Friday, 17 May 2013
It's not easy to imagine our peaceful, prosperous London suburb in wartime, bombs falling night after night, but the talk I attended this week by local historian Brian Green made it easier.
The outlines I could always have supplied from the stories told by my mother's family, who spent the war elsewhere in London, just a few years before I was born. Nine years before, like looking back to 2004 - it's no time at all. So close it must have felt to them when I was small: the shelters and the bombs, the rationing, the blackout and the air-raid sirens, the fear and the not knowing how or when it would end.
So I've always had some idea of how it must have been, here just a few miles from Westminster, always known that the spots of newer housing in the dense, homogenous Victorian architecture of Dulwich must be where the bomb damage was worst.
I didn't know that British Fascists, including William Joyce aka Lord Haw Haw, met here, sometimes in the very upstairs room at Dulwich Library where we heard Brian's talk. Didn't know that one of the grand Dulwich Village mansions housed agents-in-training from occupied Holland. Hadn't seen the photos of the park dug up for vegetable plots or the iron back-garden shelters or the shattered, burned-out houses in familiar streets.
Much as I appreciate the green spaces and comparative quiet of Dulwich, it's always felt to me, like the rest of London, rather unreal - not much local identity. These photographs and stories made it feel more real. And, shocking as they are, the way the place grew up again, seamlessly mended, feels rather comforting and hopeful. We live in daunting times, but so much less daunting than seventy years ago.
Photo from a Dulwich Society publication.
Saturday, 11 May 2013
How we crave shapes and patterns. When I was a kid, you used to see this kind of dense, geometric, primary-coloured planting in every public park, on every traffic island. Now it's rare and tends to scream irony. This is rather lovely, though.
Finally, perhaps I am finding some shape and pattern in what I'm doing, some intellectual ground from which to think and write, and which is also a context for the editing and translation work. It's been more than a year of feeling very lost and frightened...
Sunday, 5 May 2013
Sunday, 28 April 2013
I’ve been reading Maggie Nelson's genre-defying little book, Bluets, which I first learned of from a series of thoughtful and beautiful musings by Sigrun in Norway and which Victoria of Tales from the Reading Room recently reviewed in characteristically perceptive and illuminating fashion.
While reading I looked for blue things to photograph, found a plethora of blue things both natural and artificial, all miraculously vivid in the late-arriving strong spring sunshine. The long, cold, bleak winter just ended, and almost unprecedented in this country, was rather like having emigrated, without knowing it, to a new, alarming place. The spring that finally followed – late, fierce and fluctuating – had been so much longed for, but is proving hard, for me at least, to adjust to and embrace. Somehow this sudden light and warmth alarms me too. The contrast is too great. Pushed and pulled as I feel to open to it, I find myself shrinking away. The winter left me shrivelled and defensive, ill-equipped to move towards the sunshine. This is all too obvious and painful a metaphor for life in the longer term.
Bluets is a small book that tackles big topics, overwhelming feelings: lost love, a friend’s catastrophic injury. To approach passionate suffering through colour seems not inappropriate. The perception of colour - so ordinary and everyday, yet intensely primal and intensely allusive; so essential, yet essentially ephemeral and questionable - opens many doors. I think of John Berger and John Christie’s wonderful I Send You This Cadmium Red. Long out of print, it’s now deservedly an expensive collector’s item, but I’ve been lucky enough to twice see the whole book, along with their original letters and artwork, in London exhibitions: one of the most inspiring, creative and truly collaborative works I’ve ever encountered.
Bluets, of course, is the opposite of collaborative, one woman’s slowly hatched, intensely personal and individual work, but it too opens many doors, gathering so many sources, experiences and emotions into a single brief and quirky little book of short, numbered paragraphs. Why are they numbered? This is not sequential or progressive or hierarchical and “there are no instruments for measuring blue”. It’s not poetry. Not even, I would argue, prose poetry. Also not a story or an essay or any kind of narrative. What holds it together is the strands of blue; along with events, feelings, readings, musings from the writer’s life, they stop and start, weave in and out like short and longer threads plaited into a braid. What this is, and how it does it, I don’t know, but it moves me emotionally and it moves forward, holds the attention, builds and resolves tension.
When linear narrative breaks down, there may still be other approaches, through beauty, creativity, emotional and intellectual leaps and connections. This is a work that resonates, that I expect to reread.