Zen and the Art of Relationship Maintenance; or, the Death of Mr. Whiskers

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance uses the notion of taxonomy to uncover the disintegration of its protagonist’s mind, how his motorcycle fits together and how an understanding of the mechanics of the bike is fundamental to maintaining it correctly. Taxonomy as applied to animals (and those that live in the sea in particular) is often traced back to Aristotle’s Historia Animaliam and the so-called Ladder of Nature as applied to ‘cosmic structure’ in The Timaeus, and certainly we can see two tidy minds at work here.[1] Pirsig is  interested in ideas of order and disorder, but I think Zen is also a book about being a competent grown-up and what that means, primarily in relationship to technology. Here, I want to think about what that means in relationship to other people and how we categorise ideas and behaviours in relationships.

The opening pages of Zen consist mainly of Phaedrus describing the relationship his friends John and Sylvia have with technology. The novel describes a fundamental disagreement between Phaedrus, John and Sylvia on how much one should maintain one’s motorcycle oneself and all other kit, by extension:

It seems natural and normal to me to make use of the small tool kits and instruction booklets supplied with each machine, and keep it tuned and adjusted myself. John demurs. He prefers to let a competent mechanic take care of these things so that they are done right.[2] […] I could preach the practical value and worth of motorcycle maintenance till I’m hoarse and it would not make a dent in him […] He doesn’t want to hear about it.

Sylvia is completely with him on this one. In fact, she is even more emphatic. “It’s just a whole other thing,” she says, when in a thoughtful mood. […] They want not to understand it. Not to hear about it.[3]

I suggest that John and Sylvia don’t want their broken motorcycles to be fixed by a mechanic because they want it ‘done right’, but because they want it done by someone else. Phaedrus gives us another example of a dripping tap. John attempts to fix it and fails. They don’t call a plumber and they don’t ask anyone else for help: they just put up with the drip. To use the terminology of the book, they wish to use technology, but they do not wish to maintain it.

I listen to a lot of podcasts, and thus am being regularly hassled by an oft-repeated, faux-spontaneous ad for a podcast called GrownUpLand, which is premised upon the idea that being a grown-up is both baffling and dull, and that the listeners require help with the identity crisis that Getting Older will inevitably produce in them. The very first episode is entitled ‘What does it take to be a grown-up?’ and the ‘welcome to’ episode includes the quite startling statement that “an out-of-hand dinner party for me consists of cracking into their parents’ port” (surely grown-ups host dinner parties in their own houses? Surely grown-ups buy their own port?) and a listener asking for suggestions of a tattoo he could get specifically to piss his parents off.

The response to this is from a Syrian refugee, who suggests that the listener tries being stateless as a way to distract his parents from his tattoo, and so I want to be clear here that, while I have no intention of listening to something I feel about a hundred years too old for, I am not finding fault with this podcast specifically, but rather the broader social trend that it both represents and feeds upon. I reject wholeheartedly the notion that being a grown-up is something we should resist or mourn. I have always been desperate to have as much autonomy as humanly possible. I wanted to own my own home, work hard at a job and earn an income that I could spend exactly as I saw fit (i.e. on food and books). I craved control, and I craved responsibility.

75b
Not the mug for me.

Adulthood, in other words, was something I could not wait for because being a grown-up means taking responsibility for all your decisions. Secondly, I was also pretty sure that being a grown-up meant, in some sense, being concomitantly more capable. I therefore looked to people who were already grown-ups for ideas of what being a competent adult might look like. It may seem that I have wandered away from Pirsig’s novel, but no:

[John and Sylvia] talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about ‘it’ or ‘it all’, as in the sentence ‘There is just no escape from it all’. And if I asked, ‘From what?’, the answer might be ‘The whole thing’, or ‘The whole organised bit’.[4]

John and Sylvia, who own a home and have several children (and thus unquestionably are adults) do not want to be adults. More broadly, the people who protest about ‘having to adult’ or who congratulate themselves on social media for ‘good adulting’ because they managed to feed themselves and put the bins out on the same day do not want to be adults; that’s why they are using ‘adult’ as a verb rather than a noun, as if it is something you do rather than something you are. I do want to be an adult, and I think the tension between those two positions comes from a difference of opinion about what being an adult should involve.

We might relate some of these ideas to relationships, and particularly sexual relationships (those with so-called ‘adult’ content, perhaps). I expected my ability to look after myself to keep pace with the level of independence I was granted, and I have consistently suggested to students with questions about relationships and sex that feeling ready for a relationship or a particular sexual experience should prompt self-reflection about the relevant relationship skills and notions of consent. If you feel ready to ask that nice woman on the bus to have coffee with you, you should also be asking yourself whether you feel ready for her to say “no, but thanks for asking”.[5] In other words, if you are big enough to ask for something, you should also be big enough to be denied it, and to take that denial in a calm, grown-up fashion.[6] I felt adulthood would be a time of feeling competent, including within relationships. Surely, I thought, one of the reasons Young People were actively discouraged from having sex and other Adult Activities was that we/they were judged to be too immature to do them properly. Such things are for people who are older and therefore by definition more competent. The flaw with this otherwise sound reasoning is that people do not necessarily become more competent as they age. GrownUpLand rests on the idea that we reach peak competence well below the threshold that would allow us to have fully functioning adult lives, and then we just continue to age, becoming steadily more baffled by the bewildering, boring tasks maturity requires us to perform.

Esther Perel’s book about sex in long-term relationships Mating in Captivity also makes a link between adulthood and dullness. Where Pirsig divides schools of thought into romantic and classical, Perel uses the terms ‘romantic’ and ‘realist’:

The romantics refuse a life without passion; they swear that they’ll never give up on true love. […] Every time desire does wane, they conclude that love is gone. If eros is in decline, love must be on its deathbed. They mourn the loss of excitement and fear settling down.

At the opposite extreme are the realists. They say that enduring love is more important than hot sex, and that passion makes people do stupid things. It’s dangerous, it creates havoc, and it’s a weak foundation for marriage. In the immortal words of Marge Simpson, “Passion is for teenagers and foreigners.” For the realists, maturity prevails.[7]

In other words, as we grow older, we also become disappointed, sad and boring. As Hilary Mantel has it in an early novel, ‘You feel, surely there’s more to life than this. But there isn’t, and it [the feeling] passes off.’ No wonder we need cheery podcasts to help us navigate these dreary waters. Perel notices how popular culture tries to prepare us for this decline. She says, ‘the volatility of passionate eroticism is expected to evolve into a more staid, stable, and manageable alternative: mature love’ and argues that this is the natural result of believing that ‘[d]iminishing desire is inescapable’.[8] Louis de Bernières writes in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin that ‘Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away’[9], a sentiment I could not disagree with more. So, while passion might initiate a relationship, it cannot sustain it. Rather, the passion, phoenix-like, must be destroyed so that the couple can then sift through the ashes of their eroticism to see what is left (“oh look, darling – years of arguing about the washing-machine! And is that your mother under that bit of charred pillowcase?”). Add to this how our culture continually positions both love and lust as things that are fundamentally for young people with firm bodies and no responsibilities, and the link between maturity and sexless, passionless boredom is complete. Of course we no longer have sex with each other![10] We’re old! Nobody wants to have sex with old people, including other old people! Evenings that used to be taken up with frantic, tender sex are now to be given over to discussion of the compost bin. Knickers will be flung into the laundry basket rather than over the bannisters. Sofas upon which we once clasped one another with vigour and intent are now places to sit calmly, discussing the relative health of our house plants and planning the euthanasia of our parents.

As a society, we fetishize youth, and we fetishize novelty. Rather than patiently seeking new ways to explore a relationship with one another as it grows deeper and richer with the passing of time, we are, therefore, led to believe that a relationship (and certainly a marriage) will inevitably hit problems that the couple will be unable to solve, and demand compromises they are reluctant to make. One will, then, be faced with a choice: living alone; a revolving door of new partners, each one re-booting one’s sense of desire; or staying with the same boring old person, partly because by the time you realise how miserable you both are, disentangling yourselves will be both complex and expensive, but also because that’s what adults do: ‘[y]ou are expected to tough it out and grow up’.[11] Thus are we sold the myth that the longer a relationship lasts, the duller it will be.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I suggest that the passage of time is not the cause of this decline, but rather poor relationship skills and unhelpful, normalised expectations. I include here both expectations that are too high (expecting to feel the same butterflies in your stomach when your husband comes home from work on a wet Wednesday as you did on your first date) and too low (thinking that the aforementioned lack of butterflies means that you no longer fancy your husband and that this is just what happens). Here is my theory, combining some of Perel’s ideas with Pirsig’s notion of an ‘intellectual scalpel’ and the Aristotelian notion that there is power in both taxonomy and calling ‘each thing by its right name’, as Pasternak has it. The activities that constitute a relationship (any relationship) can be divided into two categories, which I’m going to call Joy and Maintenance. Joy refers to the intrinsic i.e. things you choose to do purely for pleasure: dating (whatever that means for you); sexual encounters; conversation about things that interest you; any other activities and hobbies that you do simply for pleasure. Maintenance refers to the extrinsic i.e. things you have to do in order for your lives to function: paying bills, going to work, doing housework etc. (see Iron Get Hot Now for the division of labour favoured in the Filthy Comma/Giant Bear household). I’m using the word ‘maintenance’ because of Zen, but also because it carries connotations of necessity and regularity that I think are helpful here. However, we might just as easily use ‘admin’ (or, if we really can’t go five minutes without repurposing perfectly good words, ‘adulting’). The activities I am filing under Joy don’t necessarily always fill us with joy, and there are of course some activities (e.g. a family wedding) that could go either way. Similarly, admin doesn’t have to be dull. I am dividing Joy from Maintenance in terms of intention, then, rather than whether it turns out to be enjoyable. This is emphatically not ‘joy=joyful; maintenance=dull’, but rather ‘joy=things that are intended to be fun; maintenance=things that are necessary’. We don’t have to have sex: we choose to do so, because it is intended to be fun. Even if you spend the afternoon having sex that is, for some reason not enjoyable (e.g. wasp), sex is still classed under Joy. Similarly, we have to go to work: we agree to do so because it is administratively necessary. Thus, even if you enjoy your job enormously (and I sincerely hope that you do), it is still classed under Maintenance.

The opening chapters of a relationship usually consist almost entirely of Joy. We go on dates; we make meeting for a coffee last four hours; we have sexual encounters; we meet each other’s friends. We spend time together because we want to spend time together. There is very little admin to be done, beyond arranging to be in the same place at the same time, and so we are using our partner’s ability to Be Good At Fun Stuff as the primary criterion for choosing to continue the relationship. We probably have very little idea whether they are any good at admin yet, because each partner is taking care of their own stuff. I suggest that my hypothetical couple (let’s call them Sandy and Lee so that they can be any gender) and all their friends would find it perfectly reasonable for the relationship to come to an end because there was a problem with the Joy: the sex was patchy or they didn’t like the same books, say. These friends would not, I suggest, be as supportive if Lee ended the relationship on the grounds that Sandy refuses to carry a wallet, doesn’t understand how to use an iron and can’t be trusted to pick up dinner on the way home, but that’s not going to happen in these early stages, because Lee doesn’t know any of that yet. Notice that the first set of examples suggests people living in their own spaces, pursuing their own goals and spending time together as and when they can fit it around their other activities, while the second set suggests a couple sharing a living space, a fridge and probably a joint account. This is because the balance between Joy and Maintenance shifts, subtly but inexorably, the longer a relationship goes on.

In the early stages, then, Sandy and Lee simply enjoy each other. Lee, who is a generous lover, never forgets a birthday and bakes the best ginger cake Sandy has ever eaten, won’t later leave the relationship because Sandy ceases to be fun. Sandy hasn’t ceased to be fun. Sandy has simply continued to suck at admin. Similarly, in the early stages of the relationship, Lee found it endearing that Sandy continually confuses June with July, doesn’t keep a diary and can’t understand money, because at that point what kept Lee in the relationship was the fact that Sandy is funny, gentle and covered in freckles – but Lee will care about these things very much once they move in together and buy a cat. Both Sandy and Lee love Mr. Whiskers, and Mr. Whiskers appears to love them both equally. It is, however, mostly Sandy that plays with Mr. Whiskers and buys him endless treats and toys (Joy), while mostly Lee takes him to the vet, buys the catfood and feeds him (Maintenance).

Being bad at Maintenance kills relationships. It kills them far more often and more thoroughly than being bad at Joy, because the likelihood that someone who is bad at Joy will be in a relationship for more than a few weeks is so low. The admin gradually ramps up as their lives become more tightly entwined, as does the need for the admin to be done promptly and well. Lee gradually does more and more of the admin because Sandy isn’t any good at it, and by the time Sandy remembers a regular admin task needs to be done (putting out the recycling, say), Lee has often already done it, promptly and efficiently, but resentfully.[12] They might try to manage this by each choosing discrete areas of responsibility, but Sandy (who really sucks at admin) can’t seem to do their tasks without being reminded several times by Lee, who is now forced into a role of not doing the admin, but project managing the admin. Lee and Sandy might even phrase this to each other in terms of maturity (“it’s like living with a student”; “it’s like living with my mother” and so on). What ends the relationship, therefore, is not a lack of Joy, but rather a gradual, cumulative preponderance of undone Maintenance. This culminates in an horrendous week-long row about whose fault it is that neither of them took the keys round to the neighbours so that the neighbours could feed the cat while Sandy and Lee were on holiday. The final, relationship-ending row will appear to be about the emaciated cat, whose pathetic little face will haunt them both for years, but will in fact be about Sandy’s tacit expectation that Lee should take responsibility for admin because Sandy is horrible at it, and Lee’s resentment that Sandy leaves all the admin to Lee. “You didn’t love Mr. Whiskers at all,” they hiss at each other.

My point is that you have to be with someone for a decent length of time, and probably move in together, before you have any idea of whether they are any good at admin. This is, therefore, a leap in the dark, and may be a useful point at which to return to the label ‘maintenance’. Admin is boring, but it maintains the relationship. Bricks are boring, but they hold a house up; bread can be boring, but it doesn’t half hold a sandwich together. By the time Lee fully realises how much Sandy sucks at maintenance, they have been together for three years and living together for two. It feels far, far too late (and far, far too petty) to say, “Sandy, I really can’t stay in this relationship unless you treat the washing up with the seriousness it deserves”, and so Lee doesn’t say it. Instead, a new era of tense, repetitive, mean little arguments ensues, revolving around chores that neither partner particularly wants to do, but which are necessary for the household to function. This is what people mean by ‘the little things’, but these things are not little: they are dull. The relationship circles these tedious issues like water trying to drain past a clogged plughole. There is never quite enough energy to dislodge the metaphorical slice of onion or mushy rice, but neither is there a sincere attempt made to really scrutinise how those things got there in the first place (spoiler alert: poor admin).

What makes a relationship work in the long-term, therefore (I suggest) is both people in the relationship working hard at both Joy and Maintenance. Consider Perel’s other book The State of Affairs and Chapter 10 of Mating in Captivity, in which she argues (among other things) that infidelity arises partly out of asking too much of a single person, expecting our chosen partner to fulfil all of our needs: ‘once we have found “the one”, we will need no one else’.[13] Asking one person to be all things to you is unfair and likely to lead to disappointment, as well as probably causing the partners to spend an unhealthy amount of time together, becoming bored and frustrated. The way the relationship is being run is what is creating the boredom, but it is easy to see why both people involved might mistakenly draw the conclusion that it is their partner they need to change, rather than their behaviour. Perel says,

the disenchanted opt for divorce or affairs not because they question the institution [of marriage], but because they think they chose the wrong person. […] Next time they’ll choose better.[14]

I also suggest that an affair may also seem appealing because, much like the start of a new relationship, an affair is light on maintenance and heavy on joy. That’s the whole point of an affair: spontaneous, short-lived and passionate, we expect it to burn itself out before any maintenance is required.

Let’s go back to the beginning of Lee and Sandy’s relationship, when they spent their time having sex, talking and enjoying their shared love of West German cinema. The time they spent on admin (if any) revolved around who would replenish the KY jelly, what time Sandy would pick Lee up so they could go away for the weekend and whose flat they would be staying at that night. All those tasks are certainly admin, but they all also hold an erotic charge: Joyful Maintenance, if you will. Let’s now run the tape forward to a few days before Sandy and Lee take their ill-fated holiday: a holiday they are taking specifically because “we never see each other”, and which they set off on with light hearts, casually locking the cat in the house with the spare keys (each under the impression that the main set have been left with the neighbours by the other) and waving goodbye to Mr. Whiskers from the back seat of the taxi. At this point, their lives now involve a tremendous quantity of admin, generated by the fact that they now share a home and a cat. There is also a qualitative difference from the admin they did as single people, and in the early stages of their relationship. Lee is paying their bills, ironing their clothes and checking the cat for ticks; Sandy is taking out the bins, cooking hurried dinners and trying to remember why Lee thought it was important for Sandy to balance the chequebook. The admin is not sexy anymore. Moreover, because Sandy sucks at admin, and because neither Sandy nor Lee has figured out a way to deal with Sandy sucking at admin, the admin is taking up a lot more space in their lives than it needs to. In other words, rather than being able to get the Maintenance out of the way early on and then get onto some Joy (as we might see in the first conversation below), Joy is squeezed out.

Lee: Hello, darling. Did you remember to pick up the dry-cleaning?
Sandy: Yes, and I put it away in the wardrobe when I got home.
Lee: Thanks for doing that. Shall we watch a film tonight? <civilised conversation ensues about the work of Werner Herzog>

Lee: Hello, darling. Did you remember to pick up the dry-cleaning?
Sandy: SHIT THE BINS.
Lee: You forgot?
Sandy: Yes.
Lee: Again?
Sandy: I had a really hectic day.
Lee: I reminded you twice.
Sandy: I know. I’m really sorry.
Lee: Why the hell do I have to do everything? <argument ensues, with both Sandy and Lee thinking throughout how much they fucking hate dry-cleaning and how they would each happily eat an entire suit if it meant they would never have to argue about the dry-cleaning ever again>

In such an atmosphere, it’s not difficult to imagine Lee having an affair, finding a thrill in the irresponsibility of putting the relationship at risk after being forced to take on far more responsibility than Lee really wanted. Affairs do include some admin, of course (those lies don’t just write themselves), but crucially the admin has become sexy again. For someone like Lee who is good at admin, the kick Lee gets out of having an illicit relationship at all is supported by the smaller (but in some ways more powerful) kick Lee gets from successfully concealing the affair. Sandy will never notice, Lee thinks. This just goes to show how little Sandy knows me, etc.

It’s also not difficult to imagine Sandy having an affair, with (say) a colleague, easily fitted around Sandy’s already chaotic schedule without Lee noticing. In fact, although Lee is more discontented with the situation than Sandy, it’s Sandy who is more likely to stray in some ways. For one thing, Lee is too busy. For another, as Perel says, ‘excessive monitoring’ (which may well be how Sandy interprets Lee’s constant reminders) can push a person into ‘transgressions that establish psychological distance from an overbearing relationship. […] Trouble looms when monogamy is no longer a free expression of loyalty, but a form of enforced compliance.’ [15] Sandy finds an attractive new colleague ‘less anal’ than Lee and revels in naughty takeaways and flirting over the photocopier while working late. Sandy turns this new colleague over in their mind, paying even less attention to admin while in the grip of various fantasy encounters. Sandy’s new colleague doesn’t know Sandy is in a relationship, partly because Sandy never seems to run any of the errands one might expect to see done by someone in a long-term relationship (do your fucking admin, Sandy!), and partly because Sandy and Lee are spending so little time together at home, which is now less a shared home and more of a backdrop to their latest admin-based row. Sandy’s situation quickly escalates into flirtatious emails, groping in corridors and eventually hurried, partially-dressed sex in a slovenly flat. When these things are over, Sandy simply says, “see you tomorrow” and leaves, without anyone nagging about washing up or demanding an update on the cat’s bowel movements. Perel says, describing a harassed wife, ‘[she] can feel like a woman again; her lover knows nothing about the broken Lego set or the plumber who failed to show up for the second time.’[16] When Sandy gets home, Lee asks why Sandy is putting work ahead of their relationship and lists the tasks Lee has had to do in Sandy’s absence. “You never spend any time with me or Mr. Whiskers,” Lee might say. Lee is no fun anymore, Sandy thinks. This just goes to show how little Lee knows me.

Chris Kraus’s baffling, tedious book I Love Dick is relevant here. I know the book is, according to the blurb on the back ‘the most important feminist novel of the past two decades’, but I hated it with the fire of a thousand suns and since I only want to use it to illustrate a brief point here, I really can’t bring myself to read it a third time solely to unpack why I found it so unbearable. For my immediate purposes, I’m leaving the relative merits of the book itself aside and just considering the notion that it rests upon, which is that an affair is inherently interesting.[17] We know Kraus thinks this is so because literally nothing else happens: the entire book is three people in a love triangle talking to each other about the fact that they are in a love triangle. Kraus has 250 pages of things to say about an affair that takes a hundred pages to get past first base, at which point the marriage is over and so technically not an affair anyway. Chris and Sylvère (the central married couple) have an extraordinary amount to say to each other, too (‘Was the conceptual fuck merely the first step? For the next few hours [HOURS], Chris and Sylvère discuss this’).[18] I Love Dick relies on the idea that an affair (any affair, including a conceptual one i.e. one that will have bored the arse off the reader long before the people in question get round to having sex) is exciting, daring and endlessly interesting, but actually the affair the book describes is none of those things. The three people involved find themselves in a love triangle because they lack both relationship skills and boundaries. They certainly have no idea what it is they hope to get out of either relationship, other than a breath-takingly self-indulgent book (‘We never have any fun together,’ she [Chris] sighed into the phone. Sylvere replied gruffly: ‘Oh. Fun. Is that what it’s supposed to be about?’).[19]

None of these affairs make sense, particularly when we remind ourselves that the problem Sandy and Lee have with each other is not sexual, but administrative. What they have created, in effect, is a yin-and-yang set of relationships. The relationship Sandy and Lee have with each other is now almost entirely admin. Boring, boring admin. Perel quotes D.H. Lawrence at the start of Mating in Captivity, speaking of ‘the great cage of our domesticity’, and it is the meshing together of Sandy’s life with Lee’s, the crushing burden of cumulative admin and Sandy’s inability to do their share that locks the two of them together, making them feel old, bored and boring.[20] This side of the ying-yang circle is leavened with a tiny spot of joy that reminds them they are still fond of each other and therefore just about keeps the pilot light flickering. On the other side, the relationships they each have with their respective lovers are almost entirely joy. Sexy, sexy joy. This keeps them apart, both literally and metaphorically, concealing their ‘other’ lives and allowing them to explore who they can be with another person: someone who feels dirty and conflicted, certainly, but also someone who feels young and desirable. This side of the circle is marked with a tiny spot of admin that is just enough to keep each affair concealed. Thus Sandy and Lee have achieved balance of a sort. Having sex with another person still seems counterintuitive, given that the sex Sandy and Lee have with each other is still good, but that’s not why they are doing it.

I imagined Sandy and Lee fighting for a week before Lee finally leaves, and that’s because I’m assuming it is during the fight about whose fault it is that the cat has died that one of them will let slip they have been having an affair. This will be devastating to the other party, primarily because of the breach of trust implied by sexual monogamy (joy-related trust, if you will). My argument here is that being trusted with the cat’s life (and failing to take care of it i.e. maintenance-related trust) feels very different to being trusted not to have sex with another person, but in terms of how small acts of fidelity and care add up over time (or, conversely, how failing to carry out similar small acts of maintenance wear away at a relationship over time), I think they are equivalent. As before, having sex with a co-worker is an entirely socially acceptable reason for ending a relationship, while forgetting to drop off the keys with a neighbour is not. This is partly because we have the vocabulary with which to describe sexual infidelity: ‘Lee was having an affair’, as opposed to ‘Sandy wasn’t any good at relationship maintenance’, which then has to be explained and backed up with half-a-dozen relevant examples before the long-suffering friend listening to this story is prepared to venture an opinion on whether Lee was right to leave.

My own view is that individual affairs can be interesting, both for the people involved in them and for those reading about fictional characters, but only if those people and/or characters are also interesting. For example, The Once and Future King does a beautiful job of showing all three points of a love triangle, in such a delicate and balanced way that a reader can hold sympathy for all three of them in their heart at the same time. That is because the three people involved are all complex, thoughtful and interesting. Each of them feels the pain of their situation and each of them both regrets it and feels powerless to resist it. Arthur even manages to feel sorry for his unfaithful wife and best friend, both of whom he continues to love with great sincerity and gentleness. He goes out of his way to preserve the fiction that he does not know they are betraying him and T.H. White’s handling of the currents of emotion between the three of them is extraordinary and exquisite. Meanwhile in I Love Dick, if ever a character deserves to be cheated on, it is pretentious, patronising Sylvère. Wordsworth speaks of the ‘dreary intercourse of daily life’[21] and of course he is talking about interactions in general rather than sexual intercourse, but truly, an affair is a fundamentally dreary response to a relationship being in a tough spot, particularly if the people involved are themselves dull as shit. There is something profoundly bratty about an affair. Childlike, we demand to have the mutually exclusive, and to be the mutually exclusive: spouse and lover, old and young, adult and adulterous. ‘Unfaithful spouse’ ought to be an oxymoron, but it isn’t. It is a commonplace. It is both the coward’s way out and no way out at all. An affair resolves nothing and interests nobody. What more predictable course of action could there be?

As I said, it doesn’t have to be this way. Relationship skills, patience, realistic expectations and being fucking grown-ups can, I suggest, allow us to flourish. As Wordsworth has it later on in the same poem, taking this stuff seriously can make it possible, ‘Through all the years of this our life, to lead / From joy to joy.’

———————————————————————————————————————–

[1] Armand Marie Leroi, The Lagoon: How Aristotle Invented Science (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p.277. See pp.101-104 for a discussion of Aristotle’s influence on Linnaeus and Cuvier, among others.

[2] It’s important to note that a few pages later, Phaedrus makes it clear that in fact many of the mechanics both he and John deal with are anything but competent.

[3] Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (London: Bodley Head, 1974), pp.10-12.

[4] Pirsig, p.16.

[5] Or, more specifically, anything other than “yippee!”. If you feel ready to ask your partner to strike you vigorously across the buttocks with a copy of Middlemarch (say), you should be prepared for responses spanning the full range from “yippee!” through “may I suggest a hardback copy of Robert Coover’s weird-arse novel Spanking the Maid as a more appropriate choice?” to “get out of my house”. See also Shake it all about for some further thoughts on the teaching of consent and the use of the phrase “no, but thanks for asking”.

[6] “Take it like a man”, as we used to say before we were fully aware of how patriarchy tells men that the word “no” is something they should only expect to hear from women who haven’t yet got with the programme.

[7] Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity: Sex, Lies and Domestic Bliss (London: HarperCollins, 2007), p.3.

[8] Perel, pp.201 and 3.

[9] I don’t have a page number for this because (i) it is in my mind after hearing the surrounding passage read at a recent wedding rather than because I read it in a book; and (ii) I don’t have a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin because I’m not in a ladies-only book group from the mid-1990s.

[10] ‘Because they [Chris and Sylvère] are no longer having sex, the two maintain their intimacy via deconstruction’. Oh, fuck off. Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 1997), p.6.

[11] Perel, p.3.

[12] Giant Bear and I regularly use the phrase ‘Shit the bins!’ as a shorthand for “I’ve just realised that I didn’t do a boring admin task I was supposed to be responsible for! On an unrelated matter, I now need to leave the room!”

[13] Perel, p.179.

[14] Perel, p.179.

[15] Perel, p.190.

[16] Perel, p.183.

[17] I have deliberately not offered a definition of what constitutes an affair, either from my own point of view or for Lee and Sandy. Chris and Sylvère agree that Chris failing to have sex with Dick in any way constitutes an affair (this is the ‘Conceptual Fuck’ mentioned above), but whatever your definition of infidelity might be, I doubt that an evening of watching a video of someone dressed as Johnny Cash and then falling asleep on their sofa bed next to your own spouse would count.

[18] Kraus, p.6.

[19] Krause, p.74.

[20] D.H. Lawrence, ‘Wild Things in Captivity’, line 7, as quoted in Perel, p.ix.

[21] William Wordsworth, line 132, ‘Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey’. Incomplete citation because as a general rule I don’t care for Wordsworth and won’t have him in the house. He also speaks of ‘The coarser pleasures of my boyish days / And their glad animal movements’, but let’s assume he means hiking.

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Sorry not sorry (or, neither a borrower nor a lender be)

I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books. This is because I agree with Stewart Lee that, whatever the merits of JK Rowling’s work (and no doubt there are many), fundamentally the Harry Potter books are children’s books. I am not a child, nor do I have any children to read them to. The first book was published when I was already too old for it; I was at an age when, among other things, Alias Grace, Knowledge of Angels, Madame Bovary, Great Expectations, Rites of Passage, Lolita and Jane Eyre were more satisfying to me. I also read the whole of Wordsworth’s Prelude and the preface to Lyrical Ballads. I loathe Wordsworth from the depths of my soul, and yet I read the whole of the Prelude and the preface to Lyrical Ballads, and then I read Lyrical Ballads itself and all the other stuff we were required to read for A-level English Literature, because we were asked to do so.[1] As you’ll see in a moment, a troubling sense of misplaced obligation looms large in my reading choices the moment other people get involved in them.

Despite being too old for a children’s book (and seventeen is far, far too old to be reading a children’s book. If you’re experimenting with sex, recreational drugs and Christianity by day, reading about a pre-pubescent wizard by night is downright perverted), several of my coevals apparently forgot that we were all very nearly grown-ups about to be unleashed upon the world of higher education. I was badgered regularly by a friend who had read Harry Potter and the Prisoner’s Dilemma and thought I should do the same. No, I said. There are far too many grown-up books I’d rather read. He said, you don’t want to read it because it’s too long. No, I said. I’ve read War and Peace, Life and Fate and The Name of the Rose. I’ve read all the books in The Fortunes of War sequence and all of A Dance to the Music of Time.[2] I like big books, and I cannot lie. He said, I haven’t heard of any of those books. Oh dear, I said. I should shut up about books if I were you. Well, he said, as the point of the conversation thundered by him like a hungry Megalosaurus, if you like big books, you’ll like Harry Potter and the Pottery of Harr. No, I said. I’m too old for it. I will find it childish, which is not a fair criticism to make of a children’s book, but I will feel that way nonetheless because I’m not a child. He said, don’t be silly. You’ve already decided to hate it. No, I said. I’ve already decided that I’m a grown-up, and this book is not for grown-ups. He said, there’s nothing wrong with adults reading children’s books. No, I said. There’s everything wrong with adults reading children’s books, unless you are reading them to a child. It reduces your attention span. It removes your ability to respond to intellectual challenges, long sentences and complex ideas. Reading is one of the great pleasures of human existence, and you are trying to take that away from me by making me a read a book that cannot possibly satisfy me and was never intended to. If I had read it as a child and had happy memories that might be re-captured by re-reading it (as one might expect from re-reading 101 Dalmations, The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, or, in a fit of irony, The Borrowers), fine, but I didn’t read it as a child and I don’t want to read it now.

He said, you’re a terrible snob. You don’t like it because it’s popular. You don’t read magazines because you think they’re sexist, and now you think you’re above reading anything popular. Fuck off, I said. First of all, I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I can’t dislike a book I haven’t read; I’m simply not going to read it. Secondly, I do read magazines (by which I meant Vagina Monthly, the only non-sexist magazine available in the late 1990s, which I had to buy from the cornershop in my head). Thirdly, I read popular stuff all the time. I read all the Sherlock Holmes stories last winter.[3] I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which sold millions of copies. I read (and re-read) about 80% of the novels of (famously best-selling author) Dick Francis. I’ve read everything Terry Pratchett ever wrote, and he’s wildly popular.[4] He said, stop using books I haven’t heard of as examples. No, I said. I will use whatever examples I like in this conversation, which you initiated. You like this book because it’s literally the only book you’ve read for pleasure in your life. You’re not recommending Harry Potter and the Whatever of Meh to me because you enjoyed reading that book or because you think I’ll enjoy reading that book. You’re recommending it to me because it gave you an experience of reading that was actually fun, and that’s rare for you because you don’t read, and I’m happy for you that you finally had a good reading experience, but I don’t think it is specific to this book and I am not reading this book or any other just because you think I should. You don’t read. You know nothing about books. I do read and I know about books, and I can choose a book for myself without any help from you.

This dreary ding-dong went on for four years, long after we had left school. Eventually, I hit upon a solution, which I recommend to anyone who finds their friends boorishly and dogmatically trying to make them read a book they have no interest in; it’s brutal, but they won’t ever force a book on you again. I said, fine. I will read your children’s book. You will lend it to me, and I will read it. In exchange, I will lend you a grown-up’s book of roughly equivalent length, and you will read that. He said, fine. Thus did two people who claimed to like each other conspire in and commit to a pointless exercise in a shared spirit of self-righteousness and spite.

Let me be clear: I absolutely did not want to read Harry Potter and the Demple of Toom, but I always read any book that has been loaned to me right to the end.[5] This is because, firstly, if someone lends me a book, I assume that they are doing so specifically because they think I will derive pleasure from the reading thereof. Secondly, I am attempting to show that I expect my friends to be able to choose a book that is not drivel. Being given or loaned a book should be a rewarding, fruitful exercise, in which I discover writers new to me, carefully curated by thoughtful, well-read friends and relatives. For example, I recently read The Diary and Letters of Etty Hillesum, which was a gift from a friend. Not only did this book introduce me to Rilke, but every page was thoughtful, clever and sad, and I would not have read it otherwise. Thirdly and finally, if the book turns out to be drivel after all, it’s important to be able to enumerate clearly and precisely the many and various ways in which it was drivel, so that the friend in question understands just how wrong they are and never lends me any drivel again. This requires me to read right to the end, possibly taking notes. This is the only reason I have read all thousand-odd pages of The Executioner’s Song, one of the dreariest experiences of my life. I therefore prepared to read every last paragraph of Hairy Pooter and the Total Insect Fail and posted a book to my then friend. Perhaps this was the beginning of the end of our friendship (inseparable at school and in touch regularly throughout university and beyond, we no longer have anything to do with each other). A week went by and nothing arrived for me, so I emailed him. Where is that children’s book you were going to forcibly lend me? I said. He said, Ah. Well. Yes. The book you forced upon me arrived [notice how quickly he forgot the whole thing started with him forcing his book upon me], and I tried to read it.

The book I chose for my former friend was Bleak House. Dickens certainly has flaws (questionable attitudes to women; sentences longer than life itself; caricature as a default position; a total inability to let a moral lesson go unremarked, and so on), but let’s take a moment to recall the gloriously dank opening[6] of Bleak House. It is, famously, one of the great beginnings in literature (see Nothing but a Hound Dog for other spiffy opening lines), with its marvellous description of the suffocating fogs of the Thames: ‘Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.’ My favourite lines are these (only partly because they include a dinosaur):

As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holburn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

This splendid, sarcastic, swirling plug-hole of an opening[7] is also one of the reasons I chose Bleak House for my moronic former friend, reasoning that even if he felt he had to skip (say) some of Mrs. Jellyby’s twitterings later on, at least the first few pages would give him his second experience of Reading For Pleasure and he’d be into fun things like Plot and Character Development before he knew it. Yes, he would think to himself. A book. A big, fat, complicated book: suitable for a mature mind, demanding both concentration and engagement. A cast of thousands, full of ideas, intrigue, humour and mystery, plus a chap that spontaneously combusts and a load of funny names. A book indeed.

You tried to read it? I yelped at the screen, where his email crouched, embarrassed by its own existence. YOU’RE AN ADULT! I typed, pounding the keyboard much as a Megalosaurus might tenderise an intriguing meal by stomping it to death. You’re studying politics and philosophy! You’re reading lengthy, dry books full of complex ideas every day of the week! You tried to read it? Yes, he said. I tried. I managed ten pages before I lost the will to live. I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t concentrate on sentences that long. I couldn’t remember who anyone was. I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.

Thus, gentle reader, Harry Potter and the Mansplainer’s Tome never arrived, so the moment passed and I never read it. I am not sorry at all.

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[1] Based on the quality of the discussion that followed, the rest of the class didn’t feel the same sense of obligation. We never quite forgave each other for this mutual misunderstanding.

[2] I had even, God help me, waded through a considerable quantity of The Golden Bough, but I didn’t say so in case he asked me what it was about.

[3] I recommend this most highly, particularly if the winter is a pea-souper-ish one. One story per night, read last thing before bed in front of a roaring fire, with a hot, bitter cocoa to hand and a sleeping Hound on one’s lap, puts one in a splendid mood.

[4] He might have argued that, say, Truckers is clearly and explicitly aimed at younger readers (and no doubt he would have done, had he been familiar with the work of Terry Pratchett). He might have argued that all fantasy writing is for kids (it’s not, but no doubt he would have tried, had he known anything about the fantasy genre). He might have argued that the division between ‘children’s literature’ and ‘adult literature’ is a social construct, as meaningless to two people in their late teens as all the other divisions between ‘for kids’ and ‘not for kids’, but he didn’t make any of these points. Notice how his argument is limited at every turn by his total lack of reading and yet he continued to consider himself in a position to lecture me about books I should put in front of my face and into my brain for four entire years.

[5] I was a ravenous but less omnivorous reader at the time, confining myself almost exclusively to fiction, and I certainly hadn’t read or heard of Daniel Pennac’s Bill of Rights for readers. Had we known it, I was defending the first article (the right not to read), while my former friend was in some ways defending the last (the right to not defend your tastes). See both A ‘small mysterious corpus’ and Tom Sperlinger, Romeo and Juliet in Palestine: Teaching Under Occupation (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014), pp. 49-51 for a discussion of Pennac’s Bill.

[6] Fellow subscribers might also recognise this as a quotation from Vagina Monthly.

[7] See above. It was a bumper issue, with an unusually generous centrefold and an excellent crossword (down clues only).

Things to make and do with a fake P45

Theresa May is, in my view, a cold, mean woman and a poor Prime Minister. However, she is also (on the balance of probability) a person, doing an important and difficult job, not very well. I think she knows she’s not doing it very well, because I’ve also done jobs that were, in their local context at least, important and difficult, and at which I was poor. I understand that haunted, gaunt look on Theresa May’s face and her unsteady voice: these are the features of someone who knows they suck at their job.

Do you know what I did when I realised I was in a job I wasn’t any good at? I quit, and let someone more competent take over. Theresa May seems to feel that she has to stay in post, maybe because the alternatives are just too awful too contemplate. This week someone at the Conservative Party Conference actually said on live radio that he thought Boris Johnson would make a good Prime Minister.[1] I know people have been saying that for years, but this fool said it after the British Foreign Secretary made light of civil war in Libya and and after he recited the opening lines of ‘The Road to Mandalay’ in the Shwedagon Pagoda (the holiest Buddhist site in Yangon).[2] Imagine the fuss if a Burmese diplomat spontaneously recited a poem in his native language, protesting about the hundred-odd years of British occupation perhaps and maybe including a bunch of sexually inappropriate suggestions, while visiting Westminster Abbey on behalf of his nation. Imagine also, if you will, how politics in Britain might change if we all stopped pretending that an Oxford education (or a tendency to make jokes in Latin, or a liking for Eton and governesses, or a total lack of respect for other cultures) makes a person special, clever or eccentric. Boris Johnson does a good impression of a Very Clever person, but doesn’t have the wit or humility to acknowledge that he is deeply mediocre. The same applies to Jacob Rees-Mogg, a man so clearly convinced of his own sense of entitlement that I sometimes comfort myself in the small hours by imagining bizarre deaths that might befall him (see also evil sock-puppet Michael Gove). Since I first wrote this blog post, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson has managed to (yet again) say the wrong thing about a British woman currently in an Iranian prison on trumped up espionage charges, suggesting that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran ‘teaching journalism’. No, she wasn’t. She was on holiday. The Iranian government are now using this information to support fresh charges and there is every chance her sentence will be extended. If you go to the Independent article I’ve linked to above, for the next few days you can hear disgraced former defence secretary Dr. Liam Fox MP for yourself, defending Boris Johnson’s ‘slip of the tongue’ and suggesting that people shouldn’t ‘overreact’.

If, while taking money to do a job I was terrible at, someone had handed me a fake P45 (even in jest), I’d have seen it as fair comment. If, however, one has confidence in one’s ability and knows that one is just taking some time to find one’s feet, then being handed a fake P45 in public isn’t a problem. It’s a gift. Much as I dislike Theresa May’s policies, I hate to see a woman (any woman, but a woman in public life particularly) miss an opportunity to humiliate a man who is trying to humiliate her. Here, then, are some things to make and do with a fake P45:

i. Take fake P45; crack weak joke; finish speech; cry about it later in conference venue toilets. Listen to moron who does your old job being interviewed on evening radio describe breath-takingly inadequate security as ‘disappointing’ and respond to the question ‘what if he had been carrying acid?’ with ‘well, he wasn’t.’[3] Google ‘acid attack’; ponder own mortality; cry some more in Downing Street toilet.

ii. Ignore man attempting to hand you fake P45. Pause speech only to say, ‘If that man isn’t removed immediately, I’m going to make whoever is in charge of security come up here and explain to the class how this person was allowed to get within touching distance of the Prime Minister.’ Wait in stony silence for security to remove P45 Man. Finish speech.

iii. Take fake P45, screw it into a ball and bounce it off P45 Man’s face. Dust hands. Finish speech.

iv. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium and announce that you are firing your current bodyguard. Point out that P45 Man could have been carrying acid, and show you’re capable of going off script and familiar with your own legislation by reiterating the new regulations being brought in to make acid attacks more difficult, thus both protecting the victims of acid attacks and pissing off Amber Rudd, who already announced them.[4] Have epiphany that Amber Rudd is a moron and fire her too.

v. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium and explain that this P45 has reached you by mistake, and was intended for the Foreign Secretary. In fact, this has just reminded you that Boris Johnson deserves to be fired, right now on live television, because of, among other things, the hateful thing he just said about the civil war in Libya and his tone-deaf impromptu poetry recital in Yangon. Note that you are not going to fire him, however, because the whole Brexit fiasco is at least partly his fault, and you expect him to help clear up the mess he has made. Explain that foreign wars are not opportunities for British businesses to exploit, and that representing one’s nation requires one to have some idea of history, context and courtesy. Declare that Johnson will, therefore, not be going on any further foreign trips until he has demonstrated to your satisfaction that he can leave the country without embarrassing it. Apologise unreservedly to the people of Libya and Myanmar. Finish speech.

vi. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium. Announce, in coldest, most menacing tone, ‘It’s a fake P45, everyone. Let me show you what I think of that.’ Tear it into bite-sized pieces and eat it. Take your time over this. Freestyle rest of speech, announcing whatever the fuck you like. Never worry about leadership challenges ever again. Bonus: any subsequent throat problems can be blamed on the fact that you literally just ate that fucker’s joke.

vii. Take fake P45. Walk back to podium. Commenting that you intend to treat this gesture with the dignity it deserves, fold fake P45 into jaunty hat. Put hat on. As P45 Man is removed by security, remove hat and fold it into a paper aeroplane. ‘Accidentally’ release paper aeroplane into the crowded auditorium in such a way that Jacob Rees-Mogg is fatally wounded in the eye and bleeds out as you finish your speech. When prompted in post-speech interviews to comment on this tragic and yet deeply satisfying end, describe the incident as ‘disappointing’.

___________________________________________

[1] Until the end of October, you can listen to this buffoon for yourself on PM via iPlayer (starts just before the 18-minute mark), but the burden of his song is that Boris Johnson appeals to young people (?), whom it is hoped will learn to ‘aspire to the Conservative way of life’ (??).

[2] ‘The Road to Mandalay’ is Kipling in full colonial fig, speaking from the point of view of a retired soldier reflecting on his time in Burma (as it was then). It refers to Yangon throughout as Rangoon (as it was known under British colonial rule), describes the Buddha (again, I remind the reader that Boris Johnson was in a Buddhist temple) as ‘an ’eathen idol’, and a ‘Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud/ Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd’, and suggests that the soldier persuaded a Burmese girl to stop ‘a-wasting Christian kisses’ on the Buddha’s statue by kissing her himself. Fortunately, the British ambassador was able to intervene before Boris had got much further than the fourth line (‘Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!’, which is quite bad enough). I suggest that the British ambassador shouldn’t have to educate the Foreign Secretary as to how to be a diplomat, or to point out that they’re in a Buddhist temple (it’s huge and covered in gold). For such a thoroughly educated man, he is extraordinarily ignorant.

[3] Amber Rudd didn’t even manage to use the question as an opportunity to talk about the legislation she had just announced (again, you can listen to her excuse of an interview via iPlayer for the next few days, from 20 minutes 45 onwards). She could so easily have said, ‘I can’t comment on the specifics of this security breach, but I’m glad you mentioned acid attacks. Acid attacks are very serious, and I just announced a bunch of regulations that will make it harder for people to carry them out.’ It also suggests that Amber Rudd doesn’t understand hypotheticals. What if Jacob Rees-Mogg was run over by a float at gay pride? What if his face was eaten by owls? What if he choked on a quill pen? What if he was smothered in vellum? What if he was wounded in a freak paper aeroplane accident? Well, he wasn’t. So far, Amber Rudd. So far.

[4] The majority of the new acid regulations are pretty sensible and supported by the research, but the age restriction (it will no longer be legal for those under the age of eighteen to purchase acid) gave me pause, because it’s so bloody Tory. They court the youth vote with all that stuff about student loans and home ownership, but they don’t understand them (see above for the ‘young people like Boris’ bullshit), and they can’t help but show their fundamental fear and hatred of young people (see Bing-bong!).

Laugh as we always laughed / at the little jokes we enjoyed together

I went to the funeral of my driving instructor this week. We lost touch after I moved back to Bristol, so I had to infer that her death (which was very sudden) was caused by a heart attack, based on the fact that we were asked to donate to the British Heart Foundation in lieu of sending flowers, and also from the fact that the eulogy made no mention of any kind of illness, long or short. It took me four attempts to pass my driving test and so many lessons that I lost count. My poor night vision and basic lack of spatial awareness were the main problems, plus the fact that I hate driving.[1] However, as long as nobody asks me to park quickly or well, and provided I don’t have to explain how a roundabout is supposed to work, I am a borderline competent driver.[2] The fact that I can drive at all is entirely down to her.

I drove to her funeral, and found that this meant passing through Somerset on the very roads we had driven along together, nearly eight years ago. I had decided to try to think about her as I drove anyway, but found that the memories arose easily and unbidden. I am not a patient teacher, but she was. Between lessons, she turned over in her mind things that might help me overcome my faults as a driver; she would clap excitedly and say ‘I’ve thought of a new pune or play on words that will help you remember this!’[3] For example, crawling right up to a give-way line was referred to as ‘creep-and-peep’; ‘I thought you crept and pept very well that time’, she would say, giggling at her own joke. She encouraged me to learn from the mistakes of other drivers, tapping the dashboard and pointing to cars parked too close to each other or motorists trapped forlornly in yellow cross-hatched boxes at traffic lights. ‘Can you spot their deliberate mistake?’ she would say, completely deadpan. ‘It’s very considerate of them to do that right in front of a learner.’ She knew how much I hated roundabouts, which, combined with my fear of stalling, tended to make me drive them too quickly. As we approached a mini-roundabout, she would exclaim in my ear ‘rind the rind-a-bite!’ (as in bacon rind) to remind me to do it properly (I still say this now if I’m driving alone). When I finally passed my test, it was administered by a chap who tests driving instructors themselves, and only does the odd driving test to keep his hand in, so when she saw him get into the car with me she was certain (she told me afterwards) I was going to fail for a fourth time. When I came bouncing across the car park, I told her I had driven a two-lane roundabout correctly before I told her that I had, finally, at the age of twenty-seven, passed my driving test. She always insisted on driving home after I had failed a test, and this triumphal drive home (with her at the wheel again, so as not to jinx it) was punctuated with exclamations of ‘I’m so pleased about that roundabout!’ from both of us.

I drove well all the way to the church, and then did a bit of my trademark wonky parking, nestling right up to the next car on the right so that I couldn’t get out of the driver’s side until I had done half-a-dozen wriggles, firmly convinced that all I was doing was driving half-out of the bay at an angle and then reversing back in without improving the situation. I suspect that one of the reasons my parking has never improved is that my driving instructor used to find my total incompetence in this area very funny, and would often sit in the passenger seat bubbling with giggles while she tried to think of something encouraging to say, the car’s buttocks sticking out into traffic, the nose buried in a hedge. Her funeral was exactly what I expected: church packed to the rafters, service heartfelt, well-meaning and short. As well as flowers, the undertakers placed her rooftop driving instructor box on the coffin. I have no fear of death itself, but coffins scare the bejesus out of me.[4] However, I found that seeing this old familiar thing meant that I was able to look at the coffin without difficulty. The vast majority of the congregation were clearly not church-goers.[5] This became abundantly clear when the vicar suggested we close the prayers by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. Since nobody else knew them (and couldn’t read them from the order of service, apparently), he (and I) also recited the words of the nunc dimittis more or less alone as the coffin was carried out of the building.

All day, I was reminded of how I felt when my first mother-in-law died, also of a heart attack (see The day after New Year’s Day) and we drove through wintry Sussex to the crematorium: numb, sad, and old. I remember a time in my mid-twenties when it seemed like everyone I knew was getting married and I was spending every weekend of every summer rushing off to some marquee or other; now I’m at the age where I have more funerals to go to than weddings. The two women were also similar characters in many ways: warm, generous, reliable, capable, focused on their families. My mother-in-law was outlived by her own nonagenarian mother, and so was my driving instructor. Her mother, a bright and sensible woman in her eighties, did the first reading, which was that lovely poem by Henry Scott Holland that begins ‘Death is nothing at all’.[6] She read it beautifully, in a tone that seemed to accept the finality and weightiness of death while simultaneously dismissing it as trivia. After the funeral I spent some time driving around more of the places we used for lessons. I even drove along minor roads to the next town over, joining the motorway a junction further down than I would otherwise do and making myself late for dinner so that I could paddle about in the past a little longer.

At the time of her death, my driving instructor was, unbelievably, fifty-six; my mother-in-law fifty-nine. As I drove home, thinking about this, and how each funeral I go to makes me feel a little older, I remembered how old I had felt when I took my theory test (everyone else was an acne-spattered seventeen-year-old). I pulled out on the motorway into the middle lane, to escape a lorry that had been driving a few inches from my rear bumper, and suddenly remembered what she used to say when a truck drove too close to us during a lesson. ‘I expect that truck driver wants to get in the back seat,’ she would say, before wriggling her shoulders and saying firmly, ‘but I’m far too old for that.’ I don’t think there is such a thing as being too young to die, since young people die all the time, and often in ways that are far more drawn out and horrible than an unexpected heart attack. Nevertheless, I feel too young to have buried these two women, both younger than my mother, and who both seemed to have a lot more time ahead of them. Henry Scott Holland’s poem goes on, ‘I have only slipped away to the next room’, and perhaps that is the point: if death really is nothing at all, and all we are doing is opening a connecting door (as we might do in order to fetch something quietly from another room at a party, not wanting to interrupt the conversation), we cannot be surprised when Death enters, unannounced, and locks the door behind him.

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[1] I hate driving because I’m not good at it. The fact that I’m not good at it makes me hate it, and so we circle around, trapped on an eternal gyratory system of mediocrity.

[2] She once brought toy cars to a lesson in an attempt to show me how I could turn right safely at a roundabout, but I think there must be some kind of ziggle-zaggle in my brain where roundabouts are concerned: the explanation rolls in and then right out again, making a lot of noise as it goes, but ultimately leaving nothing behind it but empty space.

[3] A pune or play on words is, of course, a reference to Terry Pratchett, which I am delighted to say is something that I taught her.

[4] The correct term for this is taphophobia, from the Greek taphos, meaning grave. It manifests itself primarily as an inability to look directly at a coffin. I’ve made it very clear to Giant Bear that I want to be buried in a cardboard box under a tree.

[5] The girl sitting in front of me, for example, had decided that an appropriate thing to wear to a funeral was a top through which her entire bra was visible.

[6] The third verse begins with the lines I have used for the title of this post: ‘Laugh as we always laughed / at the little jokes we enjoyed together. / Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me. / Let my name be ever the household word / that it always was. / Let it be spoken without effect, / without the trace of a shadow on it’.

Joining the dots

Recently, I was lucky enough to be asked to find (or, if that were not possible, to write) some suitable poetry to be set to music, for a song cycle by my very talented friend J. The writing process was a cross between making a collage and reading an over-complicated map, the various steps of which I’d like to share.

I discovered Bill Callahan this year (I know. What have I been doing with my time?). Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle just blows me away every time I hear it. It also provided numerous little flashes of inspiration for this project, including the overarching idea of common-ness. The first line of the first song is this: ‘I started out in search of ordinary things’. This, and S posting a marvellously understated poem on his blog, gave me the starting point. The first poem I chose, therefore, was his poem Common Things’, which you can find on his blog.

‘Common’ is a lovely word. It has layers of meaning (communal; shared; vulgar; frequent; abundant; green space) and my next idea was to have four poems with the word ‘common’ in the title. Another line from ‘Jim Cain’ (‘I started telling the story/without knowing the end’) and a vague memory of the poem I finally tracked down on the interblag, ‘The Dearness of Common Things’ by the delightfully named Ivor Gurney, gave me the final poem in the song cycle, the idea being that I would do rather the opposite of the lyric and tell the story knowing exactly what the end was, but not knowing how to get there. My task, therefore, was to write two more poems to go between ‘Common Things’ and ‘The Dearness of Common Things’ to make a story.

It seemed to me that ‘Common Things’ suggested a relationship that held the seeds of its own destruction: the speaker wanting to be closer than closer, or perhaps closer than his or her partner might permit him or her to be, were they aware that such a thing was what was desired. It also seemed to me that not everyone would welcome so much intimacy, and that perhaps this yes-but-no-ness might eventually kill a relationship stone dead, leaving the rejected partner (female, I decided in this case) enraged and bitter. This in turn reminded me of Genesis 29, v11 & 17 (‘And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept … Leah was tender-eyed, but Rachel was beautiful’) and supplied the name of the Other Woman. Here is the result, which in a burst of wordplay I called ‘Common Law’:

Our books held each other like hands:
One mine, one yours,
Piled into boxes,
Right and left.

Our harmonies were rich as singing
There are no echoes, but only a pause.
We go on,
Our names floating above us
Dark water separated from light.

Our bond was weak.
Whatever it was that held us together,
You broke it with words:
No
She –
I –
Her name is Rachel.

There is no ring
For me to fling
In your face.

Made for your mother,
But meant for me,
Her gift burns in the wardrobe
Terrible and white.

W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Since’ begins with a man cooking alone in his kitchen, which in turn reminded me of the final poem in our sequence and all its domestic imagery around the man living his solitary life (it’s not clear to me if he is contented or not). The third poem, then, needed to offer some suggestion of narrative between the ending of the relationship in the second poem and the ending-up-alone of the fourth poem. It seemed to me that he might try out life with Rachel, and that maybe it would turn out to be like most relationships: not particularly interesting, intense, loving or sad, but quietly, stupidly dull, particularly when contrasted with its fiery beginnings.

Going deeper into Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle yielded the extended bird metaphor in ‘All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast’ and ‘Too Many Birds In One Tree. My favourite thing about these two songs is the juxtaposition between the words and the music. ‘All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast’ has the unsettling cantering percussion and weird strings, even when the lyrics are telling what sounds like a rather inconsequential story about an eagle and his avian friends. ‘Too Many Birds in One Tree’ does a similar thing, but the other way around, with gentle music and Callahan’s soothing tones as he sings, in an off-hand sort of way, about the jolly fact that ‘the sky is full of black and screaming’. It’s alright children, he seems to say. It’s the Last Days and we’re just waiting for the chap with the trumpet, but in the meantime, here’s some cocoa and a cuddle. All the birds flapping about, some more lines from ‘Jim Cain’ (‘I used to be darker/Then I got lighter/Then I got dark again’) and ‘Since’ gave me the three main recurring themes of the third (and, in some ways, final) poem. ‘Jim Cain’ also contains the devastatingly good line ‘something too big to be seen/was passing over and over me’, and after banging these together in my brain for a while, I came up with the idea of lights passing over a person in a dark space: the lights of cars and buses passing over a man alone in a darkened hallway, in this case. The light and darkness and light again reminds him of a time when light and shadow had passed over him, when driving down a long road with trees either side caused the sunshine to flash on and off as the sun started to set.  The title is from Macbeth, Act 3, scene 2: ‘Good things of day begin to droop and drowse / While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse’ and I was also thinking of Isaiah 55, v. 11-12: ‘it shall not return unto me void … you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands,’ and that roaring noise trees make when you drive past them at speed. Since writing this poem, I discovered (in France, of all places) that there were some tree-lined roads where the speed limit had to be changed after people were found to have epileptic fits while driving. This turned out to be due to the trees being spaced a certain distance apart, which, when coupled with driving at some specific speed (in metric, naturally), caused the light coming between them to flicker: a suitable metaphor for the past if ever I heard one.

Good Things Of Day

I stand in the hall.
Lights move across me, from left to right.

Sun and shade and sun again,
Trees that roared and clapped their hands
Darkness whipping about your face,
You shouted about happiness.

The sunset sang golden from your ear
Clouds of starlings passed over, on their way to the sea,
Specks of rushy night, numerous as stars.
My passenger and I and night falling:
You, as you were then.

I stand in the hall.
Lights move across me, from left to right.

Dark and bright and dark again.
The lights are yellow, the walls
A colour I did not choose.
A voice from upstairs calls me,
And I go up
Without the thing I came down for.

The pillar and the beam

The title of this post comes from ‘My Friend’ by the sublime Bill Callahan. I’m pretty sure this song is about a horse, but that need not concern us here.

Two of the most important relationships in my life took a turn for the worse in recent times, and so I’ve been thinking about relationships a lot, as I always do when they go squiffy. Perhaps I over-think (or perhaps other people under-think? That must be it). Here’s what I want to share: my thoughts on the word ‘relationship’ and what I think it means.

It was most unfortunate for one of the people in question (let’s call her Metallic Trainers) that the other person (Hates Commas) behaved very much better in terms of responding to this crisis. A mistake that I have seen people make again and again is putting time and energy into the wrong relationships. I’m sure that my (many, many) readers can easily name friends, relatives and assorted acquaintances who have poured themselves out for the sake of people and relationships that were emphatically Not Worth It.[1] I suggest that these same people often expend good energy after bad in pursuit of relationships that do not merit so much attention and time, while at the same time leaving themselves too spent to put time and energy into other relationships that would merit it: relationships with people who would respond in kind, rewarding that effort and love tenfold. Hates Commas and I will always be friends. This is not because we love each other (although we do), but because we work hard at our friendship. It matters to both of us, so if we fall out over something, we fix it. We apologise heartily; we try to understand how it went awry in the first place; we agree to make changes so that this never happens again; and we do our best to pick up where we left off, chastened, changed and profoundly grateful to still be in each other’s lives. This process of working at a relationship is what holds it together. It is like the layer of jam in a Victoria sponge, if you will.[2] Without the jam, this is just some food on top of some other food. In other words, if you don’t work at your friendships, they cease to be friendships. They are merely some conversations that you have had and some things that you have done and some things that you used to feel with or about people you know (and will presumably cease to know the moment that some actual effort is required).

Metallic Trainers and I will probably never communicate again in a meaningful way. This is not because we don’t care about each other (although obviously we care a lot less than Hates Commas and I, or we wouldn’t be where we are). It is because we disagree fundamentally about what constitutes a relationship. I think a relationship is something that you work at constantly, over months and years (and decades, if you are so blessed). People will say this about (and even attempt to apply this to) marriage, but I think it should apply to all important relationships. Metallic Trainers appears to think that a relationship is something you fiddle with now and again in an idle moment; something you pick up and turn over in the light, as you might do with an ugly ornament of a size and shape that perhaps makes it difficult to be sure exactly what it is supposed to be. When you have finished examining it, you replace it on the metaphorical mantelpiece and remove it from your mind until the next time you happen to be at a loose end in that room[3], and you wander off.

I also think a relationship has to be mutually satisfying. It must give back some of what you put in, even though (and I think this is the key) you should always give more than you expect to get back. Maybe you take turns in putting more into it at different stages of your life and health, and maybe it doesn’t always feel equal, but taking the lifespan of the relationship as a whole, it must be sustaining for this to be a worthwhile use of your time and energy. This is particularly true when you consider that you can only give a finite amount of time and energy. Unless you are a bottomless well of love and patience (and only the divine can claim to be such), you must neglect some people and invest in others. So it really and truly matters where you direct your feelings, and how you decide to express them.

It is an oft-repeated truism that you shouldn’t love something that cannot love you back[4]. This is a principle that only makes sense to me when applied to other people. Loving someone that cannot love you back in the way that you want them to is a waste of love, and it is kinder to both of you to simply sigh, shake hands and go your separate ways. In the case of myself and Metallic Trainers, the sponge is dry: jam-less and pointless. It used to be a cake, but a pale, inedible sham of a cake. It used to positively drip with jam, but all the Goddamn jam came from my store cupboard. What jam remains is precious to me, and therefore I am trying to make my peace with the idea that Metallic Trainers and I have nothing to say to each other. This makes me sad, but it should also, eventually, make me free.


[1] Softly, now. Do this in your inside voice, particularly if you’re at work.

[2] The sponge represents what Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young describe as ‘what we’ve said and done and felt about each other’. You can listen to a version with all the words, or I also found this rather wonderful piece of banjo-ified nonsense. I also think the mutual acceptance and support that I expect from a real, rich friendship is neatly summed up in the same song by the repeated lines ‘I am yours/You are mine/You are what you are’.

[3] To overstretch the metaphor, in my conception of what the word ‘relationship’ means, the ornament would be something that you carried around with you (in the pocket of your figurative dressing-gown, perhaps), turning it over with your hand as a constant source of comfort and support in times of trouble. You wouldn’t care a jot for its ugliness or obscurity, and would search for ways to make it better, tenderly and painstakingly repairing it if one of its baffling limbs broke off, and always knowing where it was and why it was important.

[4] What nonsense. Why should I not, for example, have affection for a building or a book or an instrument? They cannot love me back, but I don’t need them to. See also Charles Simic’s rather wonderful poem ‘Things Need Me’, which I think expresses a touching affection for objects.