I want to fail in a grander case.

For Reasons of Research, I’ve been reading Downriver by Iain Sinclair recently (aside from the normal heave-ho of life, visiting the Making Nature and Electricity: The Spark of Life exhibitions at the Wellcome Institute; drinking All The Wine in the company of a skittish cat; re-acquainting myself with old drawing habits and new gym ones – and novel heave-hos in life, such as “dealing with a blood-soaked stranger”; and my personal favourite “being evacuated from the office for a bomb scare”, which was nowhere near as much fun as you’d hope).

I have a lot of Ian Sinclair books to read, because Delightful Boyfriend has inherited psychogeographical scholarship from his Colin-Wilson-reading father, and my globe-trotting book patron/occasional whip hand (Amy Parker, who has recently published a short story in Bourbon Penn magazine, which rather unusually for any short fiction written after about 1901, I’ve read and loved – please sit down and have a go yourself! It’s a good one) also deluged me in copies before I had a chance to remove them from my research wishlist and plead exhaustion (there is a reason I don’t link to that on my blog).

In reading, I encountered this intriguing quote:

There is, I assure you, a measure of safety in being the one who holds the pen. ‘I’ is the man in possession, but he is also possessed, untouchable. ‘I’ is immortal. The title of the survivor. There always has to be one witness to legitimize a massacre. [etc]

Downriver, Iain Sinclair.

Long-term readers may be aware that I have a tattoo reading “ha bloody fucking ha” prominently on my writing wrist.

It is the abbreviated form of this quote:

Why? you have to ask yourself. I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking Ha.

The Ghost Road, Pat Barker

From a firmly-formative trilogy (one of the more respectable formative texts of my adolescence, which featured more heavily the lurid gay erotic horror of Poppy Z Brite in the vampire years and innumerable interchangeable Hardy Boys Casefiles), that of prize-draped Pat Barker: The Regeneration Trilogy.

It is a conceptual echo that concerns me greatly: I’ve been keeping a regular, if occasionally sparse or incoherent and evasive diary, since September 1997. If I am still doing it in September this year (if global rise of fascism hasn’t dispensed with my gay, trans self by then – always proviso these days), it will be a solid 20 years of diarism.

Leaving aside the horror of a diary that can legally vote, marry, drink, drive, and star in extremely depressing pornography in the country in which it is written, what have I done to my longevity with this? All of my life choices so far – dabbling in alcoholism, obesity, cocaine, transitioning even – all of them should calculatedly have shaved off decades from my genetically accursed lengthy lifespan (no bloody cancer or coronary here, alas), at least according to the bastion of scientific rigour and life-extension that is the Daily Mail.  I live in a society that can’t afford my pension and soon won’t be able to feed itself. Have I unthinkingly undermined my sensible exit strategy with ego-centric nonsense?

Well, I shan’t be the first or the last. If I am still committing my life to language in another 20 years we shall know something has gone horribly, horribly right.


Readers already horrified by the above will be thrilled to learn I’ve taken up time-travel, and have transmitted a novel from the Edwardian period.

And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.

I am still reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom (because it is a very long book) and for the most part I’m too caught up in the daily minutae of a desert campaign to pay much attention to the purportedly florid quality of Lawrence’s writing outside of noting his interest in and mild obsession with the geology of the desert places he passes through.

As with any good book I am largely unconscious of it as a written work at all, only allowing a flow of unfamiliar names and places to pass through me and a selection of well-illustrated scenes to arise in my mind with no doubt a mess of inaccuracies based on my lack of first-hand knowledge of what is being communicated. Appreciation of the prose and the structure of a work tend to come in the aftermath of reading, when the first full-blown blush of action and excitement have died down and there is time to contemplate just how the pulse was made to stampede and the blood rise: even in moments, quotable and poetic moments (such as Mary Renault’s “The touch of autumn struck from his youth that cosmic sadness, which time will tame like the bite of spring” in The Charioteer) which strike the reading mind like a hammer blow, it is only the appreciation of the words and never the sudden awareness of the author. Works which make me aware of the author before I have finished reading tend to be works where I am exasperated by the author: Yes, China, we know you’re clever, put the thesaurus down.

So it is with Seven Pillars that when I am reading I am only aware of Lawrence the narrator, Lawrence the figure in his own story telling his own story, a small and determined figure grinning into sandstorms (At this stifling price they kept their flesh unbroken, for they feared the sand particles which would wear open the chaps into a painful wound: but, for my part, I always rather liked a khamsin, since its torment seemed to fight against mankind with ordered conscious malevolence, and it was pleasant to outface it so directly, challenging its strength, and conquering its extremity.) and trying to achieve objectives that his conscience would not always support him in. When I look up from this dense report of raids, marches, and the cataloguing of water, I am occasionally struck by the presence of the author.

Not so much the mental image, romanticised, of Lawrence plugging away disconsolately in his attic, subsisting on chocolate bars and self-hatred; not so much the hard-chinned short Englishman eyeballing the ever-present reader from the pages, as he writes with the acute awareness of what people are already saying about him; more the cousin to a sensation I had recently (-ish) flying over the Gobi Desert, when I looked down through some very insubstantial clouds. An avid watcher of wildlife documentaries, I find there are whole landscapes I am familiar with from BBC Wildlife which occupy a position of near-mythology, lands where animals roam unconcerned by the trivial political whinging of humankind, and the sky is vast, and the storms are the size of cities. They are rendered unreal by the TV screen, and it was only with the jolt of understanding as I peered out of a tiny dirty window a mile up that I grasped the reality of that place: able afterwards only to say “I realised it was the actual fucking Gobi desert and I was annoyed because there wasn’t anyone I could tell so that they’d get it as well”.

The moments after reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom are the same: there is a moment of incredible height and realisation that he was a real person, and that he really wrote the words I’ve been reading. Part of me scolds the other part of me for being awestruck: the man was just a man. There are millions of books in the world, each of them really written by real people, all of whom would be worthy of awe. Why this one? Why experience an atheistic spiritual vertigo and hero-cultish these words came from his mind over this particular person? And I don’t have an answer for that, not a real and proper answer that stands up to analysis and doesn’t become ugly and revealing, much in the same way that I can’t give an analytical answer for why I love London, or my partner.

Perhaps it is the mythos, the pantheon of depictions that I was immersed in before I began to read what the man had to say for himself, which makes it such a revelatory moment when I remember that what I’m reading was written by the person it describes. As to his worthiness for adulation, I’ve no real, proper understanding of why so-and-so can be the hero of our dreams but such-and-such is abhorrent.

The great thing about dead people is that we can make them be anything we need them to be.

What Has It Got In Its Notebookeses?

As you will no doubt have gathered from my unceasing whining about it, I moved house recently. Having fused somewhat with the previous accommodation as a result of inhabiting it in typically carefree (and slovenly) style for seven solid years, I have been finding all sorts of gems amid the detritus that act as unintentional time capsules.

Obviously we also have the internet for that, but there is something rather fascinating about what I felt it necessary to note down and what I thought I was still going to understand later.

Following excerpts come from a green spiral-bound notebook purchased in Paris around Christmas 2005, and filled up in spurts as I found and lost it again.

Ceci c’est mon sang, ceci c’est mon corps.

Some men seek what other men have never had to find; some men search while others exist in a state of blissful now.

you’re naked said digory rather unnecessarily yes replied the boy and you’re wearing awful clothes

Ou est les enfants? NYOM NYOM I ATES THE BABIES! Tu manger les enfants? Mal Grandmere!

He lacks ennui
His penis functions

J’ne parle pas Angelaise mais je suis madamoiselle pleasante!

BELT OF RAW MEAT

Santa’s stomach strains with the naughty children that he has devoured [this was written across the belly of the single most sinister and carnivorous-looking Santa Claus I have ever seen]

Andy Warhol is perturbed and enraged by reality television

“I’m eating Jaffa cakes in an ossuary. Is that normal?”

David (Jacques-Louis) 1748-1825
Leonidan aux Thermopyles

Look at some ‘cartoons’ of Orpheous & Eurydice: Orpheous kind of minging.

— “If I throw up now, I can eat some more!”

I am up to the bit just before the poet gives them his poem — Before sunrise.

7. sewing is tessellation – pattern-solving

NB: If you want to write like Pat Barker – shorter sentences. Less florid language. Less poeticism.

–> Essence of meaning — the poetic equation/proof — elegance in brevity.

Matteo di Giovanni (died 1495)
Saint Sebastian 1480-5

Masculinity & Brotherhood in WW1 & WWII
Cross-dressing/transgenderism in ancient cultures

Always looking for the sociology or meta meaning/reason BEHIND things. Worried that life is one big ALLEGORY

“The fencer’s weapon is picked up & put down again. The boxer’s is part of him.” .2.9 [I think this is from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, judging by the context it’s in]

Only at the personal level can something be “against your beliefs”.

Anatomical unravelling in progress (y)

Purity is not something to be brought about by bleach.

“One would like evil people to be lazy and stupid ones to keep their mouths shut.”

“Petty souls are more susceptible to ambition than great ones, just as straw or thatched cottages burn more easily than palaces.”

[several drunken pages of scribbling as I tried to work out a better plot than the Da Vinci Code in a pub, shortly after seeing the film]

Vassilly, huh? Holst feels usurped by Blake. Blake asks S. for any further contacts and S says no very firmly, so Blake, out of nowhere, smacks S into a wall quite casually. Even Holst is appalled.

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”

When spoken of the disassociative personality diminishes his or her sense of aloofness and disconnect but momentarily [in a speech bubble, spoken by a reclining stick figure]

The Republic of Ireland was invented by Oliver Cromwell and the Jews after they realised that it was going to be many hundreds of years before ‘wipe the potato-chewing drunken bastards off the globe’ could truly be put into effect. [definitely recall writing this in the pub to annoy someone specific]

more black eyelet tape.

LARGE CODPIECE! Gumbo: Rabbit? Liver?

Letter from Julie to Peter Cross

[random Greek which I have no memory of and no idea what it says]

MIMI WONG

[Drawing of an owl wearing a hoodie]

R.M.S. = 0.707 x peak

Waves add and either cancel (out of phase) or amplify (in phase) a standing wave is when reflections from parallel surfaces [sentence not finished]

1) Use a room with no parallel walls

But no, I will laugh. It is fine insulation, even the bitter kind. Keep forcing laughter until it becomes real.

“Every labyrinth twist another dead end.”

Extract From a Letter 2

Life continues chaotic, busy, and wearing, meaning that all writing or planning outside of another long letter is simply not happening. This blog will see a little more action in a day or two when April starts and the infernal nuisance of National Poetry Month begins, but until then have another extract from the never-ending letter:

An odd question occurs to me: what is the earth like where you are? Is it hard or soft? Is there topsoil? Is it the acidic stuff of where I grew up, or the chalky alkaline that turns out blue flowers and spindly trees? The landscape of my childhood was a split between windswept moors with the odd bent tree – the stuff of Brontë novels (I know you love Wuthering Heights) – where the grass is sheep-cropped short and the bracken comes up to your shoulder and every time you fall over you don’t land on the springy heather but on a vicious gorse bush. It is a landscape of rain and continual up and down, with granite bursting out of the thin soil, and bogs you could (and have) lose a horse in.

These vast windswept mountain ranges were interspersed with deep valleys of the sort that end up in Lord of the Rings – shallow, fast-flowing rivers and moss-covered boulders, streams full of slippery round rocks, and mossy, old oak trees. An old landscape and according to some documentary or other it is a totally unique habitat, globally.

The rest of the time I lived in a land of chalk downs and long grass, but both were largely treeless landscapes characterised by butterflies of rarity: Dartmoor had the Common Fritillary (a misnomer, it is very rare), which is orange-brown, and Somerset had the Chalk Blues. These places are so close together by Australian standards, but geographically so different.

What you may take from my letter excerpts is that I spent a lot of time rambling about West Country landscapes in the vaguely nostalgic manner of someone who has absolutely no intention of ever leaving London again.

The Illustrated Woman

On Saturday I went to a tattoo studio in Greenwich, arriving via a series of unfortunate events just on time, whereupon my tattooist was late and we didn’t get started until an hour after we were supposed to.

I had not had any work done by this fellow previously, in part because he only moved to England in December, and one of the important parts of tattooing for me is being able to manage a reasonable conversation with the person tattooing me so that I don’t actually fall asleep. As it was I was overtired and became drowsy a few times (and oddly cold), but the conversation itself was satisfying as we dissected music, sound recording, legends and mythos of musicians, the difference between music performance and stand-up, the story-telling properties of songwriting, books we both liked, and cultural change.

The first of the two tattoos I received was discussed at length in a previous post:

quote from "The Ghost Road" by Pat Barker

The second, which I kept schtum about, is a depiction of Narcissus taken from a pencil drawing by Gillian Blekkenhorst, which I have had for several years, folding it and unfolding it as I move house. Narcissus was the subject of one of my Creative Writing projects at university, and naturally represents here the notion of self-love and also a caution against excessive self-involvement:

Narcissus by Gillian Blekkenhorst and Owen Williams

Personal Post: A World Of Meaning In Four Words

Yesterday I took the train from my workplace (Elephant and Castle) to my tattooist (Greenwich, or more specifically Maze Hill) in order to book an appointment, as one of the rituals of acquiring paid employment for me these days is to waste large chunks of my income on permanent additions to the body I’ve been left with by genes and circumstance.

On my return from this brisk, slightly disorienting visit to Living Image Tattoo, I found two things: one, that the train passing from Greenwich station to Deptford headed directly into the setting sun – a ball of red and orange balanced precariously on the skyline of the incoming city – and gave me the powerful sensation that I was living inside a poem, and two, that it being the season of short sleeves on the Underground once more, I was back to catching people trying to read my tattoos without me noticing.

The woman I caught examining the tattoo on my left inside elbow (“every time i let myself lose, i have won“) gave me an embarrassed look (she was wearing a mustard-coloured duffel coat and had the keen expression of someone who knows she is intelligent but hasn’t often been told that she is attractive). I merely rotated my arm so that she could read it, and said, “Is that better?”

She nodded at the tattoo in a worried fashion as if reading something that she would be examined on later, and looked away. I am used to a variety of reactions to my tattoos, although happily since moving to London the majority of them have been salutatory or curious rather than, as in my more provincial hometown, abusive. Once, at the Comedy Store in Piccadilly Circus a woman in the queue for the toilets during an interval struck up a long conversation with me because she was curious as to the meaning of the opposite number in text tattoos: the right inner elbow, which reads “anything you do to me, i will learn to enjoy“.

As almost every one of the more visible text tattoos I have can be interpreted in a number of ways, I’m usually at ease with explaining them to strangers, but this woman was so inquisitive and so delighted in hearing that it came from a story I’d written (I didn’t dare tell her it was a lurid piece of Torchwood fan fiction!) that I grew nervous and was eager to get away…

This latest appointment will “deface” (as my mother so disdainfully describes it) my upper left arm, and the inside bones of my right wrist. The left arm is to be an image, although of what I wish to leave a surprise as I rather enjoy surprising my friends with tattoos (I also enjoy buying them tattoos as birthday presents, when I can afford to). The right wrist is a quote from my best-beloved series of books:

from "The Ghost Road" by Pat Barker

As with all my text tattoos there are myriad reasons for this specific sentence fragment. First, context – which will contain spoilers for The Ghost Road – this is part of a slightly longer sentiment:

I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First-person narrators can’t die, so as long as we keep telling the story of our own lives we’re safe. Ha bloody fucking ha.

The Ghost Road, Pat Barker

The words are written by Billy Prior, the protagonist of the series (or one of them), in reference to all his fellow-soldiers on the WW1 Western Front who are compulsively keeping diaries, scribbling poems, sending lengthy descriptive letters home. His theory is that by turning their sufferings into stories they are granting themselves some notional escape from the near-inevitability of their death and (subtextually) their total lack of control over the situation they are in.

For this reason, first, the quote is a good one for a tattoo: I have been keeping diaries for fifteen years now, and can attest to the power of writing down events in turning them into manageable fictions rather than unmanageable horrors (even if I have quite obviously never experienced anything so mind-destroyingly dire as the young men at the Front). The claiming of safety created by story is a powerful delusion, and in part it is an accurate one, for in fictionalising our traumas we remove them from the forefront of experience and turn them into someone else’s problem.

Secondly, Prior is a character with whom I have a great deal of sympathy. Vicious at times, intelligent, belligerent, underestimated, “neither fish nor fowl” both in terms of sexuality (he is bisexual) and class (educated working class, exceeding his parents but acutely aware that he does not “pass” for the middle classes’ requirements), suffering from PTSD and utterly disdaining his own misery, he is filled with conflict so acute that he develops, for a time, a protective split personality.

Prior’s bitter, bitter cynicism and fatalism expressed in the four words are what draws me most inexorably to this quote: ha bloody fucking ha. It is very English, to make humour out of one’s own pain, and the statement – dry and without mirth – speaks of so many layered-on emotions it’s almost impossible to unpick them all.

He has been wrestling with himself over the morality of what he is doing, and with the knowledge that his desire to return to the Front is for what others might deem squalid, ungallant reasons. He is, whether he chooses to accept it or not, afraid of going forward, and unable to go back. He continues onward because he has been given no choice, but strove, fought, and argued to have that particular choice removed from him. He seeks both annihilation and survival, experiences both vicious self-loathing and a strange freedom in the terror of oncoming combat, and embodies in ha bloody fucking ha an unspoken, unneeded torrent of words. Billy Prior has fought for his right to surrender to the decisions of people he does not trust; he has everything to live for back in England and pushes towards death. He remains, even in the midst of the “bloodiest conflict in human history”, at war with himself.

And he acknowledges this, the absurdity of his mental state and the absurdity of the war, his anger and his resignation, in four words:

ha bloody fucking ha

Not only is this a tribute to my favourite series of books, and my most-studied period of history, but it is to me at least the phrase which best reflects the combination of nihilism and dark humour with which I find it most sensible to live my life.

I’m looking forwards to it.

An Education In Your Own History

As previously mentioned, in my late teens I became quite fixated on queer history and in particular in the erratic contents of a specific book. There were several films mentioned, with stills included, and for a while I made it my mission to hunt them down and watch them: this was a mission in which I was repeatedly thwarted, and in fact most of the queer cinema I encountered I stumbled across wholly by accident: the best example of this was Martin Sherman’s heartrending and stagey Bent, which I encountered because of insomnia and Channel 4’s insomniac-friendly schedules in the very early days of the 21st Century.

Recently I’ve been catching up on those films whose stills I poured over ten or so years ago, and finally managed to watch both Maurice (1987, Hugh Grant, James Wilby, and Rupert Graves) and Another Country (1984, Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Cary Elwes). Both films are set in the prelude to a World War, although as Maurice belongs in the run-up to the First it is technically more relevant to me as my giant emo obsessiveness about the First World War and associated Sad Gay Soldiers (according to my boyfriend this is a cinematic and literary genre to which I am wedded without exception). Then again, Another Country is a very lightly fictionalised account of the younger days of Guy Burgess (they changed his surname to Bennett, that’s about it) and ever since Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy came out I’ve had a soft spot for spies. The films even have an attractive Rupert apiece: Graves for Maurice, Everett for Another Country (the latter does boast a second, back-up Rupert in the form of Rupert Wainwright, not to be confused with Rufus Wainwright).

The sex scenes in Maurice are slightly more abundant, and I could very probably talk at disturbing length about Rupert Graves’ penis, which makes an appearance – but I did promise myself this wasn’t going to be that kind of a blog even though it is a jolly nice penis. Instead, though: the comparison of time period, the comparison of idealised England, and the comparison of relationship.

For all that Judd, in Another Country, invokes cynicism and dissatisfaction and talks about the pointlessness of the war that preceded his school days, he is wrapped in the very serious and passionate belief in the ideals of Marx, and of Communism. Meanwhile the protagonists of Maurice are all of them without ideals: they adhere to a sense of propriety, of place in the order of things (and good grief but Clive Durham is a pompous, self-important ass at Cambridge), but without any real ideology to hold onto: they are older, and if not wiser then a good deal less convinced of the importance of clearly-delineated concepts.

Both films involve the notion of sacrifices made for love, which rather neatly explains my interest in them beyond the acknowledged passion for queer history; although in each case the sacrifice is rather central to the denouement of the plot, and therefore should be left for the viewer to discover themselves.

Maurice is the softer of the two. It dwells in a gentler time, before the last remnants of a specific social order were torn apart by years of mechanised war and the wholesale slaughter of a generation: in Another Country Judd mocks this and Bennett disdains it, each unimpressed with the boy soldiers lined up to commemorate the dead that have yet to fall in the narrative of Maurice.

There is almost a sense of continuity between the two, but if there is it’s a sad one: the line, “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature,” from Maurice still holds true some fifteen, twenty years later in Another Country: there is a disinclination in the upper classes of English society, still, to allow schoolboy romance or its adult incarnation, and an angry, humiliated Guy Bennett spells it out: “Because in your heart of hearts, like Barclay and Delahay and Fowler and Menzies, you still believe, in spite of your talk of equality and fraternity, you still believe some people are better than others because of the way they make love.”

After all that I’m rather in need of some happier viewing, so I’d welcome suggestions of gay and lesbian films (preferably historical in genre) with happy endings: and be aware, I’ve already seen But I’m A Cheerleader so many times that I can quote it line-for-line!