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Photographic Memory?

26 Jul

A photographic memory isn’t something I possess. I’ll read a book and shortly afterwards I’ll be able to remember precious little about it – the story arc, perhaps, a character and event or two but not much else. This is a common experience, I think. And alongside all of those books, read and then forgotten, are the ones on the shelf yet to be read, books by favourite writers, waiting to be selected. It’s a happy prospect. I’ve noted here before my love for Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera. I have early collections of short stories by both, one called Laughable Loves, the other Difficult Loves. And I’ve never been able to remember which of them wrote which. I’ve resolved this question, at least, as I’m reading the latter and it’s written by the former. Remember. Calvino – Difficult. Kundera – Laughable… 

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Is it necessary to photograph the covers of these books to validate the reading experience?

In each of the stories in Difficult Loves, Calvino takes a small event and interrogates it, often to some philosophical end or other. In this, it reminds me of Mr Palomar, the novelist’s last work before his early death deprived the world of his genius. 

I was reading ‘The Adventure of a Photographer’ and thinking how remote from our current age it seemed with its references to governesses and wet nurses, when I encountered a passage of remarkable prescience and relevance to our times. You’ll forgive me if I quote from it at length:

You only have to start saying of something: ‘Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!’ and you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore in order really to live you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second, to madness.

Hmm…

It’s as though Calvino had dreamt up Facebook and Instagram in some terrible dystopic vision (blogging too, at least, in its lifestyle guise, I guess…) and perceived their alienating, dumbing-down effect. There he was, living among the Italian elite some seventy years ago, recognising that what we need is to live each moment rather than try endlessly to record it, showing us that the catalogued artifice is not a substitute for existence, that images and captions are no replacement for genuine human experience. 

Who says that books and old things have nothing to teach us? Those who spend too much time using the cameras on their smartphones or scrolling through the resultant output, I suspect. 

Text © PSR 2017 and the heirs to the literary estate of Italo Calvino. The covers of the paperbacks are © Picador and Faber Books. 

Ten Sounds You Miss from Your Hometown, Part One

23 May

My vast work-in-progress moves ever nearer to completion. The narrator is living in exile. He has been thinking about the sounds he misses from his home country.

Here are the sounds I miss the most: the chatter of the liitraavn in Rezistanzskvaar, the two-stroke clatter of Noorskii-SEATs, the jingling of the signals at pedestrian crossings, the chiming of the bells in Klokksskvaar, the breaking of waves on the Valtikkzii shore, the clunking of the otiis-mekanismis in the Berkmanis department store, the whine of the locomotives’ electromechanical motors, the four-note fugue of the train’s public address system, Tiia’s voice and those of my family, Jovaa and Valeriia, the sound of my own language, its cadence and intonations… 

It got me thinking about the exiles I know – and there are quite a few of them – and which sounds they miss the most, or vice-versa, those they don’t. 

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So I asked my wife, the Colombian illustrator, Catalina Carvajal. It seemed the obvious place to start. And this is what she told me. 

Her grandmother’s voice

Aeroplanes flying low overhead on approach to the airport

The prerecorded voice of the tamales-vendor, advertising his wares

The whistle of a mobile sweet-potato oven

Comforting conversation coming from the TV downstairs at her mother’s house in Bogota

The marimbas of street musicians

The sound of departing underground trains on the Mexico City metro

Her friends babbling in the background at a dinner party

The noise of the crowds in downtown Mexico City

The clattering plates and chattering clientele of the cantinas 

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In the coming weeks, we’ll be hearing from other exiles about the sounds they miss.

All text and images © PSR 2017

Through the Window

11 Apr

Except when he turns his gaze inward, the writer is always looking through the window, in a literal or metaphorical sense. Certainly, that’s what I’m doing with my current project. I stand in the corridor of a train, looking through the windows of the compartments, examining the lives of the passengers. Or I adopt their perspective, looking out at the world from their seats.

When I’m not working from home, I have a favourite place to sit and write. Fuelled by coffee, I sit upstairs in the bar and type. From time to time, I look out of the window at the street below and observe the dramas being played out there. It’s the writer’s job to take the fragments he sees and imagine them into a whole. 

That theatre comprises a number of elements. The backdrop features a church tower, a Georgian terrace and a car park. On stage are a motorbike stand, a few parking spaces, a dilapidated telephone box and a concrete bench. There’s a wall dividing the car park from the foreground, over which actors may peer. In front of all of this is the performance space. Old men sit on the bench and smoke. People wait on the corner, examining their phones. Motorcyclists come and go. Minor villains arrive in BMWs, their heads shaven and white shirts pristine. The telephone box is the exclusive province of the derelicts and drug-users. 

This is what I saw yesterday. A woman and her two sons entered stage right. They waited on the corner in the shade of the tall tree. After a while, a man and a small girl approached them, hand-in-hand from stage left. The family had divided while its members visited different shops, and now father and daughter were returning. But something wasn’t right. The girl had become inconsolable. The man sought to comfort her. The boys kicked indifferently at the dry earth around the tree, chewing on confectionery. This will be their education. At last, the man turned to go. The child was still crying. He walked off alone. I observed the look on his face as he headed for the wings. Ah, yes. And I remember. I remember exactly how that feels. 

This scene, played out time and again on the contemporary stage, leaves no one fulfilled. I can only tell you what I have learnt. It’s not much. We have to remember to be kind to one another, to set aside our petty grievances, not to put our own desires before all else. We need to think of the small cast with whom we share the stage, to treat them as real people. Our common humanity is all we have. 

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I shan’t be looking at that view for much longer. The bar is closing and its future is uncertain. No doubt, I’ll find a new window, new street dramas to observe.  

All text and images © PSR 2017

Where America Begins

4 Feb

At the eastern end of England, that’s where America begins…

I was strolling idly through the streets of the old town on my day off, charting the large number of former inns. It’s an ancient port and the crews would have spent much of their time drinking in its hostelries when they came ashore (and womanising and fighting too, no doubt). So quiet are its streets these days, your imagination has to work hard to envisage it. 

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The house where things started

As I meandered, I noticed for the first time a plaque attached to the jettying above the doorway of a medieval house. Looking at the weather-boarding on the neighbouring buildings I might almost have been in New England. In fact, it’s a construction method once common in this part of England. A few structures of the kind still survive in my dreary hometown, fifty miles away from here.  

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Home of Christopher Jones, the real Captain America

So let’s examine that plaque…

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It informs us that it’s the house in which Christopher Jones lived. His ship was almost certainly built in the dry docks here then sailed to continental Europe numerous times over the following decade. And then, in 1620, Captain Jones and his ship were chartered to take a hundred Christian dissenters across the ocean to settle in the land that would become New England. Maybe Jones assembled his crew of thirty or so in the bars of those long-closed inns, at The Drum and Monkey and The Three Cups, The Mariner’s and The Swan. It would have been an adventurous party, for sure, willing to spend endless weeks at sea, sailing to an unknown land. And it’s where modern America begins. 

These are the American centuries, the dawning of a brave New World. Count Basie and Martin Luther King, KFC and the KKK, John D Rockefeller and Joseph Heller, Wells Fargo and Orson Welles, clap-boarding and water-boarding, Elvis Presley and Levi’s jeans, RCA and the CIA, Apple Inc and agent orange, Old Sparky and Sparklehorse, the White House and white supremacists, Donald Duck and Donald Trump, the D-Day landings and moon landings… Everything that America has become begins here. Your macrocosm is my microcosm. There’s a glistering world held inside a faded and forgotten port, a mighty tree within the seed of a New England maple…

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A letter to America?

And that is where my footsteps led me, as I wandered the back streets of an inconsequential eastern town, from a timber-framed ship master’s house to the shores of the most powerful nation that ever existed. America begins at the world’s end. As the slave or the Sioux could tell us, such power can be a force for great good in the world or can perpetrate enormous evil. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Nothing of Note

28 Jan

Lost and found, lost and found…

What’s the worst thing that could happen to a writer? Well, he could be killed by fascists, of course, like Lorca or die in a plane crash like Ibargüengoitia. He could go blind as Borges did or mad in the manner of Clare. Okay, so I’m still alive, physically and mentally intact. Otherwise, losing a notebook is just about as bad as it gets. And that’s exactly what’s happened to me. Twice. 

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Old notebook showing an outline timeline of the events in my work-in-progress

When considering what to call this post, I noticed that I already had one called ‘The Lost Notebook’ in my drafts. A year or so ago, I left my previous notebook in the bar I used to go to for a cooked breakfast and coffee. That was the first time. And I got away with it. The wonderful staff of The Golden Lion Inn (closed now, sadly) found it and put it to one side for me.  

The second time, I left my notebook at the gate in Madrid-Barajas Airport when juggling with too much baggage. We were somewhere over the Bay of Biscay when I realised it was missing, compounding the sense of loss I was already feeling (the journey was taking me away from my beloved). The flight attendant apart, British Airways proved singularly unhelpful, providing me with a series of telephone numbers that didn’t work, that were never answered, that were answered but supplied an unintelligible response… Needless to say, I didn’t get my notebook back.

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Notebooks – useful for storing railway maps when travelling and writing

I once considered using the discovery of a lost notebook as a narrative device. The location was to be a train rather than an airport. Lost in transit. Oh, the irony… It seems unlikely that my notebook will follow that trajectory. I’m pretty sure that someone pocketed the pleasingly weighty pen (bought for me as a leaving gift by former colleagues) and threw the notebook in the nearest bin. 

So what did I lose? A year’s worth of notes on my work-in-progress, the notes for my next projected novel, the diaries of my travels in Mexico and Colombia, my list of fragments of overheard dialogue… oh, nothing of note, then. To be frank, I feel rather bereft. I’m hoping that this loss will push my imagination in unexpected directions. Well, you have to finish on an optimistic note. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Automatic Writing

15 Nov

I’ve chanced upon a new way of generating stories. My primitive smartphone has apparently developed the ability to send text messages all by itself. It’s a new form of automatic writing. As I was walking into town, I pulled the device out of my jacket pocket to find out what time it was and discovered the following message, addressed to no one:

I was sitting on the bus going home when I saw O’Donnell. Missed your Carlson 😦 

Clearly, it’s the beginning of a story of some kind. But who are O’Donnell and Carlson? And to whom is the first-person narrator addressing himself, this person who somehow lays claim to Carlson? It’s a little disconcerting to reflect that one of the main characters in my last work was called O’Connell and my current one contains several characters whose  surname is Kaarelssens… Has my phone begun to pick up on my subconscious, then? Maybe it’s not so dumb after all.

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The author and his neanderthal-phone.  Disturbingly, The Encyclopedia of Psychotherapy lies just behind his right shoulder…

The things our devices do for themselves – and mine’s not even an Android. The third sentence was absolute gibberish, mind you.

Could okloplooooojn meet two-inchoooa?

I’ve previously considered using predictive text to generate surreal, nonsense pieces in the manner of the Oulipo’s ‘S Plus 7’ technique, replacing the nouns in a piece with the ones that follow at seven alphabetical removes (let’s face it, it’s still preferable to the ‘S Club 7’ technique which replaces all meaning with inanities). So far I’ve resisted. It would appear that my phone has taken matters into its own hands. If you should happen to receive a nonsensical message from me in the near future, blame my phone.  

Maybe you can infer more about O’Donnell, Carlson and that third man than me or my phone. If so, feel free to complete the paragraph for us both in the comment box below. 

All text and images © PSR 2016

Travels in Sudamérica

30 Oct

I’ve travelled to three continents this year. I’ve just got back from South America. I stayed in Bogotá, capital of Colombia. I mentioned before the Colombian illustrator with whom I was going to work. Our collaboration continues. It’s all part of the creative process, the work of el escritor experimental. I am writing her narrative. She is illustrating my story. We’re planning to construct a dystopic graphic novel and to make people. But that’s all for the future. In the meantime, I’d like to share with you some of the scenes I saw in the city – all taken on my not-very-smartphone – and my remarkable command of Spanish.

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El teatro

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Una calle de la ciudad

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Un mural

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Una iglesia colonial

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Otra calle de la ciudad

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El perro

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Una iglesia gótica

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El patio de una casa colonial

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La ciudad moderna

All text and images © PSR 2016