blog begins at spectral command

At 3.15 Friday morning I was woken from a fairly successful attempt at drunken slumber by the smoke alarms going off in our house. No, there was no fire, but as our house is a former guiding lighthouse perched above the Fish Quay in North Shields, there are several floors and several smoke alarms to stagger round in pursuit of silence. I was alone, since Debbie is staying with her mother in Chislehurst for a few days (Peggie is now a frail old lady receiving 24hr care); and my daughter Izzie was sleeping over several doors along with her best friend. So I pummelled the hush button on the over-sensitive alarm that’s usually responsible — no effect. I moved upstairs from landing to landing, beating at those squealing little limpets with towels, again with no effect until I got to the top floor, my study. Here a combination of flailing and window opening shut the alarm up for about two minutes. I was so exhausted I found myself lashing out with the towel, sitting down to wait for it to go off again, then lashing out again. Finally it dawned on one of the few units of reason still on duty that I needed to go downstairs and switch off the fuse that governed the alarms. Several more ‘click it off, click it on, listen for the alarm’ experiments followed, before the same units told me to get the fuck to bed again.
 
As I lay down I was reflecting on just how spooked I was — I’m too primitive a thinker to suppose that smoke alarms just go off in the middle of the night for no deeply disturbing reason. Not so much a case of no smoke without fire, as no smoke alarm without psychic message. Were the spirits of the house — who’ve put up with me leaving the cooker on, the front door unlocked, and generally playing music a little too loud for nineteenth century sensibilities — trying to tell me something? First get the superstitious paterfamilias on his own, runs the Manual of Hauntings. Was something wrong with other members of the family? Izzie hadn’t left a message last night, ditto Deb, the parental units were on a ship in the Med drifting from island to island. What could have happened?
 
I tried reading the latest Zen vol by Michael Dibdin, Back to Bologna, but realised it was another of those in the series (Cosi Fan Tutte being the other offender), where a slightly baroque game is going on — there the conventions of comic opera were being reflected in the plotting and tone, here there was a satirical portrait of an Eco-like academic (an ecodemic?) that I couldn’t be doing with in the middle of the night. Dibdin seems in these novels to tire of his portrayal of institutionalised Italian corruption — he certainly seems to tire of rather than explore the complexities of his central character, the magnificently jaded Zen. While Zen is a much more interesting creation than Donna Leon’s rather sketchily faithful Brunetti, he’s lost ground in my opinion to Camilleri’s rude and moody Sicilian tec Montalbano, who, despite copious food porn interludes, carries an authentic whiff of the original master, Sciasca himself. Throw in an unconvincing private eye fixated on US stereotypes of his profession, and I was giving up — just give me the Byzantine plot and Venetian world-weariness, please.
 
While this comparative study was sloshing round the cortex I suddenly remembered I’d left the car in Jesmond. This is a dumb thing to do, and it came about because, well, a) I’m a schmuck, and b) last night had been the end of a rather long day. I quite like those days where the diary is literally jammed, and you spend time running between classes workshops appointments and events without room for so much as a comma, all the time trying to frame the next sentence you know you must speak to a group of between four, forty and four hundred people (I especially like the heady sense of release from forward planning). I just don’t like them to happen every day, and I don’t like them to cause lapses of common sense lasting several hours.
 
Thursday day had been fairly involving, including as it did teaching metre to the MA, discussing the Holocaust Memorial Day performance with the NU Writers group and our Prof of Theatre, Peter Reynolds. (Hopefully we shall weave through an unseated and appropriately unsettled audience, reading texts while apposite images are cast on the four walls of the cheapest space we can hire in the Playhouse. Well, we were excited, and it was our first discussion.) Then we had a workshop focussing on a few poems (I was reduced to bringing a revision of one of the Sofia pieces, as I simply haven’t had time to get beyond sketchy first drafts of the Chinese material), before I retreated to my room to come up with a few brief words to introduce Andrew Motion.
 
Naturally a troop of ghostly kings or possibly PhD students interrupted my whispered rhetoric at 5 minute intervals till it was time to meet AM, who seemed startled by my lack of hair (that curly thing was a useful identifying factor for me back in my 30s), but took it in his eminently urbane stride, as he did the posing for photos outside the darkened Claremont Building (soon to be the site of our new Northern Writers Centre). Flanked by myself, Kim and Linda, he looked like the boss of a crack new police unit devoted to righting literary wrongs — Waking the Unread, Ink in the Blood, Archive Busters, PBS Miami, etc. Then to the Curtiss Auditorium a good 30 minutes before kick-off, to stew in half-formulated juices.
 
In the end the assembled hordes of thoughtfulness managed to stay awake past my gabbled intro for the frankly pleasurable talk which followed. I’ve always felt Andrew Motion’s handling of the Poet Laureate role was commendably responsible, taking the battle about anti-intellectualism in poetry matters back to the media from which insecure source so much of it stems; insisting on a socially responsible dimension to the laureateship which is about as left as it can bear, and properly promoting Creative Writing as the discipline which stands most chance of re-engaging people with their own talents and appreciations. Thankfully the talk chimed in neatly with the bare, scattered points I’d tried to make along those lines, and, in particular, the assertion that creativity is a normal part of being human, distorted by societal pressure into something perceived as an eccentricity. He read largely from his new memoir, which seems a warm, almost impossibly vivid account of the growth of this particular poet’s mind, up to his mother’s  catastrophic accident  — the axis around which his imagination turns. There was an assessment of the fluctuating receptivity of any imagination to poetry at different times in life; and the usual plea for a broader definition of the uses for literature.
 
This allowed me to plug the few ideas I have on these matters: the mussel analogy that minds open and close to creativity throughout life, but they are best caught early; the seven types of relevance strapline, pleading for other standards than youth and topicality. Fortunately I was not able to bring my extended comparions between Robert Woof and AM into play (QIPs, SIPs and VIPs — no doubt I’ll attempt to state this later), and soon we were in a private dining room at the Copthorne with the lecture’s sponsor, the very buoyant editor of children’s authors, David Fickling, and large chunks of both the Centre for the Children’s Book and the School of English. At which point the following apercu should have occurred to me: ‘My car is in Jesmond — I need to restrain my alcoholic intake so that I can drive it home later.’ I did have a moment in which I wondered whether I could be bothered starting to drink,  but this flash of would-be healthy living was not joined up to any awareness that I had ever owned a car, with the consequences described above.
 
It was a wierd little evening which I mostly spent being bellowed at by an affable but slightly deaf John Batchelor, or speaking to people to whom I had clearly been introduced in a previous life of which I could remember nothing. There was a nice archivist from Seven Stories with whom I tried to work out what it was that rooted us in place: people, language or landscape? (Yes, this is a trick question, but nonetheless we examined it happily enough.) John attacked his background (WW2 Farnborough – he remembers being left in a Mills air raid shelter as a 3 year old) — what I like to think of as the rootlessness of middle class life, what he saw as the stultifying social pressure that kept his father in a place he had no attachment to whilst his 11 brothers all fled a domineering father as far as Australia. And when he asked what current books I’d recommend I realised all my choices were un-English. So there was a neat contrast with precisely the upbringing we had so appreciatively listened to in AM’s talk.
 
All of this washed back over me at 4am as I phoned an early morning taxi, dumped the Zen and ignored the creaking household spirits in an effort to get in 2 hours sleep. I finally realised that had I not been woken up I would not have had time to do anything about leaving the car. Thankyou Lares and Penates. I also realised that I had no intention of telling the Mellorians (our neighbours and dear friends, the Mellors, have unfortunately been renamed as a benign but alien species — my fault, of course) about my embarrassment, not least because I’d already got them to do several big favours like pick up Izzie and have her overnight so that I could attend the talk. Asking them to take us all in, or taking the kids in by taxi were both out of the pride-sodden question. No, I had to get a taxi to the car and drive it back in time to take them in as though nothing had happened. Of course I did.
 
Moreover, I finally realised that this complex of events, half-literary, half-domestic, all shot through with the shambolic, was exactly what I should be blogging about. Not because anyone would necessarily be interested — who cares that much about another’s blunders? But because there is an area of my life where the half-baked opinions get their half-baking, and if I am to proceed to get them through the full cooking time, I need to start catching them before they slip into the fast-moving stream.

Too much of my life passes like this, too many notions are half grasped at, half relinquished reluctantly. If I could either get a firm hold or freely let go, there would be no problem, but most often I am caught between, performing dream mnemonics, listing idea bullet points; and I would like to make an attempt at fuller recovery. I’m happy to accept this may prove futile in the long run, and the effort needed to get this one bulky shape together implies that my target of going back over two or three other recent nodes of excruciation in the hope of insight might be too hopeful, but still, I’d like to try.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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One Response to blog begins at spectral command

  1. Bill Herbert says:

    I think (this is six years on) that these acronyms are as follows: Quite Important Person, which is the most you can say about most people you are told are important; and Self Important Person, which is what you call someone who thinks that you should think they are important. That reserves VIP for those people you yourself believe to have made a positive difference – economic, intellectual, cultural – to the lives of others.

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