I met Douglas Coupland once. Well, not really met. I queued up to get a book signed (for a friend’s birthday) in a chain book shop in Leeds around the turn of the millennium. It must’ve been for Miss Wyoming. I was working at a posh shoe shop at the time, just a couple of streets along from the book shop. It was a job I did in-between lectures at university and clubbing (my real occupation). I went along to the book signing one lunchtime and there he was, signing books. When it was my turn he glanced at the name badge I was wearing (why did I have a name badge? That’s not posh) and said, “You won’t always be wearing one of those.” I think he got a kick out of saying things like that to fans. Stuff he knew that would be taken to heart, that might even be motivational. It was too, I felt like I’d seen a psychic or something. I’ve just remembered this because I am three quarters of the way through re-reading Hey Nostradamus! and I am savouring every word. I’d remembered the outline of the story but all the colour, all the sadness and all the beauty, I’d lost. Books, man! Not everything’s on the internet and halle-damn-lujah for that.
Update: I just met up with Alice, the signed book giftee, and it turns out it wasn’t Miss Wyoming but All Families Are Psychotic, which makes it around 2001/02, and I wasn’t working at a shoe shop but in a bank, of all places, doing some temp work on the summer holiday. I had completely buried that experience, no doubt out of shame. Memory is weird.
This ridiculously Getty-ish image is the real-life view that greeted me at 6.30am yesterday morning. That’s Batak Lake in the Rhodope Mountains, to the south of Bulgaria. It’s just as pretty in person.
By this lake I finished Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, a wonderfully witty, insightful and moving dissection of Celine Dion’s divisive superstardom and how privilege, prejudice and our own personal stories lurk beneath ideas of taste. Many of Wilson’s lines thrilled me but this one near finished me off: “Just as churches say God saves every miserable sinner, the secular lesson is that time doesn’t leave anybody out either: no matter how stuck you feel, you still get to go to the future.” [Thanks, Caspar.]
I ran from Wilson’s arms right into Janet Frame’s. The third volume of her autobiography, in fact; a going away gift from Zillakiller. Frame strips bare to the bones in the telling of her story, inviting us into a world strung together with taut red ligaments. So much stung but especially this serendipitous line: “a life supervised, blessed and made lonely by the sky”.
We seek signal. Every new object – and everything is now object, to be passed around – is an opportunity for opinion; staged with provocation, desperate for response. To be heard is to exist. But what is more valued: an echo or an opposition? Or are we simply all hiding in our own corners, talking to ourselves?
“Technology may make it possible to have a continuous feedback to ourselves of information. But at the moment I think we are starved of information. I think that the biggest need of the painter or writer today is information. I’d love to have a tickertape machine in my study constantly churning out material: abstracts from scientific journals, the latest Hollywood gossip, the passenger list of a 707 that crashed in the Andes, the colour mixes of a new automobile varnish.”
This is J.G. Ballard being prescient again in conversation with the artist Eduardo Paolozzi in 1971 (Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967-2008). I prefer Ballard’s vision to today’s reality. He saw an endless stream of information as a feast to gorge on, fuel for his imagination and the landscape of his novels. Today the stream is two-way and, ironically, we’ve lost our way, caught in a cul-de-sac of ego. We don’t leap at the stream, thirsty to absorb it but let it wash over us as we focus instead on building a picture of ourselves in our own heads.
“Just say what you want to say.” I overheard a school kid say this on the phone to his mum a few weeks back. Least his tone suggested it was his mum. He couldn’t have been more than 10 years old and already he knows when people are talking but not communicating.
“But I had less a sense of bursting out, I think, and more a sense of tuning in to my own transmission. Tuning out the influences, the static and interference. I didn’t get there by explosives. My whole understanding of it was that I could get it only by concentration.”
Ted Hughes in interview with the Paris Review, 1995
Scrawled on bits of paper, typed into machines, pushed past lips. These words that grasp at something, that scrabble to give shape, that act as a veil for the ones stuck in our throats, buried beneath the skin.
It rained hard in Brixton the other day. Thunder, lightening and thick, fat rain. I recorded it on my phone but it doesn’t come close to the feeling of hearing it, seeing it, smelling it in person. It’s like words in that sense, the way they rarely find the shape or the taste of the moment we wish to articulate. Words fail, sentences fall short, speech is redundant when all we crave is touch.
On Dylan Thomas: “He sought his own death and he found it, which is not entirely tragic.”
On Becket: “I could hear one word that was absolutely terribly wrong… Why did I say “di-vine” and not “divine service” which is the perfectly obvious thing to say. That’s where I overacted.”
On life: “A sense of wonder…if one loses that, one loses everything.”
Watch Richard Burton interviewed by Michael Parkinson in 1974 >>
John Malcolm Brinnin on William Carlos Williams, 1963