Thursday, October 23, 2014

back in london, on the 52 and after

On the 52, behind me a bunch of black girls are screaming. They're not talking about boys or other such nonsense; they're talking about secret tunnels. We're driving through what some would call Albertopolis. One screams with authority about secret tunnels. Their lungs are really projecting. And at Knightsbridge alight two slight girls with pale skin and dark hair, one bleached orange. They both carry Chanel shopping bags. The one with orange hair has three of them. They're both sending texts, presumably not to each other. They are silent but speaking as much as the screamers. A bus comes towards us with the destination: LEGOLAND VIA SLOUGH. We drive past a children's shop called Please Mum. The name feels pathetic or maybe even perverted. I descend into the Underground. On the tube I'm opposite a cute balding guy with a beard and tattoos. His tight t-shirt reads NYC. Everyone loves New York; here in London, most seem to love it better than London. It is written above his breast. New York pulled me apart. At least that's what I wrote. Who knows how I felt. Bryony reprimanded: You just weren't there long enough. I fall vaguely asleep and then vaguely wake to see through my window a block of flats glowing golden against a severe cobalt sky. The whole scene is rather like a gas flame. I won't be looking out this window for more than another nine nights. And the stove in the new apartment is not gas. The city's council blocks with lit windows in October night skies always remind me of the cover of that first album by The Streets. London's indifference is comforting. It brushes past me, mutters sorry. It surreptitiously moves through me. It stands stoically like a bland park on a bland day, being boring. Do you remember that scene in About a Boy when he sinks a duck with a bread loaf? What a funny version of sad, or sad version of funny. I'm sunk by a bread loaf in London. I'm fucked by a sorry. All of the passengers on this Northern Line carriage hold their tension in their mouths. I do, of course. I catch the reflection in windows. Just last week my colleague shrieked at me: HEY, DUCKMOUTH. So I'm a duck too. What a pond. And into this blandness, teenagers scream all the time. Who can blame them. The bus engine's too quiet. My closest mental map of London has to be a Bruegel. Or the rough sheafs of a bread loaf casually torn apart. Oh London, my stratum of sighs.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

to all of my friends in new york

Sarah looks at the sidewalk and listens. On Metropolitan she came up with another idea: you know gloves left behind on the street in certain positions, do those who use sign language see them as words? She also notes the sound of my shoes and tells me I shuffle. It seems self-involved to analyse why I can't muster the strength to stride properly up and down on the street.

In desert boots I'm passive aggressively walking.

In Brooklyn, they're getting ready for Halloween. Cardboard cutouts of black cats in windows at the tops of stairs, and scarecrows and things on stoops. Pumpkins. I'd forgotten about Halloween.

On subways and in subway stations, I see: a male dancer stretching his leg halfway up the stairwell. And a guy on the train rapping. And a muscle man glistens. His abs show because he's in a half top. The city style is so many zippers. It's earrings and studded and afro's. It's incredible to see all the hardness. I never get used to this city.

It brings me to very dark places. I fall into its shadows. It's described as a destination. Why am I so unsettled here?

From my friends' apartment walls I see Joe Brainard, Peter Hujar, Arthur Russell, Frank O'Hara, Ray Johnson. Then the angels are with us.

New York, you're the place I remember, but you seem so much older to me.

We were in town for Matt and Carl's anniversary. I made a toast which I think had its moments. But it was hard to know what to say. When I had a hippie wedding and was about to walk a grassy aisle to do ceremonious tree planting, Matt and Carl came and sat with me smoking, even though I'd supposedly quit. Are you supposed to smoke before weddings? But that wasn't really a wedding. Matt and Carl's: definitely not a wedding. And whatever the occasion those two are not the type to stand on ceremony. I was just nervous and needed their company. We sat silently. You know that moment in a relationship when things are new and you say to your friends, I'm not sure what this is. I think some of that uncertainty should remain. With queers, it's easier because so far we have less defined rules. It's good to continue to get to know each other, too; not take each other for granted. That's kind of what I wanted to say.

In London, I woke frantically again, with a sore throat, in the middle of the day after a red eye flight. I keep waking up panicked. The anniversary party still haunts me. It was a fabulous party. I didn't quite "nail it" with that toast. I wanted to do them justice. Now I hold on like it was about me. And then there was that whole business of me falling apart in a flood of tears later. That is another story. Believe me, I wrote it down; it's three pages. Why can't I stop this sinking feeling? I feel like Sylvia Plath.

There were many familiar faces. People I hadn't seen in ten years and so on. Everyone seems so successful. Despite my plan, I drank quickly. To face 170 fashionable people. I know I was wrecked the next day. Why was I the one tired? I didn't do any decorating. I could barely do the speaking. Words got in the way. Again, Matt and Carl comforted me. Just by being routine and giving me lots of leftovers. In New York, I ate so many bagels.

Down the street, Saltie's is tiny and plays no wave music and the staff looks like a no wave band. I love when everything is site specific. And it's maybe the very best food in the world. I want more of it.

But we're back now. Jamie and I separated at Green Park station. It's crazy how we returned and it's autumn. And on the immediate surface, boys are much cuter here. The leaves are blowing. It would be so nice if I wasn't moving. My life is about to be boxes. But I can't keep my head separated.

Still, I'm glad I spoke at the party. It is always partly the effort. I spoke in faraway metaphors. Anyway, Matt's speech had left us all shattered.

To all of my friends in New York, thank you and a kind of I'm sorry.

All of the repression of England built up and there I felt everything.

Leonard Cohen was in me the whole time I was there. New York is cold but I like where I'm living. It filled my veins hotly. I was a raw nerve. In passing, Jamie joked about my thick skin. Which is funny because it seems increasingly thin. It's as if you can see the embarrassing tangle of my guts. I'm sorry, I really should tidy.

I tried to put the song on once more. L. Cohen's 'Famous Blue Raincoat'. I had to take it off this time. I've got to start taking things off the shelves. I've got to start putting things in boxes.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

see the red about to fall

Why is it that everyone else always seems appropriately dressed, no matter how mercurial the weather may be? I check the reports too but I'm constantly wearing rainproofs in the sun and woollens in the wet.

October creates new opportunities for thinking about clothes. You become aware of the way that fabrics feel, of the nap and pile and surface of things.

I wore all black and blue. But then Ginny sent me a photo of Mary wearing all red. All different shades of red, crimson, rust and dusty pink, what a vision, smeared lipstick and apples and Virginia Woolf's first memory.

On an unsure Friday night, we walked home after two and a half pints at The Fox through quick black streets.

Once back in the stove-warmed flat, we danced to Bob Dylan as the vegetables cooked. I can't remember which song. It must have been 'A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall'. And at the end of wakefulness, we listened to 'See the Sky About to Rain' by Neil Young. Earlier, Jamie played Tina Turner's cover of 'I Can't Stand the Rain'. In the morning, we listened to Ann Peebles' original.

On Thursday, eight of us went to Wigmore Hall to listen to Beethoven string quartets. But we sat in front of a heavy breather. From what I could tell he certainly seemed to be enjoying the music. It was unnervingly distracting.

Beethoven what a punk. Malevich what a punk. The Malevich show at Tate Modern, along with the Duchamp show at Centre Pompidou, one of the best mainstream exhibitions I've seen in ages.

Inside Kasimir Malevich's red square is a delicious possibility.

At John Lewis Food Hall, the Christmas things are already up, not even the middle of October. It's like a deliberate attempt to put an end to specialness. Surely Christmas candy at this time of year merely tastes sickly.

I made a bad joke to the sweet clerk about whether I should wish her a merry Christmas.

Autumn. Is it just me or is it much more satisfying to watch things die rather than bloom?

And yet there are all sorts of cycles. This week, my sister Jenny is due.

The pink tip of Emma's nose from her sweet, woozy cold. The flush on Bryony's freckled cheek as she contemplates another year.

Is red the colour for colder months? In summer, I listen to the blues.

Barges and bonfires and wood burning stoves. And big beaten up wooden tables on which friends sit spilling drinks in pubs on long streets in old cities on a small island. I always wanted to come to England and now I live here. Autumn and you think about such things. And I remember when I didn't live here, when I was a west coast idler, looking again and again at a picture in a music magazine of a bunch of kids sat at a long table in a traditional pub. And the photo was taken so that you could see them falling on each other, floppy hair and floppy sweaters, but also you could see under the table, a tangle of trainers and jeans. Those casually crossed legs in the dirty scent of hops and stale smoke meant to me the possibility of unwinding in a different way, something colder and thus with more possibility for warming.

Jamie said, look there are two Jesuses at our table. I said that one wins, because of his empathetic eyes and the way the curls in his long hair flipped coyly, Jesus-like.

From a noisy pub called The Fox on an unsure Friday night, we walked home after two and a half pints through quick black streets under handsome trees timidly undressing.

What better reason to go home than bread, butter, some greens, some whisky. And music, music, the way strummed strings vibrate through a colder air, you sound both more comforting and more forlorn.

Monday, October 6, 2014

at the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

It was still hot in Paris. By now, in October, the heat felt urgent, weird, a bit too much, too late. A pair of young men ascended the stairs at an eastern gate of Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, topless, shirts tied around their waists or slung over arms or shoulders. Or were they worn, but open and unbuttoned. I can't remember, but I do know their torsos were proudly displayed and I'm sure one of them at least was especially ripped, as seems to be the epidemic with young male Parisians, and those of all the other cities these days. (Earlier, we'd seen one in a drenched white t-shirt, cooling down against a tree in the Jardin des Tuileries, and another pumping himself aggressively on a gigantic brass ring along the wall of the Seine.)

I would be keeping my top on, as I had been eating nothing but butter for the last three days.

Regretfully shirted, we descended into the Buttes-Chaumont — this park of manmade nature with its impressive waterfalls and ravines and grottos, a jolly of folly, perhaps my favourite park in the world, and it's called Buttes. On a shady ledge, four Chinese golden girls practised a kind of uptempo tai chi, soundtracked by an atmospheric boom box, pulling shapes seductively. This wasn't just a relax and a fart. They were alive, saucy, competitive.

At the actual folly in the midst of all this folly, perched on the park's peak, overlooking the city's architectural expanse, surprisingly eclectic from this height, a bunch of school kids clung to fake rocks and practiced landscape drawing. We peered down from the Temple de la Sybille, an artificial site above an artificial lake, trying to glean the different artistic styles. We stood immediately above a bad boy in a vest — furry brown arms exposed, precariously positioned like a mountain goat on a daring diagonal — who drew steadfastly in Sharpie. Across the pavement, a milder looking lad sat stoically on a sensible rock with an earnest expression of concentration. He drew trees and rooftops but judging from his wayward glances seemed to really want to be drawing the bad boy. A pungent steam of teenage repression rose from this hilltop like a sentimental volcano above a city which suddenly seemed so kitsch.

The craggy landscape of this park is partly defined by its former function as quarry, mined for the construction of the city's grand limestone buildings. The strange cycle of ruination and development is intoxicating. In the glaring heat, this felt like the centre of the postmodern world. We passed a pair of older caretakers in mismatched, pastel-hued caps, who knelt near the foot of the tall waterfall, painting the rocks rock-colour. We did not take their photograph.

From a high bridge, bouncing unsettlingly, we spied a teenage boy who wore his kippah at the back of his head at a jaunty angle, a subtle rebellion. He reclined languorously with a girl whose gestures seemed to vibrate ecstatically in the space between their smooth skin. Ah, youth. I've never seen a Jewish boy wear his cap like that.

The night before, in the hotel room, we'd watched this and that on the teevee. Nothing good, nothing special. But all in hi-def. I continually marvel that anyone would prefer this crispness. It seems to eradicate atmosphere. With such clearly defined outlines, the aesthetic is too immediate, too close. It looks cheap, like a behind-the-scenes short. It looks exposed, the wizard without his curtain and fog. Old films lose their lustre. They were never meant to look like this. And even new ones are still not specifically shot with this sharpness in mind. In the hotel, I watched Justin Timberlake in some sort of smuggling thriller, and he turned round and round at a carnival, which was obviously meant to be spooky and heady, maybe psychedelic or even evil. He tried to acted displacement and consternation with his banal face. The masked extras tried to move trippily. But, nothing. In this focus, the scene fell flat. Nothing was conveyed but a feeble attempt; there was no atmosphere.

Real life still has atmosphere. In this postmodern park, I felt amused and fatigued and turned around and turned on. This is from haze and smog and the glare of a too-bright sun, but it is in the processing, too. With the thoughts that were racing in my mind, ideas about urban planning; other, unrelated worries; last night's wine sloshing; the evening's plans beckoning; the city's secrets whispered but never revealed, my perception became its own effect. This park, this Paris, me in it, formed a kind of woozy phenomenology. We squinted at the borders of the park, tried to gauge our north from south, west from east. Atmosphere is an experience. And here, its cracks — two workers bent over painting rocks — only set a more complex scene. Paris, weird Paris, you are the opposite of teevee, you are spleen.

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.