July 29, 2006

Turn and live

We cannot stay in our flat. The air is damp, the dehumidifier hums away but the ceilings are measled with fresh mould. Homeless, temporarily, we are staying with a friend in her house in the Old Town. She teaches English and her shelves reflect the fact: in the original language she has Austen, Dickens, many more. I spotted Swift, Gulliver's Travels, which I read many years ago. When I think of Swift I think of Orwell, as I do when I think of Dickens: I read Orwell on them both before I read much of either. My reading of the criticism preceded my reading the text. This is not the way it should be - acquire that habit and the criticism will, sooner or later, substitute for the text. It will save you the trouble of reading it and a bluffer's knowledge will do instead. It's been a long time since I found the time to read a proper book, but instead I read the London Review of Books, which they post fortnightly to Spain. I know books: all about them, without the bother of actually reading them. The Review has read them for me.

Besides, my books are in hiding or in transit camps. Most of them are still stuck in a storage unit a thousand miles away: even the others, those I managed to take to Huesca, have been evacuated, taken from the flat for fear of damp. They are sitting in the basement of the house, living in a suitcase, refugees.

They include several volumes by Orwell. I think of Orwell often. Huesca is a good place for thinking about Orwell, though he was never here, not in the town itself. As far as I can tell he never got closer than Siétamo, a small town few kilometres to the east, where we sometimes go for spring water, which gushes from a fountain in a small plaza in the middle of the town. Most of the time he was further to the south, closer to Zaragoza than to Huesca. The town is in Alto Aragón, Upper Aragon, the northern part of which consists of mountains: Huesca has a view of mountains to its north, and if you pass through them, you then see many more, and larger. The Pyrenees, covered in snow most of the year, are only about thirty kilometres from here. Yet go where Orwell was, much the same distance in the other direction, where Huesca province ends and Zaragoza province starts, and you find yourself, instead, in semi-desert.

Water and its absence is everything. Spanish water is sparse and precious. Even in Alto Aragón the villages all share the same two features - the church, as one might guess, and the water tower, which one might not. But lower down, southwards, the landscape is parched, almost bare of trees. Scrubby, a series of low, circular mounds of dry, unfertile earth, to which cling small, rough bushes and some heather. The circular pattern may have been formed by the wind which sweeps towards Zaragoza with such intensity that its inhabitants are known as "the hunchbacks"- and from the air, when the plane descends towards the city and its airport, it appears as a bizarre, inexplicable pattern, a series of brown circles. But south of Zaragoza, in Lower, Bajo Aragón, one would be lucky to see as much life as that. The earth becomes rock, from which the sun reflects with such intensity that at its peak, one cannot cross the street, such is the heat. Buñuel - who was raised here - wrote of the sky:
Podía pasar un año y hasta dos sin que se viera congregarse las nubes en el cielo impasible. (A year, or even two might pass without seeing clouds gather in that impassive sky.)
He goes on to relate that if a single cloud came over the mountains the neighbours would rush up to the roof and watch it, before predicting, rightly, from experience, that it would pass to the south of them and no rain would be forthcoming. It is a life and a landscape defined by the heat. In England, when it is hot, we open the windows: here, we close them, hide behind shutters and try and sleep until it is more bearable. Heat and the absence of water: and yet I am temporarily homeless because of the water in our flat.

A small thing, in the great scheme of things. But small things become more prominent when there are no longer great things and great schemes of things to fight about. Spain is reluctant even to remember the Civil War, though some, pace Orwell, are more reluctant than others - but even in my exile and retirement from political activity I find it easier to remember Orwell than forget him. Because of the exile, no doubt. Because he was here, or nearly here, or tried to be here. Huesca withstood a Republican siege for twenty months. There will be people here who would wish the Fascist past forgotten, because they were part of it. I see older people, sometimes, and wonder - what did they do? Did they inform? Or hide?

Orwell came to Spain as an idealist: what happened to him here caused him permanent disillusion. I came to Spain disillusioned but still some sort of idealist, still inclined to the Quixotic, still inclined to believe that worlds can be changed for the better, though preferring it be someone else that does it. Disillusioned with people more than principles, perhaps. Swift was disillusioned with people: his Gulliver goes to live among the Houyhnhnms, horse-creatures, rather than stay any longer among human beings.

Orwell, though he wrote against Swift's seeming misanthropy, went to live on Jura, as far away as he could get from people. Though ostensibly the reason was his health, a cure for the malady of people must have been somewhere in his mind. And here am I in Huesca, having escaped, in some way or another, from something or other. Gulliver returned from his exile, but found people intolerable to be with:
At the time I am writing it is Five Years since my last Return to England: During the first Year I could not endure my Wife or Children in my Presence, the very Smell of them was intolerable, much less could I suffer them to eat in the same Room. To this Hour they dare not presume to touch my Bread, or drink out of the same Cup, neither was I ever able to let one of them take me by the Hand. The first Money I laid out was to buy two young Stone-Horses, which I keep in a good Stable, and next to them the Groom is my greatest Favourite; for I feel my Spirits revived by the Smell he contracts in the Stable. My Horses understand me tolerably well; I converse with them at least four Hours every Day. They are Strangers to Bridle or Saddle; they live in great Amity with me, and Friendship to each other.
It may be a few years before my misanthropy can be compared to Gulliver's. I stay away from people, sometimes, but I can still manage their presence, in small doses, for short periods of time, provided I can see the exit door and use it when I wish. The world is not so bad, not always. I might be in a country where fascism triumphed, but also in one where it was dismantled. I might have had my home half-destroyed by an incompetent and liar, but it will dry, I trust. I hope. I trust.

But I had meant to start writing again, writing properly, in the very week I found I had to leave: I cannot begin, cannot get going, cannot do the things that I need to do, not in the flat, not with the damp and the dehumidifier and the disruption. I can neither try to read nor try to write.

It is a small thing, but it is the small things which test the patience most. Our lives are composed of small things, the small things are the routine by which we live. Small things comprise our world. Sometimes, it is so hard to keep one's patience with the world. But cats, that is a different matter. There are two cats in our temporary house, both called Mimi, the one because she says nothing but mimi and the other one for want of an alternative. They understand me tolerably well; I converse with them for several hours a day. I think about it sometimes: if I could get away from other people, if it were just cats and me. Six billion cats and me. They would not live in friendship to each other. But they would live in great amity with me.

July 26, 2006

Keep watching the lies

Guest post at Lenin's Tomb.

July 22, 2006

I know why the caged bird dreams

When Benjamin Zephaniah was in prison, he escaped from his imprisonment only in his dreams. I remember him saying so, on a television programme: only when he slept, only when he was alone save for the contents of his head, did he feel free, because his jailers could not get him there. Those dreams were liberation: but for me, my jailers are my dreams. I cannot get away from them. My dreams - my dream, perhaps, because though it is different every time, the person about whom I dream remains the same.

It has been the same, for years.When I am stressed, or insecure, or frightened, I have that dream several times a week. When I am calm, at ease, secure, I may go several weeks before the dream returns: I can even judge my mood by the presence or the absence of the dream. Night before last, I dreamed. I wasn't in my usual bed, my flat, my home: the incompetence of roofers and the accident of rain has left the ceiling full of water and the air weighed down with damp. My home is temporarily in pieces and my head, presumably, the same. I know this because, last night, I dreamed.

I know who I dream about. I always know her name,though if, in the dream, I ever see her face, it is different every time and never really hers. But I know it is her, as, in a dream, one does. I know her: the dream consists of my trying to find her. Sometimes I never do. Sometimes I do, but then she goes away again. Sometimes, she stays with me for a while. But the dream is full of doom, the knowledge, from the start, that this is pointless. Pointless and inexplicable: unnecessary and unavoidable pain. The outcome is the same, the action similar: the location is always different. We are usually staying somewhere, or going round somewhere. I try to find her, or approach her, or talk to her. Sometimes she will talk and sometimes she will not. But everything begins and ends and takes unhappy place in an oppressive mood, sadness and disappointment. She will not talk, or talks and goes away. Three or four nights a week, when I am at my worst, I try to talk but then she goes away: and I have had this dream, recurrently, for half my adult life. For longer than the past ten years. It does not stop. It does not, in essence, change.

When I am asleep, I know her name. When I am awake, I cannot speak it, not directly. I cannot say her name. Something stops me from doing so. Some anger, some resentment, some inhibition deriving from the appalling fact that I cannot escape the dream. You cannot let go of what will not release you. Only prisoners, when they dream, are free. The rest of us are prisoners of our dreams.

July 18, 2006

Flow my tears

I muffled the river so it sounded like the wind and rain. It kept me awake: as the sound of people coming and going fell away, as the background hum fell silent, so the river's flow became correspondingly louder, more defined, more intense. And though the total volume of sound can have been no greater, must indeed have been much less, the river drew attention to its solitary self, crashing where it had babbled, gushing where previously it had merely flowed, persistent and intolerable.

Eventually I put in ear-plugs, which I had brought for fear of noisy neighbours, and which I used instead to ward off the very sounds of nature on which the neighbours were intruding. They quietened the river, made its noise less specific, less distinct: and, once its sharpness dulled, it was diffused still further by the effect of the tent, which made its point of origin harder to discern, made it unclear, to me inside, whether its noise came from any given direction or from all at once. So its rushing seemed rather like the rushing of a wind, something possessing movement but no particular place: but it still had substance, texture, the way a movement of water always does, and therefore, wind and water, gave the impression of rain against the tent. It seemed to come from everywhere without, and I had to concentrate my mind, in the dark of the tent, unsure of direction and lacking sense of place, to dispel my uncertainty, to be sure that it was still the river and not a storm.

I wanted it to be a storm. I always do. I feel more secure that way, safer, enveloped, bewombed. When I was a child I always liked it when the rain began to batter against the window, when I was in bed, in the top bunk, thinking in the dark, struggling to sleep. As the storm got up the noises of the rain would merge into each other, no longer striking the window in separate drops but become a constant rushing against the house, like a river, like the sea. And I would imagine myself in a capsule, on the sea, within it, a capsule miraculously stabilised and upright, unaffected by the waves. Unaffected by anything, floating indefinitely, and me inside it, sleeping soundly, sleeping for as long as I wanted to, sleeping until everything was washed away that hurt.

July 11, 2006


R. stayed with me at the weekend and when she arrived back at Huesca on the Monday, there was a message waiting for her. A friend of hers, somebody from the same dance class, had been killed in a helicopter crash in the Canaries on the Saturday. We'd missed the news: we didn't see the papers on the Sunday.

I read them yesterday, to see if there was anything about the accident, and found nothing: but then there was a story in today's El Pais, about the copilot, about how he'd told his family for years that he was working too many hours to fly safely, about how he'd been threatened by the company if he made any complaints, about how, just the day before the crash, he'd called his wife and told her that the helicopter wasn't safe and that if anything happened to him, they should make public what he'd been telling them.

I read this, or read the first couple of paragraphs and not much more, my Spanish being inadequate to carry me much further and my anger being unwilling to allow me any more. I read it as you read something that you knew, you knew that it was going to be something like this because it's always something like this. I read it and then I walked, not going anywhere, walking as a distraction, walking to try and clarify what I was thinking without really wishing to think. Thinking why does it always have to be something like this, thinking were they poor people, these, were they so poor that they needed to cut corners and cover themselves with threats, thinking nothing will ever happen to the people who do this, nothing ever does. Thinking it doesn't matter anyway, it's too late now, it doesn't matter any more and thinking, not in words that I could have spelled out and placed in order, thinking in shapes and moods rather than sentences, thinking angry and pointless and futile and intrusive through the tears.

July 05, 2006


After the car came back from el taller, the dashboard clock was wrong, so she decided to put it right. It read 1314 and it was just past nine in the evening, so she took out a pencil and prodded the appropriate button until it read 2114 instead. It was a painful process, though, one jab at a time: and I wasn't looking forward to her having to go almost all around the clock to get the minutes right. I had a brainwave. "It's OK", I began to say. "If you wait a few minutes it'll have caught up with the clock by then."

July 03, 2006


I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd;
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied—not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.

I do not believe in God, but I believe in cats. Little gods, they are, I often say: like gods but real, manifest. Tangible where God is not, where God is none of these. I believe in them, with awe and fascination, with pleasure and with joy. My heart skips at the sight of an unexpected cat: running, slinking, sitting, prowling, contemplating me with curiosity and suspicion from its superior position. "A cat!" I cry, catching my breath on seeing a cat leap a gap or scamper down an alleyway. "A cat!" I cry, "a pussycat!" as a cat comes round the corner and watches my rub my fingers together in an effort to attract them with movement. "A cat!" I cry, "it is a cat! It is indeed a cat!" as a cat inspects my appearance from atop a wall. I cannot help it. I have not always been like that, but now I am: over the last ten years, give or take, I have become a worshipper of cats. Their friend, their advocate, aware always of their presence or of the possibility that they may come. I am ready for them, permanently. I look for them and when one is seen, my mood, where low, is lifted: where high, is transmitted to the cat and anyone who is with me.

I think about them often, and often I think about why this is so. How has this come about? Their grace, their beauty? There is no creature in the world so perfect as a cat. Their intelligence, their cunning? These, too - to be in the presence of a cat is to be aware of a mind that will do battle with your own. But while these would inspire admiration, admiration is short of joy. What do they have, these cats, such that I experience such joy in seeing them? What have they done, what do they do? I didn't understand: so in search of understanding, I turned to God. Or not to God directly, not to the non-existent God but to the idea of his existence.

Because while cats are real and God is not, that was not all that separated them in my mind. The God-idea claims moral virtue, claims that he, or it, embodies Good: while what they actually embody is Power. We flatter God and worship him as a courtier might have flattered a Pharoah, living in the permanent fear of punishment and death. A cat makes no such claim: a cat could not care less about your opinion. The God-idea prescribes your moral code. It is the God-idea's most basic and important purpose - the God-idea instructs you how to live. The cat makes no prescription, other than its wants and needs should come before all others. Both God and Cat are egoists, but when the cat is satisfied, the cat's will is done. God, for his part, is never satisfied. The cat tells you what he wants - God tells you what to be. Which is what is evil about the God-idea, unavoidably evil, evil in its very nature. A cat does not tell you you should be like a cat: nor does it tell you what sort of person you should be. A cat creates no universes and destroys no worlds.

Yet that is not all there is to God, or his Idea. I cannot abide the moral lessons, I hate and fear them: but sometimes I understand the idea of God as Creation, as the wholeness, the greatness, the hugeness of the world. The idea of God that comes from the contemplation of the sky, once one is outside the man-made city and can see its whole extent, its infinite variety of colour, where one can feel its vastness and set it against one's own impossibly tiny self. Or the idea of God that comes from experiencing the presence of teeming nature, a proliferation of different colours, different natures, different purposes, the organisation of the ants, the fragility of the butterflies, the way the greenness changes from moss to grass to bush to tree. The many millions of variations that exist on each of these, the hundreds and thousands that exist around you, beneath you and above you as you walk and watch, far too many even to register except by closing your eyes and feeling them everywhere and you as part of them, as part of this Creation multiplied to infinity, which does not spring from God but from which springs the idea of God.

Or there is the idea of God which springs from feeling the awful emptiness of Creation, the spaces that exist between the stars, the loneliness that consists of your own singularity, the fear of falling into the chasm. I suffer from vertigo and a few weeks ago I was in the Pyrenees: I would close my eyes as we went round corners in the car, trying to avoid seeing, with my eyes closed, what I would visualise when they were open. But even when we stopped, and walked, or sat on one side of a valley and looked at the other, I felt the distance between them, felt it as a void, felt it as if falling. And even when I did not think of falling, I felt my smallness, with the mountainside above me, below me and opposite. With the silence, save the flow of the Ara at its bottom, of the valley. Steep mountainsides and us: and other life seemingly absent, except when, occasionally, a bird of prey would circle, far above us. Or below us, since later we drove up to an elevated village, to a restaurant, and from the window I saw a bird - an eagle, a hawk? - circling, looking for the life of which I could see none, and which, if it existed, the bird sought to end.

It took the whole of Creation
To produce my foot, my each feather:
Now I hold Creation in my foot

From its gaze over the emptiness, from its desire to remove from that emptiness whatever might live and move, appeared that other idea of God, of the Universe as yourself alone and God as the means of your obliteration. God as a world full of life and God as a world empty of it: opposite poles but poles expressing a shared idea, that you yourself are of little moment, no importance. You yourself are overwhelmed, much more than overwhelmed, whether it be by the extent of nature or by the extent of emptiness. None of these things are God, as God does not exist. But they are the idea of God, which derives from the feeling of God, which derives from the feeling of being overwhelmed.

We stayed in a little town called Broto, quiet but not silent, that same sound of the river, with the gushing of water from the falls called Sorrosal.

We arrived close to night and when night fell, one could hear it, a few hundred metres away: its crash muffled and perceived merely as a rumble, but its potential, its power, implict in that rumble, understood. When morning came, we went and looked: I stood close to the fall, on the rock opposite its pool, outside its fall but close enough to be surrounded by spray. I stood there, on the rock, with the rumble become a roar, with the spray all around me so that whether I closed my eyes or kept them open mattered not a jot. I was enveloped: I was within, so completely within as to have little knowledge of myself, little awareness that there was a self, that a discrete and separate self existed, could exist, could ever have existed. Not totally: I could still think, could still perceive, could still feel I am. But while I could have felt it, I could not, at that moment, while I stood within the spray, have understood it, still less said what it meant. It didn't matter. I no longer mattered. I felt that, and later understood, and I was glad of it.

What does not need to matter, does not matter. I do not need to leave a mark upon the world. I used to want, not to be famous, but to be known: to be a name to which people made reference, a name to which a meaning was attached. I used to write, for many reasons but with this among them:

Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.

Not for money, though to no small extent, as a substitute for money. Not for fame or even influence but in some way, to prove to myself that my life had not been wasted, that I had done the things that I could do. I used to want to change the world, but the world changed itself without my help and not in the way I would have wanted: to make no difference oppressed me with the knowledge of my own futility. And then my life, my mind exploded, for reasons unconnected: after that I could not have written even had I had the will to do so, even had the thought of writing not filled my mind with dread and fear and horror, with the impossible vastness of the task and the certainty of failure even if I could somehow complete it. I gave up, or realised I had given up, or understood, half-understood, half-grasped at the understanding that I could not finish what I started and therefore could not start.

There was little by way of I am, for a while, for a long while indeed. I am not, now, who I was then, in name or place or function, though there is a thread that links us, thin but real, real but thin. I am never sure how I got here from there, but I travelled in the company of cats. In cats I took my solace, though it was not what they offered me. They took from me what they wanted, not what I wanted to give. I could not impress them: I could not impress myself upon them. They accepted me, but did not need me. I realised none of this, not at the time. I understood only that they were good for me. I do not believe I even realised that they were remaking me. Not until I had stood underneath the waterfall at Sorrosal and understood the unimportance of I am.

I do not need to leave my mark. I may not even notice it where it is made. Recently, in a chess magazine to which I have a subscription, I saw an advert for a newly-published book, by an author that I like: I registered the advert and the existence of the book, the front cover of which took up most of the page. I turned the page: and only later, when somebody told me, did I realise that the cover, which I had spent no little time looking at (partly to identify the players, partly because the photo is inverted and the board the wrong way round) bore my mark. My name: my quote, a sentence from a previous review. There I was. A name to which people made reference. I hadn't even noticed, and I laughed.

I am ready, I think, to write again: soon, very soon. To write, you must know who you are: I think I know this, now. To write, you must know what you want to say:I think I understand this, now. But to write, you must also need to write:

A man makes art because he has to. Why was that made?
You have to be ready. I think that I am ready. I think I need to write: but now, what happens after I've written does not matter. That would be a question of I am.

Little gods, they are. They made me, or remade me, or enabled me to happen once again. Their grace, beauty, intelligence: their solitary nature. Their suspicion of people, too, which qualities I share, which make me identify with cats in a way one can never identify with God. All these things, they are, but one thing more and greater, which I feel in Huesca, outside the places which made and shaped me.

Outside and without my country, speaking little, understanding less. Not yet part of this, never likely to belong to it entirely. I wonder if it is not the goal that I have unwittingly aspired to for all my life, always wanting it but never realising that I wanted it. Not until, in the fourth decade of my life, I was taught it, by cats. This is the reason I love them, more than any other. Because they taught me what I wanted. They taught me insignificance.