"I took a journey, and of course, immediately everything was new. When you travel your first discovery is that you do not exist." —Elizabeth Hardwick, Sleepless Nights
Travel well, if and however you may be travelling.
London in wintertime can be so gross. I'm coughed on constantly by commuters who should have stayed home. I walk behind streams of cigarette smoke from smokers who don't wait till not walking. At times, smoke smells nice on cold air. It intrigues like a scratch on glass. But it never smells good clung to cold clothes. You stand closely together on overcrowded carriages, and know that people have brought things forth from the wardrobe that have become stale and musty.
Oxford Street is the world's high street. It is huge but has the potential to become weirdly intimate, too. It can be elating to be there in a quieter moment. To cross the wet street without waiting for anything. Not the one after another red buses or the rickshaws driven by hot foreign boys (the combination of the two a comical sight, in which the large and fragile coexist absurdly, but this is repeated all over history — think of a medieval village, dinosaur culture, the sea). But in this early morning moment I'm describing, the buses are only on occasion, and there are just sweepers and early risers bundled as they scurry to work. On Oxford Street there are attractively generic-looking boys — their eros is their impossibility. They're always fleeting. There is the Barbara Hepworth sculpture on the side of John Lewis, the hood ornament of the department store. It is one of my favourite things, hidden in plain sight. It is wings without a body. The city is a body without wings.
It is around this time of year, when everyone is preparing to leave, that London seems to regather itself geographically, to turn around and look at itself, to question that worm of a river running through it. Maybe it's just me, more likely to take a taxi or just a different route. It lights itself up, obviously, in different colours and styles selected for different streets. Bags — the bright yellow from Selfridges, noticeably — get carried across town and onto buses and into quiet neighbourhoods where they sit on the short carpeted floors of student/part-time models who splurged on things for family members they thought might be unattainable elsewhere; cool things. People say words they don't say all year: cashmere, gift wrapping. Coats are purchased which in the future will become the musty items pulled out of closets at the first feeling of the cold. Coats unhappy with last year's rain, and stuck with long human hair and short dog ones.
I look at end-of-year lists — movies, albums — and think, how did I miss everything. Where was I last year. (Due to my research, this year I was actually in 1870.) The high street shops put on displays that sum up the annal, too: this time around, nautical and forest seem to be the two prevalent themes. Good displays shame bad ones, and bad ones shame the whole city. Boys fall asleep on buses. It is indeterminate whether they are going somewhere or coming home. Their headphones fall out of their ears. The cords emerge from mysterious pockets. They cup their bums with slender fingers, the other hand set between crossed thighs. They're only 23 years since the womb. I take notes in my notebook, which must make me some kind of creep. Girls fall down and laugh at themselves. All silhouettes now tend toward the party dress. There is wine on the breath of the city. There is headache in the street lamps, nausea in the pavement. There is a sense of mild hysteria, a subtext of despondency. Then those — lots, I've noticed this year — who really do hum carols.
Everyone is preparing to leave. (Not everyone. Many, many will stay. Some are made to feel invisible. The shops may be shut but they're working. It's like their lack of somewhere to go has forfeited their claim to do normal things in the city.) I try not to say merry christmas unless it's a kind of a joke or someone else says it first. Because the other person may hate it. But still, we do the rounds of saying: what will you do on the day. There is so much thought of food. We're pretending we're hungry, baby birds with open mouths who want to feed. We feel the call of the nest. But you and me are not hungry, not really. Our mouths are open because we silently scream. Get me out of this year. It was good; glad it's over. We need a big change, or at least a big couch in a faraway place. Where one can be: not coughed upon or other city things. We could be instead: on a couch and there is nobody to look at but it's worth it because nobody is looking at me.
I've been researching the song "Like a Rolling Stone" — and, yes, somebody already wrote the book — and the whole thing goes on and on. Like a…
I found myself in our new flat on a gorgeous Sunday morning, sunlight streaming through sash windows, cleaning stones. There I was at the kitchen sink cleaning stones and assorted detritus from Jamie's collection of things found on the bank of the Thames. Glass and ceramic. And, wow, this is like a Henry Moore, I said, plonking a big brown thing, rinsed, on the paper towel. A bone, Jamie said. One thing with moving is you reassess your possessions — I've got so much stuff! — and at the same time reassess your very identity and what you have deemed worthy of ownership since your last move. As for us, we have so many stones.
My mom taught me: take only memories and leave only footprints.
But we keep taking stones.
Also, your record collection gets out of alphabetical order, so you play ones you haven't heard in ages. Television! Go straight to my head!
Also, you test out your new local pubs. It's funny when you're in one you can't wait to leave. Because, in one case, of the contemporary square light sconces. Jamie pointed his long finger at the one above us. Drink fast, we said to each other with a glance of the eye, and run.
We live on a park now, and near a cemetery in which we found the grave of someone called Denton — and Philadelphia — and Grace Adelaide Jones, who died at the age of 113.
The neighbourhood suits early winter just fine but I'm already itching for summer when I'm sure it'll look even better. I wish we'd moved in slightly earlier. I feel like I've had the autumn stolen from me. I'm slightly nervous about the crusties next door but Jamie looked out the window and said they looked like pretty clean crusties. One hopped onto the street sign and balanced himself with arms flailing theatrically. I sighed, balancing is such a crusty thing to do.
Things that unnerve me about the house, I consult Terence Conran's House Book to find the aesthetic solution. The best solutions, obviously, are from 1974. I flip pages for pictoral suggestions of how to remedy other people's decisions, or at least divert the eye. A green-blue wall paint in the kitchen, teetering uncomfortably on that most suburban of shades, sea foam, I learned through a tiny photograph can be reconsidered when counteracted by punctuations of bright deep red and dark brown.
The thing that unnerves me most fundamentally is the way the house comes at an oblique angle to the street. This has always been a phobia of mine. (The Flatiron building, ultimate freakout.) But I just had a good feeling about this place, and I suppose I overlooked it or subconsciously thought that skewing my geometry would be good for me. Maybe it is good for me, but I'll admit this: Every time I wake up, I do think, boy, you are at a funny angle. I feel anchored but at sea. Trying, I suppose, to stop rolling but gather no moss.
It's always autumn. You settle in to a bunch of washing up at the kitchen sink, and then the warm water on your hands and wrists makes you have to pee.
It's always autumn. Emma was struggling to get a bouquet right, a late October bouquet. She frowned at the arrangement. I thought it was almost there. But Emma lurched towards it. It's too fizzy, she said.
It's always autumn and at the pub the ales are drawn thickly. Thirty or so feet were idle under a long wooden table, crossed at the ankles. Conversation was self-deprecating and complaining, the jolly banter distilled from years of miserable weather. I had a fish pie, my first of the season, all that glorious mash to put some love back on my handles. The lights were at the right lowness. There were flowers on the table and the girls were all very pretty. In this neighbourhood you'll probably see a fox, I had told Hans. Maybe up to four. He laughed at my speculative quantifying. After I left, he texted me: there is the running fox.
Books and pubs are steamy windows.
A couple of nights later, J. and I sat in bed — there's no place left to sit, everything is in cardboard boxes, the sofa is on its side, and life becomes a path laid in six years' worth of dust. And we were watching music videos by The Pretenders. They are so English. Surely that's a caff, not a diner, in the "Brass in Pocket" video. Probably they recorded the album here. That's definitely British, we said. Look at the way the streets curve and sigh. Was Chrissie such an Anglophile? I'd never considered. I suppose it could be that was the pretending she was doing.
When I went back to the States, of course, I got stick for sounding affected. Of course I've been affected by seven years. Is saying tom-ah-to a form of politeness or a performance? But think of all of those years as a boy and teenager in California. Surely that was a performance, too. Is something more authentic just because its context is closer to birth? Isn't change a form of authenticity? Here, politeness is a guise, a weapon, a source of pride. In architecture, the term polite regards a form of decorative affectation not endemic to the particular site. Politeness has its problems. I'm so sorry, sang Morrissey, every turn of phrase so English, so passive aggressive. The Smiths, a common name.
From under the musty bed we pull the Time Out poster that I asked for at the corner shop seven or so years ago. It's Tilda Swinton holding a Derek Jarman mask. For a long time, I decided I didn't like Tilda, that she was overrated. It was a surprising opinion. I decided I found her anaemic and, worse yet, mannered. But then I properly watched Wittgenstein, and then I Am Love. And it dawned that her manner is everything. She's a fox.
Bob Dylan's harmonica may be the dressing, an elaboration. But it sounds like an oncoming train, it's propulsive and moving things forward. It's a construct and the engine. He took the name Dylan and made it into an adjective.
That famous, shambolic performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" at the "Royal Albert Hall" was actually at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. It's another myth. But wherever it comes from, to me it sounds like late October.