wiping off cobwebs

It's been a thousand years since I posted, I know. Where to start?

I finished a book, took some unpaid leave from my job, and am now living with I. in the Middle East, writing a novel. I'd been planning and researching bits of one during the final stages of the Loathed Long-Overdue Academic Book, but, after I got here, realised that I in fact wanted to write an entirely different novel which started bursting out of my brain, if not fully-formed, then at least with all its fingers and toes and the beginnings of an attitude.

So here, I am, living in a skyscraper with a view of Millionaire Yachts, shisha cafes and an artificial island shaped like a palm tree, avoiding expat women groups (which are full of beaky-faced xenophobes discussing their maids), taking Arabic lessons, but mostly writing. It's like being an Alice in a very peculiar Wonderland built by imported slave labour, where the native population is massively outnumbered by foreigners, where cohabiting and having sex with I. is illegal, where the malls sell skimpy women's clothing which is not allowed to be worn in public, and we buy our wine surreptitiously in a semi-legal shop with no name or address.  I. spends his time trying to persuade Sheikhs to sign things before they go off falcon-hunting in the desert.

The future is a complete mystery, but that's the present, at any rate.

Waiting for Milton Keynes

Bizarrely (or maybe appropriately?) to Milton Keynes last night, to see the Sean Mathias/Ian McKellen/Patrick Stewart Godot. I’d misread the train timetable, and got there much too early, and, having never been in central Milton Keynes before, was naively under the impression I could wander about the centre of town, and have a drink before the performance. I took a cab from the railway station, through endless roundabouts, with large shiny vaguely commercial-looking buildings, set well back in huge car-parks on either side, which I assumed would give way to a city centre – I’d been told I needed the ‘Theatre District’. Reader, the centre of Milton Keynes is a giant, gridded, roofed-in  shopping mall. There are no streets. The ‘Theatre District’ is a giant shiny single metallic building with forlorn-looking branches of Bella Pasta and TGI Fridays hanging out their signs at intervals. There is no there there. I ended up whimpering, walking the identical tiled corridors of the mall,  watching generica close up for the night – a seemingly endless parade of M and S, HMV, Pizza Hut, Boots’, Fat Face, Superdrug, McDonalds… I ended up buying a hat, less because I needed a hat than because there wasn’t anything else to do, or because of some existential chill. The centre of a city had become nothing but an opportunity to buy things.  No squares or odd little corners, no places for people to live or congregate, no old buildings, no blue plaques, no unexpected twists or turns, no streets, just these bright, chilly, identical mezzanines with people roaming.


By the time the play started I was so bleak that Waiting for Godot, a play I could almost recite along with the actors, seemed like the warmest and most life-affirming of experiences. It was, it has to be said,  a rather cosy production, on a set that suggested a bombed-out theatre, with comic ‘boinnnnggg’ sound effects and an affectionate Didi and Gogo as a pair of old hoofers liable to break into vaudevillean song-and-dance numbers at the drop of a hat. Waiting for Luvvies. Ronald Pickup the best Lucky I’ve ever seen, though, genuinely disquieting. Milton Keynes was much bleaker than a play Adorno regarded as an icon of art after Auschwitz. I ran for my cab the second the curtain came down, and the chatty driver was amused at my ill-concealed unease, pointing out the new indoor ski slope, and a huge Indian restaurant with a heli-pad, which apparently is patronised by Prince Andrew, God help us.


I made it back to my grubby corner of north London (which looks rather wonderful currently, with daffodils among the blowing chip papers) after a brief, rather frightening wait on the MK station platform, watching a freight train roar past, loaded with dozens of identical white vans, and the light in a single window, high up in an office block, flicker on and off.

But I. is back from the Middle East tonight, and all else is as nothing...


Kitchen aria

I am writing this on my bed, in a bedroom which contains every movable item from the living room, including two sofas, a hat stand, several large plants, a dining table and chairs, a small cupboard full of glasses, and a set of botanical watercolours, plus the new cooker and washing machine. For lo, verily, it occurred to us that we should do the environmentally responsible thing and replace our medieval boiler (last serviced 1983) and then also seize the chance to lay out the kitchen differently so that the boiler wasn’t next to the fridge, and so that the astonishing amount of kitchen equipment and supplies we seem to own – seven different types of sugar, three kinds of whisk,  a doughnut maker – could be stored properly etc etc. Which is why I have been, since Friday, acting as unpaid project manager to the gas fitter, the electrician and the kitchen fitter, who appear to be having some form of testosterone contest in our tiny stripped kitchen which prevents them from actually communicating – apart from the horrid fact that it emerged that our inoffensive old IKEA kitchen cabinets concealed dangerous, illegal home-made electric wiring, and the fact that the gas supply pipe is too small for our new boiler, so all of the floorboards have to come up. The price of the whole thing has mounted by roughly a third since Saturday. My chequebook winces. I. is in the Middle East, squeaking with outrage down a poor phone line and thanking his stars he’s not here.  


For two pins I would say, Put it back the way it was, cover the fire-hazard wiring in tiles and we’ll pretend nothing’s happened!


The thing that is keeping me sane, oddly, is opera, about which I know nothing and have never much minded about. But with G. now working at the ROH, I get to a lot of dress rehearsals at odd hours of the day – most recently to Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Bellini’s I Capuleti et i Montecchi. I go in with no knowledge, no preconceptions – nothing of the critical mind I bring to the theatre – and plonk myself down in an orchestra seat that I begin to think of as mine (despite the fact that it costs £220 for a performance) and sometimes all I hear are vocal acrobatics, strenuous and impressive, the way someone doing the high jump is impressive, and sometimes I’m absolutely ravished by some aria or duet and go home humming it badly.

What I still cannot handle is the silver-haired smugfest in the row behind shouting 'Brava!' at curtain calls.



I have a ticket to Pete Postlethwaite’s Lear tonight, but I may decide not to risk the tube having already stopped for the night by the time it ends. Or maybe the snow is an excuse. I honestly find Lear difficult to reconcile with the average notion of an evening’s quiet enjoyment, and good ones are harder to bear than mediocre ones. The alternative is an evening with a glass of wine, mushroom soup, and either Un conte de Noël or a stack of books from a wonderful recent haul at a Tunbridge Wells secondhand shop.


The flat was oddly quiet all day, as though the snow muffles – the skylights in the kitchen roof were completely covered in snow and the view out the window was smoothed roofs and branches outlined in white, with one hunched, fat woodpigeon. The other thing is the relative absence of traffic on the street, and the flat white reflected light indoors. I. has been away for the last few days, and the weather has meant that the Cambridge friend who was coming to stay cancelled, and my own plans to go to stay with S. are on hold, so I’m hibernating, making cakes, and working on the new chapter, reading Angela Carter, wearing two woollen jumpers and a pair of ski socks. Not thinking about D, who passed through for the weekend and brought his usual crackle of mental static.


I went out to walk in the park this morning as soon as it got light enough – I wake early when I. isn’t here for some reason, and had been reading the Mitford sisters’ letters (a hoot – even the one I always thought of as the dullard, Debo Devonshire, she of Chatsworth, Shetland ponies and recipes, has impeccable comic timing) and watching the snow fall for while – and was passed by a serious-looking woman on cross-country skis, with a baby in a backpack wearing a pink hat knitted to look like a strawberry. Later, the place was thronged with people making snowmen and children sliding on teatrays and roadsignsdown the slope I can see from my window. One group of adults and children even made a surprisingly competent igloo using snow tamped down in the green local recycling boxes. (North London survivalism.) I went out to the park again as it was getting dark, when all but a few feral snowballing stragglers had gone home – dirty mauve-ish sky, the trodden snow silting over again, and endless snow figures standing silently about in the trees. The relentless human tendency to anthropomorphise - put two balls of snow one on top of the other, stone eyes, stick arms, someone's scarf, and there you go, us.

I hate it when I. is away - I get visited by imaginary burglars nightly between 2 and 4 am.


New Year

We got back from Switzerland late last night, after a week with friends at their chalet in the Bernese Oberland. We’d spent the end of December down by the lake, as G. had the final nights of an opera run, so we spent New Year’s Eve eating fondue with the cast and crew after the final performance of a very silly opéra bouffe, and danced to the technical director’s ipod on shuffle around the stage and backstage. (Michael Jackson, Jacques Brel, Dire Straits, Leonard Cohen, Whitesnake.) Well, we did a restrained Irish twostep, while the dancers, which included two topless cabaret dancers from the Crazyhorse in Paris who were nudes figurantes in the opera, leapt around like gazelles, and the soprano’s two little girls looked on gravely.  Leaving at four in the morning on fearsomely icy roads, even H.’s Swiss sangfroid failed her, and we ended up abandoning the car and more or less falling the final couple of miles home down  a ferocious glassy gradient on foot, clad in opera-going clothes and formal shoes. Thank God for I.’s excellent balance, and the fact I was still slightly tiddled. My poor beloved black chiffon skirt bears the scars, though…


We went up to the mountains  the following day – astonishingly lovely to go up into the snows on hairpin roads as the daylight started to go, lighted-up chalets under thick quilts of snow and thick icicles, the pines all whitened, a few cows out for an airing by their barns, and the high peaks going pink and then dark. We had to shovel out a path to the chalet from the road through three feet of new snow, and then huddled in the space between the woodstove and the wall, like something from Heidi, until the rooms warmed. Even then we wore long silk underwear and ski socks and hats in the house, though I. and I were given the best bedroom, which has the stovepipe from downstairs running through it, and a view down the valley. We were outdoors all day, the other three ski-ing, me hiking for miles along the paths that were still passable in sharp, frigid sunshine –  it occurred to me to learn to cross-country ski, as I don’t care for downhill. We ate fierce amounts – fondue, raclette, soups, stews – and drank some kind of local marc that would have dissolved rocks,  and G. made bread every day in the chancy wood oven. I slept like the dead, and even urban I. didn’t complain of the frozen silence at night and long for double-deckers and drunks sound-effects. There is a little table at the back of the chalet, which looks out via a corner window onto the blank slope of  the hill, and above it the treeline, which would be a perfect place to write…


Back here now to the usual uncertainty about the future, life in the desert, and plugging away again at the book.


Middle East blues

I. left at five, with an unfeasible number of very badly-packed white shirts, to spend ten days in the Middle East signing a deal, and I feel unreasonably depressed. It isn’t helped by the fact that our houseguest, H, is still staying with us three weeks on, slightly to my disbelief – she can’t move into her new flat until next week, so I’ve felt I couldn’t ask her to leave, and I am fond of her – but I’m baffled as to why she chooses our tiny flat, with its cupboard-sized spare room and creaky floorboards, over repeated invitations from the other friends I mentally dub the Hampstead Lawyers and the South Ken Ballerina/Merchant Banker. I can’t believe someone who wrote a doctorate on French existentialist novels hasn't noticed that her presence has imposed a bit of a strain on two people trying to be hospitable, and retiring to bed early to have fights – or the same fight, really – in an undertone. We now know one another’s lines so well we could swap places – we argued our way through an otherwise marvellous tour of Wren City churches and the Middle Temple on Open House weekend, and went to a Spooks event (I. is a fan) at the ICA last night and managed to argue in virtual silence through Matthew McFayden and Howard Brenton telling funny stories. We nearly came to blows in the green room of Ready Steady Cook (a chef friend was on and gave us tickets) on Friday, which I would probably find funnier if I didn't feel so hopeless about the whole thing..


I can’t in all conscience ask I. not to do this thing he’s been working towards for months, especially in a recession where the alternative is unemployment – and especially as he has dealt cheerfully with me spending termtime a long distance away for years. But I can’t help feeling aggrieved that, having managed to earn this research year in London, and having been so ectstatic about the two of us having an entire year at home together, it is entirely possible I’ll be spending much of it alone, while he sets up the new company in some godforsaken skyscraper city in a desert. I could go with him, of course – this year of all years I am, in theory, flexible –  but it simply isn’t possible for me to live somewhere which appears to consist of an unappealing combination of oil-led capitalism and fundamentalist Islam on the one hand, and booze-fuelled expat bad behaviour inside Westerners’ compounds and hotels on the other. (The chief expat social event of the week appears to consist of holing up in a hotel for the entirety of the Friday Sabbath getting rat-arsed on an all-you-can-drink champagne brunch, which strikes me as about as enjoyable as repeatedly shutting my hand in a drawer. There’s also something that calls itself the Bridget Jones Club, which appears dedicated to the task of grooming – an activity suitable only for dogs, to my mind – and thereby bagging yourself a rich chap.) The only thing that appeals, besides I.’s company, would be the prospect of learning some Arabic, and of travelling in Iran or Jordan or India – but I am being paid to write a book, and this is also the year of my novel, and how can I transport all my books and papers halfway across the world and then work without proper libraries?


But I’m also afraid my presence there, however ironic, argumentative and provisional, would seem to legitimise the whole affair. At the moment, I. is determined that his presence out there will be a finite affair, that he will start the company and supervise the start-up and hiring, then, when all is up and running, will only be there for specific reasons, remaining based here. But I’m terribly afraid it may be easier to say than do, and easier to go than return. My being there might help confer a sense of permanence on what I'm determined is a short excursion, and that’s not a risk I want to take.

And with nice, mild-mannered, easily-alarmed H here, I can't even lie on the floor and howl.


curious moments of the past week

Curious moments of the last week:


Sitting in D’s restaurant, watching him haggle with one of his Tipperary foragers, a big, handsome, weatherbeaten woman with henna-red hair –  about the price of rosehips and morels, which she’s pouring out on the counter from a plastic sack.  Brief romantic fantasy of living in a caravan in the woods, actually being able to tell morels from ceps, and having a wolfhound as large as a bear. I. knows exactly what I’m thinking, and immediately starts talking brightly about the London Film Festival, the Rothko retrospective, Ivanov at the Donmar, dim sum in Chinatown. He has arranged a new book deal for D. with a bigger advance than either of them thought would be possible, and we all drink to D’s plumper bank balance (or, more accurately, to the slight lessening of his huge restaurant-buying loan), even though it’s around four in the afternoon. ‘White wine,’ D. says primly, when I eventually cover my glass, ‘is what I drink when I’m not drinking.’


Back in London, sitting on a rug in Hyde Park for the last night of the Proms, watching the full moon rise over forty thousand people all wearing or waving Union Jacks and singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, while I swat midges and watch a woman dressed as Britannia crowd-surfing near the stage. Two Americans nearby are wearing stars-and stripes t-shirts and Stetsons and looking tentative. All the patriotism is oddly inoffensive, and a bit goofy, although I can’t help noticing that virtually the only non-white faces belong to the security staff and the cleaners. There are hordes of children shuffling about in sleeping bags wearing flashing red devil-horns, which for some reason are being sold alongside the Union Jacks and Pimms. Later we are backstage with a friend of I.’s, and Terry Wogan, Sue Perkins, Lesley Garrett, José Carreras and some military trumpeters (buglers?) in full uniform are blinking in a series of slightly grim, fluorescent-lit portacabins which have the air of a film POW camp. Terry Wogan has noticeably the biggest portacabin.  


Later still, and even more weirdly, back in some terrible, lush Knightsbridge hotel lobby, crammed with the kind of outsize flowers that are so ugly they must be terribly expensive –   the kind of place where I  feel like mounting a soapbox with a copy of the Little Red Book –  two shortish, powerfully-built Americans cross the hall. I swear I notice the change in the air before registering, several beats behind everyone else (because to be honest, I hate gangster films, anything involving shooting, anything where the female characters are usually expendable hookers, and all the Godfather films), that this pair of prosperous suits is Robert de Niro and Al Pacino. It occurs to me that the reason that some kind of chemical reaction is taking place in this slick marble atrium, with its dead-eyed concierge, is that everyone here genuinely believes these two men who pretend to be other people for a living are more important than they are, and these two men believe it themselves, because why wouldn’t they? Fame is a kind of toxic caste system, powered by other people’s belief in it. The only one not twitching is Carreras, because in some way opera trumps film. By the time they’ve finished throwing around a couple of genial how you guys doin’ lines, I’m outscowling Travis Bickle, and I. is saying I have had had too much Knightsbridge air. And he’s right. I suspect Harvey Nicks may be the mouth of hell. We get a nightbus home, and I decide I love the Tottenham Court Road and a drunk pissing up a wall along by Kings Cross.


interruptions and fictional vengeances


I had today earmarked for a short, sharp half-day of current chapter rewrites, followed by a bath with lavender oil and a new novel (Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army), before meeting for dinner a friend who has again emerged from a psychiatric hospital, and seems admirably sanguine about life. But I. is currently hiding out at home with his phone off (ongoing complex work situation, business bandits in pinstripes) and pacing our creaky floorboards in his socks, and our friend H arrived last night from Switzerland to look for a place to live, and keeps pattering in and out in a wet coat clutching an A to Z and asking how to get to Camden Town. Meanwhile, I’m quietly clutching my head at my desk. My work territory is being trespassed on (by two people, one of whom I adore with the loves of all the ages etc etc. and the other who is a very dear friend, who are falling over themselves to be unobtrusive) and I’m going black in the face from not saying ‘I am currently only interested in my book – go far away, immediately.’ The fact that I. has hung on my door a present from French friends years ago – a wood sign that says ‘J’ESSAIE DE TRAVAILLER’ – suggests I am not hiding this well. I put it down to the fact that I never had anywhere to study when I was at school – our house was tiny, the kitchen table always full of meals and small children, and I did my homework lying on my lower bunk until the year I left school, when my grandfather died and I inherited his room. I don’t suppose Woolf figured in armed guards into her ideas about the necessity for a room of one’s own…


Amused and pleased by an e-mail from another friend, who has just sold her first novel to a good publisher, and was sent a rather lovely first mock-up of the cover this morning. It contains possibly actionable – and definitely recognisable – portraits of her parents, in-laws, and the senior common room of her former Oxford college, but I am remaining silent on the matter. Partly because they all deserve it, partly because my own ongoing affair (which I’m now effortfully neglecting until the current (academic) chapter is finally in its coffin with a stake through its time-consuming evil heart) features a vitriolic version of an appalling, needy, grabby woman I knew in our student days –  the kind of woman who watches the cutting of every cake with her forehead already creased with shrill, pre-emptive self-assertion because if she doesn't stand up for herself, she will have to spend her whole life knowing that someone else got her slice of Bakewell tart.


So I’ve written her as a hopeless, vulgar fille de joie and given her the clap.  I may kill her off in a parenthesis.


French cliché

I.’s job is in meltdown and as I sit at home wrangling with my book, I expect any minute to see him come in the door carrying the contents of his desk and rolling his eyes at being on ‘gardening leave’ – an expression that sounds even madder in central London than elsewhere. (And when used by a man who couldn’t tell a hydrangea from a hyacinth.) At the same time, his suitcase is never entirely unpacked, because he keeps disappearing to South Africa and Dublin for meetings and business skulduggery. It seems about five minutes ago since we were students going to the launderette at midnight, and now I live with a man who has a row of dark business suits in the wardrobe, who owns shoetrees, and who, making an omelette in the messy kitchen at ten o’clock at night, can be conducting a conference call on his mobile phone, while not losing a beat with the egg whisk.  I am living almost entirely on salad at the moment – I would think the urge is something to do with writing (mental hygiene? a green thought in a green shade?), if it weren’t for the fact that they are such great, inelegant affairs, bristling with different kinds of leaves, and with my very strong vinaigrette. (I. is the domestic goddess, but my salad dressing is better. The secret is in the mustard.)


Last night to see an early showing of an Olivier Assayas film at the BFI – Heure d’été – which was very much the kind of thing I like, languorous, slow, French ensemble piece, with the inevitable chic jolie laides, Charles Berling and Juliette Binoche all discussing death and art around a table in either a Haussman flat or a beautiful, battered country house. There was even a scene with a reverent close-up of the unwrapping of a sugarlump and its dropping into coffee in those thick white espresso cups you get in cafés in France. (Truly, I softpedal things when they are in French…) It was part of a Juliette Binoche retrospective (she’s in a new dance theatre piece premiering at the NT and has an exhibition of paintings in the lobby of the BFI), but I headed off before the interview with her started – I’m not keen on actorishness interviewed, and while I’ve admired some of her films, there’s only so much quirky luminosity I can take. (Also, I've never quite forgiven anyone involved in Chocolat.)
When I left the cinema, there were some teenagers doing parkours (although that can’t call it that here, surely? Free running?) between the walls of the steps leading up onto Waterloo Bridge, landing like insects against vertical walls with no apparent grip. Walking up through Covent Garden was quiet, the crowds having been corralled  into The Lion King. I. was being cagey on the phone when I got home, looking exhausted. Everything seems to depend on a thing that depends. Then later, as I stepped into the bath to take a shower, I found underfoot one of those little magnetic word tiles designed for constructing impromptu sonnets on your fridge door – this one said ‘étre’, and I. swears he has no idea how it got there.  Much too much of a cliché for a French film.


street haunting

Much serious discussion with I. last night, about what we both wanted from life,  and whether his potential Middle East project is likely to make us enough money to make things a bit more secure – it’s clear his current job is about to end abruptly within weeks, and we’re both enough children of the Irish seventies and eighties to be uneasy at the prospect – and whether we would consider having a child at some point. Inconclusive but vaguely cathartic, though marriage raised its ugly head again, to my ill-concealed disdain. I.’s inscrutableness, despite how well I know his mind.  How someone can surprise, after so many years. I was pleased he felt so seriously about my novel.
A pleasant, rather solitary week overall – which I’m enjoying, as we have friends to stay next week, and then are going to Ireland for a few days, and then a conference. Still struggling with the ongoing academic chapter, but the end heaving into sight, perhaps – staying at my desk all day, and then taking long walks as it gets dark. I love this time of the year – the slight dipping of the light towards autumn, ugly streetlights in the dusk, a funfair packing up in the park, floodlit tennis courts,  grubby rows of drooping curtains and bins giving way to restored Victorian tiles and pots of lavender, then kebab joint, hairdresser, Indian takeaway, Turkish deli, caff, pub, pizzeria,  halal butcher (with grimacing sheepheads in the window), Polish bar, hardware, chipshop, kebab joint. I can have periods of total clear-headed love for it all, the waiters from the Indian restaurant smoking in the doorway, blank-faced commuters walking home shut between their earphones,  a man putting a tray of oily pastries in the window of a shop, our grim-faced Sikh newsagent putting porn magazines on the top shelf, the drycleaner’s pulling down its shutters on the two sinister tailor’s dummies in the window. It’s stupid to be sentimental about London, and really I feel like leaving increasingly, but it tugs, nonetheless.