I did some stuff with Jewish Book Week this year. But before it all started, the people from Jeneration got in touch to ask if I’d write a little something on “My Favourite Fictional Jew” for a freesheet they’d be distributing throughout the week. I said yes, because it sounded like a fun thing to do and, let’s face it, I like the opportunity to get something in print. But I couldn’t think of anyone to write about, and then – yes, it was an epiphany – Jesus came to me, and I wrote this:
Even after twenty-three years of eating pork, I still get a thrill out of bacon. I grew up in a household where all things pig were ignored – they don’t exist! – yet treyf like oysters, mussels, abalone and snails were held in mythic esteem. Whenever my grandmother prepared snails, we’d traipse off to her house on Brighton Drive to watch my father eat them with that special fork as if they were something offered up to the High Priests of the Temple. Not changing the subject: I remember how shocked my uncle was when he went to sort out my grandfather’s things – he’d recently died – and found the New Testament by his bedside. I first saw Jesus in the rock-musical Godspell in a small community hall in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in the mid-70s. It was only when I moved to London that I came to rely on him. I know he’s not real – he’s a kind of fiction to me, like Moses and Job and Eve – but for many years, for most of the late 90s, really – I found huge comfort in Christ’s story, quintessenced in the image of him on the cross. I was suffering – I had a couple of crap jobs, very little money, my writing career was plodding along, my father was dying, and my nearest sibling was a 5-hour flight away – but the extreme pain, the frozen-in-time torment of the crucified man eased my anguish. I even – when no-one was looking – genuflected in a chapel or two. I have always turned to characters in literature for reassurance, and for lessons on how to be a man, a gay man, a Jewish gay man, a Jewish gay South African Israeli man in the world. And at times like now, Jesus has a lot to offer us – not for what people have made of him, but for what the stories tell about him: He was kind.
What a great idea. You have to try this out.
And this is what I wrote:
I’ve never tried this before but I’m willing to try anything – what with the way my life is at the moment and I barely have time to notice my breaths – to notice anything. I want to get back to a time when I took from the world – when I took time – sat in cafes and walked through galleries and noticed the way people behaved and spoke to each other and ate their cakes and drank their tea and milkshakes – (who invented the straw – what is the point of a straw unless you’re in hospital – or want to look really prissy in a bar) – and I used to walk through parks a lot and sit on park benches and look at ducks and coots and swans. I want to be outside when it’s sunny and sit with my face to the sun and feel fed by… The thing is I used to do this quite a lot and wrote so much about it that I’m not sure I could do it all again – I’m not sure I could do things that I have written about already – what I want is new things – Love? Travel? – I want something to write about – I want to go beyond the Whitechapel Boys. I want the days to be mine – to open up before me like an invitation and to be the party, the cocktail party that you go to with no expectations and land up having the best time you’ve had in years. I used to have those times (am I whining?) – those Friday nights when we’d go out dancing till the sun came up and then walk down to the beach in Tel Aviv and take off our clothes and swim naked just off the promenade, at the foot of all those big hotels that shield Tel Aviv from the sea, that would take the impact of the tidal wave or the terrorist attack that came from the sea – tourists and hotel workers first. Is that what I need to do? Go back to Tel Aviv for a while. Is there something I need to face there? And the point being, what? Ah, yes, so that is what writing used to do – take me to places that I wasn’t sure I wanted to look at, places that the day to day of teaching and editing and preparing and promoting and hustling make so easy to avoid. I want to sit down and write like this every day – like now, while the spinach and chick-pea soup is boiling on the stove and the red cabbage and walnut salad is marinating in the fridge and I might go out for a run in about half an hour or take a nap before everyone turns up for dinner this evening – for dinner and a run-through of what we’ll be doing tomorrow when we perform at Soho Theatre. Is that what’s new? or the same? What if you sat down and did this every day – 500 words in 10 minutes.
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Today will be the longest day in 2008. It’s a Saturday evening. It’s the 21st of June. From tomorrow, the days get shorter. The main reason I’m sitting down to write this blog is to pause time for a while, to stop another month from going by without recording anything about the ongoing saga that is Whitechapel Boys. There is good news. A section of the project is going to be published as a booklet, a monograph, a kind of chapbook as part of a series on War Poets. We haven’t agreed on everything, so I’ll post all the details when we’ve signed on teh dotted line. This will be the Series’ booklet on Isaac Rosenberg and will be about his last days in Arras, before he was killed on the 1st of April 1918. The narrative is woven in with a story about a guy who goes to visit Rosenberg’s grave just as his own relationship is falling apart. It’s semi-autobiographical in that it’s about 3 or 4 relationships rolled into one.
The other bit of good news is that I finally printed out the entire Rosenberg section of Whitechapel Boys and I have a feeling that it’s a book on its own, that it needs to be a separate book. I keep changing how I think the book should be structured – all three stories interlinked, three parts of one book, three separate books – but at the moment it feels right that each artist should have a book to himself, because, really, each of them brings up a whole different set of issues. With Rosenberg it’s questions of poverty, of thanatos, of the deperate desire to be published, to be recognised, questions that concern every artist (every human being?) to various degrees throughout our lives. Yet with Rosenberg it comes with early death, with the sense of a thwarted process, or one that has been reduced to an essence. It has been and still is a challenge to spend so much time with Rosenberg, to stay in touch with that part of me that used to be much more like him: driven, miserable and desperate. I wonder if it is a necessary phase to go through in order to discover what the themes of one’s life are, what the questions and dramas are that sit at the core of one’s being.
More good news? I got to review Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s new biography of Rosenberg (which apparently has gone into its second printing) for the Jewish Quarterly. It’s my second review for the JQ. The first one was about Anne Landsman’s The Rowing Lesson. The good thing about starting to review for the JQ is that I’ve been reading the magazine, and it’s fantastic – it has its head in the right place and its politics are refreshing. The Rosenberg review should be out next month, I think.
More good news? I got a short-short story accepted by Clean Sheets. They said it should be out in July. The story is called “The History of Her Tongue.” I’ve been going through stories that I have in my “Stories” file, pieces I wrote years ago, or even recently, but haven’t looked at for a while. I love opening files I’ve forgotten about and discovering these little surprises, intense pieces that I wrote without a plan or an agenda in mind. Often they are stories that start in a workshop I am running or when I’m planning an exercise and try it out beforehand. The Clean Sheets story came out of an exercise I love called “The History of Your Tongue.” Instruction: Write a history of your tongue. Alternative: Write a history of your character’s tongue. Hey, write a history of God’s tongue, of the lion’s tongue, the ant’s tongue, the nation’s tongue.
So… I’ve been going through these pieces and trying to finish them up and find them a home. My other goal for the summer – besides finishing the Gertler section as well as the Rosenberg section – is to assemble another short story collection. I guess we’re halfway through the summer. I guess I’d better get back to work.
I‘ve never had a friend with the same taste in music as me. That’s what I was thinking in the bath this evening. I know plenty people who I can share books with, but no-one ever says to me: Can you burn that album for me, can I borrow that, can I listen to that, oh, cool, I’ve also got those at home, I listen to them all the time. It happens that people like what I listen to, but I don’t know anyone who has Ann Nesby, Dwele (who is the only voice that can calm and soothe me completely), Al Jarreau, Lynden David Hall, Lauren Hill, Teddy Pendergrass. It’s always been like that. There was a time when I had a friend in the 80s who loved Al Jarreau. We were both surprised to find each other – we met in a tent during our basic training in the army – and our love for the same singer was an important factor in our long friendship. We haven’t seen each other for years – maybe fifteen – he’s a furniture designer now and from the track on his site, he still has a laid-back taste in music. And then there was a lover who was into Rickie Lee Jones – not something you’d expect in a small bum-fuck town on the southern coast of Israel. But there we were, two gay boys listening to Chuck E’s in Love in his bedroom, smoking dope for the first time, overcome by the munchies and ripping a roast chicken apart with our hands. And, I admit, we also listened to Everything But the Girl. Maybe it wasn’t cool in London, but in Israel it was a needle in a haystack kind of experience.
So, record collections. Never make fun of someone’s record collection. I learnt that from an ex. It’s like laughing at what they look like from the inside. I rely on my record collection more than I rely on my books. I don’t need to read most of my books more than once. I’m not the kind of person who rereads novels; stories – maybe, but not novels. Except one or two. There is a novel that I’ve read a few time. It calms me in the same way that Dwele’s music does. It feels odd talking about this – there’s something so private about the music we love, revealing – and maybe especially so when we don’t know enough people who have the same tastes. The novel is Such Times by Christopher Coe. Coe was one of the members of the Vilet Quill, along with Edmund White and Andrew Hiolleran and others. Such Times is the most lyrical and unflinching (I love that word) work to come out of the plague years. The other novel I go back to is Their Eyes Were Watching God. What am I trying to say here? Something about the works of art that reflect our souls – the voices that we strive to imitate. The clues to the shape of our internal world. The sounds that we can’t do without. I remember a couple of months ago being hit by the realisation that I won’t always be here to love the books on my shelf, that there will come a point when I will no longer be able to listen to the music I love.
I’ve got a new story up on the fiction site, Pulp.Net. It’s a story about running, something that I haven’t done for more than a month, which, when you’re a runner, can feel like forever and that you’ll never run again, in your life. Ever. But back to Pulp.Net – it’s one of those short story sites that are always great to visit: great design, great listings, great stories – and there’s also a regular column where writers write about their top 10 books: Bernadine Evaristo, David Mitchell, Hisham Matar – and me! – are all there, among others. The person behind it all is Lane Ashfeldt and she’s committed to promoting short-story writers, and she’s a fantastic writer herself. She’s also the editor of Down the Angel, a book of short stories set in Islington. But what I was going to say about the running story is that there’s a bit where I talk about my disappointment at not having photos of me running – that’s all in the past, though – because there’s a brief clip of me in tights doing the Nike 10K Run in Hyde Park. Check it out.
Are we meant to forget our dreams? Waking up this evening after a short nap (I got up at 6am and taught all day), having just read Saidiya Hartman’s beautiful and personal piece on the Slave Routes, I woke up from a dream that kept slipping away from me, and I thought: Thoughts don’t slip away the way dreams do. Do thoughts and dreams happen in different parts of the brain? Why’s it so much harder to articulate a dream? We can make thoughts happen, so why not dreams? I remember once, before going to sleep, it must have been around 1987, I asked the ancestors to visit me in a dream. They did. My grandfather and some other older family members who I didn’t recognise were all sitting around in our old garage in the house on Jenvey Road. I don’t remember what they said, but I remember the feeling of waking up and knowing that the ancestors had visited. Why are other people’s thoughts often more interesting to us than their dreams? I don’t appreciate people telling me their dreams – tell them to an analyst or a mystic. I feel responsible when people tell me their dreams, especially if they don’t want to interpret them. Anyway, that’s enough – my thoughts are beginning to lose my interest. Read more about dreams and where they happen here. To paraphrase Kurosawa, we’re all geniuses when we’re dreaming.
In my attempt to do something writerly every day – or even more than one thing (because once I get started I want more and more and more) – I Googled “interviewing writers” so that I could listen to other people struggling with their work and find out what it took to make it. So, for some reason, the first writer I’ve been listening to is Martin Amis talking to Don Swaim in 1990 just after London Fields was published. I’ve never read Martin Amis and I’m not sure why. I feel awkward admitting that I don’t read contemporary English writers. It feels like a secret, like something I shouldn’t be telling people. But it’s something to do with class and voice and history and turning to books to be challenged, inspired, and/or reassured. I don’t find those things in English writers. Although having said that, it took me about 10 years of living in England before I could read Wuthering Heights and I was blown away. I felt reassured, taken by surprise. And I wanted more. I have what Martin Amis called “a sticky finger attitude” to writing – I like to imitate and steal and copy from other writers. I am backed-up by TS Eliot’s saying that “Mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal.” So I think it’s about time I dived in and started reading the English seeing as I’m writing a book that is about English-Jewish painters, abook that is very much about London and varieties of Englishness. I’m going to start with Martin Amis. Something else he says in his interview which I liked was that he believed that everyone had a novel in them – “the difference is the writer finishes the thing.” He also advises the writer to “relax their intelligence” and to just write, to flow (yes, he uses the word flow), to stop editing as you go along.
I’ve been living on a diet of Vitamin C, Ibuprofen, some apples, a Magnum Almond, some oranges from the care package Andra brought over when I told him how sick G. and I have been. Two men with flu in the same house is not a fun thing. I used to be a happy drunk; I am not a happy sick person. I am not a pleasure to be around. But things are looking up: I went to the chiropractor/accupuncturist today who sorted out my back, which becomes like an s-bend when I’m in bed too long and don’t get enough exercise (eventhough G. claims that men are meant to lie on their backs with their legs in the air for long periods of time), and I’ve gone for a brief walk and I even had a look at Whitechapel Boys for the first time since I got back from Spain around Hanukah time. One thing I did think about when I was more flu-ey than I am today, is what it was like for people like Gertler, who had TB for so many years – what it must have been like to feel feverish and shakey and to not be able to function on the level your mind wants to. There’s not a lot creative in being ill – I think it’s what comes after those days or months of sick-time (there must be a better word for that stretch of time) – because already I can feel a renewed energy in me, the kind of mania that filled Gertler when he started to paint again.
Woke up to snow this morning. It’s almost midday now and the roofs are still covered in white. The plan from now on is to do something writerly every day. Wednesdays are Poems from Paintings day. Andra and I have been meeting at the National Gallery for the past 3 weeks to write poems inspired by paintings. We’re planning to go through every room, starting from Room 1 (which was closed on the first day we went due to industrial action over holiday pay, so we had to start at Room 9). I’ve always been intrigued by paintings and have seen them as a great writing tool, a prompt for stories, and since starting work on Whitechapel Boys I’ve become more aware of the actual brushstrokes, the way the hand moves on the canvas. But I think what really interests me is the story of a painting – what the artist chooses to put in a frame and the colours they use. And perspective. And where the eye goes first when you encounter a picture, the point from which the whole story fans out. I also love the way paintings are there to be used and ogled and played with – and how you can, through writing, own them, make them your own. What do painters get out of writing? In the days of the Whitechapel Boys and the Bloomsbury crowd, there was a much stronger connection between writers and painters and they sought out each other’s company. Most of Gertler’s friends were writers. Carrington had Strachey. Rosenberg tried to carry the two expressions inside him. What did painters get from writers?