1. An Illumination
My notebook's life is more interesting than mine. On the page that's open now the lines are numbered falteringly, one below another. There are twenty-one. To the right is a vertical series of interlocking circles: a red with a black dot at the centre, a blue with a brown, a yellow with a green, a green with a yellow, a brown with a blue, a black with a red. The six crayons curve through space, returning like a sonata to the inverted form of themselves.
I found the notebook when I was house hunting. It was in a place in Silver Street, more ruin than dwelling. But I'm not the DIY type. I prefer the given – and all it had to give was this on the littered floor. Years later I still jot down what might come in useful on the backs of pages. Or, flicking them over, set out on a voyage of discovery.
There a sun shines between bars that the lines make. A blue pentagon from which the rays stream like a red spider's-web. About it is a green oval, answering the dotted eyes, the carrot-tip nose and smile on its geometric face. All the right colours are there. Surfaces dissolve across the spectrum at its touch, particles sing through solid matter. Red shift, blue shift, the innocent universe is scrawled with light.
It phosphoresces in an illuminated capital P. An outer body of black continues the red squared outline. Seven strokes of blue crayon fill in the top half of the upright, seven strokes of black the lower – standing for perfection, a wonder of the world. The two horizontals of the P are awarded five strokes each, the number of grace.
I know nothing about it. My world stops short of vision. I have to telephone my father-in-law to assess its theology.
'How do you know that's what it means?'
'From the five Wise Virgins, of course.'
Silver years this side of twilight, his daughter comes from having a bath to gloss my notebook's public pages. A hint of aftershave, or is it vodka, wafts in from the lawn, as if someone out there was approaching with a ladder over his shoulder. The popular icons are latched in domesticities.
'When I was little,' says Ann, 'somebody gave me a piece of knitting. I used to tug at it and when I thought I'd pulled it enough I'd get someone else to add a few rows. That's how it was supposed to grow, you see.'
Do we ever know we've grown up? Must logic touch us so young?
'I was very perceptive for my age. I used to get headaches crayoning and worked out the reason by myself. I was clenching my teeth every time I pressed down hard. So then I started colouring more lightly and they went away.'
My budding Giotto stands still in time. I would know the secret too if I could only master her mysterious symbols. Perhaps it is here on the page I turn to now, in her double self-portrait. A body of green magic marker with blue biro thatch of hair, standing beside her green-haired, blue-bodied partner; toes like the outspread claw of a bird, perched on the page's solid line. A guardian angel peering into a mirror, head on one side.
She puts me to school again, lectures me on structure. How the point describes its locus in an arc through the text. I travel back along its course, past Silver Street, from page to dated page, and come upon two babies lying head to foot. One, a voice tells me, is the other's child. You'll know which is which by their eyes.
Weighing anchor from my mortal berth, I steer where treasure ships have foundered.
We spend our lives learning. For instance, the trick of being in two places at once that comes with time and frees us from it. Castille is only down two flights of stairs from where I'm sitting in the Hippodrome. I'd have been there in a minute if my mind had not turned another way instead.
Where I come out is not the operatic monastery I was expecting but a hospital in St Albans.
A Yugoslav refugee has been teaching us a few words. 'Raboti' he says – 'work,' and he points a finger.
'Work', chuckles one of his students, waving a letter at us. 'Listen to this now. I told my brother how I'd got a job here and here's what he wrote back. ÔWork, a four-letter word of Anglo-Saxon origin with whose meaning you have probably been unacquainted until now.' The bugger!'
I carry my memories into the theatre bar. The mind won't keep still, scurries from language to language like a cockroach between patches of darkness. This minute it's opera that set it going. When the foreman was around and we hammed our part like the cast here, he wasn't taken in for a moment.
'And just what do you think you're up to?'
I pantomime life, a ghost with nicotined fingers that is no more than its own pathology. If we're measuring spirits, make mine a double. Someone young serves me, playing her role with the minimum of gesture as the place fills up.
Here I'm both in and out of the act. These parallels are like mirror images that don't accord. We deal in illusions, style is what we respond to. Humdrum particulars and, at the end, like the histrionic ball of the sun descending into the city, a conjuring trick, the convention of artifice. An operatic plot.
As the fire engines pass with their sirens going, all the dogs in the next street to ours howl in unison. But for that I might not have noticed, I get so used to them. What a glorious noise they all make. The Welsh National Opera's in voice. Each scene a device to highlight emotion. It sounds like dreams colliding, meanings that fall away from each other. Where were our ancestors when tonight's work was shuffled together? In Chapel, gripped by an oilcloth Hell and Heaven.
And we are listening with reverence again, after an interval. One of those breaks we accept as natural in whatever reality, where we come to so many false conclusions. We might be sitting at the feet of a Master, longing for insight. Heads incline to one side, sometimes all in the same direction, at others in disaccord. The votive lights on the altar go out one by one. They wink, a puff of smoke rises, the glow grows fainter as a tray of them gets less and less.
With a smile on his face as always, red robe awry, our teacher looks up as if at some trifling objection. 'This scripture was written by the sun. You must not contradict the Dalai Lama.'
3. Unfinished Lines
On the table next to the Arts Centre bookshop is an enormous roll of paper inscribed by many hands. Bracketed by the last signature is the legend '16 years old'. The committee has been trying to put Birmingham into the Guiness Book of Records and this is to be the world's longest poem.
Then Dannie Abse comes down the corridor, all smiles. It has been a good session. The bard is pressed into service and a couple more lines are added to the poem's length. Isolated by so much white, they float in a corner of space like in a Zen brush drawing.
'I've had them in my head for years but could never do anything with them,' he says, relieved of their burden at last.
The poet had come upon the scroll round a bend in the corridor. He turned another and was gone, leaving his handwriting behind. A completed chapter. But for the Japanese, with their keen appreciation of the passing moment, such an occasion would be another memento mori, its beauty celebrated in a few swift syllables:
Dannie Abse adds
The life of man, said old Caedmon, is like the passage across a bustling hall of a sparrow that has blundered in by the door and escapes through a high window. Approaching that door now, a girl merges into the shadow. I do not see her go out. Another comes by and I watch more closely as she too fades and disappears. Dark touches finger to dark across torch-lit confusion, anteroom of obscured answers. The enigmatic door remains, casting its shadow of literary reference. Its niggard tryst, its mystery.
Like Prevert, they say, ending his poems with an anagram of the idea he wished to express, so giving them an arbitrary look.
Paper litters the surface. Inventories that document the land's features and give them their earliest names. Legal records. The Ordnance Survey of 1883-9. Photographs later on; and several A-Z's. Stack them and they bore through time, opening the levels of its archaeology. Underneath is clay, gravel, sandstone; and where one touches the other, corn has been stooked. Beyond the hedge, trees line an anonymous watercourse, more ditch than stream, turning through two right angles just here on its way to the Cole. Further on still, across the home close, you can see the rickyards and sheds of Firtree Farm in the distance.
A magnifying glass brings the harvest no closer. The stubble resolves to a field of black and white dots. The trunks hiding the view are long gone, their smoke dispersed, and what obstructs the view now is a line of roofs on Old Farm Road. If a single blade from one of the front lawns there were placed under an electron microscope, its reality too would blur, the points of definition growing further way from each other. In the spaces between their aerosol argosy, a universe pervaded by ultra-violet rays, you would see the process of one thing changing into another.
There are symmetries even in chaos, the concentration at a single point of multiplying cancer cells. Then they disperse, corridors of vision radiating in all directions with doors opening off, staircases leading up, leading down. The rooms which compose the building, the contrarieties of wall and space, adjust to each other in the way that chemicals compound in a pill, unite with ours to balance the system. Brought home to ourselves, diversities meeting in one, we no longer need medication.
It is as if the wound in our head has been built back; the capstone is in place again and through the masonry all enters as it should.
Fire had broken out by the line, somewhere behind the oil terminal across the canal. A boiling of flame whose height was hidden by smoke. Every now and then the glare peeled back a black sleeve and shook its fist ever higher; or it might have been the smoke's dark mirror that reflected what flung it angrily upward. As we peered back from the receding carriage windows, its column seemed to overtop the hills like a volcano's plume and flatten out to cover Dudley in shadow. The train took us on out of sight, but that power surged in us still. Where our attention had flagged between towns, a new landscape opened.
Stretched upon it, the angles of my station are pulled awry. Arrival is an adventure, but it's always like that here. I am never sure of the right direction in the white thoroughfares underground. They and the platforms they lead to all look the same. Unless it is myself I have left behind like a shadow cut off at an intersection.
In the new carriage I enter, I sit and stare into darkness. My twin eyes me back from the glass. When the train draws out of the tunnel, it is in a part of the city I do not recognise. A triumphalist architecture that rears its Baroque against blue. Could I get back now and trace the station whose name I have forgotten even? Amid the reassuring chatter of workaday citizens I fail to understand a word. The pages of the dictionary are useless, fresh meanings elude them, shutting me in a time that has gone.
In situations like these you hesitate in the gangway, wishing away your mistake. Then you submit and sit somewhere else. That alone is sufficient relief, to have escaped from the place where anxiety first overcame you, from wishing your life away. In the logic of childhood, where nothing yet has been settled, you deny that your parents could really be yours. Only that would explain the unfamiliarity you feel in a world where you don't belong.
Then a comforter sits down beside me. A boy bored by journeys, in search of distraction as if of a new parent. He'll go on talking whether I understand him or not. Look, this is the book he is reading. And turning the pages for a stranger come out of nowhere, he stops at an outline map of northern Europe. Black arrows point from the south into the space where Denmark, Germany, Poland, should be. His fingers touch the Roman numerals. 'Legiw primed,' he explains, 'legiw segundydd, legiw tairtydd.'
That much I comprehend in this changed place where all the learning that served me turns to ashes and what I used to know is overrun by scarlet legions.
Jesmond Dene is the steep valley on Newcastle's outskirts through which Ouse Burn runs its last miles south to the Tyne. It's landscaped as a park now, of course; but rocks glittering with mica give it a savage look that suburban trappings cannot call to heel.
Or else Jesmond Dene is what the plaque reads on the small block of buildings the side of Stratford Road nearest town at the Sparkbrook traffic lights. On its premises are, from left to right, a bankrupted newsagent's, covered in Pakistani posters; the offices of Birmingham Midshires Building Society, closed at this frosty hour, metal roller-blinds down; and a bingo hall and amusement arcade called Casino Royale. Running eastwards here from Stoney Lane, the brook is culverted below.
Or else again, perhaps we are blundering through the novel perspectives of a chaotic universe. Like a slot machine cranked to set the pictures flickering, the faulted strata rift and no place is fixed. Is it Newcastle where this is taking place, tossed by some hurricane to New South Wales; is it Birmingham, New Jersey? Spark Brook or Ouse Burn, the water's surface reflects a new world, flawed glass that shimmers on necronomical gables haunted by long-denied gods and the cracked tocsin of inflammatory adjectives. Tumbling down the levels, it cuts through the layers of text and the foreign debris realigns downstream. Water's whip tilts space on its side.
The worn cogs slither, their rhythm stretches the nerves. Works played out, alloys corroded, all the groaning coffer shakes out are a few coloured rags. Or put your nickel in another and what the butler sees are the cowboy sidewalks of a town in Nevada called Lovelock. A place to expand, genocide made manifest destiny. A network of rails hauling every name on the map to a camp where blood solidifies in the rifled throat before it can run.
Tied to the unyielding framework in my turn, stripped and humbled beyond hope of escape, I wait for the first lash to fall.
© Yann Lovelock 2004