Phorgotography, 3

vii  this is enough
(This is another instance of Facebook popping up a few photos at random, me finding myself responding more thoughtfully to them than Ι’d expected – ie being a bit floored by the coincidence – only not to be able to post the result, as in the time it took, Facebook’s inexorable algorithms had already moved on.

In this case, just as I had hit the Post button, news came up of a dear friend’s bereavement, and floored me all over again. I’ve dug out the relevant snaps and am posting anyway, as it feels in some small way meaningful to do so.)

We (Brian Holton and friends) were reflecting yesterday on the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananman Square massacre, and now these images from my last trip to China in 2017, to the Tianjin festival, pop up.

I’d been thinking of Nikola Madzirov, now slowly recovering from Covid, who was on that trip with myself and Yang Lian, and these images now seem haunted by history both past and, then, yet to come – or are rather revealed to have always been thus haunted.

I always thought of being able to travel in this way as a revelatory privilege – going back to my earliest journeys as a child, to Italy and Greece in the first flush of package holidays, these seemed like I was being shown something it would take a long time to understand. It now feels like if (as seems sensible if perhaps not entirely likely) I never went anywhere again, it would still take a lifetime.

I go back as I often find myself doing to Sydney Graham having been brought to Crete by (I think) Michael and Margaret Snow, sitting on a balcony in the Street of Knives and saying, ‘This is enough…’ – I suspect, Sydney, that it is already all too much.

viii  replica temple replicas
‘They build replica temples here’ – usually when Effbok randomly selects an image from the past I have an instant sense of place and time and the company I was keeping. But this, from Anhui Province back in 2008, is as though from a dream.

I have very strong memories of that trip, but none at all of this small hut, but then all instances of such small huts are, properly, emissaries from that place in the unconscious our parents and grandparents retreat to, where they can store the ideas of their gardening and other gear and from which one day they no longer emerge.

I expect all these huts, once forgotten properly, fit back together with an almost audible click like the rooms and corridors of Minoan Knossos, which the Greeks, seeing for the first time but half-understanding it was not for the first time, recognised as the Labyrinth.

Maybe/perhaps that’s how those replica temples get built. Maybe that’s what temples are replicas of.

ix  arriving tay
Still grateful for this flat and its magnificent view and the opportunity to spend what I didn’t then know would be a last 9 months with my father and just bide and abide in my ain toun for a few years before the expense became too much to maintain.

Sterted oot as Makar o Dundee, ended up as amateur keeker at this view. The auld imagination tells me it was aa worth it but whit does it ken, ken?

Still fretting unduly about whether or not everyone on the front will still be able tae open their windies eftir the new flood barriers are finally in place and jist hear the Tay arriving amang the pebbles, regular as breathing.

(Realising as I write this that, as ever, my brain had already made the connection between hearing that sound at night in Beach Terrace and sitting by my father’s hospital bed watching the pulse in his neck.)

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Phorgotography, 2

iv mitherboard
Mitherboard imagery: street I grew up in till I was 6 (Peddie), but no the richt bit o it – we bided further up on the right. Street roond the corner whaur thon shop is (Corso) is whaur meh granny lived, and whaur I went for my denner every school day till I was 12. Hillman in foreground no the richt Hillman (we had a Minx no an Imp but never reflected on these tricksterish titles). NB reflection o gull captured for aye i the rear windae.

v the xenochronicity (again)

(I had just about finished an entry on Facebook in response to this image of myself, Helen Kidd et al in front of The Unicorn in Dundee harbour, when a casual flick designed to take me to the top of the entry lost the whole thing. I’m therefore obliged to attempt a re-creation here while the memory is still almost fresh. The irony of attempting this with a discussion of what we do with our memories will become increasingly apparent…)

Such is The Xenochronicity that this image appeared only a day or two after I had been writing about Helen anyway, thinking about the point a few months earlier when I had dug out a Laurie Anderson track, ‘Walking and Falling’, as a way of reflecting on my stumbling running practice (due to misaligned lower back, post-broken toe-ness, and the same general slowness in the morning that set me off writing this in the first place). I was therefore propelled into thinking back to our long evenings as a poetry gang in her house in Kidlington, eating drinking smoking listening and talking, endlessly talking, and how much she had loved this song’s weird lucidity, as well as how that had related to our shared engagement with the weirdness of lucidity (by which I do not just mean general 1980s gourdlessness).

That had been followed by the anniversary of the release of ‘O Superman’, and a strange episode of Newsnight in which Kirsty Wark had attempted to interview Laurie Anderson, but LA couldn’t initially switch off some software which meant a silvery avatar (or the figurehead of an otherwise invisible ship) appeared to be delivering her side of the conversation. This came over as a sort of completion of the Zoom meme ‘I am not a cat…’, by adding ‘…I am a free performance artist’. How we (would have) laughed.

This caused me to stumble onto one of the key elements of grief: that realisation that you once completed with the lost other a circuit of shared thoughts, engagements, and understandings that did not just describe your relationship but, augmented by all the others and the particularities of that time and place (pre-Internet, mid-Thatcher, postgraduate, shared-house Oxford) amounted to your milieu.

I understood that, previously, in her absence and in the absences of those others, I had assumed, sentimentally, that this connection continued, albeit at a distance, and I relied on the supposition that her role in this remained largely unchanged over decades. I seem to spend a lot of the time I’m thinking of others just picturing them going about what I remember of their business, my mind fixating on the configuration of their rooms, the routes to and from their streets, the remaining sense of their skies and open spaces. In other words the simple fact of her continuing existence reassured me because it enabled me to keep her in (a specific) place: the leafy not-so Oxbridge outskirts of Kidlington.

This compensated for not being in contact nearly as much as I should have, so it came as an actual comfort when, at her funeral, Helen’s daughter, Frances, told me how fondly she had always spoken of us all. I could imagine, however guiltily, that the circuitry had indeed been unbroken.

Since her death, as the resurrection of this Effbook image revealed, I had been redirecting this relationship with Helen to that aspect of her which persisted in my memory rather than to my equally-partial projection of her in the mere world. This underscored how these imperfect avatars of those we lose continue to have a form of existence in our unconscious, as encountered in such moments, and in those dreams which ingeniously explain away their actual deaths…

(Here followed a final sentence I can no longer recall, which therefore takes on an air of greater insight and finality than it probably possessed. But of course it is my involuntary application of that sense of greater veracity to the whole lost draft which turns this recreated text into a type of the very substitution that the final paragraph attempts to describe. Each attempt to write about grief pushes the person being grieved a further stage into the Great Interior where forgetting keeps approaching our concept of death as a seemingly absolute loss of data.)

vi a little elegiac distich

While the heart may not pause, we must fit more and more

     into the groaning space between its beats.

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Phorgotography, 1

Our relationship with the photograph has changed so much over the last twenty years that the few black and white or kodachrome or instamatic images of older folks’ childhoods (and of their progenitors’ entire lives) have taken on the austerity of ikons, while the sea of images we swim in on social media makes selecting one or two as pointless as responding to the Lady of the Lake, should she display a photo of our lost youth, rather than the usual Arthurian cutlery.

I’ve been increasingly intrigued over the last year or so, then, by the random algorithms of social media, whereby a site or indeed a device will send you some image from a few years before as a sort of clickbait to get you back in their particular pond or sealoch. Usually I ignore, occasionally I succumb with bad grace, and share with a remark, but now and then, particularly over the various Lockdowns, where the image shown was as much of an unobtainable freedom as the inaccessible past, something would really click if not snap.

Included here are nine instances over three posts where the triggering element was grief or a sharp (rather than comforting) sense of nostalgia, where place became a matter of discomfort at the distance rather than simple pleasure. I suppose I’m interested in being confronted by this process of access by images removed from memory – ie it doesn’t matter to the programme whether I can remember what it displays or not.

I’m struck by the way this throws up the eternal presence of the photograph: how its now dead world transcends its occasion simply through the mechanical act of capture: the dead are as they were, unharmed, the demolished undamaged, the vanished or unconsidered detail available for, from one angle only and with all the limitations of that mechanical focus, our scrutiny.

i the four emperors

(Effbok in its infinite random woozedom suggested this as a memory I might like to share, then, as I reflected upon it, decided I was taking too long and wandered off to ‘care’ about someone else. By then, I’d written this:)

Bookface flashed up this small Byzantine sculpture of four allegorical figures of Roman emperors, built into the corner of St Marks in Venice, just as I was reading about the first Great Plague, which effectively shattered Justinian’s efforts to reunite the Roman Empire in the mid-sixth century.

The sculpture was looted in the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the less-than-holy Fourth Crusade, which dealt a subsequent disastrous blow to the Byzantine Empire. Less than 150 years later, the Black Death arrived in La Serenissima.

When I took the photograph I was thinking about why the spolia were displayed on the Cathedral, and how frankly this declared the Venetians’ values. It feels odd to look again at these broken and displaced tetrarchs, who now appear as though they were still trying to bring the fragments of their slowly disintegrating world together.

ii slomadicity

How very past this beforetimes piece for the Lit & Phil seems for the moment, with its accounts of regular rail travel between two hame touns, and its suggestions of the wider, supposedly secular, pilgrimages to regular holiday destinations.

I say ‘supposedly secular’ because what we long suspected is now still more evident: beneath all the statutory boozing and sun-worshipping, these were always our own other places of renewal and, if we briefly came to our senses as a result, reverence.

I should’ve underscored at the time how Anne Stevenson made the same move (gradually) from The Fifeness to Durham, and therefore how the late period of her work is partly an exploration of how such other places become home.

Our current ‘lesson’, of course, is complementary: how exactly is it a home becomes home-like, and how is it that any exploration of this seems to render it simultaneously – and seemingly inexhaustibly – other?

iii grief soup

Nostalgia in its etymological sense as the pain of (not being able to) return. Not only in the sense of getting back to Crete for Paskha, but in somehow returning to the simple pleasure we were taking in the simple pleasures. To before.

The restaurant across the street here is called Nostos, and still features lively murals of an inebriated Odysseus.

The owner of the restaurant we’re sitting in, Syrtaki, died last year (not of Covid). Giorgios was a lovely, gruff-voiced, kindly man, and he made sure his kitchen produced proper Cretan food, including pretty much the son of the bowl of fish soup I’d had twenty years before in a now-demolished place just along the beach.

Every time I remember he’s gone it’s a dull blow that awakens other blows, principally our dear neighbour Apostolos, and then, inevitably, my father. Nostalgia in its etymological sense.

(The sad postscript to this note is that, when we dashed back to Crete for a desperate, delightful, but bittersweet fortnight last autumn, Syrtaki was closed and, as his daughter explained, in the present state of uncertainty, would remain so for the foreseeable.)

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Renga City (3)

3. Kyū (Outcomes)

i. Publication

After a while with every project comes that moment of self-reflection: no longer ‘how shall we do this’ or ‘how are we getting on with doing it’, but ‘what shall we do with it now’? That moment probably arrived when StAnza very kindly approached us to do a version for this year’s festival, expanding the potential participants in terms of where they could come from, but leaving the method the same. While the results of our renga had always theoretically been globally visible, this served to crystallise the sense that we were building up a verse record of how one of the most extraordinary years in our lifetime had impacted upon one city. (And twal mile roond – conceptually extended in March to include farther-flung folk, certainly, but hadn’t I always been a bit flung?)

In the most practical sense, that leads most writers to think of publication. Wouldn’t ‘a year of renga: the pamphlet [actual title TBC]’ be the simplest way of fixing that ongoing impulse into an artefact? Ordinarily we’d begin by wondering who would publish it and how would this be paid for, but the times do seem to have that old punk air about them – why wait for The Gatekeeper to tell us our civic impulse doesn’t quite fulfil their latest mission statement? So we are considering instead how it should be designed – Dundee is, after all, having quite a moment as a City of Design.

Perhaps something of those divisions into sections of four might be worth capturing? After all, renga were often written with a strong awareness of the materiality of the page, as the wiki tells us (note this is a discussion of the 36 verse or hyakuin renga):

‘During a renga session, the verses were transcribed onto a paper known as kaishi (懐紙), using four sheets, or eight sides of paper, total. The first side (初折 sho-ori) and last side (名残折 nagori-no-ori) contained 8 verses each, and the rest of the sides contained 14 verses each. There were various structural rules based on the paper layout, the most important being the “four blossoms eight moons” rule (四花八月). Each sheet should include one verse that used the word hana (花), or blossoms, and each side should include one verse that used the word tsuki (月) to mean moon specifically (as opposed to “month”).’


More on this breaking story as things actually start to happen (or break)…

ii. Community

The more significant outcome for me at any rate has been an intensified sense of community: the increased awareness of my home town as a place that is carefully contemplated and cared about on a daily basis, by writers in this instance – but then the poets, when gathered into the collaborative unit of the renga, become representative of their city: their regard is a symbol of its regard. By the same token, of course, the extent to which such writing is overlooked or goes unacknowledged without promotional prompting or external validation is an indication of how any city goes about valuing itself – some places, as writers in Dundee have long known, seem more comfortable in their cultural skin than others.

In a period of isolation, anxiety, and involuntary exile, then, it has been a great pleasure to feel part of something that concerns itself as much with how it feels to be at home in oneself as in the spirit of place. I just count myself lucky that the Dundee renga has demonstrated that the city not only has its own distinct genius loci, but also something of the mischievous genius of Loki – it is, after all, hame of the Bashō Street Kids… It’s been a blast, and I look forward to the next twelvemonth with a renewed spirit.

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Renga City (2)

(Part 1 of this article is on the StAnza blog here.)

2. Ha (Observing the rules and departing from them)

i. As a set of principles

Like any art form that has been practised for hundreds of years, renga is systematised to a high degree, and like any art form that has been taken over into another language and another culture, the question of how best to honour those centuries of procedure and protocol is similarly complex.

Finding a working position between observing The Rules and declaring There Shall Be No Rules! is, primarily, a socially-engaged, reactive gesture. One could of course pre-determine that the renga shall adhere closely to all the principles one has studied, or, contrariwise, declare that none of those principles need apply in our crazy new world. Taking a middle path reflects the differing positions that other people, rather than you, might come to the renga from, and, hopefully, allows as many of them as possible to feel able to participate. Those who have strong but not exclusionary positions can therefore share the conceptual space of the renga with those who either have no such convictions, or, even better, are approaching the form for the first time, and/or find its long and complex history baffling or even off-putting. Of course, this still means I come to renga with my own presumptions about how it could or should work, as indicated earlier.

Put simply, then, I didn’t say what a renga had to be beyond an exterior description of its architecture: it had to consist of twenty verses (nijūin), alternating three-line verse with two-liners (tanku with choku), and it would fall into three sections of 4,12, and 4 (jo-ha-kyū). Because we were completing one every month, I neither pushed for a season word (kigo), nor attempted to gallop through all the other seasons. Moons and blossoms could appear as and when or not, ditto love or any other traditionally-stipulated subject. And I let people do what they wanted about syllables. Having been involved in the translation of Chinese poetry, I’d acquired a healthy respect for the difference between a character and a word, let alone a syllable and an on (the unit being measured in Japanese), plus a considerable wariness about the amount of time people were prepared to spend debating this question as opposed to writing the damn poems.

The pragmatics of the Dundee renga are relatively straightforward. It falls into the category of bunnin, or renga conducted by post – in our case, by email. I built up a mailing list with the help of, among others, Erin Farley; my New Boots (and Whaleback City) co-editor, Andy Jackson; and Gail Low, founding editor of DURA (Dundee University Review of the Arts), drawing on writers in the Dundee area and ‘twal mile roond’ (the number twelve used here as elastically as the idea of a syllable count). About twenty to thirty seems to be ‘enough’ participants, given that not everyone is going to send something every day.

I’d send an initial haiku (the hokku) around midday of Day 1 of a given renga, everyone would send theirs back by around midday of Day 2, I’d pick one, then send out the ‘renga so far’ for everyone to add another on Day 3. And so on (except when pressure at work or fretful forgetfulness induced delays). 

People didn’t have to post something every day, and could just receive the daily email if they didn’t feel like taking part. People could suggest others to be added, and request to be removed (or reinstated). People, in short, were encouraged to do pretty much what they liked. Given the times, this seemed the least we could do for each other.

I’ve been writing single haiku for many years as an occasional, sometimes daily, practice with two aspects: one of simply looking, and the other of framing. That is, if something caught my eye (or ear), I’d turn to the 5-7-5 syllable count of the haiku as a restraint on my phrase-building, a way of keeping focus. After a while, I’d let the occasional extra syllable or two slip in here or there if the rhythm required it, or the diction kicked back. After working with Alec Finlay, I’d write the occasional solo renga or sequence of haiku, and in my last book, The Wreck of the Fathership, published one of each, ‘Broughty Ferry Beach: a renga’ and ‘The Swans At Broughty Ferry Beach’. These were both accumulations of verses over the course of a year (2013), so, when I embarked on the initial Dundee renga, I drew on the first of these for the hokku.

Because I’d dated my original drafts, I’d look out a verse for the equivalent month, then rewrite it, then send that to everyone on the mailing list. After a bit, I ran out, but, because we were still in Lockdown, I had to substitute North Shields/Tynemouth for Broughty Ferry, something I’d sort of been doing for years anyway. I’d check the weather with my mother in Monifieth and write from wherever that put me.

I tried to post every block of four on social media (Facebook and Twitter), since the first and last blocks corresponded to stages of the renga, and noted that breaking up the middle twelve verses into groups of four made me keenly aware of any sense of pause at those points. It was also obvious that a tweet would chop things up into tanka-like units of three-liners and two-liners. This meant I kept thinking about the principles of link or shift operating between the verses, something I’d been teaching for many years as a way of approaching poetic sequence and indeed the ordering of a manuscript.

Once we’d finished twenty, I’d send the completed renga round the list with each author identified, and then post all twenty online, but with the contributors simply listed at the end of the post. That way participants would know who’d written what, but readers were simply aware of who’d (successfully) taken part. This wasn’t particularly fair on someone who’d participated but, for whatever reason, hadn’t been picked, but we discussed all this via email as the months went by, and confirmed this was the preferred mode. If you weren’t picked one month you’d be picked the next (we hoped). 

I did try to pick something from everyone and not too many from anyone, but not if it meant I was passing over the ‘best’ verse, and I’d go back a few days if the ‘best’ verse didn’t happen to be in today’s batch – sometimes the last verse in particular (or even the last two verses) simply arrived too soon.

If, once I looked at the complete draft, I thought something might need rewritten, I’d write to the poet concerned and ask their opinion. After a bit I also silently dropped capitalisation at the beginning of lines – or countered lack of it elsewhere. In fact, most of the editing queries were usually about punctuation: in a language without much in the way of kireji, or ‘cutting words’, it turns out the fine distinctions between semi-colons, colons, and dashes loom large when looking at half a dozen not-quite-equivalent instances of same.

ii. As an experience

How did this work out for us? Well, after a couple of months I showed the renga to Linda France, who in addition to being a very fine poet and an old pal, is a very experienced renga leader and writer of haiku. She praised the poems, especially the mix of (maistly) Dundonian Scots and mair standard English, then said something rather interesting:

‘Strictly speaking according to the no doubt debatable rules of renga, themes should not repeat/juxtapose so there is always a sense of change – ‘shift’ is the term used.  Your birds seem to want to flock together.  The other gesture is ‘link’ so there is some sort of connection between verses – again debatable.’

(On a literal level this picked up something very particular to the Dundee renga – almost everyone keeps writing haiku about birds, and these verses would keep flocking together. Over the year we have just about completed a side-renga, if there’s such a thing, just about herons. This is an aspect of the ba, or setting, but it can make things difficult. To deploy a Dundonian pun, you have to keep your eye on the ba.)

The key underlying issue here is yukiyo, or flow. One of the reasons rules emerge about shifting the subject and avoiding loops and repetitions is to address on an exterior level this strange matter of how a renga, compiled out of many potential verses, does or does not flow. One of the issues that I keep experiencing is people attempt to ‘answer’ a previous verse in an almost narrative sense of ‘what happened next’. It’s hard to shake off the narrative compulsion in a culture where Story has such a dominance over our sense of events and indeed our selves.

This extends to the marking of public events, whether calendrical, or, as has happened over an especially tumultuous year, simply of collective significance. Renga are a way of reacting to the world, but not exactly a way of reacting to world (or national, or even local) news. People would write verses about something that mattered a great deal not just to them, but to all of us, and I would struggle to understand why these sometimes stood out so much from this mysterious flow. 

But then poetry isn’t about things that happen, it is a thing happening amid those other events. I ended up comparing it to snooker: if the cue ball is too straight on the ball a player wishes to pot, even a skilful player can’t engineer a way to the next ball: there has to be an angle, however slight.  Or the shot, although it might be successful in itself, ends the break. So too with the flow.

This went the other way too: people would get locked into the flow or into their own flow, and overlook a particular idea or phrase or image that had appeared several days earlier, or use a season word when this was for whatever reason self-evident. My sense of the rhythm or pace of the sections was not their sense of it. I often wonder, for instance, if I place too much emphasis on the pivotal nature of the middle verses, particularly the tenth.

In short, what was happening over the year was we were evolving our own sense of what a Dundee, as opposed to an ideal, renga, might be. Like a dialect, it was defining itself as part of that larger flow between months as well as the particular dynamics of how we got from verse to verse.

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G. Gregory Smith’s Gargoyle, or, Several Scottish Voices Gathered Together in Pittenweem and Grooving with Robert Wyatt

– I love this outburst of Greenockian absurdism, particularly the moment where Chic claims he’s gone wrong, so runs through the whole poem again, again emphasising both its almost complete lack of sense and its entirely coherent structure. It’s an interesting moment to reflect upon this parody of the incomprehensibility of Scots in the light of the current renewal of debate about Scottish independence, a circumstance that led Sky News reporter Adam Boulton to ask the novelist Val McDermid, ‘…would you like to see an independent Scotland abandon speaking the sort of English we’re speaking now?’ When Val replies first in English then in Scots, there is a moment of stunned silence, before he misses her point about functional bi-(if not tri-)lingualism.

Thinking about how this idea of incomprehensibility is symbolised by the Lallans-heavy Scottish poem – indeed how perfectly it marries two assumed obscurities: that of the language with that of the poem – I was reminded once more of the strange contiguity of Chic’s family home, on the steepness of Bank Street, Greenock, to 1, Hope Street of that parish, the almost optimistic birthplace of W.S Graham, key Scottish poet of the outer limits as well as of the limitations of language.

This closeness of the closies almost embodies G. Gregory Smith’s famous definition of the Caledonian Antiszyzygy: ‘…the absolute propriety of a gargoyle’s grinning at the elbow of a kneeling saint…’ except we are of course aware that, however grotesque the Tall Droll’s self-portrait, Sydney ‘Try to be better’ Graham was no saint.

But this marvellous play on a poem, which meanders back and forth over the border between sound and sense, tongue-twisting Scots and consonantal nonsense, is as knowing as Graham’s own dismissal of the ‘Plastic’ (no doubt pronounced ‘Plestic’) Scots of his day – claiming to have heard an argument among the followers of Hugh MacDiarmid for the word ‘telephone’ to be be replaced with the echt Lallans-esque ‘Farspeak’. Both are, satirically, part of the internal Scots debate over how Scots are Scots allowed to be? Both remind me of two irruptions of the Scottish voice into another contiguous, equally whimsical world: Prog.

The first of these was the delight of an old friend of mine, the poet Helen Kidd, who died a few years ago. It had previously been linked for teenage me with Dark Age Pictland, a period of great fascination to my history-loving grandfather, who died when I was 12. The title: ‘Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict’.

I just assumed the cave was not only Pictish but Platonic, and nearby – most likely Pittenweem, ‘Cave of the Picts’ – and that the many squeaking and chirruping craiturs ran the gamut from houlets, hares, martens, mice, budgies, platypuses, and capybaras (the latter a particular favourite of Helen’s) to the lemmings of prog doomsters Van der Graaf Generator. (And indeed those ghosts that, as Horatio notes, like to squeak and gibber, more of whom seem to have gathered in the cave’s shadows since I first listened out for them.)

I also thought the poem recited by Roger Waters at the end in a deliberately terrible Scots accent was akin to Spike Milligan’s affectionate renditions of McGonagall. In fact the poem sounded like it could have been a McGonagallian recitation, perhaps while refusing to die in The Scottish Play: ‘I snatched fer the blade/O my claymore/cut and thrust/and I fell doon before him/round his feet…Aye!’

It took a few years for it to dawn on me that, while Waters’ ridiculous Pict wasn’t in the same category as Boulton’s strangely leading question, its slight element of slighting wasn’t exactly the same as Chic’s or indeed Sydney’s either. While we understand Waters means no harm, it’s just about evident there is a distinction, not so much between parody and self-parody, as between what you can do with parody and with self-parody. While Waters is playing at the role of freaky cave-dweller, Chic Murray, a little like Syd Barratt, uses drollness to get out of his cave altogether. That distinction perhaps becomes clearer when we listen to the second voice – that of Ivor Cutler in two tracks on Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom, both called ‘Little Red Riding Hood Hits the Road’.

As a teenager, I found the story behind this album – that it was recorded after Wyatt had broken his back, and that it conveyed the conditions of his hospitalisation as well as his coming to terms with this extreme trauma – deeply affecting. I didn’t know then that it had mostly already been written, nor that this had taken place in Venice because his partner, the artist Alfreda Benge, was working on the film Don’t Look Now, which famously features both what seems like a Red Riding Hood-like character and a horrifying twist. Imprint the legend, you might say.

But I was enormously moved and influenced by Wyatt’s use of nonsense words to convey what appeared to be deeply internal states of mind, and by the appearance of Ivor Cutler – to the strains of Fred Frith’s viola as though in some sort of Carrollian rewrite of ‘Venus in Furs’ – to intone a poem of absurd breakdown and, simultaneously, resistance, in which various modern devices, a phone, a television, other people’s car tyres, are attacked, while the protagonist aligns himself with another small (spiky) mammal. – Now that I think about it, one of my favourite Chic Murray jokes is the one about his difficult relationship with his talking dog.

Again, it took me a while to notice that Govan-born Cutler is not quite speaking in his own voice – while critical descriptions focus on his obvious Scottishness, he in fact affects a ‘foreign’ voice, enunciating very deliberately words like ‘the’, as though to emphasise the absolutely otherness of his character’s state of mind. This reminds me, firstly, of Cutler’s early claim that he really came from the utopian Island of Y’Hup, and, secondly, of one of Chic Murray’s great punning gags, the one about the pole vaulter, which also plays on foreignness and (mis)pronunciation. Βut perhaps it’s an illogical extension of the very particular delivery both Cutler and Murray favour, an arch take on posh Scots English, or Pan Loaf. They use this to foreignise themselves, positioning their personae just beyond the traditional shared space of performer and audience, which they then elliptically arrive within and exit at will. Both push themselves into a linguistic and therefore perceptual otherness which feels a little like W.S. Graham’s fixation on the uncanny nature of the space between writer and reader, and between the speaker and the word: ‘What is the language using us for?’

There’s a famous scene in Gregory’s Girl where the headmaster, played of course by Chic Murray, sits at the school piano and rattles out a little tune, apparently oblivious to the world around him. When the world, in the form of a couple of pupils, notices him, he pauses, declares, ‘Off you go, small boys,’ then carries on playing. It demarks precisely a certain angle to things, both to who we appear to be and to how we relate to the world, which appears to be exactly the angle of both Graham and Cutler, the one aspired to by Waters in a manner which, arguably, reflects the way he continually aspires to and yet fears to assume the mantle dropped by Syd Barratt. (Does he get there, in his mammal-crammed cave? I’d like to think so, if only for Helen’s sake.)

The tune is, apparently, Chic’s own composition (or, possibly, improvisation), and, when I listen again to the maniacal cackle Cutler emits at the end of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ (after a day spent with a hedgehog ‘bursting thee tyres’, and having reflected on ‘thee life of thee highwayman, yum yum’), I realise this voice too is, exactly and accidentally, positioned on the corner of Bank and Hope Streets, Greenock.

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Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 4

I am often nagged by epiphenomena, events sitting at the edge of How Things Should Be, though I don’t usually know what it is they are trying to tell me. Such things are, by definition, peripheral – or at least appear to be so – and at the same time rather difficult to describe. In this an epiphenomenon resembles a small but elaborate mechanism, like a joke in slapstick, which takes a huge amount of ingenuity to set up, but unfolds in an easy-seeming instant. Something about the joke’s contrivance, though, is carried over, we recognise in it an aspect of the contraption, and that makes us uneasy. The epiphenomenon has the same disquieting effect, but without the agency.

One such instance, which recurs with reasonable regularity, always hinting that I really ought to try to get it into words, is The Shower Head/Cap Event. This would appeal to the Keaton of One Week and The Electric House, for whom the flat pack and the gadget are modernity’s mysterious cyphers.

We have a slightly elaborated shower fitting with two shower heads: one a large piece, about the size of a dinner plate, fixed to the bathroom ceiling; the other smaller, a pipe-and-handle thing, hooked to the wall but portable. You lift or lower a lever to select between them. My wife likes to used this latter fitting when she’s not washing her hair, whereas, having no hair, I always use the fixed shower head. Because this might drip when not in use, she covers it with an inverted shower cap so its elastic band holds it in place. I sometimes bring her one of those freebie shower caps back from hotels for this purpose, though it’s not much of a gift.

I also sometimes forget to check whether it’s attached before switching on the shower, whereupon it fills, distends, and suddenly comes away under its own weight and strikes the floor with a resounding splop. This occurrence, which is over before I can intervene in any way, looks very like an octopus or jellyfish has somehow travelled through the pipes, and bonelessly extracted itself from the shower head (though not, obviously, in a minced or spaghetti-like form).

The last time this occurred, thanks to that succession of engagements with Keaton, Carrington and Milligan, I realised what this image was reminding me of. There’s a clip from a Parkinson show from just after ‘The Last Goon Show”, their reunion in October, 1972, where Harry Secombe is talking about Milligan seeking a particular sound effect:

‘I remember Spike once wanted the effect of somebody being hit with a sock full of custard…and he got the lady at the canteen of the Camden Theatre to lovingly prepare this custard for him. She said [here Secombe adopts a ‘Scottish’ accent], “Here ye are, Spike, here’s yir custard,” you know, and he said, “Thank you,” – and he took off his sock and he poured it in.

‘And he went downstairs, and he swung this sock around his head and hit it against the wall – and it didn’t have the effect he wanted…’

Either before or after this, I don’t recall, I’d bought Milligan’s little tetralogy of books, The Little Pot Boiler, A Dustbin of Milligan, A Book of Bits, and The Bedside Milligan, at 35p each, to take on holiday. I would’ve been 11 or 12, and this would have been our first or second package holiday, to Lido di Jesolo, or to Corfu. Very soon after that, I started buying Milligan books ‘proper’, beginning with the Goon Show Scripts. And after that, I began recording nonsensical ‘shows’ onto cassette with my schoolfriends.

For my sixteenth birthday, one friend, whose parents were building a new house near Reres Park in Broughty Ferry, allowed me to fill a sock with custard, swing it round my head, and strike it off a unplastered concrete wall. The effect, as Secombe had warned, was underwhelming, but the custard-filled sock as it was being slung strongly prefigured the look of an elasticated shower cap rapidly filling with warm water while dangling from a shower head.

While the adult world I was approaching through puberty and school examinations was constantly rushing to interpretation and indeed judgement based on the filtering out of absurdities, and the puritanical application of one or another ideology, something in me resisted, being both delighted and nurtured by nonsense. (I recall, in the same house, listening to ‘Wish You Were Here’, not for the first time, but, perhaps indeed for the first time, wondering who the ‘You’ was?)

The secret life of things, as manifested by such self-animation of the inanimate, is everywhere present in Leonora Carrington’s work, particularly in her depictions of furniture, and the consciousness she ascribes to food.

Chairs are alive, tables seem uncertain whether they are displaying picnics, ritual feasts, or dissections, beds embody the dreams they incubate, and, in her kitchens and gardens, the vegetables are always lively:

‘The full moon shone brightly between the trees, so I was able to see, a few yards in front of me, the origins of a distressing noise. It was two cabbages having a terrible fight. They were tearing each other’s leaves off with such ferocity that soon there was nothing but torn leaves everywhere and no cabbages.’

Even if you suspect that we may be cabbage all the way down, with nothing at the heart of us, not even consciousness, it is of course neither possible, permissible, or advisable to identify too much with the vegetation, the horses, or the furniture, nor with your romanticisation of the idiot, loser, or outsider.

If, as I do, you work within the cultural industries as a practitioner and educator, you may be too involved in these social structures for anything more than a part, a sliver, of your self ever to stand to one side, rather than as Leonora Carrington appeared to do for the long latter part of her career, to exist outside of all that altogether. But you can at least try for that dissenting part of you to overlap to some extent with your creative centre, with those approaches to experiences and memories, to artists and their work, which may lead, however long it takes, to some sort of creative output.

However, as all three discovered, even though you may think of it as a shelter, this might turn out to have aspects of MacBeth’s ‘confidence in his fretis’, or faith in omens. Not all shower heads are trying to tell us something, man. It can therefore also be as much of a source of distress as of security. Of course, the desire to find security in the unfiltered perception of childhood, the radically unstable territory of dreams, and the irrational depths of the imagination, can be seen as itself a sort of dysfunctionality. The unfortunate You of ‘Wish You Were Here’, Syd Barrett, had a sense of being simultaneously safe and utterly lost in his metaphoric woods, and indeed in the metaphor itself. Sometimes, in our efforts to get to the woods before the trees, we arrive at the ‘selva oscura’, a place that also precedes our selves.

This, then, as a writer awkwardly positioned in relation to the academy in which I work, and the industry which processes my work, and indeed the work, the writing itself, is the point at which I find myself. I might say ‘as ever’, but that would be to ignore the opportunity such awkward triangulations provide us with, and to plunge back into that Continuity, with its ready gauging of priorities and hierarchies and certainties about others that we never quite require ourselves to apply to our selves, rather than to pause here with the things that might be trees or people, dreams or omens, machines or bodies, that are in time but not quite of it, that do not mean to but may nonetheless do us harm, and pay witness to them.

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Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 3

(Warning, Will Robinson : this section seems to veer off at a tangent before returning to (what appears to be) the subject…)

I was struck by a recent and very particular version of our impositions on the customary: the decision by the tourist organisation VisitScotland to adopt the Gaelic word ‘còsagach’ as Scotland’s version of last year’s buzzy Danish comfort word, ‘hygge’, hoping to borrow its aura, as Benjamin would have it, by copycatting.

I should of course rather say ‘adapt’, as it turned out actual Gaelic speakers didn’t quite recognise this usage, saying that ‘còsagach’ tended to mean a damp, mossy place, rather than a cosy nook – a distinction that Tolkein, in the opening pages of The Hobbit, thought very important:

‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.’

In the Guardian article where I read about this, a lecturer in Gaelic, Mark Wringe, is quoted speculating as to whether ‘…someone’s thoughts have been guided by the resemblance in sound between [còsagach] and the English word cosy.’

This sounds entirely possible, making the word choice a sort of translingual rhyming, where the English listener is struck by an implied meaning – much as the word it’s modelled on, ‘hygge’ (pronounced ‘HEWguh’) can be construed as having some irrational relation to huge hugs.

It’s worth considering, then, the way that this sort of choice is full of cultural implications, as well as how such assumptions relate to the authority of interpretation – and indeed to our trio of artists.

On the one hand, you can only do this if the source language (Gaelic) is ‘weaker’ than the target audience (English speakers), because it is a kind of imposition: ‘còsag’ does indeed mean nook, and that can imply cosy – just not to its actual users. It’s a little like a Gael insisting ‘nooky’ means ‘còsagach’, when to an English speaker, it means something quite different.

On the other hand, no Gael would do any such thing. Not only would they speak English as well as Gaelic, they would understand such impositions only work in one direction. That said, it’s the sort of interpretive act the socially bi- and tri-lingual Scots are rehearsing all the time, unlike their monoglot neighbours.

When I was a child, I assumed the local Dundee place name ‘The Sinderins’ had something to do with cinders and flinders and possibly even Cinderella, and only gradually understood – though I spoke Scots – that this was an older pronunciation (and very particular usage) of ‘The Sunderings’: a forking of the road.

If you look at Hugh MacDiarmid’s use of dictionaries when assembling the Synthetic Scots of his great early lyrics, you can see him hovering in a similar way between the listed meanings of a given word (comparing his earlier glosses to his later ones brings this out).

In ‘O Jesu Parvule’, the key word, ‘byspale’ is glossed by MacDiarmid as ‘a child of whom wonderful things are predicted’, as one might expect in a poem about the Christ child. He chooses to gloss over his sources’ emphasis on a ‘Chiefly ironic’ usage, while their further meaning, ‘An illegitimate child’, which might seem of some importance, is not foregrounded:

She’s drawn Him in tae the bool o’ her breist

But the byspale’s nae thocht o’ sleep i’ the least.

What MacDiarmid and VisitScotland and indeed Tolkein are all doing here is a sort of projection: they want their words to mean a certain thing, and they are using what authority they possess to impose that meaning on language. Tolkein, because he is making up an entire world, can define a hobbit and where it lives as he sees fit. MacDiarmid, because he is applying an avant garde agenda to a secondary language, Scots, has a lesser degree of licence. VisitScotland are presumedly hoping to ride out a rather mild storm, mostly on social media.

But they are all trying to create a world through creative interpretation – all three worlds share a root in notions of the folkloric and the romanticised past or those romanticised others – hobbits, rural Scots, Gaels – which, although products or actual inhabitants of the modern world, we do not associate with modernity.

Like what we think of as the Twain-like world of Steamboat Bill Jr., or the Celtic/Mexican surrealism of Leonora Carrington, or the post-war nonsense zone of Goons and Pythons, Big Nights Out and The Boosh, these are all secondary realms, not ‘serious’ or central enough to our concerns, which remain focussed on the impositions of the grand narrative and the contesting claims of our own or others’ narratives.

What interests me in these instances, however, is the possibility that they are not really narratives at all, that they do not believe in or think in terms of their own grandeur or indeed their narrative coherence, but that rather, such stories as appear in their work are no more important than the verbal or visual play which transports their tellers, their viewers and their listeners communally to another aspect of the space we share. As Burroughs said in his introduction to Naked Lunch: ‘The title means exactly what the words say: naked Lunch—a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.’

Such a moment, domestic yet terrifying, can be defined by a term VisitScotland might like to be aware of: the Uncouthy. They were of course really seeking its exact opposite, the Scots word ‘couthy’, but, perhaps because of its unhip associations, suppressed or resisted the term in favour of ‘còsagach’. ‘Couthy’, meaning something more than ‘known’, or ‘familiar’, is itself over-familiar to most Scots as a state of mind represented by The Sunday Post, The Broons, and Oor Wullie. In the old days this sentimentalised, old-fashioned, tartan-and-shortbread Scotland was typified by the likes of the White Heather Club, Bothy Nichts, or Jimmy Shand.

MacDiarmid recognised it in J.M. Barrie, the Burns Cult, and the Kailyaird, and thoroughly despised it. Except that it was, arguably, the commodified version of a previous attempt at world-building: the radical Scots versifying of the nineteenth century People’s Journal, a precedent and corollary to the world he in turn wished to invent, where the same People, having established a communist croissant of Celtic republics stretching from the Shetlands to Cornwall, discussed a Turkish poet’s ‘abstruse new song’ instead of going to the football (here he might have been being at least partly ironic).

We particularly wish to dismiss our antecedents because of their unfortunate propensity for belonging to their own historical period with all its cultural blinkers when we have a brand new guaranteed blinker-less narrative of our own to impose. But the first thing we can’t see for all the light we’re shedding is our collateral removal of all awkward others, those secondary types whose complicated role in our own genealogy hardly seems relevant.

‘Còsagach’, then, is the word VisitScotland tried to hide ‘couthy’ behind, or the nook they tried to tuck it in. But the very attempt draws attention to itself, and is somehow còsagach in its actual sense of clammy, uncomfortable, not right. The Uncouthy might be defined as that state of mind you enter into when you suspect this is happening. It is, in a way, that very thing Keaton, Carrington, and Milligan are constantly, without even trying, drawing our attention to, though for some reason we are rather reluctant to consider it.

Something about such narratives indeed appears to be un-couth. Usually we claim they bore us, or are confusing, or they’re not funny, or not nice – we feel impatient, we have more important things to get on with. Continuity has been disturbed by what appear to us to be epiphenomena, and sometimes, just for a moment, the eye finds itself being horribly drawn to what exactly that is on the end of your fork.

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Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 2

Keaton, Carrington, and Milligan all encounter a similar type of crisis in their ability to pursue their art. The effect on them as creative individuals, and their attempts at solutions, however, are very different.

For Keaton, it’s the encroachment of the studio system on his practitioners’ realm, that space in which vaudeville evolves into silent comedy: he first embraces silence, then, as the talkies come in, he is enveloped by it, and by alcoholism.

For Carrington it is the cataclysmic impact of the war on her attempt to set up an artistic and emotional home with Ernst in Saint Martin d’Ardèche, which leads to her breakdown, and the terrible experiences at the hands of civil and medical authorities she describes in Down Below. Alongside this sits her understanding that the Surrealists in general and Ernst in particular are no more able than her father to regard a woman artist as their equal. She can only ever – to the dominant gaze of her day – be Secondary.

With Milligan, the pressure of solo scriptwriting, combined with his increasing difficulty in engaging with the organisational mindset of the BBC, leads to depression, ’deep narcosis’, divorce, ECT, and regular hospitalisation.

The absurd worlds they create for themselves are therefore at once impediments to their abilities to deal with overweening structures, and refuges from those structures. These creations are simultaneously desired by controlling bodies, and mysteriously inaccessible to them, leading both to hostility and rejection.

In Steamboat Bill, Jr., Keaton’s last film in charge of his own production company, the cyclone tears away all vestiges of the small town world which has been comprehensively rejecting the hero. It also allows Bill Jr. to become genuinely heroic, breaking down the rivalry between his father and the unscrupulous tycoon John James King by rescuing them both. As King’s daughter, Kitty, is the film’s love interest, all can end happily, though in fact the box office disagreed – Steamboat Bill, Jr. was a flop, and the creative stasis of MGM Studios beckoned.

Because the cyclone is Keaton’s creation, it is at once a destructive force and his habitat -simultaneously constructed and natural. It is this at-homeness in all three artists with a deliberately engineered, genuinely dangerous, apparent chaos that the studio system, the BBC, and indeed, for decades, the art world, cannot comprehend or reproduce, only commission, patronise, control, censor, and, finally, commodify.

As the cyclone takes complete control, Bill Jr clings to a tree for shelter, only for the entire tree plus a clinging Keaton to be uprooted and fly back and forth over town and river. You think both of the witch’s broom and the tricksy prophesy of the Weird Sisters in MacBeth: ‘Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until/Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill/Shall come against him…’

Something simultaneously comic and uncanny is happening, and it may just be the same oddness that drew Shakespeare to his image of the walking wood. Walter Benjamin wrote about how the work of art generated such sensations in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, encapsulating its uniqueness and authenticity as ‘aura’ – only to exclude it from the recorded image:

‘…for the first time – and this is the effect of the film – man has to operate with his whole living person, yet forgoing its aura. For aura is tied to his presence; there can be no replica of it. The aura, which is on the stage, emanates from MacBeth, cannot be separated for the spectators from that of the actor. However, the singularity of the shot in the studio is that the camera is substituted for the public.’

What Keaton realised is that a type of aura can be generated in film by focussing on types of authenticity: seeking location shots, performing one’s own stunts, and honouring the strange logic of the cinematic image.

This is, textually, what Shakespeare did in relation to his sources. He read about MacBeth in Holinshed, who in turn got his account from Hector Boece. Bellenden’s translation of Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum into Scots reads as follows: ‘[Makbeth] had sic confidence in his fretis, that he belevis fermely nevir to be vincust, quhil the wod of Birnane war brocht to Dunsinnane…’ – or, as The Courier would no doubt have it: Dundee Man Inspires Bard.

By a similarly twisting route, the weirdness in Shakespeare’s image may be behind another of Milligan’s great lines from The Goon Show: ‘We must get to the woods before the trees get there!’

Meanwhile, in ‘The Royal Summons’, after playing draughts all night on a terrace lined with cypress trees, with a cabinet intent on establishing who will assassinate their mad queen, one of Leonora Carrington’s unidentified narrators is identified as the winner by an unknown voice:

‘“Who? Me?” I said.

“Yes, you,” the voice replied, and I noticed that it was the tallest cypress speaking.

I’m going to escape, I thought, and began to run in the direction of the avenue. But the cypress tore itself out of the earth by the roots, scattering dirt in all directions, and began to follow me. It’s so much larger than me, I thought and stopped. The cypress stopped too. All its branches were shaking horribly – it was probably quite a while since it had last run.

“I accept,” I said, and the cypress returned slowly to its hole.’

All three artists seem to be presenting variations on MacBeth’s horrified insight as Malcolm’s army approaches, bearing the branches of trees to disguise their numbers, ‘I pull in resolution, and begin/To doubt th’ equivocation of the fiend/That lies like truth.’

For them, however, the true fiend is normality, which allows us to assume there is a sort of narrative continuity to its nature, when in fact the cyclone, the war, the breakdown, the portable forests, are always inherent to its structures. While narrative itself, with its hoped-for resolutions, catharses, and ambiguously unending happy ever afters, is always and only our imposition upon it.

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Keaton, Carrington, Milligan: 1

(I seem to have spent forever over this next set of posts, or, rather, not so much over as hovering – or havering – nearby. Many other duties, including a talk on one of the poets mentioned below, W.S. Graham, intervened, but I couldn’t let the occasion of Leonora Carrington’s birthday pass without some gesture.)

Last year’s unedifying political/ecological scene often made me feel like the nap of the universe was against us (‘us’ meaning the planet, not the species), so a benign-looking coincidence could work a little like a counterspell or blessing. Late last year, I was struck by a run of one film and two television programmes that seemed to hold something like a positive meaning.

I was heading up to Dundee one Saturday in early December, when I realised that the DCA were screening Steamboat Bill, Jr that evening, with a live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. This was followed on the Sunday night by a documentary on Leonora Carrington, directed by Teresa Griffiths. Then, later that week, on my return to Newcastle, I happened to catch another documentary, this time on Spike Milligan, Love, Light and Peace, produced and directed by Verity Maidlow, which focused on home movies and intimate interviews.

Each of these figures had, at different times, had a significant influence on me. So this concatenation felt like a prompt to take stock, as the year turned, on what such strong influences, as disturbing as they can be delightful, might actually mean in that broader sense of what you’re doing with your life, in addition to your creative work.

Certainly, in all three cases, the relationship or dialogue between the work and the life is part of the interest. Equally, with reference to our cultural and political era, it seems significant that, although each is strongly associated with a particular time or mode – silent comedy, surrealism, post-war anti-establishment comedy – none of them seems to be fully defined by such a grouping.

Rudi Blesh’s biography of Buster Keaton had bowled me over in full-blown slapstick style in the mid-eighties, defining Keaton as a sort of obsessive, damaged, naive surrealist which I connected to my engagement with figures like W.S. Graham and Ivor Cutler, an engagement which itself stemmed from my teenage obsession with the traumatised absurdities of Milligan. Carrington I’ve tried to speak about in several posts without ever quite defining how the blend of no-nonsense briskness and the embodiment of something utterly nonsensical and other in her art and her writing affects me – a situation she would have regarded as entirely appropriate.

Neil Brand’s introduction to Steamboat Bill, illustrated plentifully with clips from Keaton’s other films, placed a similar emphasis to Blesh on the strange pressures of being a child star in vaudeville, on his improvisatory yet methodical explorations of the techniques and technology of early silent comedy, and on the industry’s inevitable rejection of Keaton, as film-making became a matter for producers and career paths, rather than an avant-la-lettre auteur who wouldn’t initially have understood what an auteur was.

Back in 1985 or 86, I wrote a sequence of poems called ‘A Dream of Buster Keaton’, which was published in Poet & Critic in the US. This marked the first substantial appearance of my work in English outside the context of student mags – except it being published in the US meant no-one in the UK really saw it till the sequence was reprinted in my Arc collection, The Testament of the Reverend Thomas Dick, in 1994.

By then I was reading Leonora Carrington’s short fiction, reprinted by Virago in the late 80s/early 90s, including the collection The House of Fear, which cast its odd light on how I felt about the tiny degree of exposure which my work was then generating. My literary and academic career throughout the eighties had been fairly unremarkable, but here I was in that first flush of attention where your books are noticed and you begin to be asked to perform those public duties of performing, reviewing, and teaching, of presenting your (or, at any rate, a) self. I had been, slowly, picking up residency work, and I would soon lecture for a sort of living in an actual university…

But, even though this was happening at a very gradual rate, and the ‘exposure’, such as it was, would drop to a minimum within a few years, in favour of those more suitable for the kind of success on offer, I rapidly realised that something in me did not really want to be seen.

This was not the same thing as not wanting to write or perform my work – or indeed to discuss others’ work – or to be acknowledged. I just shied away at a level that felt like an an instinct or a phobia from How Things Are Done. What Keaton, Carrington, and Milligan suggested for me, then, were ways of evading not especially that fleeting gaze, but rather the categories it put me in.

Although my creative space overlapped with the public realm of publication and presentation, of mingling and the marketplace, pitching and schmoozing, only a tiny sliver of it did so comfortably, and the rest preferred distance and therefore accepted obscurity, or Secondariness.

Hitherto, my non-career had enabled me to preserve the illusion that all was going splendidly – a decent degree, a small circle of literary associates, some publications – I could breeze over the broken ‘marriage’ and the almost-abandoned PhD. It wasn’t until, with my second wife’s help, I started to get my life together, that I understood how committed I had become to not being togethery, to not really being ‘there’ at all.

Now not only could I hear the stupid words coming disjointedly out of my own mouth on TV and radio, but also people could not give me those jobs I’d just assumed I’d drift into. Now I actually had to look after a family rather than have my family look after me.

I’m describing the series of stuttered moments at which I began to wake up from the Arrogance, that survival mechanism which ensures you never need to face doubt and your own limitations, nor grow up. But of course the problem here was that I couldn’t quite grow up. Like Steamboat Bill Jr., who meanders back to the river of his birth with a beret and a silly moustache, poor puer aeternus, it seemed to be the ‘junior’ part that defined me.

In that movie, it’s not until the end that Bill Jr. has to prove himself to Bill Sr. Except, out of the frame which insists life is narrative, you can’t always prove anything, to yourself or anyone else, nor are you able to rescue Big Bill from the sinking jailhouse in the nick of time – sometimes the jailhouse simply sinks.

Sometimes, as Leonora Carrington states at the end of ‘Down Below’, once you leave for Mexico City, you never see your father again. Sometimes, as Milligan did, you discover in a letter after he died, that your father suffered all his life from the same crippling depressions you do, but never said a word.

Sometimes, as I’ve been attempting to explore in recent posts about my father, bereavement means you realise where your identity has positioned itself in relation to those other identities of family – parents, partners, children, relations, friends, peers – and understand it is not, as it were, where you thought you’d left it. But that this position seems to have become crucial to that thing you do, the writing.

Whether this is a good or bad thing has sent me back to my triumvirate of artists, to look again at what enabled and what inhibited their work, and, equally, what enabled and inhibited its reception. To watch is, for the passive, to be influenced. To watch how you are watching, then, is to engage with, adapt, and, where necessary or possible, resist that influence.

There is a famous moment where the concussed Bill Jr. wanders out of a house in the middle of a cyclone, only for the whole frontage of that house to tip down on him. He is of course standing precisely where the upper window is, and is saved by being just there, or by just being there – by being, momentarily in the story and forever on film, framed. Here Keaton alludes to and inverts a memory of childhood, in which he describes being plucked out of a window by a cyclone:

‘…I was awakened by the noise of a Kansas twister. Getting up, I went to the open window to investigate the swishing noise. I didn’t fall out, I was sucked out by the circling winds of the cyclone and whirled away down the road. I had rolled and revolved about a block from the farmhouse when a man saw me, rushed out, scooped me up, and carried me to the safety of the nearest storm cellar.’

Another scene in Steamboat Bill, Jr, just preceding this, is less spectacular, but, perhaps, just as resonant. Having been taken to hospital, Bill Jr. is lying in bed when the entire building is torn away, leaving just the rows of beds. Blown down the street as though in a self-driving automobile (the motif of machines and other contraptions literally auto-mobilising and driving themselves recurs in several Keaton movies), the bed sails into a stable.

The horses look at Bill Jr. – it is at that moment we realise there is a certain equine quality to the famous ’Stoneface’; that it is in fact the long face of that joke featuring a horse and a barman – and Bill Jr., bewildered but bewilderedly at one with them, looks at the horses. Then the stable door blows open, and the bed bolts for it.

It is, obviously, like a dream. Less obviously, it echoes the situation of Little Nemo in Winsor McCoy’s cartoon of that name, which ran from 1905-13, the first and last frames of which tended to show its titular hero in bed. Even less obviously, it rhymes with the central character’s position in Leonora Carrington’s short story ‘The House of Fear’, who finds herself going with a horse she has just met, and a number of his very frightened equine friends, to a party at Fear’s Castle:

‘The horses all shivered, and their teeth chattered like castanets. I had the impression that all the horses in the world had come to this party. Each one with bulging eyes, fixed straight ahead, and each one with foam frozen around its lips. I didn’t dare speak, I was too terrified.’

As Milligan wrote in a sketch excerpted in Love, Light and Peace:

‘Horses don’t play the piano.’
‘He’s not a real horse. There’s a dog inside working him.’

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