Monday, 21 December 2009

We are full of other people

Sometimes you find beauty in the strangest places.

It was a serendipitous chain of events that led me to book Daniel Kitson’s new show at the Union Chapel in Islington on Wednesday.

I am a compulsive ‘signer upper’ and seem to be continually signing up to mailing lists, competitions and forums online. Something or other, some sort of recommendation, must be what led to me receiving intermittent emails from The Invisible Dot, some sort of comedy/events website.

In October, an email came through about a gig from the comedian, Daniel Kitson. Years ago, someone I worked with told me how great he was live. Some barely functioning synapse in my brain staggered back into life and recalled, hazily, how he had once won the Perrier Award. I looked him up on the net, but didn’t even read about his comedy style. I saw his beard and thought he looked interesting, like an insecure sax player. (It makes sense to me.) Before I knew it, I’d ordered the things. The internet makes it too easy. It’s not like ‘buying’ at all.

Fast forward to a drizzly, sleet-filled day in December and I am sitting in the most beautiful grade-II listed church. It isn’t that it’s ornate – in fact, it’s the opposite. It is carved lovingly out of wood, with an inconspicuous, domed roof, and a single ostentatious arc of stained glass at its centre. I am not religious, but I sit in the pews and find myself hushed, near-reverential. Sometimes I think that people go to church not to worship a god but to worship this ‘thing’: this sense of aesthetic; being locked in against the elements outside; the collective experience; the monumental awe; the sense of reaching, being; the pinnacle of sense itself.

I thought the comedy might be incongruous. In fact, it was not. It was complemented.

Daniel Kitson’s comedy show is about death. Although he laughs this off at the beginning as unlikely material, I am obsessed by Woody Allen (the pre-noughties stuff, mind), and so frequently turn to the macabre, the dark, the twistings and turnings of mortality, as kindling for gags.

So although I didn’t find Kitson very novel, he was still very funny. He comes across as a lovable sort of guy. I could relate to his self-deprecation, his very modern loneliness – and he gives it all a fresh twist. He even makes a joke of his “courage” for being a comedian with a fairly bad stutter (I didn’t know he had one before I went), and I did feel a bit guilty, because I had, indeed, thought, “Isn’t he brave for going up there?”. Members of my family have stammers – and I thought it was refreshing to see someone with a stammer being the funny guy, the active – rather than the passive, the one that (less good) comedians find it easy to take the piss of.

But maybe I need to stick to the point. The point is this: sometimes you pick up a book and feel a sense of weight, of significance. You were meant to read it at this time and place. The message speaks to you directly – to the extent that you feel more like a character than a reader.

So it was with this comedy. I felt like something fortuitous had led me to book those tickets, to be sitting on that hard, wooden pew.

Kitson’s show mostly deals with his grief about the death of his aunt Angela – how, when she died, the days seemed to darken and everything was ruined and rotted through by the inevitability of demise.

The show lifts up at the end to reveal the first streaks of daylight: when the sadness ebbs, and you remember the person you loved – not at the end, not even when they were young, but somewhere in the middle.

He remembers how his aunt Angela, who had Down’s syndrome, would say “Greaaaat” every time she had a knickerbocker glory. He says he hears her voice now, whenever he has one.

Daniel Kitson announces: “We are full of other people”.

This could sound a bit like a platitude. I’m sure we’ve all thought similar things, heard similar phrases (if not exactly this).

But something about the way he says it, the way he approaches the sentiment… and something about the setting, and about how I am feeling, and how my mind frequently drifts these days to my nanny, who died around this time last year: her frailty at the end, her mental anguish, the sense of hopelessness. How one day someone can exist in all their complexity, their brain still firing, their heart still beating, their cells still throbbing. Then the next day – nothing.

Something about this: “We are full of other people”. My eyes fill with tears.

The next day I eat some hummus. Something prosaic and mundane. I remember that it was my nanny who first introduced me to hummus. I was about twelve years old. I thought it was gloopy and rough and odd. It left a smear of paste on the top of my gums.

Eventually, I came to like hummus. Not long after that, I was obsessed.I would scoop it out of the container with my fingers. I couldn’t get enough. I would eat it at my nanny (and her husband’s) lovely, warm house in the Somerset countryside. Sitting by the aga with my hands wrapped around a mug of tea. Watching my mum and nanny sit and reminisce and giggle like schoolgirls. The dogs milling about my legs. The clock ticking up high by the ceiling.

All this. Just from hummus.

It makes me smile that even eating hummus can be chocked full of memories. Full of people. I am a walking bank of memory. I am Legion: trembling, heaving, overspilling, with all the people I have ever met and loved or liked and who have ever had an influence. Even people I have never met, but have read their words, or heard their songs, or seen them flicker on the screen at the cinema.

It’s not wholly of comfort – but it’s a little comfort. That somewhere, in here, people live on. As long as I’m here, they will be here too.

It’s a beautiful thought, and makes me like my reflection a little better in the mirror.

When Daniel Kitson left the stage, I wanted to run after him and be his friend. The show didn’t make me screech and howl with laughter, but it was always wry and consistent and amusing and quietly touching and thought-provoking – and you don’t get much comedy that does that.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Trying to define it

I haven't been on this for a while. The nights are drawing in and life is getting frantic, urgent, hectic. There are Christmas presents to buy, cards to send. Our tree is finally up and decorated and something about the smell of the pine and sweet, amber glow of the lights makes me smile and flutter inside like I'm six years old again.

Winter has a hollowed, haunting beauty. There is something beautiful about survival. Just to get through the days tells us of hope and strength. Walking through my local park today, there were seagulls flocking for bread; some ducks; a swan; a squirrel furrowing for nuts. Wizened sticks trembling out from the trees, defiantly brandishing their berries. Life whittles on.

I think I will come back to Christmas soon because that is a topic of beauty that deserves more space.

I also don't seem to have gathered together any readers yet! At least, any that seem to be leaving comments. I could try to 'advertise' this blog more, possibly get a Twitter account and inform all my friends when it's updated. But, in 'typical me' fashion, I find that there is something to be cherished in its secrecy, in its covertness. And, also - isn't it more 'special' if people just somehow stumble on to this blog, rather than I drag them to its rather sentimental content, kicking and screaming? But perhaps I'm in denials. There is so much to read in this Internet world: everybody has to 'sell' their wares, in order to stand out from the crowd.

Another thing that's puzzling me is that I'm not even sure yet why I feel the need for readers. It possibly speaks of something psychological that I'd rather ignore...

In the meantime, let's jolt back to the main point of this blog: beauty.

I thought a dictionary definition might help matters.

the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).

2. a beautiful person, esp. a woman.
3. a beautiful thing, as a work of art or a building.
4. Often, beauties. something that is beautiful in nature or in some natural or artificial environment.
5. an individually pleasing or beautiful quality; grace; charm: a vivid blue area that is the one real beauty of the painting.
6. Informal. a particular advantage: One of the beauties of this medicine is the freedom from aftereffects.
7. (usually used ironically) something extraordinary: My sunburn was a real beauty.
8. something excellent of its kind: My old car was a beauty.


1225–75; ME be(a)ute < OF beaute; r. ME bealte < OF beltet < VL *bellitāt- (s. of *bellitās), equiv. to L bell(us) fine + -itāt- -ity

I'd like to go back to point 1:

the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).

To me, this evades a fundamental question. Why do we need to derive pleasure from our senses at all? We need food to live, but need it taste so good? Couldn't we have a driving life force in us that compels us to eat, regardless of this sense? Does grass to a cow taste like chocolate to a woman?

And what is taste, anyway - as we are fixing on taste in this analogy?

When we eat something good, why is it good to us? Oh, I know there's the idea that the taste buds have evolved to help us to distinguish between what is poisonous and not. But isn't there more to this? Otherwise, wouldn't we all be craving salads, and wouldn't too many carbs and a double serving of clotted cream taste positively repulsive?

And then there is 'sight'. Why do we not just 'see'? We have to see to navigate, to perceive, to discern. But why does having sight necessarily lead us to finding a painting beautiful, or a vista of a sailing boat, with the sun setting down its beams across the ocean? Why does our sight give value and not just function?

I am afraid I have no answers. And I'm not a philosopher and I am not terribly well versed in philosophy. No doubt that there are academics who have spent thousands of words on topics like this one, and probably reached highly interesting conclusions. (If you are reading this and you have examples, do enlighten me.) Please be aware that these are just the musings of an amateur. Of someone who just likes to think.

I can't help but also keep returning to the final last bit of that dictionary definition.

The "something else".

Oh my. Surely that's also worth a whole other blog entry at some later point in time...

Sunday, 22 November 2009

I dedicate this song to you

Music will probably feature a lot on this blog. Music can be eerily, hauntingly beautiful. It can shoot shivers down your spine, it can make you smile, blink back tears and transport yourself to distant times and future hoped fors.

For me, the most beautiful kind of music (indeed, the most beautiful kind of anything) is the happy-sad songs. The ones that make me gaze out of the window and think about how fragile and fleeting true happiness is, but how much more grateful that should make me to grasp it.

And I do grasp it. I have a wonderful boyfriend. Well, ‘boyfriend’ sounds too trivial a word after nine years together and nearly twelve years of friendship. And you can give me dancing shoes, a party dress, a night out on the town, a bunch of interesting people to mingle with, a near-empty bottle of champagne – but, although that would be fun, I would always, truly, unashamedly, much rather just be sitting in our flat – just me and him – talking, laughing, holding, maybe listening to music. Oh yes, there is always music in our world.

This week I downloaded an album by Sibylle Baier. 

It is a gentle, undemanding album – perfect for late Autumn and carrying on the seasonal theme of exquisite melancholy. A strumming guitar; a soft, unassuming voice. Something sweet and refined but undeniably cracked.

Sibylle, a little-known German actress, received no recognition in early life. One day, in the 70s, she was moved to record an album of her songs, at home, on an old reel-to-reel machine. These songs were never meant for the public and never heard by anyone – until later, many years later, her son heard the album ‘Colour Green’, and asked to release it. It received critical acclaim.

But, by then, Sibylle was content to live a simple life. She had gone away and raised a family and lived without the fame that she had once pursued. Once it came knocking, she recognised it as an empty husk, and threw it out of the world that she had created.

There is one song on the album that I keep turning to. It is called ‘Tonight’.

tonight when I came home from work
tonight when I came home from work
there he unforeseen sat in the kitchen
buttering himself a bread
and the cat was on his knee
and smiled at me

It evokes images of what I long to return to every day from work: a work that is not particularly grueling and that I should not begrudge (so many have it so much worse) but neither does it inspire or stimulate. On that train journey home, I think eagerly of seeing Him in the kitchen: waiting, smiling, the stove turned on, heat emanating to every corner.

Domestic, yes. Ordinary, yes. My teenage self would have seen this as the ultimate failure. Why aren’t I travelling the world in a caravan with only hand luggage for company? Why aren’t I living in a yurt? Why isn’t my face on the cover of the London Magazine, alongside Angela Carter and Martin Amis?

Maybe these things will still happen. Maybe not. Probably not. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all.

Self-absolution has a kind of beauty too. 

Sunday, 8 November 2009

That funny time of year


I love this time of year. Well, it’s October that I truly love, but things seem to have been brought forward a little bit this year. The leaves are only just beginning to fall, and there is nothing that brings more childish triumph than stomping through them all, hearing them crackle and crunch. 

Of course, soon the leaves will break down and turn to mulch, before they evaporate completely. Then all we’ll be left again with is chunks of grey pavement and sticks for trees. Bleak, windswept landscape, often muddied through with rain. A world where nothing much seems to grow. When everything seems to be holding its breath, suspended. Waiting.

But, for now, the world through my eyes looks pretty beautiful. Sunlight dapples all the colours: russets, oranges, reds and yellows. I think there is something beautiful about Autumn because it signifies the adage ‘going out in a blaze of glory’. It speaks to us of a dying man’s final moment of courage. It speaks to us of 'it ain't over 'till it's over'; that even in those last few days, before the leaves suicidially hurtle and die for the year, that they can glisten and glow more beautiful than ever. That there is always hope as long as you’re still clinging on. 

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

This week, I’ve been finishing the above book, by Robert M. Pirsig. Not so much a beautiful book, that appeals to the senses, as one that stokes the mind. And the reason I’m mentioning it is that it coincidentally seems to allude to a definition of something similar to beauty (with a few differences). Although, rather than define beauty, Pirsig was trying to define Quality – a term the author never really defined, as he said to define it was to confine it.

It got me thinking though.

Pirsig links Quality with the Tao. That Quality is the fundamental force in the universe, which stimulates everything, from atoms to animals, to evolve and incorporate ever greater levels of Quality.

Pirsig thinks that everyone has an instinctive awareness of Quality. That, if you show a class two essays, there will be a significant consensus of which one is deemed'best'. So, does this apply to beauty too? However, I can't help but find fault with Pirsig's assumption. For, surely, a lot of this is down to culture? Perhaps I am too much of a relativist but I can't help but think societal norms influence a consensus on Quality, and the same goes for beauty. Then again, I liked the idea that there might be inherent value in something beyond the observer.

Pirsig also mentions the Sanskrit doctrine of 'Tat tvam asi' - 'thou art that'. That everything you think you are (subjective) and everything you think you perceive (objective) is undivided. Quality is neither subject nor object but a "third entity". He also wrote, in a 1995 paper: "Quality is not a thing. It is an event. It is the event as which the subject becomes aware of the object... The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!" Do we have the emphasis all wrong?

It’s funny how often you think about reading a book, but don’t. And then there comes a time when it suddenly seems right to read it, and when you do it, it speaks to you, intuitively, at a level that befits you in that time and space. So it has been with this book, which although has many faults (which I won’t list here), managed to massage my brain and lure out something latent. 


And it’s funny how the radio 4 programme In Our Time did the same thing. I can’t recommend Melvyn Bragg’s show enough. It often goes way over my head but it forces me to think about wide-ranging issues and it challenges me. Anyone stuck in a repetitive job cannot help but coo over that.

I have been ill lately, with the usual seasonal germ that makes you cough and splutter and flit inbetween sleep and wakefulness. Listening to this programme helped me from collapsing into brain death. Especially the one on Schopenhauer. It seemed to have some links to Pirsig’s book. 

For if we are striving for ever greater Quality, then we are destined to keep striving, deluded, for ever. Schopenhauer posited that life was just oscillation between desire and boredom. There is no ultimate perfection in history's forward momentum. There can be no happiness because desire is never fulfilled. Once we obtain a goal, we fixate on another.

I know you may be thinking that none of this sounds very beautiful, but bear with me. Schopenhauer's philosophy got me thinking and back to wondering to why many people find autumn so majestic.

Perhaps autumn is beautiful because it is a pre-state:  striving, inbetweeness. When we get to the winter, we have already made the transition. Beauty is the journey but not the destination. Beauty is transient, dealt out in small doses - but always with the hope of something more. 

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Corresponding with ghosts

I’m trying to think about why I’ve started a blog. What is its purpose? What is its aim? How will I fit in an entry or two a week when time seems so fleeting?

The best I can come up with is a genuine curiosity about who may be out there. Perhaps forging ‘connections’, though this sounds pathetic. (Yes, I have got friends and a boyfriend and a life of my own, and no, I’m not a sociopath who wants to Internet stalk some random from Missouri.) I guess it’s all about posing genuine questions and wondering what answer drifts back at me from across the ether. It’s almost like picking up a Ouija board and corresponding with ghosts. Trying to divine little nuggets of wisdom. Seeking some meaning, wherever it happens to be.

So if I am looking for answers, what are the questions? Well, the questions aren’t so definite to be called ‘questions’ at all.

What they are is a sort of wondering, a thinking, a dissecting, of things that I happen to have found
beautiful every week. Yes, this blog will be about beauty and all its manifold forms. What is beauty? Why is it? 

To some extent, it’s about posing these things philosophically, and really trying to unpick them.

Why am I dribbling over these
shoes, yet these ones leave me cold?

Why have I always been drawn to this painting, but never ‘gotten’ anything by this guy?
Why do I love these photos I took?

To another degree, it’s about being a delicate, melancholy person who sometimes sees the world through a sadness that acts as a cataract. It seems to me that that’s the way I’ve always been, I was born that way – though I’m sure many would argue that I must be a creature of experience. Regardless, I am still aware that the world is full of beauty: savage beauty, gentle beauty, shallow beauty, gleeful beauty. 

So this blog is about circling the beauty with a bloggish marker pen and saying: here it is. This justifies everything. This made my week.

A bit of a
gratitude diary? Maybe. If you like. Though does everything you find beautiful make you grateful? Sometimes, something beautiful can make you feel bitter and resentful. An old flame, let’s say, who suddenly re-smoulders in front of you, the light shimmering off them – hypnotic, bewitching, but something you definitely can’t have. Too hot to the touch. Too beautiful to behold.

What all of this hopefully does is define who I and why I am and how I am in relation to the ‘things’ (the objects, the phenomenon, the reality) that surrounds me. Egotistical? Probably! But ‘beauty’ is so subjective – how could this ever be about anything but me? Surely it would be egotistical to do otherwise?!

Anyway, enough ramblings for now. I hope this introduction gives you a better idea of what the blog involves. And I hope you stay with me as we journey through it all together. Who knows, we might find the same things beautiful!