Friday, 17 December 2010

Last Night

The sudden, sober feeling last night, stuck in traffic and sharing a cab with an Oxfordian mum and her two young darling daughters, Olivia and Honor (who was prone to nosebleeds) that he was through living a life filled with 'I don't knows' and hesitations--the realization that what he really hungered for now was the ability to simply say yes or no to things and to stick by his decision, even if it meant breaking someone's heart. He had no idea how this feeling and the episode with this careful, caring mother in the taxi were related (he recalled the way she had pulled sandwiches from her handbag), but lying in bed the next evening, he knew it had clarified his vision of things.

Highs and Lows

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Hey, hello, good evening

In praise of the late night phone call. One voice meeting another across a sleepless town, or across the sea, from one city to another. The essence of two lives intertwining. It's something lost during daytime interactions: that softeness, or the closeness you can remember hearing when you used to stretch string between two tin cans, or when somebody cupped their palms around your ear before whispering a secret. There's nothing at stake, no reason for such calls. And this is what makes them beautiful, essential, an overlooked form of loving. Right now, I picture two open windows, a new moon, a fire-escape, some newly open tulips, the flicker of a television set, and the feeling that two people out there in the big wide world are sharing the same sky, sharing the same moment even though they're in two different places.

Monday, 6 December 2010

A thought...

For the girl who kept the banana box in her room...

Tonight singing helpless, helpless, helpless on a walk around the block, this next song surprised me, saved me in my tracks...

'And it's only the giving that makes you what you are...'

I will write soon.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Ma Nuit Chez Harold et Maude

'A year doesn't matter; ten years are nothing. To be an artist means not to compute or count; it means to ripen as the tree, which does not force its sap, but stands unshaken in the storms of spring with no fear that summer might not come. It does come...'

'But it comes only to those who live as though eternity stretches before them, carefree, silent, and endless. I learn it daily, learn it with many pains, for which I am grateful: Patience is everything!'
--Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

A night hungry with illumination. Wandering round a museum with flashlights, streets aglow with Christmas arrival. And also the thought that all we need is already here, always.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Morning Snow

Deatail of A Picture Emphasizing Stillness by David Hockney

'In the winter of 1968 Peter and I took the Orient Express to Munich, to see a show of mine. I remember one morning when we were both on the bottom bed, we opened the curtains, and it was snowing. It was fantastic to lie in the little couch with a nice warm body next to you, gazing out the window at the cute little Bavarian villages half hidden under the snow. It’s a wonderful way to travel. I never photographed it, but I remember it vividly.

Later, we went onto Vienna. We took the subway and Peter went in the next carriage; there he stood, looking back at me as I photographed him. At the next station he joined me and I again took a photograph, still looking at the same place, and he is gone. It was not planned, it just happened that way.'--
Hockney, circa 1982

The man who used to cut my hair had this habit of telling me everything about his romantic life, everytime I visited, and I was happy to listen because he would always give me a discount.

He was, for a time, in a terrible relationship with a woman who didn't acknowledge him in her public life, not even to friends. He only existed for her as a sort of secret caretaker, life-organizer, and lover...Anyway, I would nod and listen like a good substitute therapist as he told me of his ongoing trials with her. All this endless drama, but also about another woman, a good friend, who had moved in next door to his father in London and whom he visited from time to time for platonic cups of tea and battle-scar-comparing conversation. Then they decided to end these little meetings, before anything did happen.

One February morning, a few months later, he awoke in his own flat after a dreadful evening with his girlfriend who lived just around the corner. There had been an unexpectedly heavy snowfall that night and the streets were completely white, the city asleep. He stepped outside and he knew in his head that if he walked to the left he would be doing the usual thing: he would be going back to make up, yet again, with his femme fatale, doing the same old damage control routine. So, seeing all this snow, all this emptiness, this peace, this silence, and seeing it (he told me) as a giant blank page, he turned right and started walking. Having no real idea where he was going, he simply got in his car and drove.

Eventually, he ended up at his father's house. He rang the bell of his lady-friend's house next door, but she didn't answer--in fact, wouldn't answer knowing it was him, and knowing he was still in a relationship. So he went into his father's snowy backyard and dashingly scaled the fence, shouting for her to come down and let him in.

They are now married and have a son.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The best things come from nowhere

Last night rain and card tricks and mild pyromania with friends, sitting before a small coal fire. Also a talk with Nicholas Shakespeare earlier in the evening, at Blackwells bookshop, during which he mentioned RL Stevenson's definition of Romance:

'Romance is...

the poetry...

of circumstance...'

Tuesday, 16 November 2010


That's Rilke in the lower right, Lou Andreas beside him.

I love and, to a degree, sympathise with these two quotes of Walter Benjamin's: (1.)'Every time I've experienced love, I've undergone a change so fundamental that I've amazed myself' and (2.) 'A genuine love makes me resemble the woman I love.'

As I'm writing and conceiving of a novel (Heartbreak City) with a female protagonist, I've also been thinking a lot about Jung's idea of the anima--or the unconcious female within all men (women, according to Jung, have an equivalent male animus). This hidden, often disassociated version of oneself.

'Speak to yourself, speak--perhaps she will answer you as you yourself'--Elias Canetti, Notes from Hampstead

Months back, I actually had this idea about Janus faces, only with one face pointed outward, the other within: our public face, the one we try to project, the one we recognize in the mirror. And our inner-face, of the opposite sex, which looks in rather than out. How startling it might therefore be when we catch glimmers of that inner-face in those we are attracted to, those we desire, because they show us who we are, really. Then I discovered that Jung had already had this idea.

I've also been toying with a comedic short story in which a man awakes, Samsa-like, and suddenly realises he's become his wife. It may be too Philip Roth, though:

It was a November morning when Paul awoke to find that he had turned into someone else.

First the warmth of the sheets, the un-sunken feel of the mattress. He rolled across the bed, clutching at the emptiness where his wife typically slept beside him. Cold mornings like this, he had always counted on her. They tended to drift and cleave together, like tectonic plates, for a few minutes before rising. Always her back to his front. But on this day she was no longer there, there was nothing where she should be; his hands, tugging at the sheets, delimited the contours of a twin-sized mattress.

There was a foreign taste in his mouth too and he was having trouble focussing. Was he drunk, he wondered? He winced and awaited certain pains to throttle him out of bed. His bad knee. The crick in his back.

No, he was groggy, his head was full of unfamiliar sensations, a style of dizziness, but he wasn’t unwell. In fact, he felt lighter than usual, cosier in himself, as if bundled up. He was not only wearing pyjamas, he noticed, but also socks. The suppleness of his body in this warmth felt like temptation itself. He pawed and clutched and groaned his wife’s name.

The sound of his voice immediately felt both wrong and familiar, like a distant echo pre-empting its source. It seemed to come from higher up in his face, resounding less in his throat than at the back of his jaw.

She was here, he thought. Her voice, her smell, her presence—but it was all confused, distorted. It felt to him like being forced to look at someone too close in the face, unable to step back.

He growled and, sitting up, immediately felt the bodily difference. Hair fell fuzzily, weightily over his shoulders. He was more compact: there was less to him, and yet so much more. Breasts, though small, imbalanced his posture. Then the absence in his groin sent him stumbling for the shower—but the room was all wrong too. He stumbled over things—books, shoes—not his own, not even his wife’s as far as he could tell. He upset a small wooden box on a low table, spilling paperclips and a strip of condoms. Unfamiliar pictures decorated the walls around him: a Morandi poster, a pre-Raphaelite maiden staring askance at him.

A calendar? Who put a calendar up in their bedroom?

He kept shouting his wife’s name and hearing her shout for him. The part of him that typically spoke was now missing and in its place he found nothing but his wife.

The bathroom was that of a young woman—boxes of tampons, a horde of make-up, perfume, creams and ablutions—and it wasn’t until he looked in the mirror that he realised whose bathroom it was.

His wife was suddenly staring back at him (with a shocked look on her face that made him want, immediately, to protect her, to hold her, to put things right), but this was not the wife he knew. Not exactly: this was the wife he’d only seen in photo albums. A foreigner, a stranger: his wife before he knew her. Sarah before she knew Paul. Somehow, her ghostly non-existence was now his own.

Paul did not exist. And if Pual did not exist, everything he had ever gotten wrong, done stupidly, had now been expunged from reality. He was free of himself and the history his own body described.

It goes on from there...He basically ends up treating his wife's body like a carnival ride, intending to have sex with it (not with a man, of course, but a lesbian) and fails miserably. He also experiences the predatory gaze of men and other humiliating things along the way. Finally, he goes to check to see whether his own past-self is still living with his parents, perhaps even embodied by his wife as he has embodied her. He finds this younger version of himself, living in the old apartment, eating a pear and reading a book out on the fire escape, basically being well looked after. And the discrepancy between these two worlds--his libidnous mishandling of his wife, her caretaking of him--is too much to take and he has a little breakdown there on the street. Then his wife (in his old body) hears him (crying in his wife's body) and she calls down to him, maybe throws him a little note or a set of keys--I don't know. But it ends happily, redemptively.

Work of the eyes is done, now
go and do heart-work
on all the images imprisoned within you; for you
overpowered them: but even now you don't know them.
Learn, inner man, to look on your inner woman,
the one attained from a thousand
natures, the merely attained but
not yet beloved form.--Rilke, "Turning Point"

Friday, 12 November 2010

Marry Me, John

Last night behind the bar, thinking of absent friends and listening to this...

While reading the opening pages of John Updike's Marry Me, a chapter called 'Warm Wine'...

And feeling the nearness of something, like faraway friends weren't all that far after all. And also that this may be one of the most underappreciated openings of a novel by a major writer. Does anyone talk about this book anymore? Updike apparently started it soon after Rabbit, Run, but then Couples took over and it ended up languishing until the end of the Sixties. And, so far, anyway, I greatly prefer it to the latter book. If Couples was Updike's woozy attempt at Joycean Wandering Rocks, then here in the very first pages (at last) is his Howth's Head. There's a restraint here, or perhaps a Hemingway-like rootedness, firmly anchored in the drama of the moment rather than streams-of-consciousness. (It also made me wonder how Updike could be so unfashionable at a time when everyone is gaga over Mad Men).

There was something that really touched me, grabbed me, moved me, anyway about this couple's assignation on a beach. I'm not sure why. But it certainly had something to do with the way Updike can write from the body and, at the same time, uncover something like transcendence in amidst the purely physical, the things of this world.

Yes yes, the touch, the touch of their skins the length of their bodies in the air, under the sun. The sun made his closed eyes swim in red; her side and upward shoulder warmed and her mouth gradually melted. The felt no hurry; this was perhaps the gravest proof that they were, Jerry and Sally, the original man and woman--that they felt no hurry, that they did not so much excite each other as put the man and woman in each other to rest. Their bodies sought with the gradualness of actual growth to enlarge and refine their fit. Her loose hair drifted strand by strand onto his face. The sense of rest, of having arrived at the long-promised calm centre, filled him like a species of sleep even as his insteps tightened upward into the arches of her feet: 'It's incredible,' he said. He turned his face upwards, to merge her with the sun. Red flooded his lids.

Photo by jja_bra
She spoke with her lips against his neck, where a shadow was gritty and cool. He felt this, though it was her sensation. 'It's worth it,' she said, 'is what's surprising. It's worth it, all the waiting, all the obstacles, all the lying and hurrying, and then when you reach it, it's worth it.' Her voice grew progressively small pronouncing this.

He experimentally opened his eyes and was blinded by a perfectly hard circle smaller than the moon. 'Do you mind,' he asked, 'his lids clamped on a pulsing violet echo, 'the pain we're going to cause.'

As if he had dropped a chemical, the stillness of her body against his changed quality. Her curved feet lifted from his. 'Hey,' she said. 'What about the wine? It'll get warm.'

...As he kneeled at her feet to pull off the lower of the two pieces of her yellow bathing suit, he was reminded, unexpectedly of shoe salesmen; as a child he had worried about these men who made a career of kneeling and tugging at other people's feet, and had wondered why they did not appear to be demeaned by it.

Picture by Shelbie Dimond
...Her face, freckled, rapt, the upper lip perspiring in the sun and lifted so her front teeth glinted, seemed a mirror held inches below his own face, a misted mirror more than another person. He asked himself who this was and then remembered, Why, it's Sally! He closed his eyes and fitted his breathing into her soft exclamatory sighing. When this had ebbed into regular breathing, he said, 'It's better outdoors, isn't it? You get more oxygen.'

He felt her rapid little nodding flutter on his shoulder.

'Now leave me?' she said.

...Almost lazily, she kneeled against him and flattened her body to his and encircled his back with her arms. Her shoulder tasted warm; his lips moved on her skin. 'Baby, I can't swing it,' he said, and the flutter of her nodding made thier bodies vibrate together. I know. I know.

Hey? Jerry? Over your shoulder I can see the Sound, and there's a little sailboat, and some town far off, and the waves are coming in to the rocks, and it's so sunny, and just so beautiful? No Don't turn your head. Believe me.'

This one's mine

Thursday, 11 November 2010

A Little Yes

From a children's book I've been writing and finished a draft of today:

And with a little quiet voice, so little and quiet only his imaginary friend could hear him, he whispered: Hello friends. Hello onion soup. Hello afternoon showered clean. Thank you for today. Thank you for umbrellas and for falling leaves. Thank you for this feeling that I have.

(pictures from the Up series)

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Love Minus Zero

Midnight music...for all you restless souls.

New York, August 7th of 1964. Congress grants President Johnson complete authority over the war while she studies painting at Cooper Union and he completes dubbing on his first major film. She tells him she's sure it will be a hit. And the cats across the roof, mad in love, scream into drainpipes. And it's I who am ready to listen. Never tired, never sad, never guilty.--
Narration from the best sequence in I'm Not There. (2007)

Monday, 8 November 2010

A heart so red

Asked about the role of chance in his films, Krzysztof Kieslowski answered: 'Exactly: it's the irrational, totally planned with extreme precision.'

The 30 Percent Rule: he said, elsewhere, that he could always think of himself successful as an artist just so long as he could make 30 percent of the film he set out to make. This was good enough for him. And it is perhaps the boldest thing I've ever heard an artist say...

I'm trying now to write a novel as 30 percent as good as Three Colours: Red. It is called Heartbreak City.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

I'd like to try to read your palm

Please find me
I am almost 30.
--Leonard Cohen

As everybody knows by know, Cohen lived on Hydra, a Greek island, back in the early sixties, on an inheritance of about 200 dollars a year, writing, living with a married Norwegian woman whose name was Marianne.

'This song is called So Long, Marianne
And the girl called Marianne
That I know very well
She came to me after I sang it for her first
And she said
(She's a Norwegian)
She said, ah, I'm certainly glad
That song wasn't written for me...
And I said, oh, yeah?
And she said, yeah
'Cause my name's Marianne...'

If I Had a Boat...

I would want to live here along the riverbank with a dog and a wife and write books for a living.

Friday, 5 November 2010


He doesn’t say anything else until we have come to an office at the far end of the house. There, he gestures to a green recliner and asks me to sit. Then he wanders around a big wooden desk and yanks his swivel chair towards him. We sit across from one another. On the desk, there’s a small cardboard box between us. It’s presence is a little unnerving to me, especially as he doesn't seem to acknowledge it’s resting there on the blotting paper in front of him. He just ruffles a hand through his mess of hair and says, very very quietly, ‘A young woman waiting in the rain is full of dramatic potential.’

Pictures by NicholasV

‘Is she?’ I say, full volume, and I wait to see if he will smile back. I want him to do with his craggy, handsome face what he forgot to do with his hands—to greet me, to make me feel welcome, to let me know that I am still being seen. Could this be the object of my curiosity, I wonder? This challenge?

‘Have you done anything like this before, Ms Berkeley?’

I am surprised to hear him using the English pronunciation without my having suggested it. Also hearing him using Ms over Miss.

‘Sort of,’ I answer him, growing dizzy again, still unsure what this job was going to entail. ‘I mean, I can type. One hundred words a minute, last time I checked.’

This is a lie. I can type fast, I know, but I’ve no idea how many words per minute. I still hunt and peck, backspacing as I go. Summer school typing classes: the keys of the big hunky typewriters painted over with enamel and the teacher walking around with a clipboard, covering our hands as we took dictation.

‘And you’re an English student, you said?’

‘PhD,’ I tell him. ‘A DPhil they call it over in England. I just submitted.’

He congratulates me then asks, ‘What was your topic?’

‘Nineteenth Century. My thesis looked at the existential significance of orphans in the English novel from Dickens to Hardy.’

I can’t be sure, but I think I see him raise his eyebrows as if this wasn’t what he expected of me, as if this wasn’t something he thought people studied anymore.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘You said that you only just submitted your thesis?’


‘So, what are you doing back in the States?’

‘Well…’ I shrug. There are any number of ways to tell this particular story and I pick the most impersonal of the lot. ‘I ran out of money,’ I tell him.

The lights are already on in the office, but this man now leans forward anyway—over that cardboard box—and pulls the tiny chain of his desk lamp. It’s the first time he’s looked at me directly. The lamp goes on, and he looks up like he wants to check I’m still in the room. The lampshade is green and his face lights up a little more, but still there’s no smile. Just an openness, like he is lost and waiting there alone without me. It reminds me of what a boy left behind on a school trip might look like.

Suddenly, I feel I want to be the one conducting this interview. I want to be asking my own questions. A few silent seconds pass as I think about this. I slide out of my shoes and secretly begin massaging my feet into his old worn out rug. Then, surprising myself, I say, ‘Can I ask what’s in the box?’

Thursday, 4 November 2010

One of Us Misread

He tried to reminding himself that it was a sort of bravery

rather than weakness

that kept him wearing his heart on his sleeve

no matter how much trouble it got him into

but believing this was tough...

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Oxford in Blue

Everything blue. The blue of that bulky pea coat I picked up at Salvation Army for no apparent reason. The blue-grey weather, the sound of Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Kind of Blue by Miles Davis playing in every cafe I went into at the time. Or all those blue balloons held in an alligator line of field-tripping Japanese children I saw strolling through the park one day. Also the glow of this city’s sky at night, merely a shadow of the day. Also my father’s eyes and that hyponotic blue of the deep blue sea.


Just a preview of an article I'm writing about my encounter with the diaries of Etty Hillesum:

Readers tend to be either bewildered or deeply moved by her. I've recommended these diaries to many friends who, despite having adored Anne Frank, have come back to me rather exasperated by all the emotional temperature-taking in Hillesum's writing. Others, meanwhile, have found her surreal sexual relationships a little difficult to fathom: Etty wrestling with her therapist on the floor of his office or Etty bedding down with her aged landlord--all while she pines after a personal God and a prayerful life, all while the persecution of Jews escalates outside her window.

For these readers, she must appear to lead a rather mixed-up if not haphazard existence, somewhere between bohemianism and a sort of low-level mysticism.

There are, however, those of us who find in Etty's writing an original and unabashedly human voice. A voice akin to that of her beloved Rilke in the way she struggles to stand apart from history, all while trying to wrangle hold of life in all its earthly feeling. Hers is a difficult balance between trancendent ideals and devotion to the things of this world.

'The trajectory of her journey,' writes Eva Hoffman, 'echoes classical accounts of spiritual transformation; but Etty's pilgrimage grew out of the intimate experience of an intellectual young woman--it was idiosyncratic, individual, and recognisably modern...Her essential existence, she often reminded herself, took place in the privacy of self-reflection, at a desk covered with pinecones, vases of flowers, and books.' [vii, viii]

Wednesday, 20 October 2010


Cold autmn weather and fiery indoor radiators. One wall of the room soaked in gold, the other cast in icy shadow. Lying there with you on upon the floor, both of us staring at the skylight, watching the vapour trails of passing planes crisscross the blue. Dreaming up whole continents of warmth.

Photo by Anako

Just a tiny, imaginary thought of peace and love, folded up, and tossed kite-like to the wind.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Blank Pages Before Next Chapters

My computer isn't working at the moment, so this is only a quick post, a passing wave. I'm actually typing this at my friends' while they're away on their honeymoon and as I look after their cat and continue to live out of suitcases...

Early autumn is currently knocking me out, even though I'm currently fighting a head cold and keep having to duck away on street corners to blow my nose. Walking through gold shimmering Oxford this evening, I thought what better way to top off this cinematic, potent beauty than with a film? So I stopped off at the video shop I haven't visited in almost a year and took out Kieslowski's Three Colours: White. When I brought it up to the counter, the twerpy clerk said, 'I've heard this is the worst one of the three.' It was only when I got outside that I realised this was rather like someone saying they'd heard about some parts of heaven where you have to dress more warmly than usual. I mean, who cares if you have to put on a scarf--it's still heaven, right?

Monday, 20 September 2010


Just a story my niece told me. She's four.

This is her on the same day as the recording...Actually, I was playing her The Smiths in the car the other day and when it came to Big Mouth Strikes Again, she told me to turn the sound up...

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Winged Hearts

I was saving most of these picture-postcards for a celebratory moment, but now I'm just looking for uplift. So here's a little prayer for wings. As it turns out I'll now be needing some serious help taking-off on schedule...

Even though it gets a mention in Paul Auster's Moon Palace (as table-talk before one of his characters faints in the hallway), few people know about Cyrano De Bergerac's voyage to the moon, an adventure he spuriously committed to paper in about 1647, or some twenty odd years before Isaac Newton watched an apple fall from a tree. I think the Moon is a world like this one, Cyrano prophesies before taking flight:

'After many experiments I constructed a flying machine, and, sitting on top of it, I boldly launched myself in the air from the crest of a mountain. I had scarcely risen more than half a mile when something went wrong with my machine, and it shot back to the earth. But, to my astonishment and joy, instead of descending with it, I continued to rise through the calm, moonlight air. For three quarters of an hour I mounted higher and higher. Then suddenly all the weight of my body seemed to fall upon my head. I was no longer rising quietly from the Earth, but tumbling headlong on to the Moon. At last I crashed through a tree, and, breaking my fall among its leafy, yielding boughs, I landed gently on the grass below.

'I found myself in the midst of a wild and beautiful forest, so full of the sweet music of singing birds that it seemed as if every leaf on every tree had the tongue and figure of a nightingale. The ground was covered with unknown, lovely flowers, with a magical scent. As soon as I smelled it I became twenty years younger. My thin grey hairs changed into thick, brown, wavy tresses; my wrinkled face grew fresh and rosy; and my blood flowed through my veins with the speed and vigour of youth.'