Wednesday, October 1, 2014

october (the wind)


Somerset meant: Building a bonfire — standing in its smoke and making its smell, not just admiring the idea from a distance. A house with an Aga at its heart. A Springer Spaniel called Plato who fell in love with Jamie and had me for a one night stand. Hauling kindling the size of tree trunks for the 500-year-old fireplace, which was carved out in prepostmodern motifs. A geometric beach full of fossils. A walk through the high, heathered Quantocks. Red wine and thick coffee drunk lazily, out of the joy of the taste not some kind of workaday desperation. (My countryside is a romantic one, though I tried pathetically to engage in its labour like some kind of new wave Coleridge.) A host with a literary turn of phrase. Pulling burrs out of Plato's velvety ears. I slept the nights through, under stars I was too tired to see. And we crash landed to await our return bus in lowly Bridgewater. With time to kill we walked the streets our host had referred to as high noon. It was strangely Americana. On a takeaway counter hung a sign: Welcome to the USA. A womanchild walked the streets in a shiny stars-and-spangles minidress. Elsewhere, several people roamed in vampire costume. The most uninviting entrance to a pub: a banner that read Welcome to the Butt Cave, with a kind of curtain formed by flesh-coloured vinyl through which we saw one willing punter retreat. Into, I suppose, the asshole. The bus ride back to London was smooth and boring. We were given refreshing candies. I slept uncomfortably on Jamie. I returned muckier and possibly tanned, with mud on my boots and the accompanying sense of perspective. Things in the countryside are painted green and the dirt is clean. I miss its mellow and the dog.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

on ageing

I'm from the generation in which one conceived an email address as a nicely turned phrase. My friends have addresses that refer to impossible animals and indie pop lyrics. Some are a blatant mention of a favourite food or hobby. Maybe a pun. Surely many of these folks now also have a grown up gmail that simply bears first and surname, perhaps separated by a sophisticated dot. (Remember when everything had an_underscore_?) But I get a tickle when seeing the dated, faded, idiosyncratic, rather embarrassing old catchphrase emails. They date us like tribal tattoos.

Jamie's and mine are each a kind of diminutive, signalling our interest in the microscopic, the small scale, the quotidian. Jamie's is a self-discovered sibilance; mine a reference to a Dylan Thomas short story that no one has yet recognised. They stamp us, harkening to an era not so long ago in which digital identity was 'avataristic.'

I wrote the two previous paragraphs in a bout of insomnia. I suppose — birthday coming — I was feeling old. The street was noisy with new students getting to know each other at the top of their lungs, destroying the sonic landscape of their new city before they learned to appreciate it — which is of course in its own way a part of the sonic landscape of the city. So I tried to be mellow about it, and just sit up in bed and write a blog entry about old school email addresses. But I didn't know where to go with it. Those two paragraphs didn't lead to others. And I switched over to check my emails and opened up one that said we've got to move out of this place.

We're being evicted!, I proclaimed out loud, selfishly waking Jamie, who in a matter of minutes was researching vacancies in Modernisst estates — in far, far away, quiet, leafy, inconvenient Forest Hill. Oh how the suburbs have come to beckon. Like a composition by Erik Satie. Not challenging, maybe, but soothing.

I need to be soothed. I'm trying to find a way to enter the autumn in a balm. It's not quite autumn; I'm still eating nectarines. But I've stained my fingertips with blackberries, pulled from bushes at a height too tall for a dog to pee. In Hyde Park Jamie found conkers on the ground, but my wool coat was too heavy for the balmy air. It's that marvellous time of year when the day is as uncertain as me.

The next day, reeling from the news, a rug pulled out from under me, dusty and tattered at the edges, but my rug, my security, I stood in a fitting room in John Lewis, trying on black jeans. The double mirror and overhead light accentuated my balding pate. I contemplated its smooth shine. Its emptiness. And I thought: I AM TURNING 40. I AM BEING EVICTED. I AM TRYING ON BLACK LEVI'S IN JOHN LEWIS. And then I thought, SHOULD I CRY? SHOULD I SIT ON THIS STOOL AND CRY? WILL I LEAVE THIS SMALL ROOM REFRESHED? IF THIS WERE A MOVIE, THIS WOULD BE THE SCENE WHEN I WOULD CRY.

I didn't cry. I haven't and I almost did at my birthday party, saying goodbye to Mildred, holding her, loved up. I received many birthday cards. If you want to feel popular, turn 40. Everyone is obligated. It's a mix of pity and excitement which suits me fine.

On my birthday, I swam a kilometer and a half in the lido. I ate a minty falafel. I lay down in the wildflower meadow in London Fields. The sun blasted my face like its last bright burning. I had a vision that Jamie stood above me and I felt my love for him. It's that typical cinematic dream: him in silhouette. In reality, he was somewhere across town. He was at a conference. I tried to remain calm. That night I would be hosting party in a pub, Grade II listed; this country reserves some pride for age.

And I would be at this party with friends who don't fake laugh. Recently, I passed three professionally dressed people and they fake laughed at each other and I thought, I am glad my friends do not fake laugh. They do not have that style. Maybe I am funny. I try to be and hopefully sometimes am. But if not they I think would not politely ha ha in that way. I'd rather receive a grimace or a groan.

I didn't cry on my birthday. I did my exercises in the morning, the full regimen, and groomed. I didn't need to cry, autumn does that for you. It spits rain and blows cool air. By the afternoon, that bright expiring sun gave way to thunder and a hard, big rain. I was conveniently back home by then, in a home that would soon not belong to me. It never did. I could hear people on the street scream with panic and delight as they ran for shelter.

The day after, high on being 40 and smart in my new Mackintosh even though it was hardly raining and the sleeves were not yet tailored, we went to the Master Shipwright's House in Deptford. (It is Open House weekend in London, and this house was open.) We journeyed there on the worst bus ever, which rattled incessantly every time it stopped. And it was basically always stopped, due to an unexplainable traffic jam. People stuck going nowhere. We sat for a very long time in this purgatory of a bus, my teeth about to jump out of my skull from the incessant vibration. When we got to the destination, we came across an overground orchard. We walked into the grounds and saw the river. We began to look around this creaky, crumbling place. Inside, peeling paint and original fixtures remained, juxtaposed with select pieces of solid, unforced mid-century furniture. They grounded the rooms in something like the present or the recent past. Collections of things — framed prints, sports gear, found objects from nature and mechanics — sat in the corners and on surfaces like Rauschenberg assemblage. The decorating touches were like something we would do ourselves, but larger in scale and spread out across these big empty rooms. Like us but better. I breathed easily in these drafty, masculine rooms. The ground floor sitting room was painted a delicious almost-aqua, not quite-teal, hinting at Georgian, but without the chewiness. Without the Easteriness. I felt submerged. Old maps and plans and illustrations told stories of trade and battle. Upstairs, on matching chairs, Willie, the owner — handsome in shorts and boots and carrying a good mug — sat with me. I hope it's ok I'm sitting, I said. It's the best way, he replied languidly, to appreciate a room. Later, we sat in the shed at the edge of the lawn. The best shed in the world, parked on the Thames, a bottle of rum on the windowsill, overlooking a river of good intentions and murder. Approaching the house again, Willie said, There's a woman here who is totally offended this isn't already a National Trust property. She despises all my ugly things. I haven't done it right and so she's mad at me. Willie pointed to a woman scowling at the Thames from a first floor window. There she is, he said. I am going to go bother her, he said conspiratorially. Jamie and I were both wondering if we could flirt our way into a wing of the house.

The late afternoon dribbled and deliberated. The sky pulled a curtain on the stage set of London: flat and grey, troubled, weary and yet still brimming with that about to begin. We brought in the evening under a flickering lightbulb, overlooking the muddy water at the old Mayflower pub. Yes, London has a certain regard for the old. In the cracks of these floorboards surely dwell Dickensian moths. In the wiring, apparently, an electric ghost. Ships sailed past anachronistically. Across the water, lights began to come on, as they have done for decades, one by one, but in harmony. The city stretched out curiously, the Thames curved like the hump in a question mark. There will always, I suppose, be places to move from and to move to.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Thursday, August 14, 2014

potatoes (everyone is an extra)

The people I pass are the extras in my story; I am an extra in theirs. We are standing in each other's solipsism.

A woman next to me on the train took out boxes and boxes from her small bag and in these tiny boxes were coloured powders which she swiped on her face. I was dusted by the traces. I sat there thinking about sexism. That morning, Jamie had relayed to me a report he'd heard about all these sexist things that happen in workplaces. Women being expected to make the tea and other awful things. He said to me, and the worst is, men actually say good girl. I say that!, I cringed. To friends who have done well, I cried out in a kind of rapidfire confessional, I say good girl, is that bad. REALLY?, Jamie balked. Well, I suppose it's okay to say to a friend, he muttered, unconvinced.

Another woman on the train was telling her companion, you know, the way I look at it, she's like potatoes. I don't dislike them. But I don't particularly like them. And if they're not good for me, why should I… The woman and her colleague both wore access passes around their necks. I imagined they were film industry, maybe BBC. When the train stopped, they scurried off importantly.

At the Yvonne Rainer exhibition at Raven Row, the dancers performed in a basement space with its rear access door kept open, so that the room opened onto the street. This helped make a marvel, because passersby didn't just pass but wondered and dawdled and then sat and watched. As the front facing audience, we were watching "formally," I mean we had arrived to take a seat and so on. But I observed that the people who stopped and sat and watched from outside also stayed for the whole performance. I saw that they were smiling. I suppose we were smiling too, but we couldn't see each other. Their presence made the performance more peopled, and added both a sense of freedom and a slight tension. They made the possibilities of live performance more possible.

We watched the incredible documentary Chronique d'une ete, and the next week we watched it again. Everyone is the star. Or is everyone an extra. We watched Dazed and Confused, and it wasn't as good as I'd remembered. Still, its structure continued my thinking. Everyone, in a way, is an extra in this narrative. When the film attempts to bring a protagonist to the fore, it suffers. It's better as a sea of extras.

At the bottom of the escalator at a tube station, I can't remember which, I think Euston, a blind busker stood whistling. I think it was it The Way You Look Tonight. I liked the feel of his performance. In corridors, I like classical, melancholic buskers, accordions and violins, the ones who colour in the interstitial space rather than interrupt your experience. They are background artists. They know this has a value.

At Oxford Street, I noted the elegant pose of the Awake! pamphlet ladies, handing out their Christian leaflets with open palms suggesting vulnerability or crucifixion. I got turned around at the Oxford Circus x-crossing, the first intersection of its kind in England. In the summertime, all us locals have a litany of complaints about the tourists. But even Londoners aren't especially good at crowd navigation, what Jane Jacobs called 'the ballet of a good city sidewalk'.

On one of our evening walks home, Jamie and I descended the stairwell to the basement gay bar in Bloomsbury. We'd passed it previously on our meandering routes. (If walking through a city is a ballet, we dance a duet, always costumed in navy and black, he with black on top of navy, and me in reverse, navy then black.) It was decided that we would finally go in. We sat together, wallflowered as usual, surveying the scene, or what there was of one anyway, considering the literary bent: cocktails called the Virginia and so on.

Afterwards, we travelled around the corner to spot the exterior location of the sitcom Black Books. There we saw the sign for the restaurant Chilli Cool, which has come so highly recommended (with caveats attached: if you dare) and we only saw fit to brave it. We gobbled an addictive dinner in that skylit room, and sat basking in the dirty afterglow of red spices and MSG. And that is when I became an extra in another table's conversation. And not the good kind, like the Hot Guy or whatever. I played the Bald Man. Or so I think. I'm sure that's what happened. It was like Seinfeld. From what I gleaned: Oh be CAREFUL, a woman said to her friend, hushing him and gesturing towards me. I never would have registered what he'd just said but this pricked my ears up, and so I rewound my subconscious memory — do you know how I mean — where I found the echo of this man telling a story that ended with the punchline I'm not bald, I'm not bald. And I'm not exactly bald, not yet, but I'm getting there, and as I was waiting for the bill, I sat rubbing my head, which makes me look, I imagine, even more bald, an eager Buddha. The woman who had drawn my attention to whatever it was she was trying to conceal, was now rubbing her head in emulation of me. Nobody else at the table looked at me, and they seemed to swiftly move the topic along after she'd managed to dig herself a little deeper gesturally.

Ok, I'l have to take that, I thought. I'll have to be the Bald Man in the story that has made their own spicy dining experience even more elated and adrenaline-rushed and funny.

We walked home on streets and closes and mews and through churchyards and playgrounds and past sculptures and signs. It's what we do best, isn't it, walk unknown streets guided by a loose sense of direction and curiosity. We passed a ground floor room and peeked in and saw a man surrounded by books and books and books. And he was watching something on an iPad and his room was lit warmly and his room seemed alive. And the building it belonged to seemed alive, too. It was as if it was built for children, made for the dusk. Amiable sounds emanated from rooms warmly lit. It was one of these old Edwardian mansion blocks you get behind King's Cross. Or where were we. Jamie would correct me and say we were someplace else. His mind is a map. This building has so much life, he exclaimed. The calls of children spilled across a courtyard, which we passed into in order to view this estate from the inside out. The courtyard felt truly central to its design, its heart even, and Jamie said, it feels like somewhere else, maybe Amsterdam. It always feels like somewhere else when people are playing. I love you London but you work so hard. When people are playing it feels like somewhere else.

We walked past a girl with an afro. We walked past a mad old couple with a mad old dog. When we got home we weren't other people's extras anymore. In our own small flat, in a far less lively red brick block, we are the main characters. We look through windows and wash dishes in the sink.

Some days later, emerging from the tube station at Old Street, I walked past a man spitting out his cigarette, apparently disgusted with the rain. He maybe didn't realise he stood beneath a rainbow.

The rainbow over Old Street is magnificent and repeats itself. Rainbows are such a good symbol for gays. They're just undeniable.

I walked past a chap I know and we said hurried hellos under nylon hoods. Rain.

A friend from work told me that the other day she cowered from the thunder and lightning and the people walking behind her laughed. She was the extra in their anecdote. Like the Bald Man, she was Girl Afraid of Lightning.

We're all extras, and what's more, we'd like to think we've been poorly cast.

You know when people say it's strange to see you out of context. Doesn't that feel patronising. It does, I'll tell you, if you work in a shop, like I do. It feels like you are being told, I never considered you sometimes didn't work, that you exist outside of shops. Like my mom, who used to teach, and made children who loved her at school shirk with fright when they saw her at the supermarket.

When you work in a shop, you never feel completely free of the feeling that you are servile and on display. I walk into other shops and am asked for help, where is this or that. I don't work here, I reply. But my manner still conveys shop assistant, and so I have have to repeat this information, this statement of identity, as kindly as possible, to the bewildered inquisitor, who thinks I am a worker being especially rude.

Recently, outside a pub after a long day, a beggar to whom I was unresponsive called me batty boy. Oh really, I groaned. Still with that? I wanted to shout to the assembled crowd, don't give him your money, he's a homophobe. But privately I felt vaguely complimented that I could still be considered a boy. At the bar at the same pub a couple weeks later, a large red man accused me of taking video on my phone. Why would I want to film a bunch of old guys ordering beer. If not a pervert, did he think I was a corporate spy? An actual spy? Obviously paranoid and probably drunk, he then proceeded to take a photo of me, with flash. I tried to hide my face behind my glass — but, as I was sampling an ale, it was a tiny glass. I thought, the next morning he is going to wake up and think why have I got a photograph of this man on my phone?

Batty boy, bald man, batman. Why can't I just be banal. I can't help that my resting face looks stressed. That's just the way it holds together. We are held to task for our resting faces. Female friends of mine are constantly told to cheer up, to smile, by men on the street. This is annoying, aggressive and sexist. These friends of mine are happy enough. They are thoughtful, balanced people. And that's just what the instruction to cheer up denies. They are being told it is their role to be less than thoughtful, to be blithe, and they are not performing their role correctly.

On an uncertain Sunday, we walked around Hampstead after the rain. I wondered has Hampstead ever been depicted in a noir. That night, sleepless, buzzing from the days' second coffee and third beer, I thought about London noir. I vaguely remembered Night and the City. I considered how cities are depicted besides noirishly. Romantically, I suppose, in Woody Allen films. But how is London portrayed? It often isn't there at all. It eludes description, or rather its description is ignored. It evades presence as character. New York City, Venice, San Francisco, they are always characters. Generally, London is a backdrop at most. I know there are many exceptions: I'm now thinking about the original Oliver Twist, of Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy, of Mike Leigh, of Mary Poppins. But I was somnambulant and lay there thinking how is a city depicted outside of noir. Hampstead, in the silvery aftermath of hard rain, felt maybe not so mysterious as revealing. It felt clearheaded up there above the smog. It felt conducive to clear thinking.

There is just a nip of autumn in the air — the breeze is cooler, and the leaves fallen from the storms resemble autumn in the way that children mimic teenagers. I was sitting on the tube and a feeling of anxiety took over me. It raced through my bloodstream, hot and dirty like cheap coffee. And just then the train came to a standstill. An announcement was made that due to an engineering situation we'd be held for a moment. The man next to me let out a deep sigh, and then another. On the tube a sigh is contagious like a cough. The man on the other side of me shifted. Later, I texted Jamie about this experience. He was sweetly concerned about my anxiousness: I hope you're ok, he wrote. I replied that I reckon it's normal to feel anxious at the changing of the weather. It's like Mary Poppins, the way a wind comes in, I wrote. You ARE like Mary Poppins, he replied. Just don't blow away.

Another day, another route home. We walked underneath garrets and chimney pots and the wary clouds of a confused sky. It didn't quite rain, it spit a little, and yet there it was: that brilliant, clear rainbow over Old Street. Coming up on City Road, the last remaining rays of sun illuminated building tops and monuments and steeples, rendering them golden. Buildings are malleable because of light. It really was breathtaking — drugs could not have exaggerated reality better than the weather had. It was like arriving in some kind of mecca or oz. And in this bronzed light, a young man untied the lock on his bicycle carefully. He had brilliant copper hair. I was tempted to tell him: your hair colour is great. And after we passed him, Jamie said, I think I knew that guy. We did extras work together. Jamie was a bit faraway, trying to place what film or commercial they had both worked on. I admitted, I almost told him he has great hair. Oh, you should have, said Jamie, he's gay, you would have liked him. I just didn't know whether to say hi, he said. We had made friends at the time, he explained. But that was a long time ago. When we were once extras together.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

the waltz

I am shelling late summer broad beans. Still robust, but some look a little fatigued; wrinkled skins. Why must we all wrinkle. Why couldn't we just sprout something amazing then die.

The slightly cooler summer sky is peaceful. Children play near dangerous boyracers who were children themselves only a few summers ago.

We listen to broad American music, the kinds of songs that are both dark and light at the same time, songs that squint like eyes adjusting at dusk.

I am thinking again, why is Gram Parsons' music always called cosmic. I'm sure this makes perfect sense to most people, but I've always been somewhat confused: his songs sound like the peeling wallpaper in a ballroom to me.

Remember when we saw peacocks in the desert, Jamie asked me the other night. A bunch of us were at picnic tables behind his studio. Where did we see peacocks, I tried to remember. At the opera house, said Jamie. An opera house and peacocks in the desert!, he exclaimed. We'd been talking about animal collective nouns. You know, an ostentation of peacocks.

The backyard we knew, but just today we discovered the roof. A treasure. What a new place. Why didn't we know it already. We overlooked the usual buildings from a different point of view. An older woman called Jo sat with a cup of tea and said, yes, come up on the roof. Have a seat, have a ciggie. (Later, Jamie said she's the only person who's made a ciggie sound appealing in a long time.) Who does the gardening?, I asked and of course she does. Alpine plants, she pointed out. I looked at small shrubs at the base of a slanted roof.

Underneath that roof is a loft that sleeps four, with gigantic plants and gigantic windows. What a room. It's that kind of gigantic that makes you feel small/good.

I am relaxed when I feel small. Think of deserts. And I was reading about Freud and the anxiety of too much pleasure. Maybe I've got that wrong but I knew what it meant.

We've been calling mellow nights Bill Callahan's. Or I have anyway. Don't know if it'll stick. Let's have a BC.

I am listening to Bill Callahan, thank you very much, and I'm shirtless and barefoot as usual these days. The sound swells like potatoes in the ground and even a flute sounds right, and he creates a nostalgia that doesn't sound regressive or embarrassing. It just suits his way of thinking. A kind of searching atavism.

That's how this early evening feels; it's fighting with itself. It seems like the colour of the sky can only darken by looking back. A Bill Callahan night. It's pretty catchy right. Catchy enough.

And you think of instruments like of course the slide guitar.

And I think of how I skipped out on working today and calculated I would have made 94 pound something overtime rate but my eyes are so tired they're practically shut and if someone told me you could buy today for 94 pounds I'd say I'm not sure if that's a bargain but money is no object.

Errands were like: read that essay on Heidegger, find glow in the dark paint, buy fish.

I painted names on boats, Bill sings, for a summer.

Friday, August 1, 2014