Posts Tagged ‘creative writing’


if I could only
get beyond my own contempt —
I might see the world

I have been worried in the past week or two, to find myself remembering nothing whatever of my dreams each morning. In terms of organised religion, I am a complete dilettante — unable to derive satisfaction from religion at all, because my loyalty is spread so thinly between so many different ones. But if there were such a religion as ‘paying attention to one’s dreams’, then I would be a lifelong pious devotee. Hence my unease and even alarm when I don’t recall anything at all in the morning. Finally this morning I remembered a small fragment. I was playing soccer, dribbling towards the enemy goal. I encountered a boy named Stephen Venables (a contemporary of mine at school), but felt desperate to know if he was on my side or the opposing team. This unanswered question was left hanging.

This poem is about contempt, which is the only word to describe how I felt towards Venables in reality. He was much better at football than me. I was much better at schoolwork than him. His father was a vocal supporter of the school rugby team whereas I had made it into the team if anything despite rather than because of my father. It’s a question whether the contempt in this poem is mine or my father’s. And by the time I had thought about this for a little, it became a poem about a sort of generalised blind contempt with no object. I grew up dealing with (or not dealing with) my father’s tendency to pour his contempt onto specific people behind their back. Or indeed to their face, indirectly. My attitude to Venables mimicked my father’s towards various people. But how did my Dad get to be like that?

I saw former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks being interviewed yesterday, by journalist Andrew Marr. He was talking about how the Book of Genesis shows us how to recognise ourselves in the ‘other’ (Cain and Abel for instance). I was impressed with his sincerity compared with the general run of politicians and journalists who talk about politics on Marr’s show most of the time. In my dream, Venables is either ‘on my side’ or else on the opposing side — in which case he is by definition ‘other’. And so I can draw a moral from the entire experience of dream/poem, which amounts to this: Contempt is a defence against otherness. Like I said — paying attention to one’s dreams can be like a sort of religion.



The prison van drew up and we all got out
— me clutching my library copy of Aeschylus —
twenty minutes maybe, in some kind of holding area,
before finally HMP Brixton welcomed us into its bowels.
At that point my Aeschylus was confiscated.

It used to trouble me greatly not knowing
what happened to that library book.
I would like to think the prison officers returned it
to Willesden Library: I know of course they didn’t,
but some part of me has never let it go in thirty years.

I noticed Sophocles’ Antigone on the BBC recently, with much praise for the new translation by a Canadian named Anne Carson. I began googling Anne Carson, which ended up with my purchasing online her volume of translations of Euripides. The book arrived a couple of days ago. Yesterday I was reading it on the bus when a very old man sat down beside me. I recognised him as George Eugeniou, an actor whom I saw 15 years ago performing Greek tragedy in the original Ancient Greek language, at a little theatre in Camden Town called Theatro Technis. I asked him tentatively if he minded my talking to him, and we struck up conversation based on the book I was reading. And so last night I dreamed I was desperately trying to return items to the library before going on a journey…… In the last couple of months I seem to have lost the habit of pondering my dreams. It’s so easy to forget those few scraps of images which seem insignificant. But it took only a couple of moments’ reflection this morning to realise that my desperation to return the library books in my dream last night, relates to that little paperback Aeschylus I lost in Brixton Prison in 1982.


he spent his whole life
listening to emptiness
— hearing only the
deafening cacophony
of his own concentration

I dreamed last night of Fred Plaut, who was an analyst of some standing within the Jungian community up until his death in 2009. As usual, I struggled with a title for my poem. Philosophy — and its cousins psychology and religion — are things I dabble in enthusiastically. Perhaps I should have entitled the poem: dabbling.


seventies heartthrob
David Soul — look at him now
barely able to
walk — so old, so old — more like
a wizened tree than a man

I don’t really have much to add to this by way of explanation. Dreaming of the name Soul must certainly have been suggested by the chapter of the book I’m reading by Charles Nicholl called The Chemical Theatre. It’s about the influence of 16th century contemporary alchemical publications upon the imaginations and writings of Shakespeare, Jonson and Donne. I was reading about Donne yesterday, with examples from his poetry. There was much talk of souls.

The theme of old age — or at any rate late middle age — i.e. the age I am now — cropped up yesterday in the course of my delivering a testimony of lived experience of paranoia as part of my job. I succeeded quite well, better than usual when I do these talks, in getting across the general shape of my life (as it appears to me), as being largely a story of homelessness and mental illness with just a little coda of the most recent ten years spent being ‘normal’ with a job and a relationship. My audience, during questions, kindly asked me how difficult must it have been to adjust to the ways of society at such a late age.

Arising out of my blog two days ago about Stendhal, I was reflecting that he died aged 59, the age I am now. Shakespeare and Beethoven both died in their late fifties too (actually Shakespeare was 52). In that sense, I am an old man.

pencil scribblings #8


I mentioned in yesterday’s blog that, back in the eighties, I used to consider the idea in all seriousness that I might be a reincarnation of the French novelist Stendhal. My other fairly-serious-contender for a past life was John the Baptist. Of course, for me to cherry pick famous figures from history in this way, was both illogical and vain. Even assuming I could believe wholly in the principle of reincarnation (which I couldn’t), chances are several billion to one that my past lives would have been inconspicuous and anonymous. Not John the Baptist or Stendhal. So I tended to nurture these fancies in quite a vague sort of way. Rather than believing literally in reincarnation, I thought probably there might be some special link of some other sort between these historical figures and myself. Maybe their discarnate souls remained discarnate, but were taking an interest ‘from the other side’ in the events of my life within time and space.

I remember feeling quite strongly convinced that John the Baptist, because of the way his life had ended, might, in the afterlife, be particularly interested in exploring the female realm and learning about feminism in the 20th century. In life, he had been some kind of hermit and presumably celibate. In the afterlife, he would want to make good that one-sidedness, and maybe use my 20th century life on earth as some kind of learning curve for himself, even though he remained ‘on the other side’. He would want to understand what made Salome tick. I felt that in my own life I had been victim of repeated random acts of cruelty by women, comparable (psychologically) to Salome’s cruelty in demanding the Baptist’s death. What had women done to me? Well, mainly it was simply a matter of their saying ‘no’ — either to sex or to marriage. Why this felt like such an incomprehensible cruelty, is quite difficult for me to recapture, in writing about it.

In April 1985 I met and fell in love with a girl named Petra. She took some interest in me, but explained patiently that there were some men she lusted after, others that she didn’t, and unfortunately I fell into the second category. I never quite believed her, and thought she was lying for the sake of the pleasure to be gained from denying me what I needed. Some months later, I came across a picture in a book about Stendhal, which was a painting of Salome by Bernardino Luini in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. This painting had been a favourite of Stendhal, because the looks of the model reminded him of the great unrequited love of his life, Matilde Dembowska. To my eyes, there was also a resemblance to Petra: so I felt this one painting affirmed my connection with both of my ‘previous lives’ at once.

pencil scribblings #7

Remembering and honouring and preserving the Christian rituals/beliefs I was taught in childhood — is incredibly important. But hang on a minute. If these beliefs are no longer alive and vivid and literal, surely they must resemble museum exhibits. Do I have some kind of inner museum of my own past, which I visit and view with a detachedness which is vaguely disquieting, because there is a lack of connection between the exhibits and the present moment? I think the answer is probably yes. And it goes deeper, because it applies to a good many more aspects of my past than just my Christianity.

So welcome to my ‘museum’ then. Let me roll out an exhibit for you now. Many of my exhibits are dreams, which I still remember from decades ago. I want to display now a dream — about museums — which I had on the morning of 14th May 1985.

In the dream, I saw the French novelist Stendhal (real name Henri Beyle) exhibited in a glass case. He had female genitals which were displayed for all to see. He was alive in the sense of existing in some kind of afterlife, and aware of the indignity of it all, but seemed philosophical about it. Awake, it was obvious to me that his physical transgender status in the dream was symbolic of a psychological disposition while he had been alive, towards women, whereby he both studied them and loved them. Women were so supremely important in his life that now, after death, he had become one himself. So his fate — his being here in this museum — had a kind of dignity about it despite everything. Attached to the glass case was a label which bore the Russian word meaning ‘science’: НАУКА

About twelve months earlier, I had read a biography of Stendhal by Joanna Richardson. I had not at that stage read any of his novels. I’d also begun toying with the idea that I might be a reincarnation of Stendhal. This was partly because our respective attitudes towards women were so similar. For example, we both made a big deal of unrequited love, refusing to surrender the loved one spiritually, even though physically there was no possibility of consummation. It was also because of a couple of biographical coincidences. Like me, he had a sister named Pauline. He was born on 23rd January and died on 23rd March. I was born on 23rd March and my sister was born on 23rd July. There were also some parallels with his hating his father, as I did mine (at least during my teenage years), and a certain emotional dependency on his maternal grandfather.

The label НАУКА in the dream, deserves a few words of explanation but it is difficult to know how to begin to convey the depth of felt irony attached to the idea ‘science’ for me, both in the dream and in waking life. There was definitely some kind of notion in the dream, that science was being mocked or at least taken down a peg or two. I felt, in the dream, that I was in a future world, far in the future, when ‘science’ itself would be viewed as a quaint museum exhibit. I regard this with my waking mind as entirely plausible, not to say likely. The explosion of science in the last couple hundred years is a fleeting phenomenon viewed on the timescale of centuries. Science tends to have an inflated view of its own importance, to put it mildly.

I read an interesting article yesterday about the relation between science and the humanities, by Iain McGilchrist. Actually it is not just interesting. It’s brilliant.

pencil scribblings #6

I love Christ. First and foremost because I was encouraged to do so as a child, and have never really lost that habit of mind. Remembering and honouring and preserving the Christian rituals/beliefs I was taught in childhood (my schooling was at Anglican Church schools up to the age of 16) — for me, is a kind of dramatised, immersive, microcosmic anthropology. What do I mean? Well, I’m trying to draw a parallel between the naive magical thinking of my own personal childhood, and the naive magical thinking of hundreds or thousands of years ago, when the society and culture I belong to was in its infancy. As a generalisation, it seems to be true that (whether as individuals or as civilisations) the further back we remember, the more suggestible — the more at ease with magical thinking — we appear to have been. I ought to explain that for me, religion, suggestibility and magic are more or less just different ways of referring to the same state of mind.