Category Archives: Writing

Call me to the one among your moments
that stands against you, ineluctably:
intimate as a dog’s imploring glance
but, again, forever, turned away

when you think you’ve captured it at last.
What seems so far from you is most your own.

– Rilke, from The Sonnets to Orpheus (tr. Mitchell)

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I have things to say

I have things to say – or think I do – but as I sit down on the bench in the garden with my notebook or take my seat at the computer I split in two, watch myself as I start writing, formalize the act, and the moment of inspiration recedes until I’m left with – what? Writing about my failure to write.

I sit on the sofa beside Rookie with a book, read a line that makes me stare into space, return to it and stare into space again. My thoughts roam around some just-out-of-reach thought or feeling (or memory of a thought or feeling) and peter out until I realize I’m gazing at nothing, thinking about nothing. I get annoyed at myself, return to the line, force myself to read a few more but can’t take them in. I reach out to pet Rookie. He stands, stretches and hops off the sofa.

But the restful thought remains that there’s no real progress to be made, or that progress is a continual return from distraction to attention.

The familiar and the exceptional

For my father, everything was familiar. He had the vantage point from which he could grasp everything. If new information appeared that contradicted what he said, or someone got emotional and acted out (he called it being ‘primitive’ or ‘hysterical’), it was all part of the same vista. Nothing seemed to surprise him; everything had happened before and if it hadn’t it didn’t matter since it wouldn’t make a dent in the general order of things anyway – plus ça change. He admired easygoing landowners in English costume dramas who knew everyone’s place. His favourite saying was ‘that’s the exception that proves the rule’, and the rule could be as general as he liked, could absorb any event or emotion, could be made to span life itself. Thus he swept his arm across the horizon, familiarized himself with the world and spared himself the need for thought.

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By contrast, when I went to university, everything seemed to be about the exception rather than the rule. We were to learn critical thinking, which seemed mainly to involve focusing on marginal subjects: the margins of traditional academic disciplines and canons, of history, sexuality and language, even of thought itself. It was the focus on the marginal – the exceptions to the governing rules – that was thought to give critical thinking its subversive force. We searched for, wrote and talked about neglected artists and writers and thinkers, about othering and queering, about the abject and the liminal, and so on and on in an endless critical mill. It felt transgressive to learn this new language of critique. We were undermining all foundations and oppressive orthodoxies, even the notion of the stable ‘subject’ itself, the ability to say ‘I’!

I absorbed the unwritten rules of critical thinking very easily. I made sure to use the latest buzzwords and subject my own arguments to the same suspicion I directed at my subject matter, to the point where I wasn’t saying much at all. In the end, I remember, I saw writing essays as more of an aesthetic exercise than an intellectual one. I did what I needed to get good grades.

By constantly expanding the limits of thought, critical thought paradoxically seemed to lose its critical force. In the end, it seemed, it didn’t have much more to offer than restless revisions of the jargon of the exceptional and interrogations of texts that dared to express real views and emotions. As the forms of critical thinking took the place of any nourishing content of thought (and what could that possibly mean for us?), it was preparing us perfectly for what was already happening in the ‘real’ world, where capital was at work to erase the borders between the centre and the margins without our help – bringing the outside in and the inside out. Critical thinking was preparing our minds for what we’d soon be fully immersed in. For in the ‘real’ world the exception could no longer be used to prove or break down anything, since the exception was becoming the norm – and the norm was to be absorbed, not into my father’s rule, but into dispersal and precarity.

Illuminations

Those passages in novels in which the laboured-over story gathers itself into fleeting moments of clarity and illuminates itself in all directions. Idea of a book containing only such passages – something like Stephen Hero’s book of epiphanies, or a collection of Woolf’s ‘little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark’. But life rightly barges into our rooms and pulls us out of our ideas, into more little miracles.

The familiar

Cocker also writes that ‘a preoccupation with the exceptional is almost hardwired into the human imagination’. It’s become almost impossible to escape the lure of the exceptional. But perhaps the exceptional (the marketable) is becoming the least worthy of thought. Perhaps the mystery in the familiar is becoming the hardest thing to understand.

I grow too used to the world again. I make it commonplace, veil the day behind the everyday. I become a burden to myself, moving from bedroom to bathroom, from the bathroom to the kitchen, from the kitchen back to bed and my laptop. It’s raining.

Sometimes the nearest things – what we’re most used to – are the hardest to see: we see them too often to see them fresh. Too much home and home becomes oddly alien. I’m a body moving through the same rooms, the same fields, the same shops… No dramatic mountain peaks in this flatland. No vantage point from which to sweep your arm across the horizon and grasp it all…

What did I mean by the mystery in the familiar? (Already the phrase grows stale, kitschy.) Giacometti said, ‘The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.’ Doesn’t Being lurk most intimately in the beings we encounter every day – in the mystery of their being here at all? In the things and people we move among, in ourselves, the fact of our shared being hides in plain day. Closest and grandest.

Dormant

Branches brilliant with hoar frost and bleak fields on the way down to the river. I think of Wallace Stevens’ mind of winter. Does that help? I can’t decide, it’s too cold to think. A boat chugs by leaving a dense wobbling wake in the near-freezing water. The path is ridged with hard mud. On the surface of the willow pond pure freshwater forms shapes like oil slicks as the brackish water sinks and starts to freeze. I spot a snipe at the water’s edge, blended with the reeds and puffed up against the cold, the end of its long beak sticking out from under its wing. Everything here seems dormant: conserving energy, waiting, secretly growing. On the way back there’s black ice on the road and frost feathers on the windshields and roofs of the cars that spread out in unique, elaborate shapes as if unfolding some deep structure of nature itself.

Class on the coast

To the coast on my new bike. The low tide exposes a bank of sand on which tiny crabs scuttle between pebbles and bladderwrack.

This part of the Norfolk coast – the closest to us – is a world away from the northern stretch. In fact the coastline as a whole is as clear a demonstration of the British class system as you could wish for. To the east, Great Yarmouth with its familiar story: once a rich port and Victorian holiday resort, now one of the most deprived towns in the country after decades of budget airlines, package holidays and a spiral of worklessness and neglect as the regional cities have gentrified and pushed those in the margins further out. Here are slot machines, betting shops and terriers. In the north, at a suitable distance from the caravan parks, second homes in tasteful muted colours and Range Rovers have replaced the old fishermen’s cottages and carts. The beaches are wider and sandier, the pubs have Michelin stickers on their doors, the dogs of choice are spaniels and labradors.