Friday, August 22, 2008

Eye of the storm

I am at home, and was waiting for the Typhoon No. 8 signal to be issued at 8am as promised on the Hong Kong Observatory's website, at which point I could declare the office closed; it has now been issued, but in the meantime I was rather taken with the Typhoon No. 10 warning, which is unreasonably poetic:

that if the eye of the typhoon
passes directly over Hong Kong,
there may be a temporary
lasting a few minutes to several hours.

Do not relax
your guard, as there will be
a sudden resumption
of violent winds
from a different direction. Remain
where you are if protected
and be prepared for
destructive winds.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Architecture and morality

On the other side of the harbour from my office on Hong Kong Island, the tower of the new ICC building is taking shape in West Kowloon. Known as a "superskyscraper", it will be 490m tall and Hong Kong's tallest building on its completion in 2010. It already looks too big for its surroundings: the only thing distinguishing it, like most skyscrapers, is its height.
At certain times of day it throws a shield of reflected sunlight across the harbour almost too bright to look towards - it's changed the landscape of the harbour forever. Did the architects realise that when the sun hit the glass at a certain angle it would shine out like a contemporary Pharos? There's something so arrogant and at the same time quite astonishing about it.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The past is another country

August Sander, Peasants (1914)
I stood in the National Gallery in London for a long time looking at this picture. There is something so elegant and dignified about their faces, full of hope; on the way to the dance and wearing their best suits. I thought of William Trevor's wonderful short story, The Ballroom of Romance, about rural Ireland in the 1950s: hopeful, lonely people making their way to the nearest ballroom, some walking or cycling for miles for the promise of love.
There's an interesting article here by John Berger about this photograph, and others in the Sander catalogue: his project, cut short by the war, was to capture "Citizens of the Twentieth Century".

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The White Stone of Lewis

Do not attempt
to lift the white stone.
It is smooth quartzite
and weighs a lifetime.

You would prove your back
could take the strain:
brave, ambitious
you can handle any challenge.

But other strengths are more sustaining:
able to change and take changes
lift old habits from heavy soil
get to grips with the smooth surface
of self deception.

Let others do the heaving and shoving
who shoulder burdens they cannot manage
and set their sights on defeating others
in pointless shows of strength.

You carry the stone with you:
crystal with hope
light with humour
smooth with complete integrity.

Tessa Ransford

Monday, August 11, 2008

Tales of the city

As children my brother and sister and I were surrounded by storytellers amongst our parents' friends: David, a musician, favoured horror stories told in sepulchural tones (the Slavic folk tale of Baba Yaga was a particular favourite); Martin, a nurse who eventually committed suicide, used to tell us gory stories about decapitation in road accidents; Ian, who died in Amsterdam last year, had been a rocker in Hastings in the late 1960s and regaled us with tales of pitched battles with mods, Quadrophenia style; Uncle Mike, now completely estranged from our family, invented a character called Rufus, who lived by the railway lines in a cardboard box. Probably the most consummate storyteller, and my favourite, was "Doody M", who went on to write scripts for Coronation Street.

Every so often I will read a short story somewhere and realise I have heard it before: M clearly pillaged everything he had read for material. When in my teens I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" (1922), I realised that I had already heard the entire story, in almost perfect detail, at the age of 8: in a marquee, at a wedding in a place called Jerusalem Croft, sitting on M's knee and wearing a green dress with white hearts which my mum had adapted from the previous year's gala outfit, and sporting, for unintended comic effect, a sling because I'd fractured my arm falling out of a tree earlier that day.

M, who lived in London, became my hero because he was a writer: he published several plays and had work performed at the Hampstead Theatre. I started writing to him when I was about 15 and treasured his letters. I sent him my pathetic efforts at short stories and was devastated when he sent back a thoroughly critiqued, marked up copy of one of them - about a murder in a block of flats - with the word "cliché" appearing frequently in the margin.

He told me about his small triumphs in getting the BBC interested in his work (once writing hubristically "Frame this letter!") and I told him about whatever small triumphs I could possibly have had at 16. But it fell apart when my dad, who took a close interest in M's letters to me, told someone he'd met who worked in the media about some great secret that M had told me not to divulge. M sent me a furious letter denouncing me as a traitor. I saw him once after that: I visited his flat in Elephant & Castle. After an awkward cup of tea, he had to go out and was very uncomfortable about leaving me there alone waiting for doolally Auntie Jane, who was late to pick me up. I said to him "I won't pry" and didn't, but after that we never spoke again.

Thinking about it now, he was a somewhat cynical man (I remember him singing/sneering along to an embittered folk song, "When you're tired of worldly toil/Shuffle off this mortal coil") who expected more from me than I could give and was unreasonably hysterical in his reaction to what he saw as my betrayal, which was in fact my dad's; but at the time I was very upset about it. I prefer to remember the amazing stories.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Poetry makes nothing happen

R was a Greek scholar and poet who was also a pyromaniac who'd set fires that endangered those around him. My dad met him through another poet and began to visit him where he was incarcerated, in the notorious Carstairs State Prison. Later, he was deemed less dangerous and was transferred to "the Royal Ed" - which was sited during that time at Craiglockhart, where Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met. We had boxes of his books at home for safe keeping - hundreds of volumes of Penguin Modern Classics, dusty and frayed, which I spent hours going through.

In the late 1970s R was allowed weekend release and used to come to our house and sit in the same chair, by the fireplace; when it was my job to light the fire, braving the night with my torch to bring the wicker basket full of logs from the woodshed out the back and crumpling newspaper to lay it, I felt incredibly self-conscious as he watched me in silence: he the expert and me the amateur.

He was, my dad told me, "institutionalised": this meant that he was silent or mumbling, a brooding presence in the corner; jowly, like Ted Hughes, wearing an ancient frayed Argyle sweater, fumbling with his roll-ups and his pipe. I was terrified of him.

in the mid-1980s, on a long weekend visit to my Dad's house in East Linton, he was left alone in the house for a few hours. When my dad returned he discovered that R had set small inept fires everywhere and stuck his head in the oven. Domestic gas was detoxified in 1973, and it's not been possible to kill yourself with gas poisoning alone since then; if you seal the doors and wait long enough, it might work, but the ancient chaotic cottage was quite unsuitably draughty so he was lying there for a few hours.

This bathetic episode was the end of his freedom; he never got day release again and he died in hospital a couple of years later.

He wrote poetry about the mountains and Scottish iconography and published a book of poetry in 1978. I can hardly reconcile the monosyllabic, haunted figure of my childhood with someone of such imagination, now apparently regarded as "cruelly underrated"; but these poems were written while he was in hospital.

I kept some of his books - long since "mine"; and still have some of them with me.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


In Edinburgh, on the day before the first day of the Edinburgh festival, as immortalised in Trainspotting; I've never seen so many people on the streets, but that may be because when I lived here, I studiously avoided coming in to the city centre for the reasons outlined here (call me small-minded and parochial).

Irvine himself I was never that sure about, ken - visceral and shocking at first, and perverse fun to read aloud on a beach in Italy; but something of a one trick pony especially in later novels. He reviews others for the Guardian now.

Jenny Turner once wrote a devastating critique of Ecstasy here which has yet to be bettered.

I'd forgotten they're building tramlines (Darling Alistair's pet project, much to the scorn of Private Eye) and there seem to be roadblocks everywhere. I walked past the old Miss Selfridge just to see the modern neon clothes (same as the old clothes) and always pause for Robert Louis Stevenson's favourite view: down the straight streets to the Forth.