...nearer to the sun and air—wind in the willows
i am the son and the heir—the smiths
yeah, man, the elements—anon
I want to be in the sunny place
[she says points]
—points across the valley—
(like John County Clare
magicking a far-off sheep)
even to use that word is abuse
yes, the s-word (or its many toxic siblings
for it cannot be—is itself
an act of self-negative life-negative
oh oh how elemental oh how mythic
she cries out above, 'cross the valley
but now /(she feels silly.and. her voice
is weak and unconvincing
the American woman reading Herodotus
pronounces Herakles to rhyme
with some plural of hysterical)
although one cannot quibble
at such democratizat or ask this of the lulz
—how much is left to go, Eli?
is it so very hard to die?
(ells left to go, many ells: strange, almost
Dada Nells from Imbros)
" 'We think,' they say, " 'that it is unjust
to carry women off, but to be anxious
to avenge rape is foolish—wise men
take no notice of such things' "—
attrib' 'The Persians'—Herodotus.
[the legal heirs to 'treasure L'
from the Calvert mound-side
of Hisarlik in dispute with
the Pushkin—Sophie Schliemann
arrayed in gold—who now
can say what when
— for thereof the arcsin of width/length
.4 indicates a 24 degree angle of *spatter*
the bullet and the rainbow
this will apply equally: archaeology/geology
the trajectory the rainbow the drift the erratics the spatter
extrusion and intrusion/the rapid cooling or the slow
—rate of insect attack post mortem
and after all this it was not after all
the black rats but infacto the gerbils
proliferate [adj] one malbenign sommer
in northern Chine in Mongolia
what spread the buboes of after all blackdeath
on the backs of the Mongol hordes—Simon Schama
go easy, go slow, Schliemann
says Calvert, alarmed at the sight
of a million spades. axes, steam hammers, explosives
most of all the robot tank-moles
such industry, such heedless illustry
he will cry
..........................so shall we all, breathless child of the hill
.........................(thief of future past)—Madeleine Shine. 2008.
it merely means 'work,' says Heinrich
read Kapek when I hear the word
I reach for my Hanns Johst
when I hear the heart says Reich
I reach for my Brownian Motion
to rouse us, Waring, who's alive?
for the time has come the walrus said
to live of many things—Madeleine Shine. 2008.
*lustration (come back to this point?)*
"I don't know what to do"
these words uttered listlessly:
give me a look like a hostage crisis
(a culebra cut in Trojan prophylactic gold)
is this enough, Eli?
is it so very hard to die?
is bucket a compound noun?
is mama a compound noun-well
a clerkenwell (Oh well—John Winston Smith the Resignation-Lennon)
"I will try my best for that not to happen
if I feel suspicious I will
throw THROW it out of my head"
for we are holding a drug bee a writing bee
a sex bee a cookery bee a future bee a bee to be
—unknown; possibly from ben, a prayer or prayer meeting—
it is only formally and foolishly fortunate that we are not apiarists
(for what do you call it when a bunch of apiarists
gather to tend and discuss their livestock?
for though Anglo-Saxon, it rhymes
with the Arabic word for darling)
[shibari kinbaku lingchi -- come back to this?]
the kessel envisaged as a giant hedgehog
From Middle English frithien, from Old English friþian (“to give frith to, make peace with, be at peace with, cherish, protect, guard, defend, keep, observe”), from Proto-Germanic*friþōną (“to make peace, secure, protect”), from Proto-Indo-European *prēy-, *prāy- (“to like, love”). Cognate with Scots frethe, freith (“to set free, liberate”), Danish frede (“to have peace, protect, inclose, fence in”), Swedish freda (“to cover, protect, quiet, inclose, fence in”), Icelandic friða (“to make peace, preserve”).
when you were gestating birthing fixing
what dreams were begat of the world?
Margaret Shakespeare died age 1 year 1563
400 years before one's birth, before the deaths of Huxley
Kennedy [Jelly Fish Kiss] Robert Frost, Sylvia
Plath, Edith Piaf, Patsy Cline, a bullet from
the back of a bush Medgar Evers, William
Carlos Williams, Tristan Tzara, Tough Tony,
Jean Cocteau, Georges
Braque, Theodore Roethke, Elmore
James I gather unto myself such magic harvest
in sustenance for the late survival of birth
such dreams for a year for which also
the invention of sex and the Beatles-also-born
in vinyl and Bond-born in celluloid—Profumo,
well one need not mention
[that Ulster-rendered 'now' is a clusterfuck
of /ah/aw/ee/ phonemes (visibility moderate
to good, becoming schwa later)
and high-rising/falling terminal becoming cyclonic
quite unlike the monotone English a-oo
(Utsire an island around which herring swim
far, a long-long...)]
evidence of an immortal typist-monkey
unearthed near Stratford where ever ...
(Miss Fay Wray, come down come down—
ever too high in the widening gyre and gimble
in the Dædalus of thine own inner hast borne
thee too lofted in the Empire inner statehood
whose freudian grillers now will tak thee back ...)
... to that sweep of sunlit snow across the valley
—but something had gone out in her
and would not come again)
and then he knew
that was not where
he was going
another time-things: ice
O dark traveller, click the hyper-link 'the Weshesh'
on the 'Sea-Peoples' page of Wikipedia
find out, at last
where we have been all along
bouncing along the corridor
we did not take
to the hall of mirrors
for humankind cannot bear
very much bouncing bloody reflection
"Do you know Carl Garner, Brandon Garner
or Fast Eddie?"
I do not.
You don't have junk here (hooray!)
—Microsoft SmartScreen is working
to keep it out of your inbox too.
in the 1980s I worked as a recreation assistant
in Meanwood Park Hospital in Leeds, running a 'music
and movement workshop' for the 'mentally
disabled' residents. once while exploring
in this incapacity I found a dried-out brain in a dish
in a sunny (unused) upstairs room. whose abandoned brain,
I wondered, was that, left there to dry
like so much cast-off-offal, uneaten?
Dear Maria, before arrival in Umbria must we pass through Penumbria?
Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating in space—Spiritualized
Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies,
we are going through hell—William Carlos Williams
Please expect a little turbulence, ladies and gentlemen;
there are monsters in our midst—Alice Aforethought 1988
to join the Mile High Club
you really have to give a flying fuck
"Ach, ja"—Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss
Tuesday, August 06, 2019
Thursday, August 01, 2019
dans et maintenant par la même porte comme tous les couteaux tourbillonnant notre politique totale dans les collisions des chaussées calcaires à travers tout cela elle a travaillé avec des sacs de sable sépia du comté de Clare toutes les routes à traverser et seulement 8 heures par le carillon de la baleine cette grosse main par le voyage sauvage de la nuit points à 12 la petite main scintille et s'arrête iris de crise cardiaque espoir —L'amour des petites choses et des endroits sauvages soyez certain maintenant soyez sûr c'est ce moment entre où les mains ne comptent pas c'est bien d'avoir peur ici se coucher et respirer mentir un peu avant de se réveiller
Monday, July 15, 2019
Summer, and the long stalks are already ripe
with waves breaking through their spear-points
as July winds breathe from the sun's mouth
and as in a sea cave we conceal ourselves there
like blooded hares we hide ourselves there
like hares, motionless in all but their darting eyes
will flatten into the earth, invisible to all but scent
and the hounds, unfoxed, have fastened, their baying
their need for blood, already in our ears, growing
louder as they crash through the corn, dripping
lust from their lips, still bloody from the last
of our brood, to where we hide without hope
Sunday, July 14, 2019
Saturday, July 13, 2019
Thursday, July 11, 2019
so there comes this day
when Trump, all the shame
of what he is
somehow settling in him
and the press are there
and the right wing dicks are there
and we are all there
and he jumps
but it's not like
the arc of some graceful bird
because halfway down he gets stuck, impaled
on a pink and gold flagpole
and he wriggles there
and slowly dies
and his blood runs down the side of Trump Tower
in a big dark streak
and afterwards we walk home
wondering how long
they'll leave him up there turning black
having his eyes pecked out
by any twittering starlings that happen by
and wish to consume
the optic ooze
the optic ooze
of today's fake views
The City Incarnate—presented up close and at a distance: Modernist visions of James Joyce and Langston Hughes.
At some early stage in its metonymising arc, the understanding of the Latin word for 'city,' urbs, merged with its juxtapositional notion of civitas, deriving from civis, meaning a resident of a city. This etymology endorses the general—if ill-defined—view that a city is the recognisable but quasi-mystical nexus of its inhabitants with the buildings and topographies which are their identifying physical idiom and expression. So we may feel entitled to examine this question of a city “presented up close and at a distance” in the rather dreamlike sense of a superpositioning of psychologies, histories, cultures, human bodies, and architectural structures. To examine a complex and entangled entity called 'Dublin,' for instance, in the flickering magic lantern of James Joyce's The Dead, or another called 'New York' through the fervent, angry, celebratory affirmations that are the Harlem-words of Langston Hughes, is to experience these cities as liminal, as subjective, simulacraic characterisations of two specific cities, and as some deconstruction of the ultimate idea of city itself.
These cities, with their shadow cities beyond—Galway City, or the greater New York surrounding Harlem—become narratives and discourses, intertextual mosaics that are in some way real, and yet appear dreamlike. They are embattled from without; they bestride thresholds between old worlds (whose Baudelairean ghosts still clutch at the sleeve), and new, burgeoning worlds attempting to become, and we read of them as states hovering indeterminately between historicity and mythopoeia. They are liminal too in the anthropological sense of ritualistically incomplete, for these evocations are in some sense ritual texts suggesting or hoping for transformative social epiphanies and actualisations as their conclusions; and the voices, characters, structures, terrains and events they present are captured at indefinite waypoints between their previous identities and the indeterminate outcomes they foreshadow.
Liminal is also the word used to translate another signifier for in-betweenness: the Tibetan bardo, representing an intermediate state between life and death. And the Harlem we find in Langston Hughes is such a state, a physical place whose earlier incarnations have died (though architectural and other cultural shells remain), but whose human renaissance, whose next manifestation, which Hughes is wishing into being, is as yet incomplete—for instance, the 'Harlem Renaissance,' for all its lyrical homages to black women, has at this point provided genuine emancipation or equality for very few of them. In The Dead too we find everywhere this intermediate state: to read through the dream-streets and iconography of Joyce's Dublin is to feel the mythic Dead rise through the layers of the other Dublins that lie sleeping below. And hovering above Joyce's city are the two Biblical taxiarchs, the totemic and militarised archangels: the uncertain, conditional-tense Gabriel, and the affirmative and cohortative Michael, existing in a state of cold war unrealised even by Gabriel; both dead and undead in their different ways, contending to see which of them, which of the dreams they represent—and whose version of the city—will be most alive when the snow settles. And we feel this tension also in the representation of the new Dublin middle class represented by Gabriel, the “Western Briton” (Joyce in Norris, 2006, p. 165), and by both Miss Ivors and his own wife, Gretta, representing the Irish resurgence. These incomplete rituals of becoming in these cities are, of course, enacted through words; through images, musics and song; and through layers of excavated or constructed myth. (Norris, 2006; Gates and Appiah, 1993)
The Dead is undoubtedly the text from 'Dubliners' that takes us most deeply into the essential mythologies of Joyce's Dublin and its 'geologic' layering. Selecting any of the available texts from Hughes to do the same level of representation initially appears more difficult: these are saccades of up-close Harlem life rather than the grand sweep of multi-layered perspective which is The Dead. Their Modernism is of another type entirely, from a different continent, with locally differing, if allied, socio-political imperatives; but they too give us insight into the experience of a city, and of a people striving to orient and reinvent itself in a cultural and politicised context which would have been impossible for most Black people in the US only a few years earlier, and which would still, even during the 1920s, have been unimaginable in the still-resentful, erstwhile slave-states of the American South with its lynching culture and the Ku Klux Klan, and with the 'Jim Crow Laws' operating as minimally-modified reworkings of the 'Black Codes.' As with the deep history in every corner of 'The Dead,' Hughes's poems, despite their celebration of Harlem, still evoke the poverty and suffering of the 1920s, and the deep histories of slavery, and of Africa beyond. These realities too stare at us from every shadow, and we stare down at Harlem, as with Dublin, in this far wider historical context. As Hughes pithily states it in Not A Movie, “there ain't no Ku Klux on a 133rd”, showing us both the joy of this huge fact, and of Harlem as a decisive refuge and haven, but also the roots that clutch, and the act of remembering the disenfranchising south with its extremes of racist violence: “Well they rocked him with road apples […] and whipped his head with clubs”. So while Joyce's and Hughes's texts give us to differing degrees images of cities in paralysis—perfectly illustrated by Gabriel's absurdist 'equestrian' perambulations around a symbol of his own unrecognised oppression—they show us also peoples historically oppressed and brutalised, but for whom there are signs that change has begun, even if for both peoples that change will, as we now know, yet be long and bloody. (Johnson, 2000)
“The rhythm of life is a jazz rhythm, Honey,” states the incongruously asexual Hughes in Lenox Avenue: Midnight, and this is approximately the first moment in history when anyone could have written these revolutionary words, by which he means that the frequencies and cadences of Jazz are somehow mathematically observable and integral in nature, in the rain, on the hissing and rumbling streets, even in the structures and idioms of the city and its inhabitants. It is the rhythm of life and therefore of sex and the creating of life, and he writes these words in the context of Harlem at night, thereby celebrating and proclaiming the sexed-up, dangerous, jazzed-up nightlife of Harlem. But unmistakably too we sense the alienation and weariness in the poem; this is an area where street cars rumble all night; haven though it may be, this is not some quiet, salubrious zone of the city, and we have the defiant binaries of Hughes peering at his own reflection in Harlem, painting something “dark yet shining, harsh yet gentle, bitter yet jubilant—a Freedom song sung in our midst” (Blesh in Gates and Appiah, 1993. p. 41). But more important, perhaps, than Hughes's words themselves—as Harold Bloom and Arnold Rampersad have suggested—is the fact of him writing them here in this moment. In some ways Hughes is his own opus, his “life a larger poem than any he could write” (Bloom, 2007, p. 3), the detail of his words less significant than the facts of his peripatetic and demonstrative life (at a time when, in reality, few black people had such general freedoms), and his proclaiming that this Harlem, this emancipatory mind-thing, is now possible here, so shortly after the dreadful history of slavery and subsequent oppression, and of the South's de facto ethnic cleansing. So Hughes's poetry of Harlem is a flag waving in a new breeze; it is a decisive snub; and at least in its authorial intent, it asserts a district displacing the beating heart of New York from 'The Great White Way,' or from Broadway, to Lenox Avenue, which he unequivocally constructs as mythic. (Rampersad, in Bloom, 2007)
The derivation of 'Jazz' remains uncertain (though elaborate associations between 'Jezebel' and 'orgasm' and 'jism' and 'jasm' have been proposed), but undoubtedly there is a sexualising of the Harlem scene in Lenox Avenue: Midnight, as there is in other Hughes poems such as the rather infantilising Harlem Sweeties, or Juke Box Love Song. And 'Jazz' is undoubtedly a new, sexy, magic word of the city—recently declared 'the word of the 20th century' by the American Dialect Society (Wikipedia, 2017)—trumpeting both the freedom and equality of black Americans, as the unmistakable virtuosity of Jazz musicians left white visitors to Harlem with little credible rationale for notions of racial supremacy. The word is powerful, and as with many other black idioms and neologisms it will go on to imprint itself upon the world. It is a new structure raised first in New Orleans, but now here in Harlem, and when the white folks awake they will see it towering there on the skyline—they will wonder and resent and scoff, and finally they will embrace it. So here we have Hughes spreading the word of this Jazzed-up new freedom in a new black language, which is informal and conversational, and rather more authentic than, for instance, the non-Jamaican-vernacular poems of Claude McKay, which remain less stylistically free, less urban and modern, and largely “imprisoned in the pentameter” (Brathwaite in Jenkins, 2003, p. 285). Hughes, albeit in a more readerly sense than Joyce, is announcing some sort of revolution, and the modern freedom of his language tells us something about the city and its voices. But alongside the celebration we feel always the menace of the city outside: that other city where few black people yet live, the surrounding vastness of New York with its overarching and watchful narratives filled with “images of impenetrable whiteness” (Morrison, 1992, p. 33).
“There ain't no Ku Klux on a 133rd” is not merely a triumphal cry of escape from southern oppression: with its rejection of other potential stopping points en route to Harlem (Washington, Baltimore, Newark etc), it is a decisive identification of territory and a warning. So Hughes's poetry, language and consciousness constitute, perhaps, a unique Modernism, which will become profoundly influential, will lead, ultimately, amongst other things, to the white Beat culture, to Kerouac and Ginsberg et al emulating its Jazz styling. “The gods are laughing at us,” declares Hughes, becoming in some way one of those laughing gods overarching the city which he himself is instrumental in creating—and an enquiry of modern black Americans for the purposes of this essay reveals that he is still regarded as iconic in this process. Whatever the alleged limitations of his poetry, Hughes, “well before his compeers [...] demonstrated how to use black vernacular language and music […] as a poetic diction, a formal language of poetry” (Gates, 1993, pp. x-xi), and we feel keenly both the rising of this language from the shadows, and with it the rising of a new city. (Wikipedia, 2017)
So while The Dead is perhaps more writerly, giving us components rather than overt declarations, here too we are presented with—or enabled to construct—a city whose spirit and language are rising from the dead, and of actual or latent conflict. The paintings of 'the balcony scene' and the 'little princes' are effectively intertextual, intersecting images of death, factional violence, and blood feud, which we know are already spreading and worsening across Dublin at this time, as though the Furies (and would Joyce have failed to notice the Erin in Erinyes, the Greek name for the Furies?) are indeed rising, called back, like Furey's name itself evoking some Homeric or 'Aeschylusian' atavism of retribution and reclamation, in poetical and linguistic opposition even to Gabriel's surname, 'Conroy,' which we can reasonably deconstruct into a Joycean wordplay meaning with the king. And in the references to the surrounding city, we have the church on Haddington Road, next to Wolfe Tone Square; we have the jarring binary juxtaposition of tyranny and rebellion in the Wellington Monument near the site of the 'Phoenix Park Murders;' and in all the references to imagery, to statuary, even to music and to the food served, we have these same tensions between Michael and Gabriel; between Galway and Dublin; between the west and east coasts; even between Gabriel and Gretta in the vast closing epiphany between them which says so much about Dublin and Ireland and the rising (if partly invented) spirit of its history and tradition. All of this is wonderfully expressed in the instant visual canonizing of Gretta captured against the stained glass in John Huston's film of The Dead like the the 'Spirit of Éireann' (contemporaneous poster-icon adversary of the 'West Briton') suddenly incarnate in Dublin, in that atavistic burst of colour and song which has Gabriel transfixed, though still failing to grasp the resurrection here, still in denial until the final moments where he realises he has been competing with the chthonic Michael, whose undead Gallic spirit and the discourse it represents—which he had hoped was long exorcised from Gretta and from Dublin—has been here throughout. And if he had only looked more closely at the city and his wife, perhaps he might have seen it all along.
Wednesday, July 10, 2019
.. - --- --- .- -- -. --- - .- -... .. - - .- -- . -.. ·-·-·- .. - --- --- .- -- ..- -. - .-. .- -. ... .-.. .- - .- -... .-.. . —Walt Whitman
From this distance in time an Atlantic mist shrouds everything. There are no films, no recordings, no diaries—only snatches of song through the static, old stories half-heard on a broken wartime radio: the convoys; Morse code; U-Boats calling to each other like bats...
My Grandfather, Walter, speaks in bursts, in a cracked old Scouse accent, his voice unnaturally high and emasculated by age, squeaking sometimes like an adolescent boy with his voice breaking:
“They weren't crying for God; they were screaming for their bloody mothers.” His eyes are grey and wide and wet like the sea, his voice a quiet shriek.
“The sea was all on fire around the ships, and the men were all jumping in.”
He clamps his entire face shut—almost gurning—shakes his head, turns back to the “Daily Sun”, as he calls it. We sit in the little neat kitchen that smells of bacon fat and Mr Muscle, with my Nana, Alice, wiping around him—she is a big, apron-clad fuss of tidiness and disapproval. I am nineteen, old enough and young enough to feel bored and superior. I am only really here because of my mother's insistence that I visit my grandparents occasionally. That and some sense of guilt.
“Their bloody mothers,” he repeats.
“Oh don't go on.” Her face is clamped shut too, scowling at him in his nondescript crimplene slacks; his beige cardigan with its brown leather buttons; even a tie—one of those narrow 1960s knitted ties—on a weekday, for Christ’s sake, just sitting in the kitchen doing nothing but being bloody irritating, with his thin, haunted, grey face, his thick white hair even at this age. Silly old sod. Why couldn't he just die?
She outgrew him long ago, and has been ashamed of him ever since. What she can't outgrow are her weird Anglican sensibilities of marriage as an unbreakable set of vows—for better or for worse. Better to live a lifetime of contempt and misery than break the rules, presumably.
“You seen this?” He's jabbing the paper, his eyes furious. “Bloody bananas now, the swine...” He hates Europeans, hates the ‘Common Market.’ He would have loved Brexit, but he’d have to have lived to 102-years-old to have seen all that, and that was always unlikely.
“Have you read it? 'Ave yer?”
“Oh don't go on...” The silly old sod.
And the nights of burning ships, of men screaming for their mothers, are the 19th and 20th of October, 1940. The convoy is HX 79, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Liverpool. Walter is a Merchant Marine soldier at sea, on an oil tanker, operating a Bofors pom-pom gun on anti-aircraft duty. He is twenty-six; his skin is raw from the chafing of his always-wet black gunnery uniform. He doesn't know it yet, but up ahead in the Western Approaches before Ireland the Wolfpack gathers. There are even two aces present—Gunther Prien in U47, and Otto Kretschmer in U99—and over the next forty-eight hours theirs and other U-Boats will sink thirty-two ships. Walter steams into history.
Signals bounce across the radio waves in Ultra, summoning more sea monsters to the feast; but this is 1940, and the famous codebreakers from Bletchley Park are not yet adept at cracking Ultra. Alan Turing has not yet secretly saved the world or been hounded to death for being Gay. This is what the U-Boat crews call Die Glückliche Zeit—The Happy Time—when the Enigma coding is still intact, when the convoy system is still ineffective. The time when no one could yet do a damn thing about it. Walter steams through a fiery seascape at night, seeing burning men jump from burning ships into the burning sea. They do not cry for God.
And after these two nights Walter will never cry for God again.
And then it is many years later, and we are sitting in the garden outside my parents' old house above the Clwyd Valley in North Wales (where we had moved to escape Liverpool), drinking sparkling wine in the sunshine. I am house-sitting for the summer, and Alice is describing dancing to Jazz at the Rialto Club when Walter was on leave, how he looked so handsome capering in his green suit. He sounds like a leprechaun, and it's hard to imagine; he is an old man now, kneeling wheezily on the grass, somewhat improbably fashioning a box kite from newspaper and sticks (kites have long been his party piece). Beside him is a broken concertina he picked up somewhere; he can't play it for shit, but he's been annoying everyone with it for the last year.
“And I got a gorgeous green dress to match.” Alice is zoning in and out of the past like a stage psychic alternating between talking to the audience and talking to the spirit world. I imagine them in green, whirling under bright lights, twenty-something, wartime, filled with whatever stolen relief people got from alcohol and music and love, and a few quick days off from the war.
“Oh you shoulda seen us.”
“D'ya remember that time, Lal...” This has ever been his term of endearment for her, but she cuts him off. She won't remember for him, but she remembers for me, her eyes shining like a little girl.
“We met at the opening of the Mersey Tunnel. There were thousands there. Even the King and Queen an' all.” And she is truly rapt, as though her moist eyes are seeing into heaven.
“Aw, you've never seen such a day.”
She shakes herself a little, and sighs, and we watch Walter building his kite and whistling to himself toothlessly. The sun shines; there are birds singing. From here, we can see right across the valley to the brown-purple heathered flanks of the Berwyn Mountains.
“Keep talking,” I say. I want to know about everything while they are in this mood; they have almost become kids again. I am about thirty now, and no longer so superior. I have the feeling that this may be the last time ever, that this moment in the sunshine will be a kind of ending. But Alice is suddenly shy.
“Let's see if his silly kite flies then,” she says.
The Atlantic crossing is cold and brutal, with the ever-present dread of what lurks below. You imagine them singing Nazi songs down there in their iron bubbles, or holding their breaths, waiting. They invade your dreams when you climb into your wet, smelly bunk, which was vacated ten seconds earlier by your predecessor. The ship rumbles on, shuddering and moaning as ships do when you lie deep in their bellies. There is an overpowering reek of male sweat and fear. Around you in the night, other ships catch fire, then slide into the deep, plummeting towards the sea-floor far below. If you are on deck, sometimes you can see the desperate, oily faces of the men in the sea, shining up in the firelight; you hear their cries. They won't last long in that cold. At least that is a mercy; better that the weather was freezing so they would die quicker. Leaving men behind in the water was perhaps the hardest thing of all. You wanted time to speed up so they'd be dead already. You wanted to stop for them, but you couldn't or your ship would be next, and then you'd be in the water, watching them all steam by, every gaunt-faced man on deck trying to pretend you didn't exist. Perhaps—as you drowned—you'd think of home, of Whitby Street: chickens in the back yard, and the outside toilet shared with the neighbours. Freezing your arse off in winter. Or perhaps you'd remember Jazz dancing at the Rialto. (Years later—in 1981—the Rialto too will burn like a ship from your dreams on the first night of the Toxteth riots. But by then your dancing days will be long over.)
There are calmer nights on the convoys too: the sky low-hanging with more stars than anyone could imagine, and the ships gliding through luminescent green fields of plankton. You could draw up bucketfuls of glittering sea water that shone bright enough to read by. And then the sun spills out like dancing gold over the wave-tops at dawn, and you make it safely around Ireland—Rockall, Shannon, Sole, Fastnet, Lundy, Irish Sea... River Mersey. River Mersey...
You are alive: what finer sight could there be than the Liver Buildings drawing you home, the Liver Birds ushering you in on their angel-wings...
And the good old sexist joke about the Liver Birds (one looks in towards the city, the other out across the Mersey) is that the one gazing out is a wife looking to see if her man is returning from sea. The other is her sailor husband, coming home, looking to see if the pubs are open yet.
I would like to say that the kite soars out across the valleys of North Wales, mounting into the shimmering haze of the sunset like a distant dream (as Alice will remember it later). The reality is that it flies shakily on the breeze until the string snaps, and we never see it again.
Walter is unused to gardens. He was born in 1914 on a back street. His mother would drive him out of the house to make money, barefoot, from when he was ten years-old, and wouldn't allow him back in until he had made sixpence. He would scurry like a rat under trestle tables at Saint John's Market, scavenging vegetable scraps to sell. If he didn't make his sixpence he would have to sleep on the street, even in midwinter. He told old stories of Liverpool: of sectarian warfare spilt over from Ireland; of gang fights and criminality. In one of these stories a man is dragged from a pub on Lower Breck Road sometime in the 1950s, and held against the wall outside, his legs forced apart, while other men—drunk and laughing—kick him repeatedly in the groin until he is almost destroyed.
“I saw him years after—years after—and he was still on crutches like,” Walter says, shaking his head with that grimace that permanently oscillates somewhere between anxiety and outrage. (I am ten years-old when I first hear this story, and years later I still feel the male horror it implanted.)
Walter has been a survivor, a barefoot child foraging in a brutal city; a sailor somehow making it home while all around other men died in the freezing, burning water. But Alice too has been a survivor. She tells stories of the Liverpool Blitz of 1940, of hiding behind a mattress with the kids just before the front wall of their house was blown in by a landmine dropped from a Dornier (everyone had learnt the different engine sounds of German bombers by then). They all survived, though the coarse, noisy parrot—called Gracie—forgotten in the panic, was forever cured of repeating “bloody swine” (in which it had been diligently tutored by Walter).
The next morning, Alice runs along still-burning streets to fetch the bread and milk with walls collapsing around her. She survives. (Years later, we kids would play in the rubble of these 'bommies,' as we called them, wearing inherited gas-masks, little thinking of the body parts still lost below.)
Small wonder then that you would grab the chance to go out drinking and dancing in green after nights like that; small wonder that you might grab the chance to do anything, with your husband away at sea, perhaps never to return. And Alice's second daughter—named Joan—looks unlike the others. She is big-boned. black-haired, olive-skinned: a changeling.
And pale, slight Walter really isn't sure if he was on leave at the right time to explain all of that. And perhaps something dark rises in him like a sea monster.
In the garden that day, having forgotten Walter's “silly kite,” we talk of relatives, of daughters and granddaughters, of infidelities and marriage breakups.
“I think,” Alice says, “when the sex is gone, it's all gone.” She is wearing a crocheted cardigan and black trousers. I've never before heard her utter the word 'sex.' Walter doesn't say anything; he has no script, no neural pathways for such exchanges, and his wife is an uncomfortable mystery to him in these moments. His kite is lost somewhere in a clump of nettles.
A few years later, Joan, now in her fifties, accuses Walter of molesting her as a child. Alice doesn't want to know; Walter surrounds himself with an iron curtain of unhearing.
“He did it, Mum,” says Joan, whose hair is still jet black, whose skin is still olive.
“It's too late, Joan,” says Alice, her face set like a big quivering rock. “It's too late. I don't want to know now.”
Whatever outcome Joan has hoped for—perhaps agonised over—for all those years, it is not this. It is not yet the age of #MeToo, and it is mentioned no more, but the next time Joan can bear Walter's presence is at his funeral.
My last memory is of an old yellow man with frightened eyes in a respirator mask like a spaceman, with a nebulizer machine gurgling along next to the bed. He is dying of emphysema, despite having quit smoking decades earlier. He sits there looking out with eyes like a drowning man, while Alice cleans the house around him, smothering his weak voice with the vacuum, cleaning everywhere five times a day, sucking up his remnants in advance so there would be nothing left of him—sucking up the time he has left, and with it all memory, wiping it all clean.
Most of his clothes have already been washed, ironed, folded, and packed in bin-liners ready for the charity shop, so that when they wheel his body out, a minute or two after he dies, there is already little trace of him, as though some Atlantic fog-bank has rolled in, shrouding everything.
“I imagine Walter as someone who could get a tune out of anything,” says the unreliable vicar at the funeral a few days later, nodding and smiling at us all rather cheerfully and expectantly.
And we all remember that damned concertina, and wonder just who the hell he could be talking about.