We sink and we rise: Happy New Year to those within the M25

Here are some facts about London: it is old, and it is new. It is disgusting, and it is powerful. These truths are interlinked; foul industries, dirty water, a shambling stream of corpses and fire-halted epidemics give rich foundation to the quasi-religious veneration of our one true God, the golden god, and our old and all-conquering vice: Avarice. Bawd and ideal may be plentiful but the muddy, bloody swamp of a city sinks or swims on its venal lawlessness and nearly two millennia of proof can be dredged up for it.

London creates cultures like a loaf of damp bread. It generates saints. In Camden Town the long, sorrowful face of Amy Winehouse appears in smeared black on buildings like the Madonna on American toast; sheer will supersedes finger-wagging press to create her a modern, Jewish saint; “Don’t venerate an addict” and dire warnings of her moral character fall short and miss the point – Amy is an icon because of her flaws, not in spite of them or in their ignorance. Like Marilyn and Billie Holiday before her, the locality bears witness to struggle and pain paired with eloquence and skill, and raises a broken woman to the status of a divinity. It is a black paint backlash against the madonna/whore dichotomy; let her be both, let her be both.

We have hopes for George Michael, but it’s early days yet.

London makes saints of the ordinary, too; not far from my home there is a shrine. A man, 22, whose name I know but won’t share, died violently in the street in November. In a turbulent time these things go unremarked, but the shop across the street remembers, and his loved ones replenish flowers, candles, photographs, empty whisky bottles. Offerings to somewhere or something, to keep him from fraying in their minds. Devoured by the city, he becomes part of it.

Do the rules of urban sainthood cover the man I saw die this week, his vast white belly unthinkingly exposed as he lay surrounded by green-clad paramedics

and stony-faced on-lookers, spread-eagled by an unsuccessful defibrillator on a cold station floor? If he is canonised by the fleck-marks among the grey, how long for?

But it is a morbid time; it is Dead Winter. The time of year when I am quite grateful to find mould growing on my sandwiches because it proves that something can still grow in this hellish twilight. Past the dimple of midwinter and the instinctive bonfires, this frozen endless coda between the solstice and spring equinox is the time I give real and visceral consideration to the possibility of human sacrifice. At 3pm, already dark, on a night-shift week, I drag myself to he gym to treadmill the black despair into aches via the media of glowing orange numbers and participation in a nationwide detoxification – purificiation – fast-and-atonement ritual as we try to apologise the spring into happening. And I think, yeah, I’d kill a child to bring the sun back right now. Why not? Shit, let’s kill ten and have a nice summer this year.

London is a ritual city. It has no pomp nor splendour, no matter how much gilt we pour on the remaining high traditions or crenellated and NeoGothic excesses we defer to – the rituals are modern in age and pre-Enlightenment in character, private or primal: the weird, carved fish of Guild processions, the prescient and personal libations to a Bacchus tossed in the Fleet in the fourth Century, the roadkill funerals, the furtive wishing coins, knuckles to the window of the London Stone and prayers to the known monsters travelling in the eternal dark beneath the city. From the dank earth we came and shall return; we are filth, stains lapping at the feet of our unsecured glass skyscrapers – we are ugly, and let us remain pox-disfigured grasping mollies, roaring over newsprint…

One could weep for all the histories lost in the foundations of raw progress – the temples destroyed by railways, the birthplaces by bombs, the memories by meretricious, mercantile greed, but London does not stand still and it does not stop – a fossil city is a dead city. Better to build on top of our own sinking rooftops, lay roads over

rivers, and let future archaeologists marvel at our litter as we now paw over the plague-pits Pepys and Defoe’s peers did their best to cover.

Buddleia reaches for the sky, whole trees hanging out of brick cracks the size of a thumb; black mould marches over my bedroom ceiling; five mice quarrel in hypersonic territorial fury between the rails of the train to Cockfosters and somewhere in those miles of 19°C subterranean veins, rippling through clay like bands of a new composite mineral, we are evolving a new species of mosquito at light speed. The Tube Parasite. Our very own blood-sucker —

— London is a ritual city. We revisit our haunts. We pay our respects. We set our habits like heartbeats, not clockwork. Environment rules apply: the same man who moved me gently out of his path in a crowded, convivial nightclub in Vauxhall by placing the tips of his fingers on the angel tattooed on my neck kept to the etiquette of the Night Tube afterward, hunched up at the far end of a carriage with his eyes locked to his phone, a dozen empty, newspapered seats between us. Courtesy in both worlds: in the sweat and strobes the pressure of his cock on the waistband of my jeans is simple and unimpeachable neutral manners, too.

Condensed, London is a highly-charged space. Widely-spread souls mistake this hyperreal interaction for hostility instead of the hallucinogenic endgame of compressed human interaction. In the countryside I grew up in, friendliness is a two-hour chat with a grinning death’s head stranger; in this hive it is the quick smile to a bus driver from a passenger who has been on this route a decade. It is the small rituals with speed-ravaged 4am shopkeepers. It is catching the eye of the tired passenger who is watching the same pigeon fight that you are. In each of these seconds a week of intimacies unfolds in its own sweet time.

Do not be so quick to hate the ‘bubbles’ in which we dwell. They are beautiful and we have chosen them for a good reason.


100 Works of Art: (Aural) Best Sunday Dress, Hole

The 100 Works of Art blog series is to do with personal interaction with beloved works of art rather than impartial reviews or focussing solely on the relatable and universal qualities of the work. Because this is a blog, not a book. The first 25 are to do with visual art, and begin with Matta’s Black Virtue; the next 25 will be about aural art and begin with The Cure’s Let’s Go To Bed.

28. Best Sunday Dress, Hole

For most of the turbulent and eventful year that was the first in the Gregorian calendar to begin with a 2 and carry three digits after it, the oft-lyriced-about 2000, this was my favourite song. It’s a B-side, which I can promise you is unusual for me these days, but in the height of my pre-torrents, pre-YouTube music fever collecting B-sides of bands I liked was an art form in itself, and involved petitioning virtual strangers on message boards to send me bad cassette tapes, and trips to various market stalls to acquire bootleg CDs. I had a weekly income of £22 from my Saturday job, which I was technically trying to save, and couldn’t exactly spunk money left, right, and centre on hunting down rare releases – especially when even finding what they were was such a hassle.

Reader, you will be glad to hear that I have since realised that it is not necessary to be a completist to appreciate someone’s oeuvre, and as such Hole more or less mark the point at which I never again put so much effort into investing my interest in a single band. I don’t regret it in the slightest, however: even a few years later, when I’d moved on and was mostly listening to techno, and a copy of America’s Sweetheart came into the offices of the student rag I worked for, I still snapped it up. Nobody’s Daughter, even more recently, still met with a doggedly loyal reception. Connections forged in the emotional overreaction that is adolescence tend to hold more firmly than those found later.

So why this particular song, of all songs? I didn’t come to it first – that honour goes to the title track of third studio album Celebrity Skin – and it probably isn’t the most lyrically or musically accomplished of all the band’s work (most people agree that Live Through This contains almost all the strong contenders for that title); what resonated at the time was, perhaps rather shamefully, the tragedy inherent in both the simple chord structure and the lyrics.

At 17 and 18 I was a fairly stereotypical Sixth Form Goth, and as for much of my adult life, preoccupied with death – this time with all the fire and fervour of youth – and with the tragedy of suicide and all that jazz. My Nirvana phase was squarely behind me, and I’d moved on to scanning the lyrics of Hole songs for Courtney’s obvious and ongoing agony regarding the death of her husband. The song is pretty much rife with references which either are or can be pressed into service as references to the departed:

Pale blue eyes so young
Pale blue eyes so far away
Watch me with his sorrow
Forgive me all his pain

And at the time I was still in thrall to the key-change as an emotional intensifier, having ridden through the first burst of puberty on the back of the Top 40, so the line at which this occurs (roughly around shone like a diamond) also cemented itself into my head as one with great meaning, although now, looking back at the song with an additional 13 years of life in the way, it’s this which seems the most poignant:

and I’ve come here all undressed
all the posion and pain and I take what is mine

possibly because these two lines to me represent adequately what has happened to Courtney in the eye of the beholder. She’s been repeatedly stripped of any right to mourn via rumours and accusations about her involvement or her emotional response (what is the correct response to your tempestuous and troubled love of your life shooting himself in the head while AWOL? Is there one? How do you respond to something so huge and so painful?), and exposed before all the world in the press as someone to be scrutinised at her time of greatest sorrow (much, indeed, as Yoko Ono was). A woman of strong, divisive personality and very powerful emotions, she would never have contented herself with a regal tear and the mannerly withdrawal required of widows: she was a rock star before she met him and she was determined to continue being one after he left. In the second line the poison and pain are as much the vitriol heaped on a grieving woman as they are the heroin and loss; I take what is mine could equally apply to retrieving the image of her dead husband from the media who declared him their property (I suspect she minded the fans slightly less) as to the acceptance of abuse (I take what is mine, I take what is intended for me, ie, poison and pain) from various quarters.

For what is a very, very sad song the sound is defiant. It’s not the sadness that curls in on itself and weeps quietly, but a kind of explosive sadness, a supernova of mourning or a howl of ongoing misery that acknowledges everything that’s fed into it as it pushes all of it outwards. Messier, and less acceptable than the accepted mode of widowhood, but then when I was 17 and 18 I was messier and less acceptable than the accepted mode of adolescence, trying to rescue my entire sense of self from five years in a lock-up and doing very poorly at it. It spoke to me, the way Courtney Love’s music spoke to several generations of unhappy and angry teenage girls and in fact continues to do so. The fans of it are still subject to the same derision and spite as its maker is, but that comes with the territory of being someone with too many uncontained feelings who refuses to beautify them for the comfort of others.

Personal Post: I came into my inheritance today.

I “came into my inheritance” today. Or, in practical terms, I received a cheque for about 2 weeks wages, and a small box full of jewellery-related things my grandmother thought I would be able to use from my grandfather’s effects.

There is very little tangible left of his 85 or so years on earth and I don’t know how I feel about that yet.

These photos are of what I’m informed is New Zealand greenstone. My grandparents do not/did not seem like very well-travelled people because they’ve always carried a patina of uncomplaining Presbyterian small-townness around with them, very much self-contained with small lunchboxes and good manners and always reading the road signs, but my grandfather seems to have been all over the sodding world, from Japan to Chile to Norway to India (where he grew up, possibly: it is hard to get facts about his early life because he never talked about it) to New Zealand, to god knows where. Always with plants in mind.

He died at the end of June, while I was somewhere between London, Seoul, and Sydney. I think if nothing else that proves I’m following in his footsteps.

A two-tier box containing a brooch and a copper bracelet on the top (copper bracelets seem to be the only kind my family will wear). The contents of the lower section are arranged in the box the whole lot came in.

This is a button with a safety pin through it. A Royal Engineers uniform button. As these are my grandfather’s effects I’m confused: my grandmother’s father was in the Royal Engineers in WW1 (and was a PoW, possibly in Breslau? Information from my family= blood from a stone). Then again, I know my grandfather served in WW2 (poooooossibly in India?), and I have no idea if he was an engineer or a regular or a medic or ANYTHING BECAUSE NO ONE WILL TELL ME ANYTHING.

A black leather-ish jewellery case with a tray. I am slightly … unsettled, I think is the right word, by some of the things in here as I think they belonged to his sister. My grandfather was one of ten children and by the time my grandmother met him (in their late teens/early twenties, I think? Pretty sure my grandmother was married by twenty), he was an only child. That is kind of a lot of death to be up close to. So regardless of our travels, we’ve led very different lives, because mine was relatively death-free until last year brought an avalanche of corpses with it (and this year has continued in the same vein).

And now I’m wondering what, if anything, of me people will want to keep when I’m gone, or if by that time there will be anything left to keep or anyone left to keep it.

Personal Post: Also I recently discovered that my family motto is “Memento Mori”

The last couple of years have been heavy on the death front, in what feels like an “all of a sudden” manner. Last year handfuls and handfuls of famous people I’d admired began dying off in droves, instead of in the isolated incidents I’d been used to before (Douglas Adams, John Peel, these were aberrations rather than a pattern), three people ranging from a friend to someone I’d met once and rather liked took their own lives in differing states of emotional extremis, and a friend of a friend was murdered. This year the idols and celebrities continue to drop like flies, and the personal death toll has moved from friends to family, with three family members already taking their leave of me this year so far.

A sudden upsurge in mortality has been reflected by a preoccupation with it in my own writing: in (currently at 3rd draft) As Simple As Hunger in prose, and a significant amount in poetry. It snuck into my reading material too, with books about death, treatment of the dead, and short stories which can be interpreted as a fairly plain death wish (Dr Woollacott). The culmination from an apparently amused universe has come in the form of a short-term job which involves reading post-mortem reports.

In my late adolescence I blundered through a medium-length Goth period, which in the fashion of all my flirtations with subculture involved taking the concept of “rules” very seriously indeed and trying to work my way through a kind of cultural checklist in the hopes of becoming acceptable in my identity (this is utter nonsense, but I fell for it every time). This involved tedious activities like poncing around graveyards in a ballgown purchased from a terrible shop in Camden, shagging on gravestones, and reading books by Poppy Z Brite in red light that has probably done something unfriendly to my eyesight. Curiously enough despite all the trappings of mortality I was a great deal more interested in living, as it stood – I was frequently miserable and for about two years clinically depressed but the nature of it all remained quite full of vitality. I’d have committed suicide in a very lifelike way, had I succeeded.

My approach to death is more contemplative now. Embracing the very first mention of death I remember, which is a quote from the delectable and apparently still in print People by Peter Spier (“And in the end we all must die.”), nihilistic leanings, and a certain amount of animosity for the mentality which implies that somehow actions “to the good” on one’s own part will somehow cause the grim reaper to swerve and leave one alive, I’ve become a little antagonistic about it. Not only the post-Stoic tattoo, but regular assaults on the consciousness of my friends in the form of “your daily reminder that no matter what you do with your time, you are going to die”, or “the moral high ground will not grant you immortality” and other such pretentious homilies.

This is all well and good, but today I received my own reminder of mortality from an odd source. As I mentioned above, I have been reading post-mortem reports. Having a vivid imagination it’s easy to reconstruct things like “died from head injury sustained while falling down a flight of stairs in a pub while intoxicated”, but the real moment of unexpected awareness of my own death was when I found a post-mortem report on a girl who had been born a few months before me, and who died about ten years ago.

It shouldn’t have done, but the shared birth year and the suddenly huge distance between her death and my observation of her death put me outside myself and made me think not the usual, egotistical thoughts about dying: who will miss me, will they be very sad, I can’t bear it; nor the depressive’s yearning for an end to all the hail of living. It was one quiet moment in a basement where I contemplated what it means to die: before the body becomes soup or ashes, before the bones become safe ornaments, before the whole grisly but inevitable process of decay; the fact that once the current in the brain goes away there is no more you. There is no way to experience death, only dying. “Death” lies outside of conscious experience, and there’s no way to back-pedal and become a person again once it’s done.

Naturally I followed up this discomforting realisation by going for hot chocolate in the kitchen but as insights go… it’s probably one most people have when they’re 12 or so. I’ve never been the swiftest on the uptake.

Poetry Post: In the Midst of Etc.

In the midst of etc

Another morning you woke to death
on the news, and there was death
walking in the streets, and death
leapt in front of the commuter train, death
clutched her chest in the office, o death
followed you everywhere, a parade of death
grinning emptily as a skull as more death
flooded out of the subway exits, all death
as far as the eye could see, the cat’s death
in the gutter just another meaningless death
as you stopped on the pavement where death
had mown down a branch of flowers, in death
still beautiful, and found a bee, death
not quite clinging to her, her little death
held at bay by your warm palms as you, besieged by death
held life in your hands.

For more poetry, why not buy Know Your Words (with Al Kennedy & Amy Kreines), For the Love of a City, or Year of the Ghost (also available on Kindle).

Book launch: Collected Poems 2011 (eBook only)

This does exactly what it says on the tin: collects up every single poem I wrote in 2011 and puts it online as an EPUB available from Lulu.com (and also I believe the iBook store and Barnes & Noble or something). Some of them are exceptionally silly (I mean, some of them are about the X-men, I wasn’t po-facedly composing pastoral literature here), some of them are very personal, some of them are good, some of them are … less wonderful.

Stand-out poems that I recall include the title poem year of the ghost, reflecting on quite how many people had died already when I wrote it in early 2011; it is a sestina, and it was unfortunately more prophetic than I realised. Another was thule, related to the horrific shootings in Utoya, and Pyrexia as revolutionary fever seemed to grip large segments of the world. I’m not usually given to writing political poetry as I’m always worried about coming off sounding like Rik from the Young Ones (BBC), but it’s hard not to want to process real-life events through art; the year closed with Stop, You’re Killing Me, which linked together all of the protests of the year under one banner.

I’ve also written more about science in the last year than is usual, and after watching Wonders with the delightful Brian Cox embarked on an ambitious attempt to mimic structurally the lifecycle of a universe in poetic form, imaginatively titled Life Cycle; I spent a while learning about sound technology and the related physics, which came through in poems like FM and wave.table; I learnt about Victorian London in more depth and produced This Pestilent City.

London, along with fairytale and mythological imagery, and viscera, is a constant source of inspiration and a good number of poems have been devoted to it this year as in previous years.

The cover is a departure from the usual Gothic masterpieces or piles of papers that make up my poetry book covers, but I think there’s something quite bold about the minimalism of it. What do you think?

Collected Poems 2011 by Delilah Des Anges is available for £2.99.