Four poems about fruit

Some people make pies from fruit, others crumbles and yet others poems. Just recently, I was re-reading a selection of poetry by the Bengali poet Jibanananda Das which i found on the Internet some time back and one poem in particular struck me:

Tangerine

When once l leave this body
Shall I not come back to the world?
If only I might return
Upon a winter’s evening
Taking on the compassionate flesh of a cold tangerine
At the bedside of some dying acquaintance.

(tr. unknown)

I was quite taken aback by this association of tangerines with death. Thinking about it, i realise that like most British people of my generation and background i connect them with Christmas. When i was a child that was the only time we ever ate them. They have always conjured up ideas of plenty, celebration, lightheartedness and hope. Now, juxtaposed with that is a picture of deathbed. For some reason i imagine the occupant’s hand to be cold and damp, like the tangerine itself.

Jibanananda Das was a great favourite of mine when i was at university. The slightly alien quality of his world resonated with me and i loved his sensual and yet sinister imagery: his poems were full of deer, grass and hands. The language was strange and oblique which appealed to me: i felt for once my lack of understanding of Bengali didn’t put me at such a disadvantage. In fact, it thrilled me that i could feel his distinctive style.

Another poet i discovered around the same time – actually probably a year or two earlier – and who appealed to me for similar reasons was Francis Ponge. His style was different: the poems were like free verse essays, almost extended dictionary definitions of the objects at their centre. One of my favourites was about blackberries:

Les Mûres

Aux buissons typographiques constitués par le poème sur une route qui ne mène hors des choses ni à l’esprit, certains fruits sont formés d’une agglomération de sphères qu’une goutte d’encre remplit.

Noirs, roses et kakis ensemble dur la grappe, ils offrent plutôt le spectacle d’une famille rogue à ses âges divers, qu’une tentation très vive à la cueillette.

Vue la disproportion des pépins à la pulpe les oiseaux les apprécient pue, si peu de chose au fond leur reste quand du bec à l’anus ils en sont traversés.

Mais le poète au cours de sa promenade professionnelle, en prend de la graine à raison : « Ainsi donc » se dit-il, « réussissent en grand nombre les efforts patients d’une fleur très fragile quoique par un rébarbatif enchevêtrement de ronces défendue. Sans beaucoup d’autres qualités, – mûres, parfaitement elles sont mûres – comme aussi ce poème est fait. »

Or, in English :

Blackberries

On typographical bushes constituted by the poem along a road which leads neither beyond things nor to the spirit, certain fruits are formed by an agglomeration of spheres filled by a drop of ink.

Blacks, pinks, khakis, all on a cluster, they look more like members of an arrogant family of varying ages than a very lively temptation to pick them off.

Given the disproportion of the seeds to the pulp, birds find little to appreciate, so little in the end remains by the time it has travelled from the beak to the anus.

But the poet on his professional walk mulls this over in his mind: “Clearly,” he says to himself, “the patient efforts of a very delicate flower succeeds to a large extent although protected by a forbidding tangle of brambles. Lacking many other qualities – blackberries are perfectly ripe – the way this poem is ready.”

(tr. Serge Gavronsky)

Very French! I’m not sure how i would feel about a poem like this if i encountered it for the first time now, but at the time i was enchanted by the way in which Ponge made ordinary things seem strange and perplexing; the way he made you look at things close up and at the same time distance yourself from them, so that you saw them for what they were and not for what they were to you. Blackberries reminds me of one of a postcard i have on my bookcase which shows a shoal of sperm captured under a microscope. It’s really rather pretty and people often ask what kind of ‘fish’ they are.

From a minute examination of blackberries to the raspberry as metaphor. This is a poem by my beloved Solveig von Schoultz:

Portrait of a raspberry

Just as raspberry runners travel under the sand
and put out new shoots each year
he had travelled
far from his beginnings, had forgotten
and since he only lived in his outpost,
his remotest rootlet, thought he was new
and singular to the species.
If he’d turned round
he’d have seen similar bushes the whole way:
even in the mother-bush the one he was.

(tr. Anne Born)

We might just as easily say: very Nordic. Schoultz uses images from nature throughout her poetry and in a very simple, yet powerful way. All these ordinary things, she seems to say, all these ordinary lives and ordinary sorrows which go unnoticed and yet matter so much. I can never put into words how much i love her poetry or why i love it so much. It’s often the way though: love eludes analysis just as admiration attracts it.

And that brings me to the final poem by the Turkish poet Oktay Rifat, a new poet to me. I picked up a book of his work during my recent trip to Turkey. The poem is about his love for his wife – but it does mention an apple!

To my wife

You bring coolness to the halls
A sense of space to rooms
To wake in your bed in the morning
Gives me daylong joy

We are two halves of the same apple
Our day and night
Our house and home are one
Happiness is a meadow
Where you tread
It springs to life
Loneliness comes from the road you go down

(tr. Ruth Christie & Richard McKane)

Four poems more or less about fruit: tangerines, blackberries, raspberries and an apple. Imagine a crumble made from those!

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Killing Jesus

A recent encounter with a salesman – i thought he was an evangelist when he approached me – has reminded me of the scene i encountered when i was out shopping a few days before my trip to Turkey. It was Good Friday and, while supermarkets were frantically selling chocolate eggs, out on the street groups of Christian and Muslim preachers were preaching about the Crucifixion. What they were preaching however was very different: while the Christians were proselytising that this (plus the Resurrection) was the most significant event  in history, the Muslims were denying it had even happened: according to the Qur’an* (4:157–158) it only appears as if Jesus was crucified:

However, they did not slay him, and neither did they crucify him, but it only seemed to them [as if it had been] so.

Nevertheless this was the first time I’d ever seen Muslims making a fuss about the issue.

I say Muslims; but these people appeared to be Salafis,  a group which has doesn’t have much space for intrafaith differences of opinion, never mind interfaith ones. That in turn made me think of how things have changed since i was a child. Back then my best friend was a Bangladeshi and what impressed me most about her family’s religion was how reasonable, inclusive and life-affirming it was – especially compared to Christianity which seemed to have lost its way in doctrinal squabbles and evangelical arrogance. Most of all i admired the fact that there was no obsession with being perfect. It was enough to be a good human being. God was God, Man was Man.

It wasn’t until i moved to London and started university that i encountered a different kind of Muslim: ultra-pious, ultra-covered and ultra-judgemental: i remember her looking at a girl in a short skirt and saying she only had herself to blame if she got raped. At the same time however she emphasised the kinship of Islam and Christianity – even if she did make it clear which she considered superior – and never actively proselytised or rubbished Christian beliefs. In fact, it’s a startling thought, but those angry young Muslims i described earlier would probably denounce S as not strict enough. In fact, i wonder if they truly feel convinced that anyone is strict enough: for all Islam’s insistence that perfection is for God alone, it seems to me that increasingly it is developing the same obsession with it that, as i said earlier, mars Christianity.

And then there’s the irony of the fact that of all Christian beliefs it was the Crucifixion the preachers were attacking. The Qur’anic disavowal of this event** has always struck me as odd and seems to undermine the Islamic insistence on Jesus being Man, not God. It resembles a belief of the Gnostic strand of Christianity which was common in Arabia at the time Muhammad lived. The Gnostics rejected the idea of the humanity of Jesus: God, not Man. Docetism, as the belief was known, was the idea that Jesus’ body was illusory – he only appeared to be flesh and blood – and as such his crucifixion was too. This developed in various Gnostic groups into the idea that someone else took his place on the cross.

Strangely enough, i didn’t feel any great urge to discuss this issue with the Muslim preachers though. Nor for that matter with their Christian brethren who, were trying to emotionally blackmail everyone to go church (“He died for you”) a few metres along the road.

* The Message of THE QUR’AN Translated and Explained by Muhammad Asad; ISBN: 1-904510-00-0; pub.: The Book Foundation (2003)

** Since this post was originally written i’ve started reading a book about the place of Jesus in Islam*** which makes it clear that (a) the Qur’anic verses relating to the crucifixion can be interpreted in a number of different ways (partly depending on how the Arabic verbs used are understood) and (b) the verses have been and still are interpreted differently by different Muslim sects.

*** Images of Jesus Christ in Islam by Oddbjorn Leirvik; ISBN: 978-1441181602; pub.: Continuum (2010)

Death Under Surveillance

This is an excerpt from an earlier spoof about a pair of epidemiological detectives. My friend M (a far better writer than me) and I took it in turns to write chapters (this is obviously one of mine). Unfortunately, the story ended up like a car with two drivers and veered off into chaos about 8 chapters in. Well how do you follow a scene in which armies of undead commuters besiege the Tube? It was loads of fun while it lasted though.

By the way, the Welsh references were partly aimed at a colleague of ours (who gave as good as she got!) and partly at ourselves: we’re both part-Welsh. “Mortimerelli” is also a skit on a colleague.

Chapter 4: Down The Spec

“The thing is,” mused Elvis the bartender down at the Spec,”She wasn’t really called Llanwigan, she wasn’t even Welsh.”

“How can you be so sure?” Boo frowned, playing with the glass of wine in her hand . “Llanwigan sounds like a Welsh enough name to me.”

“The man said she looked like a sheep, he said she had a leek in her pocket, he said she refused to speak English… I know, I know,” said Elvis frustatedly,”But doesn’t that ring warning bells? Isn’t that just a bit TOO Welsh?”

There was a heady silence. Elvis was onto something, that was for sure.

“You think she was an imposter,” said Fordowski slowly, ”You think the whole Welsh thing was just to throw people off the scent.

“Eh, yeah, J.K.,” Boo rolled her orange eyes as she spoke. ”I think that is what Elvis has being trying to tell you.”

Fordowski nodded. Boo looked at him; he’d fallen asleep.

“Elvis…” She turned to the jumpsuit-clad barman,”I think you should keep this to yourself. Me ’n’ J.K. need to look into it and it’s better if no-one else knows. And after all, I mean, you don’t want reporters or police round here, do you? You don’t wanna go back to that big lonely house in Memphis, do you Elvis?”

Elvis shook his head and turned back to polishing glasses. Boo noticed he was trembling.

Suddenly J.K. woke and leapt up. “It was a hoax!” He shouted. “The whole scene by the canal with that Jones guy… just a ploy to lure our agents into the open. Twenty f*cking swans, my God…” he started to cry. “Dead… all of them.”

Boo shrugged. “I told you swans were a bad idea. We shoulda stuck to pigeons. They attract less attention. Swans hanging round a train station? Sauntering nonchalantly outside an NHS building? I mean, c’mon, J.K. Someone was bound to put two and two together.”

It made J.K. nervous when Boo talked about ‘putting two and two together’… ‘three and three’ was even worse. ‘Four and four’ – don’t think about it, he said to himself taking a slug of his diet coke. Those dark days of maths lessons. Never mind. He had a calculator on his mobile, they couldn’t hurt him now.

Boo was on a roll. She must have ranted for twenty minutes about the agents they’d lost in operations. Whose idea had it been to use white mice in that undercover job at the labs? Which idiot had thought a giraffe would be ‘perfect’ as a lookout at the Jubilee mob meeting when they tried to snare the big boss Queenie? He could hear a voice saying “He’s got this long neck, he’ll be able to see for miles.” Sounded like his voice. He wondered gloomily which zoo the giraffe had been carted off to.

Queenie had got away of course. They all seemed to get away these days. No matter how carefully an operation was planned, somehow the criminals got wind of it and escaped. If he didn’t watch his back he’d be pushing up weeds in somebody’s back yard soon. Mortimerelli wasn’t famous for her gardening for nothing… come to think of it, she wasn’t famous for her gardening at all.

His mind wandered on and on. What about the four kids? What had really happened to them? They’d gone out to play on the railway line as usual one night and never come back. In his more paranoid moments he wondered if someone was out to get him: the brake going on his car, the tv blowing up as he switched it on, the cobra in his bed, that weird assassin guy who’d been waiting for him in the bathroom with a knife… were they really just freak accidents or was there a pattern he wasn’t seeing?

But at that point his friend and comrade broke into his revelrie. She was standing at the door, with her false moustache already in place. “We gotta go, dream boy. Mortimerelli’s waiting for us back at the Centre. Don’t need no more problems than we’ve got already.”

J.K. picked up his deerstalker hat and followed her out, trying desperately to remember what Elvis had been telling him about before he’d fallen asleep.

Trip 2010: Last day in Istanbul (for now)… and the night train

Friday 9 April

My last day (for the time being) in Istanbul and i was lumbered with a backpack! Only afterwards did i realise i could have left it in a locker at the railway station. I started my day by trying to book my hotel rooms in Greece via the hotel computer. This was difficult as some sites wouldn’t work properly but i eventually got a room sorted out for Thessaloniki, which was the most important place to have accommodation, given that i would be arriving there sometime the next morning.

Afterwards i headed to Gülhane Park where i read for a while and then began the unpleasant business of phoning hotels in Xanthi and Alexandroupoli (having abandoned my hope of visiting Edirne as the journey looks too convoluted). A shame but i will get there one day. The first hotel i phoned was full but after that, to my relief, i had no problems and within a quarter of an hour i had all the necessary reservations made – and was feeling the usual embarrassment at the anxiety that making phone calls causes me.

Gülhane Park - 2010 April 9

I went to a cafe to recover – the same one i’d visited the day before with B. Alas, without her presence the waiters were nowhere near as attentive and left me to shiver. In the afternoon i decided to tackle the Archaeology Museum, which – thanks be to God! – had a cloakroom where i could leave my rucksack. The museum has three parts but i spent so much time wandering about the stelae and sarcophagi in the main building (assuming that the museum would stay open till six o’clock) that i ended up not seeing the other two (the museum in fact shut at quarter to five). Another time.

I found the information panels nearly as interesting as the exhibits themselves: a great emphasis seemed to placed on “the Anatolians” whilst the Greek contribution was subtly downplayed. I recalled reading last year, when i was preparing for the Lycian Way, that the Greeks claim the Lycians were a Greek civilisation while Turkish historians describe them simply as speaking an Indo-European language. The truth of the situation, whatever it is, seems to me less interesting than the way in which it’s contested – the way that past and present interact.

Istanbul Archaeology Museums (courtyard)

As i’ve said, i ran out of time. Of the things i got to see the clay tablets with their ancient inscriptions were among the most interesting. Unlike graves these felt personal; you could almost imagine the scribe marking the clay. I found the way in which proto-alphabetic and cuneiform writing systems seemed to co-exist fascinating. We tend to assume the former supplanted the other as it was introduced, being to our eyes so obviously superior, but it seems that wasn’t the case. Even more moving were the ‘door’ graves, gravestones which were decorated to resemble doors, which would provide entry into the next world for the deceased person. This type of grave marker was typical of poorer people, whose families couldn’t afford elaborate tombs and the inscriptions were usually simple statements of affection. Sometimes there was also a reference to the untimeliness of the death. No dates however as far as i could see – but how did people date events then except in reference to their ruler?

When i left the museum the old man in charge of the cloakroom insisted on helping with my backpack. Bless him. I tried to dissuade him, worrying that, given the weight of the thing, he’d put his back out but he smiled and ignored me. Once outside i was at a loss to know what to do with myself as there were still hours before my train departed and the streets were, if anything, even busier than they had been earlier in the day. The mere thought of boarding a tram brought on waves of claustrophobia.

Sirkeci Railway Station

In the end i hung about the area, buying myself a fish sandwich and a cup of tea. It was cold and when i went to Sirkeci (the railway station) the only place with any heating was the waiting room. I divided my time between trying to keep warm in there and taking photographs: the station is quaint and lovely; you feel as if you’ve stepped into an old novel. A mad Irishman arrived. He began to engage an invisible companion in a heated debate, although i couldn’t work out what he and ‘his friend’ were arguing about. Later, when we were boarding the train he turned up on the platform with his bags. I began to wonder if he was travelling with us but he stayed on the platform muttering and occasionally shouting. He was still there when we left. Perhaps he’s always there.

The train itself was small (just four carriages) but comfortable. I found myself sharing with a young Turkish man (the only Turk on the train as far as i could see). I never learnt his name but he politely explained that he worked for a trade union and had a business meeting in Thessaloniki. He spent the evening typing away on his laptop while i looked out of the window at the suburbs and small towns we were passing through and wondered what the border crossing would be like.

Plaque on the Istanbul to Thessaloniki night train

I was also trying very hard not to think about water as i had just half a bottle to last me more than 12 hours. All that time waiting for the train and only at the last minute had it occurred to me i would need something to drink – and of course i discovered i had nothing smaller than a 50 Lira note which none of the station’s stallholders would change.

Finally, my roommate finished his typing and we pulled down the bunks. These were surprisingly comfortable but i made the mistake of choosing the top one. Not only did the rungs of the ladder cut into my feet as i climbed it because they were angled, but being the cackhanded individual i am, i kept kicking the ladder over. I think the Turkish trade union official got very tired of me. He soon fell asleep however and i was left awake, listening to the train rattling its way to Greece. I was too excited to sleep.

Boarding the night train

At the border we first stopped on the Turkish side at a place called Uzunköprü where a man came on board and took our passports away to be checked. We didn’t even have to get out of bed! We just handed him them from our bunks. My roommate was the exception: he had to go across to one of the buildings on the opposite platform and get a visa. It seemed odd that it was the one person native to the country we were in who needed a visa, but the rest of us all seemed to be EU nationals. Later another man came and announced he was from ‘baggage control’ (all customs announcements were in English). We did need to get up for this as we were required to open our luggage ourselves. It was all over and done with quickly however.

Pythio Railway Station (from Wikipedia)

On the Greek side (Pythio*) a similar process involving Greek officials occurred, except this time instead of ‘baggage control’ we had ‘customs’ and, as no-one had anything to declare, this was even more of a non-event. The Greeks were in fact the most charming customs officials i’ve ever encountered. They were both young men – perhaps new to the job? – and apologised for disturbing our sleep. Customs officials – apologise!?

And then it was done and we were on our way again… through Greece!

* The photo of Pythio Railway Station shown above is from Wikipedia. It was the early hours of the morning when we passed through it so i couldn’t really take a photo.

Polish poetry & me

I discovered the poetry of Poland via the work of Ewa Lipska. I remember reading her poem Instruction Manual, with its insistent refrain “The nation’s dead”, when i was twenty or so. At that time i was at home with a young son, trying to keep my mind alive by reaching out to a world beyond the small commuter town in which i was trapped. Poetry more than anything was my lifeline: language distilled to perfection. Lipska’s work spoke to me despite, rather than because of, its focus on politics; I sought out more and – naturally? inevitably? – discovered her compatriots Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska. For some reason lost in the mist of time however their work didn’t stick, at least not then.

Soon afterwards i came across another Polish poet whose work did stick: Anna Swir (or Świrszczyńska). I’ve long since forgotten the name of the anthology in which i found her poems and only remember that it was a book showcasing women poets. More frustrating is the fact that i have no idea who did the translations; they (and presumably the original poems) are marvellous – deft, sensual, acerbic, poignant. Three of them i copied out and cherish to this day: A Spring, She Doesn’t Remember and Her Hand. The third of those is short enough to quote in full:

When my mother was dying
I held her hand.
When she died i burnt everything
her hand had touched.
Only my own hands
I couldn’t burn.

A few more years passed and i found myself unemployed and back in my hometown. Up on the city walls there was a little second-hand bookshop and whenever i had a bit of money i’d go up there and spend it on poetry books. Actually, i went up there whenever i got the chance, not just when i had money; but the rest of the time i had to come away empty handed. One of the books i found there was by Tadeusz Różewicz: Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems*, a bilingual selection of his work translated by Adam Czerniawski. This is dark stuff. Forever marked, it seems, by his experience of the Second World War, Różewicz makes lists; he mistrusts beauty. The typewriter-like font (green for the Polish and black for the English) and the delicate paper only emphasises the feeling of austerity. One poem in particular haunts me. It’s called Beyond Words (in Polish: Nad Wyraz) and begins:

What are you doing
emerged from darkness
Why don’t you want
to live in full light

Its final words are even more powerful:

One tear
inexpressible
beyond words

After that – a long while after that – came Zbigniew Herbert, ‘a spiritual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland’ according to the brief biography which prefaces his Collected Poems 1956-1998**. Herbert’s work is thrilling – comic and grave – yet curiously difficult to quote from; the poems work beautifully, yet if you try to pull out lines to show to people they fall apart. I do like this stanza from I Would Like To Describe, however:

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

(Translation: Alissa Valles)

I too would like to be free of that dusty lion.

Finally, we come to a poet who arrived in my life just a month ago, courtesy of yet another anthology: Anna Piwkowska. The anthology is called Six Polish Poets*** and I found it in the same second-hand bookshop where many years previously i discovered Snow and Summers by Solveig von Schoultz. There is one poem in particular, about the sudden death of young woman as she is getting out the bath, which i think is incredible. It’s called Lament Of That Summer (or in Polish: Tren Tamtego Lata):

She stepped onto the side of death.
Here, one wet foot on the floor,
hair dryer, towel around her hips,
the other foot into the water,
into death, straight from the summer bath.
She managed just once more to run
the wet hand through her tangled hair.
The tea was cooling in the room;
she planned to hang the lingerie,
the light blue nothing, woven
out of fine silk threads.
Summer. Hot quivering morning.
The day had promised joy, and haste;
behind the wall her son called out
about the puppy’s nose in milk.
The dress hurriedly thrown
across the chair, cinnabar, absorbed
the drops of sunshine. The organ
music of Johann Sebastian
flowed across the room, a woman
or some strange furry animal.
The day brought joy. She managed
nothing. Not even a single shout.
Fear or a contraction
as if before a battle or
a trip. But why with no preparing
or good-byes did she let out
this tiny drop of oxygen
like laughter? A small wooden cross
above the mirror. Brief lapse
of attention. Behind the wall
The boy was playing with the dog.

(Translation: Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese).

There you have it: the story so far, spanning two decades, of Polish poetry and me.

* Poezje wybrane/Selected Poems: ISBN 83-08-01777-0;  Tadeusz Różewicz; trans. Adam Czerniawski; pub. Wydawnictwo Literackie (1991)
** Collected Poems 1956-1998: ISBN 978-1-84354-833-6; Zbigniew Herbert; trans. Alissa Valles; pub. Atlantic Books (2008)
*** Six Polish Poets: ISBN 978-1-904614-50-0; ed. Jacek Dehnel; pub. Arc Publications (2008)

Magical houses

The other week i went with some friends on the candlelit tour of Dennis Severs’ House . I’m guessing a lot of people won’t have heard of this place – I hadn’t until M told me about it – so let me try and describe it: it’s like a cross between a time capsule, a three-dimensional still life, a junk shop, a museum and the story of a fictional Huguenot family who (we are meant to imagine) lived in the house in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. In other words, it is a lot of things – or tries to be a lot of things – all at once. And therein lies the problem: it tries too hard.

Walking around the house we were struck by the fact that, as impressive as the spectacle often was visually, it rarely succeeded in being immersive. You couldn’t fully enter into the illusion of the Huguenots’ ghostly presence, for example, because the composition of the rooms as ‘artworks’ belied any idea of them being actually inhabited by ‘ordinary folk’. Art is self-conscious in a way everyday life is not. The sounds and odours, which i’d imagined would be so effective in creating an atmosphere, just couldn’t overcome this self-consciousness. Even worse were the little notes on display in most of the rooms, which alternated between warning you not to touch (as though visitors were anticipated to be in the throes of dementia, incapable of remembering this rule from room to room) and asking you if you’d “got” it yet. What we got was irritated. It was as though the guardians of the house (a glum-faced lot it has to be said), despite all their assertions to the contrary, lacked conviction that the house itself would be enough. And so they kept on intruding, reminding you of the magic you were supposed to be experiencing.

You can already sense this if you read the blurb on the website. The tone is one of breathless admiration – ostensibly for Dennis Severs and his creation but in reality for the experience they are offering you. Quite an odd idea – like the actor writing his own review. Responsibility for enjoyment is transferred to the visitor: there is no possibility of the house being less than its custodians claim; only of you being less than you might wish. Apart from being patronising this is also a cop out. As it happens there are lots of reasons why the experience might not take. Some of them i’ve described above but there are others: your mood on the day plays a part for example. Then there’s the number of other people present. I’d imagined there would be just our party and perhaps one other small group. Had this been the case then i think the experience would have been far more atmospheric: ‘ghosts’ need silence and space. As it was, i was as conscious of the other visitors as i was of the house. Only when i finally got free of them, in the attic, could i really appreciate the power the house had.

This isn’t to say i didn’t enjoy the evening. Some of the rooms, especially upstairs, are beautiful. I loved the lady’s bedroom which reminded me of a set from a period drama. The decoration on the wall – i don’t know what you call it but it’s a sort of arrangement of china ledges – was gorgeous; and the moment when i glanced through the four poster bed and spotted a brass monkey clinging to the bell cord was thrilling. Likewise, the arrangement of jellied fruits (petit fours?) on one of the landings. I stood and gazed at it for maybe ten minutes; the colours and the candlelight were magical. Then there was the attic which i’ve mentioned above. All you hear as you stand within it is the relentless tolling of a cannon somewhere in the city. The king is dead. I believed it.

Still, i can’t help remembering another “imagined house” that i visited some years ago which affected me far more deeply. It was the Sherlock Holmes Museum – a ‘recreation’ of the house at which Holmes and Watson lived at 221b Baker Street. I went there on a whim after reading a collection of Conan Doyle’s short stories and wasn’t really expecting anything special. As it was i was captivated. Despite knowing that Holmes was a fictional character i found myself looking at the rooms and wondering how he had found them. ‘They’re much smaller than i expected. Didn’t he find them claustrophobic?’ I looked at the needles and syringes in a box and imagined Holmes using them to inject opium. I looked at the violin and imagined Holmes playing it. I looked at the bed upstairs and imagined Holmes sleeping in it. ‘God, it’s narrow.’

Precisely because it never asked me to believe in it the house allowed me to do so. Its lack of self-consciousness made it seem authentic and so did its sometimes chaotic nature (I wondered how Holmes had ever found anything!). That’s not to say that it felt like Holmes had just walked out of the room. It felt instead as if in gathering up so many of his ‘possessions’ and returning them ‘home’ the curators had summoned up his presence from ‘the dead’. A spooky feeling! Even the tacky souvenir shop on the ground floor couldn’t break the spell. Would the house have the same effect a second time? I don’t know and i’ve never cared to find out. As i’ve said above, there are so many factors that can affect how you experience a place. The Sherlock Holmes Museum may have been all the things i describe but still – in another mood for instance – it might not have come alive for me.

AIDS, death and trust

San Francisco newspaper the Bay Area Reporter has just put online all the obituaries it has published since 1979 – in other words, since the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The database is searchable by date range or name.

Early on there are just a couple of obituaries a month, sometimes not even that, but the numbers soon swell rapidly. What makes the greatest impact however is not how sadly numerous the memorials become, but how individual they remain – a reminder, if we needed one, of the individual lives which were ended so prematurely. These were not statistics, but real people with real achievements, quirks, foibles and friends.

For example, Martin Cox, whose obituary appeared on the 21 February 1985, died on the “eve of Valentine’s Day” and “will be remembered for his kindness and concern by the victims of the Folsom Street fire, whose tragedy he tried to ease.” I hope he is indeed remembered by somebody.

Gregory J. Guerin (28 May 1987) was “best known as Chi-Chi, when he worked at Without Reservations on Castro Street”.

As for Harold Gates (31 October 1991): “You had to notice Harold on the dance floor or the gym (he wouldn’t have it any other way!)”.

Interestingly – at least to me, of all the obituaries i read, the one that made the most impression concerns a dead man who is not – on the whole – remembered fondly. Ray Broshears, whose obituary appeared on the 14 January 1982, seems to have been a troubled soul: driven to help and to hinder the gay community at the same time. He is described as

“taking food and clothing to jail prisoners, advising male prostitutes, assisting transsexuals who were on the fringes of the Gay community, treating people to lunch, and always helping the elderly”

yet he seems to have made enemies more easily than friends. One person even goes so far as to say: “I am glad he is dead now” and many of the other responses to Broshears’ death are not much more positive. Why did someone who evidently wanted to do good end up alienating so many people and to such an extent? A psychologist, who was interviewed for the obituary, suggests:

“He had difficulty in expressing his love. Expressing love has to do with trust… I don’t think Ray ever trusted anybody – including himself.”

This rings terribly true to me and i think that’s what makes this story even sadder than the rest. So many men died too young, but at least most of them were able to know and express love before they died. Is there anything more important? Let the world take almost anything from you, but don’t let it take away your ability to trust.