The Three Dumb Things

Amid the steady pressures from others that sum up the day of a committed akratic (someone whose will and sense of self-worth is so pathetically weak they spend all their time trying to satisfy those therefore incessant demands) there remains one reassuring constant: in any twenty four hour period they will do at least three dumb things. These are bulwarks of predictability amid the tides of disappointment and wasted opportunity, so much so that you begin to wonder if the subconscious couldn’t timetable them to occur at regularly spaced intervals during the working day. (There is a myth that the fourth dumbness, the Zeppo of stupidity, occurs during deep sleep and accounts for those occasions in the middle of the night when, without memory of nightmare, you wake feeling especially disorientated, but this must of course remain unproven.)

A couple of factors granted me an unusually clear perspective this morning on my own lurching troika of knuckleheadedness. Autumn is sort of sneaking up on us, marked less by the weather than by the incremental accumulation of duties, as pained reminders of summer’s oversights arrive in the inbox. Family grows flighty: the partner winging it on a writer’s retreat for a couple of weeks; the parents angling for a helpful visit; the daughter returning to a dense routine of school and dance and socialising that requires constant lifts. And so, before letting go with the flow of others’ needs, I have a moment to notice acts that, in their small way, undermine the whole reason I am here. (We’ll come on to that in due course.)

Firstly, I have betrayed the covenant of the ground bean. Coffee, as I told myself years ago, should be a nearly-fetishistic pleasure of a morning. If you’re not in Greece among the kafedhes ellenikous metriou or ous; if you can’t visit the espresso bar by San Eustachio in Rome, where the crema, as San Eustachio himself supposedly confessed, is to be martyred for; if you’re not sitting in Jittery Joe’s in Athens Georgia contemplating the poetry of Rumi as translated by Coleman Barks — then at least buy some coffee beans and grind them yourself in the coffee grinder you bought your partner to grind spices in but which she very rarely uses.

Instead, in a misguided effort to do an entire supermarket shop in the 15 minutes before I had to take my daughter to dance, further distracted by a desire to buy Where the Wild Things Are from the bargain DVD shelf (and an associative ramble about why it was that rental copy of The Darjeeling Ltd kept sticking, which turned into a self-haranguing on why my tastes in film were so relentlessly twee), I seized a bag of ground Colombian and forgot all about the beans.

This was because I’d finally finished the good, dark, slightly too finely-ground coffee I’d brought back from Venezuela, the stuff — along with the ‘Mi Nono’ cocoa powder — I’d been so scrupulously questioned about in Charles De Gaulle. (They are for some reason suspicious when bags of powder appear on the x-ray screens of travellers from the Colombian end of Latin America.) The stuff I’d bought in the duty free at Caracas while desperate to shed Bolivares — the currency in which I was paid for taking part in the seventh World Poetry Festival not being exchangeable elsewhere at a going rate, thanks to the medieval siege going on in relation to that country — except for its oil, of course.

So I was in a state of mourning. Though the coffee, as it turns out, is very good. But this is not the point. The point is that establishing a claim upon the grinder, and buying the right beans (organic Ethiopian), and getting the nifty vacuum mug/plunger device with small detachable coffee-carrying tub hidden in the base, took me years of hare-brained struggle. And the result, that every time I sipped my coffee at work I was transported back to the recently-renamed Obama Restaurant in Hargeisa chatting with Martin Orwin and Gaarriye about Somali poetry while an Ethiopean waiter took a terribly long time to make some OK coffee, was worth the tiny effort. This blog is by way of penance.

The second dumbness was just as convoluted. (The third, you’ll be relieved to read, is much briefer, consisting of a straightforward self-inflicted health threat.) I was driving back from the Royal Mail sorting office, having picked up the copy of Slaughterhouse Five I’d just had sent to me by express delivery, but then hadn’t managed to be in to receive. It would have been easier to go to the nearest bookshop and buy it — the average second-hand could be pretty much relied on to stock it, and we have the excellent Keelrow right here in Shields. But instinctual whim buying knows no practicality, and I was on a must-have kick in relation to thinking about the character of Billy Pilgrim. There is an ‘I’ voice in my latest, almost-finished poetry collection, who is on an if-you-look-at-it-from-the-right-angle pilgrimage thing, and I just wanted to make his acquaintance. Why don’t I have S-5 already? I dunno, I probably do, but looking would take a day, and prevarication is not your friend when time grows tight, and as far as creative space is concerned, time is always tight between the hours of autumn and spring.

Anyway, I’d picked up the book, refused to wait till I got home till I got it out of the packaging, even though I wasn’t going to read it (you gotta gloat), because as Gary Numan pointed out pace Ballard your car is your home, and was driving back… and I missed the turning for Verne Road. Now there were at least three routes I could’ve taken, one of which might even be quicker than Verne Road, but you should never pass on the opportunity to drive down a route you have some imaginative investment in. A friend will only drive down roads lined with trees, which means her passage through the city can be incredibly convoluted, but is always green and shady. Verne, or, to give it its full imaginary title, Jules Verne Road, is just such a route.

A few years ago I was driving down this broad, leafy, sleeping policeman-punctuated thoroughfare when I spotted the only pub on it was called ‘The Nautilus’. It had a sign depicting an old iron-clad steamer, possibly related to the Sunderland steam ship company of that name, but surely it should be referring to Captain Nemo’s vessel? Surely the whole street was, consciously or otherwise, a tribute to the pioneering SF novelist? And so the Verne Road Project was born.

This, despite its grand title, was nothing more than a personal psychogeographical adjustment, using the crappest digital photo programme (cf Lomography), and its only public manifestation was an album on Facebook. But it represented, as do many of the visuals posted there, a currently-neglected aspect of my work, the missing link between my verbals and my visuals. Pressures of time mean that many of these other modes (drama, music and fiction come to mind — you know, the arts) are kept in a larval state, or pursued purely through collaboration, with me bolting on another practitioner to fill the gap in skills etc. So this sort of rudimentary play, the prerequisite for all creative work, is as far as I get. So the chance to turn down Verne Road and revisit the Project shouldn’t have been spurned.

I’ve uploaded this particular image because I just caught the end of the Japanese print exhibition at the Laing, which of course featured the Hokusai wave engulfing Mount Fuji which I’m ‘borrowing’ here. This connected neatly to the nautical theme because my drift through the gallery placed me directly in front of a cabinet displaying the same type of teacups my father, at the time an engineer in the Merchant Navy, had brought back from Japan in the late 50s. These were the ones with the an hua or secret portrait of a geisha’s head in the base of each cup. Drowned in tea and not a hair out of place thanks to Brylcream (which is what shimada looked like to me as the son of a Roy Orbison lookielikie). Plus my father’s teaset featured an image of Fuji on the side.

The third dumbness helpfully triggered this whole process, as the third iteration of anything tends to — it makes you see as pattern that which was merely repetition, thus bringing us on to apophenic phenomena, the sustainable energy source of creative yayas. Anything which summons the image-forming and pattern-developing faculties built into our perceptual habits, but which appears sufficiently unusual to make us conscious of the process itself, has got to be of some value. This is what Da Vinci stared at walls for — yayas.

In my case it involved a chopping board and a banana. One of the things we’d gone flying round the supermarket for the previous evening had been a chicken we could roast for supper, so my daughter could then flake the breast meat for a packed lunch. When I came back from dropping her off at school, Slaughterhouse 5 in my pocket, I started preparing my breakfast and of course used the same chopping board without thinking. Mmm, chicken-flavoured and possibly microbe-infected banana with my cereal. At least it was organic…

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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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