Reading over the third set of entries, from May, the events described already appear distant, dreamlike, as though they happened in an adjacent or parallel world. Did Trump really suggest we inject ourselves with detergent? It seems like the kind of thing that would happen in only the most abject of dreams, but then again, much of what has happened these past few months would have been unthinkable last New Year’s Eve. I don’t know whether I will continue my journal. Like everyone else I’m pretty sick of the whole damn thing now. And whether we ‘return to normality’ in any recognisable way is another question engaging media pundits. I offer only the merest commentary on that.
The pandemic in the USA takes a dive to new depths of absurdity when Donald Trump, the World’s Most Important Human, recommends injecting detergent as a cure for COVID-19. We are all aghast at the stupendous ignorance of this claim. Here in the UK, George Monbiot’s tweet summed it up: ‘Two million years of hominid evolution, and it comes to this.’ Trump continues to blame China for the virus, whether it came from their nasty chiroptophagia, or else the nasty people in the famed research facility in Wuhan. ‘Nasty’ — a word infrequently used by English speakers above the age of eight —remains the President’s favourite descriptor for anything he does not like.
Whatever its source of COVID-19, the market in Wuhan does sound like a grim place, reminiscent of the public market in Las Animas bay, in Love in the Time of Cholera, where ‘. . . the offal from the adjoining slaughterhouse was . . . thrown away there — severed heads, rotting viscera, animal refuse that floated, in sunshine and starshine, in a swamp of blood.’
But China-hating and the bullying of Sino-American journalists won’t get Trump through this disaster, however hard he tries to shift the blame. The laggardly way in which the US government, and its counterpart in the UK, came to respond to the pandemic will no doubt be exposed to scrutiny, although I do wonder whether those responsible will ever be held to account. Despite plenty of warning, the UK government, under its floundering buffoon of a Prime Minister, refused to take the advice of the WHO, and put business invests before people’s lives.
Yesterday, in Parliament, the new leader of the Labour opposition, Keir Starmer, questioned the Prime Minister’s claim that ‘many people were looking at the “apparent success” of the Government’s approach only to learn that, tragically, at least 29,427* people in the UK have now lost their lives to this dreadful virus. That is now the highest death toll in Europe and the second highest in the world. That is not success, or apparent success, so can the Prime Minister tell us: how on earth did it come to this?’ Johnson replied that it was not straightforward comparing death statistics and added that there will be a time to look at what went wrong. Starmer replied that ‘many people are concluding that the answer to my question is that the UK was slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on tracing and slow on the supply of protective equipment.’ Johnson blustered in non-response; he had clearly found the floundering and intellectually challenged Jeremy Corbyn a much easier opponent that Starmer, an internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer. Starmer then asked why has it taken so long to improve the situation in care homes? Johnson responded that there had been a ‘palpable improvement’. But there has been nothing of the kind; and if the number of deaths has fallen, it is because in many care homes most of the residents have died.
A local effect of the COVID Pandemic is that hostilities between the Scottish and Welsh governments on the one side, and the English administration on the other, have become increasingly perilous. It has emerged that the UK has stopped its Foreign & Commonwealth Office and overseas networks from helping Scotland and Wales to access PPE. Even the New York Times reports that Scottish and Welsh officials have raised concerns that the NHS in England is being prioritised for personal protective equipment, though Downing Street denies the accusations.
* This figure continued to mount. On the 20 May it had risen to 35,704; as I post this, it is over 45,000.
Last week Prime Minister Johnson changed the UK Government’s tagline from ‘Stay at home’ to ‘Stay alert’. The problem is that no one knows what that means. Should one be alert while going out to work, or alert while working from home? Who can go to work and who should stay at home? Must everyone be equally alert, or should some be more alert than others? The Welsh and Scottish Governments do not pursue the ‘Stay alert’ policy, telling their citizens to continue to ‘Stay at home’. The Welsh government then announces that English people, however ‘alert’ they might be, are not welcome to come and take their exercise (walking and cycling) in Wales, or to visit beauty spots in Snowdonia and other of our national parks. The Welsh rural police are delighted: this is their dream scenario. They can now go around with impunity telling visitors from Liverpool and Birmingham to ‘bugger off and stay at home’.
Meanwhile, traditional British values are maintained: sales of alcohol rocket and eating disorders flourish. Thousands of people attempt to acquire a dog or other pet; they want company in their solitude during the lockdown. Animal welfare groups are concerned that when the lockdown ends, many of these pets will simply be abandoned. A female transport worker in London dies after being spat at by a man who claimed he had the virus. It is revealed that BAME people are more susceptible to COVID-19 than others, though no one yet knows why.
President Trump, the World’s Most Important Human, announces that he is taking the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic against COVID-19. ‘I’m taking it for about a week and a half now and I’m still here, I’m still here,’ was his surprise announcement. There is no evidence hydroxychloroquine can fight coronavirus, and regulators warn the drug may cause heart problems. The Donald doesn’t care. Besides, since he lies about most things as a matter of course, why would anyone believe him now? He might be taking it, but then again, he might not. And who cares anyway? Well, millions of Americans do, because if the President recommends it, many will follow his example. Although The Donald has a small investment in Sanofi, one of the companies that manufactures hydroxcholoquine, it is really very small, and has nothing to do with his promoting the drug.
Back in the UK, Captain Tom Moore, who vowed to walk 100 laps of his garden in order to raise money for National Health Service charities, has been granted a knighthood by the Queen. ‘Captain Tom’, as he is universally known in the UK media, captured the minds and hearts of the British people by his valiant walk around the garden. The occasion of his 100th birthday was marked with an RAF flypast as well as birthday greetings from the Queen and Prime Minister. He has been made an honorary Colonel by the 1st Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, in which he served during World War Two, and he has received an estimated 140,000 birthday cards. In all this jollity, you might be forgiven for forgetting that the NHS, ravaged by cuts imposed by successive Conservative governments, should not require charitable donations to keep its doctors and nurses safe and its hospitals in working order. My father dedicated his life to working in an NHS that provided care ‘from the cradle to the grave’ and my daughter is currently following in his footsteps. I am sure Captain Tom is a very fine fellow, but must his story be accompanied by proclamations of gung-ho jingoism, and the lavishing of praise on our National Health Service from a government that has spent the past ten years undermining it?
I am not convinced by the argument put forward at the outbreak of the pandemic that the quality of life might improve afterwards; that our citizens will have been so positively affected by the quiet streets, the clean air, the slow incursion of the natural world into city life, a respect towards others’ personal space and a greater awareness of the benefits of silence — that they will insist on retaining those benefits when the plague has run its course. I am fairly certain that everything will revert to the way it was before, but because of certain restrictions and the necessary intrusion of the state into our private lives during the pandemic — which no doubt will continue, with a repression of certain liberties under the guise that they are no longer safe — things will all be a little bit worse.
Continuing with my journal entries over the first three months of COVID-19, here are two entries for the month of April. During this period the roads around the city were gloriously silent, and many more birds appeared in the garden; indeed, it seemed to me that birdsong was louder than before, though perhaps that was due to the absence of nearby traffic. At this stage we didn’t know quite how bad things were going to get, although it was soon apparent that the UK was overtaking Italy and Spain to become the worst-affect country in Europe, despite having had more time to prepare for the pandemic.
Daughter no. 2 lives in London and works as a fundraiser for several London hospitals, including St Thomas’s, where Boris is laid up. Since just before the lockdown, she has been with us here in Cardiff, working from home, and she receives hundreds of messages every day from companies and individuals wishing to donate to the hospitals administered by her employer. One man wants to donate something specifically to Saint Thomas’s, because that is where Boris is, but my daughter tells him this cannot be done, you can only donate to the NHS Trust of which St Thomas’s is a part. The man doesn’t like her reply. Other companies ring in with offers of gifts, specifically for the Prime Minister. How can they be certain their gift gets to Boris? Can the hospital send a photo of Boris (with nurses) consuming their gift? Can they send a photo of the prostate Boris being spoon-fed their gift?
Daughter no 1, a junior doctor who was at the time of the outbreak working in paediatrics, is re-assigned to a general medical ward at another, bigger hospital, where she will begin to treat COVID patients. But she is given three days off, then another three days off, before she starts. There isn’t enough protective equipment; there aren’t enough masks; there aren’t enough gowns. There aren’t enough tests being carried out, and the tests that exist don’t seem very accurate. The tests show a 30% rate of false negatives, which means patients are being sent back out into the community with the virus. The Welsh government order 5,000 test kits from Roche Diagnostic but they don’t turn up. The Welsh government gets angry, makes accusations. Roche Diagnostics say they never had a contract with the Welsh Government for any test kits. You did; we didn’t; you did; we didn’t. This goes on for a couple of days. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Independence party, attacks the Welsh government for failing to locate the missing test kits and refusing to say where they are. There is reason to believe that the 5,000 test kits have been appropriated by Public Health England. The Scottish also claims that orders for protective equipment have been waylaid by the English. How we love to stoke the fires of old enmities.
On the 12th of April, Boris is released from hospital and retires to the Prime Minister’s official country residence at Chequers, in Buckinghamshire. He admits that while in intensive care things ‘could have gone either way’ and heaps praise on the staff who looked after him. He singles out two nurses, who stood by his bedside night and day, so he says, and saved his life. One is Jenny, from New Zealand, and the other Luis, from Portugal. I cannot help but wonder whether Luis is looking forward to being kicked out of the UK once we ‘Get Brexit Done’, according to Boris’ wishes.
The metaphors of war and battle are being bandied about as though we were re-living the Blitz of 1940. However, we could do without the military metaphors. This is not a war. A BBC documentary on the virus takes us into a COVID ward in London’s University College Hospital, where the correspondent presents his report unequivocally in terms of war: “This is the frontline in a war,” he begins. “Every day some battles are won and some are lost.” During his hospitalisation reports on the Prime Minister’s illness are riddled with metaphors of conflict: “He is a fighter and will beat this virus.” Together, “we will be able to win this battle”. “You fight for a swift recovery.” “You are a fighter, and you will overcome this challenge.” Visitors to London parks have been branded ‘traitors’, which is the same taunt used against Remainers in the Battle of Brexit.
By heaping up the metaphors of violent struggle and resistance, language creates a template, or a cut-out in the mind for an enemy to step in, and once we have an enemy — in this case, the virus — we tend to link it with particular groups of people or individuals. The Chinese. The incomers. The second home owners. The foreigners. The others. It feeds beautifully into the UK’s obsession with Brexit, and Trump’s current discourse on China. On 14th April Trump announces that he will stop US funding of the World Health Organisation, for the alleged crime of being China-centric. In the UK, COVID-19 and Brexit have something in common: both of them target the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
As the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the world, the Argentine writer Jorge Fondebrider wrote to friends and fellow writers around the world, asking for contributions to a Journal of the Plague Year (in homage to Defoe’s work of that title). Most of the contributors were from Latin America, but others lived in Europe or Asia. Jorge, an old friend, is indefatigable in organising people; all of the pieces were translated into Spanish, and will eventually be published in a single volume. The criteria were simply that the entries be under 500 words, and the resulting work, tracking the pandemic and the ways that different governments responded in diverse countries, makes for fascinating reading. Over the next three days, I will be posting my own contributions to the collection, made over the months of March, April and May as a record of my own experience of living with the pandemic in Wales.
As soon as the news broke that the plague had arrived in Europe, it was obvious it would come to Brexit Island, but our government was in denial. They gabbled on about the globally repudiated tactic of herd immunity. They refused to join forces with their EU counterparts in focus groups dedicated to resisting the pandemic, and they ignored the World Health Organisation recommendations for immediate lockdown. However, none of the efforts of Prime Minister Johnson or his pals to distance themselves from the place they fondly call ‘the continent’ was ever going to stop this thing from crossing the Channel — and with a vengeance, given the head start our leaders had allowed it. The extent of our Prime Minister’s lack of interest during the weeks before the lockdown is shocking: he didn’t turn up at five consecutive key COBRA meetings to discuss policy on the pandemic, and one senior government adviser told The Sunday Times that Boris ‘didn’t work weekends’ and ‘there was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning.’ For Boris, resistance to the plague was merely a hindrance to the more pressing agenda of Brexit. However, it became apparent to many observers that the government’s laggardly approach was likely to have serious repercussions on the British population, such that the UK might turn out to be the European country most affected by the pandemic, and with the highest number of casualties.
On 20th March Boris announces the closure of the pubs. ‘We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub,’ he said. The right-wing, Brexit-loving newspaper The Sun reports this rather differently: ‘Mr Johnson said it went against what he called ‘the inalienable free-born right of people born in England to go to the pub’. In this version, as Fintan O’Toole points out in an article in The Guardian, ‘the freedom to go to the pub was conferred by genetics and history, not on the “people of the United Kingdom” or “the British people”, but on “people born in England”. It does not apply to Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish people and certainly not to the 9.4 million people living in the UK who were born abroad. It is a particular Anglo-Saxon privilege.’ So, we — or rather, the English — are not going to the pub. I don’t care. I don’t drink any more. But that is not the point: as O’Toole reminds us, this outburst of Johnson’s was about something else: ‘What Johnson was really evoking was a very specific English sense of exceptionalism, a fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity.’ He was flagging up the fact that ‘we’ (the English) are special and different, not like those ‘continentals’. So we will, reluctantly, stay at home and not go to the pub, but we won’t impose a full lockdown just yet. We will wait and see, and Boris will continue to shake hands with whoever he likes because he is Boris, who at the age of five told his sister Rachel that his ambition was to be ‘king of the world.’
As the recipient of another man’s liver, I knew I would be one of those persons deemed ‘at risk’. I take immunosuppressants and therefore, in theory, am more susceptible to catching nasty things. I email my consultant and ask his advice. He tells me to follow government guidelines, and that I will shortly receive a letter with instructions about ‘shielding’, a new term to me, but one that will soon become very familiar.
I live in a house close to Cardiff city centre with my wife and daughter no. 1, who is a junior doctor, and living with us while saving to buy her own place. I am a university professor and walk into work most days, up the river and across the park. A pleasant walk. I am reasonably fit and visit the gym frequently. I walk my dog in the park. We get out at weekends. We live an active life.
When the plague comes to our island I decide not to go into work. I tell my Head of School that I will work from home as from 16th March. Daughter no. 2 visits us from London just before the lockdown is announced. Her employers there tell her she can work from home, and since she is here, she stays with us in Cardiff. We are all four at home then, for a few days. On Sunday 22nd March we drive to the mountains near my natal village and go for a long hike. We do not realise it will be our last excursion of this kind for a long time. On Monday 23rd March the university announces that it will close, and that if anyone wants to retrieve anything from their office they should do so now. I drive in and collect my plants, drive home. In the evening Boris announces to the nation in an evening broadcast that the lockdown has begun. He is in Churchillian mode, trying very hard to do serious and sober. The next day daughter no. 1 leaves home and moves in with a medic friend. She works in a local hospital and doesn’t want to infect me or her mother with the plague.
On the 1st April, as foretold by my consultant, I receive a letter from the Welsh Government telling me that as a person with ‘an existing health issue’ I need to take extra steps to avoid catching the plague. If I live with other people (i.e. my wife or daughter no. 2) I should ‘try to keep away from them as much as you can. Try not to be in the same room. If you have to be in the same room try and keep a window open. Keep three steps away . . . Do not sleep in the same bed if you can avoid it . . . Use different bathrooms if you can. If you share a bathroom, clean it after every use. Avoid using the kitchen at the same time as others and eat your meals in separate rooms. Clean all cups, plates and cutlery thoroughly.’
We are still allowed to exercise, and to take the dog for walks. I take my ancient dog, Bruno, for an early stroll by the River Taff, which divides the city in two. The path along the Taff doubles as a cycle track. As we climb onto it from the river bank, where we have been watching the swans, a cyclist, speeding towards us at thirty metres’ distance yells: ‘Get out the bloody way!’ I am so astonished at his rudeness that I am temporarily lost for words. The cyclist has swished past and is heading for the bridge. All I can see of him are his taut, jigging buttocks and his pumping legs. ‘Fuck off, you lycra-clad Nazi’ I yell, finally enunciating a phrase I have been dying to utter for some years now. Passers-by stop and stare, and follow my gaze upstream towards the cyclist. I am willing him to stop. I want him to return so we can have a proper confrontation. The adrenaline is racing through me. I want to rough him up, show him what’s what. The image of a 63 year old man wrestling with a wiry young sporting type on the sidewalk is not very becoming, I’ll admit, but I am fuming. What has come over me? Plague madness? Fortunately the man doesn’t return in response to my taunt. I shuffle home, pondering what might have been.
Boris comes down with the plague. Hardly surprising, considering the way he’s been ignoring his own advice about social distancing and shaking hands with everyone. Why’s it called social distancing anyway? Why isn’t it called personal distancing? He falls ill, and then, dramatically, gets taken into hospital, and onto an intensive care unit. The nation holds its breath.
I have always been slightly worried by Frida Kahlo, perhaps it taps into some source of generalised male guilt, not for things that I have done myself – at least not intentionally, but that might be the very point – but for all the wrongs perpetrated by the men of the world against the women of the world since time began. And yet for all that, Frida does not come across as a victim: she made decisions, and tried to stick with them in spite of the disasters that overtook her (she said once that her life had been defined for her by two disasters: the first was being involved in an horrendous traffic accident when she was 18, the second was meeting Diego Rivera). She was also – and the two things, suffering and greatness, do not always go together – a great artist, independently of Diego, and the passage of time has probably elevated her to a higher position than him in the hierarchy, if not of ‘greatness’, at least of fame, since being adopted as a feminist icon (what a horrible term, I apologise for using it, but this collocation is always employed in reference to Frida, and a blog, for me, is a place of first drafts, which may or may not be developed and refined for publication elsewhere and at a later date).
So yesterday I tried to immerse myself in Frida’s life; took a trip to the twin houses/studios where she lived in San Angél – in separate buildings, connected by a footbridge – with and without Diego, and where I watched a film about her life; and then down to Coyoacán and the blue house that was her parental home, and where she eventually settled (Leon Trotsky was famously one of the houseguests).
I am not going to write in any depth about Frida’s work here: I am not sufficiently knowledgeable, and besides, there is plenty of stuff out there, but I was profoundly moved – almost to tears – by visiting her house, by seeing her instantly recognisable paintings, the extraordinary collection of Mexican votive miniatures she collected, and the clothes she designed (including the painful-looking contraptions she was forced to wear as a result of her deforming accident). There was a queue outside and it had clouded over when I arrived, a straggle of beggars and street people selling wooden toys added to a growing sense of misery. Inside I didn’t feel like taking photos, certainly not of paintings that can be seen in any catalogue of her work, although this didn’t seem to bother the large man with the ipad who barged his way to prime spot in each room, holding his device before him like a weapon, an irony if there there was one. I did however take a picture of a poster designed by Frida of the inter-uterine development of a human child, as this seemed highly appropriate to her personal story (she suffered numerous miscarriages). As I left the house I walked into a brief downpour. It seemed to fit. I was impressed by Frida’s resilience but ultimately saddened by the story of her life, and while I am not all encouraged by much that Mexico is doing for its women (the Ciudad Juarez femicides still stand out as one of the greatest unresolved crimes of recent history), it is good that there are places like this to reflect on the way that one individual can translate her own suffering into such a universal and powerful creative statement.
On a lighter note, I was struck in passing, while visiting the studios of Diego and Frida (his is still intact, hers is used a gallery for the work of contemporary artists) by the resemblance between Diego Rivera and Dylan Thomas. There is that whole 1940s things about their style and appearance, and something about the lips. That and the fact that both artists are widely known by their first names only. The similarity can only be glanced from certain perspectives, but for me at least, it is noteworthy.
And with their respective long-suffering spouses:
I suppose it’s inevitable that we return to the same themes again and again in the course of a writing career, particularly – as is inevitably the case – the same damn things keep cropping up.
Take illness, for example. From an early age, I linked illness with storytelling. My father was a GP, my mother had been a nurse throughout World War Two, both in London during the Blitz and in what was then called ‘The East’. I grew up listening to medical stories. In the village I would hear people talking about their illnesses. Sometimes I would hear their views (when they didn’t notice I was there) on my father, of what a fine gentleman and doctor he undoubtedly was, but of how they ‘wished sometimes he would take a firmer hand with people and tell them what was what’. I, as his son, had evolved a somewhat contrary impression, but that, of course, is to be expected.
Walter Benjamin speculates somewhere about the possible relationship that exists between the art of storytelling and the healing of illness. I know what he means, and have been circling around it, on and off, all my life, much of the second half of which, thus far, I have spend as a chronic, or recidivist patient.
Many, or most of my favourite writers, have been consistently and wretchedly ill, or bed-ridden, or rather, have spent long tracts of time in bed. Coleridge, De Quincey, Stevenson, Proust . . . I am well aware that, like myself, this list (which could be greatly extended) includes those who are termed to have ‘self-inflicted’ illnesses brought on by their vices or addictions. But until last week I had never read Virginia Woolf’s wonderful little essay ‘On Being Ill’. If indeed it can be called an essay, rather than a series of digressions on a theme. I found a very attractive edition, published on nice paper, by The Paris Press in 2002, with an Introduction by Hermione Lee, which I can recommend.
The essay was first published by TS Eliot in his New Criterion magazine in January 1926, despite his unenthusiastic response to it. The essay was, we learn from Woolf’s later correspondence, written in bed, never a bad place to write, I find personally. But Woolf was concerned: “I was afraid that, writing in bed, and forced to write quickly by the inexorable Tom Eliot I had used too many words.”
“Writing in bed” continues Hermione Lee in her Intro, “has produced an idiosyncratic, prolix, recumbent literature – the opposite of “inexorable” – at once romantic and modern, with a point of view derived from gazing up at the clouds and looking sideways on to the world” – and here I am reminded of E.M. Forster’s memory of Cavafy, as of a man ‘standing [or lying] absolutely motionless, at a slight angle to the universe.’ “Illness and writing are netted together from the very start of the essay.”
But is writing in bed for everyone? How about novelists, the novelists of Big Books? Can you imagine Balzac, for instance, writing in bed? Certainly not: he would rather be charging apoplectic up and down the drawing room, tearing down the curtains and writhing on the floor chewing the carpet.
No, Virginia, has strong views on the ill-wisdom of composing entire novels in bed:
“Indeed it is to the poets that we turn. Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose extracts. We cannot command all our faculties and keep our reason and our judgment and our memory at attention while chapter swings on top of chapter, and, as one settles into place, we must be on the watch for the coming of the next, until the whole structure – arches, towers, and battlements – stands firm on its foundation.”
Monsieur Proust, however, might have been inclined to disagree.
If you google ‘writing in bed’ a surprising number of articles appear, including one from a blog by Chris Bell (from whom I borrowed the image of Mark Twain) and by Robert McCrum, about whom I have many reservations, but am open-minded enough to leave this link.
Blanco is somewhat anaemic these days, as a consequence of drug therapy whose other side effects are listed as lethargy, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and . . . rage. That’s right, Le rage. So, to save the venting of my swollen spleen, allow me to regale you instead with a quite uncharacteristically mellow poem from the collection I am currently translating by Joaquín O. Giannuzzi, an Argentinian poet of wonderfully dark and understated talents, which will be published in the autumn by CB Editions.
Horses put up with
the weight of history
until the invention of
the internal combustion engine.
Now, whenever they are born
they stumble and tarry before the light
believing they have burst in
on the wrong world.
Thanks to Scott Pack for his mention of The Vagabond’s Breakfast and selecting it as runner-up in his top ten ‘Books of the Year.’
The fact that it (The Vagabond’s Breakfast) has been totally ignored by the mainstream literary press – it managed one review in the Morning Star – is bloody annoying but not all that surprising. I don’t think literary editors go looking for great books any more, they are content to wait for them to fall into their laps. Although they still miss them when that happens.
The VB also made it into the hallowed pages of Times Literary Supplement, featuring in its ‘Books of the Year’, as one of the choices of Patrick McGuinness, so perhaps I’d better quote that too:
Richard Gwyn began The Vagabond’s Breakfast while recovering from a liver transplant. A memoir of the nine years of drink, drugs and vagrancy that did for his first liver, it’s a jagged tale gracefully told. Full of humane surreality, there’s something whole, even holistic, about the brokenness of the life it pieces (back) together. Like many books about illness, it’s also about health: Gwyn is a citizen of both realms, describing life with “two passports.”
It is still not too late for you to buy a copy of The Vagabond’s Breakfast as a yuletide gift for your beloved or for a friend or deserving relative, through The Book Depository (£7.23 plus free worldwide delivery), Abebooks (various prices) or even Amazon (£6.99 plus free UK delivery).
Such shameless self-promotion would be scandalous were this not being written at arm’s length for me by my amigo, accomplice, intermediary and sometime translator, Señor Ricardo Blanco.
A comment on yesterday’s blog gets things churning as I walk the dog this morning along the sunlit banks of the glorious Taf (how lucky we are to have something resembling countryside within walking distance of the centre here in Cardiff: may the gods protect us from ‘developers’ and their lapdog councillors hell bent on destroying the city’s twin lungs).
Charles comments that Frank Bidart’s poem ‘Borges and I’ argues with the Borges piece I posted yesterday: (‘He had never had a self that wished to continue in its own being, survival meant ceasing to be what its being was’) and in which there’s at least one mirror (‘Secretly he [in this case Frank] was glad it was dirty and cracked’). So I look it up, as I am a diligent fellow.
Bidart’s prose poem, if that is what I am going to call it, as it appears in his poetry collection Desire and is written in prose, is a curious offering. Speaking of himself in the third person, and in the past tense, Frank first questions the veracity of Borges’ stance on his private and public selves:
The voice of this “I” asserts a disparity between its essential self and its worldly second self, the self who seeks embodiment through making things, through work, who in making takes on something false, inessential, inauthentic.
The voice of this “I” tells us that Spinoza understood that everything wishes to continue in its own being, a stone wishes to be a stone eternally, that all “I” wishes is to remain unchanged, itself.
But, argues Frank, who is really fooled by this? Most certainly Borges wasn’t, whatever he wishes us to believe:
When Borges’ “I” confesses that Borges falsifies and exaggerates it seems to do so to cast aside falsity and exaggeration, to attain an entire candor unobtainable by Borges.
This “I” therefore allows us to enter an inaccessible magic space, a hitherto inarticulate space of intimacy and honesty earlier denied us, where voice, for the first time, has replaced silence.
– Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.
The illusion of an integral, perceptive ‘self’ which stands in isolate and unsullied contrast to the public face of the writer (in his case ‘Borges’) is therefore a conceit; even, very neatly, a literary conceit, one in fact I use on my students – as another of the commentators on yesterday’s post, ‘Vivian Darkbloom’ reminds me – to illustrate . . . something (what exactly?) about the other, the double, the doppelganger, the ‘secret sharer’.
Borges wrote two short stories about meetings with himself, one set in Cambridge, Massachusets in the 1970s, and a late one, set in 1983, both of them highly self-conscious and rather arch creations, the first better than the second. But they deal with a rather different notion, that of meeting an older or younger version of oneself.
I am concerned about the contemporaneous double, the secret sharer, as he is familiar to me. I came into close contact with him during the illness I describe in The Vagabond’s Breakfast. This is the one you get used to talking to in the delirium of illness, or the one that is conjured for you by the opiate deities. He is the absent other of the encephalopathic brain, and my first realisation that he was infringing on my sanity took place at a book launch in February 2007, when my mobile phone went off while I was speaking to the assembled public and my thoughts were if I answer, it will be myself at the other end, wandering the streets, asking where the event is taking place.
The second time that I was made aware of this concretisation of the other self was after a prolonged bout of insomnia, when I miraculously managed a full eight hours’ sleep one night, and woke with “a sense of panic, as though by sleeping for so long I had missed something essential; what precisely, I could not have said, but the closest I can get to an explanation for my panic, or guilt, would be this: that I had slept while the other me, the insomniac me, had suffered the night in terrible solitude, and that I (who had been asleep) should have been keeping him (i.e. myself) company.”
I believe, as I say in the book, that this is called the disintegration of the self. And I know that it was caused by a state of disorder brought about by illness and the effect of ammonia on the brain and so on, but I am equally certain that the potential for this kind of double-act (or hell, multiple division of the self) is only a step away from the apparent safety of the stable self, with its illusions of a fixed identity. As psychologists like RD Laing were saying decades ago.
Borges’ piece, with its leanings (some might say pretensions) towards a Tao whereby stones are stones and tigers tigers, alerts the reader to the doubleness of life for the famous writer Borges and his private, unassuming ‘I’ (who likes hourglasses and Stevenson’s prose for what they are rather than the affections they become in the words of ‘Borges’). But is this just too twee and self-congratulatory for its own good?
It certainly doesn’t cut the mustard if you have recently emerged from the gaseous belly of the many-headed beast, or crawled, wailing, through the dark, sticky entrails of the labyrinth, although, to be fair, this cannot be a reasonable judgement to level against a piece of creative writing: charging it for what it is not.
But am I, are we, in danger, in fact, of sanctifying Borges just a bit? After all, it has been argued, quite convincingly, that apart from some poems, not much of what he wrote after the 1950s was really much good. In his essay on Borges, Coetzee has written of some of the later works that “there is much tired writing in them; they add nothing to his stature” and: “The stories that had made him famous had been written in the 1930s and 1940s. He had lost his creative drive and had furthermore become suspicious of these earlier, ‘baroque’ pieces. Though he lived until 1986 he would only fitfully reproduce their intellectual daring and intensity.”
Anyhow, it gave me something to think about, along the muddy riverbank, as the dog wrestled with a big fish, which, on closer inspection, became a log.
Having written about illness in various media over recent years – principally as a so-called academic and the writer of a memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I am alert to the ways that other writers approach the subject, and am usually interested in what they have to say (so long as their writing does not launch into tedious new-age rage at the incompetence of ‘Western’ medicine, or degrade itself by spurious claims to the kind of quackery familiar to devotees of certain ‘wellness’ manuals).
For Some Reason
I bought coffee, cigarettes, matches.
I smoked, I drank
and faithful to my personal rhetoric
put my feet on the table.
Fifty years old with the certainty of the damned.
Like almost everyone I messed up
without making too much noise;
yawning at nightfall I muttered my disappointment,
and spat on my shadow before going to bed.
This was all the response that I could offer to a world
that claimed from me a character that possibly
didn’t suit me.
Or maybe something else is at stake. Perhaps
there was a different plan for me
in some potential lottery
and my number was lost.
Perhaps no one settles on a strictly private destiny.
Perhaps the tide of history settles it for one and all.
This much remains to me:
a fragment of life that tired me out in advance,
a poem paralyzed halfway towards
an unknown resolution;
dregs of coffee in the cup
that for some reason
I never dared drain to the last drop.
On the Other Side
Someone has died on the other side of the wall.
At intervals there is a voice, hemmed in by sobbing.
I am the nearest neighbour and I feel
slightly responsible: blame
always finds an outlet.
In the rest of the building
no one seems to have noticed. They talk,
they laugh, they switch on televisions, they devour
every last scrap of meat and every song. If they knew
what had happened so close by, the thought
of death wouldn’t be sufficient
to alter the cardiac rhythm of the
They would push the deceased into the future
and their indifference would have its logic:
after all, no one dies any more than anyone else.
In the bed opposite
the man woke up snoring
his open mouth set
in desperate conviction.
The serum was dripping
into his veins. From my belly
sprouted two plastic tubes
in which a pink foam bubbled
as if it were the definitive language
of my entrails. To one side
someone coughed up
the last of his viscera.
A springtime branch swayed
behind the window’s glass
flaunting the life owed us
in exchange for the disorders
that laid waste to our pale bones.
Everything seemed suspended
between universal infirmity
and the opportunities offered to death.
In the corridor a nurse fluttered by
and we followed her with eyes intent on
laying bare the fermented secret
of our clinical notes:
but we didn’t manage to reach
her distant and weary heart.