Archives for category: Love

I have seen such great theatre in London of late, tonight absolutely included.

I rarely go to large venues these days, instead loving the intimacy that smaller theatres offer and so often deliver.

This is probably my third or fourth time at The Print Room, and as a space to visit I love it more each time. Within the building I have been entertained in different ‘rooms’ on different occasions. Tonight, we were treated to a glass of wine in a little candlelit ante room (with piano), before moving up (narrow) stairs to the performance.

The play was performed within a relatively narrow rectangular space. There are three performers, Catherine, Joshua and Simon, all of whom are present for the 90 minute or so duration of the piece. The actors were uniformly really impressive.

Simon is a psychiatrist – of the ‘old’ school, a ‘pedantic piece of shit’ as named by Joshua – who is simultaneously seeing/treating both Catherine and Joshua.

Catherine has amnesia. Simon, who has become ‘bored by suffering’, is nonetheless interested in Catherine and her psychiatric state. His goal is to ‘remove the plaster’, thereby liberating her memory. The amygdala of the play’s title is the part of the brain that has come to be viewed as the centre of emotional memory.

The story that predated Catherine’s amnesia gradually unfolds. Catherine is a middle class lawyer who lives in Hampstead with her French lawyer husband, who seems to spend more time in Paris than in London, and their two young children. Joshua’s life rests at the other end of the spectrum, as a musician (saxophone) who takes the bus rather than black cabs, and who lives a life devoid of books. Yet, a series of (seemingly) chance encounters brings Catherine and Joshua together.

As Simon works on removing Catherine’s ‘plaster’, the traumatic and tragic story behind her memory loss is revealed. Many themes and threads pervade this short work of art, all of which weave together to create a story of humanness with all its inherent and inevitable flaws, frailties and vulnerabilities.

All three characters, most especially Simon and Catherine, are alone, lonely and vulnerable. Inside, but most especially outside the courtroom, truth is questioned and sought. Amygdala is a story of need and of desire, and of the reality and consequences of love, and the living of it, that is both beautiful and tragic.

CQ

This book comes recommended, mostly notably perhaps by Hilary Mantel, who describes it as ‘an astonishing and luminous novel’.

I liked it. It resonated with me in ways that were not initially obvious. It grew on me, as did the main character, ‘The Professor of Poetry’ Elizabeth, who I empathised with much more with as I progressed through the book than I had at the outset. There is much to consider here, even after, or perhaps particularly after, reading the final sentence.

Elizabeth is an academic, a serious academic in her early 50s whose single life revolves around her work, which is poetry, particularly Milton and Eliot. She becomes ill, and is subsequently diagnosed and treated for a brain tumour. Her post treatment scans reveal a remission, something Elizabeth was not expecting. In the light of this news, and reprieve, she decides uncharacteristically to do something different, to be spontaneous, and to seize something from the gift of time that she has just been granted. She decides to revisit her past, the university of her younger years, and also her tutor of that time, who still teaches there.

‘The day was perfect and it was her own, had been wrapped and presented to her, and she smiled at the pleasing coincidence: the present, for once, being precisely where she found herself.’

We learn much about Elizabeth’s character as she commences her journey, and as she reminisces on her present and on her past. We discover that, for example, ‘Elizabeth doesn’t ‘do’ love poetry’. She also doesn’t ‘do’ summer. But we also learn that as a child growing up, her mother used to retreat ‘from the everyday world by a process of not-being, not-saying, not-doing’.

Elizabeth has mastered, at least in her professional life but one also suspects in her personal life, ‘The Art of Detachment’:

‘It was easier to eschew human beings than interact with them.’

She had a troubled and a tragic childhood, memories of which flood persistently Elizabeth’s consciousness.

‘The sea taught the child that pain takes place only in time, that it was impossible to hurt and be truly occupied, but if your hours were empty, pain could be felt very clearly indeed. Pain had much in common with the sea. Both ebbed, both went unnoticed for hours on end, then reared up and took your breath, and neither pain nor the sea was ever completely at rest.’

From an early age, poetry was her consolation, her safety net.

‘A poem could usually be counted upon to shatter the quiet, carry them through the wilderness and bring the knight back safe.’

As she considers her childhood, lost moments and regrets of her time as a university student, and also explores the poetry of Eliot, Elizabeth gradually experiences an epiphany of sorts:

‘What must it be like to produce a living creature instead of one made of paper and ink? A creature that became a real entity, no longer merely an appendage to its creator.’

 ‘She was suddenly reminded of something Eliot had written somewhere, that most people were ‘only very little alive’. Eliot was obsessed with buried lives, unlived lives, the life of the living dead.’

This realisation culminates in one night of inescapable and painful self-reflection:

‘It suddenly occurred to her that she had travelled further this night than she had her whole life.’

Speaking to her body, which she mostly ignored all her life until illness happened (although ‘For as long as she could remember Professor Stone had lived with a pain in her chest’):

‘I am sorry, hands, because you served me well and I have not been good to you.’

‘And I am sorry, arms, because you never wore bracelets and never hugged and never saw much of the sun.’

‘And I am sorry, heart, because you beat fast for fear many more times than for joy, and never for love.’

There is much tenderness in the book’s denouement, and McCleen’s style throughout is as poetic as the poetry she refers to. So much of the prose passages made me stop and think, not just about Elizabeth, but also about who or what I might be and have become:

‘It was strange to see people one had known a long time ago: they were always unchanged and changed completely, and somewhere within that contradiction lay the state of ourselves, she supposed.’

CQ

Whenever I get the chance, I seek out whatever London culturally has to offer. And there is always so much, way more than I can get to see and to experience.

Here are some of my cultural highlights from the past week, both within London and beyond…

Film

The London Mexican Film Festival

I had a day pass over the weekend, and saw two amazing films. Parts of a Family tells the story of the director Diego Gutierrez’ parents’ marriage, how it imprisoned both his mother and his father, and how love died within the constraints of a bond that began so positively and optimistically, yet ultimately became so destructive. An honest, brave and tragic portrayal of life, love, and loss.

The second film was Three Voices, the finale of the festival, a documentary about three women of three different generations, who share their personal stories of life, love and relationships honestly and unflinchingly. Glorious.

Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams

This film, originally released in 2006, follows the struggles of a single mother and her teenage daughter in the aftermath of the Balkan war. Another raw and real reflection of living and suffering, yet this is not a despondent experience, but a redemptive and hopeful one. I loved it.

Theatre

Conor McPherson’s latest play The Night Alive is currently showing at The Donmar Warehouse. Like much of McPherson’s earlier work, this piece also focuses on the plight of the lonely Irish male. The acting is superb, particularly but not exclusively Ciaran Hinds, yet I was less involved than I expected to be. The play felt a little too long and the plot seemed to unnecessarily complicate. Nonetheless, I recommend.

Books

Claude Gallay’s novel The Breakers was first published in 2011. This is a book that exudes loss, constantly alluding to it, yet also never truly declaring itself. An enigmatic piece, I was seduced by it, increasingly so as I became less impatient with the pace and allowed myself to move synchronously with what it chose to deliver.

CQ

I read this book almost in one sitting. It is that good.

Which isn’t surprising, as I have read and loved all of Jon McGregor’s books to date.

The title of the book is intriguing (and long, so it will be henceforth abbreviated to ‘This isn’t the sort of thing…’), and I am not sure I fully understand what it means or intends. Except that, perhaps perversely and ironically, what the book contains might just be the very sort of thing that actually does, or might, happen to me, or to you…

A collection of short stories that are in many ways connected, some very obviously so, ‘This isn’t the sort of thing…’ is quite an enigmatic and elusive book, yet also seductive, all of which are perhaps not unrelated.

The collection opens with the story That Colour, which launches the book both physically and thematically with the following sentence:

‘She stood by the window and said, Those trees are turning that beautiful colour again.’

The story ends ‘I said, But tell me again.’

This entrance establishes what was for me a recurring theme throughout the stories, the potentially destructive force of both the said and the unsaid.

We see it again in In Winter the Sky, where the unsaid reaches a critical urgency:

‘He had something to tell her.’

Sometimes, the telling only makes everything worse, which we witness in The Chicken And The Egg, where the protagonist works up to eventually sharing his secret phobia with his wife. When he finally unburdens, the sharing backfires, and he finds no safety or relief from the telling:

‘He hasn’t actually discussed it with anyone else since then, to be fair. He’s not at all sure it would help.’

Unsurprisingly, other stories weave a thread of deliberate silence. Close opens pointedly with the sentence:

‘She wouldn’t tell Patricia.’

There is also that which should never be said, as we see in Thoughtful:

‘She threw her pint glass across the garden and told him to just shut up.’

Avoiding and obstructing what someone else needs to say is the central theme of Vessel, where the tulips-bearing friend is ushered out the door before he can ‘say’ anything.

There is a profound sense throughout the collection that words can be dangerous and ultimately destructive. The need to share, to tell another, creates an urgency, which culminates in either silence or a saying aloud, neither act dissipating the fear they have arisen from. A sobering indictment on the possibilities of sharing and of trust.

The poet, novelist, playwright and doctor Dannie Abse kept a diary for a year following the death of his wife Joan as a result of a car accident in 2005.

In his first diary entry, some 4 months after Joan’s death, Abse writes:

‘The past survives however much one tries to drive it down and away from one’s consciousness.’

The diary presents itself as both a living record of loss, loneliness and grief, and also a reflection on the past, a looking back. Most entries start with the current date and end with a ‘Then’ section, which relives a memory from Abse’s earlier life, and often one that also includes Joan.

Abse shares the mundane realities that confront the bereaved, as letters continue to arrive addressed to his now dead wife. He includes a poem by Peter Porter, written after Porter’s own wife’s death:

‘A card comes to tell you

you should report

to have your eyes tested.

But your eyes melted in the fire…

and the only tears, which soon dried,

fell in the chapel.

Other things still come –

invoices, subscriptions, renewals,

shiny plastic cards promising credit –

not much for a life spent

in the service of reality…’

Abse is not self-indulgent or maudlin in his grief, and is not seeking our sympathy. The diary was not originally intended for publication, evolving more as a tool for coping with loss, a response to an inner voice saying ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ Thus, the diary became a ‘prescription for self-regeneration.’ However, as the diary progresses he acknowledges that he did presuppose another reader.

Abse tells it like it is. One diary entry just contains the short sentence ‘I cry, therefore I am.’ On another occasion, when asked by a friend how he was coping, he tells us that ‘I confessed, perhaps melodramatically, that for intermittent hours each day I feel like an exile in the Land of Desolation.’

He cries frequently, often waking up with tears in his eyes. A new experience for him, since Joan’s death Abse does not find it difficult to unsettle ‘the too prompt tearducts of my eyes.’

The diary is not all about grief, but more about a life that continues within that loss. Abse speaks of Freud, of current events such as the Iraq war, as well as past events in his own life as a doctor and as a poet. He also includes his own poetry, and speaks of other writers, such as Elias Canetti and the poet Owen Shears.

Abse muses on his own life as a poet:

‘I’ve often thought of poetry as a vocation, even a destiny, rather than a career but sometimes I wish that on certain occasions in my life I had not retreated from the limelight.’

During the year of diary writing, Abse’s older brother dies:

‘I weep for Wilfred. Yet it is hard to mourn for more than one person at a time.’

And Joan’s loss is immense. He remembers the grief he experienced when his parents died, yet it was incomparable to his profound sense of loss following his wife’s death:

‘But I have been so dependent on Joan. Absolutely. Mentally, emotionally, physically.’

Six months after the accident:

‘…as I remember this or think that, my eyes leak like a tap with a half-perished washer. I am, I feel, leading a posthumous life.’

Yet, he can also see that ‘I’m OK. I’m coping. I’m limping along.’ while at the same time accepting that ‘I miss Joan.’

He acknowledges that his grief is not an illness, ‘I’m not clinically depressed. Merely unhappy.’

Eventually, Abse finds his way back into poetry, both writing and reading again in public.

‘Authors, poets, are supposed to be imaginative people but I didn’t, couldn’t picture my life without Joan. Everything is so other. The very silence has changed. It is the very silence of the abyss.’

One of these poetry readings ends with the short poem Valediction:

‘In this exile people call old age

I live between nostalgia and rage.

This is the land of fools and fear.

Thanks be. I’m lucky to be here.’

As he approaches the end of the year since Joan’s death, and the end of his diary entries, Abse wonders whether he will miss the writing ‘not only for my health’s sake’, but also because ‘For doing so has allowed me sometimes the pleasure of escaping into a benign Past. The Past, indeed, can sometimes be a sanctuary.’

‘There is no happy ending’, yet Abse does not leave one feeling desolate. I was touched by his openness, as well as by a realism that allowed for many emotions to sit alongside each other. Abse’s life following Joan’s death reads as one that embraced his unmeasurable loss, and one that allowed grief to accompany rather than to destroy.

The diary ends with Abse’s poem Lachrymae:

‘She is everywhere and nowhere

now that I am less than one…’

‘…Now, solemn, I watch

the spellbound moon again,

its unfocused clone drowned

in Hampstead’s rush-dark pond

where a lone swan sings

without a sound.’

CQ

I Could Read The Sky, written by Timothy O’Grady with photographs by Steve Pyke, first appeared in 1997.

The photographic novel was later adapted by Nichola Bruce to create a film of the same name (1999). I recently received a gift of Iarla O’Lionaird’s haunting accompanying soundtrack, which also features Sinead O’Connor, Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill, Noel Hill and Liam O’Maonlai. The music inspired me to re-explore both the book and the film.

A deeply melancholic and tragic narrative, I Could Read The Sky has loss, poverty, isolation and loneliness at its core.

It tells the story of one man, as he looks back on his life from solitary old age in Kentish Town. We get flashbacks of growing up in Ireland and of his life after leaving his native land to find work in England. The book unfolds as memories, as a looking back, to what has constituted a life.

The tone of the book is set at the outset, with a poem by Peter Woods on exile:

‘Exile is not a word

It is a sound

The rending of skin

A fistful of clay on top

of a coffin.’

We first see the lone figure in a Kentish Town bedsit:

‘This is me. I have a round bald head. My eyes are blue and watery and my fingers are stained with tobacco. I am alone here with a black dog. I sleep badly.’

His life in England has variously included working in a beet factory in Ipswich, slab laying in Bedford, and working with drainage pipes in Coventry, before settling in London amongst his compatriots:

‘There are men on the Kilburn High Road you can only see unfinished buildings in their eyes.’

He shares his flashbacks and memories, ‘sounds and pictures but they flit and crash before I can get them’, images of long-left Ireland and Labasheeda (‘The day of the Stations is a big day’) interspersed with the reality of his today:

‘I open my eyes in Kentish Town. Always this neutral air.’

‘A chair beside the bed. Tablets. A shirt with little blue squares, the collar shot. A bottle of Guinness here and another on the ledge. Maggie’s rosary, crystal beads.’

‘A wardrobe made my people I’ve never met.’

We return again and again to the Kentish Town bedsit:

‘I roll onto my side. The wardrobe door is open, Maggie’s dress with the bluebell’s hanging there.’

Maggie was the love of his life, and her death its greatest tragedy. The story of how they met, and what she meant to him, is a most beautiful and moving thread that weaves through the narrative.

‘I’ll not be leaving Kentish Town now except in a brown box and when I do I’ll be going to Labasheeda to lie with Maggie. I’ve left the instructions.’

His grief is almost tangible:

‘What is it to miss someone? It is not the throbbing ache of a wound. It is not the pain you get under your ribs from running. It is not a befouled feeling, the feeling of being in mud. It is the feeling of being in a strange place and losing direction. It is the feeling of looking without seeing and eating without tasting. It is forgetfulness, the inability to move, the inability to connect. It is a sentence you must serve and if the person you miss is dead your sentence is long.’

As fragments of his past and present life come and go, he pieces together a list of sorts:

‘What I could do.

I could mend nets. Thatch a roof. Build stairs…I could dance sets. Read the sky…Make a field…I could read the sea…Shear sheep. Remember poems. Set potatoes…Read the wind…Make a coffin. Take a drink. I could frighten you with stories.’

‘What I couldn’t do.

Eat a meal lacking potatoes. Trust banks. Wear a watch…Drink coffee…Follow cricket. Understand the speech of a man from west Kerry…Speak with men wearing collars. Stay afloat in water. Understand their jokes. Face the dentist. Kill a Sunday. Stop remembering.’

It makes you think about what we are, what constitutes our lives, lists of dos and don’ts, the memories we hang onto and those we forget, the people of our lives…

Watching the film again after re-reading the book, I love the collage of images, music and voices that interplay on the screen. How fragmented and bitty our lives in reality are, and the challenge is to try and pull it all together and somehow create a meaningful whole…

‘I remember loneliness and the walls of Quex Road. I remember pure sadness.’

CQ

I have been eagerly awaiting the novelist’s new book, Levels of Life, which will be on the bookshelves on Saturday.

Last night, on BBC 4’s Front Row programme, Barnes was interviewed by Mark Lawson (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01rlnht). I was struck by how open and candid the author was, particularly as he has always been intensely private about his personal life.

During the interview, Barnes spoke of the “private devastation” he experienced following the death of his wife Pat Kavanagh in 2008. Resistant as always to publicly exposing himself, Levels of Life appears to be part biography and autobiography, and part fiction. The grief Barnes has experienced since the death of Kavanagh, who was “the heart of my life; the life of my heart” (http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21575738-writer-reflects-love-loss-and-ballooning-sense-no-ending) appears to resonate strongly throughout the entire book, irrespective of the different genres involved. Barnes himself refuses to categorise the book, or to attach any definitive label to it.

In the interview, Barnes refers to the power of grief to reconfigure time and space, creating a new geography of sorts.

Each individual’s experience of grief is unique, and as Barnes discovered, there is no way of predicting how one will deal with it until it happens. Some things surprised him following his wife’s death, such as his new found love of opera. Sport also unexpectedly served a purpose, providing an ‘ocularly involving’, but an emotionally detached, distraction.

Barnes also spoke of the suicidal moments within his grieving process. For him, the ultimate antidote to suicide lay with his role as the principal rememberer of Kavanagh, a moral responsibility of sorts to continue on as a repository of his wife’s life and memories.

The author challenges Nietzsche’s maxim (as did Christopher Hitchens), “that which does not kill us makes us stronger”. For Barnes, grief weakened him, and in no way gave him strength. Time has helped, and he has to some extent experienced a physical and mental recovery. When he questions himself about how he should now live, he allows himself to be guided by his wife, leading his life as she would want him to.

Barnes challenges the notion that time diminishes grief. It is clear that his love for his wife did not diminish during their time together, on the contrary, and he therefore questions why his grief should fade with time.

I look forward to reading Levels of Life

CQ

I have just re-read this book, having initially enjoyed it many years ago.

I connected with it again, even more so this time round. And even more so now, the furore that surrounded the appearance of The Country Girls in 1960 both infuriates and embarrasses me…another fuel to my fire on the issue of repressed and fear driven Ireland.

I like O’Brien’s prose. It is readable and immediately accessible, but also nuanced and intelligent.

She captures well, and in a way that feels recognisable and reassuringly familiar, an Ireland and its people of a certain era:

‘Poor Mama, she was always a worrier. I suppose she lay there thinking of him, waiting for the sound of a motor-car to stop down the road, waiting for the sound of his feet coming through the wet grass, and for the noise of the gate hasp – waiting, and coughing.’

Women of Ireland indeed lived lives of worry and fear, suffering much in their years of waiting. The Country Girls is very much about escaping that Irish female destiny, which at least partly explains its condemnation by the fear-driven Catholic Ireland.

When her mother dies, Cait, the main ‘country girl’ of the title, fears that she will re-appear:

‘What is it about death that we cannot bear to have someone who is dead come back to us?’

Moving from rural Ireland, the ‘country’, to the city of Dublin was transformative for Cait (I, like Edna O’Brien, made a similar journey, but for us it was the longer, both literally and metaphorically, distance from provincial Ireland to London):

‘I knew now that this was the place I wanted to be. For evermore I would be restless for crowds and lights and noise. I had gone from the sad noises, the lonely rain pelting on the galvanized roof of the chicken-house, the moans of a cow in the night, when her calf was being born under a tree.’

I also connected with the need, that desperate one, to escape the boredom of growing up in the Ireland of a certain era, as verbalised by Cait’s friend Baba:

‘We’re eighteen and we’re bored to death… We want to live. Drink gin. Squeeze into the front of big cars and drive up outside big hotels. We want to go places.’

I no longer need to go places, at least not so much physically, but I am glad that I left Ireland behind, physically, when I could and did.

CQ

Just been, and it was magic. Mega Magic.

The current performance, which includes just a short few days at The Tricycle, centres around the death of Hughes’s father (Sean Hughes senior) from cancer.

The show is a tribute to Hughes’s dad, and as such has many moving moments, but it is also an honest and brave depiction of their at times troubled relationship.

Hughes does not dwell on pathos, and while this is a script with death and dying as its focus, it is by no means leaden or depressing. On the contrary, it is hilarious, at times uproariously so, a fact that in no way diminishes (in fact it enhances) the very real and poignant central theme.

Hughes cleverly skips around – his childhood, moving back to Dublin in 1970 aged 5 with a cockney accent at the height of ‘The Trouble’, the Irish, Catholicism, drinking, his own health and relationships – but always within sight of his father, so that returning repeatedly to his hospital bed feels natural. The show is very much about the death of ‘someone you love’ (a phrase Hughes repeats several times, and also questions what it means in relation to our parents), and about what grief means and how we make sense of it, but within the context of both the lived life of the person who has died, and the lives of those left in death’s wake.

I loved the finale. I had wondered on what note it would conclude, and I think Hughes got it just right. It served to beautifully and movingly emphasise what the entire show had attempted to portray  –  that we can indeed talk about death and dying and loss and grief, that we can also laugh about it, and we can combine it all, publicly, to create something tangible and meaningful, while at the same time entertaining and real.

I felt uplifted as I walked home.

Genius. I was mesmerised, moved and seduced by Hughes’s mind and brilliance.

CQ

I have just bought probably my fifth copy of this wonderful book by Eduardo Galeano (translated by Cedric Belfrage). The other copies I could not resist giving away to friends and family. It is that sort of book, you want everyone you love to read and be similarly mesmerised and enriched by it.

From the very outset, as Galeano pays tribute to his longstanding friend and translator Belfrage, who had recently died, the author welcomes us into the intimacy of his world and self:

‘A part of me died with him.

A part of him lives with me.’

The Book of Embraces is largely comprised of short pieces and vignettes that embrace personal stories, parables, politics, dreams, and above all a wonderment on life and on being human.

In one such piece, The Function of Art/2:

‘The chief took his time, then said:

That scratches. It scratches hard and it scratches very well.”

And then:

“But it scratches where there isn’t any itch.” ‘

Few words say much with Galeano’s pen.

He speaks of Pinochet, of political prisoners and military dictatorships, the tragedies emphasised by personal narratives. He tells the story of Jose Carrasco, for example, a journalist who was dragged from his house following an attempt on the life of Pinochet:

‘At the foot of a wall on the edge of Santiago, they put fourteen bullets in his head.’

‘The neighbors never washed the blood away. The place became a sanctuary for the poor, always strewn with candles and flowers, and Jose Carrasco became a miracle worker.’

In a piece titled Forgetting/2, Galeano continues the political thread that suffuses the book:

‘Military dictatorship, fear of listening, fear of speaking, made us deaf and dumb. Now democracy, with its fear of remembering, infects us with amnesia…’

Divorces:

‘Our system is one of detachment: to keep silenced people from asking questions, to keep the judged from judging, to keep solitary people from joining together, and the soul from putting together its pieces.’

And politics and society in The System/1:

‘Politicians speak but say nothing.

Voters vote but don’t elect.

The information media disinform.

Schools teach ignorance.

Judges punish the victims.’

‘Money is freer than people are.

People are at the service of things.’

There is much autobiographical in the book, including Galeano’s reflections following a heart attack, when death was ‘clawing at the center of my chest.’ He spent the time while recuperating updating his address book, and as he transferred names from old to new, he experienced ‘a prolonged mourning for the dead who had remained in the dead one of my heart, and a long, much longer celebration of those still alive who fired my blood and swelled my surviving heart.’

He ends this vignette with my favourite sentence from a most magical book:

‘And there was nothing bad and nothing odd about the fact that my heart had broken from so much use.’

CQ