At the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens Medieval festival over the Easter weekend there was a medieval trio, the Princes in the Tower (‘party like it’s 1555’, seventy or so years after the princes in the tower but not to worry); a falconry man; some armed combat between knights in arms and some poetry performances. I cannot watch poetry. I run away behind a tree. I can be the same about theatre. I need to sit next to the exit. What I think I am getting embarrassed about is the histrionics and extrovert nature of performance. This time I did run away behind a tree but wafts of it came over to me. It had high performance, aggressive energy levels. It was unbearable. It foregrounded the performance, leaving the material in the shadows. Maybe in the poetry I like the performer is minor. The performer is like a good referee in a football match, invisible. The material just comes through. I suppose performance is one way of trying to make poetry relevant or engaging. The other manifestation of poetry today are the rhymed couplets we hear as trailers on the television. There is one trailing the coverage of the London marathon at the moment. I don’t like this stuff either. It is poetry of the type:
All kinds of sizes will run in the race
But only the best will keep up with the pace
The fat and the thin; the svelte and the chubby;
A wife doing her best to keep up with her hubby;
The ages they go from spotty youth to ninety-three;
They’re all on the way to get home for their tea.
The doggerel. the rhyme, the references to family, the sense of the cosy, the inclusivity of it all, the fake fraternity. It could be an advert for Horlicks. It’s that unchallenging.
I was on the tube this morning sitting next to a man with an extensive selection of ironmongery through his face: a pin through his eyebrow; a sliver of steel through his lip and a whole trove of metal about his ear, including one of those wide studs enlarging the ear lobe that are at the very apex of metallurgical fashion these days. He was with a woman with no ironwork at all; she was just wearing an anorak. The lobe-enlarging stud was perhaps first noted by Sir Walter Raleigh on his trip down the Orinocco in the Sixteenth century where he went to try and discover the lost kingdom of Eldorado. When he came slinking back empty-handed he was duly beheaded. Voltaire referenced Raleigh in ‘Candide’where he has his eponymous hero being boiled in a pot by cannibals he calls the ‘Oreillons’, the ear tribe. Anyway, seeing this twenty-first century descendant of the Oreillons on the tube got me thinking about the many lives I could have led. There was a time back in the Eighties as a very young man when I toyed with the idea of having an ear-ring. It never happened. It also never happened that I became a dusy gent in brogues. When you are young, for some reason, you need to find a genre, you are just aching to leap into a barrel with a load of other similarly dressed people. There were many genres I managed to avoid until finally ending up with what was left: the intersection of many sets from a complex Venn diagram and the idea that the more this genre is undefinable the better it is. A complex shaded zone that makes me, I hope, into the ideal of all right-thinking individuals, a man without qualities.
I have a prejudice that, no matter how I try and shrug it off, adheres to me. It is my feeling that when someone ages prematurely this aging process derives from some kind of moral flaw. Nonsense of course. When people ask me how I’m looking so well (this has happened, I assure you) I say jokingly it is because of moral thoughts. Is this much more than the notion of spiritual or even worse inner peace having a hand in keeping you looking well on the outside. Probably not. These notions, like my notion, are pretty fascist. The truth is that life can ravage your packaging, dent your capsule, no matter how whole or harmonious you feel on the inside. Whips and scorns can break you no matter how many blueberries you eat. The constant refrain that we have the choice of this and that, that we make our own destiny (a deluded Capitalist lie) is not freedom at all because it flies in the face of everything we experience and see about us. Embracing the randomness is actually the greatest manifestation of your freedom.
There is this book ‘Sapiens’ going round, being perused by a range of self-important folk in the tube and elsewhere. Sapiens, as in homo sapiens, man. It is one of those total titles. It covers the world for you. I don’t know who wrote it. It is surely a Professor of Something with a Chair in something somewhere. We live in an era of short cuts to learning and wisdom. Of course, there are the self-help books that cover most of the ground floor of any bookshop now, but also there are these more learned volumes that claim to take us through from bottom to top of the enterprise that is us. Then the reader goes off knowing everything. Job done. They can get back on Instagram. Totalising is, of course, a valid enough enterprise. You cut through to the essential. The danger is that in any business of this nature there are generalisations, short cuts. The writer will mention Rousseau for one little reference to a movement in the 18th Century but will never have read him. It reminds me of a friend at university who was once telling me about Rabelais. He had read a chapter in a book on literary theory about the Russian critic Bakhtin’s book about Rabelais. so, having read no Rabelais (no 16th Century French literature at all, not even in English translation) and having read no Bakhtin at all, he was spewing out the opinion of a writer, who perhaps himself had never really read them. In the process, ideas are coarsened. A couple of little generalisations emerge. This is a phenomenon you get a lot of in contemporary art. You read the accompanying text to a piece of conceptual art and it cites Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida et al. You know this guy hasn’t read any of these people. Lots of short cuts. When everyone reads Sapiens and depends on their view of a whole range of thinkers on this digest, they are opening themselves up to all kinds of potential manipulation, intentional or unintentional.