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food peste

#Peste 6: Lockdown Cooking

I’ve got 15 hours a week of commute back since lockdown. I’ve been working just as hard, but that’s still meant I’ve had more time to read, relax, drink and cook. So for the benefit of my future self, here’s a cooking/eating diary. Warning, nothing interesting about supply chains or observations on how to source ingredients or anything. It’s just photos of stuff I’ve cooked.

First up was prior to lockdown, but was going into the Joy Luck restaurant in Chinatown. Doesn’t tend to be one of the ones better attended by western tourists (though a fair few of East Asian tourists). On the basis of the London Eater recommendation, I go there for the Wuhan Dry Noodles, which are wonderful. On this occasion I also went in out of solidarity with the Chinese restaurant community – business had plummeted in the early days of Covid awareness in the UK (this was 7th March).

I went into the restaurant and the staff were sitting round a table with chins in hands, chatting. I was clearly the first customer they’d had for ages. They sat me in the window, which was perhaps a mistake. The Wuhan Dry Noodles were as good as ever, which as they are also hot, meant I was sweating and snuffling over them for the entertainment and enlightenment of everyone going past.

I don’t really cook Ottolenghi as much as I should, but this recipe for a hot confit of mushrooms with a butterbean mash is one of the best vegan recipes I know. Hot, substantial, and delicious.

Rather a dull looking, but very nice Barnsley chop.

AH, now we’re talking. Minestrone, in this case Marcella Hazan’s spring vegetable soup, is a miracle. I would strongly recommend cooking it, then leaving it a day, but it’s one of the most restorative recipes I know, and freezes ok for a quick sense of vitality and boost on days when you simple cbf’d.

I’m not actually sure what the pasta is here, but the spinach is first lightly cooked as per usual, and then mixed into olive oil in which a couple of lightly crushed garlic cloves have been cooked and then removed. And then squeeze some lemon over it. I remember this being extremely satisfactory.

This next looks rather grey, but it was wonderful. Elisabeth David’s Roman Beef Stew, or Stufatino alla Romana from Italian Food. With some stewed celery and some sourdough from the Aries Bakehouse on Acre Lane. One of those dishes that I think only has about three ingredients in – shin of beef, some pancetta or bacon, and tomato puree. Highly recommended.

So I live in Herne Hill, which these days is pretty bougie, and with the consequence that it has a very good but expensive deli-cum-butchers – the sort where it’s impossible to buy cheap cuts of meat. Also the sort of place it turns out that in lockdown has queues of people willing to stand around for two hours to get what they want. (I don’t know about anyone else, but although this was in part because I wanted to cook more, I also found myself *buying* a lot more. In theory that was to reduce the amount I needed to go out, but I think it was actually more about a changed context for buying food and cooking. I was practicing more what the person responsible for the domestic shopping would do in the past – buying stuff for multiple meals ahead – rather than popping into the supermarket during or after work to pick up a couple of ingredients for tea).

ANYWAY, to avoid the queues, I went to the very good Jones the Butchers down the road – an older type of butchers, and amongst other things bought a chicken. Annoyingly, it wasn’t anywhere near as good as the expensive deli chicken, with the consequence that this roast, although very pleasant, looks better than it tasted, I think.

I did also do Marcella Hazan’s two lemon self-basting roast chicken recipe, which I periodically try, because she absolutely swears by it, but it never really quite works for me, and I should here have stuck to my more orthodox chicken dressed with thyme, garlic, lemon and good butter.

Ah BUT. pasta col tocco d’arrosto – pasta with ‘a touch of the roast’ is one of the very finest things. And of course this is now asparagus season. The roasting pan you cooked the chicken in should be full of fat and lemon and juices, which after a day will have turned into a sort of jelly. Cook your pasta, as usual reserve some of the cooking water. Then tip the cooked pasta into the roasting pan over a high heat, and grate a fuckton of parmesan in. Stir until you go ‘bavosa‘ like the chef here. (This is incidentally the best recipe for carbonara).

The last of the chicken, I thought I’d do a pilaf. I could only find brown rice and had forgotten or possibly never knew that this abomination takes twice as long to cook, with the result that the first attempt at this was inedible and the second attempt was rendered extremely mediocre by me being a-holed.

This asparagus risotto (Marcella Hazan again), was AMAZING. AMAZING.

Good Friday iirc. The super easy Belgian dish Waterzooi – very very good indeed, hard recommend.

A rather careless spaghetti bolognese or ragù or what have you. VERY NICE ALL THE SAME.

Fuck I’ve eaten so much Ritter sport. This is the best. It is the best.

I do think at least once or twice a week you should cut it out and just have a snack or an olive in the evening. Aubergines are wonderful, griddle them and eat with garlic.

Oh! And I bought some South African pears from the excellent grocers near me. Stewed them with cloves in red wine. I think that’s marscapone or creme fraiche. Very good. Don’t normally do deserts.

😬 The cornflake one wasn’t as interesting as it looked?

For some reason the roasted potatoes here look rather grey, but this sirloin steak, asparagus and roasted potatoes was pitch perfect. Absolutely wonderful. A strand throughout this generally is that the less interesting it looks, the better it was.

eg – this lancashire hotpot (scrag end from the proper butchers) was delicate and lovely. One of those dishes close enough to a provençal daube to make you realise that our own simple cooking, done well, has as much room for excellence and delicacy as the more garlanded continental versions of peasant cookery (and they are very nice). Has to be scrag end. Not enough fat/flavour otherwise.

Puy lentils with garlic, parsley and lemon and an omelette. A favourite.

This salad looks great, but it was in some respects A Mistake, namely the presence of asparagus in it. It would have been much better for both asparagus and salad for them to be presented separately. I was taking my lead from the excellent Richard Olney who encourages experimentation and thought in his cooking, on the basis that this is the way you will learn, and he’s right. I learned not to put asparagus in a salad with fennel in. The flavours confused each other. It was still very good.

I started baking! I hadn’t baked for about 18 years, since I made a loaf denser than a black hole. Following the fantastically fucking irritating but really very good Bake with Jack, I came up with these two wonderful wholemeal loaves. They were excellent and I felt so proud I kept on going in to look at them cool.

Ok, the Sicilian classic of sardines, with fennel, pine nuts, raisins, saffron etc, with bucatini. Except I didn’t have any bucatini at the time so I did it with spaghetti. The sardines were the quite expensive Ortiz tinned sardines worth every penny.

Another sirloin steak and some roasted peppers.

THIS is one of the best recipes. Inexplicably not had it before – Marcella Hazan’s Aubergine with chilli and tomato. The heat works very well with the aubergine, and is slightly surprising as it perhaps looks like ratatouille. Really great.

Couldn’t be fucked to cook other than to do the asparagus with a dressing of boiled egg and vinaigrette. Some good italian salami which I absolutely STUFFED MY FACE with.

When I did the lancashire hotpot it reminded me how much I liked this recipe for Provençal daube – the key ingredients for me are the orange peel and the cloves, both of which give it a light and slightly strange taste – troubadours and venice and southern france rivers and abbeys. Like so many stews it is approximately 100 times better left a day before eating. NOTE PLEASE home baked bread.

A poor photograph of a childhood favourite this: smoked mackerel and potato salad from Jane Grigson’s incomparable cookbook Good Things.

I burned da bloomer. My oven thermometer was giving me bogus info.

This bloomer was better but had bust out at the side, i assumed because I had underproved it.

A very welcome delivery from the excellent Grappin Wines, providers to some of the best restaurants and drinking holes in London. Saving the premiere cru from when I can have a guests round. Won’t invite them. Will just drink the bottle.

Fresh trout with an order from Pesky Fish – direct from fisherman to home they say. I hadn’t read the order properly, and was hoping for a whole trout, to do in a beurre blanc or meunière. As it was a fillet, I poached in a court bouillon, which I strained and then whisked some… far too much actually… butter and some as you can see not at all properly chopped sorrel. This was very nice, but the bouillon sauce was fucking rich innit.

This was supposed to be an artisanal loaf. I think this time it was underproved?

Mussels with my fish order. An attempted moules marinière. The mussels were meagre, end of season farmed mussels, very tasteless, and I hadn’t done enough of them in the broth to flavour it properly so it tasted overmuch of wine.

And throughout, where would I have been without my Canopy Beer order?

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Uncategorized

Sentimental Revolutions

Reading the Blanchot essay From Dread to Language gives me the feeling I get when I read existentialism: that this sort of writing is no more than the fag end of Romanticism. As such there is a a sort of highly decadent awareness of the refinements of Romanticism, such that an entire serious essay can explore the minuscule and rarefied space between dread and language, with meaning.

But the whole reminds me of what CS Lewis says in his ‘study in Medieval Tradition’ The Allegory of Love: that romantic love, originating at the end of the eleventh century in Languedoc is one of ‘perhaps three or four’ ‘real changes in human sentiment’ in history:

There can be no mistake about the novelty of romantic love: our only difficulty is to imagine in all its bareness the mental world that existed before its coming – to wipe out of our minds, for a moment, nearly all that makes the food both of modern sentimentality and modern cynicism. We must conceive of our world emptied of that ideal of ‘happiness’ – a happiness grounded on successful romantic love – which still supplies the motive of our popular fiction.

The Allegory of Love, CS Lewis

In this I think he is entirely correct. As anyone who has had to wade through this blog will know, I am very much a product of this Romanticism. I think in many respects it has been a great poison, a philosophical wrong turn, if it is meaningful to say that of something so long and deeply embedded and productive of so many things I love and of which I am made. I’m sure we would have found other poisons. Nevertheless.

My perception is that the self is now so heavily and transparently commoditised, and has, due to many forces, from the internet’s ability to allow people of common feeling and synthetically constructed identity to find each other, and from the increased questioning and exploration of gender and sexual identity, that we are coming out of a great tyranny of Romanticism and the Self, which is in the process of being liquidated. In this respect I feel like the opposite of the canary in the mine, more like a useless but sympathetic confessor of the old errors to the new generations: The Last of the True Romantics saying: ‘this is the nature of the gas which you must expunge so you may breathe and kill my confreres and the things I love’.

There will of course be a great deal of psychological suffering and social conflict born of this liberation. To lose the Self is suicidal – I mean that in a very compressed way of course – a way of saying entire edifice of psychological thinking is built round it. We should be thankful for yards Deleuze and Guattari have put in in this respect.

Apocalypses usefully describe the conditions of change by which the old world ends – oh fearful relativism! – and the new one begins.

This is not why I sat down to write this though. What other three or four ‘real changes in human sentiment’ do we think Lewis means? The word ‘sentiment’ must be relevant here. I might otherwise go for the turn from feudalism to global capitalism – Braudel memorably cites a 15th century(? iirc – i can never find the reference) muleteer on a road from one town to another as ‘the first capitalist’. Or the enlightenment and science coming out of the cauldron of the 17th century, again, the birth pangs of which are memorably collected in Paul Hazard’s wonderful La crise de la conscience européenne, 1680-1715.

But what are those real changes in sentiment (CS Lewis explicitly excludes Christianity’s role, at least in this formation of romance from the equation)? It feels like something must be coming from the industrial revolution, the sense of class belonging, the emergence of the middle class perhaps? Nothing so purely aesthetic as Romanticism though (oh yes of course it had its expressions within capitalism and colonialism). National identity perhaps?

Answers on a postcard.

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books

The Ascending Logos

Last year I went through a long period where I couldn’t read. This was nothing new; boredom, laziness, indifference, computer games, have all led to this pass before.

This time it was because reading caused me pain. I was going through a period of emotional trauma – love, grief, the usual – and this meant it was too painful to read anything worthwhile.

Reading anything worthwhile – and I do not at all necessarily mean literature – involves attention. exploration of oneself and with oneself: your thought and your emotions, your body and spirit. If these are not available, or if these cause you pain, then you cannot read with attention. At a basic level I would cite the effect of an acute physical pain on your ability to pay attention to other things.

What actually happens? You attempt to read and then halfway through a sentence, or a paragraph, or an observation, you are brought up short, as if something had tweaked a nerve, and you think you about your own situation, rather than extending yourself to the words you are reading.

There is a fog of attentiveness.

Reading anything too abstracted from those important feelings, pressing in, pushed away, seemed not to have any meaning or point. I simply couldn’t concentrate on them. Braudel on markets, Flann O’Brien’s newspaper pieces, Arthur C Danto on aesthetic transfiguration. Irrelevant, funny but I don’t want funny, irrelevant.

I don’t want to be distracted from myself.

Then I was able to read again. What happened? Did I get over my pain? No. But language and words re-formed, found a way round the problem. As they do.

But I had help.

Text 1: “Imaginary Letters” by Mary Butts

I was lucky enough to be in a pub with Tim Hopkins, the craft, brains and heft behind of The Half Pint Press. He’d brought his latest remarkable creation, “Imaginary Letters” by Mary Butts, and was kind enough to allow us to unpack the vivid object into its component parts.

Yes the first paragraph caught my eye: A cycle of miseries now known by the heart.

But it was the physical words, the tangible imprint of pressure and ink, on the page that caught my attention. Reading those words on that page, made me want to read again. The words themselves seemed to be additionally vivid because of the craft of the page, the care and artistry of the imprint. Words once again seemed to have a value beyond their reference to my pain. (The only value, my Self would belligerently declare, bruising my heart and smashing my chest around, a bundle of tantrum-ing id in its cuttable, bleedable, scarring, bruisable cage.)

I think as I say that it was that the value of the object itself, the care taken over it, which renewed the sense of the word; the words as imprinted objects seemed to have more value because of the context of the artefact.

Those words on that page had partially gained an aura, not of the work’s unique originating existence or authorial motive, but derived from the care and effort put into the new object onto which they had been imprinted. This process had done something to revive in the word* the ‘quality of its presence’, which famously, ‘is always depreciated’ by mechanical reproduction, according to Benjamin. Perhaps there was after all something of ritual about it all, something sacred which suggested meaning outside me. (The unreading me: so narrow, so self-centred, so dull).

(*I had originally said logos here, which I think is wrong, certainly in a neoplatonic sense, which in a relatively uninformed way is my meaning – logos cannot be revived as such, it can only be re-attached, by using word i hope to find a middle ground between logos, the authorial word, the crafted imprint of word on the page, and the word within me. And maybe after all there is a Jungian sense, an attempt to connect logos and eros via the medium of print.)

(Actually logos, inscription, writing, print are not best approached by Benjamin’s essay – there is of course an entirely separate and vast literature of religion and critical theory to deal with the Word and its authority – but it done now, as my brother would say.)

The beauty and care of the object in which the words were contained – tissue paper, envelopes, fine letter paper, the hidden object of the press – helped hoist me back up into a desire to read the printed word, no matter the object in which they were contained. At the time it felt, quite simply, that the words burned more vividly and had more meaning than I had felt the printed word had had for a while. (Again, those words – burning, meaning – words of ritual and the sacral).

This in itself perhaps shows how far I had regressed. An ability to understand, perhaps more importantly to feel the value of the word abstracted from its context seems to me to be a valuable capability developed by the age of print, and more vital and necessary in the age of digital media. Perhaps it was a problem of technology, perhaps I was suffering from some sort of tribal historical regression. And perhaps in some respects it had analogy with the ability to be able to read without forming the words with your mouth, described by Augustine of Bishop Ambrose here:

“When he read,” said Augustine, “his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”

Alberto Manguel, Chapter 2 of A History of Reading(New York; Viking, 1996).

‘His heart sought out the meaning’. A technological advance. That was the very thing my heart was not able to do, because it didn’t want to. I didn’t want it to.

I went rambling off an unresolved direction here, which I’ve put at the bottom of the post*

I came out wanting not just to read again, but seeing the word in its environment, the word as environment again. It was someone had started shovelling coals again onto the relevant part of my brain, firing up in recognition, having previously been sunk in inattention.

I felt doubly grateful to Tim, because in fact as well as the fire, he was also responsible on that same evening for the focus, by recommending Eley Williams in general, and specifically the collection of short stories Attrib.

Text 2: Attrib. by Eley Williams

Words can be very direct. And direct contact with my heart and feelings was fatal to the words. Indifference to my heart and feelings had been fatal to the words.

A problem.

My first thought when I started the short stories collected in Attrib. was ‘oh, this person is having fun.’ In this respect it reminded me of the sheer stimulating enjoyment of reading Helen deWitt’s collection Some Trick.

The second thing that I noticed, with a sort of growing excitement and relish, was how Williams showed the pressure of emotion on the form of language. There was an indirectness that allowed me to approach the stories. A poet’s sense of something, to use Isaac Rosenberg’s fine words, understandable and yet ungraspable.

The first story The Alphabet is a story about loss – loss of language, loss of memory, loss of awareness, loss of love. It’s also a story that very efficiently and effectively builds up the distilled structure of those things in order to express their loss, in this case largely through the letters of the alphabet, those letters of love: ‘the taut bow of D … an empty workman’s clamp: G‘ and the description of R as ‘a thrown magnifying glass embedded in a wall’ is one of those gifts that will stay with me throughout my life. (Writerly gifts are the best gifts.)

It’s a story that asks the question, what does it actually mean to lose one’s mind? Because it also means the loss of love. Feeling the loss happening as it’s happening. Anticipating the loss and knowing that it’s going to happen.

This is a story of a relationship break-up that happens because of aphasia. It happens in language.

My brain unpinned you without me wanting it to and now you have gone.

It is not necessarily clear if the partner has actually physically gone because what he relished – the shared communication – is gone, whether he is still there but the memory of his face and of what he has meant is lost to the narrator because of their loss of language. Their faces and love fade with the loss of language itself, as if the tale itself evaporates in loss:

I want to be able to tell you that I miss you, and the way you had with me, and the way you had with all the words that – at the time – I had for you.

If I say there is something indirect about the stories, I do not mean that the words are not direct, they are, direct enough to break the heart in the first one, but that the shape of emotions is realised through the shape of language. It allowed me to approach it, where more conventional expressions would have stopped me reading: do not try to speak to me of this, you do not know me, this is not mine, this is not me.

A wonderful example is the second story, Swatch, where two young boys playing hide and seek, hide in a wardrobe together and see how many marshmallows they can stuff in their mouths. It is also a description of pre-sexual-awareness sexual arousal, as full of sugar and close intimacy they gaze into each others’ eyes, and find themselves in ‘tangled, bored tussles for space’.

It is in the eyes that this sexual and emotional pressure of desire is realised, because one of the boys’ fathers runs a paint shop that has produced a deep awareness of the exotic landscape of colours and their names, Peter’s own eyes are variably, strangely coloured, so with the industrial language of colour palettes, they form an entire cosmos of a world reconfigured:

He saw Cocoa Latte in his eyes some days, Truffle Leather 3 during others. There was even a greenish contour of Enchanted Eden 2 to be found if he examined his eye in strong morning light … If Peter stared himself down in bright summer sun he could see a notch of Tangiers Flame in one of his eyes and the shadow of a shadow of Amethyst Falls right beside it.

Williams strongly conveys the material presence of language and communication, and through that material presence, its plasticity (in the sense of the plastic arts – which are a theme); it’s one of the chief pleasures of the volume. (I just saw a line from the first story: ‘Aphasia is now an autocomplete on my laptop’s search field.’) H0w language communication can take place outside the traditional vehicles or contexts for that communication. For example, in Mischief, the intimate communication between a mine-sniffing rat, and the sapper disposing of the mine.

To put this back in the context of Imaginary Letters, here Colours are the book, Letters are the book, sounds are the book which contain the imprint.

Physical things are the book. It was during reading the story Rosette Manufacture: A Catalogue & Spotters’ Guide that the third observation occurred to me (oh and did I say how much I enjoyed the subtitles of the first story, The Alphabet (or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better on Paper Than In Practice) – ‘better on paper than in practice’, what a phrase to turn over and consider when applied to writing – it sort of gets at the heart of the business Williams seems to be about).

So, yes, that third observation. After the fun and the indirectness (that still isn’t the right word is it). The rosette story is something of a natural history of manufactured rosettes – the political candidate kind, the dog show kind – out of which an entire system of manufactory and ecology is inferred and condensed (Williams is very good at these condensed systems).

It seems almost written to bring about the extraordinary, dream-like, final paragraph:

We will never resign or leave you. We will go on making our false flowers for non-lovers with the jaguars and monsters for you, in our false garden, in the shade.

But it was a specific phrase that caught my eye:

Sometimes – and not even in very high winds – the plastic false-silk ribbons that depend from a rosette overlap one another and it looks as if a cross or a wavelength or a gene or many other lapel-less things have appeared above your heart.

‘Lapel-less’. This reminded me of two things, the second of which I’ve only just worked out, which is Leigh Hunt’s poem The Fish, the Man and the Spirit, especially in the fish’s description of the man:

Thou that on dry land horribly dost go
   With a split body and most ridiculous pace
   Prong after prong, disgracer of all grace,
Long-useless-finn'd, haired, upright, unwet, slow!

But at the time the implied ontology reminded me of Wittgenstein’s essential communication system represented by the Slab!, and his depiction of language in Philosophical Investigations:

23. But how many kinds of sentence are there? Say assertion, question and command? – There are countless kinds; countless different kinds of use of all the things we call “signs”, “words”, “sentences”. And this diversity is not something fixed, given once and for all; but new types of language, new language-games, as we may say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten …

The word “language-game” is used here to emphasise the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life.

Philosophical Investigations – Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wiley-Blackwell

Language-game. Sprachspiel. Slab! or Platte! Each of Williams’ stories a constrained system of language and communication, of play and yes, to return to my first observation, of fun.

(Going back through the stories, I saw in Swatch, that the first line is ‘Peter noticed the unspeakable colour during Stuart’s twelfth birthday party’ and later in the same story the school song is remembered, ‘The halting tongue that dare not tell the whole‘, both reminding me of that earlier famous piece of Wittgenstein from the Tractatus, ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ Nevertheless, one must add in relation to Williams’ stories, it will find a way to express itself even if the central object remains evasive because it doesn’t exist in the system (the pre-sexual awareness sexuality in Swatch).)

And to return to my second observation – that indirectness – those language systems were not attempting to communicate with me, but were internally coherent worlds expressing emotions and feelings for which I had analogy, but not the same language.

I do not in any way wish to say that Wittgenstein is the ‘solution’ to these wonderfully rich and enjoyable stories, only that this observation helped me explore further into them.

Something about all this reminded me of something once said to me in psychoanalysis. Childhood is the place we learn to survive, to succeed, which is learned within a space of parental, familial (or institutional) rules. When we grow up we can to a certain extent create the environmental rules which will define survival and success – the internal rules by which we find satisfaction no longer need to be the parental rules – but very often these are buried deeply, and we seek to replicate the same moral or emotionally regulatory environments in which to psychologically survive.

Language seems to exist like flora and fauna in the spaces Williams creates.

That was what allowed me to approach this wonderful volume of stories … no, that was what allowed me to let this wonderful volume of stories in.

Text 3: Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge – Empathy, Conjunctions, 1984

Some time at the back of summer last year, I was in the excellent second-hand bookshop The Second Shelf, browsing through the old literary journals, and found a poem in Conjunctions by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, called Entropy. Having scanned more or less carelessly through the other pages, words in Bersenbrugge’s poem caught my attention and I read it through more carefully.

It seemed to speak directly to my heart, albeit in an elliptical way. Elliptically direct.

I made a note in my notebook to return and buy it – for some reason that wasn’t possible at the time.

And I kept on reminding myself and kept on not going, to go back and buy the periodical in question, but only got round to it a few weeks ago, just before the Covid lockdown.

It had been sold, inevitably. The context of the words is now memory. But although the importance or shape of the words burns brightly, I can’t remember any of them specifically. I just know the text had seemed important to me at that point.

I’ve just realised in the course of writing this that I can look it up and find it. At the time I wasn’t sure of the notebook in which I’d put the details, which was some sort of excuse.

I’ve found it now, and yet I’m strangely reluctant to go searching.

The space in which the language is operating is defined, the language itself is undefined. It is all absence. All evasion. Burning meaning, no expression.

Reading, it seems, even when you’ve started again, has its limits.

disjecta membra

*[A desire to return to the word with all one’s being again, regardless of context is not just a matter of being able to consume the word in a mass-produced paperback, nor is it being able to feel the heft and value of the thing you are reading on the internet where packaging and the ‘value’ of packaging needs interpreting differently (how do we value writing on substack, on github’s blogging capability, how do we compare this to the FT’s UI, or the i‘s ‘unreadable’ UI). With regard to twitter the word ‘attentiveness’ seems important again – twitter, for me, seems to yoke itself and foster a wider inattentiveness, other than to itself (that is not to say that I am not led, on a daily basis, to more excellent reading via twitter than most other platforms).]

Oddly, and to stick to the sacred, it allowed a resurgent gnosticism – that is to say an attention to the word where the external casing, shell or context is at its filthiest, ugliest (there are things to do with the glitch aesthetic on the internet here, which I want to explore separately).

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books

O My Lamb

This post originally appeared on my old blog, and is reposted here in response to a twitter query: ‘which books have made you cry’.

How I hate this world. I would like to tear it apart with my own two hands if I could. I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a treeful of rotten fruit. Nor do I believe in progress.

Peter de Vries was an American humorist and writer of Dutch Calvinist extraction. Anthony Burgess called him ‘one of the great prose virtuosos of modern America’, Kingsley Amis said he was ‘the funniest serious writer to be found on either side of the Atlantic.’ Absurdly, he is now little known.

At times the pith and wit of his comic novels can to me feel slightly relentless. In The Blood of the Lamb however, this pith and wit is transformed into a biting wisdom. The book deals unsparingly with the limits of faith and the limits of doubt. And it does so without being at all pretentious because of the authority of its grief and the directness of its writing.

Brevity is here not just the soul of wit but the blade of tragedy; suffering is briefly dealt with and lasts as long as life. De Vries does not spare the reader with melodrama and he does not romanticise. It is all the more powerful because the bravery within the book’s covers is the bravery that we will all have to show to greater or lesser degrees in our own lives.

Its briefly lyrical moments are hard earned and are very painful and beautiful.  It’s one of the best books I have ever read and the only one I’ve read that’s made me cry, which is, if I may be dry about it, a testament to the care with which it is structured and the skill of the writing.

The clear-eyed sanity with which it is written is at times unbearable. If that comment seems slightly melodramatic itself, I would example the end of Bend, Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov, where the author relieves Adam Krug of his sanity in order to relieve him of his intolerable grief. Peter De Vries cannot, will not do this. Thus the unbearable is shown to be bearable, only by the fact that it is borne.

So The Blood of the Lamb is incredibly sad but it is also, remarkably, often funny. It will not, I suggest, make you depressed, or gloomy. This is because although I said the book deals with the limits of faith and doubt, this is not what it is about. Ultimately it is a hymn of praise, and a memorial to its subject.

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peste

#Peste 5: After the Lockdown

People are thinking about the beginning of the end. In his very good weekly newsletter Alex Hern was speculating about the travel industry in the immediate aftermath of Covid:

But it won’t kill wanderlust. If anything, at least in the short term, I can’t see how it does anything but strengthen it. Perhaps it’s a nightmare scenario for epidemiologists, but when lockdowns lift, I could see it being like uncorking a bottle: people will flood out of their homes to go elsewhere, anywhere.But it won’t kill wanderlust. If anything, at least in the short term, I can’t see how it does anything but strengthen it. Perhaps it’s a nightmare scenario for epidemiologists, but when lockdowns lift, I could see it being like uncorking a bottle: people will flood out of their homes to go elsewhere, anywhere.

https://alexhern.substack.com/p/its-thursday?r=3iau3&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=email&utm_source=copy

What will the end of lockdown look like? Will it be like the uncorking of a bottle? People flooding into the pubs on the first day back? Hugging each other in the street?

It’s hard to imagine. It’s clear that ‘post-lockdown’ is going to be an extremely extended transitional period. In a long and useful thread from a press conference by French PM Edouard Philippe and Health Minister Oliver Veran on what ‘easing’ the lockdown looks like:

Masks obligatory on public transport, bars and restaurants to remain closed. Schools to re-open as soon as possible, but gradually, in least affected regions first. Travel to and from France? Unreasonable to go back to normal at this stage.

In their now twice-weekly podcast, Stephen Bush and his excellent team of political commentators at the New Statesman took something of a sweep on when they thought the lockdown would end. In different ways Patrick Maguire and Ailbhe Rea questioned what the definition of that would be. For Ailbhe it was ‘being able to sit in a cafe observing social distancing’ and her suggestion was September. Stephen thought it would last out the year.

Certainly I am not expecting to go back to work in an office in any meaningful way before September. I would be surprised if it was then.

It’s very hard to imagine pubs or public sporting events happening until next year.

In his article analysing Rishi Sunak’s ‘risky’ aversion to taking on more government responsibility for debt (for ‘risky’ read ‘wrong’ imo), Bush wrote the following:

at the moment, we don’t know for certain what the government’s fiscal response will be after the UK exits lockdown, we don’t know when, how or if we will properly exit lockdown, we don’t know how people will behave if we do exit lockdown

https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/economy/2020/04/rishi-sunak-bets-economy-and-his-career-strength-his-loans

All that’s right of course. But even there, what does ‘properly exit lockdown’ look like?

Prior to a vaccine or social immunity we will, as the French Health Minister said, have to ‘learn to live with the virus.’ In a world where social distancing is maintained, restaurants being told the lockdown is over, support is ended, will fail, because they won’t be able to generate the same revenue, or process the same number of people, as they could prior to Covid, and that’s assuming people have the same willingness to socialise. It is almost impossible to imagine, almost on a physical, visceral level, the crushes of public transport in rush hour returning at any time, let alone soon, with all the implications for that network lower volumes implies. Workspaces may require injections of capital investment to maintain Covid-safe working environments. Sure interest rates are low and capex can be amortised, but that’s a hell of a decision in the all-but-certain context of a global recession, and at a time when many businesses will be wondering what a post-Covid business model looks like (obvious examples – jettisoning as much floor space as possible, increased reliance on digital platforms for commerce and B2B transactions of all sorts).

People are thinking about the beginning of the end. The ugly and insidiously deniable vectors of communication around the Tory party (incessant Telegraph pieces about the need to end the lockdown, Toby Young’s self-styling as a ‘Covid dissident’, taking his cue as usual from US libertarianism, the Twitter psy-ops of fake NHS accounts) are pushing it hard. They fear the pressure on Tory party ideology a paradigm shift in substantial government debt financing would imply. Much of the Tory party’s response – including Sunak’s equivocal support of bank lending – is expressive of a group of politicians backed into the response of a social democracy, but fearing to finance that reponse ‘too much’. They certainly fear that financing lasting too long, and will I think happily see risks taken with public health to avoid that proposition. Starmer wants to see a plan, though it would be nice if he could hold the government’s disastrous and chaotic response to account as well, as 500 people a day are dying, and people on the front line of fighting the virus are still inadequately protected and supported.

In a Twitter typo, BBC journalist Lewis Goodall, referred to Rngland. This seemed to me a good name for post-lockdown England. It brought to mind a ‘living-with-pandemic’ world (maybe not this pandemic, maybe another), where country’s R-rating is put alongside the weather forecast:

“England’s R-rating is currently 1.2 and most leisure activities are currently curtailed. Wales and Scotland however are currently at a relatively mild R-rating of 0.3 and most tourist and visitor activities are open.”

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peste

#Peste 4: Desire Lines

We all know about desire paths or lines. Those diagonal paths across grass, chopping off the right-angles of pavement, those snickets through hedges to avoid the long way round, emerging through constant use because people have a good eye for quicker, easier ways to getting to the same destination.

The path below, in Brockwell Park, is slightly different.

It hasn’t been there in previous years; it’s emerged since the government has recommended social distancing rules to minimise the opportunities for Covid-19 transmission.

Out of consideration to others and themselves, people have increasingly found themselves moving off the tarmac path to the left and going across the grass. It’s helped that it’s been dry – that ground can get quite boggy in the wet. But it wasn’t created because it was a quicker or easier route, but because people have been doing their best to keep social distance. It is a Line of Consideration, yes a desire of sorts, to show a care to oneself and others, overcoming ‘quicker and easier’.

Seeing it emerge made me wonder what other habits, what other ‘lines’, will be emergent as a result of Covid social and economic measures. What patterns are we entrenching in our behaviours, quotidian processes, and mental adjustments, what paths will emerge?

It is perhaps only a different way of asking the question everyone is asking, about what gets unpicked after Covid, what doesn’t, what the new normal is. How people are answering that question seems to be determining some of people’s responses to the possibility of a short lockdown, or a long lockdown.

‘We will go back to normal’, ‘We’ll have to start reopening by June’.

Or ‘Things will not be normal for a long time, and when we emerge what memory of ‘normal’ will we have? Will our perception of how normal is constituted have changed, so that any attempt to go back to the ‘old’ normal, seem artificial in the extreme?’

It takes a lot to change people’s behaviours, despite our remarkable mental adaptability to new situations. We remain sensibly open to the quickest, easiest route to our destination.

But maybe new paths of consideration are emerging, which will persist beyond this social winter.

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peste

# Peste 3 – Conditions for Living

A collection of diverse observations from the last week:

The kids are all right

On the last day of school last Friday (lockdown -4), I walked through the park, and there was a large crowd of GCSE-aged schoolchildren – about 120 I made it – all collected there with more arriving. No adult supervision: this was clearly for and instigated by the children, one of those self-organising things – half entirely lark, half entirely serious – that teens can do, and do very well. It was of course in total contravention of recommended behaviour, not that they would possibly care about that – this was ‘it’s the last day, in really unusual circumstances, let’s get together, we may not see each other in person again for a while, let’s do a bit of planning [tho for children that age, the distinction between in person and digital, unless you’re going out, seems a lot less distinct than for pre-internet people like me]. A group of that size would have surely included smaller groups that wouldn’t perceive themselves as part of the main socially/hierarchically central group too. It was all oddly heartwarming.

Vegetable Loves

I was talking to my local greengrocer – this was on the Thursday (lockdown -5), and although he was flat out (‘4 times as busy’ though it ramped up even the next day), the store was full of fresh produce. He said it was a pain: he had to get to the wholesale market much earlier, because the wholesale market was closing much earlier (half three rather than half six), because the hospitality industry simply wasn’t ordering anything. Loads of fresh produce, but no one to buy it. He said he was just loading up the van as full as it would go. He was having to make quite finely adjusted supply and demand calculations and said it was very difficult: 2 weeks’ worth of leeks, gone in a morning, can’t get enough eggs, squashes going out quickly, and potatoes. I panic bought some radishes and an onion.

What was notable, though, was how full of fresh produce his shop was. Although his shop was four times as busy, this is four times as busy on his fairly quiet weekdays. Literally across the road there are two express supermarkets – Tesco and Sainsbury’s – vying for business, and their shelves are empty of fresh produce. People go in, stare uncomprehendingly at the shelves, and buy a forlorn shroomdog. I think there may be an irony here, which is that one pull factor for supermarkets i suspect is some people’s desire to avoid interpersonal communication. You can be cynical about this and say the middle-classes don’t like to be made aware of the fact that they’re being served. But in a multicultural society, uncertainty about language and etiquette, and the formal ecumenical processes of the modern supermarket can make it the easy option if people are lacking in confidence or uncertain, something self-service tills have facilitated further.

This cuts the other way, as the lex pointed out on twitter, multicultural supermarkets are also stacked with good things, but get very few people going into shop outside the community they serve.

Young turks

To take another example, my local corner shop, run by a Turkish family, is absolutely stacked to the rafters with cleaning items, baked beans, milk, bog roll, though they are running desperately short of Ritter Sport, which is extremely distressing, 10% discount for all NHS staff, and in response to Covid they’ve put this sign up in their front window:

Love those crazy turks (and mean crazy – if you’d seen them howling at the moon one New Years’ Eve absolutely off their faces you’d know what I mean. Very friendly though).

Also, the only place I’ve heard any Covid jokes. I mean I’m not getting out as much as I used to admittedly. And although yerman behind the counter found them very funny, ymmv. Still, for the record:

  1. ‘You know there have been no incidents of the corona in Turkey? Do you know why Corona doesn’t go to Turkey? Because of all the germs already there, it would die!’ (30 seconds or so of uncontrollable laughter)
  2. So Turkey said they didn’t have any cases, and then the newspaper reported one, and the government said no, no this is a mistake, there aren’t any cases. Then you know the IMF, they said that if your country had Corona you could apply for aid [i haven’t checked any of this btw], and suddenly the government said ‘We have Corona! Look at this person!’ (prolonged laughter)
  3. You know how you can get the virus on cash, so they say you shouldn’t use cash – that’s the reason they haven’t had any in Turkey because there isn’t any money! (doubles over with mirth)

He was going to carry on, but someone else came in and I made an exit.

Sundries

In other sundry news: supermarket cut flowers die almost immediately (to refer to the Barthes’ cataloguing of the spatial, temporal environments and æsthetics of sequestration), as the florist has now gone. I may just rely on daffs from the grocer.

Our estate agent runs a small set of properties, is extremely considerate to tenants, never charged any fees when I moved in, and is very prompt on repairs. Her husband is in King’s intensive care with Covid, and she is in self-isolation and understandably distressed. Wishing her very well.

Had to call her because our boiler’s packed in due to a power cut and surge last night. Me standing in front of the boiler while the… man who normally does the boiler… guided me through various tasks to find out that it was indeed bust, and that he would try to get a part but it would be tough and may be a couple of weeks because all the suppliers are closed fml.

Conditions for living in a time of Covid.

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peste

#Peste 2 – How to Live Together

In her wonderful book on love and translation, Kate Briggs describes the content of Roland Barthes’ late lecture course Comment vivre ensemble – How to Live Together:

‘There is an age at which we teach what we know,’ he’d said in the inaugural lecture. ‘Then comes another age at which we teach what we do not know; this is called research.’ In this digressive, excursive teaching (‘research, not a lecture,’ he’ll stress at the end of the first session), the practice was never to be exhaustive, or systematic: to work or walk in a straight line toward some generalizing theory, an ultimate grand idea. Instead, to set down a fantasy. And then to induce from the fantasy, a research project. The fantasy for this year of a form of living together that would accommodate rather than dictate the individual rhythms of its small-scale community. Allowing for something like solitude, as Barthes puts it, with regular interruptions. What kinds of structures, spatial or temporal, would enable this? Where to look for suggestion and detail, for models and counter-models that could be simulated, or already find their part-equivalents, in life? As materials to think with, Barthes compiles this unlikely corpus – an unexpected collection of writings and novels: The Magic Mountain, Robinson Crusoe, the texts of the Desert Fathers, Zola’s novel set in an apartment building, André Gide’s account of the real-life sequestered woman of Poitiers. The inquiry will proceed sketchily, says Barthes. Each lecture will offer just a few lines of approach; open a few possible dossiers. I’ll only be marking out the contours of these zones of interest. Like the squares on a chequerboard, he says, which perhaps one day I’ll fill in. Marking out the spaces, setting the places. A place for animals. Also for bureaucracy, for flowers and for food. I see it like a table: seating you next to you and you next to you, anticipating the conversations between topics, the arguments.

Briggs, Kate. This Little Art . Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The texts are to do with sequestration, the Barthes’ method is a way of accommodating isolation and different rhythms of life, as I wrote a bit about in my post The Pram in the Hall.

Covid will change who we are – there’s been a lot about what doesn’t get unpicked after its ebb – preposterous to think, for instance, that we would go back to demanding face-to-face interviews for Universal Credit, and you’d like to think the 5-week wait would go too. Similarly, it feels like the practices and processes we put in place for work, to enable remote communication and collaboration, will maintain, and both for reasons of cost, and increasing ‘plane shame’ – the proxy reaction to climate change, corporate behaviour will change permanently. To link to that same post on women’s writing and the stylistic and physical spaces that can allow it, I would like to think this would enable a more various working environment, allowing for more diversity, not just in terms of gender, or background, but also age.

But as well as changing the logistics of how we get things done, it will of course change the ‘spatial and temporal’ structures in which we do them. Animals, bureaucracy, flowers, food, to quote Barthes’ list.

My domestic space, which previously had been a place in which to get up, to leave, to return, to eat and to sleep, and had a lack of care proportionate to that raw functionality, is now a place in which I live and work.

As a part of maintaining good contact and communications at work, we decided to have video conference calls as standard, rather than just the rather grim Skype for Business calls – leaning over squares of identity and interrupting each other. It’s been very effective – that’s one thing we won’t unpick.

But it also meant the weekend before starting home working ‘full time’ as it were, I decided that my bedroom space, which was also to be my workspace, needed sprucing up, lest people on video calls thought I lived a life of eremitic hebetude in some sort of weird monk’s cell.

So, in the spirit of Barthes, I will document it

Two posters from the Musée de Lodève near Montpellier, from a past love. de Chirico mannequins and Chagall’s flowing lines, which always also remind me of the church in Sussex with his remarkable stained glass commemorating the drowning of a beloved daughter of local landowners.

Something from Picasso’s blue period, which was already here when I moved in, in a not very pleasing place at the top of the landing, so that I didn’t notice what a powerful, simple and tender picture it is. Study of Two Ears and a Bat by Jusepe de Ribera (Lo Spagnoletto), bought after seeing the excellent Art of Violence Ribera exhibition at the Dulwich picture gallery. third, a gift from my partner – a dark blue mood, which immediately resonated deeply with a sense of how I have felt – at times, but often for quite protracted times – over recent years.

New cheap tables as an additional space to bring some brightness to an otherwise dark place in the room, directly behind me when I’m doing a video conf call. Cheap, rather ugly vase bought from Oxfam at the weekend, and daffs from the greengrocer. Also, I now see, a clothes brush.

Beautifully marine coloured woollen blanket on the bed, a Christmas present from a friend. Mainly used to drape around my shoulders if I’m feeling cold, but it helps break up the white spaces in the room a bit during the day to use it as a counterpane.

A picture I got from my mum for Christmas. I don’t really like it very much, so used it to fill a neglected space.

An Eric Ravilious number. When I saw it, at the end of an exhibition, it seemed to sum up and contain everything that I had seen before – of evidence of people in underpopulated and deserted spaces, of the machine of humanity (those vertical oars like standards), of spaces at the edge of living. After I bought the print and got it home, and since then, I’ve found it blank and a bit trite. However, it’s really found its spot here, and has come to life for me again.

A cheap, vulgar and rather gimcrack Chinese style wall scroll to do something about the v rented accommodation energy of the wardrobe. It’s great. Who doesn’t like pictures of distant strange lands, with jade mountains to get lost in, full of the potential for adventure – a changed landscape, a strange new Eden.

More flarze! Thistles, daisies and… idk are they violets? and something else. When I lived in Poland I used to like the way on a Saturday, the buying of flowers to decorate the home seemed universal. And another, rather unusual Ravilious. In fact, something about its strange city of gold, fire and fireworks and stylised figures reminded me of Wyndham Lewis’s wonderful painting the Surrender of Barcelona, of which I must order a print.

A cork board that was by my desk but now sits behind my head in webcam shot to break up the so-so. Bearded man is David Rudkin, who wrote Penda’s Fen and the very strange, very good Artemis 81. Ballard on the left-hand side, tutelary angel of transformed environments and organisms. A striking Wyndham Lewis portrait of his wife, a picture of a prostrate Sancho Panza, Blake, and a gift voucher for my local delicatessen-butchers.

And finally, but very much not least:

SLIPPERS.

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peste

#Peste 1

Composed mentally on Friday, when I knew I’d be working from home this week. The atmosphere in London, such as I experienced it, was odd. It felt like the week just gone was a transitional week. Still a large amount of business as usual going into work, on high streets, on public transport etc. Trains and tubes beginning to drain out slightly. A few face masks. Becoming more aware of coughing – both yourself and others. By the end of the week though you sensed people preparing for a change the following week.

At work we’ve had very good scenario planning in place, with an isolation room and protective gear (face mask, gloves) if required. Our operational area got closed off, and for that final afternoon it was just three of us – the head of global operations, our finance guy and me. There was a strange feeling as I packed up all my stuff – we suggested opening a bottle of wine but in the end settled going for a valedictory pint in a deserted pub.

Victoria station much quieter than normal on that Friday. My housemate and I went to the local pub for what felt like might be the last time for a while. It was interesting to see that the pubs that day, and on Saturday, were rammed. Although it’s hard to judge the feeling I would not say it was one of bravura – though I did hear some Aussies saying they didn’t care if they got it (yes, that’s not the point) – more a mood of ‘this is the last time we’ll be together for a while’. As if we were going out before leaving a place that had kept us together – yes, that’s what it reminded me of: when I and the other teachers, after a year in Poland, went out drinking together for the final time.

I had been saying all week, that the mixture of early spring weather and the knowledge that I wouldn’t be going into work for a while made me feel demob happy. I felt it was slightly inaccurate to say that – after all work will continue. The phrase was more exact than I perhaps realised though, as the sense in the pub that Friday evening was of an army in a foreign land being demobilised. People with whom you had been thrown together unlikely to be seen again.*

This is perhaps over-dramatic. This will pass, and the huge majority of us will survive it, though probably not without knowing someone who is more closely affected. But I’m describing only the sense of things.

It is the uncertainty of the duration of this period that is unsettling. A recognition that we are entering a period, from which when we emerge, things will not be the same any more.

*(This feeling for me was only emphasised by a strong personal sense of the possibility of permanent parting from a deep love)

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books

The Pram in the Hall

A year or so ago I wrote something prompted by reading a 2017 piece by Claire Dederer about the art of ‘Monstrous Men’. The piece focused on Woody Allen, but moved on to talk about the complicity of accusation – how it is a denial of one’s own monstrosity – and how she herself, as a writer who withdrew her time and attention from those she loved, was also in some way ‘monstrous’.

I thought it was too much to place all writing in the same space as the sexually predatory crimes of Monstrous Men, Woody Allen included, but it did make me want to talk about some writers, all of whom I liked very much, all of whom were women, who deal with the need to share writing and love – love partly in the form of the demands of child-rearing – and in doing so shared something of a similar methodology and voice. To the extent it can be called a ‘voice’ (it would be a disservices to constrain to one voice these different writers), it is the sound of the negation of the dominant, dogmatic male line of argument, the assertion of what is true and what is not true, over a course of a project which is the exclusion of doubt.

This tweet from Jay Owens reminded me I had that unfinished piece sitting in my drafts, but the bit about Dederer was not really relevant to it, so I’ve removed it from here.

I have however taken a quote from her essay as the jumping-off point.

But here’s a thing I have done: written a book. Written another book. Written essays and articles and criticism. And maybe that makes me monstrous, in a very specific kind of way.

…There are many qualities one must possess to be a working writer or artist. Talent, brains, tenacity. Wealthy parents are good. You should definitely try to have those. But first among equals, when it comes to necessary ingredients, is selfishness. A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one. The selfishness of stealing stories from real people. The selfishness of saving the best of yourself for that blank-faced anonymous paramour, the reader. The selfishness that comes from simply saying what you have to say.

There were a couple of other things in the essay that prompted the thoughts that lead to writing this. One has already been quoted, her reference to Cyril Connolly’s malign phrase, ‘The pram in the hallway’ (‘There is no more sombre enemy of art than the pram in the hallway’). The other, connected, is this:

Does one identity fatally interrupt the other? Is your work making you a less-good mom? That’s the question you ask yourself all the time. But also: Is your motherhood making you a less good writer? That question is a little more uncomfortable.

These questions, that reference, immediately brought to mind two books: The Last Samurai by Helen deWitt, and Little Labors by Rivka Galchen. Both deal, in different but linked ways, with writing and motherhood.

They’re both wonderful books. They show the capacity for interruption that having a child brings. They use it, are defined by it – by the impossibility of single-minded exclusive and exclusionary focus, which ‘the pram in the hallway’ says art requires. And they don’t just deal with it, they are formally shaped by it. In The Last Samurai there are continual, often quite long digressions of nested interruptions. The interruptions themselves become the content, before the original, interrupted voice, resumes. In this sense they are not interruptions, there is no main thread that is being disrupted. The demanding voice of Ludo (the narrator Sibylla’s child) is as much the book as is the narration. It is a partnership. In a sense it is a handing over of voices.

Little Labors formally represents the capacity for interruption of thought and concentration differently. It is a short book comprising very short entries on having a child and being a writer. The suggestion is that the form has been imposed by the demands, the responsibilities of having a child. Yes they are little entries, but they are undoubtedly labors, because of the presence of a child. The labors are also those of the child. The entire book seems to me an explicit riposte to the pram in the hallway point of view. This was represented beautifully in a passage that was excerpted as ‘The Only Thing I Envy Men,’ in The New Yorker:

I now envy men, but for just one thing. What thing? It is true that at the moment the baby is beating a small wooden cutting board against the ground, that the cutting board had at one point had on it an apricot I had sliced into tiny bits for her, she has since sat on some, and smashed some into the ground, she has taken a lengthy interest in my wallet, she has held the supermarket-discount-points card at a distance, then put it in her mouth, then held it at a distance away again, she has not yet learned to crawl but can drag herself across the floor to the edge of a set of stairs I am hoping to keep her from exploring further, she has gathered fuzz from the shag rug here at this rental cabin that has been obtained as a luxuriously imagined Room of One’s Own, she has been interested in having her hand inside of my mouth, and has not been interested in lying down, she is now trying to pull herself up along a ledge and is now trapped in a position from which she can discover no out and so requires rescue by the large being (me) who is always with her, later she needs rescue simply from being on her stomach, and so in brief moments, between these activities, I have one-third of an associative thought, about that story “Pregnancy Diary” by Yoko Ogawa in which a woman’s sister is pregnant and very nauseous throughout the pregnancy and the narrator begins making grapefruit jam for her nauseous sister, and the sister loves it, it’s the only thing she can bear to eat, and so the narrator keeps making it even though she read a sign at the grocery store that the grapefruit was not safe, and so she believes she has ruined the baby … but really I’m insufficiently upset about not being able to think, and then the baby falls asleep. She sleeps on her back, slightly tossed to the side, with both arms in the same direction, like she’s in a boat I can’t see. Her breathing in this moment is making her glow like an amulet. I had been talking about gender envy. The one thing I envy. The first gender-envy thoughts I have had really in my entire life started maybe not immediately following the arrival of the puma in my apartment, but shortly after, when the puma spent a lot of time spinning a wooden cookie on a rod, or maybe shortly after that, when I took her for her first swim in a pool and she persisted uncomplainingly even as it began to rain. The envious thought was simply that a man can have a baby that their romantic partner doesn’t know about. 

Little Labors – Rivka Galchen

For a man the pram in the hall is a potential enemy of art, for a mother it must form a part of it.

For me Rivka Galchen and Helen deWitt give a new voice to literature. It is a non-dogmatic voice, it is humorous and vulnerable open (edit: ‘vulnerable’ was poor choice of word); because it is open to interruption it is stronger than a voice which is not open to interruption. And by ‘interruption’ I mean anything that might swerve the argument, the focus, the single-mindedness, the dogma, the ‘this is the way it is’-ness, the dominant interpretation or narrative, the power.

Anything that might baffle the paradigm, to use the translated words of Roland Barthes in The Neutral.

It isn’t really interruption as such – it is the fabric of thought and discovery.

This Little Art by Kate Briggs is an essay on approaching and exploring the ideas and acts of translation, mainly but not at all solely through the act of translating Roland Barthes’ late lectures. In one section she writes about one part of the Barthes lecture course she translated.

In this digressive, excursive teaching, the practice was never to be exhaustive or systematic: to work or walk in a straight line toward some generalising theory, an ultimate grand idea. Instead to set down a fantasy. And then to induce from the fantasy, a research project. The fantasy for this year of a form of living together that would accommodate rather than dictate the individual rhythms of a small-scale community. Allowing for something like solitude, as Barthes puts it, with regular interruptions. What kinds of structures, spatial or temporal, would enable this? Where to look for suggestion and detail, for models and counter-models that could be stimulated, or already find their part-equivalents, in life? 

[He then cites works which he proposes to look at]

The inquiry will proceed sketchily, says Barthes. Each lecture will offer just a few lines of approach; open a few possible dossiers. I’ll only be marking out the contours of these zones of interest. Like the squares on a chequerboard, he says, which perhaps one day I’ll fill in. Marking out the spaces, setting the places. A place for animals. Also for bureaucracy, for flowers and food. I see it like a table: seating you next to you and you next to you, anticipating the conversations between topics, the arguments.

This Little Art – Kate Briggs

Although here this method is being used to understand what a community allowing for something like solitude with regular interruptions might look like, to look for examples and reference points, the method he describes is itself perhaps also the method by which this community might be achieved.

Accommodating rather than dictating individual rhythms; this was a notion that came to Barthes when seeing from his window a mother dragging a child along:

In the lecture course titled How to Live Together, the fact that we can go too fast, or indeed too slow, for other people, for the person we are supposed to be accompanying, or is supposed to be keeping company with us, the person you are hoping will stay with you, your listener, your reader, the child you are trying to walk to school, is the central issue: the lecture course’s crystallizing theme. A theme embodied by the sight of a mother glimpsed from Barthes’s window, walking out of step with her son. Too fast. Dragging him along by the hand (so that he is forced to run to keep up). This fact and lived theme of what Barthes calls disrhythmy, and the power dynamics that are in play, and the disturbances it can cause. The question of the lectures, then, will be how to find a way of walking (being, living, also reading, writing and thinking) together that might somehow take account of our different rhythms, not through enforced synchronicity, but allowing for them: you read faster than I do, you get up earlier than I do, and eat later, you race ahead while I walk more slowly, and yet still (in this fantasy that Barthes is hoping to simulate in life) we’ll find ways of coming together, points in the day for companionship, offsetting, modulating, interrupting our competing desire for solitude.

This Little Art – Kate Briggs

Disrhythmy, for Barthes, is caused by different idiorrhythms. Of course, the thing with a baby is that its idiorrhythm must be yours, as a mother. It wants something now. Its not interested in a Barthes chequerboard that allows for accommodation. But writing and composing in that way as a method, a method of accommodating that id as a writer, but also of asking ideas, the paragraphs and words on the page, and the reader themselves, to accommodate it as well.

This is not a group of writers, but they do refer to one another – Rivka Galchen to Helen deWitt’s The Last Samurai because…

..it takes so many pages into the main section before you recognize the narrator’s gender as female, and then so many pages more before you realize that the narrator of that section is a mother, in fact a single mother, who is trying to develop herself as a scholar and who tries to solve the problem of presenting a male role model to her son

Kate Briggs to Maggie Nelson’s section on policing mouth-exploring in This Little Art:

When my youngest son was a baby I had a bright hot technicolour dream that was the picture of him choking. This had the effect of elevating my adequate policing to the levels of nervous (paranoid?) surveillance. I’d hand him a slice of squashy ripe pear at lunch-time and watch as he’d try manoeuvring it delightedly into his mouth. Then suddenly doubt the size of it, the consistency of it, and to his great distress, whisk it away (I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry! – don’t cry: I’ll cube it! Let me mash it!). 

Looking back, I think what troubled me the most was the thought (the thought and also the reality) that the smallest lapse in my attention, even (even and especially) with respect to the most ordinary everyday things – eating a pear for lunch, sitting out among the dry leaves in the garden – could have consequences on this other, life-or-death scale. The stakes felt everywhere and for that period of time almost unbearably high.

She also insists, via Galchen’s Little Labors, on seeing ‘little’ as meaning ‘small’ not ‘minor’. If we are to allow this sort of writing to have equal worth, we must allow for its smallness. The fact that accomplishing a brief paragraph of thought may be a form of labour, and may need to be accomplished in small periods of time between distractions. Allowing thoughts and observations to be placed on a square and to relate to the things next to them, not in a tightly ordered narrative argument that says if this is true then this must be true, but to communicate, to be suggestive. A series of partnerships, reader and author, both contributing, author and the people and things that demand their time.

A voice to accommodate distraction and disjunction, whether it’s Galchen’s brief chapters and little labors, Maggie Nelson’s stanzas of thought, the cadences of a child’s insatiable desire for learning in The Last Samurai, perhaps these make way for a new way of writing and reading.

On one of the long afternoons that has since bled into the one long afternoon of Iggy’s infancy, I watch him pause on all fours at the threshold to our backyard, as he contemplates which scraggly oak leaf to scrunch toward first with his dogged army crawl. His soft little tongue, always whitened in the centre from milk, nudges out of his mouth in gentle anticipation, a turtle bobbing out of its shell. I want to pause here, maybe forever, and hail the brief moment before I have to jump into action, before I must become the one who eliminates the inappropriate object, or, if I’m too late, who must harvest it from his mouth.

You, reader, are alive today, reading this, because someone once adequately policed your mouth-exploring. In the fact of this fact, Winnicott holds the relatively unsentimental position that we don’t owe these people (often women, but by no means always) anything. But we do owe ourselves “an intellectual recognition of the fact that at first we were (psychologically) absolutely dependent, and that absolutely means absolutely. Luckily we were met by ordinary devotion.

The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson

Absolutely dependent. That absolutely dependence relies on the attention of the person who may also be writing the words you are reading. And therefore our intellectual recognition of that fact should perhaps be allowing the interruptions, relishing the tone of voice and type of writing that allows for them. It may also mean reconfiguring what ‘good’ is, so that Dederer’s question “Is your motherhood making you a less good writer?” – with all the demands on time and concentration and emotion – is not somehow determined by the editorial rejection of that voice: the little, the associative, the interrupted.