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.
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.
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:
‘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)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.