Thursday, September 2, 2010

Berlin bombed with poetry

We have bombing, and love-bombing, but poetry-bombing? Now there's a new concept. Berlin's been the victim of an alphabetic assault this month, with millions of poems by German and Chilean artists raining down on the city... It's a CND wet dream. What better place to be poetically pulverized than Berlin, that cultural capital with its poetic edginess and (in)tense history...?

here's the story:

Thursday, August 5, 2010

memory and the Pergamon

How does memory function? Christa Wolf writes about electrical impulses and neurones, but also describes memory as though it were a kind of awesome organism, a thing with a mind of its own. Memory's often described as a palimpsest, with new memories inscribed over old ones and the beautiful script of a life all entwined, inbetween blossoming and fading, to become the crumpled loops and lumps of a life well written.

I think memory's more fickle than that; the most recently written moments can sometimes be the most quickly forgotten. It's not all totally chronological, as a palimpsest is, with the oldest script fading fastest. Ancient, instinctive, primeval memories - of fear, love, of mother and father - are the oldest ones, yet they are also the ones that stick the strongest. The most easily legible memory in our brains can sometimes be the one that was written long ago.

Perhaps here, in the Pergamon museum in Berlin - a place brimming with relics of the past, with memory made literal - I can find a better metaphor for memory, a blueprint of how and why we remember what we do.

Everyone is moving to Berlin

It’s all going down in East Berlin.She swept her long hair over her shoulder and swayed the table decisively. He looked at her and took a little sip of his cool beer. He'll never be able to fit me in, she thought, between that faded old sofa and the cranky fridge with half-drunk bottles of Weisswein and the hung-up washing and steaming cups of dark tea on the sideboard of the shop. Never, if not tonight. She thought he'd liked her that day on the U-Bahn. She couldn’t work out what was a memory and what she’d invented. Was he itching to take her bottom lip between his teeth, as she was, and gently bite?

He paid for her drink and winced. “Sorry, my contacts, hang on a sec.” He was so polite, it was exhausting. It was a little cold. She wanted him to warm her up, to put his electrifying fingers on her shoulders and squeeze.

“Got a light?”

“Sure.” He flicked a flame between their lips, briefly. Crumpled lung chrysalis. Was it just breath, or was there something else forming between them, as sweet and flickering as smoke?

(This post was inspired by Lail Arad's song, Everyone is moving to Berlin and first appeared on The Doodle Caboodle)

Blackberry Sonnet

I love this man, now and for forever. His pupils were split berries, black on
white irises. Her hair was spilt libation on his forehead. She tipped
her liquid lips to his, and drank to the world he'd turned his back on.
She turned and said a silent thanks to the world that had stripped her
of him, that had held his neck crooked across the cliff
and wondered
what the sea tasted like
------------from that great height

-------------------------what bones sound like
--------------------------------------when the whole world sucks them stiff.
She turned, kiss still on mouth, and cursed the world that never really let them be.
As silence rose, she caught sight of his snagged arms, poured earth
over his forehead and turned and fled, weeping
--------------------------------------------------------to the silent sea.

This sonnet was inspired byLaura Marling's song, Blackberry Stone
and was first published on The Doodle Caboodle

Dental Trauma

I have bit
my tongue for too long
on this one.

I know that conscience
and the cold bite hard,
and rhyme is a twisting

tongue, is a sound leaf
caught between
two lines of teeth,

but this was torture.

Your cigarette
was a lovebite at the night's
cold neck

a brush of teeth along her black
back, a perfect kiss
in the cold air. So when

your lips brushed mine
I could not help but wonder

between the rush
of teenage lust and tooth
and tongue, salivasap,

your lip
managed to trap
itself between my metal brace

and gum, biting
itself into submission
bleeding, suffering, then numb

as kisses became kickboxing
to escape, save face,

to free your tongue
like a bird of song
from its newfound cage:

my bruising, glinting brace.

This poem first appeared here: The Doodle Caboodle

The Doodle Caboodle

OK, so this is a bit of a shameless plug; my apologies. I'm writing for an art blog called "The Doodle Caboodle". It's run by a friend of mine (Alex Moore; her website is the Threepenny Orchestra). One day she rang me up and said that she was starting a blog with a group of her friends from art school, and would I like to contribute? The blog is a space to collect work by all kinds of people, centred around a theme that changed monthly.

Yes please. So I am now writing for the blog. I'll post my pieces here too. In the meanwhile, do visit The Doodle Caboodle if you have time, as it's supercool and the artists illustrating on it are very talented indeed.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On the Move II

Is a house like a Greek chorus? Doesn't your home seem to speak to you sometimes? Reminding you of the past, singing your future fate, warning you to turn back at every photo, every crack, every faded patch. Recording your progress. And do we move houses so often because we are afraid of stagnating, of having our last house determine our fate by holding onto us? When we move house, do we redesign our future too? Or in buying a new house, are we just purchasing a new illusion for ourselves: namely, the renewed illusion of freedom?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On the Move

After a year of moving around, from London to Paris to Berlin and back, I've been thinking about the way that surroundings affect people. I am convinced, now, that habitats influence a person's state of mind, that they affect and reflect the shape of the human soul. A home's aesthetic is a person's aesthetic: the glow from the very walls infuses into a person and emits memories at them. I'm not quite saying that Naturalism runs riot. Instead, I'm arguing that a sticky surface - a kind of memory bank - is enacted by each wall.

Lacking a home, I have used the internet as a wall: a sticky surface, a memory bank, a permanent place in my itinerant lifes, which will welcome me whenever I need to return, whenever I feel sad or nostalgic or homesick.

I've been itinerant the whole year, and when you move around a lot, the fung shui of foreign flats and rooms has a different effect. Surroundings affect the traveller profoundly, since they are very different to home. Travellers don't get so attached to the places they stay in, because they know they're moving, but these places sometimes affect travellers more than inhabitants, who have gotten used to their hometown's aesthetic and are no longer affected by it.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Bleibenblurb II

Over the weekend I watched a Dr Who episode where the Doctor and his assistant are living in 2 worlds, both of which feel very real. They have to choose which one is real and which is the dream. If they die in the dream, they wake up in the real world, but if they die in the real world then they just "die, stupid."
Basically, their lives are at stake.

This episode got me thinking about the nature of travelling and the life narrative. Normally, when tourists travel to another country, they stitch their journey-chapter into their narrative; when they return, there will be others who remember the holiday and what was seen and done. Thus the holiday, though in another place, is easily recogniseable as part of the tourist's narrative.

Yet when I travel, to Berlin, to Paris, I do not travel with others from home, who will remember. When I return to London, there are none there who know my life in those other cities, no collective memory of that time, and so it feels as though I am switching lives, walking between worlds. There will be hardly any evidence, save perhaps the inches of dust rolling up in my room, to show that I have been anywhere else at all. I have built up new lives in these other places; made new friends; told new jokes and anecdotes; stocked new kitchen cupboards; formed new favourites; frequented new cafes, bakeries, clubs, cinemas, bookshops.

When Proust wrote of selves proliferating, he was referring to one individual whose various selves were divided by time and age: an older Marcel was able to write down younger Marcel's impressions. Yet for modern travellers, who can reach half way around the world in a number of hours, the multiplicity of selves results from a dislocation, not in time, but in space.
So my sejourn here in Europe is not just a continuation of the narrative; it is a fragment. It is a different life in a different world. I have barely aged between being in Paris and Berlin, yet these are two existences in which I, the "I", is a very different being, in which my worlds are galaxies apart. Even the plane journey felt like a Tardis trip. Viewed through the telescope of time, in hindsight, these two worlds will once again be fragments; anomalies; dreams. They feel so real now but will seem light years away when I go back* - sleepsung, sandy-eyed, awaking from that familiarly elusive Proustian dream - when I return to the milky, familiar cosmos of life in London.

* back in space but forwards in time.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Berlin: a narrative?
In general, Western thought has tended to be either linear or cyclical. Life and history are viewed as cyclical, as people are born, live, die. Individual existences, in contrast, tend to be perceived as linear. When people think of their lives, they remember them as narratives with cause and effect, not as discrete days or random events.

And so, to be suddenly uprooted, teleported from London to Berlin, leaves me longing to stitch up my lives again, into one whole. The Easyjet flight really did feel like a Tardis trip. Ditching my baggage at the checkout, I closed my eyes and woke up with a jolt at Schoenefeld airport, confused and disoriented, baggage reappearing by my side some minutes later. Who am I? Where am I? In another life, in another world...

It is so difficult to assess where I'm at, here in this sparkly Berlin bubble. I'm preoccupied with the floating sensation that this latest journey has lent my life. This Berlin bubble, from which I can only dimly see back out into my London life, is deceptive indeed. Where does it begin and end?

It's hard to take stock of 'my life' from here. For this is hardly a smooth continuation of the narrative. Displaced from home, from family and friends, language and location, I am left with some strange perception of myself as a hologram, flickering from world to world, never quite permanent enough to take shape. Not fully fledged. I can be whoever I want to be, I can reform and reshape, and yet there's something tying the boundaries of my self to my soul, some digging edge of time warning me not to change too much, for soon I'll have to go home, and who knows how I'll do when I'm there?

Building a life in this city takes time, and forging friendly terms with the city very much involves starting from scratch. Perhaps that's why my life here feels like an escape - it's discrete, it doesn't build on my London existence, which I am more than a little reluctant to return to.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Russian Churches in Paris: Rue Daru, and Saint Serge

The Orthodox church in Rue Daru shone. I had stepped into most severe shimmering dreams of thick dark Russian eyebrows furrowed, set in golden clouds of incense and hundreds of people clambering, candles that each man woman and child clutched, that caught strands of curly hair of the person in front, smouldered. It was a miracle that no-one had a flaming wig of straw for hair.

The Saint Serge Russian Orthodox church is different to rich Rue Daru- wooden, cheaper and brighter. What they couldn't afford in gold, they discovered in colours. Bright, classical, Eastern, Byzantine, I don't know. I felt like Raphael stumbling upon the antiquaries shop in La Peau de Chagrin (Balzac). Hidden among the coloured paints and fake gold there was eternal life - if only I could find it among the dusty trinkets.

The Saint Serge church is very much like a mad old Russian woman's living room. Golden crudely painted icons, wooden boxes piled into corners, an altar area that looks like an open wardrobe with a granfather clock - chaotic, fascinating, touching. The smell of stale wood, of perfume, of incense, of age, of signs of life and care too. There was a bookshelf, fresh flowers, a splodgy Easter cake in front of the altar.

The Russian people never forgot where their old loyalties lay during Communism, and when the Soviet bloc fell, the people went straight back to the church services. It's a mindset - even Communism, which was supposed to be based around human community, required the Russian people to pay (lip) service, to pledge loyalty. They have moved from one kind of service to another, and then back again. Will they ever be free from false gods?

Friday, April 2, 2010

the future of language

Language is an animal. It prowls, it lurks around the corners of the mouth, around streetcorners, it stalks softly through reams of sounds, before pouncing - swiftfooted - on pages of prey.

So if language is a species, then its grammatical structure and lexicon - its DNA, if you like - are passed down from generation to generation, mutating each time. This Darwinian metaphor for language is pervasive; already the press are talking about languages 'dying out' as if they were endangered species. Some languages have already become 'extinct'. If we can bring the bison or the orchid back from the brink, can we save our languages from extinction too?

I suppose keeping zoo animals in captivity is the equivalent of preserving 'dead'languages in a locked-away library. Semioticians have talked of a linguistic 'ecosystem' in which languages, like organisms, are interdependent. Tongues interact as animals and plants do; they feed off each other; they mimic others' strengths and pounce on their flaws; they give birth to new generations of communication like textspeak or slam poetry. When the lingosystem's balance is upset by invasions, religions or technology, languages (like organisms) can become endangered and indeed extinct.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the technological revolution of late. English is the global language, particularly because it was the Internet's mother tongue. Arabic and Chinese are becoming increasingl popular in the West because they open the gateway to business in the East.

Meanwhile, dying out languages like Welsh have been put on the endangered species list. Just as we encourage endangered species to adapt to new environments, so Welsh speakers have adapted their silvertongue with a new tool: Internet vocabulary and a plethora of webpages. It's not a Welsh of mythic beauty, it's a mutated Welsh of a modern age - to survive, it will have to adapt.

'Hold hard then, heart. This way at least you live.' Derek Walcott, the Fist

homeland and hiraeth

Language is a funny fabric. Words are shapeshifters, changing to fit the speaker's intentions. Yet a word can also be incredibly specific, pinning down a precise concept that's difficult to translate. 'Home' is one of these words. Do nomadic languages have a 'home'? And if so, does it describe the nomads' temporary housing, or does it denote something far more important, one of the few stable factors in nomadic existence: the home that one has among family?

Explaining my longing for home is difficult in Paris. My home doesn't exist in France, or indeed in French. 'Home' is translated as 'Chez soi', or 'ma maison', but neither of these explain the specific feeling of love, and warmth, and comfortableness that I feel. 'Homesickness' is inadequately translated as 'nostalgie' or 'le mal du pays'. Faced with this inadequacy of wording, is it any wonder I feel so tongue-tied in Paris?

The other day, I stopped a well-to-do woman on the street to ask for directions. 'Je ne parle pas aux étrangers,' she snarled. 'Did she mean she didn't talk to strangers, or to foreigners? Was she being racist, or just careful?

'Etranger' has two translations in English: a stranger, and a foreigner. In English, a foreigner can be someone you know well, but in France you would still call them an ' 'étranger'. Even after living in Paris for years and years and years, you will always be an 'étranger' - a foreigner, and thus a stranger to this strange city.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Enlisting Paris

Stuff I miss when I'm in Paris:

-British milk
- real Greek yoghurt
-scones, crumpets, carrot cake, chocolate cake
-my bicycle
-big green spaces
-the Times, in full, in print. Ditto the Observer & Poetry London.
-the Royal Institute of Art, the Tate, the Phoenix, the South Bank
- the tube
- people wearing colourful clothes
-smoke-free zones
-cheap Haagen Dazs
- my HBS hoodie

Stuff I'll miss about Paris:

-croissants & pain au chocolat
-the Saturday market at Nation
-very clean swimming pools
- the Velib
- Louvre, Musee Rodin, l'Orangerie
- Guys with big statement specs, stubble and skinny jeans.
- Parisian fashion in general
- the Soup bar on Rue de Charonne
- poker
- chocolat chaud viennois
- cheap wine

Friday, March 26, 2010

latex heads and lather, part II

Having moved to the 15th arrondissement, I was in need of a new local pool. During the last six months here in Froggieland I've tried out many of the famous ponds in Paris - including the pool in Les Halles surrounded by tropical plants, and the Josephine Baker pool with a glass roof, situated on a floating island on the Seine.

My experience of swimming with the frogs has been mixed. At Piscine Josephine Baker, a snotty, spotty receptionist accused me of being foreign - shock, horror - and wrongly trying to claim a discount available to under-25s who live in Paris. I pointed out that I live in Paris and am under 25, regardless of my accent. Nonetheless, she refused to accept my various identity cards, and insisted that I'd need to bring my apartment contract to get the discount. Something was very fishy about Josephine Baker - and I'm not just talking about the Seine.

My experiences at local pond Aspirant Dunant were better- although their lilipad lockers once proved disastrous when a friend couldn't get hers open and had to flip-flop to the main reception in her bikini and ask the male staff to help. They were delighted to naturally...

Now, I have found piscine paradise - finally, a pond with excellent showers, very very clean floors and a 50m pool! (This is twice the length of most pools in Paris). Its size means it's rarely crowded. In Piscine Blomet, Liliputian lockers are a thing of the past - rather than having to cram all my possessions into a frog-sized box, I can lock the entire cubicle I have been using and take the key! The showers are very good by Paris standards, lukewarm but very powerful, and the hairdryers are fantastic. Piscine Blomet is definitely my new pond - and I'm one very happy froggy indeed!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

travels and tinned tomatoes

Sometimes speech is superior to novels in its ability to adapt, update and be instantly relevant. Novels are like tinned tomatoes but speech is the real thing – freshly plucked, red and ripe and juicy, smelling of today. Novels can be stored; reliable and predictable, they have a meatier flavor and melt and mature in your mouth. Novels are stocky, food-for-thought. But speech tastes of summer.

My parents are both moving on - to new people, new houses, new ideas. Which leads me to thinking. They’ve both evolved from their decades-long friendship – from their dialogue (of which I was the transcript, the novel, the endpoint). Which leaves me – where? Am I finally irrelevant?

No – I’m like the tinned tomatoes – I go back to visit both of them, I remind them of that summer decades ago when the air carried the heady scent of tomatoes and their youth glowed scarlet in the Grecian air. I’ve seen the photos of them – him with tousled strawy hair and a beard, lean and tanned – her, gypsy like with long curls and dangling earrings, skinny and beautiful, sea-skimmed.

Cassandra, by Christa Wolf, had just been published when they were living together, in 1986, as flatmates in Cardiff. Now, with mum’s copy in hand, sitting in my dad’s house in Cardiff, so near where I was born, pondering a holiday to Greece, is it any wonder that I’m drawn back to the story of my origin? The story that both my mother and father have now relinquished, the story that’s two decades old – the story that’s fast fading into gold-tinted illusionary myth. Then (it seems) anything was possible. Then they could have been together or not together. Now, they are who they are; they have become themselves, irrevocably.

Who am I to try and recreate the past? The story is old, and mythic, and very valuable. I am its author now.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cassandra, by Christa Wolf

“Freedom!” shout the Yanks. “Equality!” bellow the Commies. “Life! ” yell the people, but their voices are drowned out.

Christa Wolf wrote about prophetess Cassandra and her role in the war between the Greeks and the Trojans. She saw parallels between herself and Cassandra, between East Germany and Troy - both states insist on absolute loyalty, both keep fighting on when there is nothing left to fight with, both are eventually defeated by a stronger state. In the Greek –Trojan war, the ideological cause of war (Helen, epitomizing beauty and love) is little more than a noble myth to disguise the power struggle over territory and trade routes: namely, the Hellespont. The war between the USSR and the USA was the same - argues Wolf - although portrayed as an ideological struggle, the Cold War was actually about economic control and territory. The Cold War, like the Greek-Trojan war, brought both states to the brink of self destruction with the arms race; the people of both empires lived in perpetual fear of attack.


…a few hours after reading Cassandra we start talking about Nicaragua, and the fact that mum was a foreign reporter there in the 80s. She told me she travelled with a Nicaraguan translator. A year after she left he ended up dead. My dad produces a book of photos from the country, taken in the '70s. I flick through the book of photos, trying to get a handle on the political situation of Nicaragua of the last thirty years. Reluctantly I move from the timeline at the back to the beginning – for how can I judge the people in the photos or understand their plight if I do not know the dates and facts of their story?

Fool. Has the Cassandra allegory taught you nothing? Troy could be a state now; the disputes for territory and ideology continue. The earth is the earth is the earth. I look at the photos: the women intently studying pistols; the guerillas with their dirt-studded jeans; one lighting a cigarette below the ubiquitous Coca Cola posters (that hint at the American involvement); the lower half of a body; a skeleton jumped and livewired out of the earth – the remnants of a man, his love, his legs.

The red blood tinge, always somewhere in the frame. I don’t need to know the dates to get the story: humans, suffering, pride, fighting, desperation, intense poverty of materials and intense creativity of spirit – a people to despair of and a people to admire – a people that we first world Westerners rarely have to face and never really understand. We don't get it, because we have not in seventy years been forced to face ourselves, bloody and skeletal in the mirror, with almost nothing left as future or past, and ask ourselves if we will fight.

Blood, feuding, fighting, revenge, death. Revolution, civil war, guerilla fighting, collapsing government, exile. As a Westerner, I find that this is the language of the newspapers. I never have to read it in the mirror.

An article about Christa Wolf from the New York Sun
Another article about Christa Wolf from the Goethe-Institut