Friday, August 25, 2006

Starts and Stops; or, Notes towards an Autobiography

The time has now come for me to hear a step in the passage, said N. to himself as he raised his head and listened. But there was nothing, or rather there was the swift high-pitched silence that swept through the house and swirled around his head when he paused his breathing, even now in the middle of the afternoon, when the city outside--streets and law-courts and concerts and schools--was rumbling and groaning towards the climax of its daily business. N. had stripped off his coat, but he was stifling. The windows were closed, since they let in nothing but heat. His forehead was streaming. He left damp thumbmarks on the letter he held in his hand, blue smudges.

The clock struck four. He had just set it to the right time.

There would be no one in the house until six. Now, for once, N. wished to be interrupted, surprised, to have the trajectory of his thoughts confounded, to be forced to thrust the letter hurriedly back into its packet, to cram the packet back into the drawer, heart pounding, ears and cheeks prickling, to pretend to be nonchalant. But there was no voice, no step; the silence mercilessly flowed from room to room to the corner where he knelt, washing round the house, till the glass of the windows strained and seemed it would shatter from the press of silence within and heat without.
Starts and Stops; or, Notes towards an Autobiography

N. was not wholly disconcerted, when he reached the hotel, to learn that his friend was not to arrive till evening. They would dine together at the worst, and tomorrow if not tonight. Meanwhile, the note of his arrival had been such a consciousness of personal freedom as he hadn't known in years, such a deep taste of change and of having if only for the moment nobody and nothing to consider, as promised to colour his adventure with cool success. And the city, still strange enough to promise, if not pleasure, then at least that interest of discovery that for some can be taken as a form of pleasure, was also wide enough, crowded enough, that he could safely indulge the subtle satisfaction of declining the possible company of the new acquaintances he had made on his journey. Had he told anyone his real name? For a few hours, for even a few days, he could half wear, half shrug off this new cloak of anonymity. His friend would arrive that evening, said the note he had opened at the desk. But N.'s objects of luggage were few.
Starts and Stops; or, Notes towards an Autobiography

All day, under a wet grey sky of October, N. rode westward. As he stared mournfully out the window at the great raw land so sparsely tilled, his heart went cold and leaden in him. He thought of how he had set out to get order and position for himself, and of the rioting confusion of his life, the blot and blur of years, the red waste of his youth, the warm hours of worry and hot minutes of regret.

By God! he thought. I'm getting old. Why here?

His life had been channelled by a series of accidents--words, sounds, faces, omissions. He had reeled out of warmth and plenty into this cold and barren land. And he felt the strangeness of destiny probe him like a knife.

Why now?
galvanise poster

Thursday, August 24, 2006

An Indirect Route

The three of us flew to Pisa and then caught a train to Florence. M was reading a book by Graham Greene, Journey Without Maps; he said it was to prepare him for our Guyana trip. One night after dinner, sitting outside a cafe near the Piazza della Signoria, surrounded by holidaying Germans, I sketched a map of Guyana on the back flyleaf of M's book, naming villages and rivers and mountains. I traced the route we might follow, from the coast south to the Rupununi.

The next day we took the bus to Siena. I knew nothing about the city, and was surprised by its beauty, by what seemed the sweetness of the light, as though all the old buildings were stained with honey. We climbed with the other tourists to the top of the unfinished nave of the Duomo, high on its hill. We heard sirens winding through the city, then an ambulance appeared in the square below us. A circle of people formed, too far down for us to guess their nationality or their ages. Someone had fainted, or had a heart attack.

A young man in a violet shirt and a jaunty straw fedora was standing near us, also looking down. We asked him to take a photograph of us, and gave him L's camera. He was American; he was in Siena with his whole family, he said, parents, siblings, siblings' children; he had climbed up here to escape them for an hour.

"Are you staying in Siena?"

"We've only come for the day. We're staying in Florence."

"Where are you going next?"

"We're on our way to Guyana," M said.

"You're taking a very indirect route," the young American said.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Various Distractions

Writing requires patience and attention: two qualities I aspire to and occasionally achieve, but never for long enough. --But if I start like this I won't get very far.

Various things distract me:

--Being thirty-one-and-a-quarter years old distracts me; which is to say, being fifteen months past thirty distracts me. There simply isn't enough time left, as there was--as there seemed to be--ten or even five years ago. Perhaps that sense of plenitude returns; perhaps it comes and goes like a mood that swings languorously over decades. Now I have the sense of how much I have lost to indecisiveness, to long, stark hours spent lying in bed, staring at speckles and shadows on the ceiling, unsure how to proceed or with what or even how to get up out of bed again, how to make the effort against gravity.

--The thought that I don't know what I'm doing distracts me. I can imagine I ought to feel this as a kind of freedom--a hugeness of possibility. I feel it only as another in a series of huge indecisions--as a failure to have ideas--as a kind of timidity. Is it braver to go on, one awkward sentence after another, or to stop now and once and for all? The only stories I have to tell are of my own inadequacies and anxieties--which I indulge by assuming they are worth recording (however inaccurately).

--Everything I have ever read distracts me. I am right now sitting in a small room lined with books, like three walls of careful insulation. Rows and rows of elegant spines, gleaming in the light from the lamp on my desk, silent with a sense of having achieved what they intended. Which was, partly, to bewilder me. All these words in layers and lines and webs and cords and cages and knots and nets and branches--

Friday, August 18, 2006

Almost Writing

It is Friday night. I am sitting at my desk. I am almost writing. My desk is a plain square table three and a half feet by three and a half feet, painted brown. To my right hand is a pile of books. To my left hand is a lamp with its hinged neck bent at an uncomfortable angle. The lamp is not switched on. Behind the lamp is a red plastic tray piled with papers and notebooks. Directly in front of me is my PowerBook. Behind the PowerBook is a pencil-holder full of pencils, pens, rulers, scissors. Next to that is a little wooden carving of three monkeys. The first monkey covers his ears with his hands. The second covers his mouth. The third covers his eyes. Next to the monkeys are four little wooden boxes containing various odds and ends: staples, beads, ends of twine. Next to the boxes is a glass paperweight. I am almost writing.

It is eight minutes past nine. My desk faces a window about ten feet away. The window looks out onto a wall and the far corner of the back garden. It is dark outside and I can barely make out the silhouettes of the shrubs at the end of the garden. Dozens of little frogs are singing outside but unless I think about them I don't hear them. I am almost writing.

I am listening to Satie's Gnossiennes. I often listen to Satie when I am almost writing. Other kinds of music distract: make me hum, or rap my fingers on the arm of my chair, or sing a phrase or two. For some reason Satie does not distract.

I am doodling on a scrap of paper I have just fished out of my wastepaper basket. I use this basket not to throw bits of paper away but to store bits of paper that have been doodled upon and may be wanted for further doodling. So the basket is never emptied. This scrap of paper already has a doodle on one side: an imaginary map. I am doodling on the other side: another imaginary map. I usually doodle maps, especially when I am almost writing. Coastline, rivers, cities, provinces. There may be a war: something may be conquered, a boundary may change. There may be a treaty. Someone may found an empire. For ten minutes I ponder the affairs of these imaginary countries: whole populations wait unbreathing while I decide their fate. A line of blue ink divides a nation. I fold the piece of paper and tuck it carefully into the overflowing wastepaper basket until it is wanted again. I am almost writing.

My study is a small room completely lined with bookcases and the bookcases are full of books. I look up at the shelves with their lovely patterns of book spines like multicoloured stripes running round the room: better than paintings. I read the titles on the spines on a shelf to the left of my desk. I immediately want to read every book on the shelf. That one is an old favourite. That one I've always meant to read but haven't found the time. That one has that passage I marked in the margin and meant to go back to. That one: yes. I am almost writing, and that one, that one has been written, and perhaps if I read a few pages chosen at random I will understand how it was written, and then I will write. I get up from my desk, take the book from the shelf, let it fall open in my hands, read the first sentence. So this is what a sentence looks and sounds like: this is how one writes. One uses certain words, mentions certain names. Yes, I understand. I am almost writing. I get up from my desk again and put the book back on the shelf. Yes, I am almost writing. I open a new Word file. A beautiful field of white pixels: untouched: ready. I see myself as a character in a very intellectual movie, perhaps French. I am sitting at my desk. I am very good looking, because I am writing. Or almost writing. I am gazing intently at the PowerBook screen and the air around me is incredibly pure and clear, because I am brilliant, almost glowing with genius, and I am doing the most important thing in the world: I am almost writing. It is terribly poignant: what a movie, no wonder it's French. No: but I am not French. I am almost writing.

No, no, I am tapping my foot on the floor: Satie is distracting me.

I am almost writing.

It is thirty-five minutes past nine. I have not had dinner. Since I sat at my desk two hours ago I have been almost writing. I have read several emails and an article about a photography exhibition; I have drunk a glass of red wine; I have doodled a map. I have imagined myself in a French movie about a writer: it is likely that a government may fall or a revolution may break out because of what that writer is writing. It is a terrible responsibility, a terrible burden, but that writer in the French movie keeps writing. But the movie flickers on and off: the image will not stay still. The frogs are singing. The monkeys have their hands clapped over their ears, their mouths, their eyes. The lovely colours of the book spines -- oranges, greys, blues -- ripple round the room. I am almost writing. It is Friday night. I am sitting at my desk. I am almost glowing with genius -- I am not yet -- I am very good looking -- I will not get up from my desk again -- I will not slump down in my chair --

I am not writing yet.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Y una perra greñuda,
rubia en su cortesía.
No se sienten sus pasos de oro suave,
ni su distante presencia.
Sólo ladra muy tarde por la noche
para ciertos fantasmas,
para que sólo ciertos ausentes escogidos
la oigan en los caminos
o en otros sitios oscuros.

--Pablo Neruda

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Be free

I was going to write about how Georgia and Jonathan and I kind of stormed the Miriam Makeba concert last night with Attillah's help, but I see Georgia got there first.

I spent much of this Emancipation Day at the office reading page proofs--such is the tyranny of magazine deadlines. In between, I've been thinking about something Attillah wrote in her Guardian column last Saturday, about what it really means to be free:

I tell my elders I am not interested in struggling. I want to win now.

I reason with bredrins about this struggle thing. Everything for a time and a season. I don't want to be 50 and saying the same things, fighting the same causes. I want to do the job right and once.

My bredrin says choose your battles wisely. But what are the battles that we choose? There will always be those who think something is impossible....

The time for struggling to get along with each other is coming to an end. I declare myself emancipated from the politics of resentment. I declare myself emancipated from the politics of paranoia.

I declare myself emancipated from any confusion between freedom and freeness.