Notebook (south London diary)

March 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

No man is an iland, intire of it selfe”; yes, well south London is an island. He’s not sure what he means by this. Even here he has failed to achieve what he wanted, to be hidden in the folds of the city – although no-one answers his letters, & like fortune herself, he left no forwarding address.

It’s notable, he thinks, that the passage occurs in Donne’s sermons, preached at St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street, rather than in the poems – those searingly intense speakings out of lyric individuation, dialectically tracing the (possible/necessary) interweaving of one in two, the bony embrace of the particular mediated by the universal of the grave – or the penitent ravished by God (Donne, obviously, was a Hegelian avant la lettre). To be nominated as not-island is no comfort: one is automatically, objectively, part of a landmass; to break out of estrangement (“this society reduces geographical distance only to reap internal distance”) means something else.


He remembers London, a year ago, twice in a couple of days: the rage, the wrecked windows, the banners, the stand-offs, the shouts, the public speech in letters ten feet high of March 26th; a week later, Gordon Square in a downpour of hawthorne blossom, the sheer stunning warmth of the air that had, only weeks earlier, seemed deadly to breathe. He had a few drinks w/ A. the day after the protest. His rage & helplessness, hardly meeting her eyes, was an unacknowledged rehearsal for a future he hardly knew he was plotting. He & R. went to the Susan Hiller retrospective, as awkward as he could manage. Having broken his glasses, he peered through an old wire-frame pair. Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, an assemblage of postcards of waves, including, he noted approvingly, a few from his hometown. He watched the point where her hair rested so beautifully on her shoulders, listened to the voices of the dead. A peck on the cheek, the train home.

For some of us it is a life & death situation.


But – this is the point – even the weather repeats itself in south London: the same sequence of days, the same intensity of light, the same motion of cloud dissipating to an aching blue, the same quality of warm breeze. In the park in their adopted hometown, he looked up through the branches to white flowers courted by bees, & they talked about their parents, the one thing – ok not the one thing – he wanted shot of. Months later, he wrote a too-long letter to L. about what he imagined the light in south London – Norwood, Sydenham, Lewisham, Forest Hill – was like, an idea that was less invention than the memory of long, boring childhood afternoons. Even that tinny, washed-out quality he catches as he walks to & fro disappears; the Crystal Palace Transmitting Tower is a figure of awful clarity. “The places that we have known belong now only to the little world of space on wh/ we map them for our own convenience… remembrance of a particular form is but regret for a particular moment; & houses, roads, avenues are fugitive, alas, as the years.” Yes, regret.  Peter Szondi’s phrase apropos of Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood Around 1900 – “hope in the past” – takes on a disfiguring irony: he remembers, in the recall of this weather, a happiness that drew upon the memory of future happiness. He lived in every sense beyond his means. He is perhaps now living out the consequences of his debt.


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