Monthly Archives: May 2014

Ramblings and Digressions

I found myself looking at antiques. In an antique shop. The owner, hidden behind a wall of stacked furniture, was observing me in a large mirror. At first I mistook his reflection for him, and nodded a greeting. When I realised I was addressing a reflection, I peered around the barricade and smirked. He responded with minimal interest. I was a prospective customer, but he could barely acknowledge me. I was interested in the Windsor chair, but it was too late, I couldn’t overcome my embarrassment now, and walked directly out. This was Abergavenny, a place I tend to look down upon.

I look down upon Abergavenny from the three mountains that surround it. The Sugar Loaf, The Skirrid and The Blorenge. The last of these has an ascent so steep it is almost vertical. You climb on all fours, but standing up. The summit of the Blorenge can also be reached by road, which dilutes the achievement a little, but up there, with lungs screaming for air, this is what you get.

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The Skirrid can be seen at the foot of the rainbow, and at the foot of the Skirrid, is The Walnut Tree Inn. I love The Walnut Tree.

I fell over on the Skirrid, a long time ago. I thought I had broken a rib. On presenting myself at A&E  at the Royal Gwent Newport, and complaining of chest pains, I was immediately rushed into a cubicle and sensors placed on my chest.

Only the night before I had been drinking in the Church House, a pub at the Handpost, just outside Newport. The Slowboat Takeaway is just up the road, and above that is a small flat where Green Gartside used to live. I used to see Green wandering the pavements. He was quite famous then, and I never understood why he had chosen to live back in Newport. I don’t think he ever wrote a song about Newport, or the Slowboat.

I was drinking alone  in the Church House, a pub near the Handpost, just outside Newport, when a bloke slumped down next to me and asked if I could buy him a drink. He was in a bit of a mess, pissed, but seemed  good company.  I bought him a pint, and he began telling me how hard his life was, how he couldn’t hang on much longer. He told me he was doctor at the Royal Gwent, and although I had no reason to doubt him, I did. He looked bedraggled, and after all, he did ask me to buy him a pint.

I’m covered in sensors, wondering why no one will just take my word for it, that this isn’t a heart attack, I’ve just done something to my rib, but the ECG is blipping away and the doctor rushes in, unshaven, squitty eyed, and it’s him, the guy I was drinking with night before. He didn’t recognise me, of course. I was going to tell him about our encounter, but decided not to.

The rib took months to heal, and I can’t think of the Skirrid without thinking of that fall. The day of my fall I’d climbed the hill with my parents, neither could manage it now, they are both approaching ninety, and live just around the corner from the Church House.  I was there just last week. My mother is very unwell, and my dad cares for her full time. He’s usually very perky, and full of rambling, digressive stories. But last time I saw him he looked weak and frail and was sorry for himself.  It was his 87th birthday.

“I’ve lived long enough,” he said. I gave him a hug when I left. It was hard.

But today I’m in Abergavenny, making my way to the car park after walking out of the antique shop. I get in the car, drive home. On the radio Iain Sinclair is talking about WG Sebald. I love both writers. Sebald’s Austerlitz is one of my favourite books.  I prefer it to The Rings of Saturn, which many people consider his masterpiece. Sebald was a walker, and his books are often ramblings in both senses. Sinclair spoke of Sebald devotees who try to retrace his steps and fail. Sebald was a storyteller, Sinclair reminds us.

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Watercress v Shouting

I won’t go into too much detail, but I recently undertook a psychometric test.  There were something like one hundred and seventy questions, ranging from “I enjoy theories” to “I hate parties”.  As the test proceeded, so my positive responses were clustered together, as were my negative answers.  So things I like (books, people, shouting and watercress) all appeared in the same question, forcing me to make a distinction.  Similarly, all the things I hate (golf, getting up, Wotsits and rabies) were thrown together to make me differentiate between them.  Imagine if you were asked whether you hated Wotsits more than rabies, could you decide?  Rabies is nasty, but you are rarely offered any.  Wotsits, they pop up all over the place, those horrible, disgusting, floury, yellow puke pods.

At the end of all this, I had to sit in a room with an expert who told me how nuts I was.  She laughed until she cried as she described the huge variations in my responses.  “You are a silent loner,” she said.  “You sit outside of the circle, looking in.  You hate Wotsits more than rabies.  That’s very weird.”

“Ah,” I replied, “but I love watercress more than shouting!”

She filed my report away and told me, no, I couldn’t have a copy.  For once in my life, I wish I could have been normal.  It must feel so good.  To like people more than poetry, and parties more than stationery.  I can only wish.

But as I spend hours alone, making things up, it is unlikely that the outside world would consider me a balanced, rounded human being.  I am not, and I don’t want to be.  I want to the eccentric that I am, because in that way the world is an endlessly entertaining series of the bizarre, the surreal and the utterly incomprehensible.  If I were organised and rational, possessed of that dubious quality ‘common sense’, then I am certain I would be incapable of dusting myself off and walking away after a computerised psychometric test had determined I was an introspective watercress loving loner.

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Finnegans Wake

After I left college and spent a year at a table in a flat in Acton reading Ulysses.  It’s a difficult book, riddled with pastiche that is difficult to penetrate.  But it is a novel of novels and if anything, it shows what can be done with a story.  And it’s a day in the life – June 16th, I forget which year.  The hero wanders around Dublin, looking for his dad.  I read it, as well as all the books I could find that would help me understand it, decode it, unravel it.  Friends went off to South America and Japan, I stayed in Acton, above the glaziers, reading Ulysses.  I finished it, too.  If you have a year to spare, I suggest you have a go at it.

But this blog isn’t about Ulysses, its about Joyce’s other massive work, Finnegans Wake.  (n.b. – no apostrophe).

If I ever take a gap decade, possibly in my sixties, I shall endeavour to read Finnegans Wake.  I have had several goes, but never reached the end.  Not that there is an end.  I have a copy in which I’ve written the place where I have attempted it: London, Wexford, Newport, Mid Wales, each about three years apart.

The first 200 pages are thumbed and littered with marginalia, then, like stars fading at dawn, they disappear and the pages look younger, healthier, unadulterated.

Finnegans Wake is written in Joyce’s own language, a sticklebrick, portmanteau goobledegook.  (His notes for the book he called Scribbledehobble).

Excerpt:

“Or, if he was always striking up funny funereels… with tambarins and cantoridettes soturning around his eggshill rockcoach their dance McCaper in retrophoebia… to the ra, the ra, the ra, the ra, langsome heels and langsome toesis, attended to by a mutter and doffer duffmatt baxingmotch and… pszozlers pszinging… Ho, Time Timeagen, Wake!

It’s a funny book, bristling with puns and madness.  Read aloud it makes more sense.  It’s also full of codes, repetition, wheels within wheels and the rhythms and chants of music.

If Ulysses is a day in the life, Finnegans Wake is a night in the life, or a nightmare.  The central character HCE, is seen everywhere “Here Comes Everyone” “Haveth Childers Everywhere” and so on.

There is no beginning and no end, the book begins in mid sentence and ends so.

It is infinite.

If you have an infinity to spare, I suggest you have a go at it.

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Tristram Shandy

Tristram Shandy is a book I always mean to read but never do.  I know it well enough without reading it.  it’s a mid eighteenth century novel with the feel of modernist literature. Stearne makes the sort of clever literary jokes that appear in books by Borges, Calvino or Will Self.  I still haven’t read Tristram, but driving down to Gower a few weeks ago I listened to the Naxos audio book, and although I found myself losing the thread (it was a beautiful journey, one the best weekends of the year so far) I managed to dip in and out of it enough to feel I had some of the sense of Stearne’s language.

I’d planned to meet my friend Neil in Gower, where we would walk the cliffs, drink the Gower Gold Ale, and try in vain to get to Goat’s Cave, Paviland, the oldest surviving ritual burial in the UK.  The Red Lady of Paviland (actually a man) is 30,000 years old, and his bones lie in Cardiff museum, on loan from the Ashmolean, Oxford.  Goat’s Cave, then is one the most important prehistoric sites in Europe, but is largely unknown.  I got very wet trying to get to it, and gave up after realising I could well kill myself trying to scramble across a vertical cliff some hundred feet above the rocks.

Intrigued by Tristram Shandy – and having enjoyed it more for listening to it on a journey through some startling landscape, when I returned home I bought Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation, A Cock and Bull Story, in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon slip in and out of character, pausing to describe events inside and outside the story, but this isn’t Steve Coogan discussing the movie he’s in, it’s Coogan playing a version of himself, of course.  The film weaves the layers of fiction together into a warm, gentle comedy.

As a result of the success of the film, Coogan, Brydon and Winterbottom went on to make The Trip, the duo once again consciously playing themselves, eating their way across the north of England (and, indeed Yorkshire, location of Shandy Hall).

Neil and I ate out once, in the Britannia Inn, Llanmadoc, Gower, but it was very, very disappointing, and if it wasn’t for the cuckoo we could hear as we returned to the car, it would have been quite miserable.

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