Archives: April 2020

Days of Mush

An annotated playlist from Dan Fox

Listen here.


‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – Junior Parker
‘Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.’ I’m trying, believe me.


‘4 Skies’ – Arto Lindsay
The lyrics to this song describe changing meteorological moods; ‘a sky like a room’, ‘a most violent sky’, ‘one sky on stage’, ‘a seething, crumpled sky’. Lindsay’s sparse guitar reminds me of a time-lapse video of rapidly moving clouds. The clear blue opening quickly becomes overcast. Billowing white cumulus grow into dark, rain-filled towers of cumulonimbus, before dispersing and leaving only wisps of cirrus. It’s helpful to remember that for almost all of human history, news alerts on your phone did not mark time.


‘The Twilight Zone’ – The Ventures
Welcome home!


‘17 Days’ – Prince
‘Is that my echo?’ Prince describes being alone for 17 long days and nights. But as this solo piano number attests, he’s no slouch when he’s stuck at home. If Prince can do it, so can you.


‘New Number Order’ – Shellac
One million and one, twenty-two, seventy-five, eleven, eleven. This is the new number order. Tuesday, Saturday, next Wednesday, last Monday, two weeks on Sunday the 99th of Monthuary.


‘Anxiety Montage (1952–1955)’ – The Carl Stalling Project
Carl Stalling composed music for Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, which is why his music is perfect for today’s ‘run-off-a-cliff-and-your-legs-are-still-spinning-but-the-ground-has-fallen-away’ feeling.


‘Houses’ – Elyse
‘I could never make it in your house / You could never make it in mine.’ A ballad for solipsists. Or a song about the need to respect different domestic needs, even in love. He likes to get up late, but she’s an early riser. They’re minimalists, but we enjoy having things to look at on the walls. You want to watch The Tiger King, I don’t. Etc.


‘What’s He Building?’ – Tom Waits
Rear Window is widely regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films because deep down, at the core of human consciousness, we are all nosy neighbours. ‘I heard he was up on the roof last night signalling with a flashlight. And what’s that tune he’s always whistling? What’s he building in there?’


‘Big Louise’ – Scott Walker
It’s fun to speculate about what your weird neighbour is doing in his garage all day, but it’s more important to keep an eye on those who are isolating alone on their ‘fire escape in the sky’.


‘Simmer Til Done’ – Maximum Joy
Research estimates that, as of April 2020, in the New York borough of Brooklyn some 15,000 personal essays were being written under the title ‘Love in the Time of Coronavirus’, and a further 7,500 crowdsourced documentary films were in pre-production, all titled ‘The Isolation Diaries’. Sources suggest that as many as 90,000 cookbooks titled ‘The Survival Kitchen’ may also have been written globally, as fears mount that a shortage of flour in grocery stores across the world may predict a steep growth in men explaining at tedious length how to make ‘like, the perfect sourdough, bro’.


‘A Letter From Home’ – ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny
My first book with Fitzcarraldo Editions, Pretentiousness: Why It Matters, began with the lyrics to another ‘Blue’ Gene Tyranny song, titled ‘Leading a Double Life’. This one comes from the same haunting album, Out of the Blue, released in 1978. Tyranny described this composition as an attempt to describe ‘the development of consciousness over three “sizes” of time: (1) over thousands of years (based on the work of Julian Jaynes), (2) within a person’s lifetime from childhood to adult perceptual illusions (based on the work of Jean Piaget and others), and (3) at micro levels (eg. involuntary events, sudden feelings/thoughts)’. But it’s also simply a beautiful letter from home.


‘My Other Body’ – General Strike
The one that shares space on buses and in cafes, breathes without a mask, shakes hands. Here, Dawn Roberts sings beautifully from Michel Foucault’s ‘Mental Illness and Psychology’.


‘Behind the Door’ – Vernon Green & The Medallions
Isolation, doo-wop style. Between the 2 minute and 2 mins 20 second mark is a falsetto backing vocal that can shatter glass.


‘I Gotta Get Away From My Own Self’ – Ray Godfrey
A masterpiece of quarantine soul. It’s ambiguous whether the ‘you’ referred to in Godfrey’s lyrics is a lost lover, or the singer’s own mind.


‘City’s Hospital Patients’ – Teri Summers & The Librettos
The hospital system, explained. Needs an additional verse about morgues reaching capacity, PPE shortages and struggling healthcare workers.


‘Depression’ – Sound on Sound
A song titled ‘Depression’ which features a chorus that goes ‘‘Move and jump! / Dance and funk!’ is the definition of putting on a brave face.


‘Winter’ (feat. Kathy Acker) – Peter Gordon & David Van Teighem
‘Yesterday is all I’ve got.’


‘Big Science’ – Laurie Anderson
‘You know, I think we should put some mountains here / Otherwise, what are the characters going to fall off of?’


‘Zones Without People’ – Oneohtrix Point Never
Music to look out of your window to.


‘Lonesome Town’ – The Cramps
This forms part of a tiny sub-genre of song – a favourite of mine – in which the singer imitates heavy sobbing.


‘Heartbeat’ – Wire
The kids are asleep. Your eyes will stage a sit-in at the back of your skull if you try watching anymore Netflix. The room is dark and silent. You feel icy. You feel cold. You feel old. You are mesmerised by your own beat. Like a heartbeat. Like a heartbeat. Like a heartbeat. Like a heartbeat…


‘The Bushes Scream While My Daddy Prunes’ – The Very Things
As well as a good way of getting fresh air and exercise, gardening can be a therapeutic activity in difficult times such as these.


‘Zombie’ – Fela Kuti
Somehow this makes me think about joggers.


‘Running’ (feat. Congo Ashanti Roy) – Voice of Authority
Speaking of exercise.


‘Southern Nights’ – Alain Toussaint
When all this is over, we will sit outside together, watch the sun go down and drink mint juleps.


‘Suo Gân’ – arr. by John Williams
Searching for something to do under lockdown recently, I decided to learn Welsh. I do 10 or 15 minutes a day using a language app on my phone. I don’t know nearly enough to translate this Welsh lullaby, although I do recognise the word ‘cariad’, which means ‘love.’ It is my mum’s first language, although growing up in the south of England I never learned any besides a couple of basic phrases. My mum is in her 80s, and is immunocompromised as they say, not that we ever used that term before now. We are currently separated by 3500 miles of ocean, but the small part of the day I spend on my Welsh lessons is a way for me to feel closer to her.

This recording of ‘Suo Gân’ is John Williams’ arrangement from the Steven Spielberg movie Empire of the Sun. The film is an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novel, based on the author’s experiences as a boy during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in World War Two, another story about families separated by powers beyond their control.

Time for bed.


‘Jimbo’s Lullaby’ (from Children’s Corner) – Claude Debussy
I learned to play this on the piano as a teenager. The piece is slow and limpid for the most part, but certain passages demand extremely quiet yet nimble playing. My rendition usually sounded like it was being performed by elephants wearing ski gloves, which is apt as the piece describes a stuffed elephant beloved of the composer’s daughter, Chouchou.


‘Celestial Nocturne’ – Dr. Samuel J. Hoffman & Les Baxter
The choral sound in this – those rousing, swooping mixed male and female ‘ahhhh’s – reminds me of old Hollywood films of the sort that only seem to materialise on dreary afternoons at home.


‘Dreaming’ – Jon Hassell
I’ve been on a film noir binge lately so all my dreams sound like this. Noir is the cinema of being stuck, unable to escape from circumstance.


‘Closed Circuit’ – Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani
If you have a sleep disorder, as I do, then you’ll already be familiar with the ways in which time can stretch like long fronds of chewing gum stuck to the sole of your shoe. Thoughts become hard to let go of. Pacing the apartment at 3 a.m., I try to find places for my mind to travel. Listening to this piece, I like to imagine myself on a night train crossing Europe, passing through fields, mountains, towns and cities.


‘Valley of the Shadows’ – Origin Unknown
‘Felt that I was in this long, dark tunnel.’


‘Wild Dream’ – Joe Tossini
Nine times out of ten, when a friend says to you ‘I had a wild dream last night’, you just know it’s not going to be that interesting. So anyway I had a crazy dream last night that the Finnish government had issued an edict about the coronavirus crisis in the form of a poem, which they’d had translated into English and circulated internationally. I saw a verse of it spray-painted on the wall of a house, like graffiti in solidarity with a political cause. I would repeat it here but it’s too wild.


‘How Long?’ – Charlottefield
As we have stated before, indeed, that is to say, or rather let me put it another way, the issue is, if we reframe it, so as not to put too fine a point on the matter, and notwithstanding, if I may digress, while acknowledging and hearing what’s being said but instead coming back around to try and clarify this another way, we cannot answer such a question without first paying attention to the structures which allow one to query, or alternatively, and to put it in more concise terms, or to use a different terminology that’s less, arguably, with regard to your fourth question and to return to my second point, it is imperative that the transparency of our position on this with respect to viz and re and thus and a propos other positions, but not exclusive of them is, to coin a phrase, one which will, at the end of the day, bring together all sections of our community, yet offer closure without a shutting down of what is to all intents and purposes contrary to reports you may have read, which brings me back to the vital fact of the matter that, now more than ever, we cannot afford, if I can put it simply and bluntly, to take myself out of the equation for a moment here, and we have nothing but the utmost certainty that, now more than ever, the gravity of the current situation necessitates and underscores, now more than ever, both in the now but ever more with respect to the future, the vital responsibility which, now more than ever, weighs heavily upon the shoulders of every member of society to come back around to the original question.


‘Slow Down’ – The Feelies
‘Hold on / Keep on trying / Keep on trying / Slow down / You can make it / Try and make it.’


‘Thatness and Thereness’ – Ryuichi Sakamoto
A sense of which is smothered by thisness and hereness.


‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ – Charlie Megira
Charlie Megira died in 2014 aged just 44. The title of this song describes his sound perfectly. The sound of 1955, 1985 and 2025 occurring simultaneously. Time out of joint, as Philip K. Dick would have it.


‘The Carnival of the Animals: XII. Fossils’ – Camille Saint-Saëns
Camille Saint-Saëns’ suite The Carnival of the Animals is best known for ‘The Swan’, but I love the fact that the movement preceding his cygnet love song is dedicated to fossils, to deep time life.


‘Breathe’ – The Cure
‘Breathe on me / Be like you used to be.’ Almost a sick joke these days, but isn’t that proximity of one body to another what many of us are longing for? The Cure’s music suits many occasions because nobody does histrionics quite as vaguely as they do.


‘Is It All Over My Face’ and ‘Tower of Meaning’ – Blood Orange
The way Devonté Hynes’ interprets the great Arthur Russell here is to layer the downtown, experimental Russell – those yearning, arcing horn notes – on top of the disco Russell. It has the effect of replacing the innuendo and flirtatious joy of the original ‘Is it All Over My Face’ dance track with a mood of sadness and concern. This is music to sew masks and wash hands to.


‘Don’t Go’ – Awesome Three
Stay in, if you can. In any case, this one takes me where no walk outside or aeroplane trip could; England, summer of ’92.


‘Dub War (Chapter One)’ – Dance Conspiracy
Stay with me for a moment in the early 1990s rave reverie. ‘Nobody move / Nobody get hurt.’


‘The Bells’ – Billy Ward & His Dominoes
In which a man hears the sound of his own funeral. He didn’t wash his hands.


‘Breadline Britain’ – Communards
Recorded in 1986. Or yesterday. Either way, Jimmy Somerville has one of the most impressive falsettos in the business.


‘Somebody Else’s World’ – Sun Ra
‘Somebody else’s idea / Of somebody else’s world / Is not my idea of things as they are. / Somebody else’s idea things to come / Need not be the only way to vision the future.’


‘You and Your Folks, Me and My Folks’ – Funkadelic
Did you hear about the woman who began hoarding toilet paper when the Suez Crisis broke because she thought the world was on the brink of collapse, and then died years later when her ceiling collapsed under the weight of all that loo roll? This goes out to all the panic buyers out there. May your haemorrhoids be painful.


‘Chicken 80’ – Social Climbers
Remember the animals in the shade of the old oak tree, cool summer breeze, no ruffled feathers?


‘Television’ – The Beatnigs
I came across this on YouTube the other day while nostalgia-bingeing episodes of the early 1990s music programme Snub TV, a show which made a big impression on the adolescent me. The clip captures the band – fronted by Michael Franti and Rono Tse – playing this song live in San Francisco, using power tools and multiple drummers. I imagine the TV-is-government-propaganda message of this song would have felt dated for a long time (and their bike-messenger-hiphop style certainly pins it to a bygone era) but it resonates again under a president obsessed with Fox News and ‘the ratings’.


‘Sinister Exaggerator’ – The Residents
Fitzcarraldo Editions is an anagram of ‘Act Lizard For Sedition’, and everyone knows that the Earth is run by a secret cabal of space lizards who govern using 5G mind control transmitters implanted in the wings of crows, ravens, jackdaws and other corvidae birds. If you remove the ‘r’ from ‘corvid’ you get ‘Covid’. ‘R’ is the 18th letter of the alphabet. Add 1 to 18 – 1 being a close homophone for ‘won’, meaning success or victory – and you get 19, hence ‘Covid-19’, a disease which will bring ‘victory’ to the evil reptile overlords. One plus 9 equals 10 ie. a one and a zero ie. binary code ie. all computer devices are infected and must be destroyed. The only way that the human race is going to survive the pandemic is to ‘act lizard’ which will scramble the corvid/covid mind control messages, a strategy ‘for sedition’ which can be augmented by protecting oneself using the same blue and white colour combinations that are used on the covers of all Fitzcarraldo Editions aka Act Lizard For Sedition books. The wavelengths of these colours on the visible light spectrum have, according to resistance operatives planted deep within the Military-Indie-Publishing-Complex, been proven to jam reptilian communication frequencies.


‘Gospel for a New Century’ – Yves Tumor
‘On that summer, but I can’t be there / And this ain’t by design… / How much longer ’til December?’


‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ – Bill Frisell
Frisell’s guitar style sounds like cautious optimism.


‘Bob the Bob Home’ – Lounge Lizards
Each time I hear this song, I think of my adopted home, New York City. Maybe it’s John Lurie’s sax playing that sets me off, I have no idea. I also have no idea what the title refers to. Is Bob the Bob Home an instruction? ‘Hey pal, why don’t you just bob the bob home, huh?’ A game? ‘Balance the ball on your nose, then Bob the Bob Home into the net!’ Maybe it’s about someone called Bob. Not just any Bob, but the Bob. Bob, The Bob. The Ur-Bob. Original Bob. First and last Bob. Or there may be a comma missing after that first ‘Bob’: Bob, the Bob Home. Bob, Home of the Bobs.


Theme from ‘Escape from New York’ – John Carpenter
‘In the City’ (from The Warriors) – Joe Walsh
New York City action movie themes are currently filed under ‘songs of lamentation’.


‘An Open Letter to NYC’ – Beastie Boys
Staying with New York, this one is pure cheese. A real stinky camembert. Honking stilton melted over corn and dipped in syrup. But when I heard it the other day – beamed from the shuffle subconscious to the epidemic epicentre – it brought a lump to my throat.


‘Les Fleurs’ – Minnie Riperton
The Earth abides.


‘Hsaing Kyaik De Maung’ – Kyaw Kyaw Naing & Bang On a Can
Naing is master of the pat waing, a set of 20-plus tuned drums, arranged in a circle around the performer. This piece begins sedately, then around 1 minute 20 seconds, Naing lets rip. A joyous noise. The title roughly translates from Burmese as ‘the man who loved music’.


‘Healing Song’ – Pharoah Sanders
About five years ago I saw the elderly Sanders play for three hours straight in a small Brooklyn club. It’s one of the greatest gigs I’ve ever seen. It took me an hour to get home afterwards. I floated the entire way.


In C – Invisible Polytechnic
(The original recording was released on vinyl, and is split in two: Side A and Side B.)

Five years before attending that Pharoah Sanders show, I helped make this recording of Terry Riley’s landmark composition, In C. We released our version on the Junior Aspirin Records label I run with my friends Andy Cooke and Nathaniel Mellors. There are many things about In C that I find beautiful, from its elegant interlocking structure to the latitude it allows for improvisation. Yet the quality that resonates strongest for me is Riley’s generous insistence that any group can have a go at playing it, amateur or professional, and that anyone can find something to enjoy in performing it, no matter what standard of musician they are. Every version of In C is different, and there are many interpretations of it from musical cultures across the world. Our version features some twenty professional and amateur musicians. It puts Western instruments alongside Eastern, electronic sounds next to acoustic. Each time I listen to it I think of how music is an excuse to be social, to be in a room with other people, a rare thing right now.

At the end of the ‘Side B’ half of the piece, you will hear an exchange between two people. This was recorded at a yoga centre on Divisadero Street in San Francisco, which used to the location of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. In C premiered here in 1964. I had asked a friend who lived in the city, Ben, to go there and record the ‘room tone’ of the space. We originally thought we’d use this ambient sound as a subtle background colour, a secret homage to the composition’s history. What Ben ended up capturing was an awkward exchange he had with a woman about to attend yoga class. She had never heard of Terry Riley or the Tape Music Center, and judging by the recording, Ben was unable to convince her that either was of interest. The room’s history had gone, its past was of no consequence. All that remained were two people trying, and perhaps failing, to communicate. For a work of music about improvisation and listening to those around you, it seemed more fitting to use this bathetic conversation than our initial, more dry and conceptual idea.

Some years later, Ben abruptly ended our friendship for reasons I never understood. I was hurt, but today that friendship feels like an old dusty venue, a place in which memorable things happened that cannot be recreated.

One review of our recording of In C described it as sounding ‘autumnal,’ and that adjective has always felt accurate.


‘Lost in the Stars’ – Kurt Weill, performed by Lotte Lenya
‘And sometimes it seems maybe God’s gone away / Forgetting His promise that we heard Him say / And we’re lost out here in the stars. / Little stars, big stars, blowing through the night / And we’re lost out here in the stars.’


Alternatively, you can skip this playlist and go straight to Dick Slessig Combo’s 42-minute version of ‘Wichita Lineman’. Repeat as necessary.



From Katharina Volckmer, London, UK

I wanted to write about the books I’m reading. About Tolstoy, Proust, Bachmann, Bernhard, Humboldt, Stepanova, Vuong, Preciado, Nelson and Smith. About colours and how they move me. How I painted the door of an old shed in bright turquoise and felt redeemed. About how desperate I am to visit the Forbes Pigment collection in Harvard. How I imagine that standing in front of colours which no longer exist elsewhere would heal my broken soul. I wanted to write about how colours can tell us what is right and what is dangerous. About how the aesthetics of Netflix are so ugly that I want to cry. About how some pigments continue to be made from organic matter. That some famous paintings are made with cow piss and pulverised mummies. How brutal beauty really is. About how if we stare at green for long enough our eyes will interfere and turn everything red. How red is the oldest pigment we know. How we can only stare at things for so long before our brain stops blurring their existence. I wanted to write about my body and how it keeps drifting in and out of me. How there is no desire left. How I’m scared that all the wrong forces are in charge now. That nobody will ever fuck again and all museums will be permanently closed. About how all colours will cease to exist and we will have to destroy someone before we can create again. I wanted to write about how Stalin was right that a single death is a tragedy and a million deaths is a statistic. How I think that all historical anecdotes are bullshit and usually told by self-important men who think they are a mix between Churchill, The Godfather and Joyce. I wanted to write about how all I want from these daily numbers, 761, 897, 937 is to go down. How I want people to stop dying so I can carry on with my empty pleasures. How I have started to do workouts and live in hope of a firmer ass. I wanted to write about how a zoo in Germany has contemplated slaughtering some of its animals to feed the rest. How they have a fucking list and how their polar bear would come last. How this is exactly what we are doing. How we sacrifice each other to get to the top of the list. How we play around with the word essential. How we brush our shining white fur and look down on antelopes and meerkats as second-rate cat food. How beating hearts suddenly become disposable. How Count Bezukhov says – Whilst I’m alive, I should live. How we think that only joy can reconcile us to our fate.

Katharina Volckmer is the author of The Appointment, forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions in September 2020.

Dispatch from Rotterdam

By Kate Briggs

The book I have been working on for the last three years has two main characters: a young woman and her newborn baby. I have been drawing on observation, on reading, my own experience. But mostly I have been making them both up. Each weekday morning since the schools closed here in Rotterdam, I have been getting up early, before my kids wake up, to spend a couple of hours with the two of them: trying to make them do things, think things, look at, touch and feel things. The other day, after describing this new routine, a friend asked me whether, given the new reality of our situation and all the unknowns to come, I still felt the project was relevant. Honestly, her question floored me. I realized – but only in the moment of her asking – that it hadn’t yet occurred to me to consider, let alone to worry about, this, and immediately went into a spiral of self-doubt: was this a good sign for my state of mind, for my capacity to respond to the world, for the book, or a very very bad one?

I have been thinking about these questions a lot.

I think I have two possible answers to them now.

The first is that it has clearly felt, if not exactly relevant, then at least necessary and important to go quietly in the morning into this other space at my desk, populated mostly by other people’s books, and spend some solitary time there, before relaying with my partner and being pulled into all the other activities (home-schooling, online teaching, a bit of indoor and outdoor exercise) of the day.

The second is that this book-in-progress, in ways I still find hard to articulate (even to myself), is also about the novel as an art-form and so also, to my mind, about relevance: about spheres or circles of relevance, how they are generated and how they can be made to open and expand. Something I have been trying to write about is now an almost outmoded form of address, the kind that used to open a formal letter, like an unpaid electricity bill, before the cookies (the algorithms?) knew everyone by name and addressed us personally. (I still have to check my impulse to feel touched by an automatically generated email taking the trouble to write: Dear Kate, Hi Kate). To Whom It May Concern – I remember getting letters that opened like this. It seems to me to be a very novelistic form of address. On the one hand, to some degree targeted and precise: the letter addresses a person, is seeking to address a person, very likely the person who happens to open it. But, on the other, the whom is still very undecided, as yet undetermined. So, the letter asks, sharing the responsibility for answering the question out, is this of concern to you? Will this, the subject matter to follow, be of immediate and obvious concern to you? Possibly not. But, the phrasing suggests, there’s a chance. It’s the may that leaves the door open. Who may this – for instance, a book that opens and stays with a baby – concern? Who would it appear to concern most immediately and who might find themselves included, perhaps unexpectedly, within the remit of its address? Surprised, a bit wrong-footed to find that a subject, a setting, a set of actions or problems that they didn’t think mattered to them, that they wouldn’t have thought was of any particular interest or concern to them, can matter.

This – getting taken by surprise by unexpected, unlikely concern – happened to me recently with a book written by one of my oldest friends. He is a sculptor, and also into skateboarding. The two for him are indirectly, sometimes very directly, related. I have always felt like I could meet him anywhere, on any level of his life’s interests, but not on small wheels. Not my bag, I would say to him, deliberately choosing a translation-resistant expression he’d appreciate: not my bag, not my thing, my friend. But then there has been this mother-character, and the way she uses a corner of her street, a patch of urban planning where, for no obvious reason (to prevent cars parking?) large round stones have been sunk into concrete, how she has discovered that if she rolls the pram very slowly over this edging of the pavement the rise and fall – like great rollers working to lift and tip a ship – can sometimes get the baby to sleep. And I found myself reaching for Raphaël’s clear and thoughtful prose, feeling, for the first time, very directly concerned by his documentation of the activation of public space, and especially of public art, by skateboarders: making monumental sculptures kinetic, animating solid forms into temporary liquid waves a person can surf.*

With so much more clearly and critically at stake, something like this, something somewhere in the region of this sudden spreading out of the remit of relevance, has happened with the virus. Day by day the circle expands: it’s way over there, it’s only the flu, it’s over here, the schools and my students’ studios are closed, someone’s father is dying. We are all concerned now. We didn’t expect to be at the start of it, but now we are.

COVID-19 is not a literary problem, I realize.

But I think the question of relevance – which is also the question of concern, who is concerned by what, who sees what as pertaining to themselves and their own interests and situation – is. And I am coming to believe that, as in the personal-impersonal letter, personal because it arrived at my door, impersonal because it doesn’t know me, it doesn’t even know my name, relevance is something always to be sought out, to be asked for searchingly, also hopefully – Could this matter? Might this track in at the outer edges of your concerns? – and not given, never taken for granted in advance. For who am I to have decided, already and for you, what interests you, what might come to matter or pertain to you?

In the afternoons, as an improvised extra-curricular activity for these weeks off school, my youngest has been co-writing a story with four of his friends. Step one was for each them to think of a character, name him or her and describe them. They invented Planet, a she-dragon who lives on the sun; Lightrock, an evil gargoyle with big wings; Icon, a scavenger who drives a red Tesla; Fynix, a transformer who can blast lightning from his hands. The idea is that each household takes turns to write a chapter of the story. Our method has been for my son to freestyle while I type, trying to keep pace. The ideas come so fast: Planet is too hot on the sun. So she flies down from the sun to the highest mountain on earth. The very highest peak of the highest mount. A mist falls. The mist rises. There is a blast of lightening. Lightrock appears, showing his evil face –


Sammy shouts in my ear with such force and volume my hands leap from the keys.

What what what? I stare at him, thinking he must be in pain.

Go back! He is wide-eyed, totally into it: a blue mist.

A blue mist falls.

Right, right. I press delete; go back: a blue mist falls.

There is a blast of lightning. Then, the mist rises. Lightrock appears, showing his evil face.

Okay, I think. So this is how you do it. Let me learn from this. This is how to make things up. This is what it looks like to be properly invested in the elements in your bag (your problems, your questions, your objects, your passions, your fantasy fictional scenarios), this is the lightning-power of conviction that can for a minute, for a half-an-hour, for the duration of my typing the story, or for some passage of my life, make it the bag that I am prepared to carry around, too.

*Raphaël Zarka, Free Ride: skateboard, méchanique Galiléene et formes simples (Paris: Editions B42, 2011) and Riding Modern Art (Paris: Editions B42, 2017).

Kate Briggs is the author of This Little Art.


From Claire-Louise Bennett, Galway, Ireland

Greetings from Galway. The sun is out again today. Winter has finally receded. I am very glad I have a balcony and feel a bit ashamed that until recently I referred to it as my crap balcony. It doesn’t have any furniture on it, I just throw some cushions down and sit with my back against the wall. The man in the flat below used to be in an Irish showband. He often goes over to London for quite long stretches, I think he has a flat there. He is in his flat here for the moment, he plays country music now and then. A couple of days ago a parcel came for him and since he wasn’t home I took it from the postman. He seemed to be gone for a while and I began to feel concerned – in normal circumstances he has a routine which involves going to the bakery on the corner first thing and sitting up at the window with the Irish Mirror and a coffee – but obviously he wasn’t doing that today. Probably he was just out for a walk. He always wears a hat, sometimes a big purple one. I read his full name on the parcel and gave it a shake before putting it down on my stairs. It seemed to me that there were boots inside. Marty is big into his boots. Though in fact the boots themselves would be fairly small because Marty is quite a compact kind of fellow. Once a white and blue towel I use for drying my hair fell off my balcony while I was at the bar across the street and Marty posted it back through my letterbox. I found that really weird. Who stuffs a towel through a letterbox? When I gave him his parcel, which I handed to him through his window, I asked him if he was doing alright and told him to give me a shout if he needed anything. I saw that Bonehead was on the windowsill. Bonehead is a white cat with two identical black marks on top of her head between her little white ears. I don’t think she belongs to Marty. She has a nest on top of one of the scrappy shrubs down below. I might read a bit when I’m on the balcony. I drink a lot of tea. There’s a dandelion, liquorice, and lemon one I find really soothing at the moment. I’m drinking it now actually. I’m not on the balcony now, but I know it’s there. Thank god. My crap balcony! I will go out on it in a little while and lean over the railing to see if Marty has opened his window yet.

I don’t watch TV series, and I’m not drawn to movies so much at the moment. I love listening to music and always have done. Sound really takes me in, shifts me around, shakes integral images out of me, loosens me up. Here’s a playlist of stuff I’m into right now. It’s a bit of a mix – I hate the word eclectic, especially in relation to music – and probably its variety is a reflection of where I’m at at the moment. So many distinct and incompatible feelings and ideas are coexisting and overlapping throughout my mind and psyche. It’s strange to be host to so many apparently contradictory sensations and thoughts. It actually reminds me very much of how I felt all the time when I was really young, and that is adding a whole other dimension to what’s already going on. Some areas of myself feel expansive and calm and quite radiant, while others feel compressed and scabrous and dreadful. Yes, that’s how I felt for a long time when I was young! Pied and dappled, as Gerard Manley Hopkins might put it. Music helped me then and helps me now to move into and through these different zones and densities without too much distress or idealism or attachment. I hope you enjoy some of the tracks here and are keeping well, wherever you are. x

Listen here.

Claire-Louise Bennett is the author of Pond.


Diarist, letter writer, painter, poet

From Sophie Hughes, Birmingham, UK

I have very few childhood memories of my paternal grandmother, Barbara Hughes (née Holland). I really got to know her in my twenties. By that time, neither of us bothered with conventional grandmother-granddaughter roles. We became friends and have shared hundreds of correspondence, mostly online.

In an early email to her in 2008, I asked Barb about her husband, my paternal grandfather, who I could barely remember. Architect, playwright, drinker, rogue. The ‘playwright’ part was beginning to interest me, a gradually engaging student of literature. I wanted to know more. She put the answer on hold, replying only that: ‘I am dogged by the feeling that I must get the record of his tremendous talent documented’.

In eleven of Barb’s emails to me she refers to herself as a ‘BOVLB’ (AA Milne’s ‘bear of very little brain’). In a 2012 email, long after I’d begun to suspect who the creative energy in that duo had really belonged to, she confirmed my inkling that she was in fact a bear of very considerable brain (and wit, creativity and talent) who had simply not been seen in the same light as her husband: ‘My favourite situation has always been a reflected glory glow!’ she signed off, cheerfully, as if she had not just encapsulated the sad fate of all wives to husbands who encourage (or don’t discourage) an idea of themselves as ‘tremendous talents’.

Today, her artistic legacy outshines his: dozens of poems, paintings and sketches, years’ worth of diaries that chronicle an extraordinary self-education in classical music (a concert a night, for a time); an incognito creative life that I might have known nothing about had she not insisted, throughout her turbulent life, on writing for herself. Her husband published. She wrote.

This week, the suddenly Barbaraless, locked-down world beyond my house is unrecognisable and inaccessible, and I have time to sit with her emails, song recommendations and poems (or the ‘best ones […] and that’s not saying much’), which she emailed me over the years, remembering not the grandmother, but the woman who never stopped writing.


The diarist

Here is an entry from Saturday 30th March 1946, when she visited Leonard Woolf (something about a broken gramophone). A pioneer of the ‘accompanying playlist’, in her diaries there is a song for every occasion:

‘A foggy day in London town (sung by Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald). The bus crept along and I was late getting to Victoria. He was standing in the street, his back towards me, looking up at the Mansion flats as if he had not seen them before. Was he expecting her to emerge from the building, the sound of that clanking lift, a muffled echoing reaching outside.  Leonard turned around and lifted both arms, bringing the palms of his hands together in an instant prayer. “Virginia hated fog – in London”.  His arm around my shoulder we went in…..’


The letter writer

I have three of her paintings hanging by the entrance to my house like amulets.

One of them (pictured above) was painted from a photograph taken in early January 1978, from a period in the seventies when Barb was living in Abu Dhabi and later in Al Ain. She was, she told me in an email from 2012, like the speaker in Walter de la Mare’s poem, ‘crazed with the spell of far Arabia’: ‘These kids were straight out of the desert – those lovely orange flowers from the great garden city of Al Ain just springing up, were theirs.’ Barb had a way of seeing and remembering people. Some of her emails remind me of Natalia Ginzburg’s personal essays in this respect, but also perhaps because of that classic Ginzburgian line, which is also classic Barb: ‘There is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer.’ Barb was a small writer, but one whose words, unspooling without punctuation from her naturally digressing mind, or springing up like lovely orange flowers between parenthesis, were hers.


The poet

For some time now,


I have been half dead:

not under the ground,


in a brown funereal


not grim, but rather


like a French film coffin


the funny man would come,


and lift the lid.

Certainly the top would come off.


I did not expect

a tune

from Claude Debussy

dying of cancer


out of the sepia


a tight white light


each vertebra


life lumber puncture.

Certainly I could stand up again.


Barbara Hughes

15 January 1926 – 19 March 2020


* Claude Debussy, Sonata for Violin and Piano in G Minor, played by Alfred Cortot and Jacques ThibaudSophie Hughes is the translator of Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor.


Dan Fox reads LIMBO

An audio recording of Fox’s essay on the role that fallow periods and states of inbetween play in art and life, produced from his home in New York, and with a short introduction

Listen to Dan Fox’s recording of Limbo on Soundcloud.

I wrote Limbo a couple of years ago now. It was a way to process some feelings and ideas I’d had around feeling stuck, both creatively and personally. The book was hard to write, despite its brevity, and as a result I felt the finished manuscript possessed a rough, awkward quality. Like a book that was interrupted on the way towards becoming another, less ungainly book, with better lines and nicer proportions. Perhaps, in retrospect, that feeling was what the project was trying to describe in the first place.

In the first chapter, I wrote about how works of art resonate over time. How they can be zeitgeist-y in the moment they first come into the world, then lose their buzz and get put on the shelf to gather dust. The world continues to turn, until eventually something happens which allows the art work to fall in sync again, rediscovered by someone who will ‘blow off the cobwebs and in doing so find something altogether new to appreciate in it.’

In March 2020, under orders to stay at home in pandemic-stricken New York City, I picked Limbo off the shelf. I was surprised at how different the tone of certain passages seemed under these new circumstances. I decided to set myself the task of turning it into an audiobook, to see how else it might change in the re-reading, and to more easily share it with others.

As audiobooks go, this is a domestic-sounding one. A recording which might not be smooth enough to pass muster for a commercial release, but which nonetheless has qualities that pin it to this unsettling moment in time. I built a little vocal recording booth in the bedroom, suspending blankets across the gap between two doors in order to absorb and dampen the background noise as I read the book aloud. You can still hear subway trains rattling past. Also next door’s kids watching TV, my partner making coffee in the kitchen, and my apartment’s old radiators, which sound like a whistling stove-top kettle. At the same time you might note that New York never usually affords this much quiet either.

A major theme of Limbo concerns my older brother, Karl. As he’s also currently stuck at home, in another city, I invited him to record his own words from the book, which you’ll hear at points along the way. Karl – who in Limbo discusses his years as a professional sailor – has recently been working as a voice over artist, and was able to help a great deal with the sound production. The process of making this impromptu audiobook together has added a happy new layer to Limbo’s story of our long-distance fraternal relationship.

The book is abridged; some passages work better sitting on the page than coming out of the mouth. And because I can’t resist over-egging the pudding, I decided to write some music for it too.

Given the circumstances we all find ourselves in, I imagine you are also at home, with other kinds of noises in the background. You might listen to this on the couch, or in the bath. Maybe you’re able to leave the house and listen whilst out walking the dog. Perhaps you have no choice but to go out to work. Some of us might feel as if we’re in limbo right now, while others are in the fight of their lives. Wherever you are, stay safe, and don’t forget to wash your hands.

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness and Limbo.

Riots and Viruses

A diary from Joanna Pocock, London, UK

In the summer of 2011, I spent my nights sitting at a pale oak desk in the study of my tiny two-up, two-down in East London. I was copy-editing a book called Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil by a writer called Timothy Mitchell. The book was interesting, but it isn’t its contents that have left their mark on me all these years later. It is everything that was going on around me that has stuck – most notably the sounds of that summer: the near-constant droning of helicopters, hovering so low they shook my house. This was the summer of the London riots, when for six days, thousands took to the streets to protest the killing of Mark Duggan, shot dead by police on 4 August in Tottenham, north London. Anger at the racism and the unfair targeting of Britain’s black population erupted. A friend who lived up the road texted me photos showing the bins along his street on fire. Friends in Dalston were sharing similar images on social media. The press had a field day showing the looting, disparaging those who were extracting flat-screen TVs and trainers from broken shop windows. Many of the businesses on Bethnal Green Road, my local high street, were boarded up. Five people died. There was a sense of unease, of despair, of anger and injustice. Every night, I would put my four-year-old daughter to bed feeling frightened and anxious. And every night, as she slept, I would pour through the text of Carbon Democracy, sifting through its footnotes, diligently tracking my changes.

Something else has stayed with me from that August: the memory of my complete and utter exhaustion. My husband was away working and our daughter was on her summer break. My days were spent playing with her; my nights were spent copy-editing while the helicopters filled the air with their aggressive watchful persistence. The subject of the book I was editing – our dependence on Big Oil and our reckless addiction to endless economic growth – felt connected to these riots. The tight fabric of greed and my inability to individually unpick its seams gave me a sense of panic and powerlessness.

Nine years later, in the spring of 2020, I am sitting at the same oak desk in the same room in the same house in East London. I am copy-editing a book for the same publisher, although this one is about the history of democracy in the West and its relationship to capitalism. There are no riots going on outside my window and my daughter is in the next room on my husband’s laptop doing homework. Her school has closed and the streets outside are silent. There are no helicopters above, nor even any airplanes criss-crossing the sky. There are few cars and no late-night revellers singing drunkenly as they head to the Bethnal Green Working Man’s club. The only sounds are the blackbirds, the wood pigeons, the coal tits and the parakeets – the latter being a new addition to the soundscape of life in London. Late at night, I am jolted awake by foxes ripping through the piles of garbage as they fight over scraps. Because of an industrial dispute between the refuse collectors and Veolia, the company in charge of disposing of Tower Hamlets’ waste, my street is filling with fried chicken boxes, broken toys, heaps of uneaten food, wipes (lots of wipes), blue surgical gloves (a sign of the times), bits of plastic, and stuff, just so much stuff. Neighbours report that they are seeing more rats.

The filth around me is due to workers not being paid fairly. The quiet around me, however, is the result of a virus: COVID-19. It has travelled around the world, leaving a wake of inconsistent advice, fake cures, uncertainty, exhausted frontline workers, bankruptcies, unemployment, isolation, illness and death. People I know are getting sick. People I know cannot pay their rent. People I know are lonely and in freefall. There is so much work to do to fix this, so many seams to unpick in order to mend the fabric that has been created to lead up to this. It is impossible to know where to begin.

And just as Mitchell’s book on oil was connected to the helicopters, the rioting, the anger and exhaustion of nine years ago, so is the idea of our fragile western democracy linked to this pandemic. A democracy that involves the digging for minerals, the razing of forests, the destruction of habitats, and the replacement of wild animals with domesticated ones. What is different in 2020, is that I sense this book on democracy that I am editing will become a marker, a sort of flag, a spot on the graph of my life where I will be able to plot the moment when there was a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. The problem I am having is that I cannot imagine what this ‘after’ will look like, how it will feel or sound, whether it will involve helicopters or parakeets, whether the mounds of rotting garbage will grow or lessen, whether my daughter will remain locked inside or be allowed to run outdoors. I do know, however, that this sense of an ‘after’ feels illicit, like a forbidden landscape, and so I try not to dwell in it. Instead I correct the footnotes, and track the changes, and look up the publication dates of books and the spelling of names. I try and fix what I can, no matter how small. But nothing will shake the thought that this ‘after’ is a place just beyond my line of sight and my powers of imagination. In fact, I wonder if there will be an ‘after’ at all.

Joanna Pocock is the author of Surrender.

Letter to the President

A letter from Annie Ernaux to Emmanuel Macron, originally broadcast on France Inter, translated here by Alison L. Strayer

Cergy, March 30, 2020

Monsieur le Président,

‘I am writing you a letter / That you may read / If you have time‘. As a lover of literature, you may find that this introduction strikes a familiar chord. It is the beginning of Boris Vian’s song Le Déserteur, written in 1954, between the Indochina War and the Algerian War. Today, whatever you proclaim, we are not at war: the enemy in this caseis not human, not a fellow being; it possesses neither thought nor a will to harm, knows no borders or social differences, reproduces blindly by jumping from one person to another. The weapons, since you insist upon this martial lexicon, are hospital beds, respirators, masks and tests, and the numerous doctors, scientists and caregivers. And yet, since you have governed France, you have remained deaf to the warnings from the health-care field, and the words we read on a banner in a demonstration last November – ‘The State counts its money, we will count the dead’ – tragically resonate today. You preferred to listen to those who advocate the withdrawal of the State, the optimization of resources, flow regulation – all that technocratic jargon, devoid of substance, which muddied the waters of reality. But look, these are the public services which, in great part, ensure the country’s functioning: hospitals, National Education and its thousands of teachers, so poorly paid; Électricité de France [EdF], the Post Office, the Métro and the French rail service [SNCF]. And the people you called ‘nothing’ not so long ago are now everything, those who continue to empty the rubbish bins, scan products at the checkout counters, deliver pizzas, all to guarantee the physical side of life, as essential as the intellectual side.

‘Resilience’, meaning reconstruction after trauma, is a strange choice of word. We have not reached that stage. Take heed, Mr President, of the effects of this time of lockdown, of upheaval in the order of things. It is an opportune time for questioning. A time in which to desire a new world. Not your world! Not a world in which decision-makers and financiers are already, shamelessly, resuming the old refrain of ‘work more’, up to 60 hours a week. A great many of us no longer want a world of glaring inequalities, revealed by the epidemic; on the contrary, a great many of us want a world where basic needs, healthy food, medical care, housing, education, culture, are guaranteed for all, a world which, indeed, today’s solidarities show us is possible. Be aware, Mr President, that we will no longer let our life be stolen from us, it is all we have, and ‘nothing is worth more than life’ – another song, this time by Alain Souchon. Nor will we perennially muzzle our democratic freedom, currently restricted, a freedom which makes it possible for my letter – unlike that of Boris Vian, banned from the radio – to be read on air this morning on a national radio network.

Listen to the original broadcast hereAnnie Ernaux is the author of A Girl’s Story, translated by Alison L. Strayer. 

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