yammering

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Archive for September 2008

eliza and the last day of summer

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Last Sunday I went to Keswick to see Eliza Carthy at the Theatre by the Lake. It was a fine day that had the feel of the last day of summer. I strolled around the town – which was surprisingly busy, I thought – and browsed in the outdoor shops. It’s sale time because it’s the end of the season and next year’s stuff is about to come in, and perhaps also because the economic slow down is having an impact. I sat outside at the Lakeland Pedlar with my elderflower cordial and carrot cake and gazed up at Skiddaw. The mountains were lolling in a loose grainy mist, benign and summery. I was wishing I’d brought my boots. But I hadn’t.

I wandered along the lake path from Crow Park down to the National Trust Centenary Stone at Calfclose Bay. On the way back I sat for a while on a seat near the Ruskin Memorial at Friar’s Crag looking out over Derwentwater. Perhaps his unquiet ghost sat down with me for a while. Places are made of memories. I was thinking about how double-edged they are, how the past perpetually constructs and reconstructs the present, and how the present constantly reconstructs the past. I gazed at the soft roller coaster ridge of Causey Pike and the snaggy peak of Eel Crag, like a lover gazing at a beloved he cannot reach. Memory is a landscape of longing and loss. The power of association is greater than Ruskin wanted to admit. But I wasn’t thinking about any of the many days when I’d walked these hills, any particular adventure or experience. I was just opened up somehow, peculiarly undefended in the face of the mass and texture of the place. I seemed to be somewhere beyond the particularity of events, but somehow there and then in a very particular moment.  I wished again that I’d brought my boots. I went past other walkers as if I was carrying a secret, as if I’d stolen one of the hills and it was in my rucksack, wrapped up in my black fleece. When I got back to my hotel room it struck me that I hadn’t taken a single photograph. Some days, I suppose, we must need to just let the moments be. Remembering, like art, is like an an act of love that sometimes feels like a violation.

I sat in my room near the window reading The Observer. But I wasn’t really paying attention. I wasn’t taking anything in. The articles floated by on the skin of my mind. None of them broke the surface tension or sank. I was preoccupied, wrapped in the paradox of being somewhere else at the very moment of being most fully here. It was probably beauty I was really wondering about, and how it had both immediacy and depth. The landscape of the Lakes is something that like most other people I experience as beautiful. There are paradigms of beauty we learn as children and find on every postcard. And yet while I knew that it was a common experience in its appearance and in its immediacy, I felt beauty must also be idiosyncratic and individual in its depth. Surely it’s more than a mere facade. Beauty is recognition. Beauty is knowledge of a kind. I was wondering if memory isn’t at its heart. I doubted that beauty could exist for a being without a memory. Beauty, I thought, in my Ruskinesque register, is a kind of angel of memory.

The articles in The Observer floated by. I was sounding a tad transcendental, I was thinking, a wee bit like a Platonist. A bit high-falutin’ and airy-fairy. Perhaps Ruskin’s ghost was still yammering inside me. I’d have to watch that. Beauty is recognition, but it is organic, material, iterative, cumulative, learnt, synthetic – I was looking for the words, the qualities to nail it down, to make sure it stays where it is, here in the real and ordinary lives of real and ordinary people. Beauty is not beyond us, not elsewhere, not the glimpse of another world. I was getting hungry. It was teatime. I was thinking that perhaps the study of idiosyncrasies of beauty must be like the archaeology or geology of memory. I was thinking I had wasted my money buying a newspaper today.

I had a quick shower and put back on the clothes I’d just taken off. I ate at Casa Bella, where the food is consistently good, much better than it ought to be for the price, I always think. I sat at a table near the window and watched the passers-by. I was feeling okay, I thought.

Eliza is lively and engaging, pale skinned and girlish, ordinary in a way. The intimacy of the venue suited her well and enhanced the sense of her being emotionally and personally close to her audience. This is probably particularly important for a folk artist, where being perceived as remote from her audience might be an unfortunate irony. The perceived distance between an artist and her audience is of course a key element in the experience of the performance. Eliza’s rapport seems utterly natural, as if it’s never had to be worked at. This is an illusion too, of course. She has a nice line in apparently spontaneous waffle, as she might call it, about things her audience of ordinary people know and can identify with, like boyfriends, mobile phones, families, babies, getting drunk, parties, rowing on the lake, and the pirate’s hook that happens to be hanging on the microphone stand. Tonight’s performance was ostensibly as much a conversation with the audience as a performance of the songs from her latest album. The conversation – in actuality a sort of monologue, of course – undoubtedly added context and thus depth to the songs and therefore altered and arguably enhanced them for her audience. The truth is that as entertaining and likeable as she undoubtedly was, I found myself at times wishing she would play a little more. There is depth and common experience – an inescapable humanity – about folk songs which is personal in any case and which can stand alone. I felt like a spoilsport at times, as if I was being a little churlish in my desire to hear her sing and play her fiddle more. And I was, because she is so personable and probably very genuine.

What I like about Eliza’s records – her music – is the intensity, the way the force of her music – rhythm, repetition, persistence, tone, texture, and what have you – ensnares me, wraps itself around me, possesses me. I like the way dark spaces are opened up- chasms – and the way the music is a kind of rope that swings and hauls me around spaces that seem simultaneously dangerous and safe, depraved, reckless and (ha ha – I’ve slipped this one past you once before!) sublime. I like how I’m made to lurch and stumble, teeter and soar, glide and fall. What I like is the palpable physicality of her music, how it reunites me with movement, with the dynamics or kinetics of being an animal in an animal’s world. Maybe this is one of the things the beauty of music remembers for us, the way the body moves, how we made and make the space where we find ourselves as bodies. I’d watched videos of Eliza on YouTube and she seemed to me to be also possessed by the physicality of her music. I had come to witness some of those moments. And I did. Eliza and her band are all strong musicians and seem to be deeply involved with their material. There were times when I got what I came for, the immediacy of Eliza fiddling and stepping and swaying around the stage like a distracted hobgoblin, driven to a dance that is as deep as we are, as deep as any of us can be, and stepping up to the microphone to fathom and release unfathomable emotions. Eliza surrenders her voice to her song, her body to her violin – that’s how good she is.

After the concert she came out into the bar and sat at the table with her CD’s. I bought another copy of Dreams of Breathing Underwater and asked her to sign it for me. She’s pregnant and I wished her good luck with the baby and she thanked me for that. Eliza wants to be the same woman off stage as she is on stage, I thought, and maybe she is, in some ways at least. But it would be a mistake to assume that a Yorkshire lass has any less of a secret life than Leonard Cohen.

The next morning I had intended to hire a rowing boat and go out on the lake for an hour. I was thinking I might drown the ghost of Ruskin once and for all. But it was raining steadily. I drove down past Thirlmere, over Dunmail Raise and through Grasmere in the quiet silvery rain and it looked very like the first day of autumn. I went to Ambleside and browsed around the outdoor shops there, but again bought nothing. I wandered around the town and spent a little while in the Old Courthouse Gallery looking again at the paintings of Libby Edmondson, which I particularly like and whose style in some ways reminds me of mine.

When I got back home there was only De Kooning in the house. I could hear the Napoleon still ticking in Margaret’s bedroom. De Kooning gave me a nudge with his head and I took him to the kitchen and gave him some prawns. I told him Eliza was good but asked him not to mention Ruskin. I went through to the conservatory as I checked my mail. There were seven large onions on the coffee table. The clatter and rumble of the Citadel men was relentless.

When Margaret came in I asked her if she’d wound the Napoleon up.

‘I have not,’ she said, emphatically. ‘I haven’t tampered with it at all. Brenda has advised me that intervening would not not a good idea.’

‘I didn’t know she knew about clocks.’ I said. ‘There’s no end to her talents, is there?’

Margaret rolled her eyes. She didn’t need to tell me that the awakening of a long dead clock would be regarded as a sign by Brenda. What it was a sign of was less obvious, of course.

‘Did you tell Brenda about my spider’s corpse theory?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ Margaret replied, tersely. ‘She said that such an explanation is so far fetched and unlikely that it can be safely dismissed.’

And yet the idea that the clock might start up again in contravention of the laws of nature and in doing so have a higher meaning, which might be of very great significance indeed, isn’t so unlikely, it seems.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Okay.’

On Thursday I noticed the clock was still ticking and I asked Margaret again if she had wound it up. Again she said she hadn’t.

‘Then someone has,’ I said. ‘Because even if we don’t know why it started, what we do know is it won’t keep going unless someone keeps winding it up. Perpetual motion isn’t possible.’

‘I haven’t touched it,’ Margaret repeated. ‘And I won’t. But let me tell you this – that clock may never stop again. Brenda’s right, everything happens for a reason, and that Napoleon is no exception.’

‘I think I’ll call the Greek,’ I said.

‘You can call who you like,’ Margaret said. ‘There are some things that even the Greek can’t explain.’

I rang the Greek. He said to be patient. Sooner or later the Napoleon will fall totally silent again.  But it hasn’t done so yet and it’s beginning to worry me. Imagine if the world according to Brenda just happens to turn out to be true. 

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Written by yammering

September 20, 2008 at 10:32 pm

a broken napoleon and a dead spider

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Returning to work after a holiday is always a difficult transition, like stepping from a garden into a bullring. Transitions like this are often best managed by a ritual, and in my case this involves washing and ironing all my clothes, polishing my shoes, trimming my sideboards, and having a long bath. It’s as if the odour of recreation must be washed from me, as if to return to the old world I must make myself a new man. Going back to work is like rebirth. I must purify myself before my eviction from the womb.

Things have been surprisingly quiet at work. Sightings of the Arab have declined dramatically it seems (although Robin Hood may have become a permanent resident). Debs says that in part this is because Elephant Carmichael has been remanded in custody on charges of aggravated burglary and attempting to pervert the course of justice and Flinty’s keeping his head down. More significant though is that Flinty’s shacked up with Molly Armstrong in her flat at Rothesay Terrace down at the Station and is otherwise engaged, at least for the time being. What’s more, the schools are open again, the nights are drawing in a bit, and the weather hasn’t been good. The population of Flinties is dwindling rapidly, as if they’ve been nothing but summer migrants. I spoke to Gilmour a day or so ago and told him so and that I thought things were settling down. He told me that this was great news.

‘Looks like we’ve cracked this one, eh?’ he said. ‘I’ll let the Director know. Good work!’

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘We do what we can.’

It rained heavily last weekend. Morpeth was flooded and Northumberland finally became the victim of freak weather and got the publicity and pity that for so long it has been denied. A disaster can be a cloud with a very silver lining. Eat your heart out the Vale of York: Charles and Camilla visited us today. They dallied a while, meandered along the loyal fringe of their postdiluvian subjects and shook a few of their damp northern hands. The television report showed them at a chip shop in Morpeth town centre. I think it was the Market Chippy on Newgate Street, next to the cheese shop. I like the look of Charles. He’s consistently odd. Somehow he reminds me of a gundog, one that perhaps lacks a little in the way of grey matter but who has an irrepressible sense of mischief. A springer spaniel perhaps. A one that would chew your furniture. He also sometimes reminds me of a bedraggled fledgling, an owlet perhaps.

The Widow Middlemiss hasn’t yet returned from Derby. Despite the heavy rain her property has suffered no further flooding. Griff has obviously taken steps to avoid another PR disaster. When I came in from work earlier this week Margaret was in the Widow’s garden dead-heading her French marigolds and hoeing the borders. I glanced across to see if Hugo was back. He wasn’t. I went inside and made myself a cappuccino. I was sitting in the conservatory with De Kooning pondering the realities of wage slavery when I became aware of a faint ticking. I followed the sound to the door of Margaret’s bedroom. I pushed it open slowly, as if I was about to find a bomb. What I found was a lot stranger: the ticking turned out to be the Napoleon Mantel Clock on her dressing table. It had come back to life. It was ticking enthusiastically. It had broken ranks with its twenty two silent and motionless companions. It now said it was almost five o’clock, which wasn’t right but suggested it had probably started working again about two hours earlier, at which time I knew Margaret would have still been at work.

‘The Napoleon in your bedroom is working,’ I said to Margaret when she came back in.

‘It can’t be,’ she said. ‘It’s broken.’

‘It can’t be broken,’ I replied. ‘It’s ticking.’

She went to the bedroom and checked. She was still wearing her wellies and green gardening gloves. She came back with her mouth hanging open.

‘How can this be possible?’ she said. ‘That clock is broken. The Greek said it was beyond repair.’

‘The Greek was obviously wrong,’ I said.

‘He’s never wrong. The Greek is never wrong. Never.’

My pizza was ready. I sat for a while eating and pondering the mysterious resurrection of the broken Napoleon. It had the look of a miracle about it. But it wasn’t, of course. I asked Margaret if it was okay if I examined it. I went into her bedroom and gazed at the ticking timepiece. I picked it up with both hands and looked deep into its face. It was now keeping perfect time. It had a sort of blank insolence about it. A smugness even. This was a clock that wasn’t about to give anyone an account of its baffling revival. I stood it back down on the dressing table, next to a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now. Brenda had recommended this to Margaret a few days ago. I picked it up and flicked through a few pages. Zen meets narcissism. Absurd and incoherent. Pure Brenda. The perfect companion for a clock that rises from the dead, I thought.

I rang the Greek. He told me there was simply no way the Napoleon could be working. It was a broken clock. I told him it had. The Greek was puzzled.

‘Then I was wrong,’ he said. ‘It was never broken. A broken clock is a broken clock, and it cannot repair itself.’

I told Margaret I’d spoken to the Greek and that he’d said the clock must have been in working order all along.

‘If that’s so then why didn’t it start ticking before now?’ she said. ‘And why did it start now? There’s something funny going on here, I’ll tell you that. Clocks just don’t stop and then start again without reason months and months later. It doesn’t make sense.’

‘There’ll be an explanation,’ I said. ‘But we might never know what it is. Perhaps a dead spider was jamming the works and it has finally decomposed or its corpse has finally fallen from the cogs. That could have happened.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, yes, that’s very likely,’ she said. ‘The corpse of a spider falling from the cogs. I think I’ll give Brenda a ring.’

I glanced at De Kooning. He was washing his face with his paw. Behind me I could hear the television newsreader saying that a junior whip has come out and said openly that their should now be a leadership contest in New Labour. It was starting to rain and looking very dark outside. The economy’s in recession. I wondered what Gordon was doing tonight.

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esse est percipi and all that palaver

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Kevin Keegan is to take over the management of Blyth Spartans. Britney Spears and David Beckham have been spotted together hand in hand shopping in the Keel Row. The first Disney World in Britain is to be constructed on the site of the old Wellesley School and the land between there and the beach, currently used for caravan storage. It will open in 2011. The Jonas Brothers, Take That, Paris Hilton, Kylie Minogue, P. Diddy, Engelbert Humperdinck, the Krankies, Something Spooked The Horses and Mick Hucknall are all doing shows at the Pheonix Theatre in Beaconsfield Street over the next couple of months. Jonathan Ross has bought a house for himself and his family in the small new development of Sidney Gardens on the site of the old Sidney Arms on Cowpen Road.  Harvey Nichols are opening up a branch on Bowes Street. And a futuristic new bridge for cycles and pedestrians is to be built across the river to North Blyth. It will be made of raw aluminium and bleached timber and in part modelled on the Gimsoystraumen bridge in Norway, we are told. Things are certainly hotting up around here.

But, encouraging as these things might be, I’ve been wondering lately what it would really take to put this place on the map. The prospects, as I see them, are now little short of a nightmare.

Hugo’s hired a camper van and gone off to tour Wales for the week with Mrs Hugo and his daughters. I noticed that an abandoned computer desk has been washed up in his front garden along with some large bundles of what looks like coir or thatch. If it’s the latter then I expect another version of Ye Olde England will soon be added to the unabashed post-modern accident that is his estate. In his back garden I have ascertained that two new plastic otters on a log have joined the menagerie beside the eternally gurgling pond. Another recent arrival is a new brass sundial. It is of a common design with a fixed axial gnomon. The motto is meam vide umbram, tuam videbis vitam. All Hugo needs now is the sun. He also needs to be aware of course that since the construction of the Citadel we’ve lost a couple of hours of sunlight each day and that this may therefore significantly reduce the efficacy of his shiny new chronometrical device.

I was pondering whether the CCTV cameras covering the front of his house will be in operation during his absence. If they are I wonder if he’ll ever replay the tapes. It would be a seriously onerous – not to say boring – task to review a whole week of tape. All those people wandering innocently past his gate, all those cats and post office workers and delivery people . . .  The following thesis occurred to me: things that are taped or monitored on CCTV but are never viewed, never actually happen. This of course is a thesis that owes a great deal to Berkeley’s subjective idealism, in particular the notion that ‘to be is to be perceived’. You will be familiar with the old chestnut (yes, I know – groan!), “if a great tree falls in a forest and no-one is there to hear it, does it make any sound?”  While this may seem a daft question in the common sense world – I mean, when did you last see a great tree fall and make no sound?! – it is one which has exercised philosophers a great deal in recent centuries. It would therefore be foolish to dismiss it as a mere trick of the language, one of those questions that can occur for technical reasons but is in reality utterly absurd.

So here is a new slant on the Bishop’s thesis: if it is true that to be is to be perceived, then those who appear on unwatched monitors do not exist. In a surveillance society such as ours this argument could be open to abuse, of course, and would need to be applied with some vigilance. But it may have some bearing on the virtual world. If, for instance, you run a website or a blog that never gets a hit, does the content of that website (and therefore the website itself) ever really exist? Not to be perceived is not to exist. And if the website doesn’t exist, what of the author? This is a conundrum I’ll need to give some serious thought to, I think. It is worrying to think that an unread blogger may have little more substance than a hypothetical metaphysical entity. I can almost feel myself disappearing. This must be what it’s like to be God in a world of atheists. It’s not like the old days, He must be thinking, when a couple of decent thunderbolts or a good old fashioned drought were enough to get any deity noticed.

And perhaps the idea also has a bearing on how to put Blyth on the map. Is a town that no-one notices a town that doesn’t exist? Which is where I came in and brings me back to the breaking news that Sven Goran Erikson and Alex Ferguson have also both now expressed an interest in managing the Spartans.  There are also rumours emerging tonight of a Super Casino, an art gallery and a Big Wheel.  As I said to De Kooning as we gazed together into Hugo’s world, these are exciting times for ontology as well as for town planning. De Kooning of course seemed to be a lot more interested in the noisy blackbird sitting on the head of Hugo’s moose. I really must talk to De Kooning about Schrodinger some time soon.

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