28 March 2010

My Favourite Poet Lived in Venice, and All I Got Was This Lousy Sense of What It Must Be Like to Have Sex in an Alley There

So tonight I was watching the video for "Catch," by The Cure. "Catch," which is about its persona's happy memories of a girl he used to know, is twenty years old, but it's one of my favourite Cure songs because at one point Robert Smith says, "And sometimes we would spend the night / Just rolling about on the floor, / And I remember even though it felt soft at the time / I always used to wake up sore. Hee hee hee." First of all, I never can resist an intimation of obscenity, but also, he actually does say "Hee hee hee," or at least he makes a sound that sounds like someone giving a snigger. So it has charm.

ANYwho (BUEno), I was watching the video, and I noticed that when Robert Smith sings those lines he looks so sweet, and so young. To give you some sense of what I mean, here is current Robert Smith and then Robert Smith:

And I thought to myself, watching the young sweet Bob Smith of the video apparently enjoying himself, What must it have been like to be him then? What was he thinking? What DID he think? Years and years ago there was a review of an Aztec Camera concert in the NME that began "Roddy Frame: what must it be like to be as young, as sexy, as talented, and as skinny as Roddy Frame?" This line always makes me laugh, but my question wasn't like that. I wondered, as I have wondered before, what really was going on in that person's head at that time. And then I realised that (of course) I'll never know what it was like to be young Robert Smith. The obvious answer to this is that I'll never know what it's like to be middle-aged Robert Smith, either. But somehow young Robert Smith seems much more mysterious to me - perhaps because these days when I imagine Robert Smith I always imagine middle-aged Robert Smith: young Robert Smith is as vague as a half-lost memory, and thus already unknowable, never mind what he thought.

But never mind Robert Smith, young, middle-aged, or old. I went to Venice! Yes! On a four-day trip that involved staying at perhaps the dumpiest Venetian hotel available:

this was my view

And also involved going up a very tall tower (The Campanile) and looking at the vista of the city and at the tiny people in St. Mark's Square:

And doing this I realised: I love going up tall buildings and looking at the now-tiny stuff below. I know I always say I don't care for repeated vistas, and I don't much care for vistas of, say, trees, or mountains, but show me a bunch of fields or a town or a group of people viewed from way up high, and I LOVE it. When I get back the US, I'll have to go up the Empire State Building.

Byron lived in Venice for two years, and this is largely the reason I went. In fact, to be completely honest, I went because Byron begins Childe Harold IV with the lines, "I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs, / A palace and a prison on each hand." For years, the second line puzzled me: in fact, it drove me nuts. It's grammatically inaccurate! On one side of the BoS is the Doge's Palace and on the other is the prison, so it should really be "either," not "each." I'm sorry to admit that it took me in the region of five years to realise that it's meant to be a joke: The Doge's Palace is here also figured as a prison, and the prison has the potential to be a palace. Damn you, LB! Bueno, I wanted to stand on the Bridge of Sighs, too, so I booked a trip to Venice. And I went, and I did.

Now, probably the thing Byron is most famous for doing in Venice is having a ton of sex. In fact, there is a letter he writes to his friend Douglas Kinnaird (a man for whom I have a great fondness) about Don Juan in which he says, "Could any man have written it--who has not lived in the world?--and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a Gondola? against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis a vis?--on a table? and under it?" Tooled means exactly what you think it does, and obviously one thing the letter is designed to make plain is that Byron has indeed tooled in all these places. To keep up the thin veneer that this blog is an educational device, or at least a device for garnering useful information, here are all the carriages he describes, plus the sort of gondola he means:

a post-chaise. These were the carriages that carried the mail, so
they hared along at a terrific pace. They also normally had many passengers,
and both of these raise some questions for me about
when and how, exactly, Byron might have had his...experiences in one.

a hackney coach. As you can see from the size, the trickiest
to tool in. I hope it came with the villainous-looking driver.

See how the gondola has an enclosed area. Although, oddly,
the back is completely open.

This is the only court carriage I could find on the internet.
I can't believe Byron meant something as fancy as this (although
I suppose he'd been in such a carriage in his life ) - perhaps
he just meant the style, in terms of size.

a vis-a-vis. As you can see, the people sit
face-to-face, which is where it gets its name.

I'm guessing you can imagine your own table.

In any case, it's not that difficult to imagine someone having sex in alley, but only once I got to Venice did I understand exactly how easy, and how (if you forgive the word) right, it would be to have sex in an alley in Venice. Those things are tiny! Many if not most of them are small enough that I could reach out my arms and touch both sides. Bracing yourself (which I always imagine would be the main difficulty in this exercise) would be the work of a moment: either the man or the woman, or both, could easily stick their feet against one wall while leaning up against the other, thus creating a nice stable form.

And, in fact, on my first night - while I was wandering around hopelessly lost - I saw a young couple angled up against one of these walls kissing. Just kissing. But how perfect an introduction to Venice at night can you get? It was warm that first night, and they stood silhouetted in that soft air, just the sticky sound of lips to be heard. Lovely.

As it happens I didn't spend all my time in Venice looking for things Byron. At the beginning of studying an author or a subject, everything you see or experience reminds you of that author: oh! Hawthorne wrote about gables! Oh! Henry James has a whole discussion of marital fidelity! oh! Byron calls Venice a sea Cybele! (lots of people I know stay at this stage of study no matter how old or experienced with an author they become). But after a while the author just comes to be a kind of palimpsestic underpinning, cropping up only sometimes. And I suppose when you're old in studying the author stuff like that scarcely comes up at all (just to make an aside here, this trajectory seems kind of appropriate to me, because it's also the trajectory of self in life: when you're at your beginning, you're just fascinating, and the central focus [and lots of people, even when they're adults don't outgrow this]; then you become progressively less central, but you're always a concern and an interest, always bubbling under). Yes, I kept thinking of Byron on the Bridge of Sighs and the Bridge of Sighs because of Byron, and on numerous occasions I did want to stand posed before Venice and say, "Ah, she seems a sea Cybele!" (despite the fact that I wasn't entirely sure what a Cybele was - I had to look it up when I got home), but mostly I just wandered around Venice for Venice's sake.

In fact, it's quite difficult to find anything clearly Byronic in Venice. They don't have many plaques or obvious indications. I did go to the house where he lived, but in the tradition of all my attempts to commune with Lord Byron by entering his life, it gave me no sensation of closeness to him at all. But then, also in that tradition, something utterly unexpected but vaguely related - something I saw in the corner of my mind, you might say - did. And this was it:

All Venetian palazzi have these steps in front, which you go down or come up, going from or to your gondola. As you can see, they're covered in varying degrees of algae. And as I was walking away from staring across the Grand Canal in a fruitless attempt to commune with Byronicity I looked down and saw these, and suddenly I felt what it must have been like to negotiate those steps for Byron, with your bad leg and your cane and your dignity and your insecurity, and the risk that you might slip and humiliate yourself. Of course, it occurred to me later, Byron could employ someone to scrub the algae off his Canal steps, but just for that moment I felt inside his experience.

I have a belief that all people who work in Eng. Lit. make up the authors we work on, and our readings of them, and what we make up is a reflection, really, of our own interests. My dearly loved friend J. believes that Byron was an intrepid political commentator, and that all his works contain fiendishly coded political subtexts; Michael Foot believed this, too. But J. is a devoted Marxist! And Michael Foot was a liberal politician. I believe that Byron was at heart deeply insecure, and that all his works are or contain demonstrations of his own insecurity and ways of dealing with that. But I'm hugely insecure! I sometimes think that we just replicate our own hidden, or not particularly hidden, subtexts and concerns, and we're never accessing any kind of real truth about these people at all. So my Byron, scared to slip on the algae and lose his pride, delighting in jokes and wordplay, riven and confused about the world and its meaning, is really just, well...me.

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27 March 2010


When I was young and went out dancing, the songs went like this:

And I thought, Oh, how witty! And how I wish I could be that way.

or they went:

And I thought, Ah! How lovely.

or they went:

And I thought, This is a deeply silly song, and my friend Bill told me he thought they were saying, "Put some feces on your head, / Because your face is doing nothing for you."

And dancing to those songs was like feeling your heart be pulled out through your stomach, or blood coming out of your pores, or happiness refined to a thin line of pure enjoyment. Or it was an act of moving your body while you enjoyed wit.

Now I go out dancing and the songs go:

I like to play my bongos in the morning;
I like to play my bongos in the morning;
I like to play my bongos in the morning

And I think, Really?

Now, I was an indie kid, of course. Even when I was young, most people didn't dance to Tones on Tail, or Nitzer Ebb, and if they danced to The Cure, they danced to "Why Can't I Be You?" (but even that contained the line, "I'll kiss you from your feet to where your head begins," which puzzled me for months. Where does your head begin?). And even then not all the music I heard affected me so deeply, nor did I want it to. And even now there are wonderful bands, like The Killers, or The Rascals. But where I go out to dance is mainstream now, and the music is mostly hip hop.

Now, there's many a middle-aged woman despairs over the state of music, and thinks the world of dance is going to hell in a handbasket. But I listen to something like Prince's "Pussy Control," or Kanye West's "Good Morning" ("I'm like the fly Malcolm X / Buy any jeans necessary") and I don't think that. It's when I go out to clubs: then I think to myself, Does this stuff make you feel like you're going to vomit joy? And if it doesn't, do you care that you're missing that? Because I do.

Music has always meant more to me than it really means. It ought to be Sufism, I think. It all ought to be "Temptation," and "Fascination Street" ("And if you slip going under / Slip over my shoulder"), and the sublime nonsense of The KLF, and Mano Negra. It ought to make you feel you've found your It.

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25 March 2010


In tango, every leader has a Tell. They don't necessarily know they do, but they do: each has a set of movements that go together, and the first movement of that set will inevitably be followed by the other movements - so the first movement is the tell (this is actually a poker term, meaning the gesture or face that a player always, but unknowingly, makes when she has a certain kind of hand). Theoretically, being a good follower would require not recognising the leader's tell, because theoretically a tell might not always be followed by the rest of the movement sequence, so you wouldn't want to anticipate (anticipation makes for a terrible follower), so you wouldn't want to recognise the tell. But in fact, at least for me, you cannot help but recognise the tell - but, very interestingly, the recognition is not conscious. I have danced with many men who have a tell (obviously, given my first sentence), but I've only realised that I knew they had one after I several times automatically and unconsciously predicted the movements the tell heralded. The tell is unconscious, but so in some way is the recognition of the tell: only the recognition of the recognition of the tell is conscious.

This is only really interesting to those not involved with tango because everyone has a tell outside tango, too. In fact, everyone has many many tells - tensions and relaxations and alterations in the self that indicate a given mood or thought or concern. These tells often occur when even their possessor doesn't know what he or she feels: the body, particularly the upper body, indicates feelings that the conscious mind doesn't know it has (this is one of the reasons why the body is so so interesting, but that's a post for another day). But the difficulty is that, just as in tango, you have to get close to the body to see the tells. This is why, for example, I have great trouble knowing how my VTTT feels when we discuss personal things, and thus knowing how to act: I only view or lean against his lower chest, and that's not an area that has many tells.

I'd be much better at making conversations go right, and generally at manipulating people, if I could always stand very close to them, or always interact with them when it's quiet - so would anybody with a little insight and a little patience. What a pity we don't always interact face to face, or chest to chest.

I was going to write about my trip to Venice, but that will have to wait until next time.

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14 March 2010


My mother has a very young cousin - well, strictly speaking, I have a very young cousin. His name is Julian, and he's the son of a woman who was adopted by a woman who was somehow a distant cousin of my mother's mother. My grandmother, who was in many ways no fool, once told my mother that this woman "never should have been a mother," and she certainly was a terrible mother to her adopted daughter, who ended up a heroin addict and therefore a pretty terrible mother herself. This boy was that woman's son, and when she died (although she was HIV positive, she died because she was run over), that woman - by now very elderly - became his guardian. And she was a terrible guardian, and he was a terribly messed up and difficult kid.

Eventually, but relatively early on in Julian's life, his grandmother died, and it transpired that she'd named my mother his guardian. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, nobody wanted him: my parents were old for children themselves; he was an impossible child (stealing, fighting...). So for a couple of years he was put first into a tough love boot camp (very effective), and then into boarding schools for those with learning disabilities (of which he had many, since his mother had been a heroin addict while pregnant, and since he had been mainstream schooled all his life). But eventually my mother simply ran out of schools, and so for a year he had to live with my parents, which he did again after he failed out of his first year of college (no bad thing, by the way: my sister did it too, and it took me five goes before I ever made it to graduate school).

And the change in Julian from the time he started living with my parents for the first time to the time he left a year later was dramatic: he became more polite; he became quieter; he became more considerate and observant. My mother didn't do anything in particular to effect these behaviours (in fact, she didn't do much to effect any behavioural improvements, which is why he still does surface rude things like talking on his mobile when he's in the car with other people without asking), but simply by exposure to my parents, who are polite and reasonably considerate, who talk to each other at meals and take an interest in each others' lives, who think about things and discuss their thoughts, he became better. He saw different patterns, and purely by exposure he...changed. And when I look at him now, ten years later, he's really changed. He's training to be a chef! He's getting married! He's articulate, and thoughtful, and sensible. Not one of which I ever would have expected given what his life was like when his mother died.

And when I think about Julian I think that pretty much all my adult life, this is how I believe people can be: if you show them good ways of acting, and ways that you expect people to act well - and if, in all cases, you explain to them why you think that behaviour is good, or kinder, or better, and if it really IS - then people will change. I just believe no one acts dumbly, or badly, by choice, but rather by ignorance, or immaturity, or irrationality. I believe that people naturally mature to be better. You get better. So I'm always surprised to discover that some people just don't change their behaviour. If you're thinking, and you're reasonably self-aware, I always think, why wouldn't you?

My mother, who is not one for handing out compliments as part of casual conversation (that's more my father's line; my mother gives direct compliments), once, after I'd agreed to do something for her, said to me, "You do it out of your natural sweetness." And she was right, in a way. But I don't think I have natural sweetness: I think what I have is a natural, immobile, naïvete. I believe that given opportunities to be good and sensible, and given good treatment, all people will act well and sensibly. And while I think that's a good attribute to have (how much worse to go through life believing everyone will act badly), I also think it would be a good attribute to lose, because I think it has brought me more pain than I need.

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08 March 2010

I Don't Know...

...who I hate more: men, or myself for not meeting their irrational, unfair, selfish standards and for caring about it. Or God, or fate, for giving me the crappy, loveless, meaningless life I have, and not the wherewithal not to care about it.

Men, I think. Yes, I think that's who I hate more. Men.

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