Archives for posts with tag: Love

The American writer and essayist David Foster Wallace committed suicide seven years ago, on September 12, 2008. I have just read his wife’s – Karen Green – grief memoir Bough Down, a beautiful and moving collage of poetry, prose and images.

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Green found her husband following his suicide:

‘I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound…’

‘The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.’

Bough Down is a wonderfully strange read, sometimes challenging to follow Green’s train of thought. But perhaps that is how it should be. The experience of grief, and of love, are ultimately subjective and individual, uniquely lived by those affected.

‘It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.’

‘I have few desires and fewer aims. I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.’

Pine, to wither away from longing or grief.’

Green addresses Foster Wallace throughout, Bough Down unfolding as a love soliloquy:

‘I could love another face, but why?’

The depths of Green’s distress are compounded by the nature of his death:

‘I call the doctor: I am suffering, it’s embarrassing, and I need I need I need…The doctor says if you were so quote perfect for me unquote you’d probably still be around, no offense.’

This is a gem of a book, raw, honest, challenging, sad and beautiful.

‘Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart’s chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of the cavity.’




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.


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.’




This is superb cinematography, and tragic poetry on the screen.

The acting is also truly impressive, but what I loved most about this gem, was the fact that it refused to offer redemption as feel-good closure. It is a disturbing film that very successfully highlights what it means to be human, and thus vulnerable, uncertain, alone, suffering, lost, and struggling with the confusion that is life, and how we negotiate relationships, loss, grief, and love…



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…’


‘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.’



… which I highly recommend.

Released in 2012, I missed Barbara during the recent and short cinema run, and only just caught it some months after its London screening.

I know little about German cinema – Run Lola Run was probably my most recent experience – and it was the storyline that intrigued me most about Barbara. A couple of years ago I read, and was very much taken by, Anna Funder’s book Stasiland. The setting of Barbara in 1980’s East Germany fuelled my interest in the hidden world of that era. I first visited Germany, and Berlin, shortly after the wall came down. It felt then like I had only experienced a fragment of the aftermath, with no perspective on what had gone before.

Barbara, directed by Christian Petzhold, tells the story of a female doctor (played by Nina Hoss) in East Germany in 1980, who has been banished to a hospital in the provinces from Berlin as a result of her attempts to escape to the West. Barbara finds herself in a world where she does not know who she can trust, or love, including herself.

This is not a hugely action-packed film but a deeply compassionate and redemptive one. Watching it, for me, was a restorative experience.



I have only read a few of Banville’s novels, namely The Sea and also some crime fiction that he writes under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black.

Ancient Light (Viking) was published in 2012. I read it over the holiday period and was totally gripped and seduced, mainly enthralled by Banville’s prose and his use of words.

Perhaps I was also a little confused by the non-linear narrative, but possibly the whole point of the book is that all is not what it seems… Whatever, it did not detract from the enjoyment of my reading experience. On the contrary, it has left me still considering it, days after the last page was read.

I need a dictionary nearby when reading Banville. Reading Ancient Light, I learnt many new words and meanings, for example leporine, proscenium, caducous, homunculoid, susurrus (my favourite)… His observational and descriptive powers are staggeringly impressive, and the way he sees and feels, and assembles words – ‘steepled fingers’, ‘there is nothing like the loss of an only child to soften the wax of sealed convictions – is beautiful indeed to read.

The novel opens with the sentence:

‘Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.’

An opening that does summarise a significant chunk of the plot and storyline. Yet, the apparent simplicity and straightforwardness of this short sentence tantalises and entices the reader into a story that is far from simple.

The main protagonist, Alexander Cleave, who has also appeared in earlier Banville books, is a semi-retired actor, currently writing his memoirs. The novel is written in the first person, and thus all that we are told and shown is through Cleave’s perspective.

Nothing is quite how it seems, which the author acknowledges at the outset, disabusing the difference between memory and invention:

‘Madam memory is a great and subtle dissembler.’

Only near the end of the book do we discover the origins of its title – the ancient light of the galaxies that travel for millions of years to reach us. Looking at the night sky, we are thus always looking into the past, and the novel’s core focuses on just that, and is deeply rooted in Cleave’s past. Indeed, the sections that are based in the present seem much less real than those describing Cleave’s childhood, specifically his love affair, at 15, with the 35 year Mrs Gray.

Central to the book is loss, Cleave’s loss of innocence, loss of friendships and an early loss of childhood within the clandestine relationship. His subsequent life seems to have been lived, and overshadowed, by this first, and short, love affair. In fact, it seem as if the past, particularly in terms of its associated feelings, recurs as a ‘pseudo’ present.

There is also the loss of Cleave’s daughter Cass (who also appeared in earlier books), who committed suicide, and the void and distress her death have left for both him and for his wife Lydia. Of Lydia, Cleave comments:

‘She drinks a little too much, but then so do I; our decade-long great sorrow will not be drowned…’

This is one of many black ironies that Banville slips in – Cass died as a result of drowning.

Cleave and his wife share only sorrow now, a ‘mournful telepathy’, and their grief sets them apart from others:

‘Bereavement sets a curious constraint between the bereaved, an embarrassment, almost, that is not easy to account for.’

For Cleave, mourning is ‘a constant, parching deluge’, which so wonderfully encapsulates the non-straightforwardness of human emotions, particularly grief.

Cleave is a tragic figure, mostly consumed by, and frightened of, his own grief:

‘The dead are my dark matter, filling up impalpably the empty spaces of the world.’

The young actress Dawn Devonport ,who Cleave works with, recently lost her father. She in turn attempts suicide, and there is an almost bizarre transposition of roles, as Dawn becomes a surrogate daughter to Cleave and Lydia… But such is Banville’s writing that such subplots do no feel overdone or manipulated.

Mothers dominate much of the book, including the boy Cleave’s lover Mrs Gray, his best friend Billy’s mother. Before she appeared in his life:

‘Mothers were not people that we noticed much; brothers, yes, sisters, even, but not mothers. Vague, shapeless, unsexed, they were little more than an apron and a swatch of unkempt hair and a faint tang of sweat.’

At the time, Cleave, an only child, lived with his own widowed mother. He suspects that on occasion, in the the throes of passion with Mrs Gray, he cried out ‘mother’… He also desperately wanted to make Mrs Gray pregnant… Cleave’s daughter Cass was pregnant when she died.

These snippets are dropped in almost casually by Banville. One is unsure what to make of them, if anything.

Cleave speaks of the phenomenon of coincidences, only to dismiss them:

‘The statisticians tell us there is no such thing as coincidence, and I must accept they know what they are talking about.’

Yet, he also comments, following Cass’s death:

‘Coincidences were not now what they had been heretofore, mere wrinkles in the otherwise blandly plausible surface of reality, but parts of a code, large and urgent, a kind of desperate semaphoring from the other side that, maddeningly, we were unable to read.’

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the book is fundamentally based on coincidences…

I get the sense that Banville ‘plays’ with his readers, very cleverly, and tantalisingly.

One could read and analyse Ancient Light on many levels.

My own conclusion is that it was a joy to experience this work rather than an enigma to be deciphered.



Helen Edmundson’s play focuses on two years in the Shelley/Godwin lives, 1814-1816.

It is a turning point in Mary Shelley’s life. She meets and falls in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and as a result becomes estranged from her father. It is also when she begins to write Frankenstein.

There are six characters, Mary, her step-sisters Fanny and Jane, her father and radical philosopher William Godwin, her step-mother, and Shelley.

The play opens with a re-enactment of the attempted suicide of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecroft. Her mother survived the attempt, and later died shortly after Mary’s birth. Her presence, or perhaps absence, overshadows much of the play, as Mary Shelley is increasingly drawn to her mother’s life and story:

‘Mother may not be here, but she still teaches us what it is to love.’

Love, falling in love, being loved, being rejected by the one you love, is a dominant theme throughout.

William Godwin clearly loved his first wife. His relationship with his second wife appears ambivalent at best, and unspoken comparisons to Wollstonecroft are almost audible. Mary finds love with Shelley, and her sister Jane is besotted with Byron, later becoming pregnant by him.

But love also brings much suffering. Fanny was Mary Wollstonecroft’s daughter from her relationship with a man she loved but ‘nothing would come of it except heartache and loss.’ His abandonment of Wollstonecroft prompted her attempted suicide. Fanny lost Shelley to her sister Mary, and later commits suicide, ‘putting an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare.’

Mrs Godwin, William’s second wife, embittered by life and men, warns her daughter Jane:

‘None of them are worth it.’

It is a complex and tragic story, overshadowed by the death of a child (Mary and Shelley’s daughter), by suicide, by drownings, by the hangman’s rope (‘a fellow creature and now he’s dead’). It is also about the suffering of debt, imprisonment and impending bankruptcy.

But love prevails despite tragedy. For Jane, despite her treatment by Byron, ‘there is no life but loving’, and Mary who enacts her mother’s dream life through her existence with Shelley, believes utterly in the power of love, although also admitting that loving is beautiful, but complicated. Yet it is also this very complicatedness of things that compels Mary, which she sees as her ‘curse’, her ‘inability to leave the world unfathomed.’

Mary Shelley, The Tricycle, Kilburn, to July 7.

Helen Edmundson. Mary Shelley. London: NHB, 2012.