Sunday, 30 September 2007
Saturday, 29 September 2007
First up was the launch for Sea Stories, at Stanfords. This was a very civilised affair, with readings by four of the contributors and a perhaps ill-judged opportunity for questions. I find it hard to listen to prose being read aloud (though I’m perfectly happy – indeed eager - to do it myself!) and suspect that the best work often loses a lot of its resonance in the process, but all four writers convinced me that their stories were well worth the telling, with Sam Llewellyn’s dramatic, slightly staccato style, as though each phrase were a slap of wave on a hull, having, for me at least, the most impact. It’s odd, and amusing, to be in an anthology with writers you haven’t met, like the first day at a new school. There was a hilarious bit on Today the following morning, in which the Lord Admiral of the Fleet (possibly, I’m not very good on ranks), who clearly hadn’t read a word of the thing and more or less said as much – he referred to the contents of the book as ‘articles’ - waxed lyrical about the beauty of sunsets. Don’t let this put you off. You can get it from Amazon.
As far as Little Monsters goes, I now have bound proofs and can see it as a book for the first time. And hey! It is! (I’m far too excited by this to behave in a coherent or useful fashion here, so let’s move on. But it looks fantastic!)
The Baselitz show is a must. It’s extraordinary to see the paintings develop from the early post-war stuff to the latest remixes as he struggles to subvert figuration not through abstraction, which, seen from this perspective, begins to feel like a cop-out, but by cutting and splicing, upturning, reducing, through mockery and quotation and inanity and the sheer physicality of the medium. There’s a wonderful weight of paint and, when that’s not enough, the surface is gouged and carved, to be painted over and gouged again. His sculptures, like Matisse’s, are a painter’s sculptures, but none the less for that, while the final room shows an invigorating playfulness as he picks up and reworks the themes of the earlier stuff. Feet, not always attached, play an interesting ever-changing role throughout the show. Standing in the first hexagonal room you can see the original Oberon (this one here) to your right and the remix (used to advertise the show) to your left. Oddly, there’s no postcard available of the original, which is an astonishing painting, the four marginal heads, curious as aliens, staring down towards you, their only source of light. Don’t miss it. I mean that.
Then, on Thursday evening, Isobel Dixon launched her poetry collection, A Fold in the Map. I’ll let the poetry speak for itself, as it does, with honesty and dignity and a hard-won lightness of touch. But I will say that I had a wonderful time, meeting new people and finding myself, for the first time since my old poetry reading days, in an environment where writing was simply something one did. I imagine the mood is similar at a plumbers’ convention, and any plumber who’s worked in isolation will feel the same mixture of exhilaration and fellowship that I did. Thank you, Isobel. You also made me laugh so much (I can’t remember why) that I snorted a glass of red wine down my front, although this was considerably later in the evening.
- Have a nice day.
- Thank you. You too.
- Chance'd be a fucking fine thing.
I treasure this moment of sincerity.
Talking of Birmingham New Street, I once did spend a night there. I was sixteen and I was hitching down to London with my best friend, Nigel Foster, from the Potteries, a first for both of us and conceived, I seem to remember, as a dry run for the great escape. It all got a bit too much for us by the time we'd reached the Second City, so we decided to cut our losses and go to a club called Mothers, which had quite a reputation at the time. (Does anyone remember it?) We saw Soft Machine (with, I think, Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers), and Derek and the Deviants; we were offered, but couldn't afford, drugs. After we'd been thrown out, we caught an all-night bus - with the intention of staying on it all night - but were thrown off that as well and ended up at the station. Where we tried to sleep but were constantly moved on by police. It was exciting in a sub-Kerouac way, and then depressing and extremely cold. No one tried to pick us up. In fact, the forces of evil were pretty much absent that night; no free samples from dealers, no friendly strangers with offers of beds. We caught the first train back to Stoke-on-Trent, where my father was waiting for us in the car. He didn't ask us if we'd had a nice day.
Monday, 24 September 2007
My mother’s local supermarket, Somerfield, has rearranged its tills, dividing them not according to how many items you might need to pay for, but the container, trolley or basket, you’ve chosen to collect them in. The trolley tills are where you’d expect tills to be; the basket tills have been siphoned off behind a barrier laden with the sort of goods some supermarket designer must have deemed the most probable impulse buys for basket carriers. I didn’t know this until today. I was emptying my basket on the belt when the woman told me her till was for trolleys only.
- Why? I said.
- Because baskets are over there.
- But why?
- Because I can only take for trolleys.
- But I’ve got enough stuff here to fill a trolley.
- But you haven’t got a trolley. I can’t do baskets. I can only do trolleys.
- But there’s no one here, I say. And there’s a queue over there.
- I’m sorry, but I’ve been told. I can’t do baskets.
- Can you change this? I said, offering her a two pound coin.
- What for?
- Because then I can go outside and get a trolley and put all these things into it and then I’ll be able to pay here.
She thought about this for a moment, apparently on the point of saying that she couldn't do change, then gave me two one pound coins. I left my basket on the floor and went outside to get a trolley. When I came back the till was closed.
This story is true. Up to the point at which I claim to have said, Why. Because I didn’t say anything. I stomped across and joined the basket queue. And I’m still angry.
On second thoughts, not.
My mother’s neighbour brought round some photographs yesterday morning of her daughter and son-in-law’s holiday in Devon. One of the photographs showed the son-in-law performing for the camera, leaning at a dangerous angle on a flight of steps, supported by a hand rail. It isn’t clear where he is: the building behind him might be a piece of industrial archaeology or an abandoned nineteenth century church. Immediately to his right is a pair of Romanesque windows with stone frames and someone, with great care, has decorated each arch with the word fuck, a detail his wife, my neighbour’s daughter, clearly didn’t see when she took the picture.
Friday, 21 September 2007
"Each player starts with eight random facts/habits or embarrassing things about themselves. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog."
1. On particularly hot days, particularly when I'm invigilating exams, my Birkenstock sandals fart.
2. I was once arrested for stealing a milk bottle (full) from a step. The fine was £6 plus the cost of a bottle of gold top. I later used the summons to make a very badly-rolled joint.
3. I have bags full of second-hand clothes in my wardrobe, bought at the local Sunday market and never worn or, indeed, looked at a second time. I must throw them out.
4. I can't bear Joseph Conrad.
5. As a student I once said that I really liked Heinz spaghetti with lots of grated cheese in it, claiming that it was as good as 'the real thing', which I'd never actually eaten. I recklessly offered to prepare it for a bunch of friends, who said yes. I'll never forget the sinking feeling as I dished it out from the pan. One of them, now famous and a bit of a foodie, has had the generosity never to mention this. (He may have forgotten.)
6. Rings make my fingers look infantile.
7. I was deflowered by a man of the cloth.
8. When I was nineteen I turned down an offer from Lawrence Ferlinghetti himself to work at City Lights Bookshop. I've never regretted it.
I'm not sure I can think of eight people. Let's see.
No, I can't. That's it. But I'll keep on thinking.
Three emblematic situations.
In Viterbo, despite pressure from the unions and lawyers, lettori continue to be obliged to clock in, unlike all other teaching staff, because they aren't considered teaching staff, and to fill in registers and reports of their activities, unlike all other administrative staff, because what they do is teach. For the director of the university language centre, a woman called Alba Graziano who's published a couple of books on George Meredith (one of them in a series edited by, er, Alba Graziano), lettori are tecnico-amministrativo personnel, and that's that, so fuck logic and the evidence of her own eyes. She probably wouldn't recognise a language teacher if it hit her in the face (don't tempt me), but she knows enough about protecting her turf not only to force her language slaves to have their activities timed like office staff, but also to inform them that they're overpaid, under-worked and, in the face of the university contract, which presumably she hasn't - or can't - read, part-time workers, with all the effect this has on pensions rights, and so on. I don't know how much they get in Viterbo, but it's unlikely to be more than the €1,150 I get each month. That's right, about £700. Poor sods. No wonder they're demoralised.
In Rome, a colleague is told that she has to come into the university three days a week to teach her hours, something she's been doing with great success for the last few years in two days. She refuses, pointing out to the rabid barone - responsible, god help them, for timetabling - that her contract says nothing about the number of days she has to teach but only the number of hours. All hell breaks loose. Meetings are held. At the highest level. There is much shouting in corridors as short-fused middle-aged women with too much power and money face the prospect of paradigm shift. The university isn't concerned with the quality of my colleague's teaching, which is recognised as being exceptional, but with punishment and the blind wielding of power. Ironically, the stick it's chosen to beat this particular drum (and colleague) is the contract used for the short-term recruitment of professors. That's right. Professors. Sounds familiar? When it's in the interests of the university to treat lettori like clerks, they're clerks. When, less often, it's in the interests of the university to treat them like professors (i.e. when office staff get a raise and teachers don't), they're suddenly, briefly, hiked up a notch. Until the next time they ask for a piece of chalk.
In Bologna, a colleague asked to have extra holiday to make up for holiday lost through illness this summer, as stipulated in her tecnico-amministrativo contract. She was told that she can't take any holiday during the period of teaching activity. Why not? Why doesn't this contract apply to me? Because I'm a teacher? Well, yes. Er, no. But I can't have time off because I should be teaching? I didn't say teaching! So what do I do? Whatever you do, you can't have time off.
Heads, they win. Tails, you lose.
Thursday, 20 September 2007
Probably in response to recent and entirely justified attacks on misuse of public money, lack of accountability, corruption within parliament, etc. Prodi pointed out that the kettle of the average Italian was in no position to call the pot of his/her elected government black. He didn't refer to anything specific, aiming his comments at sons following in their well-heeled father's professional footsteps, an Italian practice that goes back to the guilds of renaissance Florence and before. But he was clearly thinking of, among other things, the epidemic of bought exams in universities like Bari and Messina as the new academic year kicks in. This, like flu, happens every year but more people seem to have been caught with their cheating little fists in the honey pot this autumn and the university of Bari has just annulled its entry tests to medicine and dentistry, making a lot of doctors' and dentists' aspiring offspring very unhappy indeed.
Anybody who's taken a state exam in Italy will know that no ruse is too complicated or absurd (or expensive) not to be considered as an alternative to studying. Dictionaries in pockets are child's play in a country where mothers sew pouches inside their sons' trousers to hold microscopically reduced cribs. Cell phones, needless to say, haven't helped. But there isn't always need for subtlety. In some cases candidates come into the room with older, wiser heads who simply do the exam for them. In others, they wander outside to consult the books they need, protected by a doting grandmother in the corridor. Attempts to discourage copying are often defeated in court, which all too often prefer casuistry to common sense. A high court decision some years ago said that it wasn't enough to catch a student with photocopied material in his pocket; he had to be seen to be using it. In exam rooms in Italy, where people are crammed in like illegal immigrants on a fishing ketch, this is damned near impossible.
I remember during a language exam some years ago I was sure I'd spotted a small bilingual dictionary between the sturdy thighs of a female candidate. I told my female colleague, who went to ask her to hand it over. The student refused and we were treated to the unseemly sight of my colleague trying to wrestle her thighs apart, until someone pointed out that the girl would sue the university for assault if she didn't back off.
Monday, 17 September 2007
Friday, 14 September 2007
Giuseppe made friends with an Italo-French florist fifty yards down the road from the flat we were in, in Boulevard Saint Germain, and managed to scrounge three separate bunches of roses during our two-week stay. They were just the way he likes them, blowsy and open, with the petals about to fall. He calls them wild, although there is probably nothing growing that's less wild than this kind of highly cultivated rose, with the obvious exception of much of the food we're daily expected to eat.
And then you turn a corner and see two little buildings like this, squeezed into a wedge of space that's good for nothing else, idiosyncratic, unplanned, but still with the single line of guttering to unite them, and the garret window, and the green of the smaller façade tuned into the probably mildewed roof tiles of its slightly more prosperous neighbour, although both of them have almost certainly seen better days.
Wednesday, 12 September 2007
Two or three days later we were in the Arab Institute near Notre Dame, an extraordinary building containing a small but fine collection. Among the exhibits was an eighteenth century Iranian copy of the Koran, inscribed on a roll with the same kind of maniacal devotion as Hantai's, and, whatever its intentions may have been - and they were surely diametrically opposed to those of Hantai - the final effect is remarkably similar. In both cases, the actual sense of the word is subsumed in the representation of it as sign. The purpose of this Koran must have been to make the holy word available to its readers, but the manner of its transmittal renders it useless other than as totem. It disappears into the paradoxical beauty of the work as completely as Hantai's religious and philosophical texts, written in what appears to be a variety of coloured inks - red, blue, green, but never pink.
UPDATE: Diddles wasn't given a glass of water for five whole hours. Altogether now - Poveraccio.
Tuesday, 11 September 2007
But the vigile, spurred on by his zealous, newly-appointed superior, decided we'd committed an abuso edilizio. This term covers everything from opening up a foot-square window in a wall to building a three-storied seaside house with mooring point for a couple of yachts in a national park. Berlusconi's villas (and private mausoleum) are notorious abusi, though not much seems to happen as a result. We were taken to a lawyer, the brother-in-law of our builder. He said we shouldn't be worried, that everything would sort itself out, although how this might happen wasn't clear. Two days later, the main door to the house had a police notice attached to it saying that the house was sotto sequestro. In other words, we couldn't even enter the building, never mind continue with the work.
We weren't living there yet, but we'd planned to move in that summer. Only hours before the vigile turned up, we'd carted into the house a pseudo-baroque (1940s) sofa and armchairs we'd found in a second-hand furniture shop on the Pontina. We had to leave our flat in Rome to make room for some friends of ours, so much of the first floor was filled with boxes of books, clothes, stuff, a chandelier Giuseppe had bought from a flea market before we even had a house to hang it in, rugs, beds, kitchen tables and chairs. The house contained everything we owned and loved.
It took us a week or so to have the seals removed from the door, at least for the house's owner. Me. It took over a month to get permission to enter the lower floors and carry on with the work. We were lucky; we moved back into the flat we'd had before, and sold to a friend, or slept downstairs at Sally's. We watched the work continue, the sun beating down into roofless rooms, the shadows of the beams moving across the floors. And then the weather changed.
We applied for permission to put on a temporary roof as rain soaked the newly-laid floors, sank deep into the walls, gathered in puddles, bounced off the marble stairs,warped the new doors. We were told that the half-dozen wooden beams constituted sufficient protection. We tried sheets of plastic, but the wind ripped them off. We tried to waterproof the floors, pretend we had a terrace surrounded by walls with windows and doors, but the rain seeped through. One autumn night, we were lying in bed in our borrowed flat, unable to sleep for the storm. We pulled macs on over our pyjamas, slipped flip-flops onto our feet; ten minutes later we found ourselves sweeping water out of what was supposed to be a bedroom, shivering, drenched to the skin, crying with rage at the hopelessness of it all. The following day, we put on a temporary roof.
After that, it became what the lawyer calls 'tutta carta', an endless accumulation of documents and applications and statements and testimonials, the file getting fatter and older as the years passed. We thought we might be able to take advantage of an amnesty under Berlusconi 2 (I know, I'm ashamed), but it would have cost more than the roof itself and besides, we only had to wait another year or so for the case to fall off the radar. The statute of limitations for abuso edilizio is five years, but this was extended for those who didn't take advantage of the amnesty. OK, we thought, six years. We're nearly there. And then, this June, we were.
Just over a week ago, the house bell rang. Giuseppe went downstairs to open the door while I squinted down, as I usually do, from my study balcony to see who was there. I recognised the vigile at once. He'd come to see if we'd done any work on the roof. Well of course we had. He said he'd be back with a camera. We went to the lawyer. The lawyer said that the statute of limitation applied to the abuso but not to the violation of the sequestro, which was subsequent to the abuso. How subsequent? he wanted to know. When we told him he said that with any luck the statute of limitation would apply to our second crime if the police didn't decide to speed the whole process up, which was unlikely. I use the word crime because violating seals is, apparently, a criminal offence. In theory, though only that, I could go to jail. In practice, I'll have to give the lawyer his usual whack and may be fined. In the meantime, I have a record.
Two days later, the vigile came back and took his photographs. And now we wait. Contrary to logic and common sense, the longer the business takes, the more it suits us. But, of course, we continue to live beneath a roof of corrugated bituminous stuff that's designed to be used under roof tiles, not in their place. We continue to live in half a house. The hardest thing to stomach is that there seems to be no way to unite the requirements and processes of the law with the facts of the case. No way to simply bring a judge into the house to see what's been done and listen to why we did it.
The biggest irony is that, since we were charged, the use of a cordolo has been accepted by the local administration, which now recommends its use on old houses in the centro storico of Fondi. Unfortunately, this eminently sensible decision isn't retroactive.
Saturday, 8 September 2007
And if you'd like to come to the launch (never has the term seemed more appropriate), at Stanfords Travel Bookstore, in Covent Garden on 26 September or Bristol the day after, visit their site for details. I'll be at the London one. I should really be at the Bristol date because my great-grandfather was harbour master there, but I'll be at another book launch (believe me, this is not the way I normally behave). My agent and friend, Isobel Dixon, will be celebrating the publication by Salt of her poetry collection, A Fold in the Map. More information here.
A l'eau. Ces't l'heure...
Friday, 7 September 2007
We missed the opening night because it took place on the day we left. It seemed impossible they'd be ready - the tables and chairs were stacked at the back, the lighting was hanging from the walls, the paint on the shelves behind the bar still looked wet. But we're assured they were, and the evening was a great success. Now it's settled into the landscape, attracting its natural constituency, identical to the people who created it.
It's fifty yards from another bar which caters to northern African transvestites, off-duty before heading back to Pigalle, I imagine, or Avenue du Clichy. We had a drink there one rainy afternoon last summer, somewhat against my better judgement. The middle-aged woman behind the bar, generously bosomed and squeezed into a tight black woollen dress, seemed thrilled to see us, perhaps assuming we were there to raise the tone of the place. She scurried across to our table with a dishcloth and a plate of nuts we hadn't asked for. She was about to put the plate down when I reached for my umbrella and knocked the nuts all over the just-wiped table. With a nonchalance I still admire, she gathered them up in her hand and put them back on the plate. Merci, madame.
I didn't have to eat them, I know. I could have left them on the plate, as Giuseppe did. It was my fault and no one else's that I spent the next two days poised between bed and bathroom, my only significant activity projectile vomiting.
Let's hope they spell it right.
Thursday, 6 September 2007
He's particularly incensed by the fact that homophobic bullying is more common in faith schools. This is hardly surprising; monotheism doesn't have a great record when it comes to recognising gay rights. But I wonder what would happen if someone suggested that the government fund, or even recognise, a school for gay kids along the same lines as those used for faith schools. It might be a ghetto (though this would be no truer of a gay school than of any other selective structure - including one based on class; it's significant that ghetto is only ever used pejoratively), but I'd rather be in a ghetto than standing alone in a hostile playground.
And if you aren't convinced, read this suicide text, quoted by Hari, sent to his sister by Jonathan Reynolds, a 15-year-old boy who'd been bullied after coming out to friends:
"Tell everyone that this is for anybody who eva said anything bad about me, see I do have feelings too. Blame the people who were horrible and injust 2 me. This is because of them, I am human just like them. None of you blame yourself, mum, dad, Sam and the rest of the family. This is not because of you."Ten minutes later he'd been sliced in half by a train.
Tuesday, 4 September 2007
Sunday, 2 September 2007
I'm getting excited and nervous. I've spent the last few days reading book reviews and literary articles of one sort or another in the UK press, performing a similar operation to that of wrapping a jacket around someone else's book, i.e. replacing the author's name with mine to see how it feels.