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.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Bird Strike

We need them to arrive like moving ink from the sky

We need them to gather tiny bits of us in their beaks

We need them to be all shapes and sizes, fights put on hold

We need them to grab our clothing, hair and skin, it´ll hurt

We need them to pull us up from the streets of the yawning capital

We need them to carry us up above the trees and the continuing windows

We need them to keep lifting, so that we see all those towers from above

We need them to carry us out of the smog and over our building sites, up to the aeroplanes

We need them to carry us, screaming and laughing, no doubt wetting ourselves, along through the sky-smears of vapour trails

We need them to make us hover near great twirling engines, make us hear that great noise, see a middle-aged man chomp on a sandwich, he hasn´t been lifted into the sky by birds

We need them to teach us what it means to shit over the land whilst riding the invisible concourse of thermals, waves and particles, differing slabs of curving land not as important as the sea, not from up here, no, and we forget our guns

We need them to take us up and along and through the most terrifying party we have ever been to, us, all of us who happened to be on the streets of London at that particular hour on a Tuesday morning, a party that will stay beating in our breasts long after the birds have wiped our memories and set us safely back down, sore, pecked and confused, beating in our breasts til we die

Monday, 21 April 2014

Two poems about throwaway objects

Chewing Gum Wrapper

See that chewing gum wrapper
With its metallic sheen,
Its papery underside,
Its serrated edge,
See it down there on the cobbles
Neighboured by fresh dog shit,
Discarded paper glinting in the Seville sun.

If it were an animal,
It would be a kind of lizard,
One leg stretched towards the light,
Warming its blood perhaps
Or frightened by my presence,
Both standing there, staring, free of will.
A glinting lizard under the sweating sun.

If it were human,
It would be in dire need
But instead, it suggests an owner
That I almost want to hate.
This rejected scrap, baby shadowed,
Dropped by a hand that simply doesn't care-
Shoes tapped away from it, human heads unturned.

The lizard catches my eye and winks.
The humans have their money and concerns,
Their losses too.
But me, I've got a lizard.



'Is this a contact lens?'
The shock of seeing it there,
Curled upon her fingertip,
An approximation of sight,
A small transparent skin,
Plastic, peeled from the eyeball
And resting against the swirls
Of lines that show who his wife is.
A symbolic eye spying
On their marriage. A shock
Of memory- the strange woman
Snapping at her own eyes. Needing
To get something out. Like she was
Being bitten. The lens tells of mascara,
Splayed lashes, puffy faces on a hushed
And secretive morning. The nausea.
Lick the eye and remove the fly.
Is his wife doing that now?
'But neither of us wears them.'
Her fingertip blinks.

Monday, 7 April 2014


The greying woman stands in the shallows, her shoes wet.
Waves play cold liquid games with her legs. Clouds curl.
A fish swims up. It wears her lover’s face.

When she awakes she puts the radio on. Voices, cold light, no music.
She showers, chooses her clothes. Imagines changing her hair.
Appearances almost matter. Her car is clean.

In the classroom her face is caressed by an occasional sea breeze.
She stands at the board and remembers numbers and lines.
There is a boy with the face of a fish. She carries on.

Monday, 31 March 2014



I Think My Repeat Prescription's Getting Damp

May I speak to you, rain? Will you grant me an audience?
There are confessions to be made, rain. Down on one knee,
head bent- will you listen to me? Oh rain.

You see, rain, you have been mistreated. I shake. You have
been mocked, oh mighty moving water. And will you please
listen to me? Even if only briefly? Oh rain.

Games are played with your name, rain. You give us a drop
and we call it a shame. We make short rhymes and tell you to
go away. And there has to be another day. Oh rain.

We cliché you, rain. Can you countenance this? We cat and dog
you; we say that you pour; we say that you piss. Take yourself away
and it’s all quickly amiss. We dance and kill. Oh rain.

Names are given, small categories. You are light and heavy, shower
and drizzle, spits and spots, deluge, monsoon- cloud-riddles. We
quiver. Can you be tamed with a name? Oh rain.

I’ve heard at burials your visit can bring luck. To others you’re a reckoning,
come to destroy those of us stuck in sin, so bad, rotten within. Each of us due
to drown like a rat. We made up a story about that. Oh rain.

I could point to your homophones: holding horses and toddlers, guarding
thrones. But, rain, I’ll desist. On one knee, I’ll insist, just a few seconds
more. The cascading depths, the awe! Oh rain.

You see, I know what you feel when you let yourself go- little mankind
rushing to, rushing fro, as if we actually had somewhere to go. And dreaming
of control. You splash us awake and let us know. Oh rain.

When you come, rain, the earth smells good, it really does. You celebrate
the frog, unearth the worm. But why the rumble, now? Do you think I am trying
to assay you? On the sodden street, outside a law firm? Oh rain.

Rain, all the chemists are closed. Are you something I dream up in the sponge
hours imposed this Sunday, bloating and thick? And please, one more thing
to say. If I rhyme you with pain, will you wash it away? Oh 

Monday, 24 March 2014

 Our narrator has recently moved to an unnamed eastern European city in order to write his great work. He is waiting for inspiration:

...I had been born with an aristocratic older lady tethered to my insides. I didn’t need too much external verification.

            When I was twelve, stumbling into the horrors of puberty, reeling from the revelation of Will’s unclad torso glimpsed in the changing rooms, I came to realise that I needed to protect myself. I made a decision: I would never attempt to be of the body. Physical beauty belonged only in the realms of extreme fantasy. Whatever caresses I might come by in my life, they would never equal the sight of a bare-chested school bully. I knew this, accepted it and made my decision- I would never be of the body.

            I considered Stephen the best I could hope for.

            I am not ashamed of the time we spent together. Stephen is now a very successful man, quite the celebrity in his own milieu. I could boast a bit if I had the heart. I don’t.

            Lonely, I struggled into my second month in the city, continuing to hide in my flat, still clinging to a little hope. I imagined my book unfolding. I walked from room to room clutching at ideas, all ephemeral, all sickeningly dull given a minute’s consideration. My real energies went into the construction of fantasies that were far from literary, their purpose being to keep me from teetering over into total despair. Ever since childhood I had done this: imagined life rather than lived it. In my early months in the new foreign city I returned to this hobby with gusto. I would walk around my flat talking to myself. My eyes open but my mind elsewhere.

            There were restrictions in place. The imaginings had to be within the realms of possibility.This still allowed me plenty of scope. Thus I daydreamed of myself made respectable, respected and popular by my literary achievements. Famed for my soirees, I attracted the artistic and intellectual elite from all over Europe to my tastefully furnished abode and served cocktails amid witty banter dressed in a green velvet smoking jacket. Very Wildean, I thought- my diluted approximation of the man (I could barely even drink back then). I pictured titled people in my sitting room: Duke, Duchess, Earl. Walking through fields in tweeds, shotgun over one arm, turned suddenly unsqueemish, I saw myself at Sandringham, invited the for the Boxing Day shoot. Such fantasies were fine.

            But the aforementioned bully was out. He had no place in my conscious thoughts. Many years ago I had banished him to that wheedling limbo very close to sleep, where he would sometimes appear. Then it would be sticky pyjama bottoms again. Once more the scrubbing of the stubborn spot.

            How sure I was of my ability to transcend such seedy matters! I really thought I was meant for higher things.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Brocced Up

Brocced Up

Last night I was a badger.
With a hot mouth
Of sharp teeth,
I steamed
Against the moon,
And ran.
I felt cold, ploughed soil;
I ran in dips and grooves;
I didn't know
Where I was supposed to go.
Heavy feet
Shook the ground.
The chase was on,
My blood was up,
My mouth was gasping
In the night.

Today I can still feel it-
A trace of badgerness
Held inside my suit,
A badger taste
To things.
My tie, I feel
Bristled, newly furred.
Colleagues sniff and
I want to growl.
In the office
I can sense
Cold earth
Around me,
Moonfed nighttime
And death.

There is something grubby
Moving in my
Toasted panini.
There is cool
Mud on my tie.
An itch
In my ear
Brings crumbled earth
To my finger.
My sides
Dream of the
Safety of the sett.
I'm sitting in my car, the day done,
And I don't know
Where I'm supposed to go.

Marksman, dog, hatchling, hedgehog... where's home?