Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The two things

I lived in Australia, once. For a long time. All the time that I was small, and a properly fat slice of being a small grown-up, too.

Now I live in England. For many years now, really, although it doesn't seem like that.

These two things are terribly important -- they're The Two Things, the stories of everything that has ever happened to me. I keep trying to make them fit together, like a magic ring trick or a tessellation of two piles of coloured tiles. But it is not like that. It is like reaching for lens flare. The things I know about England aren't the same things that I knew about in Australia and when I think of the English things, I feel like I don't know anything about Australia at all. Perhaps I really don't. Perhaps I lived there when I didn't know anything about anything. I was small.

Maybe I am still small.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014


Today I took things I'd made and tore them into pieces, tore off things I'd stuck to them, put them back together crazy-paved and squinted to see if something emerged. Shuffle, shuffle. Shuffle, shuffle, squint.

I was pretending a little because many shreds are already in focus but they scare the stuffing out of me, scare the very vowels out of the words they're made of. Look a little to the right, and the star reappears.

It rained. The bird ground oatcakes into powder with soft and causal fascination. I read poetry and squished my hands delightedly into the wonderful wet mud of its doneness, its writtenness, its words glued into place with the perfect confidence of the obsessive or what-the-fuck.

I do not like the presentation-folder bits of things.

Monday, June 02, 2014


Avocado on toast and a head full of pollen. Sleep, solitaire. Water the cranesbill, broccoli for the parrot, sign for the parcels. MacNeice like clean old handkerchiefs, a fuchsia Muldoon someone threw about a bit. Tickets to a show, ho ho. Spitter-spatter of rain, warm air, an LP for baby brother, wrap it up, brown paper, striped string, red tape, kraftwerk twice over.

All the lost interpretations,
All the unconsummated consummations,
All the birds that flew and left the big sky empty
Come back throwing shadows on our patience
from 'The Return' (1940)

Sunday, June 01, 2014


I stopped writing on my blog because I had something else to write, something else to make. I thought that writing here was cannibalising that work somehow, eating up its crucial middle while I noodled away here in the never-never. Zero sum canapés. 

But it didn't work, did it. Of course it didn't. The noodle is what makes the whole thing twirl around the fork and make a mouthful. There are always more things to talk about, other things I could tell you, things that are for here and things that are for there.

But are there really? I am terrible at this. To me it seems like there is only ever one thing, one thought, one prickle-branching trajectory. No nice joints to angle your cleaver into, everything together, everything a metaphor for something else, whatever else, anything else; everything the same story, everything an allegory about the thing that you happen to be saying today. How can I be saying more than one thing? How can I be doing two things? I don't even understand what that means.  

Friday, March 28, 2014


I'm sorry for my silence. I'm working on Something. I'm not talking about it here, not because it's a big secret or anything, but because talking about things that I am doing and pretending that is the same as actually doing them is the number-one most-fucking-annoying character trait I have to endure in myself.

Yesterday I sat at my desk trying to think about The Something in the broadest way I've so far managed, stepped-back and fact-matterish, not matter-of-factish, and paper and books and fragments of envelope and plates with toast crumbs and parts of maps and photographs pooled outward, ripple ripple like one of those cheesy hotel posters with the high-speed photograph of the droplet hitting the water. I spread things out on the floor. Piles accumulated around the edges of my postage-stamp desk, seaweed on the tideline, until they got dumped off the edges and replaced by new piles. I shoved at the things that had come off the desk to get at the first-generation things on the floor until I was shoving at the tenth-generation seaweed to get at the fourth-generation stuff from ten minutes ago and also where the hell is my pencil no not that one the other one and then it hit me that I needed A Wall.

You know The Wall. Like Sherlock has, or like all the cop shows have, or like any conspiracy theorist or obsessed my-parents/wife/children-were-murdered shut-in ever committed to film ever, with index cards and mugshots and photographs and newspaper clippings and maps and pins and notes on yellow legal pad paper and red felt-tip circles around things or possibly faces in photographs with big black Xs on them and some important question marks on sticky notes and the all-important pink string connecting all the dots.

I want one of those walls. I need one. It shall be mine. The living room wall has a date with destiny.

I have a shopping list. Rolls of poster paper. Pastel index cards. String. Postcards with the right pictures on them. Eight kinds of washi tape with stripes and spots, because reasons.

I possibly need a mugshot for texture. Also, I found out that there is a tumblr for the crazy wall. Because of course there is. Good job, internet.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Seven years ago today, Pluvialis' father died. I wrote this.

In the summer, that wriggling, nipping, supernaturally alert handful of puppies in her mind is made a book.

You have no idea how lucky you all are. But you will.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Sometimes the trouble is that the words don't come, or they stand wide-eyed in the headlights of intention as though they might be run over if they dare to express something. Sometimes you sit and you sit and you sit and the words look at you complacently from under the couch. Sometimes words pour out of you like a little lion-faced fountain with a circulating pump and later you look at them and go buh?

But actually that's not the problem right now. Or it might be, if I bothered to find out, and I could wear the weary-but-charming face of The Writer Who Cannot but instead I am throwing a tantrum of world-crushing proportions. STOMP STOMP STOMP, XtinKaiju.

The One True Tantrum. The koan of I-don't-wanna. The laser-beam eyes of fuck-you that you turn on the unopened mail, the unanswered text, the dinner that's supposed to be organised by now, the trip that's powering anxiety nightmares that awaken you with the taste of metal behind your teeth.

I thumb the pages of my passport, dog-eared in spite of itself, with a kink in the top where I clip the UK residence permit to the back cover. There is a slightly glittery smudge on it from some eyeshadow it got tangled with once in my handbag in Germany. A photo of me from nearly ten years ago. A teeny-tiny rendition of my signature. I turn it over in my hands and try to make it into the small booklet of micro-printed paper that it really is. But no. I cannot defeat it, gently thrumming emblem of my elsewhereness. I put it back where it goes.

I had meant to tell you about my walk to Logan's Meadow on Saturday, a scant muddy handful of nature reserve on the Cam riverbank, opposite the Cambridge Museum of Technology, which used to be Cambridge's sewage pumping station. There's a flat grassy bit with joggers and this bonkers swift nesting tower which is inspired by the African sun. The Ombre Roundel. I made that up. Not the part about the African sun. That part is totally true. Anyway, behind the featureless jogger-dog-turdy bit, there is a wonderful tangle of dead trees and ponds and birches and small soft new cow parsley at your ankles like salad leaves and baby nettles and celandine and its greeny-grey hearts creeping about the twiggy bits and and moor hens skrawking in the mud and an enormous, lusty choir of tits and robins and chaffinches, nonchalant city ones, not like the shy rustics at Bradfield Wood who followed us like an FBI tail, covert and yelling alarm calls into their cuffs. Three robins are singing for their invisible fences, throats as wide as if to swallow their opponents whole, ear-splitting riffs right into my face, for heaven knows, perhaps I've designs on this tree too. Blue tits bounce in the still-bare trees, tee-CHAR, spare me half a glance, perhaps the slightest tilt of the cap. Squashed catkins in the paths like discarded bits of Nutkin.

Two boys drink and bicker on the farthest fishing platform, knees crooked proprietorially over their fallen cycles as if they might rope them like calves at a rodeo. Well, that's what you said to me, says the one in the yellow hoodie with matching baseball cap, lacing everything with eighteen more inflections than seems possible. Eyeroll, says the one in red with the matching baseball cap. They are like cards lost from a UNO deck. I don't suppose either of them have ever seen a UNO deck.

I walk home by the riverside path with mud on my boots and my binoculars magnifying the lint in my pocket, past the runners and the buggies and the families wearing ironed shirts, past the postbox wearing a spiked hat like a bit of iron-maiden salvage, past the toddlers feeding swans and the narrow boats with for sale signs and the crackle of coxboxes, past the picnics on the common. Back at the little house there is bread for toast.


Friday, March 14, 2014


Rollinus, 1756

Oh, man. These last few days I have felt so revoltingly embodied. This weird you live in. This bewilderingly armed sine qua non with legs. Squishy shapes that you have to clothe and corral with tools only approximately fit for purpose. Things that hurt. Hormones. Brain. Glitchy, dickish, anxiety-riven brain. Unpredictable insides that might bork out and kill you at any moment. And still with the blood. Seems like it was only last month that ... oh. 

A doctor said to me while he palpated my upper left quadrant, 'I'm so grateful I'm a man'. 

Because blood doesn't exit your uterus? Inter motherfucking alia, Dr Douchecopter. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Bradfield wood, eight hundred years of coppicing, mud and tyre tracks, spring spilling over the footprint-edges, wild strawberries and garlic, blackthorn exploded snow, coal tit, shy woodland robins fleet into the undergrowth, oak and birch, great and blue tits cosseted by long winter ash-and-hazel silence shouting grumpily from everywhere-eyeshot,  two voles I don't see, a dog. Another dog, a man in a green fleece, stacks of fireword, pea-sticks, wattle-and-daub sticks, hedge-stakes neatly pointed like so many oversize Buffy props, humming with massed-wood magicks, the bare ash overhead rattle together. Like rigging, says Pluvialis. The good ship, nuthatch piping from the tops'l.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Not that kind

Sometimes you look up words because you think there might be good stories in their etymology and there often are but sometimes the dictionary doesn't know anything about that.

Today jizz, which is the flash of collected things that makes you able to identify something in the field, because there is a thing I need to tell you about the sparrows and dunnocks in my apple tree and how once I knew how to tell them apart from the dunnocks' pretty slate heads and tiny watchmaker beaks but now I know them backlit at three times the distance just because they are dunnocks and sparrows. 

Actually there are a million things I need to tell you about watching and seeing and getting the jizz and what happens to you when there comes to be a flitting, fleeting, glimpsed constellation of things alive in the world which you once succeeded in identifying with the glee of being at the foot of the Master Namer and now they are simply there, themselves, perfectly themselves, arisen in a blink with their names duly attached and eventually you draw a blank in the place where once you could describe how you know them. Passer domesticus. House sparrow. Passer, sparrow. Domesticus, house, the most deeply implausible transparency in a Latin name ever to never happen again. 

The dictionary lives forever with the Master Namer and reminds you that what things mean can be taken apart, until they can't. After a while its efforts are too much and its orderly pretendings that the tacit is audible too sad, and you lay your cheek on the cool pages and listen to the words whispering syntax, nonsense, syntax, nonsense like crystals forming and dissolving on the edge of solute saturation.

Sideways from my Vol A--M perch I watch very early pigeon fledglings in the maple. There are white doves at Kings and a wonderful wee gang of town-pigeon-dove mashup chicks have washed up in the little garden, two thoroughly splattered with white dove-emulsion and the other wearing only the most ordinary pigeon livery with a neat white superhero hat. 

A blackbird alarm call. Capped pigeon launches and reveals a spray of pure white primaries. For what is a superhero without her cape? 

Friday, March 07, 2014

Note from home

Not my actual feet.

Do you know what Pluvialis said today? You have done some big thinkings. No more thinking today. You should have a hot bath and read a trashy novel.

This was shameless enabling, because she knows I'm tired and scared.  She also knows that you have to do it in spite of being tired and scared because otherwise you'll die of old age before anything happens, but enabling is for too many donuts and expensive handbags and ill-advised romantic hookups and hot baths when you should really be getting your goddamned shit together.

That's the whole point.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Lost in space

Throwback Thursday, bitches. The birdoole and I played with Lego today, from a box I found in a box in storage. Box in a box in a box.

These are two astronauts from Lego's classic Space range, from TinyXtin's own collection. I think they might even be the vestiges of the vast agglomeration that lived inside drawstring denim Lego playmats at TinyXtinHouse before 1983, especially the one battered one with a gimpy eye missing a hand. There are old-school wheels and computer screens and radar dishes and a tiny, perfect Lego letter which you can mail into a hinged box with a slot in it.

But perhaps these came after. I don't know. A little box of strangely mixed Lego bricks from history.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014


Is it today already? Seems like yesterday that it was yesterday.

The blackbird hen is nest-building, curving past the study window in the sunshine with a face full of tufty moustache. The afternoons warm the bricks on the new houses out at Construction Site where the birdoole watches the Hi-Vis Hard-Hats appear and disappear above the scaffolding parapets with squeaks of delight.

I buy smoked trout and more milk and the parrot and I share a head of broccoli and some cashews and a mini Magnum, after which he naps in the sock drawer. I pull at my hair and look at things I wrote a long time ago that have gone flat and dirty and crackly like many-varnished paintings and I wonder if I can only write things that are brought alive right now, and all these notes to future-me-which-is-now-me are as hands closing on air, things in the night-sky glimpsed only if you look a little to the left.

I plan to go for a walk, but don't. Perhaps tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014


I set out this afternoon in the looming grey weather to see Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive. Tom Hiddleston! Tilda Swinton! Vampires! What could go wrong?

Someone was sitting between me and the aisle, so I saw the end.

I suppose I could say something about the cinematography and art direction and the way the shots were collected together like a storyboard, like the establishing parts of a graphic novel without the novel. But I'm too overwhelmed with delight to be out of there. It was like an interminable, awful date with a twenty-something white dude who wears a black leather duster and vintage concert t-shirts and has just read Shakespeare and Wilde and Infinite Jest, who first wants to show you his guitar collection with bonus details about how Pete Townshend's rig was modified. Then he pours you a drink and tells you at length about his contemptuous exhaustion with the world because we are all such zombies and we never realise how much we are fucking things up until it is too late oh and also thank all the small gods, his spare time involves way too much wikipedia and xkcd and vinyl message boards and so his agonisingly sophomoric trials-of-existence monologues are fascinatingly larded with Facts about fungi and electricity and Tesla and physics and old 45s and Jesus Christ on a dial please, please just kill me.

I haven't even told you about the mind-numbing nihilism-fetish night-tours of broken-down Detroit where Hiddleston actually has to utter lines like ' ... and now, it's a car park'.

There's a scene late in the movie where Hiddleston and Swinton are standing over the deathbed of John Hurt, who's playing a vampire who really penned the works of Shakespeare (yes. Don't even). Hurt's deathbed is in out the back of a shisha bar in Tangiers, shot like there is tea over the lens, because of fucking course. Anyway Hurt, because there can be no limit to the excruciation, has to say 'What a piece of work is a man!' when he sees The Hiddleston. Jesus wept.

But then they shoot up at Hiddles from Hurt's perspective, with shadows in his eyes and the tea-colours arcing off his cheekbones and his round, broken jasperware eyes and he says, perfectly, softly and crisply and sadly, everything about him suddenly borne aloft of the shitty, excessive, self-satisfied screenplay like crackling ice on a puddle of mud, 'And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?'

It's just about possible that Tom Hiddleston's line-reading from Act 2, Scene 2 is worth the price of admission.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Test tea

Oh, the making of words today is impossible, grotesque, line-and-arc sigils made of points of light that pretend to be bits of the world other than themselves.

I've been reading Constance Spry's 1961 Hostess today, which is, natürlich, entirely and unmitigatedly fabulous and like Liza Minnelli in her royal blue silk pyjamas at the Oscars last night made into a book. Though I'm perfectly certain Spry would have thought that look de trop. But on the other hand, the woman invented Coronation Chicken.

Hostess, which existed only in a draft when Spry died, is set in the aspic of wry wistfulness for how things were once. But she is Constance, and neither sentimental nor reactionary. Cream isn't served with tea as it once was, but no matter. We have milk, darlings.

She holds, nothing if not particular, that if the milk is added to the tea in the cup ...
... you can get 'a 'raw' taste rather difficult to describe; if you put it into the cup first the scalding tea poured on to it gives a mellower taste.
The milk-or-tea-first debate is a classic, burnished around the corners and comfy to sit on like a club fender. In 1919 a scientist called Muriel Bristol was working at the Rothamsted Experimental Station. The famous statistician R.A. Fisher, who also worked there, heard that Muriel claimed to be able to tell the difference between milk-first and tea-first cups.

Fisher tested Muriel's claim with a statistical significance test that came to be called Fisher's exact test, which has its own controversies, but was hugely influential and still bites the ass of research students today.

She passed.

Sunday, March 02, 2014


I have been writing some other things, difficult things, intransigent things, things that give me the eye. No, that's not quite right. It's not the things. It's that I'm trying to stuff them into a certain kind of box, make them into a very particular kind of thing, and they don't like it, or they don't like me, or they don't like my weird, exogenous, interloping story about how they're supposed to be moulded into The Literary and they have been giving me the big fuck-you.

But also while you are writing things they accidentally fall into wheel-ruts in the dirt that you didn't know were there and off they go around the corner and you've had another, related thought but it doesn't go now because you're already around the corner and looking into the hazel bush for the black cap instead of the wheat field you thought you were talking about.

Sometimes that is all right but sometimes you are trying so hard to say a thing, a particular thing --- suck it, whatever's-round-the-corner --- and it's like spinning your little cart-wheels desperately in the mud because today I want to talk about my affair of the heart with a country.  Or perhaps not a country, really, but somewhere that I imagine exists where the country really is. How do I tell the story of falling in love with England, which later turned out to be something more like sort-of-England, and all the messy, bonkers, perfect, perfectly shit things that happened because of it?  How do you even start to tackle the imaginings and the thousand, thousand reimaginings over the long sticky forever between your doe-eyed fetish for a place you have come to visit and the battered, patinated love for where you choose to stay?

There is a lot of English nature writing. It's a thing. Some of it is as beautiful and provocative and truthy as anything people can do with words. But often I am desperate with the sense that they are not talking to me, the one without the front-door key. They are not talking about the hedges I look into, the ones I wasn't hidden in as a child, didn't climb over on a stile, the ones with nothing in them that I know, and then the one thing I know, and then the few, and then suddenly but not really suddenly many, many things as I walk past marking out the edges of the hawthorn and the hazel, blackthorn and beech. They are not talking about the grass snake that eyed me from the wild garlic at Greywell, its smooth head neatly angled like something off Cleopatra's forehead, as thrilling as anything I saw in the wood that day because while we observe each other I taste bright-white metal from old, quick, spectacularly rational snake-adrenaline, transfixed by the possibility of even standing near.

They are not talking about the things in my maple, for they have no idea that the blue-tit upside-down brings a passport in his foot.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Xtin in Manhattan

In the early afternoon yesterday I really wanted an extremely stiff drink. I counted the minutes to cocktail hour, but fell asleep on the sofa just past five and by the time I woke with cricks in my jack-knifed knees the moment had passed.

I awoke this morning with a slitty-eyed determination. A Manhattan would be mine as the almost-spring parma-violet sunset dusted itself liberally over the roofs and the birdoole chipped frilly fragments of post-it off the mothernote.

Cocktail glass into the fridge, along with the cocktail shaker that Opera Singer gave me in Berlin because he and his husband had three. Four Roses, Angostura and the bottle of Byrrh that The Poet and The Novelist gave me for my birthday. On the card The Poet noted that it made a superb negroni. Its application to Canadian bourbon was thusly inevitable, like dinosaur erotica.

I watch back-episodes of Hannibal, because for some reason I didn't tune in when the season opened last year. It is squickily, moodily, gravely comically superb, and Mads Mikkelsen may yet carve out the C-bouts of the most riveting Lecter ever.

Six bells, cocktail-hour klaxon, Melody Gardot pegged up three notches. Out comes the chilled glass. Cocktail shaker on the bench with the jar of Xtin's Own Homemade Maraschino Cherries with Actual Luxardo and None of That Red Shite. Also, the twisty liquorice-strip of a cocktail spoon that the bartender at The Vaults gave me in 2008 because I liked to watch him mix drinks. But maybe also because I was unnecessarily opinionated about my Perfect Manhattan. He had a jar of his homemade cherries in the fridge. He taught me how to make my own.

For the love of god! There is no ice!

I stare into my ridiculous little drop-front shoebox of a not-at-all-deep freezer like a pithed rabbit. This cannot be happening. I have tweaked and replaced and substituted and hacked lo, so many things I have poured into a glass or a baking dish or a muffin tin but a room-temperature Manhattan is not to be contemplated.  

Forlorn Xtin-gaze lights on the frozen peas. Tink! Well, if they're good enough for a black eye. Swishy slish, klish klish as the frost appears on the shaker. Glip, glip, two cherries and a sativamous fragment or three. Cold as the grave and perfect as eternity.

I ate the peas later.

Friday, February 28, 2014


I don't even remember what happened today. It rained. I put out the wrong bins. I paid the rent and washed the dishes and picked the bones out of a tin of pink salmon. I had a bath and fell asleep on the sofa and found the right screw to put a hook with an enamel X on it on the back of the bathroom door which I bought it at Anthropologie in San Francisco in 2009. The hook, not the door. I found it in a box.

There is a lot of finding things in boxes lately.

And now I am sleepy, in spite of the sofa-napping, sleepy in that way that doesn't seem to track anything about how tired you are, because long-forgotten things in boxes, toothy paper, a single piece of Lego and a business card from a job you had in another life. Lettuce and the flopsy bunnies.
It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is 'soporific'. I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuces; but then I am not a rabbit.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


I had an MRI scan today. I lay still in my weird origami hospital gown and sometimes I took deep breaths in and sometimes I breathed out and sometimes I held my breath carefully so my diaphragm wouldn't move the relevant organs around and they put dye into a cannula in my arm and little yellow plugs in my ears and there was a tiny black flaw in the enamelling on the smooth white interior of the scanning-Xtin-tunnel and I looked at it and wondered what had made it and listened to the sounds through my yellow earplugs.

I thought it was going to be big, low, clunking sounds but there were all sorts of noises -- clatterings and dings and beeps and bongs and chitters and zings, like being in a giant dialup modem. HELLO I AM 56K YOU?

Pluvialis waited in the extremely honey-pine waiting room and read Margery Allingham and then we and the little purple bruise in the crook of my elbow went through the rain spitter-spatter and had way too much Turkish food. Which also involved several organs.

I love a good theme.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

No sleeps

Japanese Salt Steam Room. Xtin's No. 1 with a bullet.
It had a block of rose quartz in the centre which widdled a little jet of water
and the steam was salt & jasmine & mint and it was hot as the ass of Beelzebub. 

Holy shit, spa day was abso-freaking-lutely fantastic.

I thought, actually, that it was all going to be a bit of a giggle and Madame O and Pluvialis and I would prance about the faux-bamboo wonderland of tacky bathroom fit-outs and incense. But it wasn't. I mean, it was. We laughed together. But spa day didn't need any ironic giggly scare-quotes to improve it. It was hand-to-god flat-out superb. I lay in little circular cave-rooms minutely tiled with tiny blue mosaics filled with steam so dense you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. Every now and then the door would open and a foggy figure would let in some cool air and the magical steam-gods would compensate with cloud upon cloud of scented steam venting out of the floor until your joints were soft like hot sugar and your lungs were kneaded into springy, buoyant piles of pink alveoli dough. There was steam with jasmine and salt, steam with eucalyptus and menthol, steam with flowers, steam without, a lion spitting piles of crushed iced into a basin, a wood-lined sauna woodily fragrant like a pizza oven for people, hot benches leaving gentle train-tracks on your back as you lie there watching the curl in your hair go sproing.

We swam in the pool with the little one-person jacuzzi bites out of the side. We had lunch in our waffle robes and napped on the waterbeds and the swing-chairs and the mossy green suedette couches and the reclining chairs made by a committee of eighteen of the smartest chiropractors history has ever known. I made that part about the chiropractors up.

I am so supernaturally relaxed I might vibrate out of the visible spectrum like the Mayans.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Spa day

Meditation room: bigger on the inside

ZOMG, Xtinauts, tomorrow I am going on a spa day and there will be waffle robes and slippers and cheap Prosecco on arrival and this thing pictured above about which Pluvialis commented she didn't realise they also had a TARDIS.

Not only are there reflexology stones in the Zen garden for a soothing foot massage while you reflect on the shameless commodification of southeast Asian culture by white-girl body-lotion brands, but also a herbal cold-water hose in the Laconium, a sauna favoured by the Roman Patricians! Not this exact one probably! But maybe! Those Romans showed up a pretty long time ago!  

Also the Japanese Salt Steam Room with illuminated rose quartz centrepiece because you know, they are all about crystal healing in Japan, or something? Well OK then. Or if that is not enough pilfered exotic spirituality for you there is the Indian Blossom Steam Room with central frog statues and floating rose petals!

Oh lord. I cannot wait. I am counting the sleeps. ONE. ONE SLEEP.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Charta dentata

Today I tangled with paper again. How can there be this much? How does it form into the little papery beasts that it does, snapping at your fingers and grabbing at your throat with claws made of staples and leftover bits of envelopes?

If I had a story to tell you today, a bank statement from 2006 is over there in the corner chewing at its bones.

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Gian Paul Lozza for The Guardian

This afternoon, under the covers with the dark closing in, I read Andrew O'Hagan's startling piece in the LRB about ghostwriting Julian Assange's autobiography.

My god, the weirdness. The wanting things. The not wanting things. The obliviousness and the bewilderment and the terror of exposure and the not wanting to know, the force of not-really-politics, persecution, narcissism, entirely unwrangled power boxed up in the thoughts of others unthought.

Staggering matter-of-factness from O'Hagan, the uncomplicated knowledge of self, the glass-like ping of identity. Simplicity klaxon, I am a writer. I write things down, tape-recorder, pencils, laptop. I ask questions, and you say things. Later I will have written down what you said when you say you didn't say those things, that you aren't that person, that you didn't mean it, that you were tired. I am trying to see how things are, even if how things are is only how things seem to you.

But Assange would not tell him even how being Assange seemed.

I too have a twinging autobiographical cramp, a flinch from what is true. I don't want anyone to know that I am weak and frightened and spoiled and selfish and full of shame and failure and opportunities abandoned and unthreatening, mealy-mouthed safehouses pursued.

You don't have to tell anyone these things. But you have to know about them when you are writing about other things, because they breathe the same air. Your broken, shrill, unforgiving moments stand there right next to the time you saw the otter crunching up the fish in Thetford and you cannot see the pink inside of his mouth and the clockwork click-flickering, bright-white needles of his teeth, the fisherman who carefully brought up his line and offered a worm, unless you also see the sticky, snotty, over-entitled faces of every tantrum you have ever thrown.  

Saturday, February 22, 2014


One of the recurring Xtin-themes is Francis Cornford's famous lines for Rupert Brooke, 'Magnificently unprepared/ For the long littleness of life'.

I am astonishingly, terrifyingly, world-beatingly well-prepared for the long littleness of life. Littleness is my metier, and decades pass in it in the damp, fragrant snap of the sheets out of the washing machine.

I've no doubt this is a kind of victory. But it is also not.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Loose West End

I went to London today, and didn't know what to do, as usual.

I had lunch with my lovely friends Once-Was-Catholic-Priest and Once-Was-Catholic-Nun at Mishkin's and had a salt beef sandwich on rye with pickles and a negroni. And a vanilla malt. And a coffee.

That was good.

Covent Garden was all language students and half-term day-tripping families and the wind was a little too brisk to make aimless wandering about joyful. We went into St Paul's church, which was all Inigo Jones perked up with a little late eighteenth-century this-and-that. I admired the gilding on the plasterwork and felt weird and godless, as per usual.

But then what? I can't even believe it. Only Xtin could stand on Leicester Square and think, what next?

I got on the train and came home with a tin of caramelised macadamia nuts I bought at the station M&S. Xtin, world adventurer extraordinaire.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Gimme the news

I saw the doctor, and then I got a Belgian waffle from the waffle man, because the doctor said I should behave like I have a normal liver. How do people with normal livers act, you may well ask, but I decided it was waffles and the Hollywood edition of Vanity Fair. Waffle man told me about his son, who is going to university next year, and his daughter, who is doing her GCSCs. I asked him how he was doing and in his lilting Belgian accent he said, Well, I am still here at the market. I am not dead. And then he made that shrug sort of shape with his mouth that you do by turning down the corners and raising your eyebrows.  

The Birdoole watched Construction Site and made a list of his favourites. Orange hard hat. Hi-vis vest. Fluffy cube of roof insulation. Angle grinder sparks. And of course, Yellow Digger. When it got dark we shared peanut butter on toast and watched Night at the Museum.

Tomorrow I am going to London where Mishkin's will serve me a toothsome salt-beef sandwich and eighteen negronis. Because hey. Might be normal.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wes 4 eva

Tonight the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse brings a festival of awesomeness to my Wednesday nights, because they're playing Wes Anderson's whole oeuvre. On Wednesday nights. Which if there were ever a night of the week which needed a dose of hipness, that is surely it. Wednesday night is like the supermarket-brand laundry detergent that doesn't get the stains out and makes your sheets smell like someone else's.

First up: Bottle Rocket, which is unmistakably Wesian but also the least Wes-Anderson-movie movie.

There is nothing inside the Bottle Rocket box except characters who cut blood out of your heart because their grip on being people is not yours except that it is. All of them. Even the ones who are onscreen only a second, and the ones who screw over the ones who are pursuing the good, or the selfish ones or the ones who are trying so hard to be in love or to be someone or just to not be dead.

The clothes are perfect and the hair is perfect and the shot-framing is perfect and the interiors and gardens and cars and matching boilersuits and location shooting is perfect, because it is Wes.

But it's about a huge, expansive, heart-breaking mess populated by losers and the lost. The Royal Tannenbaums is about has-beens and wasted talent, but Bottle Rocket is about nobodies in no place trying to make a plan to be someone, somewhere, with brightly coloured scraps of wool and surgical tape.

I love it like only someone who believes three different colours of post-it note improves their control of their life can.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


Today I went walking at Wicken Fen with Pluvialis, a muddy, milky, gently lit afternoon with two cups of tea. Pluvialis angled Debonaire Peugeot gingerly into a squish-grassy spot and two foof-footed ponies came over to say hello, side-eyeing me with soft, cautious baby browns while I scratched under their manes.

Widgeon and teal, gadwall upending, roe deer and cattle and a pheasant under the tree, a heron's face uplifted like the saved among the reeds. Tits bouncing Spy vs Spy in the undergrowth, a reed bunting skirting the puddles.

Sausage sandwich and a bag of crisps, ketchup out of a sachet.

Later on the floor of her study in Pluvialis listened to me try to chalk a book-shape out of the handful of flinty shards in my hands and I had many thoughts and wept tears of terror and longing and she asked questions slowly and patiently and the Birdoole scrunched apple and sang the ABC song in his birdy-mind.

Monday, February 17, 2014


The blackbird pair in the little garden, Mme Shattered Chocolate and her mate Monsieur Blackbird, have leaped springwise to marquee position in the maple, scoping the ivy for nesting spots between bashing cocky arrivistes who presume to challenge and singing their throaty, molasses spring song pulled like taffy from the branches over and over, curling into the air and around the edges of the windows, melodious fog rolling over the crocuses because although it is impossible it will eventually be April.

I thought about covers of the Beatles 'Blackbird'. Wikipedia lists forty-three. I listened to some I'd never heard, including a live Grateful Dead one and incidentally discovered that the button-cute Warblers arrangement that popped up on Glee was from the King's Singers 1986 EMI disc The Beatles Collection.

The Xtin definitive cover didn't suffer from any of these comparisons. It's Floyd Pepper, in 1980 in the fifth series of the Muppet Show.

First, they had a puppet blackbird in the tree behind him which sang the blackbird song which you hear in the original. Second, he really gives that 'take these sunken eyes and learn to see' lyric a certain something, don't you think?

But mainly, Floyd Pepper. Don't even get me started on 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps'.

The blackbirds would be proud.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Painted lady

I spent the afternoon in the pub with Pluvialis, Madame O, Ghost of Early Modern Christmas and Fervent Engineer, where we all laughed like loons and ate like we'd forgotten what good pub food was like, which I had.

Pluvialis drove me home as darkness closed in and I went upstairs and played with makeup. Yes! Something of the eight-year-old with a box of every-coloured crayons overtook me like a trickster demon and I watched terrible pirate television while I pouted and fluttered and painted and smudged with glitter and shadow and illuminators, pink things and pearly things, stuff in little round tubs and flip-top boxes, mirrors and brushes and black sparkly gel, plums and electric blue and glosses called things like Moxie and Private Isle.

My god, more fun was never had by giggly woman all by herself with a mirror on her desk while the teatime of the soul wore on long and darkly.


Saturday, February 15, 2014


Bringing you the issues.

Today was one of those days when you feel like the bones of your life aren't the right ones. But they are the ones that have grown, god save us, and I suppose we could break them and set them with pins or perhaps we just whip them out of the rest of the trappings like the tablecloth out from under the place-settings for twelve and put something else in there and see if it holds everything up but by then you've made a mess, no? Crystal wine-glasses teetering on their feet with ominous tinkling and everyone waits.

The wind whistled around the little house and I put on another load of laundry, reseeded the bird feeder and watched the collared doves catch a slice of sunshine before the rain started again. I made soup and read Auden because Pluvialis needed a page reference and I packaged up XtinMoum birthday presents into a natty little box and I got a thank-you note from Sir Geoffrey Hill, hand to god, bundled with a rubber band to the bikini I bought to go on a spa day with Madame O and Pluvialis.

A cold negroni and quite enough of this existential mistral, thank you.

Friday, February 14, 2014


Today Pluvialis and Madame O and The Poet and I went to Thetford forest for a walk. We managed to show up a little before the biblical deluge and greet two dogs emerging from the next car over who could read my mind and were as hysterical with outside-outside-OUTSIDE! delight. I stomped about soaking up coniferous air and sandy, chalky mud and tufty, wind-blasted grassy bits and soft, ear-muffled pine-needled undercanopy and watched a crossbill shout from the top of a thrashing tree holding on for dear life.

It was over too soon and the rain tipped down and lo, lunch was average if a little redeemed by a very fine golfball of fluffy donut with salted caramel sauce and then we slished back down the A14 in the spattering wakes of Transit vans to our houses, hatches to batten.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Mercury retrograde

Some days the truth is that you have to launder your sheets and clean out the cupboard under the sink and make spicy dough for biscuits and put out the garbage and take a multivitamin and eat peanut butter on toast and not say a damn thing about it.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

XtinMoum's birthday

I'm placeholding again. It's XtinMoum's birthday and I have to call and do the thing. Her birthday is actually tomorrow. But it's tomorrow her time.

That pretty much says it all for our relationship right now. But watch this space tomorrow for thoughts on something else.

Actual tomorrow, that is. Not it's-always-tomorrow-somewhere-else tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


The Cursive Killer report on TinyXtin, 1984 

Warning: Some Masters are Keen
Keen masters are usually superweeds with specs. They rush into the classroom rubing their hands with joy at the thort of lessons and make a dash at the blakboard. They sit on pins needles rat traps hedghogs etc without jumping chiz they are so enthusiastick that all should learn.
The wisdom of nigel molesworth, the gorilla of 3B. Another classic of my childhood. A satirical public schoolboy of the 50s had at least as much influence on me as Enid Blyton's farm stories. This probably explains a lot of things, but let's not poke the sleeping colonial hound. 

My grade six teacher was called Miss Maxwell. I was eleven and not exactly perspicuous in the matter of my teachers having their very own mental states. I remember grasping to my astonishment at about this time that they were people who had houses and went home when school was finished and ate dinner and maybe had a dog. Miss Maxwell, however, was keen. Even I knew it. It was her first year on the job and she was as serious as the Terminator with a warm smile carved straight out of the guidebook on Nurturing Tiny Minds. She had a very neat black pony tail drawn away from her wide white forehead as smooth as Black Beauty's flank and she wore a ribbon in it to match the fluffy 80s knitwear she favoured. Sandra Dee meets Miss Jean Brodie. We had old-skool lift-top desks and on the first day of school each one had an activity chart attached to the underside of the lid with clear contact paper, penned and illustrated by her fair(ly intense) hand. She had the kind of creepily ideal schoolroom cursive script that would have confounded any graphologist in the land. If she'd been a serial killer, she could have left notes on the bodies without cutting up a newspaper. The Cursive Killer.

At some point that year, Miss Maxwell taught us a class on The Beatles which contained a wildly involved analysis of Sgt Pepper and a detailed account of the 'Paul McCartney is dead' urban legend, complete with buried lyrics, 'the walrus is Paul', White Album backwards, the works. I can't remember whether it was being presented to us as the truth, but I remember the wide-eyed vibe and the flavour of transgressiveness in our classroom papered with the usual biological drawings of flower parts and frogs and pointless coloured cut-outs of god knows what. And then we did a close reading of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. We got to listen to it in class. She wrote the lyrics in pastel chalks on the blackboard.

Heavens alive, I can't really believe any of this really happened.  

I never forgot 'the walrus is Paul'. But apparently that day we did a project of which I've no memory at all, not even after finding the evidence in one of the bags from the Storage Unit of Doom today, on paper cut into the shape of a cloud. It's lyrics to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Not the originals. Apparently we were asked to write our own verse, inspired by the original.

Behold the contents of the little cloud. You have to imagine the felt-tip drop-caps:
Picture yourself on a snow capped mountain
With rainbow snowflakes falling down on the sand
You sit on a toboggan with velveteen cushions
And ride down the mountain with ease 
Picture yourself landing in a plum orchid [sic]
Where rich blood-red plums grow with huge abundance
And you sit down amongst the juicy red plum trees
And eat to your heart's content 
I'm distracted from my critique of TinyXtin's command of metre because I need to know: TinyXtin, you trippin'? 

Monday, February 10, 2014


TinyXtin in Privas, 1976

Today Pluvialis took me out to the Storage Unit of Doom, a permanently marooned shipping container dropped neatly with its doomed brethren into a square of gravel in Sawston. At the end of 2009 everything but the girl was stuffed into it. I left with 30kg of baggage and a letter from the Home Office legally requiring my airline to put me on a flight.

Storage units are an absolutely terrible idea. Take it from me. They are the superboss you have to defeat at the end of this particular level of The Game of Middle-Class.  

Anyway. We came back with a carful of stuff, the superboss took a few hits, and eventually I shall kill it dead and advance to level Reinforcing Upstairs Because of All The Books.

Like a pillock I started with the boxes and boxes of photographs. I made a pile on the floor. So many photographs, slishing across one another like shale with blu-tack tailings. A clipping of my grandmother's engagement announcement, incuding a shot of her wearing the hell out of a superb hat. The announcement remarks that my grandmother's soon-to-be sister-in-law is a noted golfer, as one does. A photograph of my parents on their wedding day, taken by a newspaper photographer. This year they have been divorced for as long as they were married: twenty-two years. My mum was twenty-two on her wedding day.

Such a strange, uncertain historical record. You consider sorting them into the important and the less-important until you realise that has everything to do with this moment and nothing to do with anything that's happened to you. Old forgotten boyfriends and poses in dresses you bought for some terribly inconsequential black-tie thing that felt essential to memorialise, Christmas carols with friends you haven't seen for ten years and here is a picture of a tree. It's ... a tree? Maybe it meant something to me. Maybe next time I see it I won't even remember that I had this moment of bemusement and will say, oh look! The tree in that amazing botanical garden where we ...

The round-edged sepia-faded shots of TinyXtin's childhood, yellow Humphrey Bear wellies and bright green velour, my round brown eyes staring thoughtfully and smilelessly at everything until I learn to do camera-face in about 1979, a terrible simper against my little brother's delightful open grin. Spindly me in the 80s before the boobs, sand and school uniforms and hair that I didn't know what to do with then, either. Handbags I Have Owned. Pluvialis and me at country fairs. Grade 3 class photograph, 1981, plaits and rictus. Germany, 2010. I am thin. Camera-face. Everything is hard. My brother's wedding, 2003. Pictures of Cambridge that I took of things I've since seen a thousand thousand times, but I cannot throw away because they are emblems of the time before I had any idea that these things I am snapping like a tourist will soon be the very furniture of my life. A B&B in New Zealand. New Zealand? Holy shit, yes, the autumn before Cambridge. Autumn, winter, autumn, winter 2001. A picture of the B&B dog. Her name was Oboe, because as my host had said, a hole at each end; sudden, wholecloth memory from nowhere out of nothing which is why I can't throw out even the mysterious, slightly out-of-focus tree.

Pictures of my nieces, whose whole lives have unfolded on the other side of the world. They go with the pictures of Cambridge, a perversely shared chronology that seems impossible. I hold the photographs in my hands, for these are different, these leaves of their lives, for they are pictures made acts, enveloped and stamped, addressed to me and thrown across the aery thinness to forge a memory by stealth. 

I should have started with the disassembled coffee table.

Sunday, February 09, 2014


I can't today. I have nothing to tell you. No stories sorted themselves from the litter, I didn't find the footprint of something under the dust I have tried to blow off the tops of the things that matter. The weather is like treacly dishwater blown through your ears and I am tired and irritated and ignoring with prejudice the knocks at the door. Letters on the desk poke gently at the sleeping box of anxiety and I have too many other things to do, things which might not matter, but I cannot tell. I took bags of clothes to the charity shop and made banana bread. I sharpened flint in my mind because not all differences of opinion are created equal and I am tired of being told that variation simpliciter in people's thoughts makes things more interesting, for it does not.

Interesting thoughts make things more interesting.   

And if you wonder who is to be the judge of that, it is you. Good luck.  

Saturday, February 08, 2014


I've been trying to write some things about names, some things about the way they have threaded the needle of everything again and again. It is hard. Too hard, today. So many things. Things without names and things with the same name, two things with two names, one thing with two, two things with one.  Master Namers and me in places and bird guides and moth species and basketmakers and sheep, garden tools and bookbinding and Linneaus and the skeleton of the real.  

The softest, mightiest names are the ones for collections of things. Collections of things which are a certain thing. What the philosopher calls 'a kind'. Robin. Capybara. Toothpaste. Bookcase. Bookcases and toothpaste are not the same kind of kind as robins and capybaras. Or protons and moons. That is a much longer story than you'd think.

But there is no end to the way we sort things into piles. Moths. Corvids. German-made pencils of the post-war era. Star Wars merchandise, all-time. Vertebrates of the Amazon basin. X-Men comics from the Whedon period. Not only the collections of the natural world but things we build just for the satisfaction of counting them. Later people will taxonomise the things others have built for the delight of resorting the piles. 

Collections of things don't have hard edges, but people are indefatigable in their desire for precision. For accuracy, for detail, for the useful illumination of things-in-common, for what might be called the truth, I suppose, although that's not what I mean. 

Collect, compile, sort, label, coloured dividers, Köchel number, coded sticky flags, new subspecies, not-a-planet-any-more. We sort and count and resort and count until we turn to dust, world without end, amen. Death and taxa.

Friday, February 07, 2014


Michael Crawford's WoS collection

Today I ate cheese and chocolate and the end of the bag of peanuts in the cupboard and watched the rain try to make up its damn mind. 

The thing that often happens on a day like that is that by the end you find you've accidentally drunk too many cups of coffee and become weirdly and perfectly unnecessarily informed about some uh, things. 

(1) The World of Springfield line of Simpsons toys. It had playsets where you could plug in the little yellow Simpsons figures in and they would say things. Because sure.

(2) There were eventually more than 200 figures in the line. 

(3) I couldn't find an exact number.

(4) Argh.  

(5) Because "two hundred and thirteen" is an interesting thing to say and "more than two hundred" is a boring one, which is one of those things about how people are way more wrapped up in having a precisely detailed view of the world than anyone ever expects.

(6) Could be just me. 

(7) I'm hoping the number isn't out there because there's rabid collector debate about whether one or other figure really counts as a different one. Maybe it's strictly indeterminate.

(8) That would make a good philosophical paper on the identity conditions of enumerable objects. 

(9) Action-figure toy-collecting scene rabbithole. Which dude, I mean, of course you sort of already have a pop-cultural grip on this not least because you've been watching Comic Book Guy do his schtick since 1991, but damn.

(10) There is a Spanish guy who is producing furniture depicted in Dalí paintings. There is a taxidermied sheep end-table with little bronze hoof-covers and a drawer in its stomach. 

(11) Yes.

(12)  There are twenty white lamb end-tables, and a single black lamb end-table.

(13) Because of course.

(14) Cocoa programmers talk a lot about cursor hover behaviour, but no-one else does.

(15) Suzanne Farrell was twenty years old when she was made a principal at the New York City Ballet. Balanchine got a divorce from LeClercq who'd been taken down by polio fourteen years earlier so that he could marry Farrell but she was Catholic and gave him the big KB.  

(16) Holy shit.

Fortunately, you never know. Sometimes people say to me, how do you know that? And I think, there was this day I was eating cheese and chocolate and watching the rain.

Thursday, February 06, 2014


Today I was vaguely out of sorts, things shuffled into the wrong order and lost under bits of other people's feelings. 

In the garden it was raining softly, and there were many more green points breaching by the barest of milimeters because they haven't a fig for moods, indefatigable in their assurance that it will some day be spring. I cleared away the hairy straw that was once last year's green points, patting back down a worm or three, excavating a fossilised cat turd from the corner.  

I planted three iris which Madame O brought on lunar new year, translucently blue and beautifully veined like fine alien skincare advertisements. There was a bare spot I'd planned for them to go behind the variegated pelagorniums but it is impossibly webbed with dead ivy roots, suckered into everything in great neuronal handsful with a few bits of gravel. So they went where the hole I could dig seemed soft and crumbly like a good cheese scone while the rain white noised soothingly.

I bought a bird feeder yesterday after I'd talked to the discus, and I put it up in the maple today with red hemp string I bought somewhere. The blue tits eyed it from the apple tree like people waiting to cross a six-lane highway to get to Dunkin Donuts. Seeds, said their little black eyes. Stay tuned. It may be a trick. 

Eventually there was a neat line of six blue tits and one great tit keeping dry under the forsythia tangle like locals and the cop in a diner, each hammering a corn kernel in his foot. Welcome to The Blue Tit, try the specialty of the house.   

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

White line

Today after making like wicked little old ladies at a National Trust teashop, Pluvialis, Madame O and I washed up at a garden centre just outside Cambridge. Not the huge one with the sprawling café but the smaller one in the other direction with the farm shop in it. They have all sorts of gardenscaping things and after the bit with all the pre-formed ponds and replicas of Manneken Pis in it, there is an implausibly excellent aquarium section, humming with filtration and massed piscine mentality.  

In the centre there is a showpiece aquarium, a huge glossy block of made-up ocean like a bit of sea punched out with one of those things that makes sushi rice into neat pucks.  

Grass and plants and bogwood and big fish and small, ones that lay carefully along the lengths of a blade of grass, tiny gangs of eye-lit tetra, sucker-faced plecostomus gloop-gloop-glooping the gravel, water so clear and glass so pristine by some fishkeeping wizardry that you could watch the diffraction index warp as you came around the corner. 

It was magical. Capability Brown space-monkeys fantasy-transporting imagined real made actually real, a diorama of not-real reality made to look how reality doesn't really look. Or as O put it, her nose a whisker from the glass, this is like being on very good drugs. 

There was a collection of discus inside, big ones the size of my open hand, small ones like a paper sachet of pepper and ones in between. Blue and ivory and yellow and orange and parchmenty, flanks squiggled like sulci, handful of brain ironed flat with a teeny tiny pair of kissy-kissy lips and a thoughtful, entirely unfishy eye.  

Pluvialis and O and I clustered together at the end of the tank, ensorcelled. 

They all shoaled over to see.

The discus. They came over to us. I pressed my fleece glove fingertips against the glass, and they came to look at me, turning like pages, the barest sketch of three dimensions. The biggest one claimed the spot just below eye level, right up to the glass, strange nothing-edge between the kinds of things our lungs liked. It stood by my glove, whispering its fins.

Before I came to England and birds happened to me, it never occurred to me that a wild bird might look at you. Not just see you and fly away, like all the wild things that lived on the other side of the white line painted down the middle of the world---but look

In 2007, I think, Pluvialis and I went to watch the migrating swans come in to the washes at Welney, where greater water-parsnips grow, as if you needed another reason. At dusk the swans coast in thousands at a time, calling to one another like truckers finding out who's on the CB. Breaker breaker, this is Bewick the Buick, 10-2 on this very fine night, come on back. 

On the way to the boardwalk over a waterway to the hide, a barn owl cast up to our left, vast and silent impossible paper and feathers, scooping soft wetland sounds with its dish-face. We turned our pale people-faces to the air and as it came overhead it turned to look, tilting its owl eyes curiously at us while the rest of it went on coasting away into the darkness, entirely undisturbed.

A deafening, warping, dopplering second-and-a-half as it looks, dragging me astonished in damp waxed cotton over the white line into the place where the owl and I are in the world together. 

It looked at us, I finally manage to say. Pluvialis smiles, because she knows. Yes, she says. It wanted to see us. 

The discus propelled slowly toward the corner of the tank, past my glove. I turn my head to follow it and inside its extraordinary, crinkly-crumply bright-orange old-man socket, the discus turns its startling person-eye and regards me. It flips itself nimbly and pins me with the eye on the other side. It whispers its fins and comes back to the glove.

Hello, discus. I didn't know we were on the same side.      

Tuesday, February 04, 2014


I promised I'd talk about Ged today, but names have deserted me. The sun shone as if it really meant it, and I went out into the garden. 

'Gardening' describes itself as precisely as any word ever did, but I've no idea what I'm doing. Trees and shrubs and fruit and flowers, seedheads and berries, all in a great, drifting, shifting cornucopial pile like the gold under Smaug and as inaccessible. 

I know there are plants which grow all year round, and those that are dead in the winter but burst alive in the spring like tiny green phoenix with new lettuce for wings. Some are dead once the winter comes. Some are just plain dead. 

There is pruning and there is feeding. Trimming and training. Weeding and lifting and dividing. There are plants which grow from bulbs and from seeds and from cuttings of themselves. Some have flowers you should cut, and others you should leave alone. There are things you do when it is late winter, or early autumn, and other things you do when it is growing season, supposing that you know when that is. You should cut back to an outward-facing bud to avoid shoot congestion. Try to remember where you put your secateurs and leave the blackbirds alone in the ivy.   

Today I found tiny green points. Many, many points. Green and green and green points of things living in the soft black dirt of once-was-orchard, lifting their tapering finials to the sky past the dusty dead maple leaves and unidentified clumps of dead plantish stuff with a worm sleeping underneath, suddenly inside a book from when I was small. A book, a garden in the faraway-that-is-here. 
... she thought she saw something sticking up out of the black earth---some sharp little pale green points. She remembered what Ben Weatherstaff had said, and she knelt down to look at them.
'Yes, they are tiny growing things and they might be crocuses or snowdrops or daffodils,' she whispered. 
It is Mary. She is inside the secret garden, because the robin has shown her the way.
She did not know anything about gardening, but the grass seemed so thick in some of the places where the green points were pushing their way thought that she thought they did not seem to have room enough to grow. She searched about until she found a rather sharp piece of wood and knelt down and dug and weeded out the weeds and grass until she made nice little clear places around them. 
I made little clearings around all my pale green points today---crocuses and tulips and some snow drops over against the wall under the waxy green leaves and red berries of the shrub I don't know the name of. Later it has puffs of white flowers clustered together that don't smell like anything.

'Tha' was right. A gardener couldn't have told thee better,' Dickon tells Mary. Miracle of miracles! TinyXtin was transported by Mary's success, how wonderful and inexplicable this green-point capture, the sharp stick of intuition. Mary knew! She knew what to do! She and the robin and the green points, suddenly and instantly bound into the plausible impossible of home.   
Oh! the the things that happened in that garden! If you have never had a garden, you cannot understand, and if you have had a garden, you will know that it would take a whole book to describe all that came to pass there. 
There was a garden at TinyXtin's house. With a lemon tree and a date palm whose fruit never ripened, and brush-tailed possums who fought on the roof, and tomato plants and a shrub with crimson flowers whose nectar you could suck out the bottom and tiny yellow climbing roses with burnt pink edges and a silver birch whose catkins I would crush in my fingers to watch the seeds fly. But it was a battleground between my parents and moreover I knew it was not the bright, grassy, windy, bell-like Englishness of Mary's garden, not least for the pointed contrasts with the hot, languid pointlessness of India. I was one of those that could not understand.  

But now I am here, and pale green points come up through the black earth and I make little clearings around them, because Mary taught me to. 

Monday, February 03, 2014


In my mailbox.
It doesn't actually tell you what it can do for you.
I could be missing something.

It's cold and I have slowed like a lizard on a sunless rock, or lava cooling ashy-edged on its way down the mountainside. Except that a lizard is too charming and lava much too implacably impressive. 

The lid is off the anxiety box and inside there is an electrical fire. If you're clever you'll starve it to death, slam the lid and cut off the oxygen and narrow your eyes smugly as it sparks its last. The trouble with this is that it takes a kind of cold, matter-of-fact resolve that is often lacking while the severed tension lines in your head are thrashing around going GA-ZING as they hit the puddles. Because sure! There's water in there too. 

So instead you pour things onto it, anything you can find, sand and soot and odd socks, cold tea & washing up, television and post-war mystery novels, gritted teeth and the promise that you can tangle with the water bill and the estate agent not today.

Tomorrow I will tell you about Ged and the Master Namer. 

Sunday, February 02, 2014


The thing about a loose end is that you can't pull too hard.       

In the little house garden today there was the vaguest sniff of spring coming from somewhere, sparrows fizzing with late-afternoon sunshine. The collared doves are used to having the cold to themselves and scattered at the sight of me and my rake this morning. But now they have concluded that death is not upon them and watch interestedly from the second floor of the maple. On the third floor sits the blackbird, watching east and west, beak angled King-of-the-Hill, seeing off other cock blackbirds who come to investigate the lush arrangement of eminently nestworthy ivy in the corner. Black-feathery right upper cut and a beakbutt.   

Bulb shoots needling up through the crinkly-edged slug-holes in the pelargoniums, British racing green and neon, striped and plain.

Wee new shoots on the japanese maple, only an armful of tree, tiny cloven doubletons furled up tight-tight to points like miniature deer toes resting against the sky. Buds on next-door's camellia, fat jade-green droplets under high-gloss raincover. Burnt last year by late frost, all the flowers edge-bruised like a perfectly turned-out footman with a black eye.      

Apples dissolving slowly in the corner. I smell of dirt and pelargonium leaves. 

Sometimes all there is to do with your wiry, fritzing, matted, messy tangle-pile of yourself is wind it into a skein around something else.  Around and around and around.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Hello tomorrow

Lately around the web I've been seeing a lot of those breathlessly excited pieces which are about how some historical figure or recently dead person or sci-fi writer from an appropriately distant decade was spookily prescient about the present. Cue cartoon or quotation or artwork which hews wowishly close to a feature of the modern techscape.   

I'm pretty sure this sort of thing has been around since before people were misattributing diatribes on the state of modern youth to Hesiod and Socrates. 

The wow! clairvoyant! thing is always presented as freakily uncanny, crystal-ballish, or like a bit of theoretical prediction -- Fresnel's bright spot, or the existence of Neptune. As though there is no relationship between what we once thought the future would be like and the way it actually is. It's like we're drunk on too much science on the telly. As if we're so accustomed to knowing that electrons and black holes and gravity would go on doing what they do whether or not there had ever been a person in the universe that we've forgotten that some of how things are is not because of primordial soup but because, you know, Steve Jobs.

It's not just the the future is built by us, it's that it is built as we imagine it. The match will be imperfect, because mercifully people are unpredictable and because for whatever time you pick there will be things we don't know yet. Sometimes things are impossible. But we'll still build what we imagine.

We're bad at seeing how all the places in our lives are imagined, or have imagined counterparts which live like babel fish in our ears and become part of what the words mean. England. Nature, wilderness, farm, forest, ocean. City, neighbourhood, heimat. Landscape, Vaterland. The future is an especially excellent imagined place, because it doesn't have any features yet. Because it's not here. It's always there.

Jobs hired Jerry Manock in 1977 to design the Apple II. He chose that classic shade of beige because it was 'the colour of the deep-space universe'.  How's that? Deep-space is beige? But we get it. I've spent a fun couple of hours today looking at science-fiction from the 60s which might have influenced him. One day maybe I'll get to fossick around in his archives at Stanford. All of his design notes are in there, colour chips and all.

Manock chose that colour because that's what we thought the future looked like. And then that's what the future did look like. Pantone 453.

I'm not Steve Jobs, though, or one of those impressive Enlightenment types who said cleverly accurate things about how the political landscape would some day look. Sometimes it seems like it can't possibly be that the future is being built by me. It is happening to me, bearing down upon me from some distant unfathomable source, for all I know on malign thoughts intent.

Earlier today for stupid, inconsequential reasons having to do with my tax return, I checked the UK border control website for something. They've changed the rules again. This time it's because people are supposedly 'gaming the system' because of course your number one goal in structuring immigration law should be making sure that visas are protected from the hordes of cheating, lying, feeloading bastard foreigners who desire nothing but the destruction of the English way of life, aka applicants to stay in the country.   

They change the rules all the time. This isn't new to me. 

But the careful reminder curled around my throat and hung there while I tried to get on with a day that looked perfectly ordinary. That would have been perfectly ordinary. The ordinary day with the reserved sign on it. Because I'm the cheating, lying, freeloading foreigner. Unless I'm not. 

You're in your own cop show. You're standing outside your house while officers with a warrant toss it. Bad cop presides over the rifling of your underwear drawer. Out on your porch good cop watches you with basilisk eyes. Of course, if you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about, says good cop reassuringly.    

You've seen enough cop shows for that to be about as reassuring as a cop with basilisk eyes.  

Sometimes the ordinary is the most powerfully imagined place there is.  

Friday, January 31, 2014


I don't even know about today. It's like the inside of a damp concrete box with a square hole in it leaking light wrung out three times from a dishcloth someone far away used to wipe out the fridge. I'm prickled with sleeplessness and undirected anxiety and old, old botherations, the sheets of the world all rucked up around my toes.  

First new moon of the year. Year of the horse. Dark of the moon, dark clouds, dark collars up around everyone's throats, just plain dark.

Last night I went out to dinner with a friend of mine and drank soup made from things which grow under the ground, dark ocean things, whiskey afterwards furling black peat smoke. A sudden clout of winter, my ears roundly boxed. Things that have already happened reappear around corners and wait to be counted. 

Shadows abroad. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Dark water

Mij pictured in Ring of Bright Water

Today I have been rereading Ring of Bright Water, because it is another one of those mid-century animal books that I read when I was small that wrote itself into my abstract, fiction-inflected grip on the natural world.  

It is a book that makes me feel crumpled and jarred now, two hundred pages of the author's nakedly self-obsessed pursuit of a pet worthy of his attentions, his loves and bereavements, the writing festooned with sexual projection and strange category struggles about the edges of personhood, neatly couched in stories about how otters are wont to get your furniture wet. Sadness and emptiness and loss and anxiety drive huge troughs through everything; Mij is missing, Mij's harness mercifully holds, it breaks, he is missing, he is found! he eats so ravenously he might choke, he is missing, he is found! he is missing, he is waiting for me in the kitchen ... 

About halfway through the book Mij is killed by a roadman with a pick-head. 
I could have killed him then as instinctively and with as little forethought as he had killed the creature I had brought so many thousands of miles, killed him quickly and treacherously, when he was expecting it no more than Mij had, so that the punishment would fit the crime.
An astonishing moral collision of Mij's death being all about Maxwell, all about instinct, and all about Mij's expectations, which are just Maxwell's all over again. An instinct that was crime. 

In his grief he first acquires a ring-tailed lemur called Kiko, but she is too murderous. Then a bush-baby who is too boring, and moreover masturbates all the time. Then 'a baker's dozen of small, briliant tropical birds' to which he grudges the merit of being less insanitary than Kiko.   

Eventually he goes back to Camusfeárna and the thought comes 'clear and undisguised' that the place is incomplete without an otter. His house, that is. He has to have an otter for the house. So he writes to a friend in Basra to have the Maʻdān get him an otter cub. With brutal offhandedness he tells us that all of 'a succession' of cubs brought to his friend die in the first few days, 'three of which'---all that are enumerated for they are all that matter---'were Lutrogale perspicillata maxwelli'. 

Finally one lives, but wouldn't you know it, he never gets the cub to England because revolution comes to Iraq before she can be put on a plane. Domage, lonely fellow lovers of adorably playful wildlife stolen-to-order to sleep in your bed. He never hears from his friend in Basra again because he was one of the tyrant's personal entourage.  

So much else. I have written pages and pages of notes on things which have nothing to do with the things I thought I went to the book to find out. 

It is no longer a book about otters for me.