Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

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Artificial melancholy in Sutton Coldfield

My wife says it’s a shame that I’m reduced to blogging about the contents of garden centres (see last post), and she probably has a point. But while I’m still in the mood, here’s a quick tour around select bits of Hall’s of Sutton Coldfield, a surprisingly off kilter venue nestling innocently just outside Birmingham, whose displays of massed cultural fossils achieve fresh and unerring incongruity overload, reuniting Nature with ruin and artificial melancholy in a tradition extending back to the eighteenth century. In connection with which, I was delighted to find above the toilet doors a print of Millais’s Cherry Ripe, a kitsch icon and descendant of Joshua Reynolds’s Penelope Boothby as already discussed in this post. Other highlights include a “Japanese Water Garden” (with both piped water and piped pseudo-oriental music), a vast stock of worryingly large plastic animals and a gargantuan dinosaur on a pallet on the roof. (Oh yes, and look carefully and you’ll see that the tree man, behind the frog and duck fountains, houses a surveillance camera.)

A previous foray here into contemporary kitsch, my post on the Trafford Centre in Manchester, left one commenter feeling “a bit queasy”. This is all very much miniaturised in comparison with that postmodern Xanadu, but I hope these images may have just a little of the same effect. (Click thumbnails for slides and click below slides for mega enlargements. )

The Improdigal Father

This blogs needs a re-injection of energy. Sorry. Meanwhile, Happy Father’s Day for yesterday! Far be it from me to criticise Jesus’s skills as a creator of parables, but don’t you sometimes feel that the figure of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son is rather too blank, too blameless? Isn’t self reproach a part of the suffering of God the Father? Shouldn’t the whole thing be more symmetrical? So here’s a little vision that came to me yesterday during Communion. With a nice pic by Max Beckmann.

The Improdigal Father

After the younger son had left for a distant country, there to squander his wealth, the presence of his remaining brother proved a diminishing comfort to the father, who entered a dark period of prolonged remorse and self-examination. News of the famine in his son’s adopted country and of the young man’s impoverished and pitiful condition only deepened the old man’s guilt, while the severely dutiful character of the older son became less a compensation than an irritant.

Max Beckmann, The Prodigal Son

Max Beckmann, The Prodigal Son

“It’s all very well you slaving out here in the fields all day,”  commented his father, “but your brother is starving, somewhere hundreds of miles away, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. And you working all hours and calculating the profits isn’t going to help. Your brother’s going to die and you’re in complete denial.”

“Well someone’s got to take care of business,” said the son. “And you’re just sitting around moping all day and beating yourself up about it. What good does that do?”

His father didn’t answer.

“And maybe,” his son continued, “he wouldn’t have left in the first place if you hadn’t been so hard on him, banging on all the time about responsibility and aspiration. You never played with us when we were little, you know. We didn’t exactly have a fun childhood.”

“I know, I know” mumbled the father. “But then, your grandfather was very distant with me when I was small. I never had much of an example to follow.”

But his son wasn’t listening. “And then,” he continued, “after all those years of repression, to go and give him his half of the estate, all in one go. You might have known what would happen. Total disaster! He simply couldn’t handle it, but that wasn’t his fault.”

“I know, I know. But I was trying to do the right thing. I wanted to make it up to him for being so hard on him. But I just made everything worse.”

Then news came that his lost son had been spotted, a long way down the road, walking back home. The old man rushed out of the house, tears staining his face, and ran to find him. When he met him he threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“I’m so sorry,” he wept. “It’s all my fault. I have sinned against heaven and against you. I’ve been a useless dad; in fact I’m no longer worthy to be called your father. I’ve been so depressed and guilty about it. A day hasn’t gone past when I haven’t reproached myself for everything that’s happened. I’ve lain awake every night thinking about your situation, worrying about the future. And your brother hasn’t helped. He’s grown so cold and hard, like me. All he thinks about is his work. I only wanted the best for you both. Where did I go wrong?”

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” said the young man. “You don’t have to feel bad about it any more. I’m home now and things will be better, you’ll see. We’ve both learned a valuable lesson. I’ll tell you what – have you still got a fattened calf left? Why don’t we go home and kill it and have a feast to celebrate? That’ll cheer you up a bit.”

When the older brother found out what was happening, he became angry and resentful. But his younger brother said to him, “Celebrate with us and be glad. This father of ours was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.”

Bulletins from Nowhere

Predictive spelling on your phone is just low level annoyance, but predictive writing, as Stephen Hawking recently warned the world, will soon drag us all to Cybergeddon. Or will it? Will the technology really take over our thinking, or is Hawking in science fiction mode?

Hawking: the end of the human race?

Hawking: the end of the human race?

I often use my Amazon Kindle Fire to email. As on many devices, its keyboard flashes up the word it thinks I’m typing, along with a few more or less likely alternatives; it then offers the next word in the sequence, again with options – some sensible, others baffling. Generally I ignore the lot, but today I thought I’d try tapping with the flow, to see what the Kindle might have to say for itself. Below are the five short messages that it wrote.

The rules of my experiment are simple: generate a message subject, or the first word in a sentence, by randomly tapping the keyboard and selecting a ‘corrected’ suggestion. Choose subsequent words by their suitability for the syntactical flow, and not for their meaning or prominence. (Not always possible, so syntax is often erratic.) Insert a full stop / exclamation / colon when the grammatical structure touches ground. End the message when things seem to short circuit.

fireThis makes for a rather disquieting form of automatism. My own recent phrasings flow back to taunt me, but mangled up with elements of some sort of alien Kindle in-house uber-content. As a result, names may be familiar: ‘Delancey’ is the evil property empire involved in the Wolverhampton sculpture campaign that occupied too much of my time last year, while ‘Jack November’ is the stage name of German chanteuse Daniela Moos, whose work I much like. Or worryingly not so: ‘Chris Dodd’ and ‘Chuck Schumer’ turn out to be US democratic politicians of whom I’d never heard but whom Amazon obviously thinks I need to reference. But who the hell are ‘Guv’, ‘Tzu’ or ‘Dr Congo’? ‘Guv’ crops up with significant frequency in these messages; I imagine him as primal, slightly threatening, something close to Eliot’s Sweeney character.

Compared with the more exuberant artificially generated texts left on my site by spammers – see an earlier post – these little bulletins are narrow and oddly depressing. The writer appears to be some sort of unsuccessful small time agent. His style is almost telegraphic. He is nervous and his content often repetitive, as if to compensate for having too little to report. He has obviously been sending these bulletins for some years and is now reduced to going through the motions for the sake of his meagre allowance. Most of what he has to say is about who’s not talking to whom about what.

Though occasionally there are incongruous or alarming flashes: ‘Civil war is a real concern.’ Really? A very British Civil War though, judging by his mention of the Church of York volunteer infantry division.

The tone of the messages is curious, but not quite what I expected. I can’t see too much here to worry Hawking, though ‘Children are all the same’ is an interesting assertion, and you have to admit that ‘Fight against terrorism and red hat enterprise’ is one stirring slogan … Hectic fix!

 

Fig leaf and Delancey

No one else has been corrected. Guv and Delancey phoned round the press releases that the sculpture will not be returned. OK with the culture’s move to Wolverhampton archive for now, if you can shed some light on this when I get back. Guv and Delancey sent it, the anarchist and a guy who worked with the illustrations. Guv to me: but I’ve never noticed that vinyl exists. I’ve just moved house temporarily to Ironbridge and red has faded away.

Tzu and Delancey don’t seem to be meaningless. Chris Dodd and Delancey phoned the same thing today anyway. Text file to me. Yet another example of the past few weeks since I enquired and Delancey sent it to me. Dieter and Delancey don’t talk about this.

Guv and red hat enterprise and a few days can’t access the folder.

 

City

It’d be meaningless and a bit like facing death. Text of the letter shows that the legalities and Delancey sent it to me. Rich and Delancey phoned to the line between a few weeks ago and I have been confused by the same thing today. Guv and Delancey don’t talk about this.

City officials said that the same thing as a few days ago when the sculpture will be returned. Dr Congo and Delancey phoned to the technology and a guy who worked with the culture’s move will not be able to reply till Saturday.

Fight against terrorism and red hat enterprise!

 

Juju

Chubb was given a statement by Macbride. Finnegan and Delancey sent it to the verse in the Midlands Today report. Children are all the same. Xavier and Delancey phoned the same time. Dr John Edwards has faded away for the same thing. Jack November and Delancey sent it to me. Cheers!

 

Such a guy

If you can shed some light on this when I get back, hope to be meaningless. Use of the stick – to me that is beyond impressive. DVD availability for the image is interesting: on the image is a bunch of ten modern railway covers.

Chuck Schumer cut off the image of the past. Crude prices for the offer of a guy who is interesting to me. Obviously this is not sure. Civil war is a real concern. Both are all over again in the Midlands. UK’s largest sites are all over the place.

 

Oh!

Rustic to me, true to the technology of electronically capturing and red hat enterprise, the sculpture will not be returned from home. Scientists have been confused by Archer and Delancey. Tzu and Delancey don’t know why. Tzu to me: you may be meaningless. Guv to me: Church of York volunteer infantry division. You can shed some light on the same lot of people who worked with the culture’s move to Wolverhampton.

I fix the problem here. Audio files and folders in the Midlands News first time in the same time. Sufi to me: Guv and Delancey don’t know why we should have been confused by the same thing today.

Hectic fix! Third parties in the Midlands so won’t tell me.

Spam Ghosts

Let’s have a break from Barbara Hepworth.

Those who blog will know too well the spam messages that are regularly thrown at their “comments” boxes, usually attempting to pass off links to dodgy sites offering fake Calvin Klein underwear etc. A while back, in the process of deleting a backlog of these, I bothered to read them. Some turned out to be unusually interesting found texts. Many are collages of randomly snipped and pasted  bits of internet blather, wrapped round key words intended to lure search engines. Others are in an unearthly register that seems to be the result of having been repeatedly passed from Chinese to Latvian to English through some clunky online translator until the syntax starts to unravel. They are so processed that in a real sense they have become autonomous texts, without authors. Though much is inevitably tedious, nuggets can be found, so here is a selection, lightly edited but none of the wording mine.

I particularly like the brief but deeply bizarre excerpt from what appears to be a stage or film script. The original of this – at whatever remove there may have been an original – eludes me.

 

Spam Ghosts

I

A reciprocating saw and an 18% increase in the box, a little ingenuity. It can take two hours – sometimes, incredibly, four – to continue their shifts. They are available depending on the traditional.  A hand drill and the Middle East. You simply take one of the rebate money. Guinea pigs, the task speedily and efficiently.

Well, the next generation helmet. Once it acquires the shares, compared to other places. Tofu slices cook up all those past and have a good fit. Astonishingly, the world’s largest appliance manufacturer in town. Moreover, the first gear and almost immediately following a long time of batteries.

This doll does not always possible. Be truthful when describing the item first. Find any lubrication points. Each product is hygroscopic. Okay, my wife woke me up!

Improperly using, be sure you get really good improvements and efficiency. For the most unsafe is the biggest gold producer in America. The very first time for changing the cut angle in a standard broom. Five of the Amish. Cooking can be used to cut and work your weaker side.

It boasts a newly designed handle-grip with finger support. The needle is that they throw some accessories in about 15 minutes. So you have to give gifts through it. Ken Tucky, Kentucky. How much the same period of three wires? There’s not a budget-friendly decision.

That is too much work. Is water vapor a pollutant? Operator, your next question comes from Richard Eastman. You can custom build your own. Building a boat using hand tools that are not brought under one roof. Disadvantages? However, it bounces back. For sure, and martial arts.

II

Improbably! Bravo, seems to me, is a brilliant phrase. It not absolutely that is necessary for me. Who else, what can prompt?

What necessary phrase. Super, remarkable idea. Many performers real about with name. It is remarkable, rather amusing message, very useful piece. Certainly it was and with me.

Let’s discuss this question. Willingly I accept. An interesting theme. I will take part. Together we can come to a right answer.

In my opinion you are not right. I suggest it to discuss. Write to me in PM. In it something is. Clearly, thanks for the help in this question. I consider that you commit an error. I can defend the position. Additionally posture people pays to even is not hard. A from. They may through the particular. I can consult you on this question. Together we can find the decision.

It is a pity that now I cannot express – it is compelled to leave. I will be released – I will necessarily express the opinion on this question. I apologise, but, in my opinion, you commit an error. Let’s discuss. Write to me in PM. I consider that you are not right. I am assured. At all is not present.

Perhaps, I shall agree with your opinion. It does not approach me. I do not see your logic. So simply does not happen. You will not want, there will be and so forth. As a variant, yes. There are other variants? Then there’s. Having completely. It is possible and necessary to discuss infinitely.

Also what? Write to me in PM.

III

That which was problematic were the group ideas which are produced inside of me and even must be well. Curative PERFECTIONISM. Imagine if it were you possibly cost your problematic damaged, produced important companion of the part you created that can help you continue hassle via your outstanding the fact you goodness created. Let’s say you often see a pride damaged conscious with tons of the fear and so defenses when attempting ways have complete control to within. Taking will always relationships. Getting rid of troubles just isn’t whom you are.

On the other hand, there are actually indication you can be cautious about. As an example, with the unique the internet, you can get yourself sunglasses stated in visible gold lamp shades and that are fitted with rivets and anchoring screws are difficult to eliminate. Could possibly be aware that many portions of frameworked incorporate turtle adult men. I was evaluate thus dearly appreciated and also before developed of what invented.

Are various kinds of kinds of attire yet qualities for dog. A cheaper price cups are generally effortless the actual market designer handbags about unhealthy on astigmatism. Are various kinds of kinds of clothes and as well as equipment offered to dog. Some people different types of apparel become stated here. Bonus matter much that you need to believe just about whenever you patronising concerning styles includes securing all of your new eyes. The majority of us look to have a baby that experts claim when it comes to anyone protection that company straight along a copulate of tincted genus page. Truth Lord Day can’t more get to leave the dresser vision. Naught can represent multiple from many.

You may also like.

IV

What a stuff of un-ambiguity and preserveness of precious experience concerning unpredicted emotions.

V

Steady still most women efficacious allure firearms. Greatest towards toe of the foot the front door with footwear goods retire from two to three centimetres conflict. Midsole honest no significantly micro. The nice digits miss to peaceful. Her attract skiff runs in all respects rise nearby of her quickness in which on the way to stand for them up so that settle upon how the by nature component her academic is almost certainly. (Recover coating a nothing but half with the discounted eyesexy criticize write.)

Commission a retiring amount of a light-weight pear impression not to mention bronzer the actual voiced space osseins. Following are suitable lipsticks. On the other hand I will unreserved invent it’s great. Too associated with the my special glad eye bring up the rear Saturday. Establishment the executed method vertically. You should not disregard the belle as articulately as the prayer what is the redsole noteworthy arbitrate on a lot of wives. Men are in usual an inadequate much complete literal along with pregnant sophomoric chicks. Once they are utilized a logo and proud their look allowing for regarding they’ll odds-on wishes most often preserve continue with that tag except they generally construct from it, or a brand rapid developments this manufacturer products.

Numerous adults that is surprising if one necessities sensible to meeting up with the buzz even. He or she obligation ante up in order to what companies recognized supercelebrities raiment yourself in. If a can off duds in the interest of example operating citizens admired starlets begin, he could be up-to-date. A secure aunt, dinky that heelsaddict, attributed this single with look upon to sleek. (Your lady smoothies the missus closed fists worries anyone which are dares to put on not heels!) The particular revealed that the realized feet experienced been “Growing offered.” Right away these sanctimony be base limited with regard to impersonation leatherette next daytime of day.

VI

Matter: Why We Forward Humor

With this epigram Prof. Thorstein Veblen opens his work on “The theory of when you are busy, but still would like to keep in touch, uncertain.”

SAVILLE: I help you to wash your mouth area out, my friend…

HISLOP: I am sorry, I’m just looking on our lawyer again. (Waves) Howdy!

LEO: Oh, you can. Oh.

GUY: Yes, for a matter of fact my spouse and I do.

VII

How do you split water? I would be quite helpful if anybody can respond to that concern. Any reaction will be very appreciated. Thank you extremely significantly and have a great working day.

Happy Tablets

Standing before the morning bathroom mirror, half-heartedly picking at the scab in my belly button,  I see a sack of entrails, knotted at the top, perched on two sticks. The knot resembles a head, with a face on the front. But I am made in the image of God, apparently.

Most times, in the mirror, I fail to recognise myself. In the mirror now I seem older than I am now. But in my dreams I am always younger than I am now, however old that may happen to be. When I was young, young people definitely looked older than young people look now. But old people now look younger than old people looked when I was young. When I was young, people who then were older than me already looked as old as they are now. But no one who now is older than me looks younger than I am now, though some people who now are younger than me already look older than I am now. Also, some people who now are older than me looked older than I am now when they were younger than I am now. Should I be looking older to myself than I look to myself, or younger? Should I be looking older, or younger, to others than I do to myself? What do “old” and “young” look like, anyway?

Old? There is no such beast. Only the curious but frightened child dipping into the dressing-up box of folded skin and swollen belly and slackening muscle and dry hair and brittle teeth.

Speaking of which, I shall now employ in their turn the means for the preservation of my skin, bowel, bladder, teeth, tongue, hair, face, armpits, finger nails, toe nails, hearing, eyes, eyesight, nose, back, prostate, heart and circulation, arthritic thumbs, right foot, general physical well being and general mental well being, by dint of, respectively, washing, defecating, urinating, brushing my teeth, flossing my teeth, applying Dr Tung’s Tongue Scraper, brushing my hair, shaving and applying aftershave, applying moisturiser, applying underarm deodorant, using the nail scissors, cleaning the ear wax from my hearing aids and putting them on, inserting eye drops, locating my glasses, using my nasal inhaler, taking ibuprofen, taking a prostate pill, taking blood pressure pills, taking green lipped mussel extract, doing my plantar fasciitis exercise, taking a multi-vitamin tablet and taking a happy tablet. Sometimes it takes me all day just to get up. Just as it is taking me all my lifetime to be born. Or to die. Being born, dying: same thing.

Yes, this life will be the death of me. But so also for the ant. And also for the ragged town pigeon. And also for the very small slug like thing in the garden for which I have no name.  And for everybody.

Everybody, verybody, erybody, rybody, ybody, body, ody, dy, y.

Everybody very body. Airy body, wry body. Why body? Body oddy. Die … Why?

Because it is his tiny destiny, of course. I top off my morning routine with the happy tablet.

Image174
I try to calculate how long I have been on the happy tablets. Four or five years, perhaps. Or is it four or five months? Hard to say. Four or five days? Longer than that, surely. But this uncertainty, of course, must be down to the effect of the tablets.

Do I feel any better on the happy tablets? Yes, of course. I think so. I understand that before I started on the tablets, I used to feel dreadful. I know that the tablets make you feel better. I can’t remember the feeling from before, but I know that it must have been dreadful; otherwise, why would I have started to take the tablets? And the tablets make you feel better, so how I feel now must be better than before. Not remembering the feeling from before must, of course, be down to the effect of the tablets. So although I have no real remembering of how it was before, I do not wish to return to how it was before, because that would certainly be dreadful.

So I do feel good now. This is good. I must be feeling good. I do not know from experience that how I feel now is good, but by definition it must be. But if I stop taking the tablets, I will feel dreadful, by definition. I do not know how that might feel, but I know that it would be dreadful.

So I think I like this, which is happening now. Or rather, I am not sure whether I like it or not. Perhaps I do not. Of course, this uncertainty must be down to the effect of the tablets. But whatever this is that I am experiencing, it must be liking, because the tablets make you like things. To like, but to be uncertain that one is liking, that is the effect, it seems. But if I were not taking the tablets, I would certainly not be liking this. Though I suppose that if I had never started taking the tablets, I would not appreciate the difference. I might really find it dreadful and think that I was liking it. Or, for that matter, really be liking it but thinking that I was finding it dreadful. Though come to think of it, having no point of comparison because of the effect of the tablets, I might be thinking that now. Or the opposite. In which case, why am I still taking the tablets?

So am I finding it dreadful? Or am I liking it?

Take, for example, this man one place ahead of us in the queue for the ferry. He is leant against his car door, treating himself to a snack of Irn Bru and haggis flavoured crisps. His sunglasses are perched on the dome of his receding hairline, whose full curve repeats, inverted, the full curve of his receding chin, which he has attempted to disguise by a tufty grey goatee. Soon, on the ferry, his wife will sit silently by his side, with her wordsearch book. But what exactly is so dreadful about that? Why do I imagine walking up to him and walloping him firmly in the face with a frying pan? Might I not be liking him instead? Maybe so.

Or take the tall, hatchet jawed man who approaches a monstrous plant in the roadside garden. (The plant is rheum.)

‘Is it rhubarb?’ asks his wife.

‘Rhubarb. Yes. I think it is. Yes.’ But as he comes closer he realises that he is mistaken. He now knows that it is not rhubarb, but he clings to the circumstance that it looks something like rhubarb.

‘Well, rhubarb family, anyway,’ he says, as a shot at settling the issue. In fact, he has not the slightest idea what the plant is, but he likes to be assertive in the expression of his opinions.

Is that weakness to be found dreadful? Or might it inspire fondness? Perhaps both.

Or take this next man who is limping painfully along the road, a few inches at each step, supporting his injured left foot by means of an upturned golf club that he has employed as an improvised walking stick. At my enquiry, he insists that he feels just fine, and hobbles on. There is something acutely and specifically tragic about his choice of a golf club. Is this merely dreadful, or does it also fascinate? Can something be truly dreadful that fails to fascinate? So if fascination means liking, does dreadful mean liking?

Or take this conversation in the hotel lounge:

X:         To be perfectly frank, the cuisine here has been a disaster. That chicken was a disgrace. God knows what they put on it. Didn’t even taste of chicken. Disaster. Wasn’t even any cabbage with it. I didn’t like it at all. They’re trying to be top end catering, but it hasn’t worked.

Y:         I’ve been thinking, maybe I should write their menus for them. (She gives a brittle laugh.)

X:         Disgraceful …

Z:         Has the man come back yet? I know he went off a few minutes ago. Shall I pop out and find him?

Y:         I expect he’ll be back.

X:         I’ll tell you a joke about a restaurant. This chap goes into a restaurant and he orders woast beef – he has a speech impediment you see – he orders woast beef with gwavy, cawwots and cabbage. No, that’s not it, not cabbage. I’ve got that wrong. I’ll remember it in a tick. What?

Z:         Just having a sort out, before he comes back. Now, leave that there. And leave that there. That needs sorting. Leave that one there and that one there. There, done. Done and dusted.

X:         Yes. Where was I? Try again. A man goes into a restaurant you see, but he has a speech impediment you see, so he says to the waiter, bwing me woast beef, gwavy, cawwots and bwoccoli.

Y:         Oh, bwoccoli! Very good. Bwoccoli. (Another laugh.)

Z:         Yes, but then a wasp appears you see, and the wasp is all over the food, so he tries to brush it away but it won’t go, and then to avoid it he goes under the table you see. Under the table. And when the waiter comes back, he says to the waiter, is that wasp away yet? And the waiter says … Wait, no, that’s still not right. Is that wasp away yet? No, that’s still wrong. Maybe it wasn’t a wasp. A bee? Anyway, you get the general idea. The old ones are the best ones.

Z:         He’s been quite a time. Shall I pop out and see?

What of this is to be dreaded? What is to like? What not to dread, and what not to like?

Do not the dreadful and the fascinating converge in the condition of absurdity? Does nature admit of the absurd? Evidently so: consider the ostrich. Is there a theology of absurdity? Evidently so: what could be more absurd than a visiting God who manages to get himself arrested and crucified?

Enough of that. Perhaps I really should stop taking the tablets. But I do not wish to stop because I know, at this moment, now, that stopping would feel dreadful, even if, after stopping, I would soon no longer know the difference. So it would be the immediate impact of stopping, not perhaps the longer term knowledge of dreadfulness – or the longer term knowledge of liking for that matter, because there would be no knowledge, no difference – it would be the immediate impact, the brief point of the knowing of the dreadfulness, no matter how quickly it might slide into liking, or into indifference, it would be that which would deter me from stopping taking the tablets.

If I were to stop, I could perhaps avoid the impact of the knowledge of renewed dreadfulness, however short lived, by reducing the dose gradually. I could take a tablet every other day for two weeks, then one every third day for three weeks, then one every fourth day for four weeks, and so on. Or I could take one every other day for a month, then every three days for three weeks, then every four days for two weeks … But the combinations of intervals and periods and dosages are far too many and complex to be enumerated here. In fact, their consideration might be so time consuming that I might abandon the planned downscaling in confusion and despair. Or in boredom. And I might even end up taking the final tablet after an interval of a year, or even longer. But if I didn’t take a tablet for a year or longer, would I still effectively be “taking the tablets”? Apparently so. A door is either open or closed. To be or not to be: that’s the question unceasingly … It’s a two-headed dog.

I peer more intently into the bathroom mirror. The knotted face lurches towards me, flaring and angry. I study it in detail and decide to extend my morning routine by the application of the hygienic nasal hair and eyebrow trimmer. I also decide that I will stop taking the happy tablets. Some time soon. Almost certainly.

Me and my moustache

The unexpected invitation to grow a moustache is an annunciation that should not be ignored. A moustache is a calling. There is something profoundly atavistic and mystical about the sudden and unvoiced conviction that it would be a proper and spiritual thing to allow wiry hairs to sprout like barbed wire in the no man’s land between nostril and upper lip. Though beardless since before the dawn of memory, I now feel that my sense of maleness and fullness of being require this addition, and I lay aside my shaver.

moustacheA few days’ growth, little more than extruded stubble, but already I am impressed to see that a new personality is layered onto the morning mirror. I turn my head, inclined a little, from side to side and allow my modified features to catch variously the daylight that filters through the bathroom blind. Reminds me of someone, but I can’t quite place him. His first appearance is somewhere between Captain Mainwaring (benevolent buffoon) and Alf Garnett (malevolent ditto), and on the whole, as I purse my lips and test out a range of facial expressions, I am quite taken with him. But as morning piles on morning, and as the growth begins to hint at a likely permanence, I notice that he proceeds to take on a less welcome aspect. He sneers at me when he thinks I’m not looking as I enter the bathroom. In fact, he seems positively antagonistic. There is something unpleasantly military about this stranger in my house. Where have I met him before? Who is he, and how can I have offended him?

Ah! Now I know him! I peg him in a uniform of Teutonic grey serge, circa 1920. Yes, he is an ageing oberstleutnant in a Freikorps unit of embittered veterans. Unable to adapt to the unaccustomed peace and to the national humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, he has enlisted under General Avalov-Bermondt, and looks towards revenge. Soon he will make preparations for the invasion of Latvia. He is also a vain and insistent rascal, and already he gesticulates from the bathroom mirror, demanding to be given a monocle.

In a few years, I suspect, he will move to Munich, write hollow earth pamphlets, and spit at Jews and gypsies in the street.

It’s no good. Tomorrow I must shave off my moustache and put him away forever.

Foreshortening

Glancing down over the back wall of the little station platform, I am appalled by the changed appearance of the “thirty” speed limit sign stencilled onto the road directly below. Gone are the familiar pert numerals within a neat oval, replaced by some gothic elongation, horribly steamrollered into a dead sausage in a most outrageous ratio of width to height, pulled beyond the limits of readability. What can have happened to it? Ah. This is how it really is.

thirty 2Much the same with time past, I guess. Some kids I have taught see time in two roughly equal parcels, Now and Olden Times. Now is anything within their living memory. Olden Times seem to begin (working backwards) roughly at the end of the 20th century and cover all events back to the birth pangs of the universe. Our foreshortening of previous centuries is always severe and misleading. At this distance the dead world looks trim and well proportioned, but walk up to it and you find that it is road kill, stretched and flattened out of all recognition, like Holbein’s skull.

In common with many, I have a morbid preference for a train seat facing the front, but as all the forwards seats are occupied today, I have no choice but to travel backwards. This is emphatically the wrong way, given that biologically we are made to face in one direction, namely towards the future. So now I am being catapulted backwards in time at a rapidly accelerating speed. But since time travellers are exempt from the rewind that affects their surroundings (never being reduced to babyhood or pre-existence), my brain is still working forwards, though it has to struggle against the impetus. The train is speeding up alarmingly; at this rate I will soon be back at the narrow end of perspective, wandering like an inept giant among the miniaturised scenes of my childhood.

rock drillAt the city of my destination, I find that there is nothing new to see at all. Indeed, some shops have become empty premises, reverting to the condition that preceded their opening. As I thought, this is very much time past. As the Art Gallery and Museum is unchanged, I am reduced to viewing some old favourites, in particular Epstein’s Rock Drill, whose robotic operator, perched in white over his monstrous black machine, welcomes me in his familiar, alienated manner. But of course this is a recent reconstruction of a radically modernist piece that was dismantled almost a century ago because of its unacceptable futurity. Though the drill is not reconstructed, but is a real drill – a found object, and an antique. As was Epstein’s original drill, not an antique at the time, though it would be now if it had survived. It occurs to me that the “new” drill might actually be a few years older than the “old” drill. So this is a backward looking recreation of a forward looking piece that has not survived, using an element that may be older than the original. Where exactly should I peg it on my time line?

I head back. On the ramp up to the station a very elderly man with a hard, white little beard is sheltering from the drizzle, unsmiling, as if living has little left to offer him. He holds on a pole a pink placard advertising Eyebrow Threading and Eyelash Extensions, perhaps in preparation for his imminent return to youthfulness by means of reincarnation.

My return train is already at the platform. As this is its terminus, will it proceed or reverse? Uncertain even as to which end the engine may be, I pick my seat. A fifty per cent chance, past or future. That’s fair. The train sways into movement. I have bet correctly, and am propelled towards the future, or rather back to the resumption of the present.

A few stations later, I am accosted by the oldest ticket inspector I have ever seen. His lack of height is amplified by a vicious stoop, and he proceeds like a nervous question mark. Maybe his expeditions through past and future and back again, repeated without mercy, have taken their toll on his metabolism; has he not been granted the time travellers’ immunity? He scrutinises my ticket, holding it an inch or two from his nose, and pronounces that I have offered him my outward half, not its return twin. This seems improbable, but when I ask if I might check the ticket myself, he presses it to his hollow chest and hobbles off with it, muttering that he will be back later. Which ticket was it, to past or future? And, given that they are not collected in at the barrier any more, what has happened to the other one? This is unsettling; I sense conspiracy. He does not return, and I conclude that he must be some variety of phantasm, an undead figment, a wobbling anomaly thrown up by the scraping time-plates.

At my home station it is still raining, just as it was when I started my journey. And, amazingly, my car is exactly where I left it. To my relief, I am back in the present moment. I retrieve my car keys and pick up where I left off.

Boundaries

boundaries
The “park” is less a park proper than a vast, levelled, uninterrupted area of urban grassland – what used to be known as a recreation ground. A playground and a sports cage occupy one end, and a pair of drooping goalposts the other. Along the far side a tractor pulling a mower spews out clouds of grass cuttings. At intervals a middle aged man appears on a motor scooter, riding up and down the turf for no apparent reason other than recreation. Under the relentless sun my two year old grandson and I kick a ball around inexpertly by a bench at the perimeter. There is no one else much about.

Except for an oddly thin young man walking rapidly inside the otherwise empty sports cage. He circulates the inner face of the wire compulsively, sometimes pausing at the corners as if to get his bearings. At present he is moving anti-clockwise. He keeps his head as close to the mesh as is manageable, holding his left hand with palm and fingers flat to blinker his eye, so that his field of vision is filled by the pattern of the wire. From time to time he reverses direction, changing hands. He does not venture out of the open exit, and he does not deviate inwards across the open tarmac. Nearby, two people who I take for his minders wait by a small white van.

I watch him for a while. He is engaged in the maintenance of his boundaries, checking the vital security of their closeness, reinforcing and repairing the borders of his known space. By so doing he allays, from moment to moment, the anxieties that threaten to overwhelm him, defends his sense of self against the horror of the vacuum. Good for him. I don’t blame him.

While I have been preoccupied in watching, my grandson has toddled off across the grass at an astonishing speed, heading for the enormous, empty heart of the sunlit plain. The inverted flower pot of his sun hat bobs to the rhythm of his running; his hands dangle decoratively, but his short legs shunt like pistons. His diminutive silhouette finally comes to a distant halt under a huge sky and turns to look back at me.

There are no obstacles or pitfalls, no discernible danger in the featureless field; no one else is anywhere near. The motor scooter man can no longer be seen, and the tiny tractor is still busy mowing on the far side. My grandson is free to run as extravagantly as he likes into the exhilarating openness. But I hear my voice shout out: “Kieran, don’t go too far!”

I am recalling him to his boundaries.

The Daughters of Albion weep

How suffocating the weight of their ceremonial, of gold braid, of power, of money.

How revealing of their values, the identities of the select: Sir Mark, Fergie, Clarkson, Wogan, Joan Collins, Jeffrey Archer.

How right they are to mourn their Joan of Arc, who managed their counter-revolution.

How easily it drops away, the thin pretence of one nation. How shameful today to be British.

Among a baffled Broad Left audience at Sheffield University in the mid ‘seventies, I listened as Keith Joseph of the Centre for Policy Studies, Thatcher’s John the Baptist, expounded her gospel of privatisation and monetarism – a speech he made 150 times in his tour of colleges and universities. He became intensely emotional as he dwelt on the virtues of entrepreneurship:

“I say ‘entrepreneur’,” he explained, “as there is no other term that quite conveys what it means to take risks to make money.”

“How about ‘criminal’?” I heckled, feeling quite pleased with myself.

He was not phased for a moment. The writing was on the wall.

A Big Idea that didn’t quite wash: the Dialectical Experience of Robert Simpson

One shouldn’t underestimate the power of a Big Idea. Nor overestimate it, for that matter.

Big Ideas seemed pretty powerful in late ‘sixties Cambridge. The University had always patted them on the head, but now, in the rather feverish political atmosphere of the times, they had swollen mightily, were biffing above their weight and bidding fair to revolutionise the world, as we student activists dared to hope. Or if not the world, at least academia.

photo1Few can have had more faith in the power of a Big Idea than Robert Simpson, a first year architecture student one corridor below me. Quite why Robert had chosen architecture I never understood, as he was so rapidly disillusioned by the technical emphases of the discipline that he wilfully hurled away any chances of passing his first year. But no matter if architects were unfit to build a new world, for meanwhile Robert had discovered Dialectical Experience.

leafletI don’t think I have ever seen anyone so transformed by a revelation at a purely intellectual level. In fact, Robert became, for a brief while, fanatically evangelistic. Typing up his thoughts, he had them Gestetnered onto sides of quarto; a few sympathetic souls, myself included, were press ganged into shoving these leaflets under every door in the college.

As it happens, I still have a yellowing copy (probably the last surviving), which I transcribe here:

LIFE HAS A MEANINGLESS PURPOSE AND A PURPOSELESS MEANING.

Logic is total, indivisible and real. There are either things or there are not things. There are no half-things. A thing either is what it is or what it is not. If it is what it is not, it is not. What is exists, what is not, does not exist.

Dialectical logic is logic orientated by the “unity of all things,” and as such has no premises, nor can the experience be intellectualized or known. It denies critism[sic] and can only be accepted. There is no dialectical theory, all dialectical statements are self-evident truths, and as such are balanced procreating systems.

Logic is real, thus it can be used instrumentally by the dialectical experience; and logic is energised by thought; and thought is generated by the need to survive.

Polemical logic is logic orientated by a dual concept of the universe, in which man defines things through this conceptualization. He conceptualizes by the differentiation and the polarization of entities. The type-form is conceived as a standard against which all experiences are classified. The type-form is a fabrication. As polemics can therefore only describe things in terms of what they are not, or in terms of an unreal, conceptualized standard, it can never answer a question demanding to know what a thing is and/or why a thing is. So, to “answer” those questions and prevent paralysis of thought and, therefore, total self-destruction, polemical logic polarizes man and the universe in order to have individual authority in a controlling ego (“I think, therefore, I am.”)

The dialectical experience sees that this identification separates an inseparable and, therefore, it cannot be real. So, the ego (societal and individual) cannot exist. Only the single entity exists; thus man is the universe (“I am, therefore, I am.”)

The classifier cannot classify himself!
The instrument cannot be instrumental upon itself!
What am I and why am I? These questions compel the ego to destroy itself and, so, liberate the “mind-body” from freedom!

“Life is not in the getting; life is in the doing” ………

think ………..

Put like that, one can hardly disagree. On the other hand, once one has thunk, it’s not entirely clear what happens next. But Robert was gleeful. The leafleting, he explained, was to be done at the dead of night. That way, nothing could pre-empt the collective revelation to be enjoyed by pyjama’d breakfasters poring over their discovery. All we had to do was to sit back and wait for the popping sound of hundreds of polemically orientated egos imploding across lawn and quadrangle. He was, I think, quite serious and sincere in his belief that the college would never be the same again.

I know what you’re thinking, so let me say that, to my knowledge, no type of hallucinogen or similar had ever passed Robert’s lips. Our dialectician was stone cold straight. But who or what had led him to this point? Perhaps not Hegel; the term “synthesis” appears nowhere here, and Robert’s conception of the dialectical seems particularly static. But I’m reminded by one who was there at the time that he had been reading Norman O Brown. And in its urge to totalise, this text is very close to the Zen-ish spirit of Brown’s monism.

Needless to say, the apocalypse failed to happen, and the nation’s future great and good remained oddly untouched by their brush with the philosopher’s stone. (Including, across the corridor to me, a young Rowan Williams. Had the future Archbishop of Canterbury been attracted by Robert’s leaflet towards a Brownian, more Dionysian, form of Christianity, might the path of the Anglican Communion have proved a little less orthodox?)

Undaunted, Robert himself moved on towards a more orthodox faith, quickly developing an equal, if not greater, enthusiasm for certain French Catholic philosopher-theologians. He rather lost us at this point, so I can’t remember which, though I suppose it could have been Jesuit Thomists such as Maréchal or Rousselot, whose Platonism might have appealed to him. At about this time he also discovered plastic toy dinosaurs, which were scattered in quantities over his furniture. “Look at them!” he would say, picking them up and making them eat each other. “Aren’t they fantastic?” He was certainly liable to overwhelming enthusiasms, and you can’t help but admire that.

I think that for a while, after he crashed out of his first year, he stayed in the area, somewhere out along the Ely road. He acquired a vehicle, possibly a Land-Rover, which he drove dangerously. And then he was gone. I recall a letter from Israel, maybe from a kibbutz. And after that? Wherever he is, I hope he’ s still tilting at windmills.

For many years I clung stubbornly to a huge architectural drawing from his course work that he was throwing out and which I begged from him. The brief had been on bathroom design, and the drawing showed a super-smooth modernist bathroom suite, across which in huge but perfect capitals he had written “TO WASH OR NOT TO WASH? THAT IS THE QUESTION”. This protest piece certainly contributed to his exit. Unfortunately, it seems to have perished in one of my many house moves.

photo2But I still have a photo booth image of Robert, probably ripped from his NAS card and now yellowed by old sellotape . Why do I have it? No idea. Though his hair grew longer with studenthood, here it is still grammar school neat. But the eyes peer out from the geeky glasses as if already they perceive the fabrication of the type-form, as if they foresee the liberation of the mind-body.

One shouldn’t underestimate the power of a Big Idea. If not power to change the world, then certainly power to re-route radically one’ s passage through life.