Friday, 9 August 2013

Refreshed and with New Resolutions!

A holiday is the perfect time to make new decisions - space to think and evaluate the past 12 months and absolutely no clutter to deal with. So, from now on, no more 15 hour workdays and I'm doing a daily bike ride to give my brain and body a chance to revive. For those of you who think you might be following in my old footsteps, my message to you is DON'T! Juggling three or more jobs is not good for your health. If it doesn't fry your brain, you'll end up with something else. Eczema and shingles in my case. It's not very nice depositing little bits of yourself every time you go for a walk. All those months of not being able to go to the gym or swim. Moral: look after yourself.

I took myself off to the Isles of Scilly (don't say the Scillies - they don't like it). People kept telling me it was the perfect place to go and be calm. No cars allowed - only residents and businesses have them - a temperate climate, quiet...and birds that are ridiculously tame. On my first morning on the campsite, I was happily chomping on a croissant and drinking fresh coffee, when a song thrush came and perched on the arm of my chair and stared at me. It's disturbing how unafraid they are, but there are no predators (I only saw one cat the whole time I was there) and people are so generally laid back, there's not really any risk of them being hurt. Even so, I'm not used to it. 

I was talking to a birder who reckons the islands might almost have a sub-species of blackbird. The bills are orange rather than yellow and the females also have a touch of orange. It's diet-related, no doubt. I fell into the Scilly Trap, though. Here's a rather splendid exotic looking bird, I thought. I'll take a picture of it:
I went through every bird book I could find trying to identify it. The birder laughed. 'It's a juvenile starling,' he said. 'With pollen on its head. You mainlanders fall for it every time.'

There are no bookshops on any of the islands, so I took my usual enormous haul with me. I also discovered that the library lets holiday makers borrow books for a £1 deposit. If you bring your mainland library card, I think this courtesy may even be extended for free. Huckelberry Finn somehow got omitted from my childhood reading. It's a thoroughly exasperating novel. Very funny in places and the world of the Mississippi broadhorns is well evoked, but Twain treats slavery with such levity. He expects his readers (White, no doubt) to go along with Jim's incarceration by the two boys. After all, they're only mischievous young scamps. They don't mean any harm by it. Well, harm is done, in my view. Deep harm. I'm glad I didn't read it as a child. My next read was Amy Clampitt's Westward. I'm working on a new collection of poems at the moment and they're gathered under the broadish heading of 'west' - so I wanted to see what this much overlooked US poet had to say. I love her histories, the intertwining of our personal past and our wider heritage with what's contemporary. Nothing Twainish about her. I moved on to Nostromo after that. I've been meaning to read some Conrad for some time. Its a novel in two halves, to coin a Colemanism. Nostromo hardly appears in the first couple of hundred pages. You wonder why the novel's called Nostromo. And then the plot takes off and this rather shadowy figure looms larger and larger. The mirroring and political parallelism is wondrously woven. This is a novel of enormous complexity - and subtlety. The use of a lighthouse at the end as the very thing that can shine a light on the truth is brilliant. Finally, I read Primo Levi's Collected Poems. Everything, inevitably, is through the prism of the holocaust - and not just the obvious one, because Levi talks about other atrocities too - Hiroshima, Pol Pot, the Ethiopian famine...He has a tremendous humanity, but how can a person live through all this, one wonders. His poem 'Unresolved Burdens' foreshadows his death:

I wouldn't want to upset the universe.
I'd like, if possible,
To cross the border silently,
With the light step of a smuggler.
The way one slips away from a party.
To stop without a screech
The lungs' obstinate piston,
And to say to the dear heart,
That mediocre musician without rhythm:
'After two, six billion beats
You must be tired too, so thanks, enough.'
If it were possible, as I was saying,
If it were not for those who will remain,
The work left truncated
(Every life is truncated),
The world's turns and its wounds;
If it were not for the unresolved burdens,
The debts incurred earlier on,
The old unavoidable obligations.

This chimed rather forcefully with Miracle Theatre's production of Waiting For Godot which I saw on my last night on St. Mary's. It was an excellent production, but it left me feeling gutted. I'm not prone to world weariness, but certainly I felt like I'd been kicked in the stomach. Beckett's play is a tragedy. The sheer weight of hopelessness is overwhelming. It's bitterly funny, but the waste is devastating. Nothing transcends the trap. Perhaps Beckett, too, was just waiting to die?

So what does transcend the existential trap? For me it's music. It always has been. The Proms this season has been wonderful. Wagner's Ring Cycle has been a particular highlight. I spent five hours in my tent listening to Die WalkΓΌre and nearly kicked over my Trangia when I was listening to Das Rheingold and the hammering started. Barenboim has extraordinary stamina. I don't know how he does it.

And now I'm back at work. Funerals, memorials, baby namings, writing workshops for young people in Worcestershire's libraries and a planned music and poetry project in Oxford a new collection to pull together, poems to write...What did I say about no more than three jobs?

Well, it was a good resolution while it lasted.

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