Sunday, August 31, 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

Monday, July 28, 2014

on the boundary of the beautiful

I guess I am just less interested these days in being near the beautiful people, or the ones in capital letters anyway. You'll think it's because I've become less beautiful myself, and maybe. But it's more that the Beautiful People are so loud.

The sun now sets before 9. (With what melancholy do we accept the fact. Children never seem to mind the coming of dusk; indeed that's when their playful hollers sound loudest. We grown ups retreat with a kind of mortal chill. The magic hour is a sorcery of impending death.) This past weekend, according to the Weather Underground, sunset was at 8:59. We walked through the central lane of London Fields somewhere around 8, in the afterglow of a thousand barbeques. A man walked towards us with thick, curly brown hair and sparkling eyes and that perfect height, a couple of inches above six feet. He was like JFK, Jr. Oh just stop, said Jamie. You can just go away. I'm tired of you people.

They seem to be everywhere around here, in golden beards and suede afro's and sandals and flippant fabrics with small prints, on each other's laps at sidewalk cafes and stood still in magazine shops like cardboard cutouts. They're standing in circles on lawns playing esoteric games with wooden sticks. (It's like they're making this up. Are they just making things up.) They're practically hanging from the trees, like so much evidence of eugenics, moving like zombies but looking the opposite. It's London. It's only seven years since the resignation of Tony Blair. Weird, right. And things are changed. There are so many sunglasses in good quality plastics placed on scuffed tables next to expensive sandwiches. In New York City, one never finishes what's on the plate. I don't think that, at least, has caught on here yet. But the city is weighted, fashionably tarnished. The city squints underneath old fashioned light bulbs, unable to see past the organic cream at the tip of its own nose. SPF 15, because the city appears to have ordered in a phenomenal supply of sunshine, probably arranged through a pact with the devil.

I don't mean to begrudge its good time. I don't feel churlish, really, I don't. I still enjoy its youthful, even smug, sprawl of horny bodies. But it's all beginning to feel rather daunting. A negroni can cost £8 a good 3.6 miles from Centre Point. So imagine what this says about the expansive state of the real estate.

Oh, never mind, I said to the three Italian baristas. I just don't have…

Eight pounds?, suggested one cheekily. Yes, I conceded. Half of me unembarrassed. I don't have eight pounds. (Jamie asked later, who does?)

But I'll come back another time, I promised the three baristas.

Bellisimo!, said another. And the third cried, Free. He opened his hands, Christlike. You are free to do what you want.

Free to leave, in other words.

But not in an SUV. There are suddenly so many SUV's.

My routes through this city are signposted for good times. Joie de vivre, thataway. Encampments of "street food" promise a swirl of collectivity, or at least back lots filled with young tourists parting with cash and wondering why that loud bass is pumping but there is no party. I walk past this kind of thing, and the advertisements for more: pop-ups, street fairs, street markets, street food, street art, fashion, festivals, fun. It makes me feel isolated. Have I become numb or am I becoming allergic.

We were at a restaurant that serves a sort of colonial fusion cuisine. It felt like high-end T.G.I. Friday's: every cue in the joint was telling me that I was there to have fun. The drinks are extroverted and the food is breaded and fried. The decor is fun. The music shouts. There's nothing else you can possibly do but have fun. Groups of people in office clothes are having so much fun. They laugh maniacally as if all that batter is clogging their pipes and serrating their sound. The music is turned up, so they get louder. The service stands up straight, so their demands get more demanding. One rule about fun in contemporary London is that it's alright if it comes at someone else's expense. London fun is fun at all costs. London fun is bossy. I left with a headache.

Almost every night, I am woken by someone shouting. It is generally the sound of a person going insane. Apparently this person is drunk to the point of speaking in tongues. (When they're not quite so bad, they sing festively in groups: Adele, or "Hey Jude". In recent nights, I've also heard an a cappella rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", a trumpet lesson and a wistful harmonica. Years ago, on Kate Moss' birthday (our buddy Kyle had mentioned this fact earlier), I woke to a woman screaming happy birthday, Kate Moss. One terrible winter night, I went to the window and witnessed a couple of men threatening to throw a shirtless and barefoot man into the middle of the icy road. I watched as the police finally arrived, felt shocked and confused when they arrested the semi-nude man instead of those whom I had perceived to be his tormentors. What about this scenario had I got wrong? I never knew the full story. Last Christmas night, I lay forlorn as a young female shouted at the top of her lungs that her mom hates her. In response, she claimed, horse-voiced and crazed, she would kill herself by throwing her head against the wall.

Please don't, I whispered. Selfishly, I couldn't bear to hear the noise.

In the morning, I see the walks of shame. Young men in dirty shoes, their skin wet with narcotic sweat. Why are there only boys left? Me, I have been not nearly so wakeful. Despite the noise disruptions. I've been tucked in my bed, under milk wood in my mind, pretending to be safe as houses.

But I probably did go for a walk, and Jamie, too. We walk. We walk and walk and walk. As people get restless and the pubs close, as they seek out where to go to dance off their drink and spend a regrettable portion of their available funds, we get restless, too, and we walk. We always seem to find new streets. People say they like a place for its people, but can I admit I prefer the buildings. We find new streets and streets and streets and streets and streets and streets and streets. We find funny trees, and take note of trees that we've known since they were only little — you look so grown up — and alien-like flora and strange fruit. Jamie notices all this as well as the tops of buildings, and he makes me look up, too. (We looked up and saw Swedish Mikal on his balcony, with his dog who is almost as cute. They posed for a photo; we used zoom on the phone. His Swedish mum was visiting; she waved.) We look down and meet friendly cats. It is so easy to steal away from the crowd — from beautiful people and all the ugly people, too. The distinction becomes hard to discern after 1 or 2 am. Everyone is beautiful. Everyone is ugly. And we walk. We feel — I'm speaking for Jamie, but I really think he must feel this, too — a skin-tickling sense of peace. We're alone together in dark neighbourhoods. The canal is still but uncertain; water is dangerous, light-reflective and cold. Our feet hurt but our arms are still warm in short sleeves. And we know we're almost home when we see that benevolent willow and really have to pee. And we realise again that our kind survives best on the boundaries, that we are forever perched on the periphery, that we walk a line between joining in and simply seeing. Our routes are drawn in dashes. In the city, desire lines have multiple meanings. Our destination each is the other's arms; to be filled with rooibus tea, fall asleep with aching heads to something insipid on the laptop teevee.

Only to be woken again. See above.

The aftermath of a summer day is calmness in the mostly dark flat, barefoot and shirtless and tea-drunk and imbalanced from weird snacking. A certain joy tinges my skin, pleased with the knowledge that business is closed but my eyes are open. And I'm nowhere near smoke machines nor disco balls, high heels, spilled syrupy drinks. Some nights, okay, but not tonight. We'll do it another time, and then. We'll be joiners, we'll be gorgeous on dark dance floors. Tonight my version of nightlife is thinking about houseplants and blankets. And has the tea light been blown out. Like sand between toes after a beach day, an accumulated souvenir, I am grizzled by the microscopic flotsam of this haphazard, polluted city. And between Stoke Newington and home, via De Beauvoir Town, on quiet, brick-gorgeous, plant-happy, increasingly expensive streets, we saw six foxes, too, in varying states of repair.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

it's a rave

A boy walked down the street in front of me, trailing a parka upon which was scrawled Nothing Changes, writing askew.

Inside the flat, I saw on the front page of the Guardian website a photograph of the following graffito: Change Is The Only Constant.

As I prepared for bed, waylaid by online digressions, I came across the pianist Reinbert de Leeuw. He plays Satie's Gymnopédies very slowly. The sound falls between the notes, or the meaning of the sound does, anyway. The anticipation is drawn out, almost excruciating, almost comical; familiarity is disrupted by a pulley of tension and relief.

I left Reinbert de Leeuw playing and went to sleep. Some hours later I woke to the sound of someone on the street blaring descending scales on trumpet. There was jovial, encouraging banter as if the player was being taught by a friend. It was so loud, the brass finding a cathedral-like clarity as it bounced off the brick walls of these buildings. The acoustics through this estate are something else. You never quite know where the yelling is coming from. Then I heard my downstairs neighbour, the large woman with the small dog, shout out the window: Get lost. And take your trumpet with ya. I was shocked someone would blast trumpet in the middle of the night near windows inside of which people were sleeping. I thought, trumpet is both a noun and a verb.

On Sunday morning we were in Wivenhoe with Mark Deal. Each of his names is both noun and verb. We talked about slow disco, or "lo-NRG". Mark played "Mutant Man" from Mind Warp by Patrick Cowley as an example. He pointed out the way the snare drum lags like in certain Joy Division songs. The way it segues into the triumphant gospel of the next song is epic: "Goin Home", now that's hi-NRG. We sat enraptured. It was just then that Jamie trotted off upstairs. He missed it! I cried. This song needs to come from the last. You have to deserve it. Mark agreed. You need that slow build. Jamie descended the stairs lightly and proclaimed, I heard it, I heard it, so good! Next we listened to the original version of "West End Girls". It's not as good as the edit, I averred. Jamie liked the cowbell but we had to concede its fundamental awkwardness. It sounds nervous, Mark pointed out. Not the polished ennui of the version that would be released a year later, that would one day be voted the best pop song of the decade, a masterful delivery of archness, a wry investigation of urban traversal, with its laconic citations of T.S. Eliot and Lenin, a song like a train journey, both fettered and free.

Earlier, on a flat walk under a surprising sun in Pin Mill, we'd heard the crazy birdsong of the Sedge Warbler. Mark related how Ella had likened its persistent call to a rave.

Rave. A word that takes flight with its feet on the ground. Raven with out the definitive ending consonant; the bird without the blackness. A summer state of being. Don't you want to dance.

Annie Clark in the most recent issue of Wire: "I can be a little bit like a meth head with a toaster in terms of music. I want to know how it works."

At home: "Lonnie's Lament" by John Coltrane. "I'll Live Yesterdays" by Lee Hazlewood. "Seagull" by Bill Callahan. "She Belongs to Me" by Bob Dylan. "The Apple Stretching" by Grace Jones. "At Sea" by Electrelane.

The light-fingered composers at their pianos in the Chelsea Hotel, as featured in the Arena programme from 1981. It's currently available on BBC iPlayer. You've got to see it. Andy Warhol saying "more more more" to William Burroughs and Viva's daughter watching video footage of herself being birthed and the dancer who adopts the form of a snake by writhing on the floor wrapped in his curtain still hung from the window.

"You Can Have it All" by Yo La Tengo. Repetition, that endless evening. I think of that story: a guy I knew who claimed his first orgasm happened spontaneously in the backseat of a car when "I Feel Love" was on the stereo. Who can blame him.

I put on Miles Davis' score to Ascenseur pour l'échafaud and took out the recycling. Three floors down on the pavement, I could hear its plaintive hornblowing through the balmy air. I thought, that means people can hear it when I play Robyn.

Last week I stood in the kitchen doing dishes et cetera and the radio was on. I was stopped from all activity by the curious, almost timid sounding strings of what I soon learned was the Emerson Quartet performing the fifteenth and final Shostakovich string quartet, in E flat minor. At the time, the composer was consumed by his own demise. Song is a place where melancholy belongs. You don't need to know much about music to tell that E flat minor is going to be a darker place. I've had these moments of radio-induced serendipity — real, epiphanic ones — a few times. Their rarity makes them special. The live transmission is an intoxicating currency. It's a good message from space to beam into the home. I stood silently and listened to four wooden instruments yield a vibration expressing some kind of regret or sense of loss. I was alone and I felt comfortable in that.

I thought back to the night before. We had attended the private view of the MFA exhibition at Goldsmiths. I had high hopes. A young man in a backpack near the bar began ranting and everyone surrounded him. Performance! People watched obligingly and finally I said to Jamie, let's move on, this is doing nothing for me. He agreed. Maybe it's not even art, I said. Maybe he's having a fit and nobody is helping, said Jamie. Room after room seemed a rushed gallimaufry of art world trends. Pastel shades, airbrush, tiny portraits and plants were all present. There was no signposting of intent and no suggestion of something more subtle. There was a lot of slapdash autobiography, identity politics in neon scrawl like a teenager on her bedroom wall, puerile sexual references, and so on. Camille Henrot seemed to be a reference point and although I find pleasure in her work, it seems she all of a sudden has a lot to answer for — liberating these art students to think their own random collage is worthwhile. Because if it doesn't matter, nothing does, right. The internet nihilism that pervades current discourse is boring. The tutors at Goldsmiths should be ashamed. Their apathy was apparent. (By contrast, the sculpture show at the RCA a few weeks earlier showed elements of surprise and thoughtful refinement; it was a mixed bag but there was a general feeling that these students were being challenged — were becoming, after all, Masters. Importantly, they utilised their space.) On each floor at Goldsmiths, Jamie and I raced to the windows to inspect the strangely remote city views. We glanced increasingly briefly at art that made us turn away with embarrassment. It all felt like so much shouting. I left the show thinking, those Goldsmiths students must really like to drink.

And in the kitchen listening to Shostakovich's fifteenth, I thought about the previous night's disappointment and the revelation come next afternoon, and the fact that you can't predict these things. Of course not.

Like a disco producer, you've got to surprise to keep people on their feet. You've got to build to keep dancers energised. You've got to hold back before you release. Fine, everything is futile, but then the joy is in the lie. "You can have it all," I'm ok with that empty promise. Giving the impression of moving forward is an infinitely engaging game.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

swimming pools and other points in the city

I couldn't believe I was telling myself no pain no gain on the thirty eighth lap. Do people really think in clichés like that? I was at the pool nearest to me, where everyone is a winner. I mean, everyone looks successful and expensive. They must have jobs being creative, which is a corporate word meaning filling things in nicely. When I arrive I see them through the window, gliding elegantly in the silence. In the locker room, the men have their man stuff done very well, such as beards and chests. They have flat stomachs and stern faces. There are small bottles of Kiehl's and Aesop that are put into plastic pouches that are put into bags made for bicycles.

At the lido in Covent Garden, things are very different. The pool feels small and weird and so do the patrons. Either that, or they're huge. In the locker room, they walk around naked and I heard one actually say do you come here often to another, and Jamie swears this other guy was showing everyone his erection. The lockers are wood panelled and the benches are wide. Men stand on the benches to keep their feet dry, so there are naked men posing on high. The last time I was there, a man gestured me into the shower next to him after spotting me shirk away from a cold stream. He put his hand in the running water as if to demonstrate: acceptable temperature. So I crossed into that stream — like, ok, warm water — without realising it was a kind of beckoning. When I got into the pool something invisible stung me. Why do my goggles only fill with water in that pool? Probably my face is grimacing. Swimming in public is always moving through other people's excretions, but these waters are particularly abundant: floating bandages, et cetera. Back in the locker room, an attendant took breaks from mopping the floor to blow his nose on a towel hung outside the showers. I hoped the towel did not belong to some unsuspecting swimmer. Then I'm pretty sure he used that same towel at the end of his mop… He pushed it near my feet. I moved aside. Jamie saw this too and I think there is an unspoken rule that we no longer go to this pool.

Then there's the grand one in the centre of town, in a hall painted cake blue and white, with a marble bottom and a classical statue. Here I feel Roman but cold. The lanes are wide, making it a free-for-all, and after work it is so crowded it's like a kind of self-imposed urban flood armageddon. Going nowhere. No escape. But that's always the way with these pools with their lanes: a geometry of futility.

Back at my regular, the alpha pool, I took a shower next to a man with such a well proportioned, beautifully crafted member that I wonder if anyone has ever paid him a compliment. Don't worry, I didn't. I had to turn away. In the shallow end of the medium lane, I was bemused when a large lady did an expansive backstroke and her jolly mate swam towards her with the front crawl. It felt like a kind of froggy courtship. In one awkward period, I somehow found myself swimming between their flirtatious positioning.

The pools become my landmarks in the city. We all have our strategic points. Maybe you've registered the location of clean, private toilets. The loos at Liberty, a very poised friend recently confided to me. I used to rely on the restroom near underwear on the first floor of Selfridges. Department stores are useful places. Urban theorists have deemed them a female gendered architecture; they are perhaps a mad, benevolent aunt. People laugh when they hear I have deciphered a network of 'spray points' from which I can I sample the expensive cologne I like. I rotate these visitations as appropriate. My newest one is especially accomplished as it is secreted away and erratically staffed so there's less chance of being recognised. One primary spray point is almost always guarded by the same sweet young perfume expert. I now walk past his counter and if he's not there I do a quick top up; if he's on duty, I move on covertly as if I was just passing through. The other day, I was relieved by his absence, and it was not until I was mid-spray that I noticed the top of his head; he was crouched behind the counter working with stock. I exited swiftly but wouldn't be surprised if he clocked the back of me.

There's a corridor in the Euston Underground station, through which I transfer from the Northern to the Victoria, that always smells like sick. Are the olfactory traces of some batch of vomit this impossible to eradicate? Then I noticed a mop top placed along the edge of the wall at the bottom of the stairwell — covering, in a sad splay of felted tentacles, a kind of orangey milky ooze. Was this a new pile of vomit? But it had been smelling of sick for months. Over many journeys, I saw that the mop top continued to be present day after day. I gradually came to terms with the fact that the wall itself was somehow constantly vomiting. Some bad pipe was unable to digest the angst and dirt of the Underground and was continually spewing its bile. It's as if all the indigestible abjection of this city is slowly leaking through the cracks in this wall. Recently, the makeshift sponge was changed for a pair of smaller mop tops, arranged perhaps a bit more genially, a compliant couple battling the putrid stink together. The sponge is a sad kind of superhero: fighting against evil by absorbing it.

In London, there are certain windows that lure my imagination but have never brought me through the door. That classic umbrella shop is an example; I've pondered its presence dozens, maybe hundreds of times, usually from the upper deck of the 55 bus. But I'm not one for umbrellas, let alone fancy ones that stand tall. There's a corner pub in Soho that always seems to have an old fashioned drag show in mid-flow when we walk past. One recent Tuesday night, Jamie and I were feeling forlorn. It was one of those moments when art brings you down, and we imbibed cheap wines at the French House like Francis Bacon once did. When we passed the pub with the drag show, I said, let's finally go in. That's a great idea, said Jamie, whose caution had been thrown to the wind. We were high on despair. We ordered more wine (large ones this time) and stood in the corner taking in the show and the scene. Passersby peered into the windows, their presence sometimes incorporated into the performer's repartee. That would have been us. Now we were on the inside looking out. An enthusiastic lad in a plunging deep-v immediately placed both hands on my chest. Eventually the drag queen identified me and Jamie as willing victims and we became a part of the show. She said Jamie looked great and bought us tequila shots which we felt obliged to consume. Combined with red wine it felt a nasty, dirty thing. The enthusiastic boy went to kiss me on the face and when I lowered my head he planted one on my nose. It felt as if we'd been subsumed by a display case, become a part of a menagerie. As wonderful as it was, it was time to escape this glass box. We needed to wake up. Good dreams can turn bad. We passed back through the crowd — bye, boys! — emerging into the uncertain city air.

That dawdling uncertainty — permeating the spaces outside of pools, tube carriages, shops, pubs — is the relief a city provides from its containers, the intermittent desert between its forts of resolved identity. There we were, emancipated in the slightly bothered London night. Restaurants were closing. There were other things we could still do. But the reality dawned on both of us that we just wanted to go home. At least that container is somehow ours. This is an illusion, too. The flat is rented; it is borrowed, everything is precarious. I am a guest. This is my city, but the city does not belong to me.