To those of us who remember with clarity, the world before zip codes, telegrams delivered by jockey-sized youths on motorbikes & black Bakelite telephones with bells, the computer must retain an element of the alien. Now, I use the thing all the time. I’ve just spent the whole sunshiny day trying to track down & terminate with extreme prejudice (unsuccessfully) a trojan. I have a font folder of such variety & size that I’ve considered giving it a hard disk of its very own. I have searched the farthest reaches of cyberspace for a desktop background I can live with. My learning curve steepens precipitately by the week as some new wrinkle in the process is ironed out.
But, Jesus, things were so much easier when the only hardware you needed was a beat-up pre-war typewriter whose only software was the red & black ribbon. I had an Underwood ‘Noiseless’, a medium-sized piece of Victorian architecture with keypads like overcoat buttons & a frame as sturdy as a whorehouse piano. And at full throttle it sounded like a Browning submachine gun opening up. Clearly Mr Underwood had a nicely turned sense of irony.
Out of this Iron Age laptop would pour short stories, poems, novels that never got beyond the middle of the first chapter, love letters &, from boarding school, correspondence home requesting food parcels wrapped up in money. The Noiseless had its charming idiosyncrasies too. The letter ‘o’ would stick regularly; no amount of surgery could encourage its trajectory. So I had to substitute with the ‘0’ from the number row giving all words with the recalcitrant v0wel inside a faintly surprised appearance. And to get any of the keys indenting satisfactorily, a sharp downward stabbing movement was essential. I remember watching Sviatoslav Richter playing Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto at a concert in Leeds & thinking how well he’d have got on with my Underwood Noiseless.
Although I took readily to the golfball typewriter with its silky action & its choice of typefaces without hesitation, there were many moments when I rather missed the rugged eccentricity of the Noiseless. I saw one in an antique shop the other day & nearly bought it until I saw that the ribbon was missing. Somehow the unprotected clatter of levers against the cylinder seemed indecent & I passed by. But I do have a wide selection of typewriter fonts & I’m particularly fond of the distressed ones – Linenstroke, Adler, Another Typewriter, GF Halda Normal & GF Halda Smashed, &, of course, as a respectable one, dear old Courier.
Although I spend fascinated hours wandering through the unmapped streets & avenues of my pc’s vast urban landscape, it is still, by & large, as a stranger in a strange land. And however relatively adept I become as the need to encounter those territories on their own terms intensifies, it always will be thus. Meanwhile, in my dreams, I fire off fierce salvos of uneven black & red letters, nailing down deathless prose & verse, from an Underwood ‘Noiseless’.
Originally posted to Salon in 2003 & subsequently published in Virtual Occoquan.
I’ve just finished watching the 4th episode of BBC 2’s weekly fly-on-the-wall documentary, The Convent*. The BBC blurb informs us that: ‘The Convent follows four women on a unique spiritual journey as they join a convent for 40 days and 40 nights. Can the nuns' traditional religious values help the volunteers tackle contemporary problems of relationships, achievement, self-esteem, and meaning in their lives?’
As an ongoing study of the attempt to locate some common territory between the overweening self-absorption & superannuated adolescence of three of the women guests & the extraordinary patience, circumspection, intellectual clarity &, above all, quiet, unselfish love of the nuns, it’s a remarkable series.
I don’t share one iota of the belief that charges the lives of these Catholic Poor Clares. From a position of unbelief, the matter of their contemplation, the subject & object of their utter faith, are neither here nor there. But I accept entirely that a belief in a deity, or deities, can provide a polarisation around which great wisdom, compassion & love can prevail. This convent is a small, self-sustaining community, shut away not just from the alarms & diversions of a material world dominated increasingly by moral relativism & fanatic certainty, but from the sickening hypocrisies of the established church. Here the possibility of some resolution of humanity’s restless & enervating search for happiness & the abnegation of the self can be addressed.
Not, it would seem, with any conspicuous success on the part of three of the four women, but palpably by the nuns who are mentoring each of their guests. For my part, I’m afraid I wish more with each successive episode that one of the nuns would emulate the Zen Buddhist monk who engendered satori in a pupil by delivering a sharp slap.
I've been working some more on translations from 20th century French verse. I haven't done anything like this for many years & I am reminded forcibly of the paralleling of language & culture. The relative terseness & directness of expression coupled with a near complete absence of imagery seem to represent primarily poems to be spoken rather than read off the page. To my ear, anyway, both in French & in translation, these poems speak more effectively than they read – although this, I hasten to add, may be no more than a direct reflection of my rendition of them into English.
In translating them I have had to resist once again the temptation to locate more ornate forms in order to bring across their character in an English context.
PARIS BY NIGHT
Three matches, struck one by one in the night. The first to see your face entire. The second to see your eyes. The last to see your mouth, and then the darkness all around to remember as I hold you in my arms. Jacques Prevert
30 MAI 1932
There remain only you and I in the attic, My father. The walls have collapsed. Flesh has decayed. The wreckage of the blue sky tumbles all around. I see your face more clearly. You’re weeping. Tonight we share the same age Before these her remembered hands
10 o’ clock. The wall clock strikes And blood recoils. No-one remains. House closed. Far away the wind pushes at a morning star.
No-one remains. But you are there, My father, And like bindweed, My arms entwined in your arms, You wipe away my tears, hot across your fingers Rene-Guy Cadou
Maisie's flourishing. 10 lbs 10 oz now & rising. Healthy & bonny & fast moving towards that borderline between the amniotic world before memory & our world. Very soon now she'll slip across & join us.
She's feeding long & often, which means that Emma is constantly short of sleep. Rosie has taken to waking up & clambering out of bed in tears, demanding to be re-inserted between the duvet & the sheet, at which point she falls into deep slumber, only to wake up almost exactly 2 hours later. My permantly bleary state is pushing blog posting later & later into the night (11.10 pm now & awaiting my first call) so energy is flagging & momentum is slowing down.
many years I have been intrigued by the stark simplicity of the poetry
of Jacques Prévert & the dreamlike landscapes, equally simply
rendered, of Blaise Cendrars & I’ve been working on some
translations of their verse.
For a poet – for any kind of writer – English is a seductive language.
With a vocabulary that is rich way beyond reasonable need in synonyms,
wrapped up in a mind-boggling & jaw-busting complexity of
conjugational structure, it seems almost parsimonious to resist its
blandishments. Small wonder that Dylan Thomas’s capacity for
intoxication above & beyond the call of duty afflicted his creative
output every bit as much as his social indulgences. Interesting too,
at the other end of the linguistic spectrum, that Samuel Beckett
exerted so much energy in paring the English language back to the bone
in a search for a barer, leaner form. And small wonder, maybe, that,
in the final analysis, his language of preference for writing was
Attempting to translate the French of Prévert into English is a
fascinating exercise. Constantly one has to resist the temptation to
substitute for some dry, laconic statement the kind of imagistic
phrasing that a poet writing in English would feel impelled to use.
The direct, the pithy, the economic is anathema to the writer steeped
in the cultural traditions of allusion, euphemism, equivocation &
If I have begun to respond the need for absolute fidelity to the
skeletal properties of Prévert’s verse, realisation has come from an
unusual source – the blues. Much of his poetry has been set to music,
particularly in the boulevardier genre. And there has long been a link
between aspects of French chanson & the blues – albeit one more of
spirit & atmosphere than of direct style. There is something in
the specificity of focus, the repetition of a repeated theme that
creates an association between a poem like Dejeuner du Matin & a
ruefully reflective blues like T-Bone Walker’s Mean Old World.
Beyond this point all is mere speculation. If there’s a PhD in the
pairing of the French verse of direct experiential confrontation &
the blues, generously I’ll leave the option open to another to chase it
up. In the meantime, here’s my rendition of Jacques Prévert’s Dejeuner
He poured the coffee
Into the cup
He poured the milk
Into the cup of coffee
He put sugar
In the café au lait
With the teaspoon
He stirred it
He drunk the café au lait
And he replaced the cup
Without speaking to me
He lit a cigarette
He blew smoke rings
He placed the ash
In the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He got up
He placed his hat
On his head
He put on
Because it was raining
And he went
Into the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And me I placed
My head in my hands
And I cried.
posted an item a few weeks back about a play written & performed by
three of my GCSE (16+) students when preparing for their final
practical assessments. Two of the girls were English Asians & the
third was white English. The play concerned issues of cultural
conflict, which it dealt with sensitivity & with conviction &,
deservedly, the girls did well with the piece.
But for me the
particular focus of interest was the vocabulary used by the two Indian
girls. Drawing on their experience of their relatives in Southall – an
area of West London densely populated by Asian families – they used a
number of words & constructions with which I was entirely
unfamiliar. Subsequent research has revealed broad sources for some of
the usages, but others appeared to be exclusive to the English Indian
I’m still trying to source a number of the words used
& if the research produces interesting data I shall post my
findings. Over the next few days, I shall be working on a piece on the
more broadly used vocabulary that the play drew on & I’ll publish
that in the next few days.
In the meantime, let me share with
you a selection of neologisms that came my way via a mass-circulated
email. Clearly some of these neologisms have been devised by bored
clerks pooling resources on the office intranet. Others, however, have
the whiff of invention spurred by necessity about them & we should
be alert to their insinuation into contemporary euphemistic usage.
Hasbian, noun A former lesbian now turned heterosexual. Also known as a wasbian.
SINK SCUM, acronym Single, Independent, No Kids: the Self-Centered Urban Male.
Slackademic, noun A perpetual student who prefers the safety and comfort of academic life over the trials and tribulations of the real world.
Body Nazi, noun Extreme workout & weightlifter obsessive who regards his unmusclebound peers as mere drones in the great hive.
Chainsaw Consultant, noun A consultant brought in from outside the firm to make utterly ruthless
& cold-blooded decisions that will leave management with clean
Cube Farm, noun An office consisting entirely of identical cubicles.
Ideas Hamsters, noun Employees with a morbid ability to generate ideas 24/7.
Mouse Potato, noun One who survives on a diet of pizza, warm coke & the Internet round the clock.
Squirt the Bird, verb To transmit a signal to a satellite.
Starter Marriage, noun A 6-to-12-month marriage favoured by helium-brained film & pop
stars, which, when it sunders, leaves no lasting traces in the form of
progeny or property.
Stress Puppy, noun One who thrives on constant levels of stress that would fry most people’s wires in 30 minutes.
Swiped Out, adjective A debit or credit card that has been exhausted by excessive massaging of the magnetic strip.
Chips and Salsa, noun Foodstuffs as symbols for, respectively, hardware & software.
Flight Risk, noun The guy with the sly smile in your department who's believed to be about to hit the road for greater things.
Percussive Maintenance, noun Hitting delicate electronic equipment with a weighted object, or simply
the flattened or bunched hand, so as to make it work.
Uninstalled, adjective No more "We're going to have to let you go". Just a key stroke & you're uninstalled.