Tuesday, January 30, 2007

In Which I Turn My Back On The Literary Snobbery Of My Youth

Ten years ago this week Penguin published It Must Be Love, a small collection of short stories. All proceeds went to the Terrence Higgins Trust, a British AIDS charity. Included amongst its pages was a story I wrote, "Queen's Park Scherzo", an amiable enough boy-meets-girl sort of tale. Getting published for the first time wasn't quite the life-changing experience I had anticipated but it was pretty exciting nonetheless. People's reactions to the story ranged from cautiously condescending to glowingly effusive. Here's the thing that bothered me; people would invariably say "It really reminded me of author X". Now, at twenty-five, when literary superstardom is just around the corner the last thing that you want to hear is that your work is even in the same firmament as another writer. And it wasn't Georges Perec or Julian Barnes that I was generally being compared to. No, it was good old Nick Hornby. I was disgusted of course, even though I loved High Fidelity and it may me cry twice before anyone died. I didn't want to be popular, I wanted to be literary. Hornby was definitively mid-brow. I wanted to mentioned in the same breath as Nabokov, Updike and Bellow.

I was only twenty-five.

By way of apology to Mister Hornby (I'll get round to "A Long Way Down" as soon as I feel ready for it) and in homage to his early masterpiece I present my Top 5 Break-Up Albums of all time.

1. Us - Peter Gabriel

Written following his split with Rosanna Arquette. Mystical, troubling, very beautiful. Managed to get both me and my friend Marv through difficult break-ups of our own (possibly with the same girl). (Not Rosanna Arquette, you understand).

2. The Colour And The Shape - Foo Fighters

Dave's first marriage goes to shit but the world gets "Everlong". Hardly seems fair.

3. Jagged Little Pill - Alanis Morrisette

"Did you forget about me, Mr Duplicity?" Brilliant. And she was about fifteen when she wrote it. Which perhaps explains her somewhat loose grasp of the concept of irony.

4. Hearts And Bones - Paul Simon

Another actress (Carrie Fisher this time) departs leaving a trail of exquisite songs in her wake. And "Cars Are Cars".

5. Tunnel of Love - Bruce Springsteen

The Boss had been touring for three years solid. Homesick, he sought solace in the arms of Patty, one of his backing singers, who, appropriately enough, looked liked one of Marge Simpson's sisters. This was an obvious downgrade, but the ways of love are indeed mysterious. Anyway, he wrote about it and produced his best album since "Nebraska".

Now that's mid-brow.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Habeas Corpus

Foot-binding, apparently, has ceased altogether. The Kayan women of Myanmar still stretch their necks with brass coils and in the West young folk pierce themselves for an endorphin rush. Michelle, a friend of mine, explains that one can consider one's body as a blank canvas, or as an unadorned sculpture, that is ripe for decoration.

I don't understand, and I likely never will. I appreciate that there's a degree of hypocrisy in my position. I shave, after all. I wear wooden bracelets and a wedding ring. I'm circumcised, though that wasn't my idea. I have this dark, rather nasty suspicion that body modification, particulary the extreme, socially deviant type, is an expression of an inward deficiency, or a distractionary tactic. The idea being that you think of an individual not as the sum of their shortcomings but instead as the guy with the rawlbolt through his septum. Interestingly this is a view I've always held and perhaps, like any view long held it's subject to erosion. Almost everyone's pierced or tattooed nowadays, after all. Soon I'll be the outsider. The only man in London under forty without some visible scarification. People will point and stare. "Look at him, the self-satisfied fool!" they'll say. "He's nothing more than a lump of crude, unshaped soapstone!" But I'll know, whether they have modified themselves in order to fit in, or in order to stand out, that they cannot judge me, because I have remained pure of heart, and just as the God I don't believe in intended. I will refuse to judge them, out loud at least. But I'll know. I'll know.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Abstract Impressionism is Easy

We bought a "Paint Your Own Dali" kit from a discount bookshop (we'd gone in there to buy a road atlas, which they didn't have, curiously). It was the cheapest way to buy a canvas and some acrylic paints; the idea never being to attempt to incompetently reproduce Premonition of Civil War but instead to allow my daughter and myself to daub away.

I was thinking Rothko. My daughter had other ideas. "I want a heart," she said, "and a flower." Specifically the flower represented by her name. She indicated where she wanted them on the canvas. I began to paint.

Of course I can't paint. Not representative painting anyway. I went through a phase of spatter-painting at seventeen inspired by Jackson Pollock via John Squire. It's pretty easy to achieve some striking effects. But my inability to draw and my lack of skill with a brush have hampered my otherwise inevitable development into the next GĂ©ricault.

The finished effort was rubbish. Totally without merit. An embarrassment to the canvas. There was never any question of it being hung anywhere, but I couldn't quite bring myself
to throw it away. So it's been kicked around the house for a fortnight or so, sneaking into the corner of my vision occasionally, to remind me of my limitations.

On Monday, housebound, waiting for a courier who didn't ever arrive, I decided to take action against the offending objet. I found a small pot of metallic pink paint under the sink and began overpainting the canvas. As I did so the acrylic underneath began to lift and mix with the pink paint, creating a richly coloured paste. I grabbed a palette knife and began smearing the canvas with the paste, as if buttering toast, a technique, I dimly remembered, called impasto. It was exciting, I felt a little like Nick Nolte in "Life Lessons". I touched the picture up with streaks of acrylic, vermilion and burnt siena mixed. The smell of burnt siena, like the smell of roasted peanuts, is delicious and repulsive all at once.

I have no talent for the plastic arts, evidently, but it's very satisfying to have fluked something half-decent. And for a few moments I thought about packing in the day job and making a living selling my work over the internet, entering the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, perhaps getting some galleries interested...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Invasive Metal Injury Redux

The marital bed, which doubles as a crash mat for my daughter when she's in gymnastic mood (I stretch out on the bed and she vaults over my legs), collapsed beneath me as she was about to pounce. Any other day it wouldn't have been a huge problem, the frame was drilled for different height mattresses, meaning that I had simply to lower the angle sections on each side, along with the central strut, refix them and drop the wooden slats back into place. But I'd given blood earlier in the day and my left arm was rather stiff, and she was already overtired and we'd hoped to get her to bed early. My drill/driver doesn't seem to hold a charge any longer so I was obliged to do the whole thing by hand, while feeling rather run down. Leaning in to achieve the most secure tightening of the angle section to the frame I put all my weight on my left knee and then felt, and perhaps heard a faint popping akin to a skewer puncturing a bag of mince. A wave of nausea followed as I rocked backwards to discover that I had forcibly introduced a nailless sawtooth picture hanger (illustrated above) into the soft tissue of said knee. The most unpleasant aspect of the situation was that it was still attached; the two slightly barbed tines that are normally driven into the reverse of a box canvas were instead going about their business - not falling out, essentially - in my lower leg. I pulled it out, and a sucking sensation, broadly antonymous to the entry pain but significantly more acute caused me to make a noise like a very elderly man might under torture. Twice. And I still had to finish rebuilding the bed. I soldiered on, leaving perfectly circular bloodmarks, about the size of an old penny and with the colour and definition that one would expect from a recently refurbished franking machine, all over the newly laid laminate floor. This was Friday evening. It's still pretty sore.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Little Learning

I hated school, in spite of it being an environment in which I thrived, for the most part. I asked my daughter yesterday if she was looking forward to returning to school. "It gives me a headache," she said. She's six, so there's a possibility that if I'd asked her the same question five minutes later she'd have nodded excitedly and started telling me about the games she plays with Pearl and Ebony and Kamar. But I asked her at the wrong time and was obliged to struggle with the guilt which accompanies the idea that you are sending your child into an environment where they are unhappy for six hours a day, every day.

My resentment of all things scholastic began in the infant classes, when on beautiful spring mornings I'd sit and wait for the other children in my class to complete exercises I'd knocked off in seconds, staring out past a climbing-frame free of clamberers to a football pitch where no goals were being scored. What was the point of these empty minutes? Why was I so confined?
Worse still, being an advanced reader, and intermittently deaf I was constantly subjected to the prodding and beeping of educationalists and audiologists, held separate and distinct from the other children by both my gifts and shortcomings. I spent entire afternoons in the small lounge at the centre of the school, reading passages from technical journals and dissertations to astonished young women in polyester trousers. A large window faced south off the lounge and along the sill were a number of potted geraniums whose baked odour made me nauseous on hot days. Xenophobia caught me out, I remember. I pronounced the first syllable zyen- which might be how they say it in Spain. I wouldn't have guessed this then, of course, back when foreign holidays were only for rich folk and criminals.

We were concerned that my daughter had inherited my hearing problems. After a series of familiar tests - you hear a beep at a range of frequencies and place a wooden peg into a hole on a board - it has been determined that there is nothing wrong with her. She's simply ignoring everyone.

She's back with her friends, at least. All presumably ambivalent about their education, applying smuggled lipgloss in a quiet corner of the playground. I hope she's happy.