I will never love London – the city’s streets harbour too much of my unhappiness for that - but recently we have been jostling into a ... slightly less aggressive relationship. I blame Tim Burton and the way his cobbles glistened in Sweeney Todd with the London damp and how, on an evening a few weeks ago, the fog rolled along the streets, reminding me of lamp posts and frock coats. I marvelled that our dingy East End suburb, which is Victorian if you approach it from one end, but perfectly depressing if you come through the council flats at the opposite end, could be so evocative.
This sentience has been augmented by a book of poetry I found on the shelves at the library – Sean Borodale’s Notes for an Atlas, an account of his walks through London. I am very particular about my poetry - well, I am about most things – and this work passes the bar. It’s a very visual piece of work (unsurprisingly, as Borodale is also an artist), grounded by wonderful detail and an interesting technique, whereby the writer puts his reader into his shoes, yet he rarely relies upon the sometimes clunking ‘you.’ For example:
‘Pass black railings and flowers
of iron set within the railings at intervals. See a
bed in a basement room. Read GIVE WAY. A
man with a snooker cue under his right arm,
walking, looks into a bag he carries and there is
a sparkle once. Pass men kissing in a room.
Over the window of the room in blue letters
read TAVERNA. Hear, “God some of the
blokes can’t hold the beer ... and language I
can’t understand.” Car. Hear the steps of a
woman. Crying horn of a siren. And hear, “I’ve
never seen you smile so much.”
(Isinglass, 2003, p. 126)
What delighted me most about the work was these snippets of overheard conversation. I once read in an autobiography of a deaf man that what he missed most was not being able to hear, but not being able to overhear. I would agree with this only up to a point – if I could hear the madwoman I work with wittering on all day (to herself, if not to some poor bastard unlucky to be caught in conversation with her), I’d be dragged down into her depths of derangement. However, it is true that there’s something almost exotic about banalities when you can’t hear them.
The poet relies heavily upon the upon the senses of sound and sight, and the effect of this is a certain detachment. The flaneur isn’t overcome or invaded by smells, and he certainly doesn’t touch anything – his body is sealed off and impregnable. This seems to be characteristic of Londoners in general – they huddle not only against the cold but against possible eye contact and – God forbid it – a friendly smile.
The work isn’t difficult to read, but it’s dense, so I only dip into it now and then. There isn’t a driving narrative, only my interest in where he walks and whether his language will change according to the socioeconomics of the areas he’s in. So far I haven’t read enough to tell.
I’ve also been reading Nabakov’s short stories, which make my own efforts at short story writing seem paltry. However some of the endings are far too enigmatic, and though I have guilty of doing this myself, I think it’s lazy on the part of the writer to let the reader try and make meaning of some abrupt, surrealist series of events. This might appeal to some, but I don’t like being left completely mystified.
Nabakov also uses second person sometimes. This style can be quite didactic, but when he uses it as a love letter, as in ‘Sounds’, it becomes touchingly intimate. I’m tempted to go back to Lolita, but I find it a disturbing work, not least because it’s so beautifully crafted that the subject matter is rendered less insidious than it seems, but I’ll leave all this for another day.