Thursday, 20 December 2012

A wager on the future

Glancing anxiously over my shoulder at the last few years and wondering where they went, I realise this blog is stuttering (with more long silences than in previous years) towards its fourth Christmas. I’m writing this in the deserted main office of the building where I’ve worked for years. This is our last year in the building, which, even though we are only moving down the road, is making me feel a little bit like John Clare in ‘The Flitting’: ‘the summer like a stranger comes / … the sun een seems to lose its way / Nor knows the quarter it is in’. I am, as usual, the last person left sitting in the building except for a few people coming in briefly to pick up their Christmas essays to mark. There is an empty tin of Quality Street on the office desktop with just a few wrappers inside. There are slithers of tinsel wrapped round PC monitors, with no one now to enjoy them before Christmas except me and the screensavers. There is an unopened bottle of Jacob’s Creek and a half empty carton of apple juice, the leavings of an office drinks party last night. The last post lies unsorted, wrapped in a rubber band, including what look like Christmas cards that will not now arrive in pigeonholes until January. Only the remnants of other lives remain.

I don't know who, if anyone reads, this blog, and in a way it doesn’t matter. ‘Before becoming a text, the private diary is a practice,’ writes the French theorist of diarists, Philippe Lejeune. ‘The text itself is a mere by-product, a residue. Keeping a journal is first and foremost a way of life, whose result is often obscure ... it is a wager on the future ... we are writing a text whose ultimate logic escapes us; we agree to collaborate with an unpredictable and uncontrollable future.’ For Lejeune, the diary ‘protects us from the idea of the end’, being one of those illusions ‘that gives us the courage, day after day, to live out the rest of our lives’. I always liked the idea of the Mass Observation diarists posting their entries from around the country to the MO offices – first, to Grote's Buildings, Blackheath, SE 3, and then to 21 Bloomsbury Street, London, WCI – never to see them ever again. In a way, they were posting their diary entries into the future and an unknown reader, like writing a message in a bottle and throwing it not into an actual ocean but an ocean of time. In the absence of much feedback, I think of this blog as a bit like that: I am posting it into the future just to see what happens. But if anyone does happen to be reading it now, I wish you a merry Christmas and bid farewell to 2012 with a couple of snowy poems:

‘Morning at last: there in the snow’

Morning at last: there in the snow
Your small blunt footprints come and go.
Night has left no more to show,
Not the candle, half-drunk wine,
Or touching joy; only this sign
Of your life walking into mine.

But when they vanish with the rain
What morning woke to will remain,
Whether as happiness or pain.

First Sight

Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.

As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth's immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.

Philip Larkin

Saturday, 15 December 2012

A light without shadow

This programme about the golden age of TV wrestling, on this week, was a bit of a Proustian madeleine for me:

The wrestling always reminded me of Hans Christian Anderson’s fable ‘The Emperor’s new clothes’. Who was going to be the little boy who pointed out the obvious: that the whole thing was a gigantic sham?

Official confirmation came in 1980 when, in response to complaints from some viewers about the violence of the bouts, Mary Warnock and other members of the complaints review board of the Independent Broadcasting Authority sat down to watch World of Sport for several weeks. They found no case for stopping the wrestling on the grounds of violence because, they said, it was largely faked. The bouts were not viewed primarily for the violence and in any case, they noted drily, this did not seem to cause any lasting damage to the participants.

Of course, people did not want to know, and didn’t care whether or not it was authentic. As Roland Barthes wrote in a famous essay, wrestling was ruled by an ‘immanent justice. The baser the action of the “bastard”, the more delighted the public is by the blow which he justly receives in returnA light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve … At such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself … what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art.’

Most hated of all by the viewers were not the ‘bastard’ wrestlers like Giant Haystacks, Mick McManus or Adrian Street (who dressed like a glamrock star and camped about the ring, straightening his tights and pouting his lips between grapples) but the World of Sport presenter, Dickie Davies, who appeared whenever a bout was late or a match had to be interrupted to go to the football scores. He received regular angry mail from viewers for whom the 4-5pm slot was sacrosanct. Perhaps they had guessed correctly that Davies loathed the wrestling, except when he found it unintentionally hilarious.

‘I must admit, I’m not the greatest wrestling fan there is,’ he told the Daily Mirror in 1969, ‘but there are times when I watch someone like Les Kellett and tears stream down my face. He gives me more amusement than anybody else. It’s like watching Charlie Drake.’

Sunday, 9 December 2012

A certain hold on sausage and haddock

I've been reading lots of diaries lately, for something I'm working on. 'And now with some pleasure I find that it's seven; and must cook dinner,' Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on Sunday 8 March 1941. 'Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.' It turns out (though I didn't know this) that this paean to everdayness is quite a famous line: it found its way into Ned Sherrin's Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations and another anthology called Great British Wit. Odd, because it isn't really funny at all. Just before it, Woolf wrote, 'I will go down with my colours flying.' 20 days later, she found a big stone to put in her pocket and weigh her down, and then slipped into the fast-running River Ouse to drown herself.

But the sausage and haddock line does point to what's often interesting about diary entries: the nearest thing to being post-it notes to the self, they go off at strange tangents and can be gnomic and surreal in their meanings. Woolf wrote her diary very quickly straight after tea, when she she wasn't too tired – 'fast impressionism done from an armchair with a dip-pen'. She saw diary-writing as a runaway carriage 'jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles' but took comfort from the fact that 'this diary writing does not count as writing' because 'if I stopped and took through, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidently [sic - Woolf was a terrible speller] several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap'. When she got behind in her diary, she fretted that the people she had met and the events she had attended had 'gone down the sink to oblivion'.

I found this strange echo in Sylvia Plath's diary for 25 February 1957:

'And just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels Saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper's (no less! and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock and sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her, somehow … her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953. Only I couldn't drown. I suppose I'll always be over - vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I'm also so damn healthy and resilient.'

Woolf only wrote one more diary entry after the sausage and haddock one. The last line of it reads: 'L is doing the rhododendrons...'