Thursday, 22 June 2017

Elemental Spells

The well has dried up. Again. There's been wind and rain, but not the right type. The wind sweeping the rain so that it falls across and fails to saturate the land or increase the levels of rivers.
The rivers that used to brim, that were in danger of overflowing, trickle like picturesque streams, creating new paths through the visible mud and stones. Fish, insect and plant life struggle to survive in their much-reduced home.
The sail of a ship atop the swelled seas is filled, pushed onwards towards its destination. The faces of the men on board wet with sea spray and further stung by fine sheets of rain; yet in a back garden, in the heart of leafy England, the pail when lowered comes up empty.
A pebble is thrown down and is heard to smack the bottom, its slap against brick echoing up... up...up; a hollow sound like when you cup your hands around your mouth and call for help. A hopeful gesture that brings to mind being surrounded by hills or mountains or being lost in the thickest part of a forest. The ears strained for a different reply to that of the original sound: water...water...water. But it doesn't come, nor was it, in truthfulness, expected.
Everywhere bone-dry.
The ground hard, the grass yellowed and brittle. Flowers bloom, then wither. Birds sing but stay hidden in the trees, in the little shade they offer. Their leaves shaken free easily, by a light breeze or a creature's touch. New buds of life untethered by any rain that descends from sunny, cloudy or darkened skies.
The weather unusually mild, yet not spiritless nor merciful. The days long, the hours warm, some red-hot. The earth scorched, a fire underfoot, burning deep in its bowels.
The sun's rays hitting towers built of glass so that the light is harsh and strong. Diamond-like cities rise through the haze and from a distance appear to shimmer. Are they real or not? Are they lands that time forgot, ghosts resurrected?
There is the din of working people, spirits or not, coming from these centres of business, and aside from lighter clothing and a few mopped foreheads here and there they seem untroubled by either the heat or the glare. The work cycle – to and from – never stops, the same flow of work changes hands, from department A to department B, to C and D, and even E, where there is a need for a fifth level of scrutiny. Office workers cool, if not calm; flustered by papers and electronic Pings! New e-mail in. The phones ring and ring, and ring.
In the suburbs, life is quiet. Deathly quiet as if there's been an mass exodus, which there has but to indoor shade, temporarily made during daylight hours. Nobody fled with their arms and legs pumping or in a current of marching, though their hearts for a time beat irregularly until the dust of this new living settled. Residents confine themselves to their bought or rented spaces, blinding its eyes to keep the heat out, as outside surfaces underneath a fierce sun bubble like a malodorous witch's brew.
They wear little. They lay down. They perspire freely, adding to the odours of a sweltering earth, and sleep as if ill with a raging fever. Their dreams troubled and hard to break away from, causing them to toss and turn and cry aloud, or make incoherent speeches as if conversing with something or someone.
Everything, everyone gone underground. Though only a few creatures actually burrow to a lower place, to where the walls are damp and softer.
Everything above ferments, turns ripe and sticky. Heavy, near to bursting, and scents the air with its intoxicating sweetness. Begs to be relieved of its burden though there's no-one and nothing to sense its day-long petition.
Every being in suburbia awakens when the sun's gone down and the moon is lighting its own path, traversing soil as well as sand and water.
This is a world, a strange world, full of contradictions and opposites, as if someone somewhere is playing a game with a magic wand or dagger and casting elemental spells.

Picture credit: The Magic Circle, 1886, John William Waterhouse (Tate Britain)

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Resourceless

A woman of unclassifiable age lives alone, completely alone, in a tenanted building. A building buzzing with human life in all three cores, on each of its floors behind numbered closed doors that open onto corridors that lead to a communal lift and stairs. She never sees anyone, well, maybe in passing, but those chance encounters are so insignificant they're not worth mentioning, not even memorising as those faces barely glimpsed are never seen twice.
It's only when the postman, correction: post person, knocks she gets to interact, briefly,with anyone, and even then she might open the door and find it's someone else. A different person, very different in height and features to the man or woman she expected, in that unmistakeable uniform delivering whatever it is that couldn't have been pushed through the slot of her ground zero postbox, the one that has a Royal Mail sticker requesting that any Signed For items are returned to the local depot if she's not home. Why she wonders do these post men and woman change so often, almost as often as the inhabitants? Are these particular flats really that bad? Or do they get bored of trudging up, down and along these floors, and just shoving mail into grey metal boxes? Perhaps they too occasionally thirst for human connection, of the back-in-the-day sort.
That's how we talk of the past now, isn't it? Use phrases like this to make us or it seem hip and happenin'.
But then that bubble of thought bursts and she thinks she could be wrong, no, is wrong to assume and thrust her own perceptions onto to others, those she only knows in a fleeting form, as perhaps they too would rather spend the day glued to their phones like all the rest, the other office or home employed worker bees, instead of having to watch where they put their booted feet or wheel and secure their trolleys in all weathers. Such a job is thankless and undervalued these days, she thinks. The role changed, so changed by the mail that's no longer sent through these once depended upon channels.
But then, so is everything else: altered, almost dramatically like a stage set with too many props so that the audience's imagination is rendered redundant, from the world she entered and grew to like. She rages, inwardly and outwardly, about this often, mourns its passing yet delays the funereal ceremony, her own personal goodbye, for of course, others said their adieus whilst she was content to hang on, has been hanging on for years, though the rope she dangles from has become a thread. A strong thread, but a thread nonetheless.
Others gave the era a pat on the back and that was it. Over. A job well done. Now, however, she's heard, you can't even do that, pat someone on the back for that action might be misconstrued. Every day she wonders what this world, this supposedly improved and improving world, is coming to? Is it the End? Then she sighs, Ahhh, wouldn't that be a blessing, before in thought she adds, for someone like me.
Someone who doesn't like being pushed into changes, full stop, but particularly when many don't seem to bring any benefits, other than making us more estranged; estranged from others as much if not more than from ourselves. And she doesn't believe that many, if any, recent developments save time or make life easier as each new device seems to be a further indulgence for the gratification now, less physically active society. She gets a little high-brow up in her flat looking down over humanity as if the people she sees are part of a social experiment and she an anthropologist. Aloof, yet not apart from the impeding disaster she thinks will one day befall: a mass disintegration, where people are forced into a situation where technology has no answers and neither do they.
And yet she knows she's hopeless at what is termed normal, responsible living. Clueless too (at her age!) though she gets by providing nothing unfavourable occurs. She is no better off then from her elevated view, and is definitely, through stubbornness, less modernly informed, as well as almost entirely lost when it comes to such matters that would once have been labelled 'Male'. Independent, as all women claim they want to be, and yet resourceless.

Picture credit: The Castle of the Pyrenees, 1959, Rene Magritte

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Talking to Paper

There's something about paper, a smooth white or creamy sheet or leaf of paper, lined or unlined, loose or bound. Blank and waiting to be indelibly marked in some way, although an unwritten upon sheet in itself is pure perfection, so that when written upon it's somehow spoiled, at least to the eye of its scribbler, unless they are proud of their penmanship.
I can't say, being one of these scribblers, that I am, nor why I have often been compelled to write as if to a friend, to unburden myself to a book. A sort of journal where everything set down is for my eyes only and never, or hardly ever, reread by those same eyes. I'm not sure that if I did I'd recognise the hand that wrote those entries.
And I also mean that figuratively, for my writing too, as with my personal views, seems to change constantly. Sometimes I admire it, thinking it's so-so, not so bad; sometimes I think the words look like an infestation of caterpillars inching across each page, which I observe with an interested eye as if I were an entomologist except that I don't have a fondness for bugs, as anyone who knows me would tell you, and so this comparison is far from complimentary. Then, it disgusts me, my handwriting, though legible, for its shaping lacks beauty, as caterpillars do before they transmogrify, although then nature is at fault whereas here the fault is of my own design.
The hand that wields the pen, tightly or loosely, moves left to right like a typewriter arm, Ding!, attempting to convey thoughts, feelings and events: recent or historic, and not just personal but global events. The words formed in a rapid or more considered way, dependent on the mood behind the urge. The hand also crossing out which the mind gets annoyed about, as well as missed or misspelled words when the thinking is quicker than the scribbling pen. The narrative flow broken as the mind worries instead over such errors and the overall look of the entry. Tear it out and start again! No, fight the compulsion! Is this the result of perfectionist tendencies or the computer age?
There's Tippex, yes, but it gets crusty and in a cream book stands out so that your eye, if you glance through or if it falls open to that page, is instantly drawn to what you wanted to hide. To disguise, to tidy up, neaten. Should I count the ways I could put it? and ensure, therefore, that you don't have to work to get my meaning.
A typed or printed word can be taken back or corrected, a handwritten word stays, remains on the now spoiled page even if crossed through or painted over. The evidence there like forensic material, especially if the ink fades. The deficient penmanship I can forgive, but not the errors. They're like blemishes which to you are in plain sight, their concealments botched, but which by others go unnoticed.
What others? when I'm writing for me, and only me. Enough with the explaining! And using allusions to make it relevant.
Sometimes I think talking to paper gives me more dilemmas than it resolves. I guess what I'm doing right now is the modern equivalent, except I can edit and revise, and you'll be none the wiser. Though it doesn't mean I'll be happier or even satisfied with the end result. Still, I'd much rather talk, as I am here, to a blank document or to paper than form attachments of the face-to-face kind. Because, it's not the same. You can't say what you would confide to paper, even a email or letter is similar in that you reveal more, though at times you might regret such open foolishness.
The voice committed to paper is just different, not necessarily more honest or intentionally dishonest, and often confused and definitely critical, yet it's true at the time of writing and that quality is laid bare, in real and fictional accounts. For my attraction to this mode of talk also extends to others self-explorations and recordings, be they emotive, matter-of-fact or fabricated. My introduction with Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole spiralled out of all control to get me here: a mid-thirties-something woman with a storage box full of journals and letters, and a penchant for other people's published diaries.

Picture credit: Still Life with Book, Papers and Inkwell, 1876, Francois Bonvin

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Crumpled Ball

I've hit upon an idea. A very good idea, which is not entirely mine but borrowed. Martin Creed, a conceptual artist, was the first to accomplish something of the kind in '94, however, I think, having come late to Work 88, there were flaws in his design.
Marginal flaws you understand, possibly to my eyes and way of thinking alone. Minimalism was perhaps part of the concept, whereas I felt it lacked a deeper layer. A layer of intrigue. A layer that begged to be opened on receipt, thereby destroying the art yet keeping the concept very much alive and intact.
The Work, in the hands of a buyer, being changed back to its original form: an A4 piece of paper, except now noticeably marked like an aged person's skin. The wrinkles and crinkles unable to be smoothed out and its sheen distinctly faded so that it appears more dulled than pristine white. Prematurely aged and wasted. And not even used.
Are people who have invested as tempted to undo as I would be? Had I seen it, known about it, wanted it at the time of its creation and so purchased for a small fee one of its limited number, then curiosity would definitely get the better of me because I wouldn't be satisfied that a ball was it, even if it was a perfect sphere. I would assume that it concealed and something more would be revealed at its heart. Perhaps that's what you're led to think and if so, then the object as art has done its job. Could the concept be about willpower and temptation? And even gratification – who can delay it and who cannot - and would any actual buyers follow through? Would any dare admit to it? Probably not. And who would ask them anyway? Collectors don't get questioned, they get interviewed, and either show off everything they've acquired or sell it off to the highest bidder: someone they know they can make big(ger) bucks from. Whether collectors buy for the love of or because of what one day it might be worth is a moot point, however, what it essentially means is they would probably have the Work on display but not allowed it to be touched or handled in such a way that its roundedness, in this instance, becomes something other.
And that, I don't think I can bear. A demi-god made of existing materials which, outside of the art world, has a utilitarian purpose, which is not to say its new untouchable status is the fault of the artist; no, it's the critics, the audience. Often, an artist is unconcerned with all that. Their concept has been freed from the cage where it was housed for the public and critics to make of it what they will. A shoe will never be looked at in the same way again or a slept-in bed. A paper clip will no longer just be an object to hold papers together, nor will a crumpled ball of A4 paper just be an thrown away error.
Conceptual art, as it's first viewed , can be taken at face, and of course, monetary value depending on the artist, whereas I, no matter who the creator was, would want to liberate it further, and not just in thought but in deed.
Would I purposely vandalize? Not, I can assure you, if it wasn't mine, as in purchased, nor probably even then, though the temptation to do so would be present forever, but then I don't think I would buy a piece of conceptual art if the object itself was also utilitarian in design because ironically the concept, whatever I thought the thought behind it was, would disintegrate over time. I might see its cleverness, but might also think it futile. I wouldn't want it to become a prized possession of mine.
In art, I need depth, visual depth, and bizarrely not all conceptual art, for me, has that. Thought, yes, sometimes in bucket-loads, but a Work, at least in its outward appearance, can't be expected to hold that for all time. In a nutshell: once considered, it's gone, it doesn't live on. Unless, of course, for you it's a brand new discovery. It can make you pause but can it make you stop? Each and every time? Won't there be times when you just see it for what it once was?
What was my borrowed idea? Oh that, well, it involves a scrunched up ball of published book material shoved through the letterboxes of random addresses.

Picture credit: Work88: A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball,  1994, Martin Creed

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Angel Flung From Space

I'm so far ahead of myself that I forget how far ahead I am. Ahead of what? Time, space, philosophizing, though my feeling of this is subjective and not substantive. My views to, my relationships to everything are personal and though meaningful to me, mostly, are less meaningful to others, if at all. And as you might have gathered, I like making my position, any position, as clear as possible. If and where I can.
Sometimes, thoughts won't be grasped you know, at least not in a way they can be explained. It's like knowing the definition of a word and the context it should be used, but being unable to formulate a comprehensive sentence to explain that term or its usage to someone else. I take information in, some say like a sponge, but I cannot for the life of me pass it on when the moment arises. Not when it's requested or could be volunteered, not when it could help some other seeking knowledge. Knowledge that I already have, a short-cut to wherever they want to eventually get to.
No, the words die in my throat, tail off when I notice the uncomprehending look in people's eyes: what is she blathering on about? Or worse become a burble of mismatched words which don't go anywhere and leave the enquirer no clearer, still, in fact, knowing nothing more than where they started from. And if further questioned as to my explanation, I'm liable to lose the plot, to um and er a lot and to throw my hands up and out in uncontrolled gestures. My hands moving of their own accord as if to divert people's attention: follow my hands and not the words streaming from my mouth.
Nobody has ever fallen into a trance nor stopped listening to what I'm issuing although the hands have been followed. It's a curious effect, not even mildly hypnotic and yet even I, in the midst of talking, get distracted by the other person's darting eyes, so that really all it is does is confuse and make me painfully aware. My hands continue to dance, as if they're separate from me, despite desperate attempts to rein them in, and so in certain situations now, where improvised gestures would be unforgivable I have to sit on them.
I've never asked what the other person sitting or standing opposite me thinks of this shadow puppet show. I'm not sure I'd want to know. How much notice do we take of other people's mannerisms, or even of our own? Perhaps I'm unusual in that respect; self-centred, self-absorbed even or just distressingly self-conscious.
Too much time to mull, I suspect. A writer's failing, not that I really think of myself as a writer. I prefer not to categorise whatever this is, this exploratory outpouring, except to know that if I didn't allow a blank space for it I'd probably go mad; they'd be too many thoughts and nuances running amok up here.
Up where? In the unsolvable maze of my mind whose hedgerows are undefined. What once seemed to lead somewhere becomes a dead end; what was once a cul-de-sac opens out. Its pattern changes on a frequent basis, so that everything that appeared simple is complex and anything anticipated to be complicated is simplex. It's akin to a 3D design, which if viewed on a lit screen, you can look at from every conceivable angle, except the one in my mind runs to a different, though not entirely incompatible, program to its host.
Now, I've heard of independent thinking, but this is frankly bizarre. A sure sign, though not the first, of madness or a contracted virus. And some, it's true, is in a code I don't recognise until I locate the Master Key to unlock that particular door, but for that you need convergency and that rarely occurs when I want it to, least of all when I deliberately give thought to a situation or a puzzling affair. But then perhaps my analytical behaviour is too much of the kind you'd ordinarily associate with a much younger person; my mind lagging behind making that transition to full adulthood, and therefore determined to raise uncertainties for me to ponder over, such as where do we come from? where do we go back to? and could an Angel have been flung from Space to take my place and erase my default settings?

Picture credit: Convergence, Jackson Pollock

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Whole in One

Time is a slippery devil!
It gives, it retracts. Yawns and sighs like a person needing their bed in the middle of the day and drags on until the homecoming hour and then speeds up so that it's lost in the end-of-day commute and other preparations for the morrow. Sleep, at the appropriate hour, doesn't last as long as it feels it should, which amounts to a barely awake, glum-looking, glum-feeling workforce.
There are many, I think, who would welcome Death for a long, long, sleep. Blasphemous, yes, but not untrue. If I could prick my finger on a spindle I would do, though I'm not sure I'd ever want that particular curse to be broken. To wake up and resume what's left of my life in a very different world to the one I departed, though possibly having to continue the same drabness as before would be a worse fate. 
This imagination of mine, as helped along by Kurt Vonnegut and fairy tales of old, finds it all too easy to make that leap – a leap of time in the shape of a giant's foot – where a whole world slumbers as the earth's clock goes haywire, to wake up a zillion years later either in a life familiar or in an unrecognisable world.
Would time have frozen, moved backwards and forwards, or passed as normal with nobody to comment on or watch it? Would it matter if it had done all of those if the whole of humanity was dead to the world?
A further, more perplexing question is: are we sleeping now? Drifting through the lives we lead, or think we're leading, in a spaced-out mode. Peace, man.
Awake, yet not. Acting with what we think is Free Will, but is it really? The term redefined to suit whatever doctrine, with barely a hair between what is and what isn't. How many actions are yours and yours alone? All are or eventually become repetitious, with some so finely tuned you don't even realise that a) you're doing whatever it is whenever you're doing it, and b) it's as regular as clockwork.
Hmm, half-past four, time for tea and a dunk-able biscuit. And yes, we do that in the South too, but mainly with Digestives and Rich Tea and not crumblier varieties. The biscuits you dunk is as personal as how you fill (or kill) time when you exercise Free Will, or think you're exercising it. And dunking has a crucial time factor.
Our love of time strikes again! Get it just right and your mouth receives a delicious tea-soaked biscuit, just the right softness in texture; time it all wrong and you not only lose half the biscuit but also get to choke on the buoyant crumbs. There's an exact science behind it: the temperature of tea to the thickness of biscuit, the ratio of biscuit to tea, unless you're aiming for a whole soggy mess in one large mouthful. Whatever floats your boat, takes your fancy, and it's a very useless, yet enjoyable way to fill (or kill, whichever you prefer) time when you have more on your hands than you know what to do with.
Golf, I believe, is a popular past-time for this. Hmm, me and ball sports, ball sports and I, it's an accident-waiting-to-happen combined with a land of missed opportunities where the club or racket hits the turf or the air, and maybe a leg or an arm, and where the ball if, by a miracle, whacked goes in the opposite direction to the one intended or embarrassingly lands at my size six-and-a-half feet (the half in the case of shoe size is important!) with a dull, unsatisfying thud. No, I'll stick to experimentally dunking biscuits in tea. Whole in one!
Seriously, well, sort of, why isn't there a donor bank? No, not to give MY time as in also have to give with my brain or person (i.e. be physically present in a time-donor situation) as I know those already exist, but to donate whatever I don't have a need for to someone who might use it more productively than I would or currently do; or alternatively to save for a day when a few banked hours would be useful.
Way too much or far too little. Do we all have that problem? And what should we do in moments of deja vu – rerun or redo? Peace, man. Dunk biscuits.

Picture credit: Several Circles, c1926, Kandinsky

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Close-lipped

Mona Lisa and I share a feature: the close-lipped smile, although I think you can tell when I'm really happy or really glum, but possibly not when I'm neither, when I don't really feel like smiling in either direction, with the corners very obviously turned up or down like a circus clown's painted lips.
Sometimes, even I'm not sure any more when I wear a smile in company if I mean it or not. Of course, a real up-curling of lips occurs naturally and touches other noticeable facial features: the eyes, the cheeks etcetera, and does feel, as your muscles perform it, to have more spontaneity, whereas others half-pulled have half that feeling. A polite half-smile that stops halfway and could, at times, be described as cold. A cloud has passed across the face, the warmth of the sun gone with it.
The close-lipped smile is not a new thing, done consciously due to false modesty or embarrassment, I've naturally always smiled that way; smiling like a crocodile would be most unnatural, and yet, it seems by not doing so I don't convey 'happy' as expected, which sometimes leads to strangers telling me to smile more and so I try harder. Try to exaggerate it as much as naturally possibly: still close-lipped but wider, my cheeks lifted higher like ripe, not-yet-picked apples until it reaches my small eyes and also pushes them wide, but then falls away quickly when released, my face suddenly flat, somewhat deflated as if both my cheeks have been slapped, instead of slowly fading till my features resume their accustomed plainness.
Smiling to a set criteria, or semblance of, is exhausting, like exercising muscles because you know you should and not because you want to. And I'm not sure it's convincing anyway, either to my internal self or to the people it's outwardly directed at. Is there a placebo effect for disingenuous smiles? Well, it works for laughter, the belly-laughing kind...supposedly. Although it is true that witnessing someone else's belly-shaking convulsions can provoke a fit of the giggles, even if you don't know exactly what the amusement is or even if you personally find it funny. Smiles too are returned by automatic reflex, yet, in my inexpert opinion, the spread effect seems, and feels to me, different, particularly if you're smiling back at a person before you rather than a still picture.
Then there are times you genuinely smile so hard you feel your face might crack as if it were as fragile as a china doll's, but still, even in instances like that the guarded smile is seen as just that: guarded.
When did smiles become all about teeth? Bright white, perfectly straight ones.
When did flashing teeth mean personality? There's far too much of the show biz about it.
Is it any wonder that people have smile hang-ups, willing to hand over hard-earned or loaned cash to correct imperfectly aligned, off-white teeth that in spite of these perceived flaws do what they're designed to do? Bite and chew food etcetera. Again, functionality is pushed aside for aesthetic reasons.
The cynical amongst you might say that perhaps that's the precise nature of the Mona Lisa smile: the concealment of crooked, discoloured teeth, which I suppose in that age was more than likely, and yet if it was I doubt she would have been mindful of it, enough to remain close-lipped, since others too would have had worse or similar. Although Da Vinci, I suppose, might have favoured an understated smile, preferred to give the eyes and mouth the look of possessing a long-kept secret.
Alternatively, perhaps people just smiled like that back then, as I do now, and to do so open-mouthed would mean something quite different, something threatening even. Baring teeth as if to fight as a snarling dog might do.
Have I given this too much thought? Probably, but only because I'm perplexed as to how a pencil-drawn smile can arouse people's suspicions.

Picture credit: Advanced Diagnostic Techniques, Barry Kite

Thursday, 4 May 2017

The Decibels, The Decibels

The sun shines and yet everything is a little less rosy, not for any particular reason that springs to mind, it just is. Quiet, too quiet, and lazy.
Sometimes it's nice to be able to hear the wind rustle leaves or a tiny bird's cheep-cheep, but there are times when the kind of quiet you long for is for a brief moment unsettling, until it's broken by a child's sobs and then, you again wish for that prior quiet to return. For murmurs rather than ear-piercing shrieks or drawn-out cries: Mummy, Mummy, Mummy...
Quiet does not often descend when it can be most appreciated, so that when it comes it's unbidden and unwanted, and can't be enjoyed; whereas if it's hoped and planned for, the anticipated silence is disturbed. Other factors, those unknown or not considered steal it from you so that what you get is not really quiet but a moderated tone of, which your tolerance of depends on your own sliding scale.
Sound carries, increases and decreases in perceived volume which you either tune out or tune in; sometimes the ear picks a minor sound up and won't let it go, even after it's stopped, or sometimes you hear yet block although the noise in itself might be persistent and jarring. But then there are times when everything else gets drowned out apart from the babble, anything directed at or that requires a response from you is indistinct. You're present in presence alone, your mind floundering like a fish hooked from its watery home; the lips facing you constantly moving but the words uttered unheard, and yet you pull your own face into expressions that you hope are suitable, rather than lean across the table, or, more excruciatingly, ask for everything they're said, during your incommunicable panic, to be repeated.
Babble, babble, babble...which if it was a brook or a stream and you were alone with your thoughts would be quite pleasant, but as a murmur of intermingled voices, no; each vying to be heard above (or below) one another with the acoustics of wherever you are heightening the disharmony of it, as well as your discomfort.
The false pretence or flash of understanding of whatever is passing between you and your companion: I comprehend, I sympathise, I try to equalise with an experience of my own; I nod, I simper, I exclaim in shock or horror, my mouth an 'O'; I observe you carefully with head cocked on one side like a dog studying its funny owner: what is she saying?; I stir the teapot and nibble at a biscuit, and pray the background will soon be muted.
By who? Now, that I couldn't tell you. Perhaps by someone similar to a lamp-lighter who, in olden days, would turn on the street lamps and control their intensity; or the modern-day equivalent: a singular hand on a dimmer knob, although these days this is used more for aesthetic reasons, still, the twisting action of hi or lo in this scenario applies. Lights up, lights down, it's the same with sound.
So, why is it that when I'm at home and all alone, I talk in a whisper or in a lower than normal voice as if speaking out loud and to myself is a crime, or at the very least a strange habit. I talk everywhere, in all three rooms, and possibly even more than I do when in company. I sigh, I swear; I reason things out; I gossip; I read aloud from books; I read back what I've written; and I listen to the rise and fall of the chatter outside: bird, human or operated machinery, to which my hearing makes constant adjustments.
Some days sounds are bearable, some days are not; most days it's a mixture of both as if at certain times my sensitivity is somehow different. I either relish the quiet or I want some form of noise, as if I needed to be reminded palpably of my existence, in this world or as a thinking, feeling person, and yet there will always be sounds that irritate beyond all measure: boozy voices singing and the counted overture to drinking games, and bottles being dumped in their bin and breaking, glass on glass, night and day. My location chose me, not I, it. And away from it there are other dissonances, some of which aren't loud, just annoying, and unavoidable, unless, of course, you're plugged in to another world of sound.

Picture credit: New Neighbour, Barry Kite

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Prose Gatherer

Have you ever referred to a novel as if it were a common prayer book? I can't say I have. There's not one book that appeals to me to do so, although there's plenty, though read and not re-read, that I cannot rid myself of, not for any sentimental value but because of the story, the prose, the feelings that arose in that first reading.
Words that were so thoroughly enjoyed that though edible they remain a little undigested, yet often it's not even the words themselves that sit in the cave of my stomach but the remembrance of emotion. The feeling of being swept along as if a not unpleasant gusty wind pulled me this way and that, and time, the time I was governed by, slipped away, so that the need to read pushed me ever on, heedless of the ground I walked upon. I wouldn't have realised if my feet had no path to tread, just air.
That lost feeling, as in forgetting oneself, whilst a world that's unlike your own swallows you whole cannot, I think, be divined elsewhere. That is a mark of a truly good novel, an excellent piece of writing.
The one that wields the pen, or in modern days taps the keys, is the channel through which it (the story) flows, and undoubtedly they deserve some credit, but all? Aren't they too tapping in, like you in your reading, to a source that cannot be described. Something of that time that possibly won't be repeated, or none too often. And if they do, are able to somehow keep that door open, then they are fortunate indeed.
No, the writing of some novels cannot be accounted for, even by the authors. Or is it just the looking back that cannot be explained? The urge to write gone, the story as needed to be told written out, and with it the laborious love that went into it, so that later when it's in circulation and people enquire, as people will enquire, the inspiration is harder to define, let alone rationalise to those interested.
Whenever and however such a novel comes into being it's a collaborative act between the writer and I don't know what: a ripeness, an opportune time, something with a fantastical aura about it that has sought and now found the right mind; you might even hear an audible click! when this pairing is made. And that partnership might last or it might fade, be intermittent or even disappear altogether.
The novels that satisfy us as mere readers sometimes fail to satisfy their writers, upon later reflection, because, I think, when the moment has passed a link gets severed. The gift has been given and offered. The public swoons but the writer will have moved on; the deliciousness of the prose there for others to enjoy. The experience of being read very different to being written, for nobody, I believe, can conceive how a voice in your head will be read. The tone in which it was set dependent on the eyes and ears of the reader, so that the novel, now independent of its author, has to find a home, except in this arena there are far more mismatches.
That's why it's so important to know what resonates with you and what does not; to make your own judgements: be open to criticism and yet don't just listen to what others say or tell you. Some novels (or authors) are ripe for a certain window of time, some won't feel right but will revisit you later or turn up when you least expect it. If you know enough of yourself you'll know when that window has arrived. But, initially, there has to be some effort.
And reading, or the enjoyment of it, is not meant to necessarily be easy or involving all the time. Some or most is pretty good going in my book, and if you're flying, well, savour it because the next may be a more turbulent flight of the imagination.
I think what I'm saying is that reading is like a relationship: full of ups and downs, heady days and trial and permanent separations, and not just with reading in general but with each novel, new to you or of old. And like a person-to-person relationship, your feeling towards and your taste in books will change; does this devalue the moments you will have spent engrossed in print? No, not if what you treasure foremost is the prose and secondly, the writer.

Picture credit: The Missal, 1902, John William Waterhouse

Thursday, 20 April 2017

The Steal and the Reparation

In my youth I committed a crime. An impulsive, acquisitive act that didn't hurt anyone in the vicinity at the time, nor would it when the article was missed, if it ever was, or at least that's what I thought because in the end it always does, affect someone, that is.
And here comes the excuse: I was young! And overcome by wanting an item I'd spotted and knowing I could get, right there and then, without having to save up or lay out any expense, or waste time in tracking down the very thing, for it was there, the exact copy I wanted on display. Even retrospectively, the remembrance of that moment fills me with the same keen yearning, in spite of the item being here, in front of my left elbow on the writing desk.
That first sighting was exquisite; a little thrill ran through me, raising hairs on the back of my neck and causing my skin to flush, a sensation mostly felt for I'm sure I stayed my usual shade of pale, and the next step was, of course, to get close enough to touch it, to stretch an forefinger out and lightly tap its cloth-bound, rough exterior and trace the gold embossed lettering.
This I did with a shaking hand as if it were the hand of an vengeful God about to proclaim his wrath, so that the tentative caress led to glances being exchanged between those who had also stopped by and those who stood at their customary posts, and that being so both my hands dived into the pockets of my overcoat where they opened and closed their fists around household keys and coins.
I was the only one that lingered, transfixed, yet not inattentive to the impression that floor staff wished to shoo me away and rid the entry-way of my open-mouthed, goggle-eyed admiration. I was not, I think, what they had in mind with this attempt to revive interest in forgotten authors and their lesser known and less circulated works. I outstayed the curiosity they wished to arouse, and what's more didn't attempt to browse any other novels. My green eyes fixed on the looked-for, longed-for object, just as their eyes, of varying shades and size, were fixed on me.
I'm not, you understand, usually the pilfering sort, and I might have found a way to pay a lending fee if it had been for lending, but a small neat handwritten sign stipulated that it was: For Reference Only. And even if the first had been an option, I mightn’t have returned it, the urge being greater not to, and so, my assessment then, as of now, is that it would have in the end amounted to the same crime: making something that wasn't mine, mine.
And the second, well, in my opinion that wasn't even worth my consideration. What good was merely fingering the pages, in haste to commit to mind in parcelled-out time the delicious prose, whilst observed doing so? There was no private pleasure in that, even if a less detectable corner was found, which left off-the-premises borrowing. To borrow is such a manipulable term, and much preferred to thieving.
As luck would have it, Mrs Bird, the priggish overseer of the book lending shop, got distracted, as did the other floor staff, by some animated boys outside who were taunting some poor creature, and that, I'm sorry to say, was the ripe moment in which I impulsively acted. The left hand came out from its pocket and grabbed the much desired novel, concealing it as best it could in the folds of my overcoat; the free hand drawing the fabric around me as if for warmth and in preparation for an exit. Then I sallied forth as staff and patrons alike were turned towards the windows facing the high street, and slid right instead of the usual left that would have taken me home in half the time but meant I passed by their watching eyes.
The irony is this novel, unnamed deliberately in case you're wondering, which has been in my possession for forty odd years has always felt as if it were visiting, as if at some point in its history it would leave me, and that rare moment, like the moment of its theft, came. Yesterday.
And so, I returned, a much older man with said thumbed book tucked under my coated arm, to the scene, changed as it is, to amend my youthful folly.

Picture credit: The Theft 1894 and the Restitution 1920, Max Beerbohm

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Homburg

Lot's wife looked back when it was expressively said she shouldn't and now so have I, more than once. Although, I sincerely hope what happened to her doesn't at some point happen to me; after all, my psychiatrist did warn me not to. He advised me strongly to resist the urge to revisit the scene, in words or mind, but he knew I had to and would do it: finish what I had started for a following of one or many. And my friend, the acquaintance that pitched me into the unknown, did deserve the full, honest truth of my early return. Verbatim.
I already have to live with the knowledge that I unfulfilled my promise: my casual acceptance of the task as sold, since the whole travelling experience was such an eye-opener that I haven't been able to repeat or confront it, at least in body if not in mind, and so, this disclosing is as much for my friend as for myself and is by far the lesser evil, which is to state, ineffably, that in doing so that I also escaped my friend's overbearing attitude, which somehow presided over me from miles away. Perhaps if Milan hadn't happened in quite the way it did, I would have persevered.
In a sense, I have borne witness to my own destruction and not my restitution. In Paris I began to relax, until Milan, then WHACK! as if I'd been suddenly hit by a fast-bowled cricket ball and socked back into my retiring shell. No, I couldn't have stayed or continued on, but then that wasn't an option as you will in good time discover.
After an uncomfortable night, barely raised off the floor on an unrolled mattress and with the door to the cell propped open, and still I might add in my own creased clothes, I awoke to the harsh light of day, or what I took to be day, as it actually turned out to be the overhead lighting, as well as a cup of tea brought in by the duty officer. I must say they did seem very well equipped for English visitors who weren't their run-of-the-mill, but in truth, nothing by then really surprised me. I was even allowed a quick wash and a shave, before being made to read over (for the umpteen time) and sign my statement; the translator the night before having ensured it was accurate.
Unfortunately, though I was allowed to go the paraphernalia I arrived with, a holdall and a fine, sturdy walking stick, were not. Both items I learned were being held for further inspection, for what reason or to what purpose I don't rightly know, but that was the explanation I got; that and the fact I would be sent almost immediately home, which I was initially offended by as it smacked of deportation when I was a legal visitor. However, on reflection, an instant after receiving this news, I realised this plan was welcome.
I'd had enough and I'm not a person that kicks up a fuss, particularly when it's delivered with such gracious manners, and so I was relieved to follow their lead, but when I'm without the aid of my stick I quickly develop a limp and, therefore, was escorted to a car, which I thought would take me straight to the airport and on the first flight home, but no, I was given a whistle-stop tour.
We rattled through as many back-streets as we could, though in retrospect I often think this must have been an hallucination – it has the qualities of one – caused either from over-tiredness or doctored tea, but I do remember feeling rather exhilarated by the flashing scenery. And the speed we were travelling at brought back childhood memories of the funfair, like I was belted in a flying chair or a spinning teacup and screaming 'Faster!' If it was meant to scare, it didn't. But as with rides, it decelerated, and the drive that eventually wound up at the airport was a much more sedate affair.
Once there, I was met with a wheelchair, passed through the necessary pre-boarding checks which I barely have any retention of – the accompanying officer holding my papers – and steered to the appropriate departure gate. The only true memory I have of this moment prior to boarding is acquiring a Homburg which I remember accepting with a quizzical brow though I don't recall the face of the conferrer, as it's here with me now: on my head, squashing flat my receded salt-and-pepper hair.

Picture credit: The Navigli, Milan, 1965, Ferdinando Scianna

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Spilling of Salt

It didn't bear thinking about in the immediate aftermath; it doesn't bear thinking about now. Still. But I will, for I dislike people leaving me hanging, so it would be ungenerous of me to do the same, particularly when you might have felt invested emotionally, (reading is, I find, emotion-tugging), and so, even though I'm months further on and not as you might rightly surmise in Milan I will for your sake return to that bleak evening.
The sojourn was brief, much briefer than I ever could have imagined, ending in a stuffy interview room in a police station as I made and went over and over my witness statement. Forgive me if I choose to omit bedding down in a cell, as that's not something I really want to remember, though the duty officer was kind if a little over-polite in light of my foreigner status. And the translator (a man younger than me by a good twenty years and immaculately groomed as Italians generally are) provided in case of a communication breach was if anything too eager to be helpful. He almost became my shadow. Every time I fidgeted or stifled a nervous cough, he did too, furtively looking my way as if to say we're in this fine mess together, and yet his mimicking behaviour instead of being reassuring made me ill at ease. He would jump in to translate when I was mid-response, so that I would tail off and he would take over in rapid Italian, whilst the interviewing officer would listen and nod like one of those kitsch dogs whose heads jerk up and down.
So there I was in a disconcerting environment with the feeling my evidence differed to the other witnesses who'd been present and like me held for questioning. They weren't too many that hadn't in some way become involved in the fracas, so mine was an unusual case. I had felt as if I was watching Jeremy Kyle or Jerry Springer and I was the host complacently sitting a whisker away and letting the mayhem unfold.
The scuffle was laughable, really, like a food fight in a public school dinner hall: slices of Ciabatta were flung; oil and balsamic vinegar was flicked into eyes from the dipping bowls; antipasto was smeared into faces; and servers were pelted by olive stones if they tried to intervene. The mood, however, suddenly changed, and the venomous undertone that been there from the beginning under the surface rose, though I can't say if I realised this switch had been thrown at the time of my viewing. It all happened so quickly...
Food became fists flying through the air and landing on someone's cheek or torso; raised argumentative voices became loud grunts as more physical energy was expended; and there was the ripping of clothes as it became advantageous to throttle or wrestle your opponent to the restaurant floor, and once there roll around in a squabbling bear hug. At some point during this, another smaller fraction had broken off and upped the ante, resorting to not fists but forks, and pricking their adversary's skin as if they were sausages; a few even went for the eyeballs as if they were attempting to spear a pickled onion, though I don't think there's much call for those in Milan.
And so you see, it was rather comical to me, as if it were staged like a WWE tag team event and agreed who the eventual winners and losers were going to be, and so I took the injuries to be superficial. Most of them were you know, just scratches and bruises and the like, but some I learned later were more serious: broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and a punctured lung. From my seated vantage, however, it was horseplay: the sort of play men engage in to let off steam, which I've seen break out many a time and then it's all over. The men shake hands and return to nursing their drinks, along with their pumped or smashed egos, or whatever.
How was I to know this was different?
The officer questioning me found it hard to believe I didn't see, as did the over-helpful translator, the trifle that sparked the fight. I definitely don't recall noticing it at the time or later, and even if I had, it would still have been a trifle not worth mentioning. Salt cellars don't hold much significance to me other than to season food and I don't as a rule at the table, but there, the spilling of salt meant betrayal, which led to the first missile of food.

Picture credit: Cafe, Lombardia region (town of Milan), Italy, 1966, Bruno Barbey (Magnum Photos)

Thursday, 30 March 2017

A Milanese Supper

There was a large crack, off centre and running vertically, as if a lightning streak had left its mark on the tinted windscreen. The Italian taxi driver's eyes in the rear-view mirror a mixture of hatred and shock. The poor man as angry with himself as much as with my cane, which was, of course, the still-intact instrument of damage. Pantomiming again, he looked at it murderously, picked it up from the foot-well on the passenger side and violently shook it, before attempting to snap it in half. Well, it wouldn't yield; wood is unbending in the extremest of conditions, which made him reach that point we all dread to reach, whereby he flung it at me, sloughed and shaken as I was in the aftermath, on the back seat, though the jolt had also caused the fuzzy brain I'd complained of moments before to vaporise.
The second me that had, in weariness, become separated, had bolted back into my body, as soon as the driver's foot heavily pressed down on the brake, as if it were a rabbit and I were a rabbit hole, which is a strange sensation and not how I've heard it described. Usually, in emergency situations it's reported as being the other way around i.e. there's an upwards escape, not a dive for cover underground, but then, I've often done the reverse to what's expected.
That being the case, however, I immediately felt it was my civilian duty to compensate the driver, for my incomprehension of his language and his accent was largely to blame, and well, it was my cane. He had since calmed down, somewhat, although his gesticulations were still bigger than necessary, and of those I understood I refused in almost as wild a manner. I would not let him take me directly into the city centre, preferring a short walk and the Italian air, yet I paid the fare in full and contributed too to the windscreen repairs.
Having gathered my belongings, we shook hands as if it were a successful business deal in which both had got the outcome they wanted without letting on to the other, before parting company just as swiftly as we'd found one another outside the station: he pulling away with a squeal and me with a sway, assessing my coordination: a spindly tree in a Mediterranean breeze, which in my head I gave a 6.5.
There were no nagging pains that was the main thing, and I judged my gait to not be too far off what it ordinarily was considering all that had passed, and so with my wooden stick in my customary grip I advanced at a pace somewhere between tortoise and hare as my tired eyes skimmed the landscape for a seductive restaurant. Food, then hotel, I'd decided, not knowing what I might find when I reached the accommodation my friend had booked for this leg of his itinerary. No pun intended. My brain, when on an adrenaline high is reduced to picture-word association: Italy, shaped liked a boot, and so on, which in the past has made some frightful situations, but these days I use the excuse that I'm senile.
Shortly, lights beckoned on the right and up ahead, which as I approached grew into an alfresco area with flickering tea-lights, centrally placed, on tables set for two. It was a little early for romance with daylight still only fading, but you could see through into the main restaurant and in there a celebratory feast was in full swing: an animated table of twelve men swapping tales whilst sharing food and clinking glasses. It all looked so amicable I almost wanted to claim I belonged to their party, a late addition whose absence had been noted earlier and who would now be welcomed into the fold of laughter and back slapping. That, not to delude you, was mere fantasy: I knew nobody there, nor indeed in Milan.
Travel-drunk and mesmerised by the winking lights and the dying light of day, I chose to dine in the open-air, but sat facing in so I could continue to observe this band of brothers. Amused by their liveliness, the server attended to me but I barely attended to him: I had only water and declined parmigiana on my rigatoni alla Norma, yet the aroma from the steaming plate caused me to take my glance, for an instant, away, and that's when the fight broke out, over, as I was informed much later, a knocked-over salt cellar. It doesn't bear thinking about, even now.

Picture credit: The Last Supper, c 1520, Giampietrino, after Leonardo di Vinci

Thursday, 23 March 2017

A Couple of Isolated Incidents

The umbrella on track wasn't mine, could never conceivably have been mine, for there's no way I would own such a distinctly feminine article, one that wasn't even delicately floral but screamed psychedelic: a permanent Summer of Love in spite of the dreary weather it afforded protection from.
How did I see this poor victim? I saw it carted off, after a lot of bother, by an overzealous rail officer, who obviously thought he was the star of the show and not the psychotropic umbrella, to be, I imagine, either returned to its distraught owner, or to be bagged and tagged as lost property and held with all the other paraphernalia, some valuable, that somehow gets left behind on public transport; though equally it could be that it was instantly and cruelly disposed of by officers higher up the chain of command. The latter possibility made me feel quite sorry for this collapsed, and now bedraggled, item, for though umbrellas can't be described as innocuous, they cannot act alone, accidental or otherwise, as in potentially poking out eyes, tripping up passers-by or stabbing someone in the guts. Everything has a deadly use if you think, long and hard, about it, if you have the time to do so that is. And that, I've had plenty of over the years. Decades, even.
Although, never in my life have I wanted to lay on rail tracks and wait for an approaching train. Or throw myself or push somebody else into the path of one, though, in a weird way, I can understand that urge, that snap to do it. The rage that can't be contained spilling out, towards yourself or others. And certainly there were those around me, that day, that were less sympathetic. I know it was just an umbrella, but would their attitudes have changed if it was a person? Would they say it was 'just' a man, a woman, a homeless guy, a troubled girl? Nobody I knew, so that's okay?
Situations like this, even defused, create confusion. Clearly, for I was still ruminating on it on the TGV, and that was some hours after. The train hurtling along, at top speed, my mind racing with it: how exactly did it end up on track? why did it recovering it take so long? and why the judiciousness – the area sealed off by ticker-tape? You wouldn't believe the mayhem it caused if I told you, on London Underground, sure, but in Paris? I guess I expected more efficiency from the network than I perhaps would have done had I been in London.
And, as a consequence, I'd been bruised by hail. The commuters evacuated into this period of unsettled weather, which added to the enervating atmosphere. The complaints escalating and intensifying, issued with the same force as the stones thrown from the darkened skies, as we sought shelter like cattle without dogs or ranch hands to herd us. My soft flesh still stung even though it was over, done, and displayed a weird mottled branding.
The seven hour journey pointlessly swallowed up in this way. I tried to read a book: a collection of stories by Annie Proulx, and couldn't, the environment in which they were set being so very different to my own; I tried to sleep, already knowing it was useless trying as I never can when I'm inactive, yet in motion; I had a cup of herbal tea and even that didn't relax me; and so, as a last resort, I walked carriages, swaying, my cane signalling my unsteady passage, and it was only then that I could think ahead to Milan and the sights I wanted to see: the Piazza del Duomo, the Cinque Vie historical district, Leonardo di Vinci's Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria Della Grazie, and possibly, a day trip to Lake Como.
Naturally, in this blue sky burst of anticipation, I had conveniently forgotten (again!) my friend's exacting schedule, which wouldn't occur to me until I jumped into a taxi outside the Milano Porta Garibaldi station, and even then it was fleeting, my mind wanting a hotel room and supper, or something disguising itself as that for my concept of time was, by then, completely shot. The taxi driver talking to me in what seemed to be fast Italian (or was it flamboyant English?), eyeing me occasionally in the rear-view mirror to see if I comprehended; I didn't. And so, in a last stab at communication, he pantomimed to me, and for a second let go of the steering wheel and had to brake hard; the jolt forcing my inclined cane to act like a bird, trapped, and frantically beat at his windscreen.

Picture credit: Railroad Train, 1908, Edward Hopper

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Umbrella on Track

I got called away from the Parisian wonderland by a message left at the hotel desk. My convalescing friend, having not received a picture postcard from me for some days had at first fretted, then grown irritated, and then concluded, rightly, that Robert D had interfered in his carefully laid plans, none of which had in fact gone entirely to plan, but well, he was still the Controller wasn't he? and so, now chose to do a little intervening of his own through the mouthpiece of the telephone and the hotel receptionist's unsmiling lips.
These cupid-bow lips, fascinating as it was to see them on a man, mumbled an apology which I had to lean in to catch, then conveyed in a more audible authoritative tone: This isn't a holiday! Leave right away and stick to my schedule! After which, the lips relaxed and grinned, almost like a Cheshire cat in that it reached the eyes and two neat rows of white teeth showed, though I think the grin was more from embarrassment than laughing at one, that one, of course, being me: a lone traveller whom had lately come out of the rigid closet, not as gay, though what better place to do so than in Paris, but as someone finally ready to embrace the world and expand the circle in which they usually dwelt.
So, yes, I felt cheated from my own liberation, as well as justly reprimanded like a puppy who chews the furniture when their owner's out, for this wasn't my holiday, it had been his before misfortune struck, and was still. I had agreed, unwillingly, to be his envoy, but somewhere in Paris, as I hit my stride, I'd unthinkingly misplaced his shadow, probably left it behind at a tourist spot or in a metro station, so excited had I been that my confidence was beginning to assert itself in foreign lands. And so, I was guilty as charged.
I quickly scribbled on the back of a postcard of the Notre Dame: Going to Milan! with my benefactor's address and asked the same receptionist as before to post it off tout de suite. I scrambled up the stairs rather than wait for the elevator, and once in my room hastily ransacked drawers until everything was back, not as neatly packed, in my holdall, which owing to my travels unattractively bulged. I'd given away my umbrella earlier that day to a busking musician, who had no protection from the rain and I had no change so it seemed like a fair transaction, though I realised as I continued my promenade, that one, it was foolish, and two, my subconscious had recreated a Robert D picture, and proved, yet again, art lives on though the artist is gone, and so, in turn, the artist lives on through his art.
I'm fond of circles, those I draw around myself and those that are evident in life situations. Anyway, the umbrella was gone, which left my trusty walking aid as the only external baggage, and which when used I held with a bird-like claw, not only to steady myself but also to welt any would-be assailants. I had heard the probability of that was high if I went to Barcelona, not that it featured on the itinerary, yet naturally after learning that I'd attributed this opportunist act to other European cities, albeit on a lesser scale. Cities are judged like people: pockets of crime, where to avoid, where to go, which was another fact I'd hadn't known before I was made to step out of my comfort zone.
And yes, I realise I've wandered farther from the point, the point of my departure, which in reading this seems to have been onerously delayed. Well, that's a lie - it wasn't, I did go, with less haste than when I scrambled, which was rather untruthful of me as I couldn't really scramble with a cane, up the stairs, though it is true going down is worse on the knees. The elevator, just so you know, was in use, stopping everywhere but the fourth floor, and so, stairs it was, followed by shallow breathing having reached the lobby and refusing help as if I were swatting flies, before issuing a final and cheery bye-bye.
I exited to unseasonable weather and made for the nearest metro station. The 87 bus would have been more direct, but the metro, though more inconvenient, seemed quicker, if I was to make the high speed train departing from Paris-Gare de Lyon, Diderot, and the architecture of this station, I'd been told, was sublime. Unfortunately, my plans, once again, got scuppered as there was an umbrella on track, which I hoped, in some bizarre way, wasn't mine.

Picture credit: Musician in the Rain, Robert Doisneau

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Robert D's Paris

And so, which just so you know has become my favourite saying, as it has of others, and which I believe could even be attributed to the broad and continuing appeal of Kurt Vonnegut for its pause-making similarities, I find myself in Paris.
I arrived by boat and train, less than three days ago, after the usual mishaps which have dogged me ever since I stepped outside my provincial town.
What befell me this time around? I shall tell you, in a succinct manner for this is not the objective of this narration.
First, the berth assigned to me on the boat was not sound for I was plagued by a trickle of water which the boat's engineer tried to tell me in heavily accented English was 'no-fing to vorri yours 'ead 'bout' and that it came from inside not out. This, however, did little to alleviate my worries, and, in fact, only increased them. Then, after this worrisome but largely uneventful voyage, I was not met by my friend's friend whom had offered a guided tour and one night's bed and board, admittedly to my friend whose place I filled, but still, I had expected him to show, and so, when he didn't, I had to board a shuttle to the harbour-town, and there, track down reasonable accommodation, where I passed a fitful night: two tom-cats yowled, I presume, at each other or the full moon that split my room into zebra-like stripes.
The next day, however, passed off as planned: the train to Paris came on time, and so, here I am. In this Picture Post world.
In a piece of the globe I've primarily viewed through the lens of other, less risk-averse people, who are now, for the most part, decreased, though their art has by no means neared its last breath. Their classic black and white images of Paris existed when I wasn't even a blob of cells, and then, when I was more material than blob, I came to them a quarter of a century late. I actually wailed when I realised these pictures and I had existed side by side for twenty-five years and that fate had not intervened sooner. Now, a further quarter and seventeen years on, is that Paris still there?
That, is what I've been hoping, rather naively, since I arrived in this great city to discover. I'm almost scared at what I might find, for I don't want my Paris bubble to burst, nor for the back-catalogue of images I retain to be ripped to shreds, and yet it would be a waste of my friend's money if I stay holed up in this hotel for another day, trying out my dismal O-level French on the staff who answer me with an insufferably quick tongue. I have no idea what they're saying and can only reply with the following: Non, Oui, C'est combien?, Merci; or if I'm really struggling with whatever lamentation they're telling me, their mouth a stream of foreign words, a sympathetic or indignant C'est la vie! All, however, seem to suffice and they either grin broadly at me or go away with their frowns smoothed.
But today, after what has become my habitual croissant with apricot jam, I steeled myself to leave my current abode armed with a map and a compass, because, as you might have guessed, I'm..., well, I don't easily throw caution to the wind, not even if the direction it's blowing in is favourable, unless I'm pushed by a pig-headed friend or some 'strike while the iron's hot' force. In this case, it was the latter, and quite frankly, after staring at walls, as well as wooden doors and patterned floors, I was bored. The slow elevator was even failing to excite me.
Paris called! And I was determined to trace, at a walking pace, Robert D's pictorial twentieth century representation. The D stands for Doisneau, but my pronunciation is poor and, has at times, been a laughing matter, and so, to save my blushes and stammers I shortened it. Robert D. makes him sound like a friend, a very good friend, and he has been to me, unwittingly, but still. And so, of course, the first place I headed to was the big open space of the Champ de Mars, where the world's first hydrogen-filled balloon was launched by Jacques Charles and the Robert Brothers. A little fact I gleaned in my teens from a history doc, that would in time lead to Robert D. and this famous backdrop, which is where I now stand watching a very French-looking man take the air with a leashed white rabbit.

Picture credit: Champ de Mars, Paris, 1943, Robert Doisneau