I was at the Tate Modern complex yesterday evening and saw the new extension for the first time. Tate Modern is now a gargantuan complex dedicated to the cause of the modern sensibility. It is mostly a labyrinth of bars and restaurants, lifts and stairways,lobbies and passageways, plus the shops, and then the galleries. It puts me more in mind of the Westfield shopping centre. A middle=class place to hang out in. My six-year-old goddaugher Clara referred to the turbine hall as the play area and that is what it mostly is. Kids doing handstands or playing tag on the long, impact-cushioning carpet. The art you just walk through; it’s an obstacle that stops you getting to the shop or the bar or the viewing gallery. When we look at the art what we are mostly recognising are things we already know about. It is not the business of new revelations. Here’s that spider by Louise Bourgeois; here’s Marilyn Monroe in yellow signed Andy Warhol. ‘ Can tick them off my list now. The feeling they evoke is the smug nostalgia of recognition. Why not take a picture of them on your i-phone? Then there’s proof. Seeing these things, like buying this year’s jeans at the Westfield centre, is a psychological marker. These are appropriate things to see. You have fulfilled your cultural quotient as a primate from your socio-economic tranche. It does not need to touch you. It is accomplished.
For olde dad the body is a new undiscovered country every day. A sore on his back that mysteriously appeared some time ago has just as mysteriously vanished. The hair on the lower part of the legs has gone; they are smooth like a child’s legs. When we take off his socks to cut his toe-nails we see that the elastic in the socks has left a deep channel above the ankle. His nails are like trees from some magic forest in ‘The Lord of the Rings’. One of his eyes has gone small, revealing itself now after 93 years as the weaker of the two. And yet, within all this ageing, I catch a side view of an expanse of cheek as the light slants onto it, its sheen fresh and young like the face of aman in his prime.
His use of garments is a baroque treasure-house, or a French farce, depending on your mood. Where have his new pyjamas gone? They are nowhere to be seen. Not under the bed which is where stuff sometimes lodges. Or in his cupboard. A few weeks ago Helen had laid her underwear out on the landing. It disappeared. Olde dad was caught wearing it. Today he has two pairs of trousers on, one on top of the other.I don’t know how he even managed to pull the outer pair up over the inner pair. He has three layers over his torso. Helen suggests the pyjamas may be the base layer. A clever ruse. Like murdering someone with a leg of lamb, then eating the murder weapon. You have to be Lieutenant Columbo of the LAPD to figure out what’s going on in olde dad’s mind.
Between sleeping and waking is that indeterminate zone where thoughts spin in uncontrollable eddies. Sometimes you catch yourself unawares in this whirlpool. You think you are awake, but then, as you emerge from the vortex you have an instant where you recall the chaos and realise you had been in that antechamber between sleep and waking. It is like this for olde dad a lot now. What he utters are wisps of the unconscious, unspoken preoccupations that seep onto the surface, elfin things. A conversation with him is like the meeting of two alien species across centuries.
Yesterday i was trying to talk to him about going to the barber. His hair has got long and his eyebrows are ferocious. He couldn’t find the word ‘eyebrow’; it kept coming out as ‘strawberry tart’. He eats a cartfull of strawberry tarts every day now. If there are six in the fridge he will eat all six. Strawberry tart has become the deepest, most emblematic embodiment of his heart’s desire.
I asked him what year it was. He muttered for a few moments and then said it was the sixth century. I asked him what month it was. He didn’t know. I said, is it Summer or Winter? He said it was neither. I said, what’s that over there? pointing at the Christmas tree. He examined it and couldn’t make it out. He looked again and said it was a tree. I said it was a Christmas tree. I said it was Christmas. He nodded a bit and looked worried. I’m not sure he knew what that meant.
There is no progress. Every hard earned minute of conversation exists only for and of itself. It is discrete; there is no construction here. The two species have little to say to each other.
LENNOX: “The night has been unruly. Where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down, and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air, as strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events,
New hatched to the woeful time. The obscure bird
Clamoured the livelong day. Some say the earth was fev’rous
And did shake.
MACBETH: Twas a rough night.”
(Macbeth Act II scenec 3)
Yes. I’m back at Olde dad’s for Christmas. Vassia said olde dad was eating a fruit and nut chocolate bar. He ate it but took out all the raisins and the nuts so that he was left with a small collection of nuts and raisins in his hand. He looked at them forlornly like Jack looking at his beans when he’d gone and sold the cow at beanstalk market. Olde dad looked at them and said, how do I reckon them up? Vassia asked him what he meant and he said, how do I know if I’m winning or losing? And Vassia said, it’s not a game, grandad, it’s a chocolate bar.
Last night olde dad was back to his tricks. He was down in the middle of the night with all the lights on. I was lying on the settee in the extension area at the back with my arm over my eyes. I said, dad, go back to bed. He is walking up and down at snail’s pace, his slippers making a regular schlipp-schlipp-schlipp sound on the wooden floor. He made me wait for an answer and then said, no. I got up and went upstairs to see if his bed was wet, whcih would explain why he didn’t want to go back into it, but it wasn’t. No, this was just the deregulation of his inner clock, as usual. Aye,Lennox, twas a rough night.
There are two reasons why I don’t like Christmas crackers. The first is practical. My major worry at Christmas is that the dinner isn’t served cold. Plates must be warmed! And ingrediets must be served in a timely manner! When you are sitting down to Christmas dinner and have just managed to get the food material onto your plate before it gets cold – the turkey (some prefer goose); the roast potatoes and boiled potatoes; the sprouts; the carrots; the stuffing; sausages maybe (though not for me a confusion of meats). On top of which the wine in the glass (red or white; who is wanting what?) Remember the confusion of St Nicholas? And there lying parallel to the cutlery or sometimes diagonally across the plate like a despised weapon is the Xmas cracker. And in a chaos of elbows they are pulled and the wine glasses are knocked over and people read out jokes or look for reading glasses and put paper hats on and insist you put a paper hat on, which I won’t, and through it all my dinner is gretting colder on the plate.
The second reason is ideological. I refuse to be processed through Christmas in the habitual manner. The xmas cracker is emblematic of this delivery system. I reckon Adorno and the Frankfurt school would have none of the Christmas cracker. The authorities will look to channel me through xmas via christmas strictly come dancing, the X-mas factor, Slade and Wizard and Dean Martin with his smug Xmas medley in Tesco. I know the counter argument: that the ritual of crap jokes and cold dinner is a meaningless sequence through which we construct more significant meaning, a radical overhaul of the habitual quest for material value; working against the grain. But sorry, I can’t be dealing with this post-modern version of christmas crackerdom.
When we go round to my other sister’s house on Boxing Day for what I refer to as the return fixture there will be more crackers laid out: so-called luxury crackers. The ideological struggle goes on.
I saw my friend Nick eating a chicken leg for lunch yesterday. This got my imagination going. I needed a chicken leg for dinner. That night I went to Tesco on the way home and picked up a chicken. Popped it in the oven at 6.15. It was out and ready to eat at 7.45. I accompanied my chicken with roast potatoes, carrots, broccoli and also some apple sauce (controversial, I know, but it’s what I do). But as I sat down to eat the chicken gradually a terrible thought edged into view. I had committed a cardinal error. The chicken that my imagination had formed had been cold chicken and this was warm chicken. It did not fill the chicken shaped hole in my imagination adequately. Oh, I ate the chicken, the potatoes, the carrots, the broccoli, the apple too, but it was contre-coeur, against my better instincts. Tonight, of course, I have some cold chicken available (I hadn’t eat the entire bird). But where is Nick eating his cold chicken leg when you need him? In South Kensington. And I have been south of the river all day. And who’s to say he’s on cold chicken again today anyway? And who’s to say it would be Nick that my fickle imagination appointed to dictate the needs of my anarchic appetite? It could be any random individual called up to play the role of piper to my poor rat of a free will.