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Sunday, 27 October 2013

We are all the chimps and the marrows

He was a good man Mr Darwin, he put a pot of earthworms on his wife's piano to see if they responded to music. She in turn, Emma Darwin played for them. Down House - a bus ride away from Bromley - is a walk out of time. While a keen guide shone his wind-up torch at a box full of stuffed birds, I ached for it to be the way it once must have been without the red night-club ropes and the locked doors with 'Private' inscribed on metal plates. I imagined the edges of the grass had not always been cut with scissors and a ruler and what was there before the cafe with a man in an apron, grating cheese, slapping together the sandwiches to sell at lunch. I so wanted to immerse myself further back and get underneath, to the place that 'Farthing Lane' had suggested on our way in.

The Sandwalk - walking=thinking
I found a sense of what I came for, in the gardens with the exotic carnivorous plants, in Darwin's blue painted greenhouses where in my mind he, or what he was, remained in his rhubarb and along the 'sand-walk' where he used to do laps three times a day as he took time to think. It was here, I played a little Hide and Seek with my girlfriend and got to thinking that it was even more fun with clues sent from a mobile phone.

The smell is claustrophobic
I am not good with earphone guided tours. I get competitive, wanting to get in the next room before everyone else and really, for it to be over. I feel impervious towards a dead man's hat and dog basket, it brings no comfort or inspiration to know that someone could do this with your stuff long after you have gone, to use it to try to show your life. It's unsettling how they mix the authentic and the fake; the new packet of Kendall Mint cake alongside the ivory nail clippers. It adds to the sensation of sea-sickness I get when I try to immerse myself in the remains of someone's life. But then, I find myself stopped dead by his eldest daughter's writing box, the nibs of Annie Darwin's ink pens who only lived to be ten years old. Next to this is a list, days and weeks long, as he attentively recorded his daughter's health. The exhibition makes it clear how Annie's death changed everything for Darwin, his faith, his ideas about the survival of the fittest and a suggestion how the pointlessness of deaths like these could feed back into and shape the evolution of humans.

Next treasure find: a drawing of an orangutan in a dress whom he met at London Zoo, he gave her a mirror to play with and music to listen to. The wall in the room I should have gone in already (the one before he got married) lists his thoughts on 'to Marry or not to Marry'. The whole piece is titled 'This is the question'. In his faint, slanted ink handwriting I could just about make out a sentence under the 'not to Marry' side (worth the ten pounds entry fee alone) 'No children, no second life'.

The tastefully evolved heritage gift shop sold the normal jam, ginger wine and mugs with cows or sheep on them but in the corner were giant marrows or white squashes for one pound. I felt a leap of excitement at the thought of buying a Darwin marrow, but soon realised the burden of carrying it. I regret that now, it was not in the spirit of the day. Darwin, the avid collector, upon finding a patch of land where there were multiple species of beetle, once popped a beetle in his mouth because he ran out of hands to hold them all. The beetle let out an acrid squirt and he spat it out, losing it for all time.
Two females holding hands in public:
still at risk from attack from
other upright walking mammals

On the train home, a teenage girl looked across at me and my girlfriend and after inspecting us laughed out loud, as if it was socially acceptable, as if the sight of two women who are together was OK to find ridiculous, ugly or silly. Her mum, who had a tough face, one that had been forming and reforming in the family for at least a few generations, said to her curtly while looking across at us, 'What's so funny then?'
And from this one firm correction from a mother to a daughter I felt we had evolved just a little way more, if you'd like to know Mr Darwin. It's just one more note added.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

So romance is bad, like limp wrists?

It began with What the world needs now, is love sweet love and I nodded my head while shaking off the deep voice that says, DO NOT BE VULNERABLE.
Last night I was invited to see Burt Bacharach play at the Royal Festival Hall. It was a hot summer's evening with no trace of Sunday about it because of bare shoulders + pink wine. Sitting there, somewhere within my favourite hour of seven pm, it was easy to decide there was going to be no tomorrow.
gone is the grey
I waited for my friend and my GF on the balcony overlooking the Thames
guarding a warm plastic chair with my hand from the bird-like eyes that kept finding it, checking over and over.
'Are you using that chair?'
'Yes, sorry.'
'Can I have that chair?'
'No, sorry.'

'Why do birds suddenly appear, every time you are near?'
angry fish face

The South Bank has long been my pal. From years ago when my Nan used to take us on the river cruises along the Thames, followed by a rest in a pub where she would be stared at for being a woman and not a man, to years later when I would spend hours of solitary pleasure in matinees at the Film Theatre. I was waiting to hatch into the light; merely an egg of a person. The place became a setting for a flight of romance between my protagonist and her student date in my first novel. If you wander along the promenade you'll see the Victorian lampposts with two curling, angry sturgeons around the base of each of them. I think of them as the guards of pleasure, open mouthed warning off the London from getting too world-weary. Angry for a good cause. They get hot in the sun; they stay warm into the night.

The sunsets here are some of the best in London and sometimes go flamingo and panoramic. Film and reality mix readily, so it is no wonder I chose the British Film Institute bar for all of my blind dates.
All unsuccessful (though highly produced with me in the opening frame on the bench near the bridge, with a thoughtful face dipped in a telling novel and a glass of wine).
I went on blind dates because I believed love couldn't see me. But on that stretch of Thames, where people wander and stop, everyone can be part of the parade and visible.

Just like me, they long to be, close to you.

As I write this stuff I am beginning to feel shaky. Romance is rarely spoken about as if it can be a force for good. It is seen as a cul de sac for teenagers and naive people because it renders the person vulnerable, soppy and waylaid with the trivialities of the heart. And we all know what happens to the soft-hearted? Their hearts turn to pâté. But whose voice is it that bellows so strongly against the music and the expression of love? Who is this cynical grown up voice that says things have to be cool?

fuzzy Doris
I used to plug myself in daily to Shirley Bassey and Doris Day. Andrew Lloyd Webber knows a thing or two about yearning. The soaring voice, the dreams of pain - on a clear day, take a look around you.
I once spoke to Ali Smith about Doris Day and she told me I should listen to the lesser known song, 'Put 'Em In A Box'. I was shocked, Doris Day attacking love? Did she really think it was worth living without the dreams that ruin your sleep?
You can hear it here:

A view from the box
But back to the South Bank where I am with my friend who is grieving for his mother. He is taking me and my GF out for a night of romantic, soul-stirring melody written by a man who is now eighty-five, but going strong. Wants to perform new music because it is important. My friend has champagne in his bag which he pops as I cough. He has paid for us to sit in the box next to the Royal Box. And after the songs have stopped, we sit out front with a bottle as the sun sets. He brings out three plastic containers containing portions of a summer pasta dish. There are fresh peas which he explains he shelled whilst watching Andy Murray play tennis.

Is a chair a chair?

"A House Is Not A Home"                                 
A chair is still a chair
Even when there's no one sittin' there
But a chair is not a house
And a house is not a home
When there's no one there to hold you tight
And no one there you can kiss goodnight
Woah girl
 A room is a still a room
Even when there's nothin' there but gloom
But a room is not a house

And a house is not a home                              
When the two of us are far apart
And one of us has a broken heart

I still love looking at these lyrics of Hal David's, trying to figure out the complexity of them, as they are a kind of philosophical puzzle.  
You can see Dusty and Burt perform it here:

Burt, 85, in trainers and a sharp suit
A big Doll. Ode to Cindy Sherman.
As Burt takes his final bow, I feel light, relieved of the stagnant water that collects in my tear ducts.
This is summer.
I am in love with London and my friend and my GF.
The South Bank with its obsession of oversized green figures and objects, is glittering behind me. I am a giant of emotion.
It reminds me to protect myself from my own cynicism or that of others, because what the world really needs right now, is love sweet love.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

My Face is One Big Ear

Call and entry system
This morning I had an appointment with a man who was coming to value my flat. When the entry phone rang, dead on ten, I heard a softly spoken polite man introduce himself. I wondered if he would be gay. There would be something nice about that, being able to chat away in my own home and it might somehow work in my favour. A gay man producing a good valuation (or was he doing a survey?) on my property for the bank makes me think that everything will turn out alright. I start to believe, if the man is gay then it is a lucky sign, though I tell myself I do not believe in signs.

First error: making a presumption from a voice.
Second error: thinking a gay man would of course be a nice person.

My mother brought me up to offer a drink to anyone that sets foot over my threshold within the first few minutes of their arrival. Remembering this rule, I grind some coffee beans while he travels up the seven floors in the slow lift and quickly make the flat smell of Continental coffee beans.
He arrives with a silver machine, a bit like a defibrillator. He looks gay, his face matches his voice - slight and precise, soft blue eyes, not exactly handsome, but not exactly ugly. His short neat hair is newly trimmed, graduated at the side and clean round the neck with a pleasing line which suggests sharp scissors. I offer him a coffee, finding pleasure in the way I can say 'I've just made some' as if I'm the type of girl who just makes fresh coffee, which I suppose I am. I present him the cafetière on the work top as if I am rich, which I also suppose I am, but only if in contrast this man is from the slums of Johannesburg. His eyes light up and I know I've taken him away from forming an all too speedy judgement about the state of my kitchen ceiling.
Not a moving photo
'How do you take it?' I say.
'Black, no sugar.'
'Snap!' I say, wanting him to see that we have something in common apart from the homosexuality.

Third error: looking to bond too quickly with the surveyor.

He asks me if it has two bedrooms, my flat.
'I know,' I think. 'This is where I mention the one bedroom with the one bed, but the absence of my partner today because she is at work. I'll use the word partner and slip in 'she' shortly after (long gone are the days where 'partner' was short-hand for gay. Though I've never liked the word partner, as it makes me think of cow-boys, but still, I use it.)
When I've said the two clues, he doesn't react but looks at his silver machine and draw on it with a blunt stick. Then he moves, and thinks out loud, saying something about a square?
'You live in a cube!' He declares finally, all pleased with himself when he takes out a remote control.
I never knew I lived in a cube, but now it's obvious. We stand near the kitchen window. Like most people he is excited that he can see Canary Wharf out of it, that there is city life somewhere not too far away. He unzips open the top of his jacket.
'I expect you get a lot of coffee,' I say, wanting a comment on it.
'You're the first today. Four appointments and you're the first one.'
'The problem is, they're not been brought up proper,' I say in an old lady cockney accent and look for a laugh, but one doesn't happen. This is the fourth error.
He goes into the hallway and measures a wall with the remote control. Then he comes back, presses a button and feeds the data into the silver machine. He picks up his coffee.

Twins - not lesbian mugs
'Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?' He puts down his mug, and I can feel the weight of something coming. He has not noticed that I gave him the good mug that my artist friend designed that matches the one in my hand (although it feels a betrayal to my girlfriend as they are officially our joint coffee mugs) I'm sure she wouldn't mind.
'No,' I say, sounding like I know I will at some point in the near future.
'Have you always known if you are, you know, like you are? I mean, when did you find out?'
This is twice this week I have been asked the same question. I know it is not because people are interested in me, it is because they are trying to work out something for themselves.
I think maybe I should show him the bathroom or the garden in an official capacity.
'I think I knew a long time ago.' I said.
'Do you think people can be bi-sexual?' he says.
'Yes,' the coffee has kicked in and I am enjoying myself. 'Of course, but it's vilified by lots of people and unspoken about by most. I think it should all be about who you find attractive anyway.'
'I used to be gay,' he said. 'I was abused when I was young and I was attracted to other boys. Then I hit puberty and I thought girls were more interesting, more beautiful. I saw a psychiatrist and she couldn't work me out. She said people didn't grow that way, that children couldn't be sexual before they had puberty, but I think that's wrong, because I was.' I think about telling him about the time I was in the Wendy House, but decide he has my girlfriend's mug, so I've already shared quite enough.

A Man enjoying a Lap
He talks and he wants to talk more than he will ever need me to respond. I can't quite remember how I find out in ten minutes that his girlfriend was abused, first by her father, then by her girlfriend who got her into lap-dancing and he thinks that's a type of abuse too, so she was abused twice. It was kind of like piercing a very large boil. Then when he says he met her in the lap-dancing club he tells me he was dragged along there ('dragged along' with all the other men who get 'dragged along' to lap-dancing clubs) but he is trying to tell me, he not a typical male, he's an atypical man, that he was only interested in speaking to the lap-dancers to make sure they were alright. One caught his eye, 'the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.'
Pre-Christian Fun
He tells me he read a survey of people who lived in Pre-Christian times. Ten percent were gay, fifty percent were bi-sexual and thirty percent hetero. I suggested the remaining ten percent were like my old Aunty Vera who had no interest in anything at all, but he hadn't got that his sum hadn't added up to one hundred.
He asks me what I do, why I need the desk and I say I'm a writer, of fiction, mainly. He says I'll download your book on my Kindle. 'Susan isn't it?'
'Karen,' I say.
Then before he goes I know he hasn't seen all of the flat. I am unsure what type of valuation he's going to give, but he looks down at my rug and looks sheepish. It is not a sheep-skin rug.
'You know my story would make a good book,' he says. 'I'm doing it in May. I'm going to write it all down, how I met the beautiful lap-dancer years later, when she happened to start working at the Bank of Ireland where I was working. I didn't recognise her at first, because she had been wearing a wig and didn't have many clothes on. There are so many coincidences that have brought us together. It'll make a great love story.'
'You must write things down,' I say. 'It's important.'

We go down in the lift and I show him the gardens and the BBQ area, not sure whether he wants to see this for his survey, but it's good to see the garden through fresh eyes.
He says, 'from the outside the building is so ugly, but now we're inside it's really lovely. How much are you going to charge to rent out your flat? Because, you see, I'll be looking for one in about a week.'
Then he is gone. I have his business card and have promised him I'll let him know when we are ready to rent out the flat. On the card is a drawing of a house with a roof made out the top of a giant mushroom. Because the drawing is slightly smudged it looks like it is falling through the sky.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Reach out and touch

So, physical things.
I have never written before about the bookshop in which I work. This is mainly because it has always been so well summed up by the Bookseller Crow himself, but after HMV going into administration last week I am left wondering, what are the things that will keep people coming into the bookshop above all else? What is it that a bookshop can provide which will make them survive the rough times, now that the physical is disappearing?
The Last Day of Woolworth in Penge High St 2008
After helping out on events, running workshops and the general clearing up of crisps trodden into the carpet, I can only think - it must be there in the writing, i.e. the printed, the holdable and then equally, the spoken, audible word. We all know you open up a book and find new lives and other worlds, and the same goes for when you use a K****e, but, the other day my friend's mum said that everything her husband downloads will be only 99p. He tries before he buys from the free pages, but really he'll get anything as long as it's on special offer. We've got one of those shops opening up Crystal Palace where Blockbusters used to be. Random, strange and enticingly foreign as these 99p shops may be, they are the physical spaces that have taken over from where Woolworths died. At least with a Woolworths you trusted that it only sold you what you wanted.

Books will bend your shelves
In a bookshop, when you hold a book, it will suggest, 'I dare you to try me.' Over and over, their spines are like fighters, or dancers, back to back, shoulder to shoulder. For the lucky ones their faces are turned outwards. The artwork (their brave fronts) pushes to convey their insides, like someone trying to show the complexity of their personality through their new coat.
When in a bookshop you look up from the page, maybe over at the counter, you might approach it and perhaps ask a question thereby allowing yourself to feel exposed. While talking you can't g****e to check the correctness of your responses, or to see if your memory is correct. You can feel passionate then blush, or inspired then energised or confused, or, the other extreme, you can confirm your learnedness and have that discussion leaving as fully plumped as a pigeon.

'Paradise' - do not read in a bar.
It is here, in the bookshop that things happen, physically. The book in your hand is not actually what you came in for, and you know you don't have any more space on your shelves and only enough money for a book or a bottle of wine, but you take it, because it is meant for you, today (besides there's a bottle of ginger wine under the sink). A book can be read in the bath, on a beach or on a lilo, you can put your finger in it, see how far you have to go, (or worse - how few pages you have left) write a message in it, drop coffee over it and still it will survive. It can do the rounds amongst friends and it can be waiting for you in a library for years. I have had books from lovers and strangers, friends but never foes. I have found them at hotels, on trains and in planes. I once used a novel to stop my face from getting sunburnt.
On the displays in the bookshop, I have watched books curl with the moisture from the rain then shrink with the dryness of the sun, over and over, open then shut.

Then there's the other function of bookshops: the space for thinkers, writers and wannabe writers.  I know how some people start to behave in bookshops, I've done it myself; they linger, they like to listen to the conversation between the person behind the counter and the person in front, to look at the synopsis on the back-sides of books and wonder 'How did they do that?' or 'Why?' 'Is it any good or is it just hype?' 'Is it shit?' 'Am I shit?' 'And am I angry because it looks shit, or because I know it isn't and I feel this because they have been published and I haven't?' In a bookshop you can say you thought that a novel was rubbish and someone else will chip in to disagree with you. In a bookshop there will be no internet trolls to hurt you when you have said what you think. We're not talking about just another review on A****n here. People will join in and people will spar. And this is good because you have to try to quantify your thoughts into words, in real time, and have an opinion, use actual speech to someone's face, or you will just lose face. On the spot. That's it! It's about being on the spot. Not hiding in a dressing gown with a screen heating up your lap, like a replacement cat, but being here, turning up, being who you can be or are, with the weight of the books all around you. It is the positive pressure to be better, read better, think bigger (or smaller with more detail) write with more knowledge. Get off your arse. Write something in the bookshop on paper, on a postcard, with a pen and leave it for me.

Come in, touch a book, give it a sniff and talk about it, or not talk, remain silent until you are ready to talk. Come back, buy it, come back. Talk. Think. Talk.

Because here in the Bookshop you are live on air!