It is becoming less decipherable. As we camp, it sometimes appears as though messages are being inscribed on our skin, or perhaps under the skin, where the epidermis meets the soft ooze of flesh. It isn’t painful; more as though we are itching from the inside, as though something is trying to speak from within. Our new companion – it seems we are being sent reinforcements at irregular intervals (or are they replacements, are we each being replaced before the fact?) – claims her name is Xenia, although this is a name we seem to have heard before, perhaps outside the blinded gates of Naples. She has, of course, no papers. Except her face. Except her face. Which is paper-thin, a slender coating of matchwood on a bone structure so fragile it reminds us of evanescent nights of childhood. Her limbs seem curiously disjointed, a kind of incarnated spiritual dysmorphia, and it makes us feel so tender, so terribly tender, to terribly tender as we observe her pale shift, her struggle to begin to speak, her strange articulation. What ragged army, we wonder, is this?
I have no idea why this might be Chapter One. It doesn’t seem like it, out here under the cold blasts. But then, all that has gone before might be preamble – isn’t that a wonderful word, ‘preamble’? Walking about before you’re prepared for it. Let us wonder for a moment about whether this might all be preamble – or prolegomena, as Kant among others famously put it. Yet I sense a certain beginning here, a beginning which will not be a drawing together of the threads – they are far too widely disparate for that, and to draw them together would imply a false cohesion of the soul. But ;et us start again. As I say endlessly to my soul mates, the cousins of my decay: let us start again.
I imagine it’s some kind of a door. It doesn’t look much like a door, but from behind it I hear wails. A cliche comes to mind: the wails of souls in distress. I tell the others, we must move beyond this: if language is to mean anything at all, it must at least retain the capacity to generate something new. Or relatively new. I am refining this thought when Jun-So approaches me on folded elbows. He cannot speak (of course), but he reminds me that all of this, including his own collapsed body, has been foretold. He carries his punishment with him like a rose. Yet how can we manage with this door which is not a door? We need, of course, a sacrifice – a liminal being who will enable us to tread lightly, to leave no lasting imprint, having absorbed the footfall into his (no, I think it may be her) own body. It is hard to tell: I can see what is about to occur, but I cannot remember what it is that will have occurred. Here the future is neither perfect nor imperfect; and the past is, for all I know, continuous. But what would be the consequences of that?
I have just read two articles in my newspaper of choice. One appears to suggest that Jacob Rees-Mogg may be the next leader of the Conservative Party, the other tells me that Mr Bean is the most widely recognised international emblem of Britishness. I suspect a fearful symmetry. They look alike; they display a similar concentration in the performance of acts of idiocy; and they show that Britain still clings to the old ways, whether that be in comedy or in parliamentary democracy.
A partnership made in heaven; but of course there is a further delicious scenario to be entertained. Suppose Mogg did make it to the high table? He might encounter there King Charles III. Imagine the conversation:
Monarch: God, I abhor modern buildings.
Mogg: God, I abhor anything modern at all.
Monarch: How are the kids?
Mogg: No idea – I leave all that to the wife. Never changed a nappy, you know.
Monarch: Good man, No idea whether my ex enjoyed doing all that for me. Bit of a handful.
Mogg: I’ve got more than a handful.
Monarch: Of course. Six at last count, eh what?
Mogg: I think the last Count was killed in some kind of middle European uprising.
Monarch: Ho ho! No danger of that here, eh?
Mogg: Certainly not, your Majesty, so long as we have a firm hand on the tiller.
Monarch: Firm hand, eh? Just so. Yours doesn’t seem so steady, if I might say so.
Mogg: Tough lot, these constituents in BANES – bane of my life (after a moment’s silence) That was a joke, Your Majesty.
Monarch: Oh yes, ha ha. Remember the old days at the Brighton Pavilion?
Mogg: Remember them? I’m still there every night.
Monarch looks momentarily perturbed, before he recalls that it’s his own slightly wayward ancestor they’re discussing.
Anyway, this could run and run; but let us not forget the crucial difference between Mr Bean and Rees-Mogg. Mr B has the high ground; unlike R-M, he doesn’t speak. We could learn a lot from that.
And of course, let us not forget that the election of R-M to high office is the greatest gift for which we socialists could hope: the sanctification of Jeremy as the only human alternative!
All these miracles. I did a good thing the other day. I’m not sure I often do good things. I was with an old friend; he is in his 80s, fit and spry as a bird, but inwardly he wasn’t doing well. Every day looked the same, the sure sign of depression, along with the inset of the monochromatic. I said to him, ‘Look, in every day there may be something entirely new; it’s all a question of perspective’. I’m not sure why I said it; in a sense, I’m not sure whether I said it – was something else speaking through me? At any event, it performed a magic trick. The sharp bird’s eye opened more fully. Will it last? I don’t know. It is also true that each day can also bring its own harvest of disappointment. I can only repeat to myself my mantra, a travesty of Buddhist sagacity: ‘The secret of being happy is being happy’. It may not do us much good, down there on the terminal beach, or outside the perpetually closed Western gate, or amid the ruin of favour and hope, but it is something to cling to, a raft on which to resist, for a short while, the inexorable, growing power of the swell …
And here is another set of section titles from Writing the Passions, which seem, as I recount them, to be melding more and more into the story of our adventures in unseen lands; perhaps they are guides through the labyrinth, perhaps they are statements of denial, of avoidance of what is there to be seen, if only one could look at it straight, if only for a moment, before the real shimmers and disappears:
Why Any Text At All?
Worship and Be Punished
Abjection before the Cross
Shadow and Outcast/The Uncrowned Head
A Scornful Exhibition
I am in the process of publishing my new book, Bristol: 21 Poems. I shall be reading poems from it at the regular poetry revue at the Square Club, Berkeley Square, Bristol, at 8.30 on Tuesday 30th January – there will be other poets and musicians on the programme. Do come along if you can!
We are gathered
a crowd of unknowing
some all night, they say,
some since bird-yellow dawn
a broad blank shop window
empty, paused, waiting
There, cries the boy,
There: a shade of violet,
we strain and peer –
was there a movement
ripple in the glass
fault, parallax, water
between the sheets
an impossible change in the air
a defunct TV screen
emitting its last rays
blue as paradise,
faint as the last bird
we saw nothing, we say
even to the police, moving us
along, an unseemly crowd
nothing, except perhaps
the ghost’s violet shimmer.
I suppose, as somebody who has spent 45 years in universities, much of it in the UK, I should have something to say on the vexed topic of British Vice-Chancellors’ pay. I am conflicted. VCs these days run large organisations, and they have precious little training for the responsibility. You could compare them with other CEOs, but universities are strange beasts, neither private nor public, funded by the taxpayer but at arms’-length. I want the university, as a concept and as an institution, to be valued, and that includes financially; but of course there is the problem of The Gap – or rather, of The Gaps, between highly-paid managers and poorly-paid junior staff, and between all of the above and the students paying a fortune for the privilege of higher education. For the moment – and I shall return to this topic – I have only one thing to say to VCs, and it is: for God’s sake have some dignity and know when you are damaging your own institutions – and, more importantly, the very intellectual (dare I say that word?) concept of the university. If in doubt, read Heidegger.
It was a creature of darkling fires and flashes of silver. It had no outline that we could see, but worse if didn’t have a clear tense: sometimes it was present, at others past, at others again future. He were bewildered, re-wilded. It hung, or sat, or strode over what was perhaps a chasm, or possibly a fault in the universal fabric. ‘Past imperfect’, Bruna joked, but it was true, and the creature was all imperfection. ‘Counterpoint to the narcissistic ego-ideal’, suggested Fabor, but when I looked at him he seemed engulfed in flame, or perhaps he was standing on a pool of clear silver water, over which the night-hawks flapped and crowed. In the depths were flashes of ruby; striations of red …