Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Dirt and daily life

Reading about the new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London, ‘Dirt : The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life’, has made me think a bit more about dirt. Some of the reviews have referred to the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s classic description of dirt as ‘matter out of place’. For Douglas, dirt is ‘the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter,’ in which all kinds of inappropriate material which fall outside the taxonomic systems of civilised society are lumped together as a homogeneous ‘other’. The sociologist Kevin Hetherington has suggested that Douglas’s definition of ‘dirt’ is inadequate to describe the complex process of consumption and disposal in capitalist societies, because it suggests simply ‘something that we have got rid of’. While Douglas’s work suggests that the boundaries between dirt and non-dirt are carefully policed, Hetherington argues that the former functions as an ‘absent presence’ in society, which is never permanently removed. He points out that it is not simply bins which are used for disposal, but attics, basements, garages, wardrobes and sheds, where objects can be placed and forgotten about, often for quite long periods. Disposal is not just about getting rid of unwanted material but about ‘how we manage absence – how we order it, where we place it, when we use it as a source of value’. In her book Dust, the historian Carolyn Steedman explains this in terms of the difference between dust and waste: while the latter suggests something that can be easily discarded, the former ‘is about circularity, the impossibility of things disappearing, or going away, or being gone’. Certainly, dust is one of the unnoticed constants of everyday life and perhaps the most visible expression of its temporality. The embarrassment of dust descends inevitably on the streamlined, laminate surfaces of modernity: the tiny particles of dead skin, lint, decayed wood and soot that settle on domestic surfaces or swirl around in shafts of light; the dirt that accumulates in the cracks and corners of neglected everyday objects; the gritty air of city streets and other public spaces. As Steedman points out, we can never remove dust completely, only disturb it until it is eventually deposited elsewhere. A good way of thinking about daily life, in fact, as something that remains, despite our attempts to overlook or discard it: the everyday, we might say, is where the dust settles.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Latched nozzle lives

Petrol used to be dispensed by smartly-uniformed station attendants, who would not only fill your tank but also check your oil and give you directions. After wartime petrol pooling arrangements ended in 1950, however, single-brand petrol stations sprang up in Britain, and they looked for ways to make their operations more efficient. In the mid-1960s, Shell and Mobil experimented with the first “self-fill” petrol stations. Another key player in the development of the self-service station was the property developer Gerald Ronson, who developed a chain of petrol stations under the brand name Heron. Then, in 1967, National Oil introduced the latched-nozzle petrol pump with automatic cut-off, which made the unpaid labour of “filling up” much easier.

However, it was only after the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 that self-service began to dominate as a cost-cutting exercise. Self-service changed the architecture of the petrol station. Cantilevered canopies were built to protect motorists from the elements, and they were usually combined with branded totems like the famous Shell “pectin”. (One of the great marketing mysteries is why the petrol station needs to be so aggressively branded, for petrol is essentially a distress purchase.) In 1970 the economist John Kenneth Galbraith called the petrol station ‘the most repellent piece of architecture of the past two thousand years’. The architectural critic Martin Pawley disagreed, calling it ‘the last truly Modern design project of the Modern age’. Unlike, say, McDonald’s and Tesco’s, whose buildings had bland, neo-vernacular designs, Shell still believed in ‘Modernism and the International Way’.

Petrol stations also acquired adjoining shops, known originally as TBAs (tobacco, belts and accessories) and developing into general stores. In many British villages, the all-purpose petrol station shop has replaced the post office as the social hub, the equivalent of the parish pump.

Now we live latched nozzle lives, exchanging not a word with the shop assistant behind the glass as we go through the chip and pin routine and pay for our petrol and maybe a Sunday newspaper and a packet of hobnobs. Next customer, please.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘To travel swiftly in a closed car, as so many of us do nowadays, is of course to cut oneself off from the same reality of the regions one passes through, perhaps from any sane reality at all. Whole leagues of countryside are only a roar and muddle outside the windows, and villages are only like brick-coloured bubbles that we burst as we pass.’ J.B. Priestley, English Journey

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Writing in the margin

I hesitate to post this piece that appeared in yesterday’s Guardian, because the first paragraph seems to have made some people angry, and some of them even think I should be prosecuted. If it helps, which it probably doesn’t, I was referring to books I have borrowed from my own university’s library, not from public libraries, and I was trying to be wry, flippant, ironic etc. It’s rather sobering to generate such anger. ‘All's wrong that ever I've done or said, And nought to help it in this dull head,’ as I think it goes … Anyway, while I await the constabulary’s hand on my shoulder, and since I can’t make things much worse, here it is.

As anyone who knows me will confirm, I am almost neurotically law abiding. But there is one area of life where I remain an outlaw, beyond the pale, a fugitive from justice. I only do it in pencil, and sometimes I remember to rub it out, but … I write in library books. Those spaces down the sides of the page just seem so inviting, the impulse to anoint them with scribbles is irresistible. History is on my side: until the nineteenth century, books were often used as scrap paper and few people had qualms about scrawling on a pristine book. No jury in the land would convict me. Books are meant to be written on.

Is such annotation a dying art in our online era? Most ebook readers allow you to highlight text and take notes, but there isn’t the same visual aesthetic of columns of alluring white space tempting you to fill them with your thoughts. On the other hand, the web has whetted our appetite for sharing reading experiences. Amazon has just introduced a Public Notes facility to the Kindle, which posts your marginalia online so other people can read it. Social reading websites like BookGlutton, where you can attach notes for other readers of the same book, have been around for a while.

You could argue that this impulse is really a return to the great age of marginalia, which the literary scholar H.J. Jackson identifies as lasting from about 1750 to 1820. The practice then was widespread and communal. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who coined the word “marginalia”, published his own examples and wrote with a readership in mind. “You will not mind my having spoiled a book in order to leave a Relic,” he wrote, a little smugly, in one of Charles Lamb’s books. Many of today’s social networking sites similarly create a kind of ongoing collective commentary, not just on books but on the world in general.

And yet for me there is something missing from this electronic marginalia. First, it seems so ephemeral. Pencil marks left on a page will last several lifetimes, perhaps as long as the paper itself. Public Notes on the Kindle are less tangible and, even if someone is archiving them, are likely to be unreadable in the future because of changes to hardware or software. The most basic motive for writing marginalia is surely to create a sense of ownership: children often write their names over and over again in books. You can’t do that with a Kindle.

Second, this public notetaking seems too much like a performance. Marginalia over the last two centuries, perhaps as attitudes towards defacing books have become more disapproving, has been semi-private, almost furtive, a silent communion with the author or the unknown reader who might pick up the book second-hand a generation later. Marginalia is, by definition, something on the margins, undervalued, overlooked.

Such textual detritus is currently a voguish topic in academic literary studies. The Reading Experience Database at the Open University, for example, aims to map all evidence of recorded engagement with texts from 1450 to 1945: everything, from marginalia to commonplace books, that might show that ordinary people actually read books rather than simply using them to furnish a room. This kind of evidence is surprisingly sparse and often resoundingly banal. Many readers just wrote dictionary definitions in the margin, or “v. good”, or they simply underlined words. And yet this sub-Coleridgian commentary can also be rather touching, evidence of an earnest wrestling with meaning and thirst for knowledge. True marginalia is an end in itself, a brave attempt to bridge the ultimately impassable gulf between writer and reader.

And because marginalia is unguarded, meant only as an aide-memoire or for a select group of readers, it can accidentally reveal much about the person writing it. Recent releases from the National Archives disclose that Margaret Thatcher wrote words like “No!” and “This will not do” in the margins of draft documents. Now, I suppose it would have been more newsworthy if it had emerged that she constantly sprinkled the margins with encouraging words and smiley faces. But you can’t deny that Mrs Thatcher’s marginalia sums her up perfectly.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Cool memories

I’ve been reading Jean Baudrillard’s Cool Memories, volumes 1-5. Baudrillard can be very uneven, to say the least, and I can see why he winds people up. But he can also be the master of turning an observation into an idea, as demonstrated by the quotes below.

‘The mystic dream of every iceberg is to travel so far south as possible, perhaps – who knows? – till it meets its end in equatorial waters. Poor iceberg laden with the despair of the poles at being so far from the equator, and so distant from each other. So far, not a single one of them has succeeded in this senseless venture.’

‘Like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfilment.’

‘Nothing can match the loneliness of a pianist in a large hotel. All around him is just a hum of cocktails and small talk; he is more alone with his melody than he would be on an island. Yet at a particular moment, he stops and people applaud. You are doubly astonished: there was an end to this music then, and people were listening? He was playing something and he was not playing in vain? He seems stupefied himself. But he well knows, in the secret depths of his soul, that this applause only breaks out because his music has fallen silent, a silence these wild things notice in much the same way they notice the sugar melting in their glasses. So, like the bald prima donna, he quickly starts up with a new tune.’

‘A change in the speaking style of announcers. The plummy voices of yesteryear maintained a steady crescendo right up to the end of the sentence. Today, the sentence is suspended before its end in a kind of apnoea, of artificial breathing, of inner gasping for breath, mimicking a searching for words which would seem to reflect thinking. All done to give a sense of the interactive truth of dialogue. In the past there was a theatrical staging of message, feeling and truth. Today the obscure genesis of speech is mimicked.’

‘Ants, too, must know that God is dead, since they engage in such frantic activity. Is it to avoid internal revolts and boredom that they have developed such a relentless programme (not too different, perhaps, from the human race)? Have they developed a cult of the absurd or some crazed ritual for turning life and its meaning to their own perverse ends? Have they invented a perfect model of cloning, the only way of guaranteeing the eternity of a species and solving the problem of individual existence? A wonderful hypothesis, but how can we know? Let them speak, these ants, let them confess! What is their message? Yet they just go on walking enormous distances to bring back things that are actually plentiful around the anthill (in this, too, they are not so different from the human race).’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘What goes out of fashion passes into everyday life. What disappears from everyday life is revived in fashion.’ – Jean Baudrillard

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Writing on the edge

I forgot to say: the reason I wrote about David Rayson in a recent post is because I was reminded of his work by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’s new book Edgelands, which I’ve just finished. Farley and Symmons Roberts are both poets, and they write with lyrical exactness about the borderlands of our towns and cities, occupied by retail parks, rubbish tips, sewage farms, containers and what Richard Mabey called ‘the unofficial countryside’. This is a wonderful description of a landfill site:

Salt Ayre cross-sectioned, cut like a pie to reveal the strata of waste, or a deep core sample drawn from the ground. Here we can clearly see the fine veins of Christmas tree needles marking Januaries, a definite band that marks the UK electricity Act and the first Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation orders, the gradual inundation of platics and particleboard as we rise through the layers of years. Deep down, at the lowest levels, lie the peelings and scrapings of teatimes when Clement Attlee was Prime Minister. Vast colonies of microorganisms are busy at work in the dark. Leachate oozes from the ground into collection runnels and pipes, the compressed juice of the decades. Do we just imagine it, or does the ground give off heat?

And this is a great riff on the messages painted on strips of torn white sheets and tied to motorway bridges so they can be seen by passing motorists:

Occasionally, these bed-sheet bulletins are public declarations of private feelings: TRACEY M WILL YOU MARRY ME? Or SALLY P LOVES DANNY J. And a temporary bridge sign is a good way of delivering a spoiler too. Many parents can remember one fateful morning finding the home-made banner DUMBLEDORE DIES stretched out across the M6 in full view of their sleepy children. This was mere hours after watching TV news pictures of kids queuing at midnight outside bookshops to get a copy of the latest Potter tome. It is tempting to imaging a struggling children’s author, sick with jealousy over the young wizard’s success, queuing for one of the first copies, flicking to the end to see who dies, then heading out in darkness to the M6 with a freshly daubed sheet.

And this is on the wooden pallets on which the products of our globalised consumer culture make their journeys from the ends of the earth:

Pallets are consumer capitalism’s red blood cells. They convey the products around the organism. Unless you have taken this book to the top of a mountain to read (and we’d strongly discourage such frippery) then the chances are you’re surrounded by things from places far away, borne here on a pallet. And even if you are in the middle of nowhere, look to the labels on your clothes and wonder at the distances they’ve travelled. Pallets move the goods around. If we isolate the pallet, as Stephen Dedalus isolated the butcher boy’s basket in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, pluck it out from the slur and texture of the everyday and consider it, self-contained, against the background of space, the thing it most resembles is a magic carpet with rigor mortis.

Much of what Farley and Symmons Roberts are doing reminds me of French writers on the quotidian: Lefebvre’s interest in the terrain vague of the suburbs, for example, or François Maspero’s investigation in his book Roissy Express of the scarcely visited hinterland beyond the Périphérique (orbital motorway), a concrete and asphalt sprawl of hypermarchés, grands ensembles and cheap hotels. This ‘circular purgatory’ consists of ‘pieces of badly stuck together space’ which, unless people have the misfortune to live there, are ‘only for traveling through. And quickly, by car.’