1. Life after Arbeitsamt is mighty fine. i have no money but don’t hate my students or my life, which is a significant plus. Some of my hideous exploits:

i) Taught a 15-year-old sheltered rich kid who will now be in a posh English boarding school; curiously, the day after he told me the school’s name, i came across it in a Charles McCarry novel – a Nazi in hiding in South America says he went there as a youth. First day, the boy broke my wonderful Space Pen and i considered a punishment beating but instead pretended not to notice because i am a man of peace now. Last day he suggested we leave McLingua as it was our last class, so i said okay and we had a jolly couple of hours: i showed him where i buy whisky (Tara Whiskey), tobacco, and at the latter we had a look at the booze section; they had some highly expensive boozes on tap so i pretended to be interested in a bottle of 150 € rum and procured a small glass, took a tiny taste and let the kid drink the rest, then said urbanely, “nicht schlecht, vielleicht später” and we sauntered out. Not bad for 11 am.

ii) Taught an Abitur class, kind of like A-levels, 17 – 18 year olds, my first such, two hot girls and one surly boy who looked like a 12-year-old Mark Wahlberg. A doll-like blonde with piercing blue eyes told me she had ripped her jeans dancing. i cackled like a paedo.
girl: do you dance?
me: Ha ha, let me read you a text from a colleague. [digging out my phone] Okay, here it is: “Do you dance at concerts or just stand there nodding rhythmically with one hand in your pocket and the other clutching a whiskey?”
i stand and illustrate, clutching my tea.
me: This is how i dance.

Another time, drilling 2nd Conditional:

me: Girl, what would you do if I gave you a kilo of cocaine?
girl: If you gave me a…?
girl: kilogram of cocaine. Pure.
girl: I would sell it!
me: good girl.

i also had them doing a task-based activity where the doll-girl and Wahlberg were terrorists and the other (a sultry Persian minx) was a fascist dictator. Group 1 had to devise a strategy to fight the Man, and the minx had to find a way to annihilate the rebels.

Group 1 came up with some good stuff, including assassinations, arson, graffiti; alas the minx said she would open talks and compromise with the dissidents. i gave her a disappointed look but conceded, That won’t wash in this classroom but it’s probably the right answer for the school exam.

2. i had dreaded this class as i’ve never enjoyed teaching kids, but on the first day i broke them in, telling them “we have to be in the same room for 15 hours this week so i want it to be as painless as possible. i don’t like being bored and i don’t want to bore you, so let’s just find something we can live with and we’ll all be okay.” i did some of the Abitur book but found all the texts (on medicine, the economy, etc.) tedious, as did they. i feel that if students can use English for dirty jests and terroristic ideas, they should be able to use it for anything, so i concentrated on mirth and violence and all was well (even Wahlberg laughed a few times).

On the last day, we talked about the school system. Bavarian schools are extremely hard and old-fashioned, so to do an Abitur – which is essential to go to university – you have to do Mathematics. While i think everyone should be able to do basic arithmetic, i don’t see any point pursuing Maths beyond this point unless you have some talent: you will inevitably forget everything if you don’t regularly practice it, and i found GCSE Maths an unbearable affliction so wouldn’t have even got to university had i been obliged to take it to A-level.

i’ve taught a few 14 plus rich kids and find them mostly strained, disciplined, terse and somewhat unbalanced, having a great deal of knowledge and no experience – a 19-year-old could read Latin and Ancient Greek with ease, but was nervous, shy, and unable to project power in his voice (he wanted to be an air traffic controller).

2. Wahlberg said little (teenage boys seem considerably less mature than girls), both girls told me they have almost no free time, are constantly studying, doing extra-curricular activities; Doll Girl vehemently agreed when i suggested you need some time to do, well, nothing, to just lounge and think and smoke pipes. i realised that just as many of my senior management students have no one else to talk to, so with these students; we spent a good hour just talking about school and how little it prepares you for either university or work, or life outside of school.

Doll Girl asked if i could edit an essay she has to submit for her Abitur, on Harry Potter. i agreed, even though technically this is slavery as i would be working for free. However, i believe one should not be motivated solely by financial considerations and i was appropriately amused when i read it – she had written a study of the magical systems in HP, and while i only read the first HP and don’t remember anything, she had done some research on our-world magic. i duly edited it, refraining from adding my own comments.

Later, i fell to reflecting on my own teenage Fantasy-consumption. i think we are drawn to tales which reflect our deeper sense of reality. i once thought i had read so much Fantasy – while indifferent to Horror and Sci-Fi – because my own childhood was so banal and uninteresting. Over the last 6 years i’ve come to see it as partly a reaction against this early tedium, and partly a joining to sources of reality in my previous lives, a sense that the physical Newtonian reality is not finally definitive (and in spite of 20th C ideas, i think the modern man’s day-to-day understanding is Newtonian). Horror for me is kind of pointless, and i’ve only recently started to appreciate Sci-fi films because they seem able to speculate about our reality under the guise of some technological mastery – though i still feel a lack of interest in reading Sci-Fi.

3. Undoubtedly, much of childhood & adolescence is an error, as actually is much of adulthood; but i think the sense of utter absorption in things, which i very distantly recall, and the looser sense of causality, are glimpses of a wider reality. Neither should, i suppose, be adhered to, unless you want to end up wearing a bin bag and sleeping under a bridge, but there it is. Ideally, one could integrate childhood elements – curiosity for example – into adulthood, though people usually fail and either abandon all childlike qualities, or stubbornly cling to them and become sadly grotesque & somehow neither childlike nor adult – but as it were an abortive fantasy of both.

4. In German, Fantasie is one word for imagination; in English, it has largely pejorative, juvenile connotations. It’s curious that the Bosche often read Fantasy – Jack, a Vice-President, told me he was driving & playing the audiobook of some book about a dragon (Eragon?) and ended up staying in his car an extra 15 minutes, in his rich man’s garage, to finish the CD. He was an intelligent, competent, mature individual, paid vastly and according VIP treatment in Redmond, and imagination seemed essential to his job, e.g. persuading other highly-paid people to do what he wanted.

In some way, i think i’ve found a way to integrate my fantastical elements, so probably (hopefully) my students would be astonished to know of my fully sorcerous doings.  The Aleister Crowley lifestyle/persona seems absurd and kind of childish to me; ideally, no one would have the faintest idea that the wizard is a wizard: they would think him an amusing oddbod or maker of fireworks or waistcoat-wearer and pipe-smoker; because magic is not a fantasy or illusion but merely how things are – so the wizard would not be anything too evidently magical, but simply a human being, albeit a little unusual because seeing things from a wider perspective – which is, after all, just what you should gain from a good few years of reading & thinking, slowly drifting a little aside the 21st Century, and slowly becoming more fully human.

1. i’ve been too lazy and disorganized to blog, suffering a blog-fatigue and general lack of interest in the public world. Much of my free time is spent on a new book-attempt on one of my old typewriters; i feel quite pleased with it so far and happy to be working with ink and paper. Anything virtual seems a bit suspect to me, likely to disappear or be hacked or intruded upon or just go wrong for to-me-incomprehensible reasons; i’m not even sure that IT geeks understand it, as the systems are now so complex as to appear whimsical and flighty to human beings. And having worked in banks i understand that everyone who works in a company will have whatever access he needs to work, which means that if Yahoo or Facebook use temps, temps have the power to browse through your email and posts, and most likely will do so.

2. Teaching continues, and to coincide with the 5-year mark i have ceased to suffer Arbeitsamt (Job Centre) groups. My last group was fine for 3 months, then a lot of new students appeared and immediately began whining and shrieking. In true German fashion they complained that the groups were too big (i think 12 students when everyone was present, but it averaged about 8 or 9), the students’ English levels heterogeneous (this is normal), and then two strident retarded females accused me of doing nothing at all, just making jokes and talking about Schnitzel constantly. This came after i’d spent about 10 hours, over a week, doing nothing except teach grammar since the atmosphere was too bad for normal conversation or roleplays.

i wearily explained to my boss that since every student comes from a different work background i can’t use “business English” examples like “how many IC8 duct sealants has the company sold this month” so just use normal and slightly comic examples, e.g. “how many Schnitzels has Frank eaten this year”. She sympathised but all the same i felt unwilling to keep justifying myself before these emotionally special Olympic groups.

i reflected and realised that every single Arbeitsamt class has become a nightmare at some point, always because of one or maybe two malcontents; the others will rarely speak up to defend me, (even when they give me good feedback) out of the German culture of keeping-your-head-down, and so it looks like the entire group despises me. The malcontents are almost always power frau types. In true German fashion they are perfectly friendly to my face, even seeking me out to chat in the break – i have realised this is a German reflex, to try to befriend the person you are stabbing in the back. The classes are not merely free for the students, their unemployment money is extended as long as they are doing the course, but Germans not only don’t appreciate anything free, they assume that only weaklings give anything away for free, and then try to get more. With Germans, you have to draw a line in the sand on the first day, do nothing for free, and assume anything you do or say will be used against you. Whereas normal human beings respond favourably to concessions, Germans just think “this person is weak, I will demand MORE!”

Actually, that’s only a minority of weird, fucked-up Germans, but at least 10% of Arbeitsamt students are like this and since the other 90% rarely speak up on the teacher’s behalf, i’ve had three or four discussions with my boss which begin “the group have complained that” and when i say “what, the WHOLE group?” she says “well, one person, but nobody contradicted her”.

3. i decided to stop these groups altogether, since in Munich i haven’t had a single unfucked-up group. On reflection, i suspect my Kassel groups sometimes complained but that Morgana – my boss there – just fielded the complaints for the teachers and didn’t tell us unless it was, in her odd-coloured eyes, justified.

It’s a big step, to stop teaching Arbeitsamt, as they are stable (they can’t cancel), they have sometimes been my favourite groups, and they made up something like 20 – 50% of my income, especially in holiday seasons like July-August and December-January. As is my way, i feel it’s worse to compromise because this will result in a shameful death in a ditch in Bradford, so i stopped even though my group made up something like 90% of my income at the time (August).

The experience of being-a-teacher is now very different, as i’ve taught between 8 and 30 hours of Arbeitsamt a week since i began teaching full-time, 4.5 years ago. They are the closest i would get to teaching at a normal school, since even though the students are usually over 25, they act like schoolchildren, an understandable reaction to being in the same room from 9 to 4 Monday to Friday. My approach was always to do my job, to do grammar, error correct, but also to form a relationship which, while it didn’t usually survive the ending of the course, made us something like friends for the duration. This kind-of friendship made everything easier, when it was possible, and i believe had pedagogical value since language is central to human interaction and when learning you need an amiable, open situation.

4. i now have two company groups but they are irregular because one-on-one so the students often cancel; and a lot of crash courses and short-term students (people paying for themselves, who can usually only afford 10 or so hours because McLingua is expensive). However, i’ve stayed in touch with two old Arbeitsamt students – a slightly crazy Polish lawyer who seems to like me because i’m honest; and a 26-year-old dandy with eyes like Morgana’s (i.e. left is different to right). Through the latter, i’ve joined a Dandy Circle who meet and generally talk excitably in German about clothing fabrics. i’m unsure exactly why i’m welcome, since i usually wear my standard cord trousers, white shirt, tweed jacket, or variations, and can’t follow most of their talk, but there it is. A photo of the dandies pretending to consult their phones for maximum business seriousness, the 26-year-old ex-student on the far right in the raincoat:

dandy meeting aug 2014 (17)

5. i like meeting the dandies, though i have really little interest in clothing & dress increasingly like a character from The Good Life. i feel age settling on me like dust and dress for convenience, both physical comfort and to attract as little attention as possible; given my odd face i will never evade notice but i can stealth-dress, in clothes that say “he probably has some kind of non-manual-labour job so he isn’t a crackhead rapist, but he’s no one important”. More & more i feel happy to be invisible and outside of human life; i once likened this to the dark side of the moon,  closer to the divine than the human. It is, to our eyes, mere darknesss, but that is because we are mortal, and our judgement likewise.

My Finland notes:

1. At Munich airport, birdsong in the steel rafters, sparrows i believe, can’t see them but i’ve spotted the birds in the past; are they deliberately introduced or do they just fly haphazardly in? Do they shit on the floor? Their high chirping is an odd opposition to the occasional tannoy calls and the multicultural vibrancy diversity despair & nowhereness of all airport terminals. How do they get in? Do they breed? What do they live on? (crumbs from the cafes?) Do they prefer it to the outdoors?

2. Airplane to Helsinki, my asthma worsens. Strangely, the recycled air tastes like oxygen mask air, but my lungs rapidly roughen and i am wheezing after 30 minutes. Stewardesses are Finnish, they automatically use English and i automatically reply in German. Many misunderstandings.

3. Helsinki airport. Japanese everywhere, do they use Helsinki as a connecting node or are they visiting the city?

4. Approaching Oulu:

finland july 2014 (8)

i meet The Man in Black and take a taxi to his castle. We stay up drinking till midnight, and although i am now familiar with the Midnight Sun, it is still disconcerting to see the sky held in brightness – it stays so till dawn:

finland july 2014 (16)

5. The city isn’t such a bad place to live, about the same size as Kassel and Huddersfield, similarly small-town feel, but without the crime and misery of Huddersfield or the incestuous weirdness of Kassel. Like Kiel, Oulu is on the sea and so although the buildings are mostly hideous (the old wooden buildings were mysteriously subject to arson, to make way for a city-sponsored construction deal) it doesn’t feel too monstrous.

finland july 2014 (27)

We head to the seaside for protein and womanflesh. Scantily-clad Finnish maidens and seafood and diving seagulls:

finland july 2014 (34)

finland july 2014 (32)

6. Camera dies on the 2nd day, battery drained after about 10 minutes of use. i fulminate. As technology complicates it more easily disintegrates, as does so-called civilisation, Tower of Babel-like. Hence, i prefer typewriters and pen to computers, and hence i would rather use a film camera if it weren’t so expensive to develop.

7. Man in Black & i finish watching Deadwood (we got to the start of Season 2 last year). We are obsessed by Al Swearengen’s blue China teacups, seemingly we are the only so interested as i can’t find a single jpeg online. Al drinks whisky from shot glasses, coffee from steel cups, and tea from blue China. Great line: “those that doubt me suck cock by choice!”

8. MIB has recently watched True Detective. He comments that Cohle follows the initiatory path, being expelled & outcast and only then becoming truly effective; the older, apparently alcoholic Cohle, is in fact playing a greater game, and as i rethink TD, i suspect the grey-haired Cohle isn’t the terminal alcoholic & failure he alleges himself to be, but, as with the 47 ronin, he is acting a part:

true d2

9. More than last year i note the differences between Finns and Germans. i meet the woman who was my eldest sister in my last life – she lives close by – and we walk Oulu. She has a limp and i prepare to shove pedestrians out of her path but in fact the Finns automatically weave a path around us. i remark that in Germany they would knock us both into the gutter, without even noticing it; she is incredulous but it is so – Germans seem oblivious to others and rely on bulk and girth to knock those they meet out of the way; hence, in Germany i am constantly vigilant, looking for a path through the huge muscle-clad oafs; the Finns are more akin to the English – and, i suspect, normal i.e. non-German, human beings – they don’t generally want collision and they can notice other people. There is something strangely uncaring and oblivious about Germans, so it is easy to imagine the average German turning impassively away as the Jews are beaten to death on the streets. i think even today they wouldn’t even really notice it, or if the assailants were uniformed they would accept that everything must be in order, then loot the Jewhouses and probably complain about how the Jews failed to keep their houses in good orderly German fashion.

Finns also don’t stare like Germans. i gaze openly at the scantily-clad Finnish women (it is about 30 degrees and humid) and disconcert them; here, i am an invasive species. Despite being one of the very few obviously non-Finnish people here, the only person to look at me is a bearded homosexual; in Germany, especially in my suburb or in Kassel, Germans stare at me with their typically cold, hostile attention, a kind of “what is this THING?” look. Cyclists even turn their heads to stare at me as they pass. It isn’t just for me, even a white female American colleague, whose family are originally German, says she hates the way Germans stare at her like a piece of meat. It goes strangely with their ability to knock you into the gutter without even noticing. The Germans have a one-way, aggressive attention, cold and uncaring – they look at everything and everyone as either a threat to their Gemütlichkeit or as an opportunity for profit. On the other hand, when they get to know you they are usually pleasant and accommodating – it’s just that if they don’t know you they would prefer you to die so they can have more Lebensraum.

10. Football, now. A strange World Cup as teams like Ghana and Algeria play intermittently world class football.  Germany outlasts them all, by a combination of technical skill (Schweinsteiger), opportunist greed (Müller), and flair (Klose). Final is one of the most tedious matches i’ve ever seen. No more football for 4 years, thank god.

11. i return to Deutschland. On the s-bahn from the airport i wonder who is German, returning home, and who is a Finnish tourist. Easy – the Germans stare coldly and take up as much room as possible, spreading their limbs and bags out to occupy all the available Lebensraum, then look angry and resentful when someone wants to sit down. Luckily i return with weaponry:

finland july 2014 (2)

The knife is a Lapp weapon, the dagger is replica German Navy, a strange find in a flea market in Oulu but there were many Germans stationed here in the war. i consider the connections across time and space, joining the Reich to this corner of northern Finland. And now i am back in 21st Century Munich, amidst the bustling oafs and starers, with my weapons.


Had no interest in blogging and i have to buy a printer and do my appalling tax declaration in the next few days, and on Friday the Viking will visit, bringing destruction & soiled virgins in his wake, and then on Monday i’m off to Finland for a Dark Conclave with my original initiator, the fabled Man in Black. Until then, some photos:

1. England:


2. TS Eliot and cat:

ts eliot with cat

3. My windowsill:


4. Me sitting in an “Irish pub” scowling at a Pole who knew Flann O’Brien and goes mushroom picking in bright yellow boots so her body will be found if she has a fatal mishap:

irish pie may2014

That is all.


1. Miraculously still here, on a warm Tuesday afternoon. i took today & yesterday off work as i had some kind of Germanity-induced fever and had to lie abed, moaning and clutching my entrails. i feel my endurance for teaching is almost exhausted, though i’ve felt that a good dozen or two dozen times in the last three years. After this winter/spring’s fairly hellish gumbo of emotions & what not, there seems little left in me to care.

i feel to have fallen outside of my own time, as if the continuity is awry and there’s no link between today and yesterday. i think this is normal when an emotionally-charged situation abruptly ends, as was the case with my last Arbeitsamt class. In this case, i unwillingly expended vast emotional energy in the group, i think because it was so huge (14 students), went on so long (i took it over from a departed colleague in January, and it ran 7 hours a day, 5 days a week), and had so many problems, factions, cliques. My heart also unwillingly gave much to two women, firstly the radiant giantess (about 6′ 2″, i estimate) and then the Bulgarian Wittgenstein fan. In the latter case, i tend to form an easy rapport with anyone who has a non-academic and non-preening interest in Wittgenstein. In the latter, the giantness had a tremendous physical energy and animal-like directness, with enough intelligence & acuity to give spirit. i spent the last month of the course training myself to a Kierkegaard-like acceptance of our utter incompatibility. One could observe this simply in our movement: i have an uncertain connection to my own body so tend to move in short, controlled gestures; she sprawled and exploded, rather, with more than enough physicality, dobermann-like.

This abundance was compelling. i noted that even my dour and highly self-controlled Irish colleague, Molloy, was drawn to her. On the class’s last evening we went out for dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. i cunningly manoeuvered to sit next to her and after a few beers she got me in a headlock, dragging me pleasingly against her breasts, and told me it was useless to resist because she had done karate for ten years. i thought that explained a lot and broke her hold with a simple joint manipulation and a tai chi sneer “karate is nothing”, though on reflection i should probably have stayed where i was and enjoyed the situation, or even provoked her to rip her clothes off.

Later we talked about slaps versus punches. i mentioned this great scene from True Detective:

and she invited me to slap her, so i did; then she slapped me back; and i reciprocated, and it went on for a good half dozen slaps while Molloy stared in horror. i only gave her some slight slaps, as you would a red-headed stepchild or a hysterical woman, not a Rust Cohle manly copslap, and she was gentle enough. It was good clean fun. i was surprised when Molloy – ordinarily highly professional and somber – said “I feel left out. Hit me. No, not you -” when i volunteered to reach across the table and slap him. But later i reflected that the giantness exerted a dobermann-like spell over those she encountered.

2. The effort of resisting this spell every day, with 14 German faces staring expectantly at me, over about 4 -6  weeks, left me emptied of sensation; i feel as if my life ended and i continue as a recording device, passively observing. With typical elberry-fate perversity, even as i burnt out my emotions accepting that we really had nothing in common (she’s a surfer party girl who doesn’t seem to read anything) and that this would pass through my life and be gone forever, she’s just invited me to her 30th birthday this weekend; and i’ve now so completely accepted matters that i’m not sure if i’ll go, because i feel as distant as i would from someone i once knew in another life.

On the whole, despite the daily rigours of teaching her group, i feel glad to have known her, because she seemed different to anyone i’d met before, and so i felt the world was a larger, more colourful & stranger place.

3. After finally finishing The Sopranos a few months ago, i moved on to shows i’d vaguely heard of. i’ve so far managed to avoid The Wire but House of Cards, Utopia, and True Detective fulfill a similar role to the giantess: they make the world stranger. House of Cards is basically Kevin Spacey – if you enjoy hearing a Deep South cracker Spacey saying: “I’m a white-trash cracker from a white-trash town that no one would even bother to piss on. But here’s the difference– I’ve made something of myself. I have the keys to the capitol. People respect me. But you, you’re still nothing. You’re just an uppity dago in an expensive suit turning tricks for the unions. Nobody respects the unions anymore, Marty. They’re dying. And no one respects you. The most you’ll ever make of yourself is blowing men like me. Men with real power. Yes. I can smell the cock on your breath from here” then you’ll enjoy House of Cards.

Utopia is stranger, with a cheerful colour scheme and one of the best soundtracks i’ve heard in television, and a great dead-eyed sociopathic killer:

4. True Detective is the series i dreamt of for a good week after the final episode. Critics have attacked it for being pretentious, by which i think they mean they don’t understand Matthew McConaughey’s character Rust Cohle, and they confuse him with the show as a whole. You may as well attack Apocalypse Now and say you had a bad day when Starbucks gave you the wrong frappuccino but that didn’t make you go to Cambodia and put heads on stakes like Colonel Kurtz, so clearly the whole film is absurd and pretentious. It’s testament to the show’s excellence that these frappuccino-drinker critics grudgingly admit it’s not too bad, even while they grumble that there are no “strong female leads” and that they would never have dark thoughts like Cohle, not even after their Prius broke down two months out of warranty.

The show is a good example of what you can do with a good script and director, and competent actors. In this case the leads (McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) are so totally subsumed in the roles it’s hard to remember Harrelson in anything else, and for a moment i assumed Cruise’s assistant in Tropic Thunder was just someone who looks like McConaughey. The show makes no effort to be original, openly using standard tropes: the alcoholic angsty cop, the cop with a bad marriage, the serial killer who leaves arty/literary clues, the corrupt senator, the stupid chief, but the commitment and purpose of the script, direction, and actors makes it somehow bullshitless and true. It’s a good example of how you don’t need anything new, you just need to mean it – even if a million people have done it before, if it’s done with purpose it may as well be unprecedented and original. Much of the script comes alive in the cold, controlled bitterness and intellect of Cohle, and the frustrated stupidity of Hart. i don’t know what a frappuccino-drinking Southron would make of this scene:

Cohle: I’d consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms I’m what’s called a pessimist.

Hart: Um, okay, what’s that mean?

Cohle: It means I’m bad at parties.

For me it works because i’ve had conversations like this, or had them (past simple versus present perfect) until i learnt not to talk openly to more than maybe two or three people in this world. And so when the frappuccino-drinking Southrons say it’s pretentious, i think they just mean it comes from a part of reality they have never experienced and never would, because if they lived through Cohle’s experiences they would commit suicide or go insane, or take refuge in asinine vacuity and Guardianista memoirs about how they went to counseling and pulled through and learnt to turn the page and move on with their lives and buy a new house, get a foot on the mortgage ladder, get their kid into a good school, buy a second home in Tuscany, like the Prius-driving frappuccino-drinkers they are.

The critics are in a sense on Hart’s side when he responds to Cohle: “well that sounds god-fucking awful, Rust”, but they lack Hart’s ability to eventually trust that Cohle’s “philosophical pessimism” is, in the terms of his experience, justified; the critics don’t understand that they are only spared this “pessimism” because they have lived ferociously sheltered lives and lack intellect or taste for inquiry. And, as Hart finds, it is only Cohle – the creature of darkness, come out from the dark underground – who can understand the evil they seek. And, through Hart, we also agree that Cohle is kind of nuts, that human beings can’t conduct daily life with this kind of understanding. When Hart sighs “I’m begging you to shut the fuck up” this seems a sane and ordinary human response.

To set the seal on its greatness, they use a few seconds of Swan’s Avatar at the end of the “got an old sniper pal” scene, 1.52 as Cohle says “l’chaim, fat-ass.”

After True Detective, i felt things stranger & better than before. i’m not sure why a show of such darkness would cheer me up, perhaps because it ends well, perhaps because it’s not really necessary that you have a happy ending; it’s enough that the world is enlarged and that the proportions are more or less true (so no Thomas Hardy-esque determined misery, or romcom-esque determined jollity). In this sense, i would say the two defining experiences of 2014, thus far, have been the young giantess and True Detective, for both have challenged & coloured my understanding, made my world seem grander and more possible & vigorous, with more slaps.

1. i’ve been going through a Hagalaz time since January, with various shocks coming within a fortnight of each other in late January/early February, playing themselves out over the turning to spring, and now seemingly exhausted & spent. At the time these were mostly grim, one was blissful and mildly agonising at the same time, and now all are done and i remain.

A difference in age – even while a certain melancholy lingers from the blissful agony (ir liebez leben, ir leiden tôt/ir lieben tôt, ir leidez leben) i no longer look to the things outside of myself for cause or solution; i know it lies in me. And with this you pass from Hagalaz to Dagaz.

This was first borne upon me in 1998, when i read Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and Stages on Life’s Way: a balance between necessary passion and acceptance. This doesn’t come easily to youth. In my early 20s it was almost impossible, though Kierkegaard at least nudged me from murder/suicide/atrocity. It’s easier now, as i have outlived youth and can discern a pattern in my desiring & chaos, the working out of my Hamingja (ethos anthropos daimon).

2. A man’s fate is his innermost character, and his daimon/ Hamingja. In my case, much of my life becomes easier as i accept the compulsion of my Hamingja. There is a similar acceptance in Hamlet (between Act 4 and 5) and Unforgiven as Will Munny ceases to resist the bloody working of his character and fate.

This isn’t to say that one’s life becomes as one would wish it; but it becomes easier to bear; and in a sense even very grim situations are just as they should be and no more. For me, this is the great lesson of the great late 80s/early 90s action films, as the heroes come to face an enemy that is willed by their Hamingja. It is this concordance of character and enemy one sees in Predator, Lethal Weapon, Unforgiven.

3. i sometimes wonder why i know of my other lives, and remember the bits & pieces i do. It isn’t normal, since amnesia is almost essential to an ordinary, healthy human life. In my case, i think part of this elberry life is a moving-beyond elberry, not to become my other lives but to as it were simultaneously inhabit this & other attempts, as one might play a score while remembering other versions, other interpretations & partial failures. At least, knowing what i do makes it possible to discern lineaments of fate. So when i meet people “by chance, as we say in Middle Earth” i can sometimes perceive an order nonetheless.

4. In my last & difficult Arbeitsamt (JobCentre) class, which i taught from January to April, there were:

i) Dieter, a stern, humorous German in his 50s who planned to give a class presentation about Vikings; he took to referring to me by military rank, and on his last day we saluted each other, as seemed natural;

ii) A pretty, early-30s Bulgarian woman. She has a warm character and studied Philosophy. On our first day i asked after her favourite philosopher and she said “Wittgenstein”. We drew closer to each other over time and she gifted me her warmth.

iii) A radiant 30-year-old German giantess who is, i think, a “young soul”. Contrary to some New Age shite i’ve heard, old souls like me are often more confused and fucked up than relative youngsters, because we have so many divergent, contradictory lives – all exerting an influence on the present. The giantess flirted with me out of boredom & some curiosity, for example she got her neighbour Dieter to call me over to her side of the (large) room then as i bent to look at his notes she scattered confetti all over my head, laughing; or she offered me some of her lunch then made it clear i was to eat it out of her hand, so i did.

Some of the group went out drinking and there i fell into talk with the giantess. i knew she liked birds so asked which birds she favoured; crows, she said. We talked about crows and i felt that though she had no acquaintance with the Germanic god, she had an instinct.

i note such patterns and attempt some understanding. Such attempts are always against the grain of our world, always difficult and uncertain; it is important not to overextend reason. Much is beyond me. i can only see that there has been a conjunction of emotionally strenuous demands this year, beginning with the sense that my last book-attempt was shit; this coincided with more ordinarily human problems. i can’t will away my emotions: but i can see them with the eye in the well, with both mortal attachment and spectral distance; i can choose to inhabit this fraught clarity:

dem lebene sî mîn leben ergeben,
der werlt wil ich gewerldet wesen,
mit ir verderben oder genesen.

5. At present i have survived these tests, but they have so absorbed my attention & desire that with their passing i feel blank and void, much as i did after nearly-dying in France two years ago. It seems that my old life has been erased and i merely continue the mechanical processes from inertia, without heart.

This makes it difficult to write, since i no longer feel a centre from which to communicate. But i retain my old “toys of fire and smoke” and may be reborn.

1.Still alive though i’ve found myself uninterested in writing anything beyond emails. i sent the first few thousand words of my 40,000-word draft to a friend, who responded by telling me i shouldn’t write this book, that it was hate-filled and horrible and so on. To be fair, the opening is the most depressive part of the entire book, as it begins with my hero suffering in the trenches of minimum wage data entry, and he is only propelled to escape this world because it’s so horrible – in the same way that i would never have come to Germany had my jobs not been so terrible.

Hate-filled etc. are of course subjective judgements but my feeling is that if an intelligent reader could react so negatively it must have failed. i ditched it and have now more or less forgotten about the plot & story & characters, which suggests it had no real life to begin with. i do not despair; taking the long view, i am still (nearly 38, Homer Simpson & Colonel Kurtz’s age) finding a new way.

2. At present i’m trying out ideas. i get what seem to be good ideas, write them out in what seems to be nice enough prose, and the result makes me want to cut my head off and force it down my throat into my stomach, so it can eat my guts out before exploding in a ball of endless nuclear fire, consuming not merely my body but my soul, hard drive, all the files i’ve ever sent over the internet, this blog, anyone who’s ever read anything i’ve written, and of course all the hand- and type-written papers in my room. My whisky & tobacco could be spared, as i hope they could be of some use to some deserving minor (much as some enlightened soul threw a load of softcore porn over the wall of my school playground when i was 6).

3. i note that while i have good ideas, they never seem to escape the orbit of what has been thought by others. So, while reading Rene Guenon’s Reign of Quantity it occurred to me that we can only measure time by space – so i tend to think of 15 minutes as the time it takes me to walk a mile at a slow saunter; or the clock hands moving through space; then, about 50 pages on, Guenon makes exactly the same point. This happens to me with tiresome frequency; just off the top of my head, it’s also with Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare book, with a lot of literary criticism, with Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, with Rumi, with Alan Watts. i even think up fiction ideas which i later find have been developed into books or films, for example Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, JCVD (in 2004 i created a plot about Jean-Claude Van Damme as a washed-up action hero alienated from his family). i have a feeling that i’m nothing more than a mirror for other people’s ideas, that i somehow pick them up and develop them to some degree, then find someone’s already made a book or film out of it.

4. To some degree, there are no original ideas. For example, Milton’s Satan is, i think, a blend of Marlowe’s Mephistopheles and the Satan of the Old English Genesis B. i feel the former was based on someone Marlowe knew, or perhaps was Marlowe himself in a certain frame of mind; the latter is simply the Old English hero as one can see in The Battle of Maldon. It’s pleasing to think that Milton’s Satan ultimately traces his lineage back to real people, to real English people at that. There are clearly archetypes of a culture – one could draw parallels between Odin and Gandalf, for example: the hooded old wizard scheming against destruction. Another could be Tolkien’s Aragorn and Tove Jansson’s Snufkin – both wayfaring, more or less homeless, mysterious pipe-smokers (all pipe-smokers are mysterious). While Tolkien was well aware of Odin, i doubt Jansson had read Tolkien (she had, i think, already created Snufkin before Aragorn came into print).

aragorn snufkin

(Snufkin pic from here)

Academia is full of people who like to draw such parallels as if this explains everything. It doesn’t explain anything except that writers read books by other writers, and we all live in the same world and so absorb more or less the same ideas, and that human beings are fundamentally the same, while capable of enormous surface difference. It is interesting, if you’re (like me) of an academic frame of mind, but it is not essential.

i’m unsure if i will ever substantially move beyond mirroring that which has already been. If i do, i think it will be down to a development of my own self, because for me language is a direct function of my self: or you could say i feel language to be inherently magical, and so try not to lie (very occasional, tactical white lies, and even those are wearying), or even to speak or write without purpose. This makes it difficult to use language at all. Or rather, like Thomas Bernhard’s Roithamer, i can produce enormous quantities of words, but then immediately turn against them, and correct them out of existence, in the clearing, a silence, Lichtung.

1. Glendronach Revival is a superb whisky, if sadly too expensive for me to drink in the quantities i would like.

2. Re-reading Molloy and struck by the effortless transitions from Biblically mythic passages to scenes of Irish squalor. i read this aloud to an intermediate class who couldn’t follow more than one in 10 words, i wager, the German filth:

But was not perhaps in reality the cigar a cutty, and were not the sand-shoes hobnailed, dust-whitened, and what prevented the dog from being one of those stray dogs that you pick up and take in your arms, from compassion or because you have long been straying with no other company than the endless roads, sands, shingle, bogs and heather, than this nature answerable to another court, than at long intervals the fellow-convict you long to stop, embrace, suck, suckle and whom you pass by, with hostile eyes, for fear of his familiarities? Until the day when, your endurance gone, in this world for you without arms, you catch up in yours the first mangy cur you meet, carry it the time needed for it to love you and you it, then throw it away.

3. To my dismay, i’ve now been teaching for 4 years. i have enough experience to cope with most situations & questions, and just enough enthusiasm to muddle through, and feel the latter will wane and then i’ll be left with nothing but experience. Experience alone is as sterile as pure intellect or technical craft. i went to a philosophy meeting in Munich the other day, my first & last, and felt how pointless all this talk is, when it comes from a modern machine understanding. The discussion was about artificial intelligence; i’d vaguely hoped it would be a discussion of AI from a philosophical standpoint, since it had been advertised as a philosophy meeting; but it was a discussion of AI from a computer programmer standpoint. Everyone there seemed bright enough, most were computer people, but i felt how futile & purposeless it all was. For example, one geek said that anything which can’t be empirically tested, if only in principle, is meaningless. i thought of asking him what he meant by meaning and meaningless, but just settled back into Beckettian silence and left early.

No one there seemed to know anything about philosophy outside of computing theory and watered-down Logical Positivism. The whole discussion was trivial, to do with mathematical possibility and processing power, and they couldn’t understand anything outside of this frame. The aforementioned geek said that human beings are imperfect, because not as rational as a computer, and i wanted to ask “what do you mean by rational?” but realised he would just stare blankly then go on about algorithms and processing units and binary. It was a striking case of how the tools we fashion and use come to determine our understanding of the world and, worse, of ourselves. Trying to talk to these people – all of whom, i guess, are well-paid & respected – was akin to trying to talk to a computer about Wallace Stevens.

4.  Just before the meeting i’d been reading Rene Guenon’s The Reign of Quantity; it could have been written this year though it’s actually from 1945. It describes a world in which only the quantifiable and inertly calculable is deemed to exist, and in which all will be perfectly levelled, reduced to numerical equivalence. He writes:

Nonetheless, a world in which everything had become ‘public’ would have a character nothing short of monstrous. The notion is still hypothetical, because we have not in spite of everything quite reached that point yet, and perhaps it never will be fully attained because it represents a ‘limit’ [...] In order to induce people to live as much as possible ‘in public’, it is not enough that they should be assembled in the ‘mass’ on every occasion and on any and every pretext, but they must in addition be lodged, not only in ‘hives’ as was suggested earlier, but literally in ‘glass hives’, and these must be arranged in such a way that they can only take their meals ‘in common’.

5. Philosophy is a very vague and general term but real study and thought should allow one to partly break away from the dominant culture, to look at things from new (or very old) angles, not to mindless parrot gibberish about rationality and meaningless-because-not-empirically-testable statements. For that to happen, philosophy has to go deep, deeper than trivia about what a computer can do. i am impatient with these arguments, because they don’t go beyond the contingent; if it turns out that your facts are wrong, or if there are new developments, then your entire argument falls apart; and for me this is not philosophy.

6. i feel a growing lack of interest in surfaces, publicity, the public account of things. Writing to friend about my many grossly abortive drafts, he replied “you should be like kafka and put it [writing] under the bed”. As i now have enough money to live from teaching, i no longer need the bad pipe dream of publication to save me; even if more than one in ten thousand writers made any real money from their work. i’m sure this is the right thing to do, for me (writing being as various as every significant human activity, it takes many forms with different people). i gave up hoping to make cash from my brain years ago but there is a residual hope, which is of no use and indeed distracts me from just doing what i want to do.

i am trying to turn away from the reign of quantity and to see things as they would be outside of our passing human life. i think modern media make this almost impossible, as they are almost entirely inseparable from computers (the ultimate symbol of quantitative power); and rely entirely on quantitative measurement, e.g. number of hits, number of fans, number of tweets. This kind of public, glass-hive, quantitative valuation is of no real account; it is quantity in the absence of quality.

7. Most of the things i remember from my last life would appear in no biography or history; some – odd meetings & brief explosive friendships & favours from the powerful – while i suppose being scandalous etc., have remained private; the rest are just little things, often to do with my family then, things which i guess made an impression on me, e.g. a sister showing me a copy of Die Fackel she had smuggled into our home, against our father’s interdict. i guess this is the way of it with every life, that the things we value would bore others, and the things which others would want to publish for titillation & gain are too private to be shared.

And so i try to see my life now in this light, to see spots of intense fascination in the midst of an apparently mundane life, and to suppose these will endure when everything else is jettisoned as trivia. And with writing i try to see the things stuffed under the bed as those of most value. As with the Epic of Gilgamesh, lost for several millenia, the things lost may be found, none the worse for a long sleep.

1. i’ve managed to half-wrest myself away from the internet most evenings, and read books and smoke my pipes like a gouty Victorian gentleman. At the moment i’m reading Browning and Plato – the latter a monstrous 1500 page edition i bought 3 years ago, but have only really got into now, in my pot-bellied dotage. One of the odd constellations that sometimes befalls me – all this fell out over an hour:

i) i was reading The Spine blog and thinking about caricature and representation, then:

ii) This post on The New Psalmanazar:

The hard part of drawing is to actually see the things you’re looking at. Your idea of a tree, a mountain, a person, will tend to devolve into symbol. You are constantly lured into seeing through your brain, by abstraction, rather than through your eye. But the wild, absurd, incredible fact of a thing in itself is always more than you can grasp.

iii) Then the next poem in Browning was Fra Lippo Lippi:

I’d like his face —

His, elbowing on his comrade in the door

With the pike and lantern — for the slave that holds

John Baptist’s head a-dangle by the hair

With one hand (“Look you, now,” as who should say)

And his weapon in the other, yet unwiped!

It’s not your chance to have a bit of chalk,

A wood-coal or the like? or you should see!

Yes, I’m the painter, since you style me so.


The Prior and the learned pulled a face

And stopped all that in no time. “How? what’s here?

Quite from the mark of painting, bless us all!

Faces, arms, legs and bodies like the true

As much as pea and pea! it’s devil’s-game!

Your business is not to catch men with show,

With homage to the perishable clay,             

But lift them over it, ignore it all,

Make them forget there’s such a thing as flesh.

Your business is to paint the souls of men —


Do you feel thankful, ay or no,

For this fair town’s face, yonder river’s line,

The mountain round it and the sky above,

Much more the figures of man, woman, child,

These are the frame to? What’s it all about?              

To be passed over, despised? or dwelt upon,

Wondered at? oh, this last of course! — you say.

But why not do as well as say — paint these

Just as they are, careless what comes of it?

iv) Then onto Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates’ ideal, discarnated philosopher:

Do you not think, he said, that in general such a man’s concern is not with the body but that, as far as he can, he turns away from the body towards the soul?

I do.

So in the first place, such things show clearly that the philosopher more than other men frees the soul from association with the body as much as possible?



Then he will do this most perfectly who approaches the object with thought alone, without associating any sight with his thought, or dragging in any sense perception with his reasoning, but who, using pure thought alone, tries to track down each reality pure and by itself, freeing himself as far as possible from eyes and ears and, in a word, from the whole body, because the body confuses the soul and does not allow it to acquire truth and wisdom whenever it is associated with it.


2. Reading Browning, i thought of a repulsive music journalist i knew almost twenty years ago – a penpal, back in the days when such things were. He was a standard trendily left-wing London-based Guardian-reader, though at the time i had no opinions about left or right or even London. He seemed clearly mental to me, badgering and hysterical and vindictive – for example, sending me music compilations and demanding i review each track, to the point where i didn’t even want to play them (merely saying “it was good” would provoke a contemptuous “your comments were inadequate”); he also doggedly harassed me for liking U2 and Bruce Springsteen (this was in 1997, before U2 began their downward trajectory), insisting “your alleged fondness for the Irish songsters remains IMPLAUSIBLE and UNACCEPTABLE – EXPLAIN”. i was young and naive and tried to explain but he would just reply something on the lines of “I fail to see how you can CLAIM to dig Trane [John Coltrane] and the leftfield maverick underground brilliance of Miles [Davis] and also CLAIM to “appreciate” the millionaire Irish balladeers! Explain!” And so on.

Outside of my family, he was the first truly obnoxious, unthinking “intellectual” i met, and the first of many to try to dominate and bully me into submission. Amusingly, he reported burning through something like 15 penpals in six months, some of whom accused him of badgering and harassing them. He was also the first “it’s not me, it’s them” maniac i met, who could report something like this without drawing the obvious conclusion.When i asked if he was religious he replied: “religion, in any shape or form, is for weak-minded simpletons without rationality or intelligence” (so, there you have Milton, TS Eliot, Kierkegaard, Dr Johnson, Dante, etc.) At the time i was living with my father in the middle of nowhere, and only knew one person who read anything or liked any music not to be found on Radio 1 – my then-Muslim schoolmate Shrekh. The journalist seemed, at first, astonishingly cultured. He apparently just spent all his time living with his father, writing vast letters to penpals and listening to obscure music. i introduced him – via letters – to Shrekh, who shared my amazement at someone who had actually heard of Bob Dylan and Shakespeare, and sure enough came to see him as a mentally unstable and spectacularly nasty piece of work. At one point i stopped writing to the journalist, disgusted by his latest tirade (which recalled the hectoring emails i occasionally got from my tai chi tutor, when he was on the verge of a psychotic frenzy); he wrote back telling me i wouldn’t find anyone as inspiring and stimulating to write to, “unless Friedrich N [Nietzsche] rises from the grave”. i showed this letter to my father, explaining that it was written by a 24-year-old unemployed, occasional music journalist and that Nietzsche was one of the greatest thinkers of human history. My father indulged in one of his explosions of uncontrollable mirth, then suddenly sobered up and asked, warily: “Egh, well where does this blessed man live?” (my father had run a psychiatric ward and had plenty of experience with violently mental patients).


i finally stopped writing to the blessed man altogether. It felt like i’d suffered him for two years but i think it was more like six months. In his last letter, he likened our relationship to that of Wagner and Nietzsche, as recounted by Colin Wilson, saying that whereas i was the complacent, self-satisfied bourgeois Wagner, he was the “self-transcending” Nietzsche.

Shrekh continued to write to him a while longer, increasingly infuriated by his total witlessness (the journalist claimed that rap wasn’t hip hop – because he thought rap was shit and hip hop was something underground and therefore worthwhile – and when Shrekh patiently set out the reasons why rap is a form of hip hop, the journalist wrote back “WHAT DO YOU WANT – BLOOD???”), till he too stopped writing and eventually burnt all his letters and tapes, saying he felt polluted to have them in the house.


i wish i’d kept the journalist’s letters but i too was so sickened and depressed by their venom that i binned the lot. Some fragments i remember:


i) He wrote me one of his huge 10,000 word letters about Spiritualized’s Ladies & Gentlemen album, then enclosed a clipping from some music magazine, and i realised that most of what he’d written had been copied almost word for word from someone else’s review; plagiarism aside, i wondered if he had copied it out then somehow thought it was his work, or if this was his idea of original response;


ii) When i mentioned my dog, he said he despised “pet/dog culture”;


iii) When i said i wanted to read a Frederick Forsyth novel he demanded to know why, telling me that FF was “a Tory”, as if that somehow made his novels worthless;


iv) He kept re-using the same words, over and over again: eclectic, maverick, left-field, underground, brilliance, epiphany, groovy, spiritual, existential, fusion, life-affirming, transcendent, revolutionary, outsider;


v) Although he had read seemingly every book ever written, and seen every film, and heard every album, it all seemed to go in one ear and out the other. He said Conrad was shit, explaining that he had no interest in jungles. He said Henry James and Jane Austen were tedious and worthless. Apart from Colin Wilson’s drab The Outsider, he didn’t seem to have been affected by a book in his life. i got the feeling he simply culled names and hurled them at his penpals to demonstrate his massive intellect (somewhat like Dean Moriatry in On The Road, who – as far as i can remember – had read and memorised plot summaries and would hold forth on them, before finally admitting he hadn’t read a single book in his life).


vi) When i mentioned i was trying to learn French, he said that learning languages was a total waste of time and that only idiots bother with it.


vii) He demanded to know why i wrote to anyone else (i had about 3 other penpals, who i stuck with for a year or two before we drifted apart). When i vaguely said they were interesting people, he demanded to know how such non-outsiders could possibly be interesting, and then suggested i was lying.


viii) Whenever he found something difficult to believe, he accused me of lying. After a while, reading the contradictions in his own presented self-image (as a Nietzschean superman) i came to suspect he often lied, and that it was therefore natural for him to suppose deception in others.


Rather an odd person, in fact. i thought of him today because i remembered him asking if i’d read Browning – in his usual “I have read everything” way; and so while smoking my pipe and reading Fra Lippo Lippi i wondered if he’d ever actually read Browning, and if he had what he would have made of the poem, since he didn’t seem to remember or remark on anything he’d read (except Colin Wilson’s The Outsider). He claimed to have read every poem ever written but i got the feeling he was too literal to understand poetry; for the same reason he didn’t like Conrad because he didn’t live in a jungle. He was, naturally, extremely political and Marxist.


i was moved to Google him and found he’s still a music journalist. He’s a Guardian-reader; he seems to subscribe to all the conventionally left-wing sentiments of that publication – that the wilfully, lifelong unemployed are “the working class” and need more money from “the rich” to escape their squalor, that the Tories are in some way right-wing and hate the poor (despite increasing State expenditure), and so on.

He has a blog, which i skimmed through. His style has matured, so he doesn’t constantly reuse the same dozen adjectives; it’s good professional writing, but everything he writes sounds like a blurb. i read a few of his reviews and found my mind disengaging, as when i read the rants a manic depressive stalker used to write; the words advertise their profundity & significance, but lack roots.


3. So much for that. In Phaedo – concerning the last days of Socrates:

Cebes intervened and said: ‘By Zeus, yes, Socrates, you did well to remind me. Evenus asked me the day before yesterday, as others had done before, what induced you to write poetry after you came to prison, you who had never composed any poetry before, putting the fables of Aesop into verse and composing the hymn to Apollo.


Socrates replies:


[...] the same dream often came to me in the past, now in one shape now in another, but saying the same thing: ‘Socrates,’ it said, ‘practice and cultivate the arts.’ In the past I imagined that it was instructing and advising me to do what I was doing, such as those who encourage runners in a race, that the dream was thus bidding me do the very thing I was doing, namely, to practice the art of philosophy, this being the highest kind of art, and I was doing that.


But now, after my trial took place, and the festival of the god was preventing my execution, I thought that, in case my dream was bidding me to practice this popular art, I should not disobey it but compose poetry. I thought it safer not to leave here until I had satisfied my conscience by writing poems in obedience to the dream. So I first wrote in honour of the god of the present festival. After that I realised that a poet, if he is to be a poet, must compose fables, not arguments.


i didn’t remember this from my last reading of the book (15 years ago). i’m presently only a quarter finished, and wonder if anything will be made of this oddity. It is strange and jarring, given Plato’s general inclination to (alleged) logical clarity and his later condemnation of poetry altogether. i think of Thomas Aquinas’ late vision, before which all he had written seemed as straw. If i consider the course of this and my last life, it describes a turn from arguments to fables. People like the journalist were a part of this, as unpoetical and unfabulous and argumentative, and vile. It is fitting that almost nobody reads poetry today, for it is not part of the machine world where everything can apparently be reduced to code (“algorithmically compressible”). Paraphrase a poem and it’s gone. The peculiar force of a poem comes from the slightest of manoeuvres; it is sensed – by those still able to sense anything – but cannot be reduced to politics or machine code, to argument.

It makes me mad to see what men shall do

And we in our graves! This world’s no blot for us,

Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:

To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

And here, one might note that there is meaning and then there is meaning, and perhaps Socrates was turning to the subtler and more enduring (in its subtlety) of the two.

[postscript: WordPress screwed up my formatting so i had to insert dashes to separate some paragraphs]

1. i continue to read mainly on my Kindle, for convenience; nonetheless i find it unsatisfactory, i can’t read poetry on it, and end up buying paper copies of anything i like enough to re-read. i’ve now bought my third copy of Alan Furst’s Dark Star (one in England, one given away), as i wanted to re-read it and like it too much for the screen. It’s a book in love with the mystery and matter-of-factness of the physical, reminding me in this of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Roughly speaking it’s a spy thriller with little plot, centred about a Russian journalist who does occasional work for the NKVD in 1930s Europe. On my second reading i realised the seemingly unconnected scenes are all threaded through with an Okhrana document secreted in an old leather bag in a train station locker. The journalist Szara is manoeuvred into taking possession of the bag at the beginning, and all follows.

2. Here is the bag, in all its physicality:

He examined it and realised he’d never seen one like it: the leather was dense, pebbled, the hide of a powerful, unknown animal. It was covered with a thick, fine dust, so he wet his index finger and drew a line through it, revealing a colour that had once been that of bitter chocolate but was now faded by sun and time. Next he saw that the seams were hand-sewn; fine, sturdy work using a thread he suspected was also handmade. The satchel was of the portmanteau style – like a doctor’s bag, the two sides opened evenly and were held together by a brass lock. Using a damp towel, he cleaned the lock and found a reddish tracery etched into the metal surface. This was vaguely familiar.  Where had he seen it? In a moment it came to him: such work adorned brass bowls and vases made in western and central Asia – India, Afghanistan, Turkestan. He tried to depress the lever on the underside of the  device, but it was locked. [...]

He put one finger on the lock. It was ingenious, a perfectly circular opening that did not suggest the shape of its key. He probed gently with a match, it seemed to want a round shaft with squared ridges at the very end. Hopefully, he jiggled the match about but of course nothing happened. From another time the locksmith, perhaps an artisan who sat cross-legged in a market stall in some souk, laughed at him. The device he’d fashioned would not yield to a wooden match.

He gets it open finally:

At dusk, André Szara sat in his unlit room with the remnants of a man’s life spread out around him.

There wasn’t a writer in the world who could resist attributing a melancholy romance to these artifacts, but, he argued to his critical self, that did not diminish their eloquence. For if the satchel itself spoke of Bokhara, Samarkand, or the oasis towns of the Kara Kum desert, its contents said something very different, about a European, a European Russian, who had travelled – served? hidden? died? – in those regions, about the sort of man he was, about pride itself.

The objects laid out on the hotel desk and bureau made up an estate. Some clothing, a few books, a revolver, and the humble tools – thread and needle, digestive tea, well-creased maps – of a man on the run. On the run, for there was equal clarity, equal eloquence, in the items not found. There were no photographs, no letters. No address book, no traveller’s journal. This had been a man who understood the people he fled from and protected the vulnerability of those who may have loved him.

The clothing had been packed on top, folded loosely but perfectly, as though by someone with a long history of military service, someone to whom the ordered neatness of a footlocker was second nature. It was good clothing, carefully preserved, often mended but terribly worn, its wear the result of repeated washings and long use in hard country. Cotton underdrawers and wool shirts, a thick sailor’s sweater darned at the elbows, heavy wool socks with virtually transparent heels.


The service revolver dated from pre-revolutionary days, a Nagant, the double-action officer’s model, 7.62mm from a design of 1895. It was well oiled and fully loaded. From certain characteristics, Szara determined that the sidearm had had a long and very active life. The lanyard ring at the base of the grip had been removed and the surface filed flat, and the metal at the edges of the sharp angles, barrel opening, cylinder, the trigger itself, was silvery and smooth. A look down the barrel showed it to be immaculate, cleaned not with the usual brick dust – an almost religious (and thereby ruinous) obsession with the peasant infantry of the Great War – but with a scouring brush of British manufacture folded in a square of paper. Not newspaper, for that told of where you had been and when you were there. Plain paper. A careful man.

The books were also from the time before the revolution, the latest printing date 1915; and Szara handled them with reverence for they were no longer to be had. Dobrilov’s lovely essays on noble estates, Ivan Krug’s Poems at Harvest, Gletkhin’s tales of travel among the Khivani, Pushkin of course, and a collection by one Churnensky, Letters from a Distant Village, which Szara had never heard of. These were companions of journey, books to be read and read again, books for a man who lived in places where books could not be found. Eagerly, Szara paged through them, looking for commentary, for at least an underlined passage, but there was, as he’d expected, not a mark to be found.

Yet the most curious offering of the opened satchel was its odour. Szara could not really pin it down, though he held the sweater to his face and breathed in it. He could identify a hint of mildew, woodsmoke, the sweetish smell of pack animals, and something else, a spice perhaps, cloves or cardamom, that suggested the central Asian marketplace. It had been carried in the satchel for a long time, for its presence touched the books and the clothing and the leather itself. Why? Perhaps to make spoiled food more palatable, perhaps to add an ingredient of civilization to life in general. On this point he could make no decision.

Szara was sufficiently familiar with the practices of intelligence services to know that chronology meant everything. ‘May God protect and keep the czar’ at the end of a letter meant one thing in 1916, quite another in 1918. With regard to the time of ‘the officer’, for Szara discovered himself using that term, the satchel’s contents offered an Austrian map of the southern borders of the Caspian Sea dated 1919. The cartography had certainly begun earlier (honorary Bolshevik names were missing), but the printing date allowed Szara to write on a piece of hotel stationery ‘alive in 1919′. Checking the luggage label once again, he noted ‘tentative terminal date, 8 February 1935.’ A curious date, following by two months and some days the assassination of Sergei Kirov at the Smolny Institute in Leningrad, 1 December 1934, which led to the first round of purges under Yagoda.

A terminal date? Yes, Szara thought, this man is dead.

He simply knew it. And, he felt, much earlier than 1935. Somehow, another hand had recovered the satchel and moved it to the left-luggage room of a remote Prague railway station that winter. Infinite permutations were of course possible, but Szara suspected that a life played out in the southern extremity of the Soviet empire had ended there. The Red Army had suppressed the pashas’ risings in 1923. If the officer, perhaps a military adviser to one of the local rulers, had survived those wars, he had not left the region. There was nothing of Europe that had not been packed on some night in, Szara guessed, 1920.

3. This passage expresses much of why i prefer paper to electronic books: the tactile sensory resonance, the marks of previous owners, of previous readings, the expanding network of historical associations, the occasional flashes of insight – these latter in particular seem to tap into something in the physical object itself, as i felt once with an SS dagger. And the books made to be read and re-read on the road, in small Asian market towns: if i delete or lose a Kindle file, i can just download it again and there is no difference between the book i read and lost, and the book with which i replaced it: the electronic does not allow this palimpsest of experience, or only in the crudely mechanical way that the NSA (etc.) can view a person’s entire browsing history. i think probably most good readers know what it is like to replace an old copy, and to feel – even if the replacement is exactly the same imprint – that it is not the same. When my last edition of John Sinclair’s Inferno translation finally fell apart, after about 30 readings, i used the pages as decoration, or as packaging for gifts, because i felt something of those 30 readings in the paper, and i did not want to simply toss it in the bin and so eliminate a decade’s reading. The replacement was apparently exactly the same edition, and lacking; not the book i bought in Dillon’s second-hand section in Durham in 1997, before the shop was consumed by Waterstone’s.

4. Furst has a strong sense for the distant networks of history, and their manifold and undislodgeable connection to the present; this is one reason i would never become a socialist/progressive – i am at home in the negotiation between my present and past, and the pasts of many others, and wouldn’t want to simply destroy the past and its echoes, even if i thought such an undertaking were possible. The bright new utopias of socialism do not interest me; they seem as plausible as Disney cartoons; as flatly inhuman as an electronic book; as repulsive as the dreams of a Yagoda, or for that matter, that other great progressive, Hitler: to such fools, the elder locksmith laughs from another time.

And so i like living in Munich, learning a barbarous ancient language, smoking pipes and reading old books – to understand myself through these myriad, overlapping, incalculable networks of thought and action and being; to take my own being from this meeting and friction; to acknowledge my own part in this, as observer and actor both, patient as i am.


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