Outside the supermarket a three-year-old boy was expressing his distress in voice and reddened face. Solicitous, his mother bent down to him. No doubt he had wanted something in the shop and been denied it. He looked like me at that age and in a flash I recalled how I used to behave: a lot worse. My rage was not about wanting the thing, which tended to be arbitrary or even inappropriate for a small child. My mother should want to please me: that was the real issue, and it was never resolved because she had no maternal feelings, well some only: she did want to be proud of me and not ashamed. So I had a very definite sense of lack, that remained stable so long as I was at home or boarding school, places where life is ritualised routine. At university it took a while to find a niche, a few good friends. Then that ended and I lost touch with them all, and the world was an uncharted desert, and I was unnerved.
I do have a definite purpose in life, even when I don’t know what it is, which is most of the time, probably all the time if I’m honest. I mean my purpose is instinctive and it has been constant, though obviously I was unable to express it at the age of three. The tantrums were not surprising.
This is my purpose: I have to follow my nose, like a dog suddenly unleashed. On Sunday morning we had a good snowfall and I felt compelled to go and walk out in it, saying to myself “Where is a grandchild when you need one? We could build a snowman, go tobogganing.” But the nearest grandchild was 35 miles away and the snow would melt by afternoon. So I walked in it and when I took the public footpaths that criss-cross the hillside, going behind back-gardens and in between old factories, I did manage to get lost, which was an achievement so near home—the snow’s rather than mine. It was a good feeling to discover the usual landmarks altered, to be in a suddenly-created fairyland, , like a film set. Most of all it was the altered sound, not just the crunch of snow under my boots, but the hush: no echoes, only near sounds. Everything I heard was laid on a background of silence. Even when there’s no snow, like today, when I set out in sunshine, there’s a hush behind all the traffic noises, birdsong, scraps of conversation, rustling of wind in the trees. When you listen to the underlying silence, it leads you by the hand beyond normal consciousness to a co-existent dimension, interleaved with the world of senses.
My study’s getting littered with such scraps of half-written ideas: scribbled in notebooks, audio files, keyed documents abandoned incomplete in computer files. Actually, over the last couple of weeks my study is littered with scraps of half-written ideas: in my notebook, “My documents”, audiotape. Actually, it’s digital now, but icons, whether pictorial or verbal, must favour the concrete, and the recognizable shape. Telephones don’t have shape any more, so we use the old standard one 🕿. For destroying documents, we may use a shredder, or the more cinematic act of burning them (1). For writing, we imagine putting pen to paper, or sitting at a typewriter; which can also be used to demonstrate creative frustration by pulling out an abandoned sheet, crumpling it, and flinging into a basket overflowing with other discarded paper. I think of Hank Bukowski:
“I can hear you typing at night,” says
“oh, I’m sorry.”
“no,” he says, “it’s a pleasant sound…”
he’s right, it is.
and when I don’t cause that sound for
two or three days
I become fitful
my face gets an unhealthy sag, and–
you must believe me–
I have visions of the way that
I will die.
when typing I’m
well, maybe not immortal.
this old typewriter and
this old man
live well together. (2)
So anyway yesterday I went on another bus ride and nearly lost my nerve on the way. When you have time to follow your nose and listen to the sound of silence you can easily fall into the illusion that you have gone mad. Perhaps this is the reason that most people unconsciously seek structure in their lives and social contact. And perhaps the reason people keep company, good or bad, is to get feedback that they are not insane loners or losers, which is fair enough but I have paid my dues to that and am grown-up now, and it’s only occasionally that everything seeps away, like there on the bus.
I was looking for a junk shop to get ideas for my latest construction project or perhaps even parts I could use for it. Never mind what the project is, and anyway, it was a vague excuse for a purpose. I went to the antique shop where I’d been a couple of times before. They always put a few bits of furniture out the front. I liked the new sign above the windows: “Curios”. But it was unfamiliar when I went in and I asked the man where the back rooms had gone. It used to be a labyrinth of nooks and passages He apologized and said the previous owner had moved out, and the next-door shop had taken over half the space. It was true, there were hastily-erected partitions and you couldn’t wander round as before. There used to be lots of books, now only a few. It was a little disorienting, so I thanked the man and left. It was sad to have found a wonderful curiosity shop, only to come back two weeks later and find it much changed. Continuing down the street for twenty yards I saw another set of furniture outside another shop. I walked in.
I have to call it a miracle. Two minutes earlier I had grieved for the irretrievable loss of a curiosity shop. Now it was restored in every particular, as if one could step back into the past and find it unchanged. In reality I’d walked into the wrong shop minutes earlier. This was the one I remembered. No walls had been moved, the merchandise, including those books, was all in its familiar place. I sought out my favourite corner, but a fat man was there filling the space, wide round the middle like a spinning-top, muttering to himself, examining each old music CD, emitting a faint odour. I pretended to look at other things for ten minutes till he left the space free. Then I found the treasure which justified my entire outing, including that moment on the bus when I had briefly felt unnerved like Jean-Paul Sartre’s character Antoine Roquentin in La Nausée. It was Prefaces by Bernard Shaw, first edition, 1934.
A most imposing volume: big, good paper, nicely bound; with an engraved title-page. And when I started to read it properly on the bus home, it fulfilled intellectually the promise of its physicality. Like meeting a woman with beauty of spirit as well as body. Like my Bible, I love to hold it in my hand, turn its pages, consult it randomly. Unlike my Bible, it is witty, wry, delightful; it engages the modern mind, it has relevance. Some of the pieces were written a hundred years ago, which is still in my grandparents’ lifetime: a good place to get perspective on today’s world.
Bukowski and George Bernard Shaw (3) : you wouldn’t think of them in the same breath but I do. Both radical critics of society, rooting out prejudice and lazy mind, holding nothing sacred except the truly sacred. Serious writers, as I too cannot help but be.
(1) I’ve discovered that the most effective way to destroy documents is to soak them in water till soggy, then squeeze into pulp.
(2) Excerpted from “This habit”, 1981, via this page
(3) I was eight when I heard the death of Bernard Shaw announced on the radio. I remember it because of my stepfather Kenneth’s reaction to the news. His interest was not in the plays so much as a view, shared with Shaw, that most of medicine is quackery, and that “nature cure” was our best guarantee of health. He would have burned anything by Bukowski; or perhaps drowned it & squeezed it to pulp.