of remembrance. Were they to appear you would be mad, were they to not you would simply be lost again, and they would simply be lost again, and the wound would be fresher somehow, as though you had picked at the scab.

 

I was born in Tottenham, to the right side of the High Road when looking on a map, and entered Bruce Castle Park through an avenue of trees when I went to play there with my family. I remember it, now, when I think of it, in High Summer, or early autumn. Dappled shade spread out over the grass, and the path that cuts through it. Running along, with my arms open to catch the wind as though I might able to fly, and my family smiling. I am smiling. In my memory of those places, we are always smiling. Even if we weren’t.

Some twenty years later I returned, having moved to the left hand side of the High Road in the conservation area. I have never felt more alone than I did when I made that move, I was desperately lonely – though I felt surrounded by my friends. I had been writing about loss and landscape for some time then, and completely and utterly started understanding grief and loss through place, I think I always had done, but I had been through a process of opening up old wounds and so the barrier between my loneliness in the present, and the blissful feeling of running open armed into feeling loved was worn thin. Time was resolutely ‘out of joint’, and I felt that in returning to where I had begun my life, I was weirdly trying to begin it again. I was an odd kind of ghost there myself – a revenant, trying to begin, again, by coming back. 

I was fine, I surmised, so long as I didn’t cross the high road at any time. If I went into Bruce Castle Park, which I did  and thought I didn’t remember it so well, I went in from the left through the playground and I didn’t venture to the other side. I left memory to fester.

One morning, around 5am, after coming home half drunk and feeling sad I took myself off for a walk. I walked to the High Road and, feeling too cowardly to cross it walked up past the church we had gone to every Sunday as a child. It was high summer, and the sun was peeping over the football stadium, casting it in liquid gold and slowly breaching the roofs of the houses. The traffic was light, the air felt like it shined, and yet I felt like I had been unclipped from some kind of safety harness. I couldn’t get a line from Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ out of my head: ‘there’s a girl in New York City, who calls herself the human trampoline, and sometimes when I’m falling, flying, or tumbling in Turmoil I say “woah. So this is what she means.”’ It’s how I felt, untethered in the early morning air, listless and listing, taking on water, at threat of going under.

I turned left to walk home and surprised myself. Here, I was walking a familiar path. The tops of the houses burnished, and the top windows winking reflected sunbeams down to me. I felt four years old – the street stretched wide away from me, little victorian terraces seeming huge either side. I felt like my dad were walking ahead of me, as though he’d just turned the corner up ahead and if I walked quicker I might catch him.

I walked on, and in breaching the East entrance of the park it hit me like a wave of recollection that these trees, this avenue through which I was walking was one I dreamed of and knew well. High reaching oaks, or Plane trees – I don’t remember which now – open handed leaves impeaching crystal skies pale with morning, and creating a similar effect in me, pale with mourning. Behind me, I could have sworn I heard a step. In between the row of trees, just out of my sight I felt as though my dad, with whom I must have walked this little path countless times, were standing there just out of sight. The day was so still, and I felt as though the traffic of the High Road, and Lordship Lane were on mute. I could hear birdsong and the frantic beating of my own heart.  I could, if I wanted to, walk around the tree. But I didn’t. I felt like Orpheus, as I’m sure Hardy did. Charged with not looking incase I should dispel this shade away by turning. I felt like I had been displaced, and returned – but in returning I had come home to an empty house, and I couldn’t turn my keys in the lock. I was alone, and yet I didn’t feel like I was, and that made me feel more lonely. Part of me thinks I went mad that summer. Part of me knows I did.

Joan Didion described grief as ‘a place none of us know until we reach it.’ A physical place which we inhabit, and yet I don’t know if grief itself exists as a kind of spacetime in concurrence with true time. Constantly hovering over our environments in a kind of miasma, waiting for us to know it. Which, in time, all of us will. I wonder if this is embodied in the landscape itself, already a cyclical production of birth, growth, life, death endlessly turning in a myriad of different cycle-lengths. Grief itself is similar to this. A cyclical returning to locations of, or thoughts of, grief and loss – and the potentiality for a rebirth through it. At least, I hope this is the case. For Jonathan Bate, though, ‘the price of this intoxication with spirit things is a definite break from the human community.’ The more we delve into the holes created by grief, and pull up ghosts from its depths onto the surface layer of the landscape, the more divorced we may become from the surface’s human inhabitants, the more divorced we feel from our actual lives.

Or, perhaps, the ghosts themselves are a definite break from the action of being human. They are suspended. Always young, always as before, unchanging and unchanged. I am reminded, again, of Paul Simon – I listened to ‘Graceland’ on repeat that summer, ‘my travelling companions are ghosts, and empty sockets.’ They were, there. The ghosts of my life, of myself, appearing through empty sockets in the surface.

or something like that.

 

Illustrating Grief-Space

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I drew the above diagram in a seminar after the death of Mark Fisher in 2017. I was trying to explain how I felt about my own losses previously; and how I felt being in the university environment without Mark there.

Grief-space is a term which I coined for the space, or hole, that is created by absences within a place. It is the notion that something, or someone, might be present through the vacuum created by their absence.

For Doreen Massey, ‘Space is always under construction … a simultaneity of stories-so-far,’ so then grief-space is always under construction and is stacked in a similar way. Each unfinished thread of story is layered over the next, and over the next. Each space precariously balanced against each other and kept tethered by tenuous threads between the two.  The stack exists as a totality  in which all the things that have been lost from landscape still exist, and shall always exist in a strange sense, in the layers underneath. As each new moment of progress or change adds a new layer, that which has been lost is interred within a previous layer. Each new loss creates a hole in the surface down to the strata below. A hole is an interesting idea, for whilst it suggests an absence, and is touched by connotations of the void, it is nonetheless present within a landscape. These holes allow that which has been lost to be accessed from the surface. Grief-space is characterised as a place that is full of these holes. It is a surface that has been perforated by a kind of anti-presence: you notice a hole precisely because it doesn’t contain the solid. 

The notion of ‘absence’ becoming a kind of ‘anti-presence’ is what marks the grief-space as something other to the other levels in the stack. They permeate the stack itself almost creating anti-levels: holes, or cracks in the strata. So much so that, if personal grief for the individual is felt inside, but is formed of ‘the sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside’ then it is possible to suggest a cartography for loss that extrapolates those sudden blows into a spatial capacity. However, it is interesting to note that, for F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his short story ‘The Crack-Up’ there is ‘another sort of blow that comes from within’ that cannot be explained and sends out ruptures and cracks from the inside-out. Whilst Fitzgerald claims that the rupture from the inside, and the great blows from the outside have separate sources, Fisher would claim that ‘there is no inside except as a folding of the outside.’ This is perhaps the simplest explanation of loss, or trauma – as a great blow that comes from an outside which is buried and repressed, only to rupture upward from the inside at a later point. 

I am reminded of Mark Fisher’s seminal text The Weird and the Eerie, which was integral, really, to the formulation of this idea. Whilst I had been thinking of the world as a kind of holey stack within which I undulated for some time, it was Mark’s writings of the inside as a folded up outside, and the ‘hints of an outside, of something beyond the ordinary world’ glimpsed through gaps and openings within the system itself that caused me to envisage grief-space thusly. In the final chapter, ‘the eeriness remains’, in which he enters into an exploration of the eeriness at the core of Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock, Mark quotes quite extensively from Yvonne Rousseau’s essay on Linday’s novel : ‘A Commentary on Chapter Eighteen.’

She says that a hole is ‘a thing in itself, giving shape and significance to other shapes. […] a presence, not an absence.’ This is the distillation of the idea of grief-space. In the final unpublished chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock – the aforementioned ‘Chapter Eighteen’ – Lindsay offers an explanation of the disappearances that take place in the novel. The women, unperturbed by the notion that they will be leaving forever, pass through a hole in the rock. According to Mark they ‘cross over’, and the hole itself is ‘a gateway to the outside.’ Those we lose through the holes within the landscape, those who pass over, ‘leave haunting gaps, eerie intimations of the outside’ upon the surface. It may be possible for them to emerge back through as ghosts, or intrepid interdimensional time travelling spectres; or it may be that those eerie intimations of the outside cause us to imagine them there. It may also be that, should we choose to dive into the holes ourselves without consideration of the consequences, that we might not be able to make our way back.