From the In Between

Between worlds, Avia came. Somehow, she slipped in. I have been thinking of the place she inhabits for some time now. Months have passed me by. There is a city sketch, a complex weave, and she is one part of this. There are others somewhere in the cloth, but they have yet to show. I put my head down thinking of time and space and place and what it all could be, here, there; I was woken suddenly, later in the broken light. Avia whispered her name.

The morning before, it was someone else to have infiltrated that space: that breach between the comfortable density and the alertness of the possibility of being hunted. There, some man I didn’t know, someone who assumed a minor greatness of the written world, took a book of mine. With disregard for what that book had seen, for who had touched it, loved it, for the words of delicate love traced inside the cover, the man pushed flat the spine and etched his own inscription there. It woke me suddenly: I couldn’t recover the book as it was before him — untouched since love, tarnished now and forever on.

This gap, this in between, has long since been an attractor of the conscious realm. This is not without its irony: such conscious agitation of the mind about the space between worlds where conscious agitation cannot be. The more we think of it, perhaps, the farther we push it away. Yet, nevertheless, here I am in contemplation of the shape of the shapeless, the breadth and depth of the amorphous, the texture of the inside of something I cannot ever reach, here, now, as I can write or as I can think it.

There are gaps in between sleep states, within and in between woken meditations, in between our woken autotelic states. There are gaps within the automatic functions that we fall through. Within all these, we may find the slight embodiment of words or ideas we laboured through; the deeply buried reaction that we never knew to be there, to conspire to catch us off-guard; the sensation on the skin, half-remembered, half-conjured; the name of someone sought amongst a city, half-formed, half-lit.

I drive, I wash, I stand and watch the day. There is a soporific softness to the urgency of the road, the stacking restlessness of the diary, the gathering darknesses of othernesses that could be done; they’re all attended to by the robot core — ticking, processing, clanking quietly deep down beneath. I drive, I wash, I stand and watch the day. I fall between the cracks of worlds.

This, at least, is how this thinking, writing, conscious agitation of the mind presumes it. I can’t tell for sure because I’m not there, for sure, between the cracks, in the gaps, between worlds. I know I surface with words, though sometimes slight; with reactions I didn’t know were there; with sensations whose memories still play upon the skin; with the names and hints of those entrenched in some half-lit, half-formed city.

Avia stretches out her arms, as I think her now. She’s already receded far and deep down. The shadows of this some place I have been thinking of swallow her, for now. She’s fey on the temple, on the pillow, perhaps. One man broke a book: he defiled the tracings of words and love there. He is the blemish of some underworld of this some other world. Both are in between, somewhere I can’t see for sure here: so I think.
 
 

City: Partial Study in Self and Mass

Cities are a fascination. They have mass to write about. They have their own gravities. There’s too much and everything all around and I can’t fix my place and space within it all. Cities are endless. They spiral in and fall on top of themselves. It is the swill, the vortex, the conflagration of air. Where do all these people come from? Where do all these people go? Perhaps they exist just in these spaces as I pass them by.

Cities are greasy great hubs of flesh and stone, metal, mesh and the technology of the times. They feed on chemical electrical interaction, on digital densities of us. They suck us dry. We can’t help but move. It is the urban jet stream to manipulate us on and round and through the open doors and moistened tunnels, along the garish lightways. Nothing stops because nothing can. There is centrifugal force that spins us in and deeper down, somehow.

Cities have a filthy grace. They have love the shape of pride of place, but coloured by fingers stained with secrets, stroking stringiness into hair. Cities whisper with a flavoured breath: all the fancy trinkets you need are yours here. Everything shines, but only now because you let it shine. Cities wrap you in their wings. You let your whole be overwhelmed by sound and light and heat because there is nothing else you can do here. Cities breathe around you. You breathe them in.

Cities are deeper than you can ever know. Whispers weigh and forces pull at edges, and the spin a city’s in and the stream that twists and stretches round in invisible convolutions, the everything this is, spirals in depths above, below, through and in between. It’s all a blur, it’s all a stir. It has every speed at once. Even the rows of buses, waiting, are waiting in the swill of time and darkness; even the slightest gaps between the metal tubes of trains are laden with the squeezing of the air; even the masonry presses insistencies on the glass and steel of structures close and closer by. Everything has weight and mass.

Cities are galaxies of infinite gravities pulling inwards, outwards, downwards, mindwards, timewards. Even the sounds exert their presences on all around: an ambulance screeches in a long-pained wail around the Escher-engraved scratched streets; trains lumber in sudden imposition on iron girders up above; there is an endless drain of metal blood around the channels of the tarmac floors of arteries and veins. The city sucks at the balancing ear with its sudden exclamations and with its constant siren songs in streams and streams.

Cities are a fascination. An aeroplane hangs in the air, and I watch it as I trundle into the mausoleum of the station. The aeroplane just hangs, and gravity is arranged in other ways. I am disgorged and swallowed. There is weight and mass here; there is too much and everything. I let it all fall over me: it’s all I can do. The urban jet stream picks me up and takes me on and on. I am fed upon, pressed deeper down and in. There is a blur, and even the stillnesses appear to move. They aren’t stillnesses at all. I am breathed upon and I allow the city to tug at my balance and my sleeve.

Cities are deeper still than I have words for here.
 
 

One Week’s Words Washes Up on the Shore of Now

Rain falls in a vast sweep and the lightning is a sheet across the night sky. This is an enormity in the flash of the now.

Here, this now, is the calm between storms. Words tumble down and down to reach the bottom of the week: liquid amalgamations in the long thin tube, where a yard of ale might also run. Here is a puddle deepening. I think: when Phoebe offers me that smile, the one that’s lush in empathy, there’s a touch of sadness in her eyes. This is a moment of now. Night washes away.

Here we are in some stillness. Words spread out like sodden leaves. I am woken with a memory of someone I almost forgot; yes, ‘What a dream I had, pressed in organdy, clothed in crinoline of smoky burgundy; softer than the rain’*; except you were smoother still than this. Memory and dream conspire and we can often forget where we are. I am woken, deeply down in time still, coming up, coming up for air. Time washes round me.

Here is some me: once, one twenty years gone by, here he still is. He’s a ghost naïve. Words swill in pictures and sense arrangements, as ‘then’ merges with the ‘now’. Strangely in the city of my greener self, all the monuments and the toothpaste streets, his city, spread around me. There are ghosts in every crack and on every corner, where the air still circulates in endless orbits, where the light is sepia sluiced. Ghosts wash along the pavements and the roads.

Here is an always me: the children sit on the doorstep next to me. We consider the clouds. There are moments of perfection which words can’t always catch. Words try to settle on this now; yet all is too rare, as in light, yet just so. This form of rarity cycles over and around. The children know, the children feel the moment, and they have the wisdom of quietness in it all. Clouds, which have some such words somehow, wash over us.

Here is some love I have known for what could be always: be present, my dearest friend. So, I see the shifting colours of the tree in the sun to shade: white-blonde lime to dark black-green in an instant; the frosted spray of pines, perhaps; the presence, coming forwards in front of the urban world, of trees. Words fall in: I write in my mind’s eye. The now is fragile and yet remarkable. Everything is succinct. Everything is clear. The world-moment washes in.

Here is one now: this is the calm between storms. Words are present, washing over, now.
 
* (lyric: Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel)
 
 

The Reading Vows

There are times when reading is absolutely necessary. There are times, here, when there is a great need just to read. It comes in cycles, I find: it tracks me for a while, behind me like a shadow; I don’t know it’s there. Then, quietly, it insists itself on the days of my life. In days like these I have every need to read widely. What can cause this? Do I not have enough words of my own to sift and assemble? It’s not this. I don’t know what it is. It’s a desire that can’t be pinned. It passes, though I also don’t know why this is; it passes, but when it’s here it’s like a thirst.

Yet there is just so much matter out there in the ‘worlds’ we live in (paper worlds and digital virtual places). It can be overwhelming trying to locate the matter that needs the reading. I don’t know what I’m looking for, exactly, when I do look. I do know that when I find something that suggests it has a certain flavour to it, I must read it. I also know, however, that there is just so much wading to be done. Quadrillions of words in trillions of aggregations, perhaps, conspire to show repeated weaknesses. There is slurry, and maybe we’ve all contributed a little to this, alas.

There are gems amongst this though. Perhaps the knowledge that these do exist, must exist, maintains the will for the hunt. ‘Writing is a safari . . . it means going out there and spotting, nabbing and bringing home to the cage of the page the most marvellous living stuff of the world.’ Who was it who wrote this (which I left unattributed in my Germany-period notebook)? It doesn’t matter here for now. If writing is a safari, so too is the preparation for reading.

Finding is one thing, but giving oneself over to the find is quite another. I take a book by the hand and I know, before I open its cover, that I am about to commit to it. To have and to hold, to love and to finish . . . When I hold a paper book I can sense it: I can see and feel its weight and the potential time within it. I will read its covers and its author’s notes, its preface or its preamble: I will go straight to the last page — not to find out anything ahead of time, cheating — but to commit the page number to memory. I take extra care not to see the words there. This carving of the last number in me is not a way of trying to weigh myself down; rather, it’s a vow in the making (till death do us part, which I see to be page 210 . . .)

Taking an e-book by the hand is not so easy. It hides its secrets well and I sometimes find the e-book difficult. Let me see your pages whole, I think when I try to find it within the ink that isn’t ink at all, within the thin depths of the small plastic slab in my palm. I don’t care for the number limits of the chapters; I want to feel the weight of this whole book in time. Yet, even here, there are gems to be found: this I know; this I think.

This phase of the present need to read isn’t over yet. I still haven’t found, this time, what I’m looking for — exactly; though I have found moments in some stories, stories in themselves that linger, possible books to re-read, possible authors to try from new. There is slurry, and there are gems, and there is commitment called for.
 
 

Of Precision and Depth Associations

I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.

— Gustave Flaubert

In love, as in gluttony, pleasure is a matter of the utmost precision.

— Italo Calvino

What is it that this is? That is, of words, these constructions that we like to contrive: what is it that this here is? I have been looking, this day; I am looking for depth association. Each word we lay down should have clarity, could be significant, must be crisp. It is this; or rather, this is what it is at this moment.

This isn’t just about a quality of content in the writing. We may read others’ words and find them stimulating, though sometimes — admittedly — we can also find them repulsive and all degrees between. There’s more within. In some ways, that which is sought is ineffable, or untouchable: it can’t reach the sense world. I’ve written about the feel of words before (this is the closest I can describe it); there are other layers though. This depth association is how I render it this day.

Try to write with clarity, so here it is: the smallest elemental seeds of lines are built into the shortest of stories, which in turn are part of a greater whole, which link into other stories in other segments of the wider collection, and all is connected across time, characters, places, memories, literary references or themes. It is this depth association I am, currently, trying to see in words I read and write. How does what you write connect with your other offerings? How can what I write connect across the sphere of my output? There must be honest attempts at precision.

There must be motifs and geographies, objects and actions, and other nuances, that link across time and page or screen. There must be the slightest repetition or just the insinuation of reference: it must be like light; or, there must be flavours steeped in; or, it is — as I’ve long suspected — the gap between the church bells that resonates with the most clarity. Words can be sharp and delicate, both, but such that after-tastes linger; after-images can press against the redness of the closed eyes; all of these: metaphors can marinate in the whole.

Be clear and precise: what is it that this is? This is a need for precision in the writing and in the reading; rhythm and grace; that which could melt. These are the ideals that gather, though these are the ideals that frustrate. The writer of pulp will earn his sluice of gravy money, sink it and think nothing more, no doubt; the writer who strives for the violinist’s chords may just be sunk by his own endeavours. In the end, perhaps the art of precision is an act of love: there may be depth associations and crispnesses but only those of similar malady might see.
 
 

The Pressing of the Social Fabric on the Written Word

Despite ourselves and any great imagination we might purport to have, can we only ever really write within the parameters of our own time? That is, we may write outside of own century (backwards or forwards), or even our own decade, or closer still, yet are we always bound by the present of our own realities seeping into what we’ve written? Is there no escape?

I’ve recently been reading some 12th century romances, as you do: the type that comes ready installed on e-readers. I’ve waded through Erec et Enide (‘waded’ being the operative term) by Chrétien de Troyes, and am stealing myself for single sitting attempts at Cligès, Yvain and Lancelot, by the same author. I prepared myself, as it were, with the reading of Tristan and Iseult, albeit an early 20th century interpretation written by Joseph Bédier.

The story of the story, the legend, the tale written on top of the tale, all interests me and has done for some time. That we’re comprised of stories is something I come back to time and again. I’ve written my own modern-day take on Tristan and Iseult (Isolde) and so felt compelled to go back again to see how my version builds out from others’ takes. After due settling periods of written pieces, these comparisons are interesting exercises in themselves.

What struck me in the reading of both of the above authors’ works was how much a product of their (assumed) time they were. That is, Chrétien de Troyes attempts to deliver an idealised 12th century society, grafting on his Arthurian ideal; Bédier’s 1900 Tristan and Iseult resupposes the romance for his period. If Arthur even existed at all he may well have been some 6th century Romano-British chieftain; his ‘Round Table’ is actually a late 13th century or early 14th century artefact, created on the instigation of Edward I, later appropriated by Henry VIII who depicted himself on it as Arthur. In short, the Arthurian ideal was just that.

From such stirring stuff of legend comes tales that keep getting re-told. However, in both eras read of recently, the ideal is less than so when seen in our modern terms: women, for example, largely come across as merely objects with little or no desire other than to serve the ‘noble’ lords, knights and fathers or father figures. The idealised French chivalry depicted by Chrétien de Troyes leads this reader to actively want his Enide to show a spark, any spark, of life. This only happens when, forced to marry the Count of Limors after thinking Erec dead, she verbally attacks him. That she gets slapped for her efforts is fitting for how I feel about her, but doesn’t do the perspective on womankind any good at all. I very much needed Enide to punch the Count back (and wage some retributory action on many of the male characters too); sadly though, these are just not in keeping with the social mores of the time.

Herein lies the rub: despite Enide’s role in the middle section of the story as someone who warns Erec of dangers he hasn’t yet seen, albeit meekly, and against Erec’s explicit demands, and despite the author’s apparent message that women should, in fact, speak up, Chrétien de Troyes can only really write whilst pressed upon by the social layers of his own time. Women are loyal trophies; all noble men’s deeds are most excellent (even when slaying and butchering); defeated opponents become subservient unquestioning ‘servant friends’: the servitude of women should be matched by their pleasing physical attributes; the butchery of men should be seen as noble; the righteous defeat of opponents should result in effectively enslaving them under the guise of ‘friendship’.

It is an idealism based, perhaps, as a reaction to the immediate times. Scroll forwards to the 20th and 21st centuries. As an example of such rootedness, I think back to the first of the Star Trek franchise: Kirk et al regularly tackled matters pertaining to the social issues of the 1960s, yet those storylines were projected onto a 23rd century future.

Is it possible to write, be it for television or film scripts or for books and the like, outside of our own time? That is, the social mores of our own place in time press on us and, no matter how subtly, influence us: we may be blessed with great imaginations, but can we use those to leap out of everything that surrounds us in the now?
 
 

The Sunlit Story-Dusting Above Our Heads

Does it matter that there are no new stories in the world? This isn’t with reference to the idea that there are only a few distinct plot lines; rather, this is to think on whether everything that could have been written has, in some form or another, already been written. Don’t take that as a negative: on the contrary, this is a celebration of the recurring power of the stories that we tell.

Is everything we construct already first constructed elsewhere? In the arts there are trails of homage and foundation: Classical architecture has been extensively drawn upon in later design, film often relies heavily on previous visual references, fashion cycles round in reinterpretations of what has gone before, and so on. All of the stories of our cultures are woven not just in words but in stone, in moving images, in fabric, and so forth.

Yet, everything must start somewhere, so where is the kernel of every story of us? We will never know. Stories are like dust: they swirl and then, when they’re light enough and lit by time, they appear to fall into the sky. Before the written word, stories were breathed and known as such. Then, somewhere along the line, stories became of the conscious realm only when read in words.

What we have now is a desire for the new, the seemingly inspired, the fresh or quirky. What we’ve forgotten is that the dust of all the stories ever told still swirls high and low above our heads. Every story we open up allows some of this dust to fall into its pages. We often don’t see this. We think: this is new, or inspired, fresh or quirky; this is something no-one has ever felt or seen or touched upon before. We’re wrong here because we all draw from the dust to glitter in the sunlight in the air.

If we’re conscious of what we allow in when we open up our stories — in the careful slicing of their first lines — we can build in layers of great depth. We can weave in and build on our local social geographies, the legends of our cultures, the archetypes of the world. We can manage our words instead of stumbling accidentally on some significance in its writing. Conscious comprehension of what has gone before is a layering in itself.

Stories are surely greatest when they’re conscious stirrings in their reading. Even the simplest, barest, most succinct of tales can be beautiful in its layers of possibility. It is the story that leaves us blank that is the story written without love of what has fallen into it. We’ve all read plenty of these, though we don’t recall them individually and specifically.

Does it matter that there are no new stories in the world? All stories are part of the greater whole; yet it is only those stories written with an inkling, or a depth comprehension, of what has fallen into them that shine greatly. Our words are of the sunlit dust, as are our stories of stone, of moving images, of fabric, and so on and on.
 
 
(In keeping with the theme above, words are written here building on — though not intentionally opposed to — the thinking in a recent piece: A World Seven Billion Stories Deep, at the Very Least).
 
 

Some Subversion Deep Below

Once, in a future world where great metal trains ran underground in long snaking tubes that criss-crossed under the mass of the vast city above, something of great and small significance took place. One man saw: though it can’t be ascertained if any other citizen of the place took note. The city-world had reached a stage of insouciance, and citizens weren’t citizens at all — in the old-time sense of it all: citizens were dwellers of the caves they’d found, and every other soul had Medusa’s eyes.

Up above, in the constant throng, the city was a glass array of screens, and virtually every existence was not an existence of the space and time of the place itself: virtually everyone lived elsewhere, had their punch-drunk minds locked into other realms, such was the state of the state they were in. It was a sore world of small segments looked upon. No-one saw the sky. Life was millions of individual paving slabs wide.

Down below, in the catacombs of the tubes that writhed, one man saw an accidental sight that maybe wasn’t permitted any more: a woman sat locked into her own small segment still, opposite him as they trundled by and by and through and through, riding the central line core of the subterranean realm; yet her segment slice was lightly dusted with the gritty glitter of something wondrous but dangerous. She pushed a heavy finger along the insides of the object in her palms. Her lips moved, but it didn’t matter: the man was mesmerised.

Here was a deviant: a subvert who might easily be hauled away and flogged for her flagrant disregard of the modern ways. She held the thick, large object open and it was clear she’d had it for some time. No-one else saw, or chose to see: or, if they did, they didn’t seem to realise what it was she held. The man knew it as a book. It was real and crisp and loved and dense with words. There was paper still, after all. He wanted to reach out and touch it, have it, hide it away.

The woman scraped her hair behind an ear and kept her eyes down. What courage and naivety; what immersion and foolhardiness she showed. To think, a book, open and in full sight, even if in the tubes that writhed under the city mass above. Up there she surely wouldn’t dare. Down below, at least the dwellers of the caves might be dulled enough not to raise their neck hairs in fear. The man wiped the sweat from his forehead. He had to leave, yet he wanted to stay.

The doors slid apart and the fleshtide swept him out into the dank, warm, moist air. The woman and her paper book slipped away and into the dark. He wondered if she’d have time enough to hide her love, somewhere down the line. Out and up in the city mass, the heave of the modern future world swallowed him whole again. Down below, deep down where eyes can’t pry so well, or where thoughts don’t rush because of dullness, a real thick book exists: read in actual time and space.
 
 

In the Times of Paper

I wake slowly . . . my thoughts entangled. Soft grey light seeps round the edges of the shutters into this wide and cluttered space, outlining the shrouded furniture and feeding my struggling consciousness as though it were a growing shoot struggling out of the clinging clay.

— Iain Banks, The Bridge (1986)

. . . in the chilly chapel . . . the slick material of the blouse trembling in the light from the translucent panes overhead, black silk hanging in folds of shade from her breasts, quivering.

— Iain Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away.

— Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)

Twenty years or so ago I collected such offerings as I considered delicate, or striking, though didn’t attribute them to their authors. I kept them in a small notebook bought with my final Deutschmarks in the pre-Euro west of Germany. These snippets would be like pressed flowers, slowly desiccating in between the dark pages. However, they would, I felt sure, retain all their flavour all the more if the author wasn’t marked alongside them. When I creaked open that notebook, I needed to know who had written these flavourings. I had inklings, but I needed to be sure.

We didn’t have the world wondrous web back when notebooks and pens and paper were alive and well. Now we can find what we need instantly. I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Banks had written the former offerings. There is a poetic resonance to these words which, all this time in the dark, I find still taste of something rich and smooth. Vonnegut, on the other hand, struck me from the pages of a recent reading: he wrote in times of paper and how things just were, it seemed.

In the time of paper amazing seeds were being sown, I found: did I have some unconscious attachment to certain ideas inside me all along, or is it just co-incidence to find threads of plots or themes or scraps of thinking from twenty years in the dark manifesting in the more mature writing of now? Either way, I find that a little disconcerting, eerie, spooky. Maybe some writing takes all the time between the necessary closing and the necessary opening of a notebook to be. If we believe in such things, when the notebook urges itself to be opened this is the time when everything is ready . . .

What did the writer of twenty years ago know? Still nascent loves and early wanderings of the world could only fold out into words in ragged ways. What does the writer of now know? Love and form and knowing how to see may well have evolved, but his words are just as ready for the pressing into dark pages as scraps of twenty years ago were. One day, when the time of paper will return for sure, something unknown and unknowable will blink out into the early morning light, slowly, as though it were a growing shoot struggling out of the clinging clay.
 
 

A World Seven Billion Stories Deep, at the Very Least

Stories beget stories. I was group leading on sessions of discussions recently and we touched on subjects such as spaces from our childhoods: places of found sacred, secret and otherwise special significance. I watched as people told their tales of far-off times, of places in the far-off east and hidden oases of desert kingdoms: stories fed into stories, faces changed, bodies shifted. Stories told rooted out the hidden treasures of stories in others, whose tales came blinking out into the light.

When we talk of our individual truths — with the colouring of the exotic otherness each of us holds over any other — we hold all the glitter and the stardust of the universe in our palms. We should treat our tales told, and the tales we hear, with reverence. Each story has its own flavour, texture, rich- and deepness. Each story is unique in the world.

There are seven billion stories in the world, at least; there must be more. I see flickerings of television screen offerings: cities teeming with possibilities of the overlapping stories of all its inhabitants, and more. How many stories does the vessel of each of us hold? How many stories overlap and, in doing so, become coloured, washed, textured differently with each perspective telling? There are seven billion stories in the world at the very, very least. There are more. How many stories have ever been?

The planet is one vast book of tales. The stories we just don’t see . . . I’m intrigued by the smallest things. So when I see and hear a group of tellers digging into their pasts to bring forth the sacred delicacies of their childhood haunts, and the faces on the listeners fall into such moments from afar, even for seconds at a time I see new stories — such as these here — start to unfold.

I took a walk, days later: I saw three children sitting on a doorstep playing cards, reading comics, just the way I did when I was their age. I saw them for a few seconds and I was taken back and back. The stories I’d forgotten, or kept in keepsake corners in my memory, found their way up and in. Today I read back on blog posts and see the tales I’ve told myself, over the years, start to weave their way into the telling of my writing. We’re each of us made of stories, comprised of personal parts of legends and micro-mythologies of time and place. We’re woven with the significances of others who, in that moment of their love and impact, pressed themselves to our skins — and beneath — for ever more.

We may be skin and bones and liquids but our hard and soft material selves regenerate over time; the stories that we’re made of are our elemental permanent selves. That we choose to give them away, strangely, only makes them stronger inside of us. Our stories given out and over have the power to transfix the listening other: such is the gravity they amass in time. Stories beget stories, and they — seven billion or so at the very, very least — fizz in the air around us and in the essences of us all.