Dispatches

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,

weeks,

I have been half dead:

not under the ground,

resting

in a brown funereal

parlour,

not grim, but rather

jolly:

like a French film coffin

knowing

the funny man would come,

trip,

and lift the lid.

Certainly the top would come off.

 

I did not expect

a tune

from Claude Debussy

dying of cancer

1914

out of the sepia

listening

a tight white light

firing

each vertebra

once,

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. 

Dispatches

A diary from Moyra Davey, New York, USA

March 29, 2020

One by one, in less than 24 hours, nearly all of my ‘projects’ toppled like dominoes, until on the afternoon of Friday, 13 March, my assistant and I found ourselves staring at each other and realising there was nothing left for us to do.

Since then I’ve wasted the better part of two weeks reading the news, but I’ve also been in touch with many friends and family members, and am doing yoga with my teacher and our group via Zoom. To briefly see their faces and hear their voices and to go through our routine together is a lifesaver.

I usually open the New York Times first thing in the morning, but today instead I read Catherine Malabou on finding her solitude within confinement, in order to write (‘the psychic space where it is possible to do something’). I copied out parts of the essay, and for one day at least, determined to shut out the noise, I cleared off my desk, which was a disgrace, if not to write then at least to read (books).

Listening: Duane Train, an updated and expanded mini-Mancuso Loft party. DJ’d by the laid back, droll Duane Harriott every Wednesday from noon to three on WFMU. Eleven years of music and playlists are archived here.

Reading: I just finished Carson McCullers’ five novels and some of her stories, and have begun her unfinished autobiography, Illuminations and Night Glare. Writing in the 1930s and 40s, her stories feel singularly undated and contemporary. Notably, she had a way of conjuring queerness that manages to be both forthright (taken for granted), and coded. This quality is most striking in my favourite of the novels, the slim, perfect The Member of the Wedding.

Catherine Malabou, ‘To Quarantine Within Quarantine: Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe and “I”‘ (with thanks to Vincent Bonin, Montreal).

Moyra Davey is an artist and writer based in New York. Her essay collection Index Cards is forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo Editions on 3 June 2020.

 

Dispatches

Recommended isolation watching and listening from Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, Loir-et-Cher, France

Anime: Parasite by Kenichi Shimizu.

Albums I’ve been listening to lately: Debris by Keeley Forsyth, You Will Not Die by Nakhane, Fixion by Trentemøller, The Inevitable End by Royksopp…

Movies I’ve been watching lately: For Sama dir Waad Al-Kateab, Naked Island dir Kaneto Shindo, Inland Sea dir Kazuhiro Soda, This Transient Life dir Akio Jissôji.

Docu series I loved: Wild Wild Country, Making a Murderer, The Keepers...

Jean-Baptiste Del Amo is the author of Animalia, translated by Frank Wynne.

rabbit

A fable from Charlie Fox, London, UK

Here’s this weird squelchy-voiced fable about a rabbit being eaten by a wolf which I recorded for my friend the artist Jason Yates’ radio show in LA a few weeks ago. I made this mix for him called DMT Trip D’Un Faune, which was an hour-long magic-realist simulation of a drug-addled faun’s mindscape, kind of as an homage to Debussy but with ambient jams, and I stuck this fable on its tail.

Anyway, the wolf eats the rabbit, they fall in love. I was thinking about Prometheus a lot – did he befriend those vultures that devoured his insides eternally? – and the eerie song, ‘Bright Eyes’, from the cartoon Watership Down, which is an elegy for a dead rabbit haunted by ecological meltdown. Is it a kind of dream? Being eaten up by and/or feeding off a hot beast might be the perfect romance: trippy, magical, inside-out intimacy that lasts forever. Which seems extra strange and sad to think about now when we can’t touch at all.

Listen here.

xo

Charlie Fox is the author of This Young Monster.

Dispatches

A diary from Esther Kinsky, Friuli, Italy

In Italy we’re in the third week of lockdown now. People are still friendly, patient, polite, considerate, but tempers are fraying. For children and adolescents, this is the fourth week without school. The fourth week of patchy online teaching, clueless parents, absent grandparents – the latter being the ones who have to be protected from the mythical beast of spring 2020.  The empty streets, the silence, even the absence of traffic – all this is beginning to feel leaden and bleak. I look at the village in this dove grey dusk in March and wonder – shall we ever return to thinking first and foremost of Paul Celan’s poem when we read or hear the C-word? 

Nevertheless, it’s good to be in the country. The deserted streets of a city must be even harder to bear. People have their gardens here. There’s chatting across the fence. My eighty-year-old neighbour is worried about his potatoes. They should’ve been planted during the last lunar phase – potato planting only under waning moon – but his field is three kilometres away. He’s worried about running into a control officer. Potatoes wouldn’t be a good enough reason for the ‘Autocertificazione’, the form one has to fill out and carry for every errand now, in case of a police control. ‘We’ll have to wait’, my neighbour says, with some sadness. ‘Perhaps we’ll just plant them under the luna giovane’ – the young moon. What a beautiful expression, pronounced with such melancholy. Meanwhile, a cold wind has descended from the north. The light is very bright, and the mountains seem so near, very blue, every crag and rocky excrescence visible. The patches of snow on the peaks glistening. A world beyond reach for lack of a good enough reason.

Esther Kinsky is the author of River and Grove, a novel of grief, love and landscape, published in April 2020.

Ed Atkins performs OLD FOOD in Helsinki

On 29 February 2020, artist and author Ed Atkins gave a performative reading of Old Food at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma in Helsinki. An audio recording of the performance, which features songs, is available to listen to here on Soundcloud

Thanks to Sanni Pajula, Patrik Nyberg, Sonya Merutka and all at Kiasma. Courtesy Ed Atkins and Fitzcarraldo Editions. Copyright © Ed Atkins, 2019 and 2020.

Old Food is available to purchase at https://fitzcarraldoeditions.com/books/old-food.

Fitz Carraldo Editions