Sunday, March 06, 2016

Borrowed Love Poems

What can I do, I have dreamed of you so much
What can I do, lost as I am in the sky
What can I do, now that all
the doors and windows are open
I will whisper this in your ear
as if it were a rough draft
something I scribbled on a napkin
I have dreamed of you so much
there is no time left to write
no time left on the sundial
for my shadow to fall back to earth
lost as I am in the sky

What can I do, all the years that we talked
and I was afraid to want more
What can I do, now that these hours
belong to neither you nor me
Lost as I am in the sky
What can I do, now that I cannot find
the words I need
when your hair is mine
now that there is no time to sleep
now that your name is not enough

What can I do, if a red meteor wakes the earth
and the color of robbery is in the air
Now that I dream of you so much
my lips are like clouds
drifting above the shadow of one who is asleep
Now that the moon is enthralled with a wall
What can I do, if one of us is lying on the earth
and the other is lost in the sky

What can I do, lost as I am in the wind
and lightning that surrounds you
What can I do, now that my tears
are rising toward the sky
only to fall back
into the sea again
What can I do, now that this page is wet
now that this pen is empty

What can I do, now that the sky
has shut its iron door
and bolted clouds
to the back of the moon
now that the wind
has diverted the ocean's attention
now that a red meteor
has plunged into the lake
now that I am awake
now that you have closed the book

Now that the sky is green
and the air is red with rain
I never stood in
the shadow of pyramids
I never walked from village to village
in search of fragments
that had fallen to earth in another age
What can I do, now that we have collided
on a cloudless night
and sparks rise
from the bottom of a thousand lakes

To some, the winter sky is a blue peach
teeming with worms
and the clouds are growing thick
with sour milk
What can I do, now that the fat black sea
is seething
now that I have refused to return
my borrowed dust to the butterflies
their wings full of yellow flour

What can I do, I never believed happiness
could be premeditated
What can I do, having argued with the obedient world
that language will infiltrate its walls
What can I do, now that I have sent you
a necklace of dead dried bees
and now that I want to
be like the necklace
and turn flowers into red candles
pouring from the sun

What can I do, now that I have spent my life
studying the physics of good-bye
every velocity and particle in all the waves
undulating through the relapse of a moment's fission
now that I must surrender this violin
to the sea's foaming black tongue
now that January is almost here
and I have started celebrating a completely different life

Now that the seven wonders of the night
have been stolen by history
Now that the sky is lost and the stars
have slipped into a book
Now that the moon is boiling
like the blood where it swims
Now that there are no blossoms left
to glue to the sky
What can I do, I who never invented
and who dreamed of you so much
I was amazed to discover
the claw marks of those
who preceded us across this burning floor
John Yau

Thursday, January 14, 2016

At the centre of it all

I had not thought death had undone so many
TS Eliot, The Wasteland (1922) (from Dante, The Inferno)

All the cool kids at the tail end of the 1970s and early 1980s loved David Bowie – the ones I wanted to impress: schoolfriends’ older sisters, nightclubbers, “raincoated lovers’ gloomy brothers”; and the boy I loved. It wasn't hard to see and hear why: there was a fascinating, unique blend of androgyny, hypersexuality and music enough to draw in anyone who was confused, fascinated, excited about music, becoming an adult, learning the skills. In 1980 I stood in the hallway of a large Edinburgh flat shyly eavesdropping on the impossibly cool teenagers in the kitchen who were listening to Remain In Light and Scary Monsters over and over again. In 1983 we went to the Edinburgh premiere of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (I thought Bowie’s hair was too perfectly blonde and this was its only flaw). In 1984 Callum gave me his treasured Thin White Duke badge (a much adored boyfriend subsequently lost it – thanks Stuart). When the “Let’s Dance” craze raged and suddenly Bowie was an even bigger commercial success than ever, I affected superiority because I preferred his earlier work (plus ca change). I got into Iggy Pop and Lou Reed as a direct result of my interest in Bowie but I drifted away from his music in the 1990s. Then in 2005 Peter sent me “Everyone Says Hi” and although I looked askance at first I began to discover the music Bowie had continued to make during the time I lost faith.

Probably at least partly inspired by the impossibly cool kids, my sister Claire and I bought Scary Monsters in 1981 and for me it will always remain the favourite: the sounds and the ideas often so alien, so other; guitars barking like dogs on the title track, muscular bass lines, gnomic lyrics, much of it at the time almost incomprehensible to me but in the end burned into my brain forever.
Waiting at the lights - know what I mean? 

No, David - I don't know what you mean. But I want to know.

I know when to go out
I know when to stay in
And get things done
(“Modern Love”, 1983)

Although the span of his work is of course majestic – the swagger of “Ziggy Stardust”, the pathos of “Five Years”, the sheer exhilaration of “Up the Hill Backwards”; the brash confidence of “Modern Love”; even during the maligned Tin Machine years he was producing songs of the quality of “Goodbye Mr Ed” - his two most recent releases have had a melancholy energy all of their own. It’s amazing to think that Bowie, knowing he was dying, could produce such an incredible last post as “Blackstar”. What a triumph to create this work which would be his own elegy, unknown to almost everyone: Bowie remaining mysterious to the end.

Lyrically Bowie was a magpie, picking up fragments from different places much the same way as masters of their genre such as TS Eliot. But Eliot is not the only poet who springs to mind; there’s W.H. Auden ('he disappeared in the dead of winter…. The day of his death was a dark cold day… Earth receive an honoured guest”) and surely “Dollar Days” from Blackstar is Bowie’s “If I should die, think only this of me/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England”:

If I never see the English Evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to me
There’s nothing to see

Bowie’s sense of humour, and how comfortable he seemed to be with taking the piss out of himself,  was another thing I really loved about him. Here was someone who genuinely didn’t care what anyone else thought of him. From “The Laughing Gnome” to a bizarre 1982 duet with Bing Crosby which Bowie played nearly straight, to his non-plussed-seeming appearance in the audience for a highly mawkish performance of “Tie A Yellow Ribbon…”, to his willing guest show turns where he always seemed to be laughing both at himself and at his usually witless interviewer, to his appearance in “Extras” as himself with added vitriol, he never seemed to be worried about his image; for someone who in other ways so carefully crafted their image this is a peculiar, and loveable, trait.

My boyfriend at university, John, said to me “one day you’ll meet someone who loves music as much as you do”. I did, and of course he is a Bowie fan, having been so even through the darkest days of (unfairly) critically-panned Tin Machine, subsequent drum’n’bass experiments, and Outside. In our house Bowie was always playing. We agreed upon Bowie’s genius so many times on listening to so many different songs. We were excited by his mysterious reappearance with “The Next Day” and the wonderful and mournful “Where Are We now?” with its accompanying low-key but undeniably moving video. We were incredibly excited about Blackstar and watched the weird, compulsive, addictive video for the title track many times. The words of that song (the title of this post) have been going around my head in the last few days. I awoke thinking of them and feeling sad.

Bowie’s other incredible skill was to make the apparently nonsensical or banal meaningful just by the way he sang it: there are countless examples but one that springs to mind is from “Goodbye Mr Ed”, where Bowie sings kindly “Tolerance of violence/By the fellows with no heads”. There is always the feeling that Bowie knows more than he’s saying, or in any event, so much more than me. And  he goes on to sing “Some things are so big, they make no sense”. Which pretty much sums up how I feel about his death.

Clearly Bowie was aging but it seemed impossible that someone so vital, so creative, so full of humour and passion, could ever die; and really I think I thought that he never would (as one of my friends said, “he’s humankind’s best candidate for immortality yet”). So it felt like a huge, personal loss when I heard about his death – while lying in the bath, as it happens.

I’m not ashamed to say that I have cried a few times over the last few days just thinking about how much his music has meant to me – at the milestones of my life, and with me from the beginning or so it seems - and feeling genuinely sad about a loss I hadn’t been expecting.

Bowie is bound up for me with so many things that it’s impossible to articulate them all, but here are a few: growing up, feeling like an outsider, moving a long way away from home, love, death, birth and change. So many fundamental things it’s no wonder that when  I read this aloud to myself earlier this week I could hardly get the words out:

—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Öd’ und leer das Meer. 

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland (1922)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Temps perdu

One summer, in the 1970s, we nearly moved to France. A friend of my parents, Paul Brown (catchphrase: "how extraordinary!"), had bought a ruined château, Château d'Usson, in the Pyrenees, and fancied - and it does seem fanciful - that he would restore the château and start an artists' community there, with my parents as the first artists.

We travelled to France in the car, with a clandestine £400 of Paul's money hidden in the glove compartment, it being forbidden at that time to take such large sums of money across borders. I'd just read The Silver Sword and this gave me terrifying visions of arrest and incarceration for breaking the law. Then we spent a hot, beautiful summer there, camping on the hillside, which was long enough for my parents to realise that the enterprise was doomed, and for us to learn about blueberries and lizards, and to meet the locals who must have regarded us with considerable suspicion, but who seemed friendly, especially an old man who drove an ox-cart; and to build, with Sije (Paul's girlfriend, an energetic Dutchwoman much younger than him), a house made of grass sods - which once built crawled with ants and was uninhabitable.

Paul's utopian dream never came together and not long after we left at the end of that summer, he split with Sije and moved back to the UK to a converted mill in Yorkshire near Aysgarth Falls. The château is still described as ruined: clearly nothing was ever built there. Even though this experience was, at the time, overlaid with a fear of the unknown and of the sheer recklessness of the idea of leaving everything behind to live in France, it remains in my memory as an idyllic, happy summer.

John Wyndham wrote a short story, Random Quest, about a parallel universe created by a science experiment where the world has diverged and certain things that happened in one universe never happened in the other. Remembering Château d' Usson, a place that looms large in my memories of my childhood,  I think of myself in the parallel universe where my parents stayed at the end of the summer and we went to local schools and became, essentially, French. I'm still living in the mountains with dozens of children and my skin is as brown and wrinkled as a walnut.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

We hear the playback and it seems so long ago

"They send the heart police to put you under cardiac arrest
 And as they drag you through the door they tell you that you've failed the test"

Max, who has very clear ideas about what he likes to listen to, asked for "Video Killed the Radio Star" and I was prompted by that to listen to the Buggles' first album, The Age of Plastic, and muse about Trevor Horn and what an unloved visionary he seems to have been. My sister and I bought this album together in 1980 and, as we did with every precious record we bought, listened to it repeatedly. Listening to it now the songs are prescient but also incredibly sad - particularly "Elstree", which was Claire's favourite and always makes me think of her. ("Video Killed the Radio Star" sounds a little trite to me now, but maybe I've just heard it once too often.)

Working for the BBC may actually be a pretty decent job - I know at least one person who works there and is considered highly successful by everyone else we know - but there is something elegiac about this song.

I think of Trevor Horn as being in the category of people whose fame and consequent wealth brought them strange tragedy, not least by changing their lifestyles and/or political views - Rik Mayall and his quad bike; Bryan Ferry and his terrible reactionary children - but Trevor's tragedy was stranger than most: his son shot Trevor's wife, Jill Sinclair, with an air gun in 1994 and she died 8 years later, without ever speaking again.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Whatever hope is yours

Courage was mine, and I had mystery
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery
From Wilfred Owen, Strange Meeting (1918)

I thought of these words this morning as I cycled past the University of Melbourne campus – something about the open bay windows of the well-appointed Victorian buildings of whatever Faculty it was reminded me very strongly of Glasgow and my first year there as an undergraduate (shown above, the School of Law). The poem is about war and the pity of war, but those lines are about the power of youth, if you can only grasp it.

I didn’t get the most out of university by any stretch – I lacked the confidence which age, or background, or a certain type of school can give you – and I didn’t do any of the things that were open to me and that I actually longed to do: write for the university newspaper, join the History Society, take up fencing and rowing, because I didn't dare. I clearly remember the sense of being an outsider staring through a window at something I had  no right to be part of  – a feeling that returned to me for a moment, in distilled form, this morning.

What is very clear to me is that background and schooling play an essential role in equipping children with confidence to go out into the world. Many of my classmates were from families of lawyers. They’d gone to certain Glasgow schools (out of 120, 15 from the same private school). While, after a couple of years, they may have begun to see this as a disadvantage of sorts, as those of us who came alone had to make friends and probably had a more interesting time of it in the end, at first it was a clear clique and another way for those of us with no connection to the law and to each other to feel excluded. I didn’t have any connections  to follow up for internships in my first summer break; I didn’t have the money to go away to Europe on holiday as many did; I didn’t even know how to write a CV (I cringe to remember that my very first CV was handwritten). I spent time with a tiny group of friends and my boyfriend. I moved in small circles.

My memories of this time are one reason why I’ve endowed a scholarship at the law school for a student from a disadvantaged background. A really important part of this is the offer of mentoring: on the assumption that without the patrician background, someone like me would be starting out with absolutely no knowledge of how to operate in the university environment. A wealthy background and an education that is paid for gift the recipient with much more than just education – there’s also a much better awareness of how to work the system. When people attack the idea of quotas for disadvantaged students they seem to be unaware of this: the real impact of “disadvantage” is not just measured in wealth but in confidence.

It took me at least 10 years from the day I started university to grow into confidence in myself. While that is what has made me who I am, and I don’t regret it, I do sometimes think of what I might have done then if I’d only had the courage.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The really useful crew

When I first saw this video cruelly skewering the pretensions of underpass Goths, I was of course tempted to react with amused contempt. I hate Goths; who doesn't? People used to accuse me of being a Goth and I loathed that. Those po-faced, self-important, whey-faced losers! The style has remained amazingly unchanged for the last 30 years: the I-feel-so-sorry-for-myself pout, the over-egged black-is-how-I-feel-on-the-inside melodrama, the black lipstick, the stack heels ... Particularly in this clip, despite some decidedly non-canon outfits (neon? White?), the self-importance is quite overpowering. What's not to dislike? On the principle that the best way to attack someone is not to attack them, but to make fun of them, what better than a humiliating soundtrack comprising the theme fromThomas the Tank Engine to accompany their earnest, yet supremely self-conscious bopping?

But on reflection, I couldn't help feeling a bit sorry for them. A bunch of misfits, universally execrated wretches, chronically misunderstood, a cohort of loners and losers, having a bit of fun the only way they know how and expressing their feelings of angst under a bridge... Not really harming anyone, and maybe my contempt is just another version of the bullying they have experienced all their lives?

(Not you, Marilyn Manson - you saw all that and you wanted to make money out of pretending to be part of it.)

Maybe my contempt is just another manifestation of the epidemic of hate and polarisation that the Internet amplifies. So I have thought better of it. There are worse ways to spend your time - maybe "being in a gang called the Disciples, high on crack and toting a machine gun".

I've got to comment from a purely aesthetic point of view, however - that really is taking the concept of "dancing" and making it into something ugly.

(It is also an extremely funny video.)

Saturday, February 07, 2015

O whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad

The title of this post is one of the scariest ghost stories ever written, which was told to me as a child and which still haunts me. The content of this post is less elegant: the story of my encounter with a  thoroughly disagreeable person on my daily cycle to work.

I was reading yesterday about a troll’s response to someone whom he cruelly attacked by impersonating her dead father on Twitter (an act even more despicable than the foul remark that Julia Gillard’s father must have “died of shame”). He said that his reaction to her was not even about her feminist views; she just “seemed so happy in yourself, and I didn’t like that”.

My daily cycle route takes me along a cycle path for about 3km, then through a park for another 2km, on a very safe, wide road with a marked cycle path. Often I’m in a good mood: the sun is shining, the trees are green, I have a happy home life, and work is usually going well. On this occasion I was whistling to myself as I cycled along. At the lights, a cyclist in front of me (young-ish, dark haired, wearing one of those German infantry cycle helmets) turned around and gave me what I subsequently realized was a Hard Stare. I said “Good morning!” and thought no more of it. The lights changed, she cycled ahead and I continued to cycle along whistling to myself. At the next lights, however, she turned round and we had the following exchange:

Ms Malcontent (angrily): “Are you doing that deliberately just to be annoying? Because it’s really annoying”.

Me (surprised): “No – I was doing it because I was happy.”

Ms Malcontent (more angrily): “Well stop doing it because it’s really annoying”.

Me: “You must be very unhappy. I hope you don’t behave like this towards your work colleagues”.

Ms Malcontent (nastily): “Only the really annoying ones. Like YOU”.

Me: “When you get to work and tell your colleagues about this encounter, they’ll nod and smile and agree with you, but secretly they’ll be thinking ‘Oh My God, what’s wrong with her? She must be really unhappy.’ Because that’s what I think.”

Ms Malcontent: Nothing (already self-righteously cycling off).

I did examine my conscience after this encounter – was I whistling too loudly? Is it really annoying? But also asking myself: did this person have any right to say this to me so aggressively? I decided in the end not to take it personally; here I’d encountered someone very unhappy, with who knows what terrible things happening in her life, to the extent that she thought it was OK to be vilely rude to a stranger.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Waxing lyrical

When I lived in Hong Kong I had a long-standing relationship with a woman from Beijing called Sarah, to whom I entirely handed all responsibility for care of my eyebrows, as well as the waxing of my legs (if you are ill-acquainted with what this actually means, I won't offend delicate sensibilities by describing it; just imagine the sounds RRRIIPPPP and OUCH). I went to see Sarah once every six weeks or so over a period of 5 or 6 years; she came via recommendation from a colleague and was in turn recommended by me to countless friends. She worked in a rather odd beauty salon on the 9th floor of a commercial block in Central that had seen better days.

Considering its glossy rivals the salon itself was less than glamorous, with browning wallpaper decorated with random swatches of pot pourri, dinky ornaments strewn around the place and ancient peeling posters advertising long-unfashionable beauty treatments, owned by an eccentric  woman who took an uncomfortably prurient interest in the treatments, often barging in to talk to and inspect the work of her staff when, by complete coincidence, their clients were in various states of undress and/or arrayed in the awkward postures required by the waxing process. The unprepossessing surroundings and nosy owner were the price to be paid for being looked after by Sarah, a lovely, happy person who always seemed pleased to see her clients and chattered away in an endearing mix of English and Chinese. We developed a friendship and it was always a pleasure to see her. I used to advise her that if she collected all the hair she’d taken from my body over the years (and I probably went to see her at least 40 times), she would be able to make herself a little coat with it. (This is a truly revolting image, I know, but how we laughed!)

Since moving to Australia I’ve made some half-hearted attempts to find myself a new Sarah. It is a surprisingly intimate relationship however, and I’ve never felt comfortable with anyone else. Care of my eyebrows and the rest has, unfortunately, now passed to me and I look infinitely more shabby as a result.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Vicious cycle

There are some things you have to give up when you become a commuter cyclist, namely:

  •  Your dignity (especially when it rains): the words “high vis” and “elegance” would rarely appear in the same sentence;
  •  Any faith in the ability of car drivers to
a)      Drive;
b)      See anyone on a bike;
c)       Notice bike lanes; or
d)      Act sensibly when it’s raining.

Commuter drivers have already made a selfish decision, which is to take up space on the roads into the city in their cars with (in the overwhelming majority) only one person inside. Sitting inside their cars with the music on, in their own little self-satisfied micro-world, impatient at the lights, they seem to feel they are justified in taking any tiny shortcut that will cut down the length of their journey at the expense of others. This applies particularly to cyclists, against whom there seems to have been an increase in aggression, for which Australian shock jocks like Alan Jones must take some of the responsibility; but also, in their aggressive individualism, no driver likes to see cyclists sailing past them, which unfortunately is the norm in every city centre. My response to this is: every cyclist is one less car on the road, making your journey to work that bit shorter than if I had chosen to drive my car. You aren’t “stuck in traffic”, you ARE traffic. You are driving a vehicle that can kill me. And would you like to explain to my two year old son that you knocked me off my bike because you wanted to shave another two minutes off your journey? I’m looking at you, yes you, eg the driver of the car with the sticker on the back saying “DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT”, who this morning went illegally into the left hand lane ahead of me and sat waiting at the lights, blocking the cycle path, in order to get an advantage over fellow drivers at the lights by accelerating past them into the micro-feeder lane (which certainly is not there for that purpose) at the other side of the junction. I hope you got the shock of your life when your car fishtailed alarmingly on the wet road. The cyclist in front of me, just a metre or so away from being hit, certainly did.
  • Sadly, some faith in fellow cyclists. I have to bite back a comment (“this is why drivers don’t respect us!”) when I see cyclists do all the things I know drivers hate:
a)      Riding through red lights;
b)      Riding on pavements; and generally
c)       Ignoring the road rules.

The fact is, although arguably drivers are collectively unreasonable anyway, and it makes no difference whether you follow the rules or disobey them, I see every cyclist who flouts the road rules as someone who is needlessly angering drivers and ultimately putting my life in danger. For the record, I always follow stop signs. I always try to use hand signals to show my intentions clearly in advance. I rarely go on the pavement unless I’m accompanying a child under 7 – and yes, it is legal then. I wear a bright white jacket and put my lights on. Yet I’ve been in situations where I’ve been beeped at by impatient drivers (I’m in front of you, wait to see what I am doing as you would with any vehicle) – or, frequently, almost side-swiped by someone coming past way too close (as Ken Lay says: if you can’t leave a metre between us, you are too close to pass).

Having said all that, my journey to work is mostly a delight: 30 minutes of cycling door to door, along a dedicated cycle path by the railway for almost half the journey, and then through Royal Park on a  wide road with plenty of space for everyone and usually enough time to get up some speed and freewheel down the road enjoying the green-ness of everything. Towards the end I have a few slightly hairy minutes at Flemington Roundabout (the bike lane goes one way and I want to go another) and some close encounters until I get to my office at the corner of Queen Street and Little Bourke; but it’s generally been a pretty good experience and to my knowledge it’s the fastest method door to door. If I’ve learned that the majority of drivers are fools, and many cyclists are too, these are things that might save my life one day.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Flat out

In the mid-1990s I was working at a small Scottish legal publisher in Edinburgh and struck up a friendship with the PA to the Managing Director. L was smart, funny and irreverent and we became close; I tried as much as I could to support her as she went through a few major life changes: buying a flat in Bruntsfield, splitting up with her boyfriend who had moved out, and finally losing her job with the company I worked for.

I was going through a few life changes of my own at the time: I’d split with my boyfriend of four years, G, which entailed moving out of the flat we shared, a very much un-mutual decision; I was trying to negotiate a move to the London office; a new relationship was in its very early stages. My life was in flux, too. L needed help with her mortgage and had room in her flat; somehow a plan quickly coalesced and I moved in with her.

The whole experience was an utter disaster. Perhaps understandably, L was a very angry and unhappy person at that time: she was upset about being made redundant, heartbroken about her boyfriend, anxious about finding a new job and worried about money. She made a disastrous pass at my ex when he came round to see me and I wasn’t there; he ended up effectively being blackmailed into building a platform bed for her (a baffling sequence of events that I never quite got to the bottom of). She railed against the company and her former boss. She hated having to have someone living with her under those circumstances, and I was about the worst person possible: I had split with G but there was a new man in the picture, who was phoning me late at night and sending me flowers, and I still worked for the company she’d just left; I was happy about my new relationship, had plans for the future, and was positive about getting there. The atmosphere within her flat was poisonous and I couldn’t wait to leave. I was stuck with paying the mortgage for my old flat with no rent coming in and beholden to decision making in London about when I could move to that office and what I would be doing there, so I had to stick it out. 

Weirdly, every time L and I bumped into each other outside that flat – even just down in the street – we got along as well as ever and she was a totally different person. Within the walls of her own flat, however, she was sullen, hostile, and aggressive.

We avoided each other as much as we could, but three particularly terrible episodes stick in my mind from my time there (a matter of months, perhaps four months at the most, but otherwise an eternity).

  • ·         Cats’ feet are so delicate. I broke a wine glass in L’s kitchen (plus ça change) and cleaned up as best as I could. Not well enough for L, however, who left me the following note next to a tissue containing a few remaining fragments she had managed to scrape up: “I found these. Be more careful, the cat’s feet are delicate and you could have seriously hurt her”.
  • ·         Spanish boys are all the same. In September I went on a wonderful holiday to Barcelona and Madrid with my then-best friend Rachael (about whom more some other time). My friend Campbell put me in touch with his sister Jill, who lives in Madrid, and we spent two weeks being escorted around by her friends; we stayed in Pablo’s flat in the centre of Madrid and Jill, Pablo and Jaime drove us on excursions to hidden restaurants and took us to their favourite tapas places. We gazed at Picassos and Miros in the Reina Sofia Museum and attended a packed house party where we learned to cook tortillas and got gloriously drunk on Cava. In Barcelona, we sat on the beach in the sunshine and ate morcilla and blue cheese rolls from a little hole in the wall cafe. Pablo gave us the keys to his flat as a parting gift. It was a perfect holiday. Back in rainy Edinburgh, when Lucy asked me how the holiday had been, I told her how kind the Spanish boys were to us and what a brilliant time we’d had. Her response? “Oh they probably just wanted to shag you. I lived in Spain, Spanish boys are all the same”. I went to work and cried.
  • ·         I’ve hurt my back. In an effort to ingratiate myself with L, I decided to help her get rid of the enormous, mouldering pile of old newspapers that sat in her hallway (at least 15 heavy bundles, most long pre-dating me). I had hired a terrible little car for J’s visit from London and after he had gone home, I humped every one of those bundles of newspapers from her second floor flat to the ground floor, into the back of the little car and off to the recycling centre at Bristo Square. L was at home while I was doing it and I’d thought we could do it together, perhaps even bonding over the task. But instead, she watched me coolly as I huffed and puffed and remarked “Oh, I would help, but I’ve hurt my back”. Did she thank me for completing this Herculean task? Did she hell.

Not long afterwards I got confirmation of my move to London. I left L’s flat at the earliest opportunity, departing for London and then Hong Kong. I’m still in touch with everyone else in this story bar one; but from that day to this I have never spoken to L again. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Laughter and forgetting

I met Ali when we were both 13, when I started at a new school. She was in my class and stood out almost straight away (in my memory she has different coloured eyes, like David Bowie, but that might be a flawed recollection). I always knew Ali was a good person, although she had a temper and an an unpredictable wildness about her too: shouting at Gay Ray Jackson, the art teacher, refusing to take off her parka indoors, cheeking him relentlessly until he lost his silly temper, silly man, and stupidly dragged her across the changing room and she fell and hit her head (I smugly advised him "Physical violence is not the answer", for which intolerable insubordination I was damn lucky not to be sideswiped myself). Ali had a gleam in her eye, and was the first girl to wear stretch jeans when they became fashionable in the early 1980s: she looked better in them than anyone. I thought she was beautiful, skinny but strong, and she never seemed to care what anyone thought. She wanted to know what other people were thinking, and she didn't really see barriers the way other people did; she was friendly towards me, although when I was excommunicated on a school trip to Switzerland by the two most popular girls in the class, the wave was too powerful to stand against and she was washed along like everyone else: she was a survivor as well. Never a great and steadfast friend of mine, then, but someone who I admired and who was funny and kind and probably, underneath, as confused as I was.

Ali left school earlier than the rest of us, because she could, and so she did, and drifted to the Highlands where she ended up marrying one of my brother's friends - someone who I still think of as a child, with no more recent memories to overlay the image; so perhaps that's why I find it almost impossible to visualise Ali's life during the 25 years since I last saw her, although I know she had one, with a marriage and children and a social circle.

My sister emailed me this morning to tell me that Ali died. I don't know how or why yet, but sitting at my desk at work properly thinking about her for the first time in years, and visualising her eyes and her smile and her slightly unkempt curls, I felt that sharp stab of loss which was, perhaps solipsistically, as much about me and my memories of the past as it was about her: the past remaking itself into a place where Ali will always be just as I remember her, beautiful and laughing.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Hearts and minds

When I first saw a picture from Marwencol I was so struck by it that I used it in a post. Incredibly, despite the attention it received and the awards it garnered, it never seemed to be available to rent or buy and it took almost three years since that post before it was available to download via Apple TV. We watched it last night and it was just as amazing as I had expected: a deeply personal and moving documentary about how someone recovering from severe brain injuries after a beating outside a pub creates his own little world based on 1940s Belgium, populates it with dolls and takes wonderful, naturalistic photographs of hundreds of little storylines he enacts with them., often apparently as a way of sublimating his feelings of anger, despair or lack of control. There is no ironic distance in his photographs: he is part of the world he has created and it is part of his. As a result the photographs he takes are like nothing else you've ever seen and a slightly sad story becomes meaningful and even beautiful.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

In paradisum

It's a truism I'm sure, but since having a baby and because my child is a boy, I have become much more sensitive to depictions of terrible things happening to boys - so much so that, although I used to love horror movies, D and I couldn't bring ourselves to watch the whole of the recent horror movie Sinister (and not, or not just, because Ethan Hawke's character is profoundly dislikeable), nor the documentary Paradise Lost (about a terrible miscarriage of justice following child murders in West Memphis), just because children were depicted as being hurt (in the latter case, of course, they actually were hurt). My sister had mentioned this in respect of her two boys and I think I was sceptical; no more though, and I am officially a marshmallow when it comes to this kind of pain.

This weakness, if that is what it is, also holds true when it comes to things of beauty, and the sound of the voices of boy choristers now not only brings intimations of my childhood, and the forever lovely memory of my mum in the kitchen making mince pies on Christmas Eve with the pristine sweet sound of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on the radio: it also makes me think of the innocence of my beautiful boy. This movement from Fauré's Requiem is so pure it brings tears to the eyes.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Portrait of the artist

Living, as I do, a very long way away from my family, I've become quite reliant on Skype to see them - Max has been getting to know his maternal grandparents mainly in pixels. My dad is something of a latecomer but has embraced it enthusiastically; so much so that he felt emboldened to remark to me recently "You look like you've been eating too many chocolates". It's purely by way of revenge for this, and for no other reason, that I now reveal that I was puzzled by his Skype photo which showed him from the side, looking into the near distance, and not particularly heroically.

When I asked him about it he said "Oh, it said 'put your profile photo here'". So he dutifully (and presumably with some difficulty) snapped a photo of his own profile and uploaded it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Blackberry Picking

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013