Category Archives: daily observation

Holiday Reading

Each time I go on holiday I take along some of the books I’ve bought in recent years but not read, and this year two of the items in the bag spoke of the current British predicament.

On the one hand I have the first three volumes of The Forsyte Saga telling me something about how we got into the mess we are now in (English entitlement, financial chicanery, war and property bubbles), while on the other, Futures and Fictions (a mix of essays and conversations published around the time of Mark Fisher’s death in 2017) offers some pointers of where we may need to go next.

Futures and Fictions contains seventeen contributions, and five stand out in my reading.

*1*

In Stages, Plots and Traumas by Robin Mackay, plot is a many headed term.

It is immediately obvious that “plot” is a semantically rich word. Perhaps uppermost for us is plot in the sense of narrative, but not far behind it would come the conspiratorial sense of the word – the manipulation of affairs by some shady agent or agents behind the scenes. Also current, if less prominent, we find the senses of “plot” as territorial (a plot of land), graphic (plotting a graph), and geometric or projective (plotting one space into another).

The essay talks about how plotting devices (specifically the visual threading of various pictorial and topographical evidence in many TV and movie detective dramas) do not always provide the proof they pretend to, and Mackay stresses the way in which unexpected interventions are often necessary to ‘solve’ various mysteries, either in fictions, dramas or in a psychoanalytic examination. What is shown in any graphic plotting rarely reveals the actual ‘plot’.  It is what happens behind the scenes that is often more vital in the investigation.

The dice are always loaded; continual navigation and reorientation is inevitable.  The essential tool of the detective and the therapist alike are the scalpel and the compass.

This seems like good advice to someone trying, at a distance, to make sense of the world today.

*2*

The second of the pieces to catch my attention is a conversation between Judy Thorne and Mark Fisher about his ideas on ‘Luxury Communism’, the idea that it is already possible for everyone to have enough to lead a fulfilling life if only capitalism didn’t stand in the way.

Positing something like luxury communism as a positive goal means that we can start to see capitalism a force of resistance and obstruction,’ says Fisher. ‘It is only unrealistic from the point of view of a system which cannot be sustained, and which is prepared to risk everything in order to preserve its own fantasies.’

The politics that stresses austerity for some while promoting deregulated wealth for the others is a block to human wellbeing. We all know this, but are not sure what to do about it.

*3*

A later essay may help. In Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation – Labioria Cuboniks tells us that ‘XF rejects illusion and melancholy as political inhibitors’.

The illusion that XF rejects is ‘the blind presumption that the weak can prevail over the strong with no strategic coordination,’ while ‘the malady of melancholia only compounds political inertia, and – under the guise of being realistic – relinquishes all hope of calibrating the world otherwise.

The message might be ‘don’t get mad, organise,’ and do this by a ‘transformation of deliberate construction, seeking to submerge the white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy in a sea of procedures that soften its shell and dismantle its defences, so as to build a new world from the scraps.’

Things – politically, socially, environmentally – are now at the stage where everything has to change if we are to hope for survival.

*4*

Theo Reeves-Evison’s Surface Fictions points to a world where the meaning of artefacts and artworks may ‘no longer hinge on a straightforward opposition between interior Truth and exterior fiction. In fact, they may not conceal an interior at all. They allow us to see that the surface itself has depth, and that it is only through fiction, understood as an additive process of layering, that we can understand and shape deception’s deception.’

Alternate facts and fake news are textured, and if we know how to look we can betray the architecture of their construction.  We need to learn new ways of looking to ‘see through’ the deceptions.

*5*

Which brings us to the only actual fiction of the collection, a story by Ursula K. Le Guin entitled The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.

Omelas is a utopia of sorts – ‘like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time.’

There is only one dark spot, and this dark spot makes all the rest possible for the happy people of Omelas whose ‘tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it.’ Some, however, when they see this reality, leave Omelas.

They leave Omelas, they walk ahead in the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Who stays? Who walks away? Where can they (we) go? Is there another destination, another outcome to our local, international and global conundrum of political disruption and climate chaos?

When they leave Omelas, some people ‘seem to know where they are going’.

Relaxing with my holiday reading, trying to take a break in the sun, do I?

Climate Haiku (France, June 2019)

I
Sucking out water
Spray the aquifer on crops
Drought is coming soon

II
Medieval clothes
Conjuring and magic tricks
No thought of Black Death

III
Water to swim in
Tumbles from springs and snow melt
Leaving rocky peaks

IV
Birds moving in trees
Ring doves flying together
No other thing stirs

V
Transhumance beasts move
Baaing and dull bells ringing
Up to fresh pasture

VI
Stony mountain mist
No worry in beating rain
Dry later and hot

VII
Raining for twelve hours
Owl hooting in the pauses
Sunny briefly cooler

VIII
Watch brown squirrel climb
Claws on bark like gnawing sound
Up in the pine tree

IX
Rumbling grey sky
Thunder or high flying thing
Closer and louder

X
Three hill horizons
Cresting together in cloud
Changes will come soon

XI
Full moon fathers’ day
First waxing and waning then
Waning and waxing

XII
Bright sweet tomatoes
Soft hairs on yellow courgettes
Dirty garlic heads

XIII
Bark of the olive tree
Cracked like a river bed
Liquid under it

XIV
One hornet buzzing
Nearer then further away
Changes summer’s sound

XV
Flies are bothersome
On the skin and in the air
Bringing more disease

XVI
Hands come together
Mountain top recedes in rain
Run for the shelter

XVII
My seventy-first
Longest day dawning cool blue
Short night approaches

XVIII
Here comes canicule
Red on maps and voices shrill
Can’t block burning sun

XIX
Repeating food names
Staving off hungry meaning
Fuller but still starved

XX
Heavy atmosphere
Over expanding waters
Closing over life

Twitter threads

Twitter threads are a new sort of writing 1/10

They come in different forms 2/10

They may be used to cover a topic succinctly and in a strict logical order 3/10

Or they may be vague and rambling 4/10

Often they have many of the characteristics of listicles 5/10

If they are numbered you can see that all the tweets have been written before the first one is tweeted 6/10

If the numbering system goes awry it looks as if they are more spontaneous 7/10

A twitter thread can be turned into a blog post 8/10

It can even be printed out, published as a small pamphlet or as part of an anthology 9/10

If you want to preserve a twitter thread you can keep a screen print of the whole thread 10/10

 

Thinking in Extremes

An exhibition called Benjamin und Brecht/Denken in Extremen officially opens at seven o’clock this evening at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin. It draws material from the Walter Benjamin Archive and the Bertolt Brecht Archive, both housed at the Akademie der Künste, and, according to the website blurb, it includes key documents illustrating the pivotal and conflictual points in the relationship between the two men.

Publicity for the exhibition bears the famous picture of the chess game under the knorrigen Birnbaum in the garden of the house at Skovsbostrand in Svendborg where Brecht lived in exile, itself a potent symbol of the mix of collaboration and conflict in the relationhip. The pear tree is gone now and I believe I am one of the last people to have seen it. I shall explain.

I stayed at the Svendborg Brechthuset in May 2014, and on the last day of my visit the trustee and a friend were tidying up the garden. They decided that the old tree was beyond saving and the time had come to cut it down. This happened quickly and the trunk and few remaining branches were sawn up into logs for the next winter’s fire. Some of the more rotten pieces were thrown on a pile to rot down for compost. I asked if I might save a small bit of branch from the tree, and they agreed, and then moved on to other tasks required in the early Danish summer.

Perhaps a piece of the tree would add to the narrative and, if so, I would be happy to provide one as a late addition to the exhibition. I do not know what this small object would add to the story, but I do know that on that day in May 2014 I felt very strongly that the ending of that tree was a significant event. It felt like a final sign of the passing of the twentieth century and the start of a new era, though one in which the thoughts that prospered under that pear tree might still provided memories, myths and methodologies useful in the coming extreme times.

Brecht mentions the Birnbaum in Naturgedichte I, a poem that ends by reminding us that in some circumstances it is a good idea to live in houses with several exits. Benjamin and Brecht knew this only too well as, sadly, do so many others in our own times.

Hat das kleine Haus wohl im ganzen drei Ausgänge.
Das ist gut für Bewohner, die gegen das Unrecht sind
Und von der Polizei geholt werden können.

Tagged , ,

Showing the D-Day spirit on 1st April 2019

Brexit reminds me of D-Day, not the invasion of Europe in 1944, but Decimal Day on 15th February 1971, the day when Britain said goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence.

I was in Norwich at the time and spent the Saturday before in a pub, where an official was drowning his sorrows. His task for the day had been to make sure that all the traders on Norwich market were ready for the switchover and he told the story of one old boy who didn’t seem to have heard of the new currency. The man had asked when this change was going to happen, and when he was told it was in two days time, on Monday, he sighed in relief. “That’s alright then,” he said. “I don’t open Monday.”

Will it be like this on Brexit Day?

Tagged ,

Creative Reading

For the past month (23 August to 22 September 2017), in the continued search for creative ways of reading, I have noted down a small section from each day’s books. The following has emerged from one purposeful arrangement of this material.

1. READING, WRITING & LANGUAGE

He was so in love with books that he would prop one up beside his shaving mirror and read whilst shaving, which must have been a hazardous occupation.

‘Reading kept him alive,’ she said, ‘right till the end.’

Language shows clearly that memory is not an instrument for exploring the past but its theatre.

The only advice that can be given to the writer is: Don’t go further than others do. In fact, keep just a little behind them. If they say ‘guts’, you say ‘bowels of compassion.’

ACL – ACCELERATED CONTACT LANGUAGE – was, Scile told me, a speciality crossbred from pedagogics, receptivity, programming and cryptography.

Printing is ‘the artillery of thought’.

Workshop grey greenish, light but electric also; no bare arms except in packing rooms etc….figures with book compressors, stapling, scrimming; magazine sheet assembly; girls with sewing machines, comical spoofs; occasional solid bright colour, e.g. Blue covers ink or overalls. NOISE.

Anybody who has persevered thus far with this book without skipping may be assumed to be a dedicated reader.

2. PEOPLE & PLACES

He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging.

When faced with the blank space on the map, we turn to the fantastical.

Life came before art with her – and what a life! Ezra remarked that he thought she got more out of life than was perhaps in it.

He was a very useful father to have, for he knew a great deal and didn’t mind answering questions.

All sciences are devoted to the quest for truth; truth can neither be apprehended nor communicated without art. History therefore is an art, like all the other sciences.

But instead of this necessary risk of ‘falling in love,’ what we have today is a worldwide movement directed against any sort of risk: from our decadent Western permissive societies to the Islamic fundamentalists, all of them are united in the fight against desire.

Repossessed by its owner, the fragmented, headless body of surrealism becomes a vehicle for irony, resistance, humour and self-expression.

When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city.

Miami’s South Beach is nothing like a white cube.

I used to understand our way of life…The way we lived used to make sense to me…But now, I don’t I understand anything…None of it makes sense at all…

3. OTHERWISE

Pauvre Philippe, je me demande quelquefois si tout son mystère ne le fatigue pas de temps en temps.

Schwer zu wissen für den Autor, wie weit er gehen darf, wie weit heute, wie weit morgen.

Auch sehe er sich nicht als Lehrer; den das könnte bedeuten, dass er selbst nichts zu lernen hätte.

Schnellläufer sucht Balletttänzerin in Kongressstadt – Das Zusammentreffen dreier gleicher Buchstaben.

Deformation durch Schriftstellerei als Beruf, Popanz der Öffentlichkeit; als lebe man, um etwas zu sagen. Wem!

Er allerdings habe keine Lust, sich mit Texten abzugehen, die nur für Maschinen von Interesse seien.

Der Wärter in einem Leuchtturm, der nicht mehr in Betrieb ist; er notiert sich durchfahrenden Schiffe, da er nicht weiss, was sonst er tun soll.

Ich lebe jetzt ohne Vorsatz.

4. POETIC CODA

Apples can be forgotten about, but not bananas, not really. They don’t in fact take at all well to being forgotten about. They wizen and stink of putrid and go almost black.

Wipe your hands across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

We are proud, handsome and predatory.
We hunt machines, they are our favourite game.
We invent them and then hunt them down.

It were not right ever to cease lamenting
It was like the parting of day from night.

Some days I miss waitressing
And the way it made my feet feel.

Tagged

Verlag Volk und Welt: publishers for the citizens of nowhere

Yesterday’s thoughts about the Frankfurt Book Fair in the early 1970s find echoes in today’s reading of Max Frisch’s Aus dem Berliner Journal, a record of the Swiss writer’s time in Berlin in 1973-4, published by Suhrkamp in 2014.

As well as hearing of the writer’s everyday life and the move to Berlin, we also learn of the time Frisch spends in what he calls DDR-Berlin, giving readings, meeting other writers and discussing the local editions of his books with East German publishers, Verlag Volk und Welt.

He enjoys the company of other writers, and spends time with the likes of Christa Wolf and Wolf Biermann on one side of the wall; Günter Grass and Uwe Johnson on the other.

It’s a timely reminder that publishers and writers have always played a role in crossing cultural and political lines in Europe, something that might be important as British publishers and writers are forced out of the European Union by their careless government.

It’s an interesting footnote that Verlag Volk und Welt did not survive the unification of Germany, although the imprint is now owned by Verlagsgruppe Random House.

Tagged ,

Speaking out at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Some thoughts at this time of year when publishers are getting ready to travel to the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s easy-peasy. You plan your appointments by email or messaging; send your display and sample copies by courier; pop on a cheap flight; pay with your debit or credit card; use your own phone to keep in touch around the world. Most communication will be in English.

Once upon a time it wasn’t like this. In the early 1970s many of us drove to Germany (by various favourite routes through France, Belgium, Netherlands), using multiple currencies (always cash); as we crossed borders our passports would be needed of course, but also our boxes of books, proofs, catalogues and display materials might be examined or impounded until duty was paid. For a week or more we were mostly out of touch with office and home. We used what languages we had to talk to publishers and booksellers from around the world.

All agreements that included royalties, co-publication, book sales were fraught with the difficulties of operating under different legal and commercial systems; we needed to know about shipping and the documents that were required to make sure that film, sheets or finished books arrived at their destination. Even lowly editorial or sales staff had to understand some of the complexity of international documentation and payment methods.

These days British publishers seem blissfully unaware that such issues will again have an effect on their business if they continue to follow the UK government blindly towards the departure gate from the European Union, and Brexit also puts into question the many global agreements included under our membership of the EU. There is demonstrable concern about intellectual property, and the European media empires that control much of ‘British’ publishing must certainly have already developed contingency plan on this front that may see publishing, like banking, pharmaceuticals, IT, games and the music industries, move jobs and activities into other EU countries.

The headlines today are all about the success of British publishers in export markets, but this may be a chimera. It’s about time that more people in publishing spoke out, and loudly, against the madness that is Brexit. The Frankfurt Book Fair in 2017 would be a good time to start.

Tagged ,

My father carried many things in his pockets

I remember that my father carried many things in his pockets and reflect that most of these either no longer exist as everyday objects, have been replaced by technology or are socially unacceptable. This list, presented in alphabetical order, will be familiar to some but perplexing to others.

Address book to write down addresses and telephone numbers

Business cards (his own and those of people he had met)

Car keys

Cheque book for drawing cash, paying bills, and for writing notes on the back of

Cigarette lighter

Fountain pen for writing cheques, notes and signing letters

Handkerchief for nose in trouser pocket and other one for show in the breast pocket

House keys

Loose change for buying small items, giving exact change, and giving tips (never automatically included on any bill)

Office keys (including keys to a drinks cabinet and keys to a safe)

Packet of cigarettes

Penknife for opening things, sharpening things, scratching off samples of paint to take back to the laboratory

Pocket appointment diary

Propellor pencil

Wallet containing banknotes, driving licence, receipts and postage stamps

Tagged