I felt her presence the moment she crossed the threshold. I would not claim she ‘breezed in’, but her penetration came with a cold wind of dread, dread not of illness —nothing in me expected to be one of the chosen— but an unnameable dread that suddenly life as I had known it was to end.
It was certain, not apocalyptic.
I should set the chosen victim in context before I introduce you to this ruthless calculating doyenne with her watch chain and gaunt resolve, a Mrs. Danvers mark ten. I was paddling slowly towards old age with some of the irritating symptoms, to which I gave no attention. I still had things to accomplish, a memoir to finish, other works to polish, and the days were filled with purpose and routines. Purpose had driven my puritanical life, to contribute something of small significance. I had long been indifferent to my appearance, or clothes and I wanted little. I hardly saw anyone. A reason to keep writing was all there was, and it was enough for some to say ‘You don’t seem anything like eighty’. I was nowhere near eighty, then. It was three months ago, that ‘then’.
Like any professional invader, Covida cleared her workspace, which was my mind, exterminating any resistance. She knew exactly what was required. I would submit, no nonsense, and since this would be a rehearsal for death I would lie down and sleep while she went about eliminating the value of anything I had achieved, chopping down and uprooting before the pyre of correction consumed it all, the garden of my life lived. All illusions were swept away by her broom of unvarnished truth.
I slept uninterrupted for eight days and eight nights, only broken by a glass held to my lips every four hours, but the inner journey I took was her prelude for the other still to come.
First the landscape went pewter and metallic-ally grey, and the maw of a funnel sucked me slowly and inexorably towards it, until I fell, like Alice into a wonderland of bleak revelations. Grey flattened replicas of Covids floated past, like blood platelets or planarias with their characteristic spikes, as though suspended in a viscous medium, not threatening because being omnipotent they had no need for menace. They were masters in the medium of my blood and brain, and they were a tribe that had total possession, make no mistake.
Then, one at a time, I floated down past recent friends, and each was wrapped in a coloured film of slight colour, blue or green or grey. I saw that film as my projected imprisonment of those friends by my hopes and expectations of them. Those friends wrapped like mummies, had never been fully seen because I had projected upon them roles that answered to me. My longing for a reader had failed to differentiate between someone who admired my writing— in sich— from what I was writing which she couldn’t believe in, not really. Since the substance of what I was writing was my memories reconstructed with all their innocence, she, not believing them, was not believing in my world or my integrity. So my friendship built over years now seems to lie shattered. My hope had blinded me and imprisoned her. Already I miss her.
So it was with each of them. Another, much younger, was wrapped in my confidence that she had never seen me other then as a contemporary, but Covida ripped off that illusion and showed her as kind but never carelessly equal. I wanted her youth, and she had granted it. I had expropriated her kindness. Others more distant were not mummified by my expectations but patiently waiting for their deserving recognition. I had neglected so many. There it was. One cannot unsee what one has seen.
Covida is a ruthless excavator of truth, the truth about oneself.
After the pewter funnel of recent life I landed in a black landscape in which the setting sun was a thin sliver of light on the horizon. It had the atmosphere of a Caspar David Friedrich painting, bleak but inevitable. That light was the remnant of my future life, if I was to live. I took a vow, then and there, that if I survived I would not return to the unthinking, semi conscious existence I had been living. Nor re-clothe myself in the goals of self-importance, although without them the air blows cold about me. How will I spend my days?
I have not yet found another life to live. Perhaps when Covida gives her consent to let me walk more than three hundred yards without staggering, and remain vertical for a whole day I will. She is parsimonious with her spoonfuls of stamina. Some morning I rise with a teaspoonful that will last until noon, other days she is liberal with enough to see me through until tea time, and I have fed the dog before the desperation to lie down takes me back to bed.
Being stripped naked of all clothes of self belief, all the satisfactions from accomplishments ( and I had a few) leaves little from which to restructure a new existence. Perhaps a dulling of Covida’s influence will tempt me to return to smug satisfaction. I hope I will resist.
I have long had a place I go to in the imagination, a weather beaten grey wooden shack above a cove, shining like a coin, enfolded by the arms of the earth, and known only to gulls. That is where I hope to find a new life. Needing and wanting nothing.
I am now just as old as I look, perhaps older than even I know.
I do wonder whether my single experience is also to be the collective consequence of Covida’s invasion of the planet. Will she strip us collectively naked to repent of our blindness? Will we find its ruthless truth cleansing? I give Covida a female gender since women have a deeper appetite for truth, and are deeper mired in roles which imprison them and those they serve.
Humanity has received new vision, and been stripped of outworn illusions. Here is a lesson for greedy monopolies, you will all live with less, and you, extinction rebellion warriors, see in my power instant cleaner air, grounded flights, and the reduction in the population. Go home dears, your strident protests have been heard. For you, Identity Minorities is the colour of your skin, or the temper of your unhappy gender still important now you are hungry and nobody cares about your statues or petty obsessions.
The woman who has guided my life, and plucked at my shoulder whenever I neglected her was born this day 200 years ago exactly. I vowed I would finish a memoir that is not just a literary tribute to her but a sleuthing of her intermittent interruptions through my 78 years of following in her treads. I did so yesterday in time to light the candles today.
George Eliot packed four signed volumes of her last novel (Daniel Deronda)to my great great great Aunt (Eliza Mary Sanderson nee Barrett) who she had never met, and never would. The aunt, who was childless, and who lived in South Africa left them to my grandmother. Nobody knew what had prompted the gift, but the books were bequeathed to me. I first saw them when I was sixteen. Then they were stolen by my own aunt and given to a University Library in a place they would never be asked for.
The influence of George Eliot initially was that of overwhelming admiration, and the seduction to leave Africa for England, for its literature, its poetry, its traditions, its certainty of varied seasons. She summoned me to a different world, and ultimately to the ambition to write. But that was only half the story.
The other half was locked in the mystery of those books. The call to write the memoir was to discover the end of the story that began with them. That gift linked me directly to the author. I discovered not only her (adopted) family’s direct connections to my own but an unknown poetic work that I had never known of but echoed in my narrative poem Involution. It now seems that George Eliot was a restless muse, and found a scribe to finish what she had only just sketched before her premature death at sixty one. It seems my life was merely to mix the colours and sharpen the quills!
Perhaps that is all I was meant to do, to write her Religion for Humanity?
My life has been sliced into decades that echoed each one of hers, without knowing it. It mirrored her search for answers to belief, exploring every doctrine only to find each in turn insufficient. Each exploration of hers gave rise to a stupendous work, from Methodism in Adam Bede, Catholicism in Romola, to Judaism in Daniel Deronda, but the greatest novel of all, Middlemarch, exposed the dry vacuity of intellectual answers in the character of Casaubon seeking ‘The Key to all the Mythologies’. In his arid search for authority he betrays everything and everyone else, most importantly his marriage to his yearning idealistic wife, seduced by his so-called erudition. Erudition of that kind is the atrophy of the soul. This was the work Virginia Woolf called the ‘first novel for adults’. By that I take her to mean that meaning is not arrived at by catalogue or cogitation, or ‘givens’ from any source, but by independent ‘openness’ to all. And the courage to step away from any collective. (George Eliot was never a joiner of groups, not even those who expected it like the suffragettes.) I echo her in that.
George Eliot’s life was a life in search of love, and loving gave access to meaning, not just for oneself but through the lovers of music, inspiration, ideas, and the great adventure of life. Life was the ‘great book’ of wisdom.
Tomorrow I will add an imaginary conversation with the great author whose search was my own but whose recognition and rewards were the very opposite. For now I will rejoice in having known her. She is incomparable.
Yeah? Nah. Never.
Look again. The PHI. Fee Phi Fo Fum
Now, still so sceptical?
Nearly fifty years ago I wrote the Theory of Involution. I jumped across a void and suggested that the entirety of Evolutionary memory was stored in ‘junk DNA’. Science had been simply the recovery of that record by the mavericks, aka the Geniuses, given access to the stacks. All those diligent contemplatives in dust coats sifting through the aisles. Aha got it! Move over. Try this instead.
No I never put it quite like that. I ennobled these minions of the library with their Eurekas as the bright sparks cannoning into God; God being the field of memory shared out in every cell, the Internet of information. I made that suggestion after studying the chronology of recovery, which went back in time, while evolution goes forward. And I further suggested that the Internet was simply the model of what we had had access to; always.
It tanked: My wonderful hypothesis. A few notables like Arthur Koestler, and Konrad Lorenz gave it a cautious thumbs up ( maybe they recognised my recognition since they were both of the got-the-badge brotherhood of genius) but on the whole I was derided, spat out, dragged before a Cambridge Committee and made a coconut-shy guy.
So I rewrote it as poetry. The advantage of poetry is that those disposed to understand it will; those who wouldn’t are not quite sure what you have said. Or whether it is quite wise to reject it, until they are sure. A bit like hiding a secret doctrine behind a combination code; poetry is just like DNA in that regard, a spiral of information that only the deft can unwind.
Which brings me to this week’s news. And a satisfying validation. Unesco’s Memory of the World Archive have synthesized DNA that encodes (and will store forever) two songs from the Montreux Jazz Festival a mere 140 MB of data. This storage is smaller than a grain of sand, and if they want to encode the rest (6 Petabytes) it will be smaller than a grain of rice. According to the people who measure, the entire internet would fit in a storage container of DNA the size of a shoebox.
Well! The size of anything is irrelevant (although the perfection of DNA’s coiled structure wound on protein spools makes even its size and protection of information a superlative secretary. A perfection of PHI and Fibonacci). I cast my net of conjecture upon the shining net of DNA throughout the cosmos and even unto DNA’s precursors in RNA and unattached nucleotides not then organised.
The Russians worked out DNA storage in the sixties ( roughly at the same time I was suggesting my hypothesis) because Pyotr Gariaev had divined that DNA was not a ‘structure’ as much as it was a language; a language in which context gives meaning, and there are homonyms that look the same but mean different things depending on their surroundings, and what comes before, and what comes after. Infinitely flexible, infinitely rich and multidimensional, universally readable, universally modifiable. Gariaev spoke to seeds destroyed by Chernobyl with laser light re-instructed by healthy DNA and they sprouted. Miraculous? DNA responds to sound waves, its language read throughout the biosphere. Mantras work on DNA. The biosphere speaks, hears, changes, remembers.
So in suggesting that DNA was the language, not merely the 3% encoding protein structure, but a language of memory and memory of experiences, the basis of ‘re-cognition’. Cognition aka science. The cosmic record.
Still they have managed the two songs; they have managed to synthesize what nature has perfected for millions of years. They are getting there. I was fairly ahead of the time, by half a century.
There is some comfort in that. It would be great if someone else noticed, but it’s unlikely. So forgive me.
I hate the word ‘content’. It means nothing. But this ‘content’ seemed worth storing in my own shoe box of cuttings- resprouting.
Move Over- Book Seeks Space for Indefinite Period. Period
I don’t suppose anybody has noticed my absence, but in case anyone has I must include you in some reasons. The minor medical scare was not a reason but a release. I may never have to write again! Marvellous. I’ll tidy out the cupboards, sell the beloved cello. Weed the garden and wait. Maybe I’ll need a crucifix? Shall I dig a trench next to all the dogs and make life easier for everyone all round?
Instead the ‘all clear’ verdict has re-locked my ball and chain, fastened me to the throne of myself, and re-filled the Parker pen. Metaphorically speaking. Get to work. You don’t escape that easily.
Now here’s the problem. Or some of them. What I write does not have commercial appeal. Never did, never will.
I know ‘page turning’ ( I do it myself) means plot, means tension, means the hero’s quest, means structure. But the only quest I can call on is to understand my extraordinary life. I have been trying to puzzle it out since I had teeth to chew upon. Too much extra-ordinariness IS the PLOT. A wholly improbable life that implies something; orchestration, purpose, intention. Towards what? I still don’t know how it ends, though it is fairly imminent. Maybe time for one more book?
But, and here comes hell, there is simply too much of it, and a life is a whole. A book, any book must make a judicious selection and pull out threads from the tapestry, and weave a hair or wrist band and leave it at that.
Here have been some under consideration.
1.The view from the bridge over the chasm between Africa and England? End up offending both sides? Boer the reader with the Boer War, teach them to ride bareback over the koppies, and my grandmother’s views on Cecil Rhodes, Jock of the Bushveldt, Baden Powell et al. Then transport them to Mary Quant and sixties hip London for the blast-off, that fizzled out? You get the drift. Mandela followed by Zuma- no absolute heroes, a fair few villains. Margaret Thatcher? Over-cooked. Yet there are distinctive flavours.
2. The Search for love. Now that is a kinda quest. Literature as a kind of painting by numbers ( choose your own heroes) and all the seductions of wrong directions. Just William and Ginger would never have welcomed you in their gang. There is no John of Gaunt for you girl, and Rhett Butler? Nah, never.
Oxbridge and Virginia Woolf? Getting warmer but all that racism and preciousness? You don’t know about the overt racism? Just you wait! I took Harold Nicolson’s letters home personally since they were written while he was a guest of my Zulu speaking grandfather, who was forced to endure the company of a man who despised the people he loved. And said so. Explicitly.
But wait! There is a story and one with a literary bite. George Eliot picking up the odd stitchuntil I faced her full frontal at a graveside in Natal. That could make a novella for a discerning small publisher? But how I came to find her, and find the grave, weaves back into the fam-damily and the WHOLE narrative. Otherwise it looks flimsy, or contrived. It is neither.
So okay a memoir. Threads of all the above discerningly selected. I probably won’t have time to manage more than one.
Can you see why I have been silent? Six beginnings, all expiring at the third chapter.
Last night I had a rescuing dream. I had summoned my Daimon and appealed. ‘Give me a sign’.
In the dream I was contemplating the need to accommodate a guest I had never met. I was apprehensive because I knew it would be a long sojourn. I drifted through my beach shack house ( clapboard, glass, and sparsely furnished swept rooms with a lot of light but few creature comforts).
This small room at the back? Too dark. I want her to be able to read and entertain herself.
This large room I like? Where will I spend time? She’ll command the only bathroom.
Ah, this pillar that holds up the roof? With a well supported ledge? She could curl round it to sleep and would, in consequence make herself scarce during the day? A sort of Simeon Stylites guest?
Imagine being looked down upon all day? I woke up.
On contemplating this signal dream, I understood my wrestling dilemma. I was trying to accommodate this book by avoiding her, as much as possible. Confining her to an isolation ward, that would not infect me, keep her distant; feed her scraps.
I have created the shack of myself over the years. I go there when I am overwhelmed. It sits above a cove of beach, and tidal plashing sea; its enfolding arms stretch to the horizon. The shack has a porch with a grass chair and a hammock. Below, through an arch of rock, where the tide leaves small pools, and crushed shell is the opening to the beach. Across the sands lies a moored boat with a single sail. The mariner never faces me but I know he waits to unfurl that sail when I have the courage to enter through the rock and walk towards him.
I realised that if she were to be welcomed she would have to occupy, (and be invited to occupy), the whole house, from foundations up. Wander from room to room, and interrupt. I will probably end up hating her.
Because it is the whole house of myself I seek to understand. Perhaps when I have finished, the mariner and I will depart
Two years ago this month our last beloved collie died. Having written a poetic tribute to her ( here) we have gradually become used to the sense of absence. Life is flatter, the day without a wag of celebration or the need for disciplined walks. A dog’s life it is no longer, but a dog’s life it now feels.
Recently the urge to try again has been festering. But here’s the thing. We are too old and too arthritic to contemplate a puppy. Yet it seems an adopted dog is a half formed affair, a love born of need ( both ours and any-old-dog’s) one with a time limit ( our decrepitude and a dog’s need to age in synchrony) and a substitute for the choice of that glossy coat, that starred bib, those soulful eyes and then the bond that comes from mutual training, mutual acquaintance and the growth of mutual tolerance. The thread of an infant dog is twine that snakes through every routine, we grew up together, didn’t we? We both know where all the balls are buried.
Shall I re-home a half breed dog, a mutt mongrel of no known pedigree, and when people ask simply say ‘I felt sorry for this abandoned cur and we hang out together. Don’t ask me why.’ ‘Nobody else wanted it; I suppose that explains it.’
It occurs to me that this is a parallel for my own condition. Anybody willing to re-home this similar runt of an author? Rejected by so many trial homes? The latest promised well; a home that advertised the persuasive search for ‘your signature story’ and had me biting out fleas from my matted coat? I do have quite a flourish signature story ( nearly as many curlicues as the Virgin Queen) so, with a will, I re-launched a shiny new website ( this PHI one) that has garnered even fewer pats than the previous version. Then I visited the home that promised my ‘first ten thousand readers’ and asked me to ‘funnel a free book’ to hook in a devoted following who will sniff out my continuing hot off the press, book-a-year series with as-clear-a-genre markings as a Dalmatian. Or ‘get together with other similar authors and box a set for a mega splash‘ Yeah? Who might they be? This beach I occupy is deserted.’Oh you’re the intellectual indie‘ they said when I tried.’ Not much of a fit.’ Nobody realises that my signature story is as contra-intellectual as ‘Hello Magazine’? Not so much flesh, granted.
None of my potential ‘funnels’ are any kind of guide to my smelly genre which changes as the seasons do. ‘Fergetit, Novellas are read only by the French, not cool. Short stories? Nah. Now whaddya got besides?’ The home that blasted an advertisement ( for a whopping fee) and gave me the first respondent ‘Not very modest are you?’ I yelped a protest ( It wasn’t me wot wrote it sir) and slunk away.
I had been whimpering quietly, and to myself for years and thought ‘ah well, these professionals should know what they’re about. Time to bite back modesty and accept help! Let’s PAY to be re-branded!’ I was branded a boaster with fire tongs. Szzzz. Ever smelled burnt hair?
That was after I had become house-trained in the independent author kennel. I tried not to foul my concrete run; I had given before asking (some thirty odd reviews of demanding books) and four for a single small, no, not small-minute, publisher. Not a peep of ‘how can I help you, need a run? Stretch your legs? I hung out the Twitter taping and Facebook bunting, and made metaphorical cup cakes for the indie street gang. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed doing it, because Oh, I was young and easy under the apple boughs, about the lilting hope; licked any hand extended, but now I curl up with a chin on my paws, time holds me green-and-dying-and-all-that. Even my favourites are scrambled. Purity never pays.
Once in awhile I get thrown a snack ‘I bought your book, really enjoying it but wonder whether you might…?’Or the publisher who suggested he’d like to republish part, but ‘Here’s the deal. You pay set up fees, you buy review copies ( at a mere 55%), you repurchase unsold books and I authorize any publicity and hold the copyright for five years of the one you have already managed to publish’ The one already published that ‘magnum opus’ doorstop I bravely put about when I was a young and agile trainee in agility classes , wiggling through tunnels of editing and clearing those hurdles of high-flying endorsements. You just try endorsements without an intellectual pedigree! To be allowed to think you have to have letters, peers, published papers, and tenure.
Even those endorsements were a humiliation ‘Send me the script in hard copy by next week when I have a holiday window’ Fifty pounds and four months later ‘I have not had time unfortunately to read your script, but leave it with me, I’ll see what I can do’. That was three years ago. The worst but far from the only. So under this plastic tunnel I lurk, and the rain spatters down.
I don’t even look up anymore. I watch the adoptive readers walk by for the breeds they recognize, the Spaniel romances, the Red Setter spotted crime, the Labrador litters that wrap ‘cosy mysteries’ in loo roll. They get film rights when they grow up to join the opening credits of Downton Abbey? What IS a cosy mystery? A mongrel doesn’t stand a chance. Especially a grey muzzled one.
I still wag a tail for a kind word. I have a few and very valued occasional visitors, and some stay to talk awhile, but a home is fast fading.The tramp of the 20K a week soft porn and pecs drowns out the whistle I was hoping to hear.
Any suggestions? Anyone with an idea? I’d accept a modest outside kennel and write to order? Sod expecting to sell. Is anyone like this dishy owner who turned up for my companion when we were both dreaming of adoption? His mentor was envisaged, and conjured up with horn rims and a lovely smile. Led him away for a life of adoration.
Now that I have watched my kennel companion’s happy valley I realise I am not even a hound dog. I am a pangolin without a neck to take a leash, a iguana with swivel eyes and bristles; I am in the wrong department.
This is really Coming Clean. Full Circlewas once the title of my book Involution, about the omnipresence of memory guiding events. Here you have it. Full Circle in a day.
In the cross hairs of today the past came tumbling in. Not only my own, but the wider circumstances of echoes, of history and the continuing influences of the present past. Nothing is ever incidental, or accidental, everything contributes. They all take a particular shape by being connected to me, and what that shows is dominantly the ‘yes’: But ‘no’ is always present because their correlations are not simple. So there is more to them and if clear for one, that means for everyone.
I will lay out ingredients. Starting with today.
First thing: I opened a blog post from Sivan Butler-Rotholz’s site called As it Ought to Be. The poem she published was called
HOPE, TRUTH, FEAR, AND MY SPIRITUAL QUEST. YES! By Stephanie Wellen Levine.
I had never heard of Stephanie Levine The poem searches for the spiritual meaning to be found in everyday encounters and asks (more than once) ‘Isn’t there more?’
I was so taken with it I re-posted it on here ( see below). I then turned to other work, notably some preparation for ‘selling myself’ to possible agents by writing a literary CV in bullet points. One of those bullet points was this:
Surviving an unrepentant cross-dressing Nazi landlady in Bavaria. Her name was Frau F***, she played Schubert on a windup gramophone, and sailed off in a Mercedes Cabriolet to preserve medieval Regensburg from modernity and take tea with Herbert Von Karajan.
Frau Fick (yes German meaning as discreetly indicated) was the widow of a Roderich Fick who worked on Hitler’s Berghof with Albert Speer. While staying in her eleventh century mill I encountered unadulterated Nazism within a short drive of Dachau concentration camp. So I refreshed my facts by reading about Speer who largely escaped the death sentence by acknowledging that he should have known about the holocaust but chose not to. So for him it was ‘no’ but actually really ‘yes’.
While reading this entry in Wikipedia a pop up happened alerting me to a new post from Watkins Bookshop where a lecturer called Philip Pegler was talking about his new biography of a man called Martin Israel. He had been married by Martin Israel ( once he had turned priest) and adopted him as a spiritual mentor and guide. The book was about how to deal with evil and exorcism, and during this lecture he mentioned that the esteemed Martin Israel was not immune to possession and once had had to deliver an Easter sermon while confronted throughout with it.
It happens I knew Martin Israel very well, and I was, I suspect, the ‘evil’ that sat throughout his Good Friday Service. I too had adopted him as a spiritual mentor from a distance ( I was awaiting a divorce in Mexico). He wrote frequently to exhort me to maintain my spiritual path and secure my ‘radiant spirit’ It was giving me rather a hard time. When I reached England and called on him to ask for his help in recovering from a profound series of mystical experiences he summoned the police and committed me to a mental hospital. I escaped and, believing he had mistaken my appeal, ( which was for a referral to a whitewashed room in a monastery where I could recover- since he gave retreats at all of them and held the keys so to speak) I returned to his flat in Kensington. Before I was even admitted over the threshold he re-called the police and I was recommitted on a police order without a single word being exchanged. In one of the most notorious mental hospitals in Epsom I was shackled to a bed with wrist bands in a locked ward. The day room was filled with the terminally deranged in strait jackets and catatonics. If I escaped I would be returned compulsorily. I was threatened with a frontal lobotomy and nobody knew I was there!
So much for the spiritual ‘loving’ Martin Israel. He had abused not only my trust but his position as a lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons. He was not a clinician but was prepared to end my sentient life! On the authority of his letterhead. At the time it was incomprehensible, but very frightening.
Shortly after he became truly ill, and incapacitated, requiring round the clock nursing but nothing medically wrong was discovered. He recovered slowly and took orders in the Anglican Church. When I had first met Martin Israel at a conference on Nature Man and God at Culham College, Oxford he was verbally violent about any religious orthodoxy. ‘These people have not begun to wake up’ he said of the assembled clergymen, one of which, the Chairman Richard Milford, had been Chancellor of Lincoln and Master of the Temple, who became a close friend of mine after the Conference. It was he and his wife who rescued me before the lobotomy after Martin Israel has written to them to say they should have nothing to do with me ever again. They ignored that and instead collected me from the hospital and asked me to drive them home!
Which brings me back to the Good Friday Service in Sherborne Abbey: I went to show Martin Israel my ‘recovered’ rational sanity and as I filed past him at the door I held out a hand ’Hello Martin’ I said. He looked straight through me without a sign of recognition. ‘I knew but I chose not to know’ Yes and No. He took the next hand proffered.
That next hand belonged to a woman who had taught me Theology in South Africa. I had not seen her for twenty five years, nor expected her to be there, but she had recognised me and hastened up behind.
‘Do you know him?’
‘I did once’ I said.
‘Well he didn’t recognise you!’ she said, sceptical. Martin Israel was too important to know her ex pupil.
‘Yes he did; he chose not to acknowledge it’ I said.
Yes and No.
Fifteen years after this service this my mother died in Swaziland and I went to bury her. The presiding woman priest at her funeral service had been in Swaziland for only three years. Although she had ruined the occasion ( another story) I invited her to lunch to thank her. On the bank of a sullen river, in a valley of oppressive heat with cicadas almost drowning the narrative, this priest told me she had formerly been a nurse and nursed Martin Israel during this collapsed state during which he had no control of bodily functions, but it was clear he was phobic about women physically. She was convinced his illness was due to repressed homosexuality to which he could not reconcile himself. Her view was that the priesthood was a shelter from himself. Whether true or not it helped me. Yes and No
My mother dies: I go from England to Swaziland to meet the only person who could corroborate my own near death/destruction and offer an explanation that made sense.
After listening to the eulogy in Philip Pegler’s lecture today about a man now being lionised and while wondering whether to write about this I received an email from a long standing virtual friend. Brian George has been the most generous supporter of my writing and we have communicated constantly for perhaps three years. He simply wrote to say that he did not realise I knew the poet Stephanie Wellen Levine but that she was a frequent visitor to his salon in Boston. He assumed I must! I had merely read her poem this morning. Yes and No.
Many years ago I wrote an imaginative story ‘The Obituary’ about a memorial service for Martin Israel when I knew he had died. My way of laying him to rest ( and getting small restitution). Since I had had no knowledge of him since that dreadful time I set it in a part of London that I know well. During this lecture today in which Philip Pegler was pegging out Martin Israel’s last years he named the church at which Martin Israel presided ‘Holy Trinity, Prince Consort Road’. The reason I know the area well is because my daughter was at The Royal College of Music, almost opposite. That was where the service happened in the story. So again today I discovered I wrote truth, without any knowledge of Martin Israel’s terminal career as a priest. Holy Trinity is right where I planted him. I knew but I did not know. Yes and No.
Evil denied, knowledge denied, mistaken identities all gathered up to weave with unerring synchronicity the links in the chain. It began with a poem and called up friends, the past and the clearest signposts of well thumbed evil in Bavaria. You could not put it in a novel and be taken seriously!
Mindblowing. Even though I knew all of that. When it strikes so coherently it affirms the Yes Yes Yes. As it Ought to Be. As it is.
P.S. The Milford’s ( my rescuers) daughter married the son of the Founder of Watkins Bookshop, and I gave a talk there three years ago. Nothing is for Nothing.
Addendum ( I hope you will read this because it changes everything.)
Many readers known to me, and perhaps a few that might find their way here will find this searing and personal post inappropriate. The conventions of blogs is to keep it light, general and, if personal, undemanding of emotional investment. I took some courage to defy all those because the circumstances of split second synchronicity arrested me and catapulted me back to a time when thought and outer event were constant companions. Hence the accusation of insanity. The co-ordinates to which I was (at that time) privy made living in time impossible. The ‘Power of Now’ when it is all there is ( for all its theoretical hype and mindfulness applications) is like being buffeted in a stormy sea. There is no anchorage if past and present are all equally available and indistinguishable. So MY first reason for sharing it was because it came as a reminder of the richest inspiration for my life and my work. If you recall I have called Involution ‘The Book that Wrote the Life’.
BUT to implicate the role of Martin Israel and more immediately to make his biographer Philip Pegler aware of an aspect that I suspected he might not know- might prefer not to know-was almost an act of cruelty. Why did I decide to contact him? I thought long and hard before I did but in the end gave him the choice to know- if he wanted to, precisely because my own illusions about Martin Israel’s infallibility had so endangered me (and punished others). My experience of Martin was not Philip’s, and I had to trust that he would sustain his own even when accepting mine differed. It was a huge risk that he might perceive me embittered or pointlessly destructive. What I hoped was to balance what had, from his lecture, seemed an unquestioning admiring and devoted eulogy.
I took a chance and he rewarded that risk with extraordinary generosity. Let me quote from his response. First of all – thank you for taking the trouble to write as you did. It cannot have been easy after all you have been through, and although you may find this difficult to believe, I am very glad you did so. I much appreciated the searing honesty of your carefully considered communication, even though it made distinctly uncomfortable reading late at night. It is quite true that I have long respected and admired Martin, feeling grateful for the wise counsel and support I have received over the years, but I would never wish to slip into the trap of heedless admiration of anyone. I have had far too much salutary experience of my own for that.
Philip went on.
Reading your extraordinarily gripping narrative, I can now properly understand just why you are so infuriated to hear anything approaching a eulogy, such as my talk must have come over to you. You see, until now I have never had reason to doubt Martin’s integrity as you have, but I must emphasise that I have also never been under the illusion that he was perfect – and indeed he never claimed to be so in his prolific writings, acknowledging his own failings and irascibility on numerous occasions.
Your well written account of events is thoroughly convincing and I would not presume to discountenance its veracity or evade darker aspects of Marin’s personality, including the probability of his repressed sexuality. Are you aware that he was physically abused as a child by his own father and openly acknowledged it with great sorrow towards the end of his life? He claimed to be a natural celibate, which may have been true enough as far as it went, but would also seem to represent an escape from a deeper part of his all too human nature, which he could not bear to face.
What this candour and ‘meeting with Philip’ has done is to offer not merely explanation, but to offer me the chance of compassionate forgiveness, and to dissolve the hard knots of gnawing perplexity. From some deep and buried horror of his past Martin felt the need to eradicate me. It was a rejection of himself, and I move from the prevailing anger that has dogged my life to pity and forgiveness.
For that I am truly thankful, truly liberated, and grateful for a secondary rescue, not from insanity but from bitter anger. I trusted the wrong man at the wrong time, and perhaps in the wrong way, with insufficient understanding of his vulnerability. It does not exonerate what he did but I must take some responsibility for tying my tossing craft to a deeply damaged tether. It broke. That’s all.
False Starts. How much do they cost? Another of my beach-comber bottle posts.
Having made a quick sprint to recover this blog, I was called back to the starting line. That dissipated resolve, and led to heavy panting. I am still crouched on the blocks.
The same is happening to the writing of a memoir. I can shape a chapter with some pleasure, but where do any of them fit? It is leading me to ask about the cost of false starts.
As some of my followers know I have recently taken a course whose purpose was to assist defining one’s relevance in this over crowded marketplace, and that course returned each of the participants to their ‘signature story’ their life that had determined their creativity. It was in the life itself that the story begins, and gives the passion to fuel the work.
In my case the life WAS the work, the signature story was written by the Book-to-Come. Every ingredient necessary, every vocabulary mastered, every deprivation cogent. Nothing irrelevant. Okay so far? My life was planned backwards, only I did not realise that, so there was much barking of shins.
I believe this is true of every life; the Soul’s Code to carve out a personal destiny with each sharp knife of experience, whittling away until something steel and slim remains.
Here’s the problem. Memory is multilayered, not chronological (though some tidy it up that way in autobiography), the important events shine starkly and often without reason or logical context. I can remember some hit-below-the-belt moments that took breath away; my first meeting with a horse whose smell presaged the smell of a baby, not in anyway alike, but alike in their distinctiveness and perfection. Inimitable. I remember seeing ancient Greek written on a blackboard by a teacher fluent in Greek who teased out the nuances of Agape, Eros, and Charis and I thought that knowledge worth a Persepolis and dying for. I remember a Catholic seminarian singing, on a Lesotho mountain track, Danny Boy in a voice like Bing Crosby’s which made me pine for a country I had never known. These shafts of longing came from other lives and other times. My current one floats like flotsam on those deeper currents.
Try to give such expansions of inexplicable joy any kind of framework (other than poetic fragments) and they enter a straitjacket that rob them of power. I start anew each day, and with each attempt the immediacy is rubbed away, the material worn smooth where it was and should remain, rough or rustic. I am alarmed and increasingly afraid that if I continue they will disappear altogether.
I know that putting one’s house in order, which is what writing a memoir is attempting, is a tidying and systematic process, but for there to be any value in offering it to a reader, it must retain that immediacy, and false starts strip it of vitality. Memory and dreams work best indirectly, from peripheral corners-of-the-eye. Life’s pedantic frames hang lifelessly, and can be set in any order. The drawers of the decades, open and shut, all over familiar, inter-tangled by unmatched pairs of socks you hope to unite. I want simply to tip them out on the floor and let a reader rifle through them, a circular work without beginning or end.
Here’s the rub. Books are chronological, language likewise, and time is the least important component of Memory’s rich store. You can bid a fictional character to guide your story; your own is already set, and I am not interesting to myself. Since I am not a musician it seems I must accept the strait jacket and allow myself some madness.
Does anyone else feel this? Wrestle with it? Have a work-a-day answer?
P.S. Yes I have read ‘How to memoir’ books, and am now reading other people’s mastery of memoirs. Those are other people’s stories, and retain the fascination of the ‘other’.
My Place in the Market- a board across two barrels.
I am limping back after a three month break from blogging, and this is the first breaking of the ice of silence. I simply lost any belief that anything I might write would be of interest, so I took a break, not knowing whether it might prove fatal. If I am to write I have to hold to a working title ‘This is for you- whoever you are’
Instead of a holiday I took a course to evaluate my Artmark. My Artmark defines whether what I do holds any allure, relevance, or dynamic for anyone else, so brave, nicht? The moment of horrible truth. This required a further act of courage, to join a group, blind. Groups and me? Dangerous.
Would I go on a river cruise with twelve close-confined retirees, ( who have scrimped for their treat) and lie awake knowing that the veneered plywood between my cabin and theirs would amplify the snoring? Of end up at a ‘regular table’ where everyone has their own napkin ring, metaphorically speaking. I would not. Paddling my own canoe has always seemed safer. Things get rough? Swim. No waiting for a lifeboat, and ‘you first’. I’ve tried quite a bit of ‘you first’ in the past three years, and watched most other authors bear away reviews without a ‘no, after you’.
So I opened up my doubts, like slitting a carcass, to an array of strangers peering at it and poking it in the hope of restoring life. They were kind, to a man; well to each and every woman. Only women seem to attend these kinds of courses. They were all truly generous about the old woman unlikely to rise armed with doables, lists or intentions. I found it difficult to stay straight faced, and nobody seemed to mind. I made a few genuine friends, who may find their way here.
The intention was to guide each of us to an understanding of our unique message, and to evaluate how better we might reach our ‘patch of the planet’ (aka PoP). Mine went the way of the weasel. My message has always had one indisputable quality: Uniqueness. That was its problem. We also went through an evaluation of in what ways we ‘fascinate’, in order to learn how best to do more of that. There are some 49 different ways you combine seven ‘advantages’ to define your style of fascination and as I wrote in a earlier blog mine ended up as ‘Rockstar’ which contributed to the continuing silence.
What do you say after that? You peep down. It did however clarify why the last three years had brought me to my knees. I was trying to fascinate by doing all the things defined as ‘inert’ for me, ( some of the words to describe them are ‘judicious, pro-active, detailed, strategic, steadfast, composed, meticulous) No wonder I was looking like the crawler across the desert, tongue hanging out, for the water,(even brackish) of life! I had not had a sip of much since I was passionate, innovative, bold, artistic and unorthodox, which come (allegedly) naturally. Those had come to a grinding halt, blown over by all the sand of meticulousness. ( all those marketing courses, strategic planning, and twitter techie hashtags.)
Anyway now I know that my Patch of the Planet are all solitaries, like me, and probably don’t join groups ( or not beyond the table outside a quick fry beach café) and unlike most of my travelling companions on this course I do not have ‘services’ to reach my potential ‘heroes’. As solitaries mine are heroic already, and don’t need my help, though I catch the occasional fish to grill and share.
I write. Period. So you will find my posts shorter, because they will fit, carefully rolled, into a bottle for any beachcomber to find.
Thanks to anyone who picks this one up. Write a tick in the sand if you’re likely to come this way again. I’m just waving but no longer drowning. No heroics called for.