June 12: mozart’s chambermaid

The effects in a Mozart sonata are both slight and far-reaching. Take, for example the sonata in F major K533 which I was listening to yesterday. The first movement is typical of Mozart: a simple figure, childlike in its simplicity, repeated with minor variation, at times with the Alberti bass. The Alberti bass is that left hand accompaniment to the right hand tune, a kind of flowing trill-like repetition that creates a running background to the melody. As you get halfway through any Mozart sonata movement, five minutes or so in, there may be a shift to minor or a tiny development like a wider more yearning kind of interval between a couple of the notes, the effect being the creation of a kind of delicate, domestic crisis within the music. A tiny crisis. I think of a 1780s chambermaid making an error in her sorting of the washing and being rebuked by the Lady or Master of the house. The reaction of the Lady of the house reveals to the chambermaid that she is no longer in favour and will soon be dismissed. A tiny crisis with deep, maybe existential repercussions.

Rousseau was writing his Confessions just a few years earlier in the 1760s. There is a heart-breaking anecdote he recounts from when he was a young man in service and stole a small piece of coloured ribbon, an item of some luxury at the time. The theft was discovered and the young Rousseau planted the ribbon on a middle-aged serving woman who was accused and humiliated, the implication being that as a middle-aged woman it was pathetic for her to be fancifying herself.  She was, if I recall rightly, dismissed. Rousseau goes on to confess that this was the act in his life (a life of many guilty acts) of which he was most ashamed. It is a moving anecdote and, much like the habitual thirty second patch of pathos in a movement of a Mozart sonata, the presentation of a trivial crisis with deep consequences. Any period of content can be shattered by the most trivial of incidents. The individual is fragile and vulnerable and can be shattered by as little a thing as a coloured ribbon or a shift from major to minor keys.



June 9: bottled water

I remember when I first went to France in the early eighties and noting the use of bottled water (Evian; Perrier; Vichy). In the UK I hadn’t really noticed people drinking bottled water rather than tap water. Gradually, of course, it became pervasive. Tap water is cheaper (two thousand times cheaper, it has been estimated); healthier (there are more health tests on tap water than on bottled water); less polluting (the fuss about plastic straws pales into insignificance next to the the mountains of plastic bottles). In fact, the industry of bottled water must be a classic case of how to create demand out of nothing. It is like selling air to hikers in a forest. Once, when I was going round businesses asking for old cardboard boxes to help me move house I inadvertently went ino a cardboard box seller; they thought it was a rather dull practical joke. Now the small bottle of water has become a fetish, like the phone, or the cigarette to smokers. It is the object that transmits your nervousness or anxiety. You can shake it, squash it (creating that familiar and ennervating scruching sound), hold it in any number of fun ways. In fact, there are any number of ways through which you can annoy people in cinemas, theatres, concerts, exams. And yet, the pervasive signifier of the bottle of water remains virtue. It pollutes and impoverishes, and yet because of big business it triumphs. The business of water was solved at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century in the UK, most of Western Europe and the US. Pipes were put in homes and businesses and directed through plentiful taps. It was practically free. This means little in the face of a few images of teenage models having fun in Switzerland with handy bottles.


May 31: snoring

It is a remarkable thing about the snore that it is almost impossible to hear oneself snoring. As a snorer myself (or so I am informed) I receive only tantalizing intimations of my affliction. This is how it works. I am asleep and am woken up by someone using the word ‘snore’. As I wake up I catch only the last fraction of my snore and am convinced in my half-sleep that what I was actually doing was merely sniffling or snuffling (any number of words with sniff or snuff in them) as I shifted in my sleep. I am furious as my waker has not waited long enough to see that this was not snoring, just snuffling. My waker has been Olympic-quick off the mark to snuff out the snuffle, too quick. Did my waker not see that this was a mere snuffle? What I am not understanding (apparently) is that I had in fact been snoring for ages but have been asleep and so unaware of the drone I was creating. The snuffle was, in fact, the full stop ot rather the three dots indicating ellipsis at the end of a long tedious paragraph of snore.

Can we take this phenomenon as a metaphor for life? When someone raises an issue with us about some particular aspect of our behaviour that they do not appreciate, we are often bemused by how such a tiny issue (brushing your teeth in the living room; putting vegetables and fruit cheek by jowel in the fruit bowl; grubby potatoes and pristine plum) could give rise to a complaint. What we do not see is that this is merely the final straw of a long liturgy of irritants tolerated in stoic silence, and that already, even as the issue is brought to our attention, it is too late to eradicate. Unbenownst to you, your snoring, or its equivalent, has been annoying the auditor for a life time already.



May 20: burnt meat

My mum used to burn the meat, or at least cook it to a cinder. She mostly cooked meat in the oven. That way it was out of harm’s way. You could not see the blood leak to the surface behind the oven door. It was probably a squeamishness concerning the dead animal on her part. She would put some modest pieces of steak in the oven and three hours later, at the end of a long Sunday afternoon, the steaks would emerge, half the original size, very dark now, almost incinerated. The steak was now like a small piece of furniture or a blackened knuckle duster. And very hard. My mum and dad swore till they were red in the face that the longer you cooked the meat the more it became tender. This seemed to me to be patently not the case but there was no arguing with them.

This misconception about the need to overcook meat to make it tender was one of those notions that defined them, probably my mum (my dad just went along). We all have a number of these that live within us and somehow plot our identity. There is no logic to them. We cite them automatically and cease to think about whether we believe them or not. There may be deep subterranean reasons for them (my mum’s fear of the dead beast) or they may just be random. I, for example, will not eat a vegetable starting with the letter ‘A’. Aubergine; asparagus; artichoke. People see me eating an avocado and look to catch me out. Always one step ahead, I insist on the telling nuance: the avocado, my friend, is a fruit. Oh yes, you have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch me with an ‘A’ vegetable on my plate.


May 6: all understandings are misunderstandings

Many years ago I gave a girlfriend a copy of a second-hand translation into French of David Copperfield. When she read it she said she liked it and cited the scene where as a boy David returns to the village where he had lived as a small child with his now dead mother and sleeps on her grave. I remember her saying she loved this moment. I knew that she had lost her own mother as a child and that her mother had in fact committed suicide, so I could see why. Forever after that I would always refer to the scene where David sleeps on his mother’s grave to other people as an example of a wonderful scene in what I think is my favourite Dickens novel. Recently, I thought I’d try and find the passage, but until now I have been unable to locate it. I have not reread the book from cover to cover but have tracked back and forth around the relevant area of the novel. Could it be that no such scene exists?

Reading and the recollection of reading bring forth all kind of fissures and fault lines, moments when our attention strayed and we lost the plot, misrememberings. There is the section in one of Stendhal’s texts – I think it is in his Italian voyages – where he recounts how it was when he was marching with Napolean’s army after the battle of Borodino, only to suddenly realize that what he was recalling was actually  his memory of an engraving of this event he had on his wall. Our life slides over the things we read and write and remember and foggs them, replaces them, rewrites them. We know, of course, that this happens in life. Most arguments I have are to do with flawed memories of what was said when. Did I say we would go out on Wednesday after you said you said you had to stay in to do some work or before? And when the dispute subsides we trace back and try and remember how the misunderstanding arose. Mostly, we are investigating our memory and concentration lapses and those moments when the mind has got confused.

All readings are false readings. All understandings are misunderstandings.




May 1: family values

We were walking towards the tube at ‘Chalk Farm’.There was a man at a bus stop screaming at a woman one inch from her face. As we crossed the road he hit her heavily and she fell to the ground. There were a couple of people sitting at the bus stop ignoring the scene. At the entrance to the tube there were five or six people watching. As we crossed the road I thought we have to intervene somehow. As I was walking across to the couple – they were still screaming at each other and the man was getting reading to thump her again – I was looking round at the people at the bus stop to see if there were any who might come with me to confront this big bloke. As I got closer to the scene and the abused woman noticed me bearing down, she suddenly rushed across and started hurling abuse and obscenities at us. In a word, our help was not required. We turned round and walked towards the tube. The woman continued to follow us and scream abuse. At any moment I was expecting a blow to the back of my head, from her or the man. Though it wasn’t the man; it was just her. It was a case of the abused protecting the abuser. The clan sticks together, no matter what. I heard the old term ‘family values’ again the other day. Families are often the site of abuse because they will often close ranks to protect their own. The victim will remain a victim rather than betray the inner culture. The suffocating circle produces drama in the shape of classical or neo-classical tragedy; there is no escape from the confines of the unities of time, space and action. You are bound to that place that is the family. You must defend it, its odours and its blood, though it reduces you. Greek tragedy works with this. They are dread family dramas set in the House of Atreus and other noble domesticies. Familial horns are locked in attrition. The great novel of this is Zola’s ‘La Terre’ (‘Earth’), where a man helps his lover escape an abusive and barbaric family. Whereupon, as retribution for wanting out, the family gang rapes her. Whereupon she sides with them against the outsider. If you utter the term ‘family values’ it tells us more about the sheltered life you’ve led. Family values depend on the family.




April 24: poetry today

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.