March 29: a fog-horn and a dog in the playground

In music great moments are often those where an instrument or a voice does not sound like itself. In last night’s symphony (Mahler 9, beautifully played) a long note from a basoon felt like a creaking door, a blast fron the tuba like an old boiler about to shatter or the fog-horn of a sinking Titanic. There is a particular Schumann lied from the Eichendorff Liederkreis (Auf einer Burg) where Fischer-Dieskau makes the whole song sound like a long, existentilal yawn (yawn in a good sense, a natural sinuous exhalation). When an orchestra sounds like itself, a load of strings and a set of brass, it is at its least interesting.

I suppose we always want things not to be themselves. It is why we love surprising¬† metaphor, which spirits us away to another place. There was a lovely one in Coronation Street the other day when a character turns up out of the blue and someone says he’s like a dog in a playground at primary school. This recalled the sudden glee that some children felt (not me, I don’t love dogs) when a strange dog somehow got into the playground at break time. It’s like when you see someone out of context, nurses or policemen without their uniform for example, dressed in civvies. At such moments you say: Hallo. I didn’t recognize with you clothes on.

March 29: Exclusion from a palace

Exclusion is part of life. It is the negative space we may choose to focus on. Poignantly, when you hear, say, a group of chattering Russian children it is difficult not to feel a deep sense of being outside a world of beauty, of wit, of spontaneity, along with the illogical though instinctive sense that these children must be of high intellect to be able to converse in this tongue that is a mystery to me. Fortunately, they are often dullards.

George Steiner wrote of the Icelandic language lying “like a thorn hedge around those who can neither understand nor speak it”. Does this minority tongue represent an elite space to its initiates or a shameful under-tongue?

Proust’s child protagonist undergoes similar exclusion:

“Une langue que nous ne savons pas est un palais clos dans lequel celle que nous aimons peut nous tromper, sans que, restes au dehors et desesperement crispes dans notre impuissance, nous parvenons a rien voir, a rien empecher.”

(A language that we do not know is a closed palace in which the person we love can deceive us and,where, locked on the outside and desperately stressed and impotent, we are unable to see or do anything.) 

Characteristically, Proust gives it an erotic charge.

Well, nobody can be included everywhere. The older we get, the more we feel excluded from beauty, from fun, from unthinkingness. And the crime of youth is often to desire too much to be included everywhere. There are so many spaces and understandings of spaces, it is wise to opt out of a broad slice of them.

March 26: praise from a dentist and a doctor

I gleam with pleasure when praised by my dentist this morning. He said you are keeping these teeth in very good condition. I modestly refrained from acknowledging the praise (my mouth was open at the time). He then said: Are you seeing a hygenist on the side? as though accusing me of marital infidelity. No, I wasn’t, I hastened to reassure him. Well, they’re looking good, he added, as he reopened my mouth for another look. It reminded me of a time at the doctors a couple of years ago when I had gone in for a breathing complaint and I did some test to check for asthma and had to blow into a mask that registered my puff. After a moment looking at the gauge the doctor stepped back and said: Well! You have remarkable lungs! Again, I beamed with pride. Maybe it is that I never get any other praise from anyone else, maybe that’s why I beam with pride at praise from a dentist and a doctor. Ah well. Better than no praise at all, I suppose. They’ll put it on my tombstone. Admirable buccal hygiene and remarkable lungs.

March 22: the end of history and a pint of beer

Twenty-five years ago Francis Fukuyama wrote his essay on the end of history. Communism was on the way out and Capitalism had won. I remember heads of the European Union talking about the construction of Europe, monetary union and greater political integration as a historical inevitability. I have friends with backgrounds in literature who have stopped reading at Samuel Beckett, believing the discourse that the dribbling away of the Beckettian voice into silence is the final outcome of fiction; all gibbering diminishing into silence.

And yet life goes on. History goes on. New ideologies spring up (religious or social). There is no inevitability about Europe. Even at the time I remember shaking my head at the outdated and unhealthy notion of inevitability expressed by someone who must have had no conception of what history actually lands you with, and it isn’t inevitabilities. And writers go on writing. People go on gibbering. Sorry if that’s all it is, but if it’s all it is now, it’s all it ever was. And those other plotters of our destiny, the economists, have been proved to have no clue about inevitabilities either!

The fact is that all this teleological fetishism about the end and the inevitable are in flagrant contradiction of the facts that go on all around us; people living, plotting, striving, engaging, having a pint of beer. Shakespeare knew that things don’t end; there are no conclusions. At the end of his history plays , his tragedies, the seeds of the next new tragedy are there. A new king is on the throne and he ain’t perfect either and there’s this younger nephew with ambition in his eyes. A serious mind will find  it is impossible to predict his own next action or instinct, let alone the end of Fukuyama history. 

March 16: my short-termism and my mum

The following does not necessarily mean that I am miserly, but it might.

In my wallet I carry the minimum amount of money. On my Oyster travel card I put the minimum amount so that I can travel for just one day. When I go to the supermarket I shop for just one meal. I do not like having plans (this was something my mum always used to say, I recall. And while on the subject of my mum, she never liked telling people she was going to visit. She did not phone Aunty Molly to see if she was in. I used to say, just phone her.  But no, we just travelled six miles and when she was out we went back home, not even particularly disappointed. It was just the way of things. The idea of a call was as though blasphemy to my mum. As was the idea of knocking on the door of Auntie Molly’s house. Or Auntie Peggy’s. And never use the front door. Always the back door. And just walk in.) I digress, but it may be relevant.

So how do I analyse this short-termism? On the few occasions I have gone out with wads of cash on me my confidence has risen. I am generally not short on confidence but more could do no harm. Or maybe it could. I suppose I like to feel the specific connection between a purchase and my cash. Maybe that reins in my spending. But I’m not a big spender anyway. My big problem is creating and maintaining an appetite, not curbing one. Ce n’est pas la nourriture qui comple, c’est l’appetit, as I like to say. As you get older, the main job is exploring your appetite. It goes against the grain, but it has to be done. For example, I’d like to find some courses on Ancient Babylonian.

I suppose I just like inching forward. I’m an incrementalist.

March 12: the evil of metaphor

Metaphors can easily pull you off the straight and narrow.

Sexism: on why promiscuity amongst men is acceptable but not amongst women. A key that can open any door is a good key but a lock that allows any key to open it is a bad lock.

Racism: on national identity. Just because a cow is born in a stable, it doesn’t mean it’s a horse.

Ageism: When my screwdriver is worn out I throw it away.

Though metaphor isn’t all bad. Consider a favourite from John Donne.

Our two souls therefore which are one…

If they be two, they are two so

As stiff twin compasses are two.

Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show

To move, but doth, if th’other do.

And though it in the centre sit.

Yet when the other far doth roam,

It leans and hearkens after it,

And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt though be to me, who must

Like th’other foo obliquely run,

Thy firmness draws my circle just,

And makes me end where I begun.


Which has all the controlled serenity of a Bach fugue.

Not always rubbish.



March 8: my imaginary partner

The other day there was a knock at the door. I was cooking. I had an apron on. I bought this apron a couple of months back. It also serves as a serviette when I’m eating. I also had flour on my hands. I opened the front door. It was a charity person. Would you like to participate etc etc.It was about 8 PM. I now have a principal that I will give money to charity only in my own time, so I trotted out my habitual line. I would have to speak to my partner about it and my partner isn’t here this evening. Ever the new man. I may in an earlier post have mentioned this little line of mine. I am rather proud of it. When you say it you are untouchable. The she said: when he gets back will you discuss it with him? In my apron and holding my befloured hands up at what must have seemed a precious angle I irritably corrected the charity woman. When she gets back I will discuss it with her. It is very annoying to have the gender of ones invented partner mistaken. Maybe I’ll drop the word partner for next time.

March 8: they can’t touch you for it!

I am, I realise, mostly unwilling to deviate in my virtual life from my general behaviour in my real life. Let me explain this. When I play chess or fantasize or invent stories I am unwilling to let the protagonists of my consciousness deviate from what my normal behaviour would be. That sounds as if I have no imaginative capacity to push away from my habitual functioning. This might be true. It might also be true that I am taking these fictional characters that partake of me so seriously that I refuse to invest them with unrealistic behaviour.

Recently I have thought about experimenting. In chess I see that the only way to be successful is by playing aggressively from the start. This goes against my natural instinct. Equally, it might be an idea to give the characters in a piece of writing that partake of me (I separate characters in stories into two categories: those who are bits of the writer/reader and those who aren’t)  action that places them outside the usual realm of my actions. What the hell! Let’s push the boat out. As they used to say, they can’t touch you for it!