Friday, November 21, 2008


Dreadlock holiday; when she returned home it was time for a haircut. She tipped her head back. Carefully she took the razorblunt implement, held it to the light and purified it in the mug’s luminous essence: alcohol. The meths reminded her of the hazy drugfug, the fumes and the flames of her earlier days. She used to watch them carefully, those flames atop the fiery shots that she downed in bars, one by one, like swallowing sparklers that fizzled out in her mouth: a daring, if not dangerous, trick.

Now Sian watched the scissors sizzle, flicker open and shut like flames across her hair. Scissors spread-eagled like a pair of legs, vibrating, quivering with the cut and squeal of each lock lost, her ebony tresses falling like trellises, the scissors snapping shut like curtains, closing on the final scene, the signal to the audience that the deed is done. Her hair is cut.


There is no audience to signal to, except herself. The strands of straight black hair lie like jailbars on the table, prison bars that she has broken free from: made a break for short spiky simplicity. The bars clunk as they hit the table and her eyes freeze across them like icicles – they will not melt for a few minutes, not until she hears the soft unwinding of keys from a coat pocket, the failure of the door’s silence as it is forced to open, the sound of another. Then she will look up.

“What the fuck is this about?” The words whistled around Sian and imprinted their vicious anger on her consciousness, not quite deflected by her hair’s short spikes – not yet . The spikes weren’t armour yet, they let goosebumps pinch on her neck like fat bubbling on a frying pan. She didn’t want to be one of the pretty girls whose eyelashes mimic their hair – long, black, wavy – whose mouths were lily fountains to drink from. Not any more. Yet at least the long hair had been a protection, a curtain to a four poster bed were she could curl up to her soul and introspect, stare straight at the kernel of her thoughts and forget about the rest of the world. This short hair left her free – and vulnerable.

“This is my fucking notebook! You can’t just cut your fucking hair all over my notebook!” Yet the strands formed words, swinging around the straight lines of the notebookblack strands swung around the straight lines of the notebook like words, communicating in a new language. Freshly cut hair, thought Sian: finally something scribbled in a notebook that could be described as original.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"Harpsichord music sounds like skeletons copulating on an old tin roof.."

harsh... Pic = copyright Alex Moore, illustrator extraordinaire. (

The night of Kir = White wine and a town called Cassis

We take a train to Cassis and search for a hostel for three hours, having walked sweaty from the station. We ask a boy about our youth hostel; he leads us to the town square and confidently points out a block of light atop a dark and depressing concrete building.
"C'est la." He disappears down a narrow medieval alley, and we climb the rusting iron railings that form a skeleton staircase in the darkness and walk towards the bright light at the top. There's golden music coming from the doorway, it feels like we're hallucinating heaven...

Then we peer in and it's not a hostel at all; there are a load of old people sitting on school chairs in a circle, singing in harmony. Oh fuck. This is intensely strange... an old lady comes out to tell us that we have reached the Cultural Centre of Cassis. So this is not our youth hostel. We quaff cheap wine until the situation doesn't seem so bad. Everywhere is full, apart from a hotel offering one room for three people at 96 euros... three people take it, the rest of us agree to sleep on the beach.

At the beach we watch the gendarmerie (armed police) patrol the sand, bored and curious about the three guys and a girl perched on the steps, chattering in English and playing cards. Our night is peculiarly peopled: some pretty French women donate us a bottle of wine they don't want, a curious old guy asks us if we are cold while his wife urges him away, muttering "don't talk to those tramps," and the strange boy with a light strapped to his head slopes along the coast for hours in the dark, combing the beach for some long forgotten relic.

4AM: We migrate to the town square. Neils is asleep astride a low wall, Henry is insomniac and wide-eyed, Ipod tucked into his ears. Tom is asleep on the bench, curled up under a couple of towels. It never gets dark exactly, the streetlamps sweat out silver light all night as we sit and make small talk and slip into sleep for one brief hour...
Then morning comes and we have done it: we have slept rough. We slowly evolve from vagrants into civilised tourists, transformed by coffee and pain au chocolat, ready to face the day.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Soundbites from the boat

We have become aggressive hunter-gatherers, snarling at anything that hinders our chance of survival - waiters, mosquitos, pedestrians - and developping the deadly instincts of a Dalek when it comes to stray insects on the boat. "If it flies, it dies," Shaz says grimly, swatting another one away. We all laugh.

Bleak Valleys humour and hysterical laughter are becoming familiar landmarks on the rolling soundscape of the canal, along with a buzzing fan and a stuttering pipe pumping out water. Every time the pipe starts pumping, my father asks, "does that mean the boat is sinking? Should we book into a hotel?" He sounds hopeful.

The boat's new catchphrase has been announced as:
"If you dump, you pump."
This refers to the toilets that only flush if you pump them vigorously. Hysterical laughter again. That's a good sign, isn't it? Maybe one day soon we'll be sitting around a roaring fire telling tales of our inexpert manoeuvrings of this boat. Like Odysseus and his crew. That's right. Maybe this counts as bonding.

"Mum, it's not like being on a car, you have to -"
"Oh just shut up!"
"Now, now..."
" Mum, your sailing's worse than your driving."
"You've been itching to say that, haven't you?"

Well, sort of bonding anyway. Oh family holidays! This one's been peculiarly pleasant, even though we are bitten and sandy and sweaty and unwashed. Waking up to the canal and the green glowing leaves, vivid living limbs of trees that shimmer and rustle with life, crisp against the clear blue sky. Leaves agitating, whispering, telling us to get a move on and enjoy the bright blue day. The solid metal sheen of the bike is winking at me in the sunlight, raring to go...

Oh fuck. Trying to moor up on the bank, we have managed to dent both the side of the boat and a tree. We are not like Odysseus and his crew. Nowhere near. We are more like the green seascum that latched onto the bottom of the boat, lazy and unskilled, hoping for a free ride...!

Mum: "I don't believe in washing up liquid. We're not getting any. We don't need it, all those chemicals."
Me, muttered: "Oh dear god."

Between a loch and a hard place

The soft drip-drop could mean mosquitos or an empty water tank. This noise wakes me, alerts me to the possibility of danger. Am lying on a hard lump of a bed, that feels like frozen custard - same colour too. Lurid pink curtains let in artificially-flavoured strawberry light. I open my eyes again and I'm lying in a tiny cabin on a boat. I'm not sure where I am. I'm not sure who else is on board. I'm not even sure if the boat is moving. Oh fuck - I think it is...

the morning after (the Cambridge ball)

A bike, cut clean
across their bickering conversation.
Blinds drawn, banishing the dawn.
Cocktails that clink, grotesquely.
This world does not fit
right- this world is reality

threatening the shape
of both their dreams, imposing its exterior
hideousness. Turning women in ball gowns
into girls about town, smudged make-up
and smeared smiles painted insincere
-less smile than sneer- with jam-and-butter
breakfast-traces strewn across their unripe faces...

this is not the world of visions
nor of hopes - the perfection of a rose,
the sky, their hearts, simply could not cope.

the traveller

and fancyfree

I slipped my sandals under
the seat opposite me,
tipped my toes
onto the ledge so that my legs were a bridge

between the train's cool cushion
and myself, later bridging the gap
between the train and platform,
transporting me

from door to distant land
like a sultan who disrobes,
weary from battle and the weight
of royal matters, settles atop a silky seat -

so do my feet, released from sweaty sandals
glitter with sun-brown battle scars.

Like a traveller
who's been granted royal protection I bow low,
and smile and tell them it's not far...

Thursday, August 14, 2008

concert at Exeter college chapel, Oxford

We sat down and were showered with gold. There's no other way of putting it: gold liquid drops of candlelight welled from the wax as though the candles had been moved to tears by the music. Then there was the honey-gold that spilled onto the singers' skin, reflected from the chalice-coloured archways of the church, where the saints shimmered like crumpled stars, hung above a portal into another world - one of music and unsayable longing.
Music and art often reach feelings that are deeper than words... The way that classical music could stir people has been lost to the class snobbery and academic bias of decades, centuries even. Now ordinary people avoid classical music and academics/ pseudo-intellectuals relish it - they can speak intelligently about a piece of music, and think that this is akin to understanding it, ergo enjoying it. This is false logic; one can enjoy something immensely, feel moved by it, without understanding it at all... kissing, for instance, is one such example. Music is another.
Sometimes speaking critically and academically about a piece of music enables you to find a deeper meaning in it. Sometimes it simply distracts you from the power and beauty of the thing itself.

The singer in this chapel was singing 'an die Einsamkeit' - 'on solitude'. Kind of ironic, I thought, that three people had joined together to perform a piece of music about being alone... Then I looked around at the golden light and the fragile blue of the chapel windows, like egg shell vibrating as the living, incredible thing hatched within, cracking our human shells with this beautiful sound...
Alright, I thought, well done, you've said something suitably clever. Full marks, you faux intellectual. Now shut up and concentrate on the music...

Charivari Agreable, the Oxford Baroque ensemble

Monday, August 11, 2008

the wine merchant

Nicolas was her local wine merchant; she visited his shop on Fridays, and when she left she always ready to step into the weekend in style, wine in tow. The shop was narrow and teeming with bottles; they crouched by the counter like clumps of wild flowers and crept up the walls like ivy, taking ownership of the shop, transforming it into an intoxicating lair. This place was a cavern of brewed mischief, where bottles of wine as sweet as ambrosia and as dark as dragon’s blood piled high against the walls. Stepping into this haven and doing business with Nicolas was the way that she rescued herself, every Friday, from the drudgery of the working week.
Is it any wonder, then, that in the bar she fell back on Nicolas, and on alcohol, to drown her sorrows once again? It was the habit of years: she had always relied on Nicolas, received alcohol, delivered from his hands. And so, once again she accepted a drink from him, and relied on him and leant on his arm and...
...and so the affair began, in that first heady sip of wine. Nicolas had a long nose and very narrow nostrils which he used to discern the flavours of a new vintage. His eyes flashed green when he was impassioned, like blades of grass caught in sunlight. He always had a hint of stubble.
But the thing that caught her most about him was the scar. A deep red mark etched on his collarbone betrayed his adolescent apprenticeship as a wine merchant, when he dropped a bottle of wine costing thousands and a glass shard caught his torso. She often traced that scar in the dark with her fingers when he was sleeping. Years later she could draw it with her eyes closed, recreate that beautiful mark of clumsy adolescence.

cigarettes and cinders

We were in a dim-lit club crammed full of twenty-year-olds and cocktails and the slightest scent of sweat. The dancers were too close for comfort, but the loud distorted noise of the bar made it a good place to spill secrets.
Nathalie crossed one leg over the other so that both legs reflected the spangling light of the bar. Her hair was astonishing; it fell across her shoulders and wrapped itself around her frame like amber silk, a robe in itself.
She tipped a tussle of tobacco onto a flattened out cigarette paper, rolled it and rerolled it with concentration, as though it were a piece of origami that she wanted to get exactly right. Soon the cigarette smoke fluttered from her mouth: smoke like a fleet of faded butterflies, emerging from their crumpled lung chrysalis. The smoke dispersed but the tobacco odour lingered and clung to our clothes, the fumes of a dark perfume.

The bite reimagined

« Enfin, ne pouvant bientôt plus former de sons, il mordit Pauline au sein. » ("finally, almost unable to form sounds any more, he bit Pauline's breast.") Balzac, La Peau de Chagrin

They fought about condoms, icecream, family, friends, what constitutes good music and when exactly they were going to get married, but their love for each other always stopped them from stepping over the line, crossing the threshold into single life again. Until something extraordinary happened.

He bit her breast. There was a horrific sinking sharp crackling bite, as though her breast were a prawn cracker snapped by some indifferent obese restaurant goer, his forehead thick with sweaty pleasure. His predator’s teeth were buried deep in her soft flesh, his gourmet cannibalism unleashed.

She flinched and screamed; only then did he let go. She recoiled from the viciousness of it, the pain. She couldn't understand the alien destructive impulse that had caused him to snake-like sink cold diamond-cut teeth into her human flesh.
Later, in disbelief, standing by the bathroom mirror in my own flat, she inspected the two pink, ugly rims of teethmarks - one where he had drawn blood - and the bottle-blue bruise. Even though the wound wasn’t infected, it hurt. That night sucked life out of her like snake venom.
That’s why she left. Running through the night in a tear-stained dress, she wept for a love that had kept her safe for so long and finally failed her now.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Bayonne Festival

At the Bayonne everybody wears red and white, drinks, sings and dances around the vibrant streets.People wear scarves and tug the scarves of other people they find attractive. Robin and I ask for a mojito; we get given a suspicious bottle that looks like it has been fished out of the sea; gravel and seaweed are still stuck to its sides. It reeks of alcohol.
I am wearing a spangly red dress , the colour of shimmering children's arts and crafts paper, too ridiculously fluorescent to actually be worn. It is beautifully cut, but still somehow looks childish - Shaz tells me that it looks like I made it in a Design Tec lesson with a sewing machine. Simple it may be, but it is crimson - both the colour of the festival and the colour of desire - and it is fun, and I feel very nineteen walking down the streets of Bayonne in a spangly red dress, hips swaying to the music, smiling like a maniac - very young and very free and euphoric - full of possibility...

The Bishop's Palace, France

We entered under the stern gaze of two stone statues. They stood to attention on the side of a square lawn like security guards. Later, I came to see the statues as oversized bishops standing by the side of a chessboard lawn. The lawn was the board on which our family rivalries and manoeuvres were played out, where meetings and departures were frequent and significant. Each word was tense, on edge; every move altered the balance of power between siblings, lovers, children. We were the pawns. I didn't realise it then, but my family were playing dangerously close to checkmate.
The house was antiquated, majestic - an appropriate place for a grand reunion of faded fortunes and dreams. Grand turquoise sofas sighed when you sank into them. Heavy curtains of burnished gold glowed with sunlight, wooden floors ached with moths and bats and cobwebs. Rot and deterioration crept into every corner.
The bookshelves were packed with neglected beauties, a veritable Aladdin's cave of books. Their thick leather bindings sported gold leaf that glimmered. These books were ghosts of an old nobility, meticulously ordered and beautifully bound - but never read. The paintings were of little boys and pretty young women whose eyes followed you through the corridors. They glimmered in the dark and watched.

a baby bat

A tiny bat fallen on wooden floorboards, a tangle of sharp black bones and velvety skin that lurks like an inky daddy long legs. Rachel picks up the bat with a piece of cardboard. She pokes its limbs with paper edges until it acquiesces. Scooped up onto the cardboard like a bowl of icecream, its wings are little black creamy drips dangling from the edge. Creeping towards Rachel, the bat becomes a furry little baby, wiggling its black wings on her arm, climbing up her arm like an infant, looking for milk.

the setting sun

an impossible scoop of dream flavour icecream melting seraphic light into the sky like whipped cream. The colours: pink and golden like the flamingos and burnished gold of an impossible archipegalo. Crimson and violet beat their fleeting wings across the sky. Each colour leaves an inky imprint on the heavens, the kiss of a wine-stained mouth on blue cheeks.

(influence: Sheelagh Neuling- if you tell him)

sketch in Cambridge

A woman in a bright red umbrella. A man glancing into the cafe window disapprovingly. A skinny guy, students touching, taking footsteps that dust the pavement but, like icing sugar, can be rustled away with one breath of wind. The trellises of King's College with patterns that run like fancy footwork along the top of the wall, dancing shapes across the stone. The rush of a bike, circular speeding streamline wheels that cut clean across the roadscape. Roses, mine, at home. Darkness and the thin crack of light, banished by blinds. a woman with glasses and a headband and sunshine yellow shoes. The looming sky. Flashes, flashes.

the morning after the night before

Eight students on the table in front of me. They have been at a Cambridge may ball, made it to the survivors' photo at 6am and are now having breakfast with smudged makeup and ballgowns crumpled from the all night vigil.
One, a girl- or is she a woman? - is wearing something between a ballgown and a gold-sequined mermaid outfit from a fancy dress box. She is playing at fashion, aiming for a cross between nobility and Amy Winehouse.
Her eye makeup is exquisite; golden pearls of shimmer punctuate her eyelids. Shadows sweep across her lids alluringly. Her earrings dangle regally; they are grown up earrings that one might wear to the opera, and are a counterpoint to the crass conversation:
"Callum said I chose my earrings to match the way his bollocks dangle."
Hysterical laughter fills the air like champagne bubbles. She moves slightly, smugly, but her bosom does not move. It is tucked tightly into a sequined bustier, pressed into two breast-clusters, two glittering galaxies. Her tinted black nails betray her adolescence, scratched to imperfection.

The students leave and their table is an anti-feast of crumbs and water jugs and elegantly crumpled napkins. Their table is a work of art- left abandoned, a creation in itself, betraying little about its creators. Funny how the remains of a meal are fairly indiscriminate - this table could have been occupied by a large family, businessmen or ladies who lunch. The remains of the last supper, or Queen Cleopatra's feast: and all that's left is this wooden table, these crumbs.
Only writing can repeople the table, tell a little of its back-story.

the Rhine, Germany

Today we swam in the Rhine.The river looked murky but when we got in it was so clear, the water very pure. Our bodies were illuminated peach gold shimmers under the water, mermaids' bodies.

gypsy girl, dancefloor

A gypsy girl, thin in a very beautiful way, came to the table. Her cheekbones glistened with sweat, her skin was luminous. She held a bottle in the hand, a roll-up in the other. Her nose was pierced, one sparkling diamond hovering there uncertainly to signal her rebellion, but without upsetting the exquisite balance of her nostrils. This girl was one of those unique beings who have something about them, a quality that makes you want to watch them and never look away, hold them and never let them go.
She wore plain jeans and a black top which revealed glowing skin, two shoulder blades pulling like wings. Her hair was pinned up at the back of her head with a pencil, as though she were an artist, the strands curling around like swirls of paint. Her eyes shone; she was wholly concentrated on her lover, the dance.

She danced nearer and nearer to him and he danced too, and they were in time to the music the drumbeats the rhythm the lyrics, they moved and they shook and they shimmied closer and closer together, they danced they were dancing closer together and their hip bones were touching closer together
and then
he takes her suddenly, catching her head like a falling star in his hands and pouring burning light into her lips with his an animal kiss, a surprise kiss, playing passion - his trump card - laying his desire on the table.

She tilts her head and kisses back, mouths moving and hands searching,
the music over,
the seduction complete.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Origano festival, Austria

The 'origano' festival took place in Dornbirn's main square. Arabic melodies mingled with African drumbeats intertwining into the lilting Eastern European instruments. Europeans, however, are shy about dancing, insecure about the way others will perceive them.
This makes the dance in European cultures seriously tame, and somewhat dull. Dance as an art form, not just as an embarrassed half-shimmy in a crowded club, needs to be resurrected.
Anyway, this festival felt like a lemon slice of London, a concentrated crowd of fun lovers of all ages moving to the music, hair spangling in the jumping lights - enjoying living, no, loving living. Guys with dreadlocks and rollups clapped and stomped and smiled, while the music tumbled around them like whirling dervishes descending. I moved too, unsure of myself but feeling swayed by the music, not quite confident enough to really let go...

Hakkasan, London

The chatter of conversation travels up dark mahogany trellises, latticeworks through which light interweaves in Chinese patterns. A woman stands feet apart, stony-faced, freeze-framed and heavily made up. Behind her is what looks like a panel, which she occasionally beats back with her palm like a gong, to reveal a passageway to the bathrooms.
The tables are dark like the latticework, divided by darkness. The diners see and are recognised by waves of light that come from unobtrusive ceiling spotlights above each table, creating a pool of intimacy, enclosing each group's table with dark space, so that they feel they are the only diners being waited on. Diners are encircled in dishes of light as waiters place dishes of food between them.
Alan and I have a marvellous time here. This restaurant is popular and time is tightly kept, each diner only allowed a limited slot in this enchanted space of dark wood and stylish lighting. Mysterious glimmers of smiles and snippets of conversation flit like fireflies across the lake of marble floor. After being served small dishes of food as potent as potions and as bewitching, we are asked to move to the bar. Here the last of our white wine tingles in our glasses as we talk of literature, Proust, cubism, whether Braques beats Picasso, the purpose of words...
I step into the cab, utterly bewitched, and gabble words into my mobile phone as though under a spell. Entranced.

Nuremberg, Germany

This place is beautiful only if you can call concrete jungles beautiful. Expensive shops, complicated fretwork, buildings rise like sculptures from concrete plinths. Humans walk around like living miniatures. The tall buildings shade most of the ground from the sun, dip it in semi-darkness - a perfect light for preserving expensive artworks.
But we are not miniatures or models or sculptures, we are people. We are breathing, living beings - and there is something beautiful about life that this city with its grey squares and fancy pavement patterns iscrushing, withholding, failing to acknowledge. Art that is truly beautiful, or arresting, often contains a glimmer of life, of emotion or muscle or colour or something, some vivacity, which Nuremberg totally lacks.

Monday, August 4, 2008


I went out with little girl Janet, each of us clutching a bowl and sandal-shod, and scrambled over to the two families and stood and ducked and clambered to pick raspberries. The last time I saw raspberries, they were three suggestive red blossoms atop an alcoholic cocktail – a seductive fruit, the fruit of lust – sweet but sharp. The raspberries’ rich purple-red was the hue of the roses I was given – so raspberries also recall love, romance. Funny now, how children – quite literally the fruits of love – harvest these other fruits of love. The symbolism comes full circle.

fishing for answers

Fishing is cowardice and a thick streak of blood. The shoal of trout were creating a whirlpool of swirling tails and gills just under the surface of the water. We dropped sweetcorn on hooks into the water and waited till the stupider trout took hold. Once caught they flipped about frantically, expending the last of their life-energy in one last desperate fling because they had nothing left to lose – just like the poker player, desperate and despairing, chucks in his chips in a final plea to fate. Like there’s no tomorrow. Then, once caught, the fish endured three blunt whacks on the head until they grew limp and the blood streamed.
Is this fair? Humans were responsible for all of this, this ending of a life in exchange for a pleasant meal which we didn’t need. The pain of a dying trout must be electrifying – a pain that, if it were inflicted on humans, I would consider torturous and totally unacceptable. It is socially unacceptable to kill a human, but fine to kill an animal. Is the double standard justified? Surely pain is pain, the ending of a life is still the end of a life, be it animal or human?

Humans, ironically, are not so humane. Today I watched a mother let her daughter torment anbother little girl until she cried. The mother could easily have stepped in and resolved the situation, but she didn't. Was she blinded by love, or by selfish loyalty? Is loyalty genuinely a force for good? Isn’t loyalty just the flip side of tribal instincts, fear of the other and self-preservation? If compassion enables you to reach out to a human whom you have nothing in common with, doesn’t loyalty do the opposite, and encourage you to stick with humans whom you have a connection to? Perhaps loyalty is the antithesis of compassion, a closing-ranks instinct rather than a reaching-out one.

great quote

“There’s something
in the definition of happiness that requires that it arise freely; you can
provide the right environment for it, but can’t force the matter.” Oliver

Salsa bar, London

Shapes move to a music that sways through the men and women, bouncing the men’s arms and the women’s breasts, flinging feet in an untraceable pattern of steps which, like the trail of kisses across a woman’s body, is led by the men.

This is salsa, only the music is pounding from speakers in a bar in London and the dancers are posers with cowboy hats and bootylicious bodices. This dance is theatre and music combined; the couples entwined enact a courting ritual, a seduction, which the music moves them into, sizzling and swirling around them until the dancer’s identities are sacrificed unto the music, until the dancers are the music ...they move closer into each other’s arms, press up against slick sexy sweaty torsos. Their bodies become curvaceous shimmering shadows in the strange strobe lighting. The music climbs higher; the dancers sway and shimmy more and more...

Men ask us to dance, by way of a possessive hand around our waists and a powerful tug that sends our hearts thudding and our salsa steps landing in a flurry of footprints across the dance floor. Later, sitting in a booth drinking tap water, we get given two raspberry vodka concoctions with three ripe raspberries strung on a cocktail stick across the glass – a strangely rich symbol of desire.

His hair was flame coloured and devilish; his face was calm, composed. The goatee burned about his mouth uncertainly, like a smouldering ember that had jumped from the fiery ginger of his tight-kept hair onto the cold calm stone of his expression. All this gave him a look of peculiar intensity that drew her eyes to him again and again, irresistibly. She stared at him even when he noticed and smiled bravely at him – flirtatiously, passers-by might have said, in the way that young women do, sending subliminal signals of desire and attraction in the flicker of a smile, without really meaning to, without being aware that this smile was a flirty smile, this look a knowing look, these eyes come-to-bed eyes and so on. They only realise their earlier power, their earlier coquettish mannerisms when they are mature women, when flirting is much harder and the flicker of a smile will oft go unnoticed.

He did not smile back. Instead he looked at her with that intensity and she looked away. She got out a book from her bag – Orlando, suitably intellectual – and pretended to read it. On the bus she sat deliberately, provocatively in front of him. She was too nervous to say anything, so she continued reading and ignoring what she thought was the burning gaze of his eyes on the back of her neck.

“That looks complicated,” he said, and she turned eagerly.

portrait on the tube

Her eyes were silver and slow-moving, orbiting around their sockets, observing all corners of the room. Her cheekbones held rings of fatigue under her eyes, tiredness pooled there in circles like moonlight. These dark lunar rings betrayed her late nights; the moonlight that had kept her company through the wee hours had left traces around her eyes.

They were rimmed with turquoise eye-makeup, meant to disguise the shadows. Her lips were sugary with the fake mint of chewing gum. She was a creature of the rainforest, this luminous woman with her inner strength and tribal loyalty. In the inhuman jungle of the London underground she did not bat an eyelid.

German Poetry lecture, may 08

Sifting through siderooms and pub club insanity pours into the precincts of my academic self, sharpens my intellectual instincts, as I release ideas into the tidal wave of meaningless drumbeats pouring from the soundbox, drowning out my thought box rocking my not-yet-washed student socks. This is the life, they say.

the couple at Waterloo station

He took her hand and they strode onto the escalators, so confident and sure - so in love, so hopelessly in love. On the escalators they held hands and their burning fingers intertwined like interlacing stories, hands crumpled together like the discarded pages of lost books.

He swooped a printed kiss onto her open face, like a word of tenderness scribbled on the page of a notebook. Here. Now. They were writing their own histories, unfolding them in the damp grey morning at Waterloo station, London. There had been lovers before them, and there would be lovers after them, and in some ways they were no different. They were simply another couple on the platform stage, acting out their roles.

And yet: there would be no two people who kissed like this ever again, who looked like this ever again, who felt the same rush of love and pain. On the surface, they were the same as any young couple have ever been; yet they were also two lovers unlike any others, experiencing emotions so new, the world had no words to describe them. For all the critics and their cynicism, for all the linguists and their poems, the English language cannot adequately express love. It cannot reflect feelings in the way that lovers' faces do – in the way that his face did in that moment to hers, in the way that it shone.

don't blink on the tube

“Before buses, railroads and streetcars became fully established during the nineteenth century, people were never put in the position of having to stare at one another for minutes or even hours on end without exchanging a word.” Georg Simmel.

So I got on the London underground, took a train which sank into the darkness of the tunnel. It was decked with businessmen, prawn faces poking from their crusted suits, swaying as the train swayed. Sitting were women of various sizes and ages, all variations on the same theme: cropped City shorts, blond highlights and tiny handbags. Sitting in rows opposite each other they looked like a baking tray of tarts plumped in the oven.

It suddenly struck me that this was it.
This was the epitome of civilisation: humans jostling in the jaws of this monstrous train, decomposing slowly, trapped in their own technology. Desperate to leave and yet resigned to this dystopia.

No-one moved or smiled. All we acknowledged was the slow grey crank of the escalator, moving us slowly towards the light; all we knew was the hopeless grind of the train. Don't smile, don't catch someone's eye, look away, be ashamed to exist. Remember we live in a bubble of personal space. Burst it and you break the silent code of this cruel city.

on paris

We chatted. We laughed. We bridged a temporal gap - le temps qui coule sous le pont Mirabeau - through talk and laughter, to reconnect in the present. We talked of love, life and literature, of history, hopes and heartache. We saw Picasso, ate dried apricots and sundried tomato-stained bread and bought expensive shampoo and skipped on dinner to make up for it. We made collages on the floor and she smoked on the balcony. we fell asleep and woke up to the Eiffel tower, to days filled with possibility but lacking direction. we left the flat at 1pm and stayed awake and out till 6am, used coffee and bars and theatres and Paris streets and staged our last day on these platforms…



Words are valued for their age and beauty, for their permanence and their origin. Words can be given as gifts, are free, can be used by all, and evoke all the wonder of the world. The most valued words are the oldest, most evocative and historically resonant ones – for example, chalice is much more evocative than glass, treasure instead of capital, love instead of crush, court instead of flirt. These older words have been used in more contexts by more writers across more centuries; they thereby become richer, acquire more resonance than new words which are exciting, because they are new, but still rather flat.
Capitalism uses money as a currency: paper notes that evoke nothing more meaningful than numbers, that are not freely available to everyone. Capitalism is a system within which the things that are valued are those that are desired by the greatest number of people and available in the smallest amounts (greatest demand, smallest supply). Things which are of value in the capitalist system are often material, having clear physical worth.

Artefacts are interesting, because they hold value in both the capitalist system and the cultural system. The capitalist system deems them valuable because they are rare, in small supply. They also have clear physical worth and are attractive; therefore lots of people want to collect them.
However, artefacts are also valued by poets and authors, in their world of words, for their permanence, and their historical richness. They are aesthetically pleasing and from the past and yet strangely timeless, in that they are accessible to any future generation. They reveal truths about humanity.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

origami rose

A keepsake: the white, folded paper
petals that curl into a rose
your fingers curl around it
as you pass it to me,
this creased imperfect
symbol of
our love.

Monday, June 2, 2008

green graveyard

Pere Lachaise cemetery, eternal home to some of the greatest people that France has ever seen. Even the trees seem dead – their bases ground into the gravel, the cement thick to crush the fumes of the deceased, to keep them firmly buried underground. A river of faded & gnarled leaves, like souls of the dead in the river Styx, floats permanently between the tourist-pounded pavement and the silent graves, between life and death.
Cemetaries are a nightmare for unwilling symbolists. The dead are around us here, stillness, faded leaves are amassing on the sides of pavements like graves or souls. Yet – the trees here, green. Living people parade the pavements, their speech forms pyramids risen from the dusty silence. The green leaves are a reminder that life goes on and on and on and on, that new lives are exploding on the world scene in maternity wards and bathroom floors everywhere.
We like to keep birth and death separate from ordinary life, containing each earth- shattering crunch in hospitals or cemeteries. And yet in this cemetery, the leaves are stirring green & vivid above the graves – perhaps there is life here after all.
"they gave birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more" Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

This cemetery is a tribute to some of the great thinkers and movers and creators of our time. Yet it is also a silent tribute to those whose lives will not be remembered as moving through the world stage. Their lives had meaning for those surrounding them, loved ones, and as part of the patchwork of history.
No life is without meaning.

This tourist attraction seems inappropriate somehow. The pleasant aesthetic of blue sky, green trees and shapely graves is jarring in contrast with the reality of death, the slow disintegration of the old, the sudden lightning stop of the young, earthshattering bottomless breaking night.
Some would argue that the beautiful graves and carefully engraved names are a tribute to former lives – not deaths - after all. But I I would suggest that these beautiful gravestones are a pleasant sheen over real death and an inadequate tribute to life. I don’t want to be blasé and relaxed around these graves, strolling gently to the next famous name. I want to confront life and death, stare them straight in the mouth & try to comprehend the mystery inside.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

turning textbooks into butterflies...

(Photos thanks to Hector Durham; box folded by Sara Adams)

Today I caught a butterfly with my bare hands. Searching for it among scraps of paper, I came across a veritable jungle of origami: lions, roses, dragons, elephants and scorpions tumbled out of Sara Adams’ cardboard box, to crouch on the grass of Wadham gardens. It is the act of creation, of playing God with mini paper creatures, which makes origami so attractive.

Folding paper is a natural instinct in people; think of children making paper boats and hats and students rolling cigarettes and sweet papers.
It proves difficult for me, however: ‘Do people swear when they’re doing origami?’ I ask, frustrated. It’s not looking pretty. Soon my paper has become a heap of quivering shapes. It does not, by any stretch of the imagination, look like a butterfly. I think I’ll stick to writing; folding paper is too much like hard work.


This is a weird town, the buildings are stumpy and painted with candyfloss colours. In the night we hear bangings, yelling and creaking.Yet it is beautiful: thick green sheen on the river, towering green mountainside, pretty coloured houses and minaret- spires on the churches. The castle is very German, with big sculpted lions and unicorns and a giant barrel for storing wine. Our apartment is painted yellow. Sometimes it feels like we've walked into the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, but I think that’s just paranoia.