Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Placeholding #2

Working in a bookstore can be enervating occasionally: the constant sight of books – from the middlebrow toilet-paper churned out by broadsheet lickspittles like William Boyd, Tim Winton and Zadie Smith, to the cut-and-paste sugared pulp of Victoria Henry, Jilly Cooper, Melissa Nathan, et al. – that I know I could knock into oblivion, let alone a cocked hat, choking the shelves where my own tomes should rest, pointing out to middle-class fuckwits where the ill-indicated books they might be looking for are (typical advance: “I’m looking for atheism”; typical response: “Um…”), trying to shelve in the badly-organised Kids section and being swamped by insidiously good-natured and demanding mothers (all middle-class, we should mention, although the working-class mothers are just as demanding, if simply coarse with it) (typical exchange: “Where are your books on fairies?” “Um… Are you looking for fiction books about fairies, books on folklore…?” “No, I’m looking for, you know, books on fairies…”), can get monstrously wearying.

It’s for this reason that the occasional spark of pleasant novelty is always the sweeter, whether it be getting in the new Will Eisner book (Life, In Pictures, which I will have to get the next time my paycheque comes in), or marvelling at the fifteen copies of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (my none-too-recent reading material, and extremely fine it is too) in the fiction section. Then, there’s another thing. A few months ago, as I was unpacking boxes of travel books, I pulled out something that me gasp. The Complete Notes is a hardcover compendium of two Bill Bryson books, Notes From A Small Country, and Notes From A Big Country (copies of both of which reside at our local library). The dust jacket is a bit ugly, essentially slapping the cover designs of the two books together, and thus losing the distinctive, graceful look of the originals. You can get a copy for 99p (plus postage and packing) from Amazon, but we’re selling it for somewhere in the region of £12.99. I note all this because it seems important to the question of why this discovery affected me.

It should be noted that Bryson isn’t what you (or I) would call an amazing writer; he’s supremely suited to the genre of middlebrow travel writing, his “wry observation and curious insight” (Lord, how such phrases make me quiver) perfectly appealing to the reader not looking for any real depth, or, for that matter, Mail On Sunday readers (Bryson’s columns for said newspaper form the body of Notes From A Big Country.) Readers like my father: he spent some time during a family holiday in France (I think, not quite sure) reading a tattered library copy of Notes From A Small Country. My reading material at the time consisted of the Discworld books, only two of which, stupidly, I had brought with me. Seeing as most of our time was spent at the tent, my parents lazing around in the sunshine and drinking copious cups of tea, I warded off boredom by reading, and soon finished them both, thus taking up Notes… in parallel with my father. The book consists of the story of a round-trip of England Bryson conducted shortly before moving his family to the US; having little to no sense of geography, I had almost no idea where most of the places discussed in the book were, and little to no sense of what they were actually like. What struck, I think, was Bryson’s good-naturedly cantankerous attitude towards the mess we’ve made of Britain; his consistent complaint of near-total homogenisation between every town he visited, of casual ugliness propagated for no real purpose (ugly chain storefronts jammed into otherwise pleasant buildings, ratty pseudo-public spaces, the general sense of crapness that comes with living in England) was striking to someone who’d only lived among such shit all his life, and knew nothing else. From then on, I’ve paid more attention to the architecture and nature wherever I’ve gone. You could say it was the beginning of the creation of a critical faculty in me, the permanently-embedded grit that would irritate me into griping in writing for the rest of my life. His consistently amusing – such a mild word is absolutely perfect for the not-exactly-hilarious nature of his work – observations were a source of interest for the rest of my holiday. I can’t remember whether I actually finished the book, but I think I did. In any case, I largely forgot about it.

A couple of years later (I think), I was commanded to buy something for my father’s birthday. Dry for ideas, I went to the bookshop where I now work – at the time, a quite long trip for me to take alone, but now one I make every day – and went over to the travel writing section, which was in the same place it is now. Figuring he liked Bryson, I looked through the books on offer, but was bewildered by the range. The idea of one human being writing so many books was almost beyond me. None of them really seemed to suit, except for The Lost Continent, a volume about a trip Bryson took around America in the late 80s, with a paperback cover that I still find oddly charming. I bought it, trembling with anxiety as was my wont, wrapped it and gave it to my father some days later. He seemed pleased, if not overly excited. He enjoyed the book, occasionally drawing my attention to certain passages with that drain-like chuckle of his, but not being especially impressed with it. I’ll admit I wasn’t either, but it left something of a trace on me. It was, I think, almost a year later, during the beginning of my first year of Sixth Form. It should be noted at this time, I was an utter nervous wreck, bent, though I’d never have admitted to myself, on a swift and well-publicised death. I hated my life, and I wanted out, now. This must have been the beginning of October 2005, and I had, by that time, begun to calm down and settle into a routine, but every day was a still a struggle. I had just finished reading Crime And Punishment for the first time, a book whose closing chapters had an impact on me like a freight train, working changes on my mind that have allowed me to survive to this day, and affected me far more than any of the cynical, misanthropic books I’d been reading in a torrent that summer (Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey To The End Of The Night, Camus’ The Fall, etc.) I was, to use a cliché, reeling from the impact of Crime And Punishment when I picked up my father’s copy of The Lost Continent, unable as I was to read anything more substantial, and consumed it in two or three days. By the time I got to the end, I barely remembered anything that had happened, although one image did stay with me: that of Bryson, out on the backroads, coming to a main road, losing control and skidding into a ditch. That sensation of deathly speed was exactly how I felt in those days.

The Lost Continent isn’t an especially exciting book: for the most part, his descriptions of the small towns and vast distances he passes through can be rather repetitive, and there are quite a few passages – such as the story of his family’s Irish cleaning lady, who died of cancer – that he admits are nothing but filler to plug the holes in a journey with many boring sections. In the second half, as he travels through the empty West of the country, his activities – that is, driving all day through empty landscapes to small towns, getting a motel room for the night, usually either eating in a small restaurant or watching TV, before repeating the next day – can be rather boring to read. But it was perhaps this quality – you could describe it as being the literary equivalent of porridge – that lodged its way into my brain. A year later, as I began writing the first short prose pieces I actually felt were worth keeping, I think the knowledge that this kind of prose – as much as the ultra-keen modernism my Beckett-soaked brain wanted to trade in – was part of my mental life suggested that prose styles that admitted of more of the real world – for example, of the world of my parents’ grumblings and mild enthusiasms – were permissible, could be used.

So, after I began working at the bookshop in question, it was an oddly pleasant surprise, whilst shelving in the travel writing section, to be faced with a few shelves of Bill Bryson books. As with many books throughout the shop, I thought, perhaps, (half-jestingly as always) of buying a copy of The Lost Continent, seeing whether it matched up to my memory. Such is the nature of idle thought. Handling travel books had reawakened my interest in the subject: it wasn’t merely works like Daniel Kalder’s Lost Cosmonaut, but things like Paul Theroux’s monstrously unhip books about travel via train, Boswell and Johnson’s A Journey To The Western Isles Of Scotland, even Tony Hawks’ pathetically matey middle-class joke-arounds like Round Ireland With A Fridge (I had to sticker a stack of this not too long ago – it is about as bad as that title suggests). A year and a half ago (or thereabouts), having eventually worked out I was going to have to carry on with living, I began to work out routes across Europe with the map in the back of my large notebook, to carry out after I left school (at this time I was still adamant I wouldn’t go to university). Even after acknowledging that I actually did have a future, by deciding I would go to uni, the plans remained, with the idea to travel during a gap year. The main plan was to travel across Europe, each route a pilgrimage of literary and historical significance: Paris, where Beckett and Ionesco lie in the Pere Lachaise; Marseilles, to visit the near-unmarked grave of Artaud; Catalonia and Aragon, where anarcho-syndicalism briefly reigned during the Civil War; Ravenna, with Dante’s tomb; Germany and Austria, for visits to Mauthausen, Dachau, Belsen, Berlin (you can see I was a cheerful teenager); the Balkans (including a trip to Srebrenica); Hungary, Poland (with the obligatory journey to you-can-guess-where), the Ukraine (with a trip to Babii Yaar – the ravine in the suburbs of Kiev where Nazi forces murdered some 33,000 Soviet Jews), and possibly Russia. My parallel plan had been to create a book from the experience, combining travelogue with essays about the literary and artistic subjects at hand (alternating a chapter on a place, and an essay about the associated artisan). Needless to say, a year of living followed by four months of unemployment – keeping the cash reserves needed for such a venture drained – put an end to such foolishness: the book idea, in retrospect, was incredibly stupid, and the sickening arrogance and misery-love I must have possessed to believe I could write anything about the history of these places makes me ashamed still…

It was last year when I began thinking about place and writing again. Unemployment meant that I hardly saw anyone at that point, apart from my immediate family (the corrosive effect of unemployment on self-esteem, the constant feeling of inadequacy and helplessness, is well-documented, and I never felt like seeing anyone.) To combat cabin fever, I walked for hours around my home town, braving the blazing summer weather to cycle on the beach and explore the town gardens. I read about a book every ten days, and eventually I spotted a copy of Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory in the London History section of my local library. I had already come to psychogeography via the Situationists (and partially via Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces), but Sinclair’s approach was odd even compared to them: he spun dense, interweaving patterns from the history of places, creating alchemical spells that transformed space, meshed and mashed the vectors of space and time. From the fascinating extended essay on Derek Raymond’s ‘Factory’ novels and the befogged, claustrophobic streets of Wapping, to the account of ley lines running through London’s Hawksmoor churches, as eulogised in eccentric poet Aidan Dun’s Vale Royal (intersecting with the history of London’s private poetry presses, sampled on the Sinclair-edited anthology Conductors Of Chaos), it ranged over a London that I – and, indeed, most Londoners – never knew of, coding and decoding the voices of its past, the paths of its present. The conceptual linkage with my then-burgeoning interest in hauntology – spectral geography, ghosts being tied to a site, the trauma of history building up like sediment in places – added further frisson; the ideas permeated not only a number of the pieces I wrote for this blog, but the fiction I was working on at the time.

So, it was rather nice, when I started working at the aforementioned bookshop, to find Sinclair’s books – Lights Out…, the magnificent London Orbital, Edge Of The Orison – alongside Bryson’s in the travel section. In the last few months I’ve found myself being drawn inexorably toward this writing, reading Robert McFarlane’s The Wild Places, Philip Hoare’s England’s Lost Eden, finally purchasing a copy of Lights Out… - and, to my partial shame, finally re-reading The Lost Continent and Notes From A Small Island. They’re both more amusing and more boring than I remember, the former particularly – between occasional evocations of places of real beauty in the backwaters of America, and laugh-out-loud moments where he spits real venom at his home country’s absurdities, there are large passages where nothing really happens, and his easygoing manner becomes somewhat tiring, making me want to scream “Petit-bourgeois arse!” at the mute page. It becomes obvious here that travel writing is, alongside the memoir, possibly the most difficult genre in which to write something interesting, to create something with real affective power over the reader, without spilling over into the realm of parody, ego-centricity or shallow flippancy. Travel writing, in a certain sense, is writing stripped back to its central functions, observation and composition, input and processing (with the vague possibility of output). At its worst, it tends toward that bugbear of bourgeois naturalism, disinterested contemplation (one reason why I never take part in the supposed writers’ exercise of ‘sitting in a café and watching the world go past’ – I never can be disinterested); at its best, it picks up the fugitive signals of place and amplifies them – pitching up the noise of landscape. The self-consciousness at the heart of writing is nakedly exposed in travel writing – which explains why so many conservative writers retreat into jokiness, colloquialisms, the anecdote – because no travel book is merely written after the fact, without any thought of the writing troubling you during the acts recorded; when I wandered around dark, echoing concert space during Marginal Consort's performance at the Arches, a notebook jammed in my coat pocket, I knew, even then, that the transmogrification of this experience into language was shaping the experience even as I underwent it. My feelings about Glasgow, and Scotland in general, are shaped by the narratives that later moulded my writing about them.

Travel writing is the genre where the complexities of our relationship to place are worked out: for the flipside to the boggle-eyed exploration of the exotic that recurs so often in travel literature is a sentimental attachment to ‘home’, to rootedness. This occurs in everyone, I think, but more self-consciously in writers, or visual artists, than most: the extent to which place shapes our consciousness is seen most vividly in its visible creative products, where for most people it remains an unscrutinised and unarticulated part of their barely-understood self-images (I’m thinking particularly of the literature of proletarian nostalgia typified by Gilda O’ Neill’s My East End or Jennifer Worth’s Call The Midwife, in which geographies merely accepted with a shrug, or reviled, are invested with a rose-glass glow by their disappearance, and the authors’ ascent into the middle-class.) Sorley Maclaine’s poetry (which inspired Harrison Birtwistle’s new quartet Tree Of Strings, which I heard earlier this week) would be unimaginable without the landscape of Raasay; R.S. Thomas' work would be unthinkable without the stony hill country of North Wales; M.R. James’ most terrifying tales wouldn’t exist without the bleak expanses of east Suffolk. The process of literary composition depends, to a certain extent, on place: I find it almost impossible to write somewhere that I feel uncomfortable (hence why I rarely write in public), while others thrive on the disruption that the unstable housing arrangements of late capitalism afford. If writing can be seen as a Heimlich art, begun from the safety of the warm and private study, it can also be deadly unheimlich, bringing both reader and writer in proximity to unknown, impersonal and alien powers; it seems to me that the best travel writing – and this is the strange quantity which exercises such power over me – walks the thin line between the two. The two zones elide into each other: any unfamiliar place, visited enough times, becomes another home; 'unheimlich' still contains 'heimlich', just as the home can, for the young mind, being shaped, contain the first instances of the strange and alien. For Iain Sinclair, ‘home’ is a tangled mess of roots, the city a patchwork of areas familiar and less so, always known, distantly, to him, but holding within itself all manner of strange treasures, magickal connections, bizarre energies – even his beloved Hackney throws up mysteries, from the soon-to-disappear anomalous idyll of the nearby Lower Lea Valley, to the strange sigils adorning soon-to-be-demolished villas; for Bryson, ‘home’ is an altogether more uncomplicated proposition – sleepy Iowan capital Des Moines, his birthplace, and the beginning and endpoint of The Lost Continent – that can nonetheless be only appreciated after absence. Probably the most (only?) poignant scene in The Lost Continent is Bryson’s second return, after exploring the west of the country, to Des Moines: this American who has, for the last twenty years, known nothing except the glowering hills of Yorkshire, arrives into this place that is flat, but not in the least empty or threatening, instead reverberating with the light of memory.

Within a couple of months, I’ll have moved from Bournemouth to the Black Country, a geography I’ve only ever passed through on the way to somewhere else (barring a brief, and barely remembered, visit, on a family holiday, to Coventry, which I immediately wanted to leave, from sheer boredom (I was an unpleasant child)). During the last year, I’ve gotten to know Bournemouth, and the surrounding area, far better than I did in the entirety of the preceding 18 years. Awakened traces of childhood memory – particularly, of trips to my aunt and uncle’s farm near Beaulieu, in the New Forest, the canopic avenues of trees, the brown and yellow autumn light, the seemingly-ancient drifts of leaf litter and mud – have invested more significance in this place than I ever thought likely. Throughout my teens, my one wish was to leave what I considered to be a dead hellhole of a landscape, infested with bourgeois reactionaries and colonised by capital; it’s only now, in coming to leave it that I’ve found its other face. I've only ever made a few pieces of writjng about Bournemouth itself - always abstracted, extracting its least salient points (graveyards, desolate parks, the deathly claustrophobia of its schools, the swell-battered seafront) as evidence against it, and the rest of the world. It's not the sort of place you can write poems about. The only form I think I could write in, even partially honestly, about it would be somewhere between the memoir and the fragment - my own diary, or not even that, just discarded scraps of description. A form, in short, that is commensurate with the business of living, of day-to-day experience, rather than the wide grasp of, say, the novel. The people I've met, the places I've discovered, the things I've found, over the past year, would be its substance - and it's only now, when I'm leaving it, that this place and its voices begin to come into focus, to be framed as something other than a fleeting glimpse.


Blogger Palbo said...

¿Vos te acordás de tu vida antes de nacer?


¿Vos te acordás del momento en el que naciste? ¿Te acordás del momento en el que empezaste a vivir?

No me acuerdo, ¿será que la transición del olvido a la consciencia es algo paulatino?

¿No será que cuando mueras va a ser igual?

Todo el mundo se acuerda de su primer recuerdo.

Si no, no sería el primer recuerdo.

July 13, 2008 at 8:37 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

I can't read Spanish, but having put the above comment into Babelfish, this is the result:

"You acordás of your life before being born? No. You acordás of the moment in which you were born? You acordás of the moment at which you began to live? I do not decide to me, it will be that the transition of the forgetfulness to the conscience is something gradual? It will not be that when you die it is going to be equal? Everybody remembers its first memory. If no, it would not be the first memory."

I have no idea what this means, so will not bother attempting to reply.

July 14, 2008 at 9:28 AM  
Blogger kek-w said...

Actually, I think you just did.

July 14, 2008 at 1:48 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Alright then, replace "replying" with "engaging with this transparent nonsense".

July 15, 2008 at 2:58 AM  

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