I don’t like snakes, or, rather, I fear them. If ever I drink strong alcohol, that night I dream of snakes. On Saturday night after a short party where I drank three cocktails made mostly of whisky and whiskey I had a snake dream. A very long thick snake was in all the low cupboards that ran round the walls of the room I was in. I kept shutting the sliding doors of the cupboards but as I ran to the next one the snake’s head would appear as it grew by the second. It doesn’t take much whisky to get me snake-dreaming.
When I was younger and drank more and my body was more volcanic I used to get a beer spot, in the dead centre of my face on my upper lip, or a wine spot, in the middle of my nose, or a whisky spot in the middle of my forehead. All these pimples were dead centre, an emblematic index to a night spent on the tiles.The body documented the preceeding night, as it now does through snake dreams. The body knows.
In the gym those of us without earphones in are having to listen to the music beamed out across the space. I don’t want to go to school. I just want to break the rules, intones some teenage simulacrum. In the gym this Sunday afternoon we are mostly middle-aged. Thee are some people in their twenties. One or two oldsters. There are no schoolkids. Schoolkids aren’t allowed in our gym. So why are we listening to this? Come to think of it, why is the staple fare of all popular music and culture teenage rebellion? Why, twenty, thirty, forty years after leaving school and our spotty adolescent awkwardness, have we not found another mode for our popular culture? Ironic, of course, in that the companies producing this stuff, the music companies, the film studios, are the most conservative and reactionary of institutions. They peddle rebellion but they do not want rebellion. This music is the soft sop that keeps us all in thrall.
I remember thinking the same thing at university when studying Romantic literature. My university is the bastion of the staus quo. It has, I believe, produced every UK Prime Minister except John Major (no university) and Gordon Brown (Edinburgh?). Did the establishment (whatever that is) know that many of the heroes of Western literature we were meant to admire were marginals and drop-outs? We still live in the era of a form of late Romanticism. Our heroes are drunk, divorced ex-cops, the societies we portray in our literatures and music to evoke our world are dystopias.
It might be that many of us require the counter-balance of a leisure-life rebellion to tolerate the sacrifices of our working life. This is not an equation that includes me (remember leisure is work, work is leisure). I like my culture to be society-friendly I don’t want to pretend I want out. I want in. I want a voice to be genuinely realistic and include our compromises and compensations. I don’t want to break the rules especially, unless the rules genuinely need breaking. As we all pound along on the treadmills or accomplish another set of strokes on the rowing machines the fantasy of going back to school and breaking all the rules is enough to nourish many grown-ups. I am alienated by all this alienation.
I teach languages by the pool of light method. It is a revolutionary method.You start with a small pool of light. In that pool you have your basic verbs: verbs of discourse (speak, say); movement (go, walk); sensation (see, look, hear), little gesture (take, put, prepare), routine (sleep, work). Just these small good things, as Raymond Carver says. They are in our pool of light. Beyond the pool of light is the dark. The dark stretches for miles. It is all the words we do not know. There are many of these. It is dangerous, the dark. You must learn to stay in your pool of light. People find it hard to stay in the pool. When they speak they immediately wander out of the pool of light into the dangerous woods. They want to say I pick up. They cannot. Pick up is not in your pool of light, I say. Take is in your pool. Say take. They want to say cook. Cook is not in your pool of light, I say, but prepare is in your pool. Say I prepare the steak, not I cook the steak. You can say I prepare the steak. Stay in the pool. They want to say combined harvester. Combined harvester, or for that matter any farming vehicle or agricultural accessory, is not in your pool of light. It is right in the middle of the evil forest. You cannot say combined harvester. You have been studying this language for half an hour. Stay in the f—ing pool of light. The pool of light I have built for you, painstakingly built for you. Do not step outside. The woods are perilous. They want to say saunter. I nod, hardly containing my exasperation. Yes. It’s that pool of light again. Saunter is in the forest, off the path even. Walk. You can walk. That is in the pool of light. What’s that? You have a question? Of course you can ask a question. Fire away! What’s that? You don’t understand the pool of light. All right. That’s fine. Shall we have a little break now and come back to this later.
The word churlish is one I always like to use. It means surly, awkward, obdurate. It comes from churl, which was a serf back in the olden days. The other word in the same vein is refractory. I’m a fan of this one too. I picked it up from the TS Eliot poem on the Magi where he applies it to camels. The camels refractory. I think you might call camels obdurate. I don’t know if you could have a churlish camel. Maybe because the word churlish has something very human about it, whereas refractory comes from a phenomenon.
My question is what would you rather be: churlish, refractory or obdurate? It’s a question we should all ask ourselves. Why doesn’t it figure in one of those quizes in women’s magazines? As in: your boyfriend has left the apartment in a mess after a night in with the lads. You come back home after a hard day at your fashion booking agency on Madison Avenue. The next morning are you a) obdurate b) refractory c) churlish.
That’s my kind of quiz. Would fit nicely with the two tattoos I’ve just had applied, one on each shoulder. On the left shoulder I’ve got ‘Taxis are for weddings and funerals’ in Ancient Sumerian and on the right shoulder it says ‘Say No to A vegetables’ in the Apache script. By the way A vegetables (Asparagas, Aubergine, Artichoke) are not proper. They were invented in the South East of England. C vegetables are more proper.
I am loath to pick up new turns of phrase. The word yay! for example, which I have a particular dislike for. It is not my word; I don’t know where it’s been or where it’s come from; it’s a word that just materialised and has no meaning to me, no connotations, no associations (except that I feel it defines the desperate aspiration of the user). Why would I use such a word? A word or expression needs to mean something to me. It needs to be like a worn pair of slippers moulding to the foot or an old pebble from the seaside. This is why I insist on using words I used when young. I go to the pictures not the movies. It was the word we had at home. I can, at a pinch, go to the cinema. It was the word I did at another time of life. I remembered another one of these from my distant past the other day which I mentioned a few weeks ago and now try to remember to always use. The sands, not the beach. We always used to say that. Going to the sands.
This is a kind of nostalgia, I suppose. But it’s also a desire to inhabit the words we use. What am I going to do with the windy new barn I find erected in my town that is the word yay? I can’t live there, I don’t know what you do in that building. I’m not saying I’ll never go into a new edifice, but I’ll want to know the materials used to build it and have a pretty good idea about who was financing it and how it got its planning application approved.
I remembered the other day what happened at a party I went to some years ago. It was an arty kind of party. After a drink or two I can, though I say so myself, be rather ludic at such gatherings. I am not adverse to extrapolating or massaging the truth to avoid the grey monotonies of conversing with people you don’t know. I was involved in one such conversation with someone who was being somewhat ludic too. She had startted with some playful offering and, in great style I had picked up the conceit and ran with it, elaborating and embroidering spontaneously. She was, may I say, unable to keep pace with my repartee but did her best. After ten or fifteen minutes the amusing bantering dialogue reached its natural end. Time to mingle elsewhere. At this point this woman produced a card:
You have just been entertained by… The Party Conversation Group. Available for hire.
The poor girl probably didn’t sleep that night. Bettered by an unwitting amateur. I just give this stuff out for free. I never realised there was a market for it.
I have a terrible affliction. This is something that has pursued me my entire life, as far back as I can remember. It is a malady, let’s call it a pathology, that diminishes my life both materially, in wasting so many of my waking hours, and psychologically, imprisoning me in a dank cell from which there seems no escape.
My affliction is this: whilst accomplishing routine household tasks (peeing, washing-up, brushing teeth, pressing the button on my espresso coffee machine and HOLDING IT DOWN), I count. 60 seconds for the coffee, 100 seconds for the teeth. Units of 60 for peeing and 25 for the washing-up. My chores are measured out by internal chronometre. This dread pathology means that I annul whole swathes of life, processing it through the grey anonymity of numbers.
My resolution? Thoughts! Observation! Life! Reject the tyranny of the internal chronometre. Embrace the stuff of life. The delightful whirr of the coffee machine! The charming arc of pee-fall! The pleasures of hands bathing in the warmth of washing-up water! Who says the modern world holds no domestic pleasures for us?