Dalmation tune

Have you heard Tea for the Tillerman?

It always comes into my head unbidden at strange little moments, so that when I listen to it I feel like I’m in all those places at once. It’s only a minute long. Well, a minute and one second. A dalmatian tune. 1:01.

But I’m everywhere in it. I’m in open fields by some upwater stretch of thames. I’m in some london pub in autumn, and I’m in friends flats. I’m walking along the Seine in crisp winter sunshine, I’m in the back garden of a house party, I’m in your kitchen, I’m smoking your cigarettes, I’m laughing at you over the rim of a glass, my eyes flashing and your eyes flashing. Inside the song are all the hands held, and hugs given, and heads patted, and arms flung round eachother and there’s also all the moments of quiet solitude in which I’m just on my own in the world.

Have you ever jumped into the ponds up at hampstead heath? 

Watch your limbs turn green and feel the smart shock of cold as your hands then your head break the surface of the water. 

 

That’s what that song sounds like. 

 

Like the sun breaking through green leaves, dappled green and gold on damp skin, and cigarette edged chats about who’s talking to who and which person hasn’t texted the other one back, or what books we’ve read. Someone talks about the exhibition they saw at the Tate. Someone talks about something you don’t quite understand but its so warm, that you nod and turn your head sideways to squint through sun splinters and grin at them. 

I don’t know. This is a difficult post to write. It’s not the hot take on Mary Kate and Ashley that I’ve been trying to finish for a few weeks. But it’s real. It’s about how I’m really feeling. And I know that you’re reading this, if there are any of you reading this, going: “no one cares about how u really feel. Give us Mary Kate and Ashley” but I can’t give you Mary Kate and Ashley because I wanna talk about how I feel OKAY?!

 

So it’s 1:01 am. Dalmation time. 

And I’m listening to this Dalmation tune. 

 

And I’m thinking about what life’s really about. yeah , I know. But… do you know? Do you really Know?

The other day someone said I’d gotten to this point in my life and I was just doing nothing. Just here. It didn’t matter what I just was, but she said i was just something. just.

I don’t think anything anyone has ever said to me has cut quite so deep, and I think it’s secretly because I think it’s sort of true. I’m just here. I’m not really doing anything important, and I can’t boast a full LinkedIn profile, but I can’t be just something, can I? Can anyone?

 

I don’t know. 

 

I guess I’m standing at the Tiller of my own life, and I’m not sure where I’m steering. Do you steer boats? I don’t know. I’ve never driven one. I want one though. A little one I can take up the canals and write on and drift around in. 

I think I just want to drift about. I think that’s what I actually want. because it’s not what I should want, whatever that means, and just because the mothers of my childhood friends would tilt their heads sideways at me and tell me what i was doing was alright enough in its way but how was I eve going to buy a house… none of that, really, means anything. Does it? I don’t want to buy a house. I don’t want to sit behind a desk, and I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. 

I wish I’d been born in 1346 so someone could try to catch me and burn me at the stake for selling hedge potions. I’d evade them, of course, because this is my story and I’ll tell it how I want. I’d evade them by turning myself into a hawthorne. They ward off evil do hawthornes.

 

Anyway. 

 

Have you heard tea for the tillerman?

Put it on.

 

I’m so tired of feeling like I’m not good enough. And I’m so tired of feeling like I’m making the wrong choices all the bloody time. I want to feel, all the time, like the first outdoor swim of april. I want to feel, all the time, like the first sip of a pint after a long day. I want to feel, all the time, like the lights coming on at pont neuf when the sky has gotten dark enough, and the 800 eyes upon the bridge look upon me. Only I think they look upon me without judgement.

Find me, sometime later. Drifting like dandelion seeds in the wind. Drifting like smoketrails, or the first tufts of mayblossom, or swallows, or

                  A seagull singing hearts away 

                                                                       somewhere. 

 

I’m reminded of my dad, for some reason. I hope he’d be proud of me. I hope he’d like me. I hope he’d think I were doing the right thing. I hope I’m doing the right thing.

The Tillerman stands at the wheel of the ship and, 

       Crucially,

           takes his hands off to accept the tea. 

Near window 15

Anarchopenguins

Well – what are you doing?

Not very much. I’ve been lying on the carpet for 45 minutes. The sun square came and went. I opened a book for 7 minutes. I listened to the radio for half that time. I made a tea. Sipped it. Forgot it. Microwaved it. Forgot it again. Tipped it in the sink.

Right. Don’t you think you ought to do something? You know, something like read one of those books you’ve got in a pile over there, or learn how to conjugate some irregular verbs or like something?

Yeah.

Well why aren’t you?

Dunno. Don’t really want to. Do u see that crack on the wall there?

No

There.

No.

Well there’s a crack on the wall there that looks like Antarctica and I was just wondering what my name would be if I was a penguin. Do penguins have names do you think? Do u think if penguins had thumbs they’d have kings, or presidents? Or if penguins are doing just fine in a kind of anarchopenguin kind of a way. A self governing mass of bodies who don’t kill each other or corral others of their number to work in penguin factories whilst the fat penguins get fat on the profits or something?

What r u talking about?

Penguins.

Right. What about those books?

I don’t really have any books on penguins, which is a shame because it would be interesting to know what penguin society is like.

You could google it?

No, I can’t really be bothered to google anything.

Do u think that the reason dictators are so dictatorial is because they get possessed by sovereignty?

Wait… what?

You know – like, Cos we don’t really have kings anymore. Now that we’ve divorced kingship from deity, dictators are like kings but divorced from the idea of god. It’s like we build dictators almost to have a kind of god that we can touch. Not like a king because a king is directly chosen by god. Maybe penguins live in an anarchic community without a state bc they never had a religion by which they could judge each other.

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

It’s just a thought I had. That penguins don’t have dictators because they never needed gods.

Honestly what are you talking about? We don’t even have dictators

Some people do.

Mmm…

I think penguins r probably what humans wish they could be u know. One of my friends says penguins r gay and two dads raise eggs and all the other penguins r just totally chill with it. Like they have surrogate pengmums and they all huddle in stormy weather to keep warm. Tbh she’s just sent me an insta dm that says she’s not 100% sure about the queerness of penguins. The Queerness of Penguins would b a good album title. anyway I heard they give each other betrothal pebbles and in happy feet they’ve all got their own special song. If I were a penguin what would my song be do you think?

Probably something shit, knowing u.

Rude.

Mmm.

Anyway – I wasn’t really thinking about penguins. I was wondering how long that crack in the wall has been there and whether or not we should paint it I over. Do you think it looks more like the Seine? Or thé RATP?

I thought u said it looked like Antarctica. Why do u keep putting the accent on the ?

Thé phone keeps correcting it and I can’t be bothered to correct it back. Plus it adds a little flavour whilst not making any sense which is quite interesting. What is language anyway? Do penguins have one? Does the Seine?

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 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.

Near Window 5

Night Mail

I’m a letter writer. I write letters when I’m angry, or sad, or overjoyed, to the person who is the source of this emotion. I never send them. I wrote a letter about Rodin’s the Kiss to a boy I’d kissed some time ago, but I lost it when my computer caught a virus, and I regret never sending it. Not because the feeling should have been shared (though according to Near Window 3 they maybe should have been) but because it was a really really good bit of writing.

Anyway – On Twitter I’ve made a new friend, and in a quite delightfully 2008 way I’ve actually never met them. I feel like I’m on Tumblr, and I’m tagging everything #softgrunge and reblogging In-n-out burger pics and writing (really fucking awful) poetry.

It’s been decided (by us) that we’re going to be correspondents. Tbh I don’t have any literary letter writers in mind when I imagine these correspondences, but there’s something very french about it, and being in France that seems very fitting. So I googled “famous letter writers” and what turned up was a list of Very French women. I’m going to write letters and give myself a pen name like Celeste Du Ciel or Marianne La Beurre or something like that that is cool and classic but also really stupid.

As always I’ve been reading some Auden, because I love him, and some Betjeman because my mum loves him. Obviously there’s some Larkin smattered there, because I’ve been going on about Larkin since 2010 and I don’t think I’ll stop, but mostly it’s been Auden, today.

It’s funny the conversation of correspondence came up now, when I was reading “Night Mail” today. It’s an old favourite, and if you’ve not read it I’d suggest doing so. They made a film Night Mail too, in 1936, in a relative boom of documentary film making. It follows the post from London to Aberdeen on the Postal Express train over an evening. Opening like a Hitchcock feature, and giving me shades of A Brief Encounter. It even stops at Bletchley (the next town on in that film). The RP voices dating it absolutely, and following 1/2 a million letters through control rooms and station towers and men in big breeches pulling tall levers and accompanied by a score and the familiar click-clatter of steam trains and tracks. The heavy roar of a train passing, the high cry of its whistle.

Men are at work on the tracks, jumping back, soot etched and pipe sharing, tobacco in the breast pocket of work shirts, grins splintering conversations like coughs. Hush – silence – roar – shouts – gone. Steam in the trains wake like an after image, a ghost train, a sun flare on the retinas.

Then we flow through gliding Englishness, fields turned watery slipping past like a dream, the sky glimpsed through telegraph wires, windows glinting, clouds shifting, and a newspaper dropped into dry grass, picked up by a man whose name goes unspoken and who walks back to his farm. A slow pace of life I Reese t’es at speed by communication running a country long. Two countries long.

It’s a lovely piece of cinema. It catches a period of life where the pace had accelerated, but not quite taken flight. watt and Wrights film documents hundreds of thousands of letters being sorted, by men in small quarters churning them into sacks and lobbing them off the train to the relavent postmen.

Our letters will ride no trains and traverse no physical geography. They will hurtle at speed through wires and space, scraps of code restructuring one language for another and deconstructing meaning to re-upload it seamlessly and instantaneously with the other. Instant letters. Perhaps we should not read them until they arrive some time later, so as to give the impression of the real thing. Maybe when we’re all dead in the future, some alien species will find one of our hard drives and try to learn about humans from our letters in the way we try to learn about ancient homosapiens and Neanderthals from cave drawings and buried rubbish in the form of archaeology.

At the end of the film Night Mail, the narrator reads Auden’s “Night Mail” to accompany the trains last stretch of journey, amping the metre to match the trains pacing. Footage of tracks spliced with billowing steam, looming cities, approaching cranes, white bob rabbit tales fleeing, dawn breaking through a square of sky and final the trains slow slide into arrival.

What better romantic connection than trains and letters? Both connecting people over distance like arterial links between brain and heart.

Auden’s last lines are lovely:

They continue their dreams,

But shall wake soon and hope for letters,

And none will hear the postman’s knock

Without a quickening of the heart,

For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?

I hope I always write letters even if I never send them. I hope when I die someone reads them and imagines a romantic life full of tortured and impassioned thoughts never shared. Ha, no, not really. I hope someone reads them and thinks they’re lovely. Here’s to writing letters, and receiving them, and to riding on trains after we’ve all come out of quarantine ✌️

Brexit Blues

I feel like the child of a broken home today. The divorce of my country from the EU has left me feeling like a usurper in my current country of residence (France) this morning, and I can’t shake my feelings of sadness and regret that this day has finally come. But the rhetoric that Boris Johnson has “got brexit done” feels like someone who says that once a divorce is finalised, it’s all over. This won’t be the case, I don’t feel.

I wrote earlier about how the 1942 film A Brief Encounter summed up how I felt about the current political climate of the UK. It feels even more like that, now that we’ve left the EU.

It’s so interesting to see my country from the outside, and to consume media looking at the politics of Brexit from a European perspective. It must be just as obvious how divided the UK is from the inside, but from this distance the line is as obvious as a great gulf, a ravine, the Great Wall of china, the Grand Canyon. The jubilation of the Leave voters standing in Parliament Square singing the national anthem with gusto, contrasted with the many friends of mine who went down to silently protest their festivities. Or, perhaps more poignantly, contrasted with the screening of a film featuring two veterans, Sid and Stephen, projected onto the white cliffs of dover. The two of them lamenting the erosion of all they fought for 75 years ago. The EU was supposed to be about unity, of effort, of will, of ethos, of economy, and of trade. It was supposed to be a union which provided European support and camaraderie. We’re all in this together.

not so, anymore.

Capture d’écran 2020-02-01 à 17.54.07

It looks like a dream sequence, a message caught out of time, played in light on the surface of the landscape. Farage himself said that he had “transformed the landscape of our country”. He has. It’s become a less welcoming, more insular space, in which Britishness, or rather a perverse kind of “Englishness” is being touted. The landscape is littered with political slogans, now that we’ve “got Brexit done” – what’s the next course of action? What are you going to do with your commemorative tea towel, now?

The men in that video will most likely not live to see us rejoin, if we ever do. They lived through mass disruption in the economic climate, the horrors of war, the gross economic and social injustice of the first half of the last century. All for it to be rolled back again before their time on earth had come to an end. The tide of time turning under us, delivering us back to the shores of injustice over and over again. If that’s true, though, we will probably be able to come back to the opposite side, and find fairness, justice, and equality there too. How long will it take? How many of us will we lose to a system that serves only the most affluent of us? The people rallying around Farage reminded me of people rallying after a huge revolution – like the final scene of an even shitter version of Les Mis, except no one can sing in tune, and instead of fighting against the rich, they’ve fought for them. Most of them are the rich, and if they’re not, they’re so fixated on the possibility that one day they might be, that they can’t see how big a lie it all is.

I keep thinking of Molly Scott Cato’s final speech in the European Parliament. Her voice quivering with hardly choked back tears, and a promise to one day return. This is how I feel, cast adrift in a country that doesn’t see its connections to the wider world as truly important. A country that still thinks it runs an empire, has endless resources, and still believes in an old way of doing things. We’ve never been a revolutionary people. Our tube strikes last a day. France shut down its public services for 6 weeks, they set themselves on fire, the barricaded the streets, they marched, they shouted. Granted we marched to remain, but we should have marched to remain before the vote. shouldn’t we? I guess it’s all well and good saying what we should have done. We’ve left. We’re out. Everyone the world over thinks we’re stupid. Apart from Trump, maybe, and some odd American Alt-Right accounts I ended up embroiled with on Twitter.

As I said: We’ve never been a revolutionary people. It’s why I find it so laughable that we are currently acting as though this is a revolution, when it serves, not the people who work hard in this country, or live and die on its streets, or in its factories and shops and pubs and cleaning companies; but that it serves bankers, land owners, landlords, the gentry. A revolution made by the people for the few at the top. How can it sell so well, and be so popular when it seems to obvious to me to be for the few who can afford to weather the storm, not for those in houses without weatherproof walls.

The way this has been written about in Le Monde has been interesting to see. Today:

L’interminable crise politique qui, à Londres, a suivi le référendum de juin 2016 a eu ceci de positif qu’elle a permis non seulement aux Européens de faire leur deuil de quarante-sept ans d’un mariage avec le Royaume-Uni où l’amour n’a jamais réussi à fleurir, mais aussi d’analyser sereinement les causes de la rupture.

Même s’il s’agit d’une décision purement nationale, liée tant à l’insularité qu’au lien historique si singulier qu’entretiennent les Britanniques avec l’exercice de la souveraineté, ses motivations renvoient à des forces largement à l’œuvre dans les 27 autres pays de l’Union : nationalisme, sentiment d’abandon des oubliés de la mondialisation, défiance à l’égard des institutions et des responsables politiques, démagogie et populisme.


(Translated): The unending political crisis in London following the referendum of June 2016 has been positive not only so that Europeans could grieve for the 47 year marriage with the UK, where love has never managed to flourish, but also to serenely analyse the causes of the rupture.

Even if it’s purely a national decision, linked as much to isolationism as to the singular bond the British have maintained to the exercise of sovereignty, these motivations are seen in the forces at work in the 27 other countries in the European Union: nationalism, a feeling of being forgotten by globalisation, distrust of institutions and politicians, demagogy and populism.

The line “Where love has never managed to flourish” is so cutting. I love Europe. I love the relationship we’ve had, and the unity I’ve seen, and the benefits I have gained as a result of being part of this mass conglomerate of countries. The benefits we all gained as a country. It’s so interesting to me that most remainers are only saying to the leavers that “oooh you’ll have to go in the big queue now when going on holiday to spain” instead of “oooh your human rights are probably going in the pan and we might have to just eat canned peas for a while” – or, you know, your doctor might have to go back to his country because he feels so unwelcome and now can’t treat you.

It’s true, though – our love of the EU never did quite manage to flourish. We were never all in. whilst 49% of us were in support of the EU, and a lot of what it stood for, our governments have never quite managed to make a true union a reality. We were like that boyfriend that keeps promising he’s going to make a change, but he never really does. Maybe the EU will be better without us, but I doubt that we will be better without it.

Farage is right, this will change the landscape of the country. We’ve not experienced such a big shift since 1973 when we joined the EU. In fact, when I think about it, we may not have experienced such a change since 1945. Especially as the EU of 2020 is a far cry from the EU of 1973, so many more countries are involved, the euro has come into play. Additionally, it’s not only England we’ve brought out of the EU. We’ve dragged three other countries out of the union with us: Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Granted, Wales also voted to leave so perhaps we’re not dragging them, but 62% of Scotland and 55% of Northern Ireland didn’t want to leave at all. How can we in good conscience pull them out of a union they wanted to stay in? The case for Scottish independence is a strong one, as is the case for the reunification of Ireland as the border down the Irish sea becomes harder and harder.

There will be shift, and there will be change. It’s almost like we’re cutting England and wales out: Contra Mundum. Great Britain becomes fragmented Britain. The United Kingdom: divided.

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.

 

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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.

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.