03.03.17 – After Orford Ness
Today we took a field trip to what felt like the end of the world, but was really just a short portion of the Suffolk coast. I can’t make my words rough enough to texture this, nor adequately monochrome to capture in them the blasted shingle and sea-spit and thistle licks, all under the heaviest grey sky. Echoes of Sebald circled the place like gulls, ‘the god-forsaken loneliness of that outpost in the middle of nowhere’. I stood shaking next to a nuclear bomb, a small shape in that hellscape of cracked earth and military testing. The brutalist pagodas, former labs, stood smashed by the weather, the graves of what science once thought would form the future. And everywhere the lichen spread, clawing its way across the concrete, hungry and unforgiving. Strange, to understand so suddenly how much will outlive us. And strange then to walk out again later, back into the fast, dumb world of forgetting, to live as usual, anyway. I wanted to sit on the ground by the lighthouse and tremble, but we hardly stopped walking. How rare, to be so totally uprooted by the truth of your own species, so brutal and temporary. How rare, but how utterly overwhelming. The signs – ‘DANGER: Unexploded Ordnance’, the shingle overrun with unminding hares. Blasted metal rusting everywhere, like so many fists rammed into the earth. The first Environmental Protection Act for the Ness was written in the 1400s – what have we learned? What have we done? Will it be enough?
01.01.16 / 01.01.14 – Revisiting Past Ghosts
I’ve always been a terrible one for stagnation, so I suppose it was especially important to kick this new year into motion both mentally and physically. Forced myself onto a 31 far too early for the majority of Edinburgh, driver included. Travelled the length of Prince’s Street and enjoyed it for the first time – everything was shuttered, dark, and ghostly in the early morning, and the empty toy-town German market made it feel less like the city I know and like some weird spliced dream landscape collaged by my subconscious. Except for the vomit, I’d never dream that up, nothing like the bodily excretions of 80,000 inebriated humans to stop you romanticising life to death. Today’s been 99% beautiful though. Candle-lit churches echoing with ambient electronic music; Scottish folk songs sung by all; cuddle against the war ( v. important); friends; the way the light faded against the spires of the city so that they loomed large and black and I couldn’t think of anything else. I suppose what I realised is that I’ve lived this last year as if dictated by some OCR mark scheme. Weight, grades, experience – numbers, tick boxes, Assessment Objectives. Everything’s been horribly, robotically arbitrary. I needed that reminder that it’s enough to gaze upon the world and to take pleasure from it, or to make pleasure from it (n.b. romanticising life to death). I’m re-reading Infinite Jest at the moment, just come to that line ‘everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks on it’. My only real desire for 2014 is for that to be true for myself.
I’m subtly hungover and the world is throbbingly beautiful to me today, for the first time in months. Maybe this is all I needed – soft sheets; to wake up lemur-eyed with make-up, not exhaustion; Lana Del Rey playing over everything as I walked back through the rain-gilded London streets. Lana describes it exactly, the feeling I know best, of being a bruise at the mercy of world’s softest touches, how to be that little-bit-wounded lets you catch the capability of everything to move in cycles of pain and relief. Perhaps it’s the hangover speaking; I am not trying to valorise this. The problem, as ever, is that it’s so hard to remain on the safe side of harmed. The night comes in flashes that I feel with haptic sensitivity. White clink of empty glasses, blood of christ spilt on the tablecloth, rooms of oak, the overwhelming scent of the four bodies I hugged goodbye. The way the street lamps lit the wet paths like an x-ray of the city’s bones. I let this wash over like music until it ends. Alchemical, but we never got to the gold. The tube’s red and white fanged smile, the consuming roar of all that emptiness. The relief, upon resurfacing, that this was only a rehearsal for forever.
Why do I publish my diary in a single stream? To prove there is no single ‘I’.
Why do I publish my diary? Because there is.
Yesterday night, for the second time in a month, I found myself crying on Waterloo Bridge, overwhelmed by the playground of neon light as it bursts open and glints and hangs suspended in the darkness. Moments before, I’d been on the top floor of the National Theatre at the press screening of Sally Cookson’s new Jane Eyre adaptation (which is so beautifully wrought in places; slightly weaker in others) and was just overwhelmed by the fact that these are, if things go well, my penultimate in London. For twenty three years this place has been my trampoline: somewhere to bounce back to and from as I wish it. But recently I’ve felt less cushioned by this place and more like I’m thrashing against a brick wall, a brick wall made up of the lunches out, exhibitions, films I can’t afford. A brick wall of impersonality that I never noticed until living in Scotland, the kind I find so draining now that I’ve lost my tolerance for it. I’m scared of building up a new tolerance, of forgetting to say thank you, or of ever choosing not to give up my underground seat for someone who better needs it. I’m sure in my bones that it’s time for these bones to move on. But then nights like the last happen, where a thousand interiors sparkle like diamonds reflected back up in the waters of the Thames, where palm trees of blue light stretch over Hungerford Bridge, where the magnificent Oxo building waves across at me and tugs at my heart and freezes me in time until I can’t imagine ever being without it. I must remember the old nomad’s adage: that you’re never without your own mind, and your mind is big enough for an unimaginable forest of cities, real and imagined alike. That you only forget what your body needs to forget. But, standing there in the warm September wind, the taste of press olives on my tongue, I felt my heart constrict and constrict. And constrict.
I have such a blind faith that the right books will come to me at the right time, and the world so rarely disappoints. August began with Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up The Ghost, and the passage that struck me most was that one where she talked about how geological metaphors for the past make it difficult for us to trust ourselves, how we assume the distant past is buried deepest, when in fact it’s more like a ‘spreading, limitless room’, or a ‘great plain’. And from here I read and saw Anne Carson’s Antigone, a play that probes our relationship with the earth as a site of memory by examining the emotions and customs surrounding burial. And Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was A Child I Read Books, and how the application of geological metaphors concerning how stone weakens when different types are mixed to the issue of immigration; about how the failure to understand that humans aren’t rocks has impacted upon our understanding of diversity as weakness. And later Rebecca Solnit’s bruisingly beautiful A Field Guide To Getting Lost, and the pull that past and future landscapes have on us. And now the harrowingly beautiful Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces has brought me full circle in its tale of the geologist who rescues the young Jewish boy from a Nazi raid, and takes him from Poland to Greece, and from Greece to Toronto: across languages, landscapes, and families. From the first scene at Biskupin, a drowned city that was once a thriving ancient settlement, we’re introduced to the idea of the earth as a slate, consistently wiping itself clean of human history and memory in the most disinterested manner. Whole Jewish settlements are blown into the sea, and the earth doesn’t howl but swallows them whole, leaving the sea to sing its longing to the living. We use earth to tally lives with graves, we use it to undo time by strata-ing the generations of dead in family plots. Complex, complex. The earth holds so much. These books, these women. I don’t know how this happens, these daisy chains of thought placed into my hands, but I’m so grateful for it. For all of it.
21.08.15 – Revisiting the past
Extracts from diary 19/01/15
By the third month of living away – of living alone – I began to feel the blurring of edges that made me switch to verbs like ‘haunting’ when I wrote of my time in Paris. One of the oldest unsolved questions in philosophy is whether an object exists when it is not being looked at or considered. Typically these objects are inanimate, unthinking – chairs, tables, ovens, loaves of bread. But in December, lonely, alone, and in a twelve-week exclusive dialogic relationship with the voice of my self-conscious, I began to wonder if I had ceased to be real in any meaningful way. When you draw an object, you can draw attention to it by outlining its shape, or by shading the negative space around the object. I looked around at Paris, its sparkling bright air and its wide boulevards photographed by so many thousands each day, and realised I had come to believe only in the truth of the negative space around me, actualised by so many other pairs of eyes. I was a ghost of Paris; its lonely unreal spectre.
In under eleven hours I will be on a boat, alone, shooting back over the white waters I always thought were boiling as a child to the ragged streets of London which seem, from this desk in this house by the sea, so remote in my memory it’s as if I collaged them out of the thinnest strips of paper. Hilary Mantel made me cry three times this afternoon, but in the best way: weeping out of recognition, ‘like a moth at the light of meaning’. These days memoirs are all I want to read, all these women I want to thrust my mind up against in some desperate search forsense and for some measure of comfort. Mantel warns her readers, ‘You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led; all houses are haunted.’ I feel this deeply as I type this now, the ghosts of a hundred futures, not pasts, not yet, stood in front of me, calling me simultaneously to New York, Cambridge, and always to Edinburgh. Did I tell you I’m sitting my GRE? Sitting it soon. But now I need to cast my eyes and bones forward, to see what past is worth these passings – of tests, of borders, of lovers. In a few minutes, the clock on this laptop will pass 23:59, and another day will be birthed into being through an accident of numerics. So much of how we live is according to rules and regulations we never picked, like how the child’s body and mind is never its own, a slave to the whims and wills of parents who dreamed of another chance to get things right. Anyway I want to start breaking rules. To accept my life as a narrative I’m spinning as I go along out of the most meagre and unrelated of events. I seek no best fit line, but the catastrophic sublimity of the anomalous constellation. The border time seems the perfect moment to spell this promise into will. I can, I must, do things my way. And welcome my ghosts as they come.
in the middle of hotel world there’s a passage where penny and elspeth are peering into houses at night, looking hungrily into the radiant squares of backlit windows and thinking about how lonely it must be to be on the inside, blind to all this dark outer life; people faced only with their own reflections when they gaze out on a world infinitely large and layered in its complexity. i spent yesterday in a field in the rolling verdant hills of the kent countryside, carrying food on giant silver trays i could barely lift without my forearms shuddering. penny (another penny) and i bore one of these trays together up a tree-lined path of rickety stone steps until we reached a manor house, working on the instructions of our bosses who asked us to win the affections of the manor family, so that they might want us back in the future, for a grand old array of weddings so similar they’ll all blend into one big line like the chains of identical paper people you cut out as a child. we’d never had to approach a house with so many gardens and doors, and we didn’t know which we should use, and ended up picking the side entrance just because it looked similar enough to the servants’ entrances in all the romantic film adaptations i’ve ever seen to make it plausible. depressingly, we were right. anyway, in the time it took for the family to traverse the length of their enormous house (and it really was l a r g e), i peered in through every window i could crane my neck to reach: libraries, plural; a study; an enormous oak-benched dining table. in one of the libraries a lady and a child were playing with two small puppies, laughing in delight, surrounded by more books than i’ve ever seen in a domestic environment in the most beautiful lines of oak bookcases. then a girl younger than us bounced over and answered the door in a perfect Home Counties accent – the sort of accent i can’t help but capitalise, because the speech almost seems to illustrate capitalisations with all its clipped perfection – and she was flanked by two perfect golden retrievers, and she thanked us for the food and took it like normal, looking surprised when we told her she could keep the tray, as if she’d never even thought it wasn’t a possibility. i don’t know, maybe it was hunger – we hadn’t eaten since 10, and here was someone taking a platter of marinated chicken and halloumi and vegetable skewers and racks of ribs and calamari salads and so on like it was a dominos delivery – but i kept turning hotel world so bitterly over in my mind. what kind of loneliness is it, to be surrounded by such a life? by cricket pavilions in your garden, and fields of cows, and libraries and endless fluffy dogs. who’d miss anything else? the loneliness is all on those looking in. those the servant’s door closes on after five minutes. what power is in the gaze, if the gaze is hungry and the food’s indoors? oh ali, help me find this beautiful after all.
People loved, when I first packed my sweaters into my suitcases last December, to repeat that line to me: ‘you can’t go home again!’; but of course you can and, if you were never that happy there to begin with, the change is in fact relatively minimal. The same child lock holds the heavy white windows to a maximum of 45 degrees, and the walk to the shops past the village duckpond still takes ninety-two steps if you’re not scurrying in the rain. I haven’t grown a centimetre since I left. I still sleep with the book I’m reading tucked under my pillow like a secret. I still tidy every night, so that whatever I’m feeling bounces back at me from a clean wall and doesn’t get sucked in by the clothes I’d leave lying about in porous heaps. I am more or less fine, and no more or less lonely than I was. This bed is still my softest to date.
No, the oddest moments come not from having returned, but from meeting those that never left. Leaning against the railing behind the cashpoint yesterday, I watched the back of a girl I sat behind a decade and a half ago in the village school. Her dress was beautiful, a silky midnight blue full skirt replete with heavy pleats, and she was smiling as she ran over to her mother’s car. I don’t know what about her did it, what punctum plucked my heartstrings to such a maudlin tune, but I was reminded suddenly, forcefully, of my own strangeness – the way that this village, with its thatch, one shop, three restaurants, and convenient underground access, is enough for so many. So many, but not myself. How not everyone needs to run five hundred miles to mature. How other people don’t live out of suitcases and call it a religion. How, when people ask me ‘where’s home’ after hearing a wee bit of my tie-dye accent, I don’t even know how to answer anymore. I should feel like a worldy woman, and I feel like a child. This morning I saw a lady I remember from my playground days holding a loaf of fresh bread at her hip and smiling as she walked, three crows soaring overhead. Out here I look, and look, and look. What am I looking for?
I haven’t really been able to do anything lately except listen to ‘the only thing’ on repeat and stare at black & white hungarian photographs until i start to fall into the different gradients of light (for reference: Imre Kinszki’s Morning Light and Tibor Csörgeó’s Sparta (Hoop III), all those shadows sneaking up on their people, all these symmetrical doubles haunting each other in soft touch perfection). I sort of feel like everything has its ghost at the moment. I keep seeing all these photographs of everyone in the exact pose I was in this time last year, black buckets bottoms up and bottles of water littering the floor in the background. I’m so happy for everyone graduating this year but this kind of thing sort of just underwrites the whole anxiety that we’re all just pages of the great six-hundred-year flip-book of st andrews. but really we are. It took me more years than i studied there to realise that university was never about building myself into the town but building it up inside me, in the black cavernous infinite interiority of myself. a new memory bottle to store away in the great dusty wine cellar of Matilda. I’m looking at white bow ties for my love at the moment ready for his graduation day and I keep pausing on the ‘buy’ button because I can’t get past the feeling that I’m dressing him up to send him out into the first day of the rest of his forever. A whole year ahead of this saga, I’m keeping my mouth firmly shut as to what this forever has come to mean to me. It’s not for me to paint out any rainbows. To patch over any spills.
The tube cracks time like a broken bulb: you’ll never quite piece it together again. Which is why the reel of my evening runs back like a series of short films, with these hot dark static roaring pauses like someone changed the channel on an old analogue TV. Lighting a candle in San Pietro’s chiesa while the elderly nuns sang in Italian like a choir of frogs. The woman in the park in a velvet suit eating frankfurters quickly and furtively one after another out of a tesco bag, head craned down like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. Crushing our atoms together hand into hand and locking them into place with the linked spiked chain of our fingers, oh my bostonian partner in crime, light bathing like wingspread swifts in summer or the cold white angels that guard graveyards. Sometimes in the depths of that dark underground tunnel I imagine what’s above, all those people and buildings I’m not seeing but rushing past like an arrow like a swift like a cold swift arrow time fired just to say it was passing and I can’t help it, I shut my eyes and fall deep into that cold endless interiority that has me wondering how many heartbreaks I’m hurtling past and summoning up the day’s violent light like a votive prayer to help me pass into this next stop unpunished. So I polish up the diamonds of the day until I lose the rest. Fair’s fair. Some stones must drop. The goddamn darkroom of my heart gets me into trouble so often but some things are worth it. Some things are worth this burning press of light.
God, this society throws appearance critiques at women with all the casualness of tourists flinging coins over their shoulders into the Trevi fountain – their evil inversion. No wishes here, just the mess of millions of human dart-boards oh-so-s l o w l y deflating. And every time the men in my life call me vain for body checking I’m just propelled forward by the heartroar injustice of it all. In the stories, the lone voice of the future rattling around Cassandra’s weary head is enough to send her mad. And we get the absolute raging contradictory cacophony of hundreds of voices of the present, all day, every day – a shout from the reclining woman on the bus advert reminding us to look sexy, but not too sexy; from a dad or a teacher or a judge or a policeman or whoever reminding us to be demure or face the consequences; the lines of boyfriends or boys or builders or whatever reminding us to look happy, and thin, and always, always available. And white, please, too, if you can. And young, please, too, if you can. I’ve absorbed so many voices and images across the membrane of my mind that i’m overwhelmed – I can’t see what i look like, not really; I’m always surprised by whatever this thing is reflected back at me. Always trying to smooth down her edges.
I don’t know what the purpose of this writing is. I’m not adding anything to human understanding, saying anything that’s unsaid. I just want to link my words and my arms with those of every other girl in the world and form some kind of protective chalk circle that smashes all the world’s mirrors – physical mirrors, and those oh-so-sneaky mirrors within the eyes, the ones Hans Christian Anderson talks about that makes your heart cold to the games and loves and warm looks of others. The shape of your soul is beautiful, whatever it is, whoever you are. Fuck, I just want you all to know that.