Thursday, September 11, 2008

Categories of loss

There are a number of types of entry I would usually make in a notebook, as opposed to the various other books and devices in and on which I record my adrenaline-driven ramblings. By listing first these types, and then those instances of these I can remember, even just as headings beneath headings, I will then try to recall the few fragments I can of the lost entries. Realistically, of course, I can only hope for a tiny rate of recovery, but then I have rarely been realistic about any creative goal I've set myself, and it would clearly be counterproductive to start now. Each heading will eventually be expanded into an entry, however tiny, however, to adapt the terminology of Wikipedia, stubby.


(The beginnings or constituent parts of actual poems. Here I'm fortunate, in that I'd recently gone through the notebook and extracted these up to about the middle of August. Including these will be a propaganda victory in the war upon oblivion.)


(From books, newspapers, films, radio and television. Many of these are of course permanently lost, but, as I often respond directly to my reading, it may be possible, through the simple agency of speed-reading everything I looked at over the last eighteen months, to recover some of these.)


I was very struck by a review, probably in the THES, of a book by Paul Ricoeur which had a concluding chapter on the ethics of translation. This was probably Reflections On The Just. I've since picked up if not waded through a few of Ricoeur's works, and could no doubt retrieve the very review from our senior common room.

A subsection of this would be notes on overheard conversations:

I can for instance remember sitting in S-bux listening to a young woman expostulating on how extraordinary she found umbrellas (as sentiment I heartily agree with), and how grossed out she was by 'elderly' mothers (don't concur with her on this.

Then there was the ex-serviceman in the Tynemouth Lodge who delivered a few insights into the actions of the Paratroopers on Bloody Sunday. The worst part of the loss here is, of course, the particular phrasing, which had a lot to do with me copying a statement down in the first place. I remember him remarking on his age and health, 'I'm clinging to the gutter by my fingernails.'


(One of these will be easy to construct, as Debbie bought me almost everything on it for my birthday. The last such I can probably remember with a trip to the bookshop where I made it. It was focussed, like much of my recent reading, on Mediterranean and Eastern European history, and there was definitely one book about The Siege of Vienna in the wake of reading Lords of the Horizon and talking to Austrian poet Bernhard Widder.)

Journal entries

(These are entries I should have made in my journal, but which, for convenience's sake, I jotted down in my notebook. These go to the heart of the project, as I was having a torrid time in relation my workload/creativity balance, and made lots of plans and observations I would dearly like to remember.)


At present I can remember one reflection on the flaws in our definitions of nothingness that has an ironic tang now. It was made by the light of my mobile phone as we were driven through the countryside between Shanghai and Anhui Province. Then there was a puzzled entry on what a 'world poet' might be at the present time.

Plots and plans

(I frequently note down ideas that are meant to get me into some project or other that has stalled or that I have stalled before starting.)


Foremost amongst the stalled would be the McGonagall book, a novel which I have written plenty of fragments for without really getting stuck into: two ideas were outlined in the notebook. The Sleeper and the Twelve Tasks. I'll go into these in more depth in separate entries. One subtitle I happened upon thanks to the Goodwin book was The Autohagiography.

The other main area I'd welcome total recall in relation to would be the long poem I was contemplating as a sequel to the (not very successful) Laurelude. This languished under the under-inspiring title The Discursion, and apart from deciding that every poem would have a definite article in its title, I also went on at length about the various combinations of stanzas that made up the mystical unit 28. (Why 28 is at all relevant to the process is another enigma I wish I could remember.)


(This is the best title I can come up with for the sort of doodling and play with languge which was one of the notebook's principle purposes. I'd play with a phrase, sometimes a mishearing, or list odd rhymes I rarely got round to using, or produced parodies, or just sketched with language, an action halfway between recording and drafting.)


Likely to be far and few because of the nature of these beasts.

Projects and places

(Because I am very much a poet of passive response, often to place, projects and places are pretty much indistinguishable -- if I went somewhere, I usually wanted to write about it. And I went somewhere a lot during this period, too much in fact and therefore was in the midst of various projects, including the central loss this project is about, the Moscow trip. These will have to become separate headings)


Gurnards Head (Cornwall) - early 07

Copied out quite a lot from two texts there: Bruce Chatwin's magisterial What Am I Doing Here? and Tom Baker's dippy 'Who Is Tom Baker?' The questioning seemed very appropriate to the place I found myself in. The first was an extract about Herzog and walking, the second about ironing. I slightly prefer the second activity to the first.

Athens, Georgia (and Asheville, NC)

One of my favourite clippings came from this short stay: an account of a mobster shot in the head but saved by his hatband, 'I din't do/feel nuthin,' he mumbles, and must be retrieved.

Crete at Easter

Jerusalem in May

Rome in June

- I remember copying down the name of the 'rampa' near our hotel, called after a linguist or 'glottologico'? And the remark of an old man on the bus when the air condition started 'raining' on us: 'In Roma, null e impossibile.' (Though of course my Italian will be out for both of these.

Crete in the Summer

Guangzhou in September

- I remember one phrase in relation to a jade-clad figure recovered from a royal tomb: 'green lobster man'

Yellow Mountain in October

Poland in March 08

This was Lodj, which we (a group including Kate Clanchy and Christopher Reid) were driven to from Warsaw. I remember writing down 'komputery' because I was fascinated by the way a Polish plural became, homophonically, an English adjective. And the word for 'beware.' And some details from a setting of Auden by the daughter of the architect Lutyens that I can probably research without difficulty. There was probably quite a lot about borshch, the 'Jewish' restaurant and statuary -- their much-polished noses in particular being echoed/reflected in Ploshchad Revolutsiy metro the following month.

Moscow in April/May

South Wales in June

Crete in the Summer

Novi Sad (Serbia) in August

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Last entry, first recovery

On Friday night I threw down my chopsticks, leapt up from my usual semi-comatose position in front of telly and takeaway, ran to the kitchen, extracted my notebook from my jacket pocket, and wrote down the following:

'Your opinion's not valid, because you're not wearing a disguise.'

Keen followers of The Adverts will recognise this as being paraphrased from some bank ad or other, where the guy's fake moustache falls into his coffee. As ever, I liked it for its possibly inadvertent subtext that only those who assume the facade of authority, normality, maturity will be paid heed to. Also because it alludes to the independent life of moustaches, something I've long suspected.

Of course, because I left the notebook out rather than replacing it immediately, the circumstances leading to its loss could begin. Was it worth it for so trivial a note? But of course the whole purpose of a notebook is to cancel all such hierarchies as a first gesture. You copy something down because it attracts, even commands your attention, not because it's 'important'. It must speak to your underlying interests, themes and obsessions, even when you have not yet fully articulated what those are.

The part of you which copies things down, which jots down phrases and fragments before even knowing what they might form part of, which allows itself to be led by process, decidedly does not wear a disguise, because it is more 'normal', having assessed something as trivial, to forget it. That way nothing is begun, no articulation can be attempted, no conclusion will ever be reached.

The word 'trivial', by the way, comes from the same root as 'trivium', the first three of the liberal arts to be studied in medieval scholasticism: grammar, rhetoric and logic. It carries the definition in Chambers 'to be found anywhere' with the implication this makes it of little value. Its root in Latin is the place where three roads meet, 'tres via,' a place associated not only with decision-making, but with the uncanny through its associations with the goddess Hekate (Trivia to the Romans).

So which is being devalued by the modern usage: our learned ancestors or the chthonic goddess? It reminds me of the way as children in Dundee we used to dress up at Halloween before we understood this was supposed to be an American custom. We were supposed to be making the scary fun, though perhaps another interpretation would be we made it tolerable. Perhaps that's what to trivialise something means. Certainly we called ourselves 'guisers', to validate the exercise.

There's a nice confrontation here between the rational and irrational which matches my experience. The loss of the notebook is mysterious, so I attempt to deal with it first by logic, and then by assembling a sort of grammar of the lost categories, and a rhetoric of recovery, actions which in themselves are pretty barking. But then so was my initial note-taking. Was I abolishing categories or inverting them?

Whilst we're on latration (barking), Hekate always liked dogs. Dogs, horses and snakes. Not sure how she feels about moustaches.

Lost without rational explanation

I always carry a notebook round with me, and a sketchbook, a clipboard, and a journal. Frequently I carry a camera, and a mobile phone. And a large manbag to carry these items plus books, pens, papers, a minature umbrella, a miniature copy of the Master and Margarita in Russian which I can't read, a phasin (stripy wrapround garment my brother-in-law brought me back from Thailand, usually for ladies), ipod, headphones, cables. In my pockets are various examples of plastic cutlery, either sugar or mustard, paracetemol or some other pills, earplugs (occasionally), frequently my passport. Receipts, postcards (one of Tommy Cooper, one of St George by the Cretan painter Emmanuel Tzanes), small maps of wherever I am. And my notebook.

Which is currently a small moleskine, though I resisted getting anything so brand-y for a long time. It was bought almost two years ago, and the spine started giving out a while back, so I repaired it, once unsuccessfully with some black tape that kept unsticking and sliding off; once, recently, at the kitchen table in Crete in fact, with a wide strip of ridgy black tape that seemed to sort it out. There are entries in it dating as far back as Jan 07, the beginning of a tumultuous period for me creatively, and continuing up till the night before last Saturday, September 6th. When I lost it.

How I lost it, logic tells us, must remain a mystery, though the specifics of this mystery are even more baffling than I usually find the universe. I was rushing to get ready for a trip to the Bristol Poetry Festival, but had everything together in just about enough time to get to the station. It was raining, heavily, and I had forgotten to get myself a raincoat, but it was just a matter of popping to the bathroom for it, unzipping its winter lining, and slipping it on. We jumped in the car and sped off to meet our first traffic jam. Was I going to make my train? Did I have the organisers' phone numbers? Where was my mobile? I felt for it in the phone pocket on my jacket -- and it was missing. Most unfortunate, but there was no time to turn back -- I'd have to take my wife's instead and she could use mine.

Now, there is a point where the memory resembles fiction, because, although you can remember something happening, you can't remember whether it really happened or you can simply imagine it plausibly happening. I 'remember' that, whilst checking for my phone in my other pockets, I noticed that I didn't have my notebook. I'm 'fairly sure' I thought something along the lines of 'I've forgotten both of them -- this is hardly auspicious.' I seem to have said something along these lines to my wife, because when she came home, she searched for both items, although the evidence is I only texted her from the station to say my train was delayed. That would seem to imply that I said something about the notebook as well as the phone, and that I did not have the notebook before I left the car at Newcastle Station.

Of course, I could have trapped the notebook between jacket and raincoat, only for it to fall out as I got out of the vehicle and hurried to my train. Would I have noticed? Possibly, as I had to get my bag out of the back of the car, so didn't just rush off. But the notebook could have fallen there and been swept away without being handed in to Lost Property (I've checked and rechecked, naturally).

Equally, it could have fallen somewhere between the house and the car, though the car was parked directly outside the house, and we did have a short conversation standing outside the house but within the garden about whether to take my keys or not. If it had fallen here, surely we would have noticed, or my wife would have on her return. That leaves the possibility it fell down just as I was getting into the car and that, in the time it took for her to complete her round trip, someone came along and pocketed or purposively threw away the item. Because it hasn't been handed in to the police (I've checked).

By the time I'd got on the train I'd gone through all my pockets and my bag again. I suppose I might have missed it, then it got lost whilst I removed my outer clothing in order to take off my jumper. I checked (and rechecked) that nothing had been handed in at Kings Cross. But of course, you would conclude, I would conclude, these are all less likely than the scenario in which it never left the house. Certainly, I assumed so and exhorted my wife repeatedly over the weekend to check in all the obvious places. Of course I'd been distracted by that business with the raincoat and its fascinating unzippable lining, and I'd simply left phone and notebook behind. Except she searched car, kitchen table, living room table, bedroom table, study table, and all points between, and couldn't find it.

Of course, on my return (the event went very well incidentally, despite all these harbingers of disaster to the primitive of mind), I would be able to see what she had not. I'm a good looker-for-things and she's not got the same investment in finding it. Except, after hours of searching meticulously in all the aforementioned places, going through all my papers, searching through drawers I might have stood near, looking under behind and within both sofa and bed, going though all the papers to be recycled, all the rubbish bins, several bags of papers that had nothing to do with the whole business but happened at least to be bags full of papers, and pacing slowly up and down the garden and indeed the street, peering under bushes and in gutters, I still couldn't find my notebook.

I searched in the dark, I searched in the daylight, I even searched in my dreams, finding it twice: once 'behind the seat, and to my left' (a fair description of the past), once in the fridge, where a helpful woman had placed it. I had actually looked in the fridge the previous evening, when things were getting bad. Eventually I had to conclude that, while the notebook presumably existed somewhere in the universe, and while all logical supposition would lead one to conclude the high likelihood that it was still in the house, no amount of looking could actually locate it. Moving rapidly from denial through depression to a sort of acceptance, I began to think about what I should do next.

There were a lot of units of writing of great personal value in the notebook, some of which were of professional importance to me (I'll go through the contents in another post), some of which, in a sense I couldn't do without. But here I was without them, so, still allowing logic its head, they would have to be replaced. That is the the purpose of this blog. I will try to remember, as far as is within my powers, the contents of the notebook. Many, perhaps the vast majority of entries are as lost as the physical object. But their categories survive, although I never thought of them particularly as categories. In some cases I can make a stab at reconstructing a fragment or a simulacrum of their contents. As I do so I will also go further into my motives for this exercise, and why I've decided to carry it out in a quasi-public forum.