Sunday, 11 May 2014
Nobody Likes A Try Hard
I have recently made a breakthrough. It happened while sitting on the terrace of a bar facing the beach at Tangier, the spot where Tennessee Williams got down a first draft of that masterpiece of neurosis, Cat On A Tin Roof. Perhaps the perceptive old soak had left some writerly energy behind, hovering there in front of a view of beach and sea and modest cranes and rubble. I put pen to paper. The old man having a pub lunch with his friends, I finally knew what he is going to order. Salmon. He wants the salmon. And then I went on scribbling, telling myself I could go on. It's foolhardy really: the choice of salmon just doesn't ring true.
I would love to say that I'm a published writer and sit back and finish my drink. I would love not to have to tell you that I'm trying. Trying my best. Like those poor schoolkids who only ever get high marks for effort.
You can see Morocco from the Spanish town of Tarifa. You stand by the sea and think about how that's Africa you can see over there, presenting itself in a rocky horizon. A mountain sits on a cushion of mist. You can see the rocky detail of shrub and shadow. You think: if I'm supposed to be a writer, then I need to describe this. Your mind goes blank, as it does every time you have this thought. I would like to be a painter, so that I might fuss over my palette until I got the exact nuances of the colours of the sea. I would like to live by the sea for a year and learn how to write about it. Can you get grants for such things? That's Morocco over there. I tried not to worry about whether I'd locked the door to the flat properly, tried not to ponder what it is that I'll have forgotten to do at work, tried to forget about Easyjet.
We took the giant catamaran, a powerful beast that got us to the other side in a mere 35 minutes. At least it wasn't a plane. I spent the journey standing on the deck, scanning the sea for dolphins or whales. I saw one, a dolphin. I saw the dark shimmery back of its body, saw its tail, a quick splash back into the water. Had it jumped out when I wasn't looking in the right place? Did I wishfully hallucinate this animal? The animal we put on posters with quotes about how there are some nice things in life, it was the same colour as the water it slipped into, dark and somehow like glass. A good omen, I hoped. I am still hoping.
After a day largely spent in a happy daze wandering the streets of the city, getting lost in the medina, feeling floaty and unsure of what thoughts were trying to get at me, I found myself sitting in a small bar with my two friends. It was a favourite haunt of Francis Bacon, back in the days when Tangier was a hotbed of bohemian licentiousness, and the ink flowed. Another fascinating old soak. When you enter that state where you're trying to remember what it was you were worrying about, it is liberating to imagine that upper-crust wheeze with which Bacon used to release his honest and uncompromising pronouncements. If you want to be normal, whatever that is, then please go ahead, but if you don't, if you're not cut out for it, then don't get involved with normal worries. The thoughts that had been sneaking up behind me on my stroll through the city, hassling me like a needy tout but unable to say anything precise, they were about the future. Normal worries, and very boring too.
At least I have the salmon. Satisfactions can be relative. Someone should have told Mick Jagger about that. Although I very much get where he was coming from. We live in a world where the spaces that can be filled with troublesome knowledge are proliferating. It is very interesting to have reached the mythical sounding age of thirty-seven and to see where the arbiters of normality propose I should be. Two years ago I read an article in The Guardian telling me that I had reached the optimum age at which to be alive. As if this concept were not depressing enough in its own right, the thing was published in the Money section. At thirty five you have reached milestones like buying a house and having children, and those children don't need quite so much looking after anymore, and you're financially secure and still have the excitement of getting to the peak of your career ahead of you. That happens when you're thirty nine. It seems I have little choice but to whole-heartedly shun any normative concepts of adult progression. I'll have to try something else. Yes, try.
We stayed in a hotel in the medina in Fes. It was just around the corner from the butchery section. After nearly witnessing the swift end of a squawking white cockerel, I soon found a way of avoiding this part of town. An old town it is, a labyrinth of narrow alleyways barely touched by the sun but hot with the fug of humans and other animals. Donkeys are dragged through the bustle, laden with goods or waste, kittens munch on a chicken's head, food gets piled up, things are put on sale, leather flavours the walls, spaces open up and trees appear, and then it narrows down again and you get lost and a disordered chorus of voices ask you where you want to go. This is the thrill of trapped exploration. You say very little but your mind buzzes. Looked at from above this sprawl of chaotic maze is massive.
And it makes you think. This medieval city offers a metaphor, one that makes you want to sit down and catch your breath. It tells you about the sickening labyrinthine repetition of thought. In the rhythm of your footsteps forceful questions get asked: what are you going to do? How are you going to survive? When are you going to write that book? How? What are they going to do once the old man has ordered his salmon? When? How? Will there come a day when you admit that you've been kidding yourself all along?
This might be why nobody likes a try hard. They make us long for ease and space. When we read a book or listen to a song, we don't want the smell of factory fumes, we want something sublime and self-forgetful. What is it you're walking past whilst getting gnawed by thoughts? It is people living by their wits; it is colour and energy, the accidental byproducts of the struggle for survival. The old man fiddling with something small and electronic, white sparks dancing near his hands, is long past the age when we're supposed to reach the pinnacle of our careers. It is unlikely that such a concept will ever infect the minds of the grubby kids who offer us a cheery 'bonjour.' At five in the morning we are briefly awoken by the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. The sound is intense, staticky and deeply earnest. I understand the appeal of religion, of ritual: it can be a way of paying respect to a slippery but demanding part of ourselves. Perhaps it is our imaginations demanding to be fed. Perhaps we should just call it our hunger for art. The word is pliable- stretch it whichever way you wish.
One more thing as I struggle to bring this ramble to a close. I recently joined a group on Facebook called 52, which provides a different prompt for each week of the year and is an excellent opportunity for experimentation, especially for a lazy soul like me. Some of the poems I've posted on the blogs were responses to these prompts. I've had some very constructive feedback. It makes me long for a patient editor all of my own. If you've read this far, you'll understand why. While I was in Morocco, the prompt was to write on the subject of 'names.' I tried. What I produced felt small and mean, faint-hearted. And I think that's because I strained, made too much effort, was too conscious about the whole thing. There's a reason why so many writers (and artists, like our hungover friend, Mr Bacon) get working very early in the morning and take advantage of their dozing states of mind.
I wanted to get this written before I start back at work. It is a wandering ramble like the warrenous medina at Fes. This writing is work I have chosen for myself. To do it satisfactorily, I have to step away from modern assumptions. Too many targets and you end up shooting yourself.
Thus life as a foreigner suits me well. Today is Sunday, it sways with ambivalence. Instead of fretting about the things I'll find out I've forgotten to do, I'm going to take my notebook to a cafe, sit and sweat, write what happens next now the old man has opted for the salmon. Hopefully I'll keeping going until I get to the stage where I can cut that whole section out. It's worth a try.