14:23 = 2:23 pm
10 March 2018 = Saturday
Having left M. with a hug at the station (one of those hugs between men that always make me wonder, in a flash, whether non-gay locals find this unusual, but then I always decide not to care), I turn and walk – not, as I said I would, towards the buses, but instead towards the big department stores. This is in fairly direct contravention of his advice and expectations, which are that, on the day before Mothering Sunday (do they still call it that? – I mean, the English version of Mother's Day?), the cosmetic counters at the department stores will be completely overworked and distracted and frantic. I have agreed with him and said no, I wouldn't want to go today then, but with the background thoughts: it's not an unpleasant day, I want to walk around some more anyway, will it really be that crowded, I want to investigate this and/or handle and/or complete it.
'It' is an item on my to-do list – N.'s birthday is a week away. I had thought of things I would like to give her – I'd already made a list of possible books, and how about another trip to Barcelona together. She has nixed both of these – she has enough unread books (yes, okay, that was more like imposing one of my fetishes onto her birthday than actually trying to make her happy with one of hers), and Barcelona is too complicated at the moment, so: a detailed list of specific pieces of flatware (oh yes, didn't we have a conversation last month where she said she had a new set of silver, she'd bought it with her mother – or her sister, something like that? – and still needs various pieces, oyster forks and lord knows what else); and the possibility of a facial at one of the department store spas.
Flatware is not really my thing, so I have already decided on the facial, and I have already explained why I am not supposed to go order the facial now, because it will be too crowded because it is the day before Mothering oh you remember all of that it was three seconds ago, but I am going anyway because the street is crowded and lively despite the intermittent rain, and I get lonely and bored in my supposedly pleasant, quiet apartment with plenty of room to work. Disregard please, old complaint from nearly sixteen years ago that goes something like, I would have been happier if I'd moved into an apartment in the middle of town in 2002, but it's too late for that now and it was unrealistic anyway and we have walked through that conversation eight thousand times, so.
Facial: okay. A web link messaged to me by N. leads me to John Lewis, Clinique, a fashionable webpage, and a long list of facials, damn, which one is it supposed to be then? Aha, she mentions which facial she wants in another note. But the webpage gives phone numbers for Oxford Street, other places in the distant south, and Leeds – but nothing for Newcastle, which suggests to me that they don't do those facials here, so I mentioned this to her in another WhatsApp message and she said oh, well Fenwick's may have this kind of thing too? So I have a printout of the Fenwick's webpage in my pocket. Though I think I will go to John Lewis anyway, it's a hair classier, and perhaps something about the webpage is wrong, or merely blurry and confused, as with so many commercial and public things these days. If it can be said to be only these days, that is.
Which is why I am stepping out onto Northumberland Street and turning right, rather than turning left, which would be more in line with what I said to M. that I was going to do. As I walk in that direction I do know that I am not entirely out of sight of M., but will assume that he won't notice (he is good at noticing things, but he is not at all paranoid) or that I'm either a bit confused or that I've decided that I want a bit of a walk. Which is also sort of true – I mean actually both of those things are sort of true, though as I veer right the definiteness of wanting to go to John Lewis, or perhaps Fenwick's depending on what actually happens, and order the facial is not only more present, more real, it is also more probable, as I am already pushing myself into going that way.
I didn't mention that, interlocking with these texts with N. about exactly what presents to buy, and talking with M. about politics, and about the lemon tart I just had at a table in the café on the third floor of John Lewis (did I mention that there seem to be recursive patterns in operation today?), the coffee I ordered for him, and the tray I made him carry because I tend to be too shaky for carrying trays full of liquids these days, and M.'s advice and discussions around N.'s present, is a series of texts (not on WhatsApp but on Message) with (and here I must pause and check my technical structure because I am introducing another male friend whose name starts with M; it would be impossibly confusing to also call him simply M., and I never like those bits in romans à clef (note the plural) where you represent people you aren't quite naming with initials that don't match their real ones, as that seems kind of fake, so – despite the visual inconsistency we'll choose to call him M2, which is only a little weird given the range of arguments against all the alternatives) M2, where I told him that N. wants flatware, which I think is boring, or a facial which seems more possible, and he said cool, how much is it, which suggested that we should perhaps split the cost of the facial.
I may mention that I have been more casual about spending money in the past year – reduced long-term plans, discussed elsewhere, and the end of paying tuition at the Jung-Institut, and a strong sense of you-can't-take-it-with-you have meant that dinner at an expensive restaurant doesn't seem to qualify as a realistic source of anxiety (note already documented visits to Zürich restaurants last month) but instead to be a perfectly reasonable ask (it is in fact faintly possible that I spent a bit too much at Christmas, if people were worried about reciprocating, but hopefully they wouldn't panic about something so trivial). Oh, and in this case, that is to say the case of the present for N.'s birthday, she is someone it's a pleasure to give things to – she is what used to be called discerning, which means she cares about and likes special gifts, not only of special quality but if they are specially appropriate – and it's a landmark birthday anyway, one with a zero at the end of it (which reminds me that I am more than one year older, which reminds me that I did want to finish the Jung-Institut program by the time I was 60, and it's too late for that now that I'm 61, but there is a push for me to finish by this summer, which would require finishing the thesis in four months, so I'd better get to work on that when I get home after being out here walking around in the middle of Northumberland Street, and of course there is also the unfinished second symbol paper but I won't think about or mention that now). So, for a birthday with a zero in it, I'm happy to spend more – it's celebratory, it means this isn't just another regular birthday.
On the other hand sharing the cost and symbolic gift of the facial with M2 would be a pleasure in itself, a sort of metafamily kind of thing, so that seemed interesting, so I told M2 so in a message while in the café with M. and while finishing up messages with N. And he said yes, so this will be a two-person gift, a facial, I will sign the card with both names and then get M2 to pay me back later, so that plan has a clear path to completion.
But by now it is already several seconds later than the point where I walked away from M., and started to go right rather than left, into and through the busy street full of shoppers, near the large fruit stand with the big, bored-looking young guy selling fruit (everybody really liked that movie, what was it, God's Own Country, about the sullen gay farm guy, but I haven't seen it yet) and the underlying noise, which is actually music, is taking an unexpected turn. There is almost always a busker of some kind in front of Marks & Spencer's – a guitarist usually, and sometimes something more startling (there have been singers, flautists, or flutists if you prefer but that always seems a rather clunky term, and occasionally the shock of a bagpiper). Today it is a young guitarist, in his 20s perhaps, someone I don't recognize, longish hair, possibly somebody's student (there is always a flash of worry here: is he one of my students, unrecognized, someone I don't remember from a large class, and he will think I'm a heartless, uncaring jackass, a bad parent sort of thing, if I don't seem to know who he is? but this one is busy, preoccupied, so there will probably be no reason for concern), and he is playing something sort of unexpected – he has accompanying music coming out of a boom box, but it is unexpectedly minimalist: this sounds very much like New York-style minimalism from the 80s or 90s, repetitive and rich, but definitely in a popular music vein.
Are there pieces like that I don't know? – probably, I tend to miss a lot of pop trends; so is this a piece I could actually recognize, or is this something he has created himself? The question can't be answered at this point and with my limited knowledge, though I suspect J. from San Jose, who knows a lot about groups like King Crimson, or the various people hanging around B. in Los Angeles who are eager to get his attention on topics related to minimalism, or J2 in Finland or F. in Liverpool or for that matter kind of a lot of other people, would be able to weigh in at length on it.
So, what we've got is a cheerful busker, guitar, boombox (are we still supposed to call them that, and isn't there any useful technical variant for electronically reproduced music, as opposed to old tapes and CDs? If so I don't know it). And shimmering, pleasant minimalism, a broad ensemble texture that suggests someone has listened to orchestral versions of similar textures but is responding with other sounds, something that mixes orchestra and electric guitars and drums. Pleasant. Half-thinking, half-not-thinking, and aware that I have already passed one man sitting against a building with a dog without giving him anything, I am veering approximately within throwing distance of the guitarist – or more accurately of the guitar case – and I do find myself working out the details: is there change in my pocket? yes, so can I get some out without dropping backpack or bag? luckily yes, can I tell what two coins I've just picked up? no, unfortunately, but one is heavy enough that it's probably a pound coin so that's all right, am I veering at the correct angle to reach him and is anyone in my way? it seems as though things are looking okay –
I toss two coins in the case while continuing to move smoothly, and equally smoothly he turns his head and smiles acknowledgement without missing a beat of his guitar work, all in the time of the two or three yards of my veering close to him and moving away. So that's done. As I continue walking down the street I also half-turn back towards him, continuing to connect with the music, and also the texture has just changed a bit, will there be a clue as to whether this is something I have heard before, or heard about? – no, there is a bit more guitar, though. All right, I've done my duty here.
Perhaps part of the reason I connect more rapidly to M2 in the entire discussion of N.'s present is that he hurt his hand this week, rather badly – I don't even remember the entire story, though I did hear it, but he managed to scrape skin and nails off two fingers, lots of blood and the appearance of those parts of us that are usually out of sight, concealed by containing flesh. It was obviously a shock for him, though by the time I saw him in the pub on Tuesday he was cheerful – still holding his left hand, splints on two fingers, in the air. (This is perhaps more of a source of anxiety for a guitarist, and we were all especially consoling). He will take some time off his work at the café – which is probably necessary, though they are deciding just how long that should go on. So M2 is a bit post-shock, and at the same time cheerful and relaxed, and self-aware, and wondering at a larger level, because he's going through that thing that we all do when we are jarred out of our routines – a return to bigger goals, an attempt to refashion, to reorganize, so he wants to get some work done (I'm assuming he can type with his right hand, at least) and talk to me about applying to get into a Ph.D.
Which intersects, at a social level in the pub four days ago, and also two days ago in the same pub although indoors, and also in terms of life-lines, with M3 (I am thinking we may need another naming convention, but it is obviously too late by now), who is also a guitarist – or perhaps he plays several fretted instruments, I can't quite remember – and who was both a departmental success and a departmental anxiety, as he won one of the fellowships it's so hard to get here, but then fell seriously ill in the middle of his own Ph.D... and then recovered, and ultimately finished, all in a complex cloud of group responses: everyone trying to be supportive and sympathetic, while simultaneously also being anxious, without of course wanting to burden him with our anxiety (should we tell the government that you're too ill to continue your degree, will we win fewer awards because of this intrusion of the ruthlessness of the real, unplanned world?). And so many, slightly chaotic, personal communications, because M3 is personable, funny, and known to everyone; and because he is also the kind of person who is very aware of his own illness and its more serious possible consequences; and because he is smart enough to have already noticed, or guessed or intuited, everyone's messy sympathies/anxieties/comments, etc.
So it was, on one side, a very time-conscious table in the pub, at least during the point when we met two days ago, at least for part of the table – and even the other parts of the table were a bit more time-aware, more loss- and change-aware, than they might normally be, after the injury, the jokes, the beer. Like a sudden lifting of a veil, everyone becomes more aware of time in its longer forms, in its comparative aspect, in its processes: where worry and hope lead, and where they don't – as well as that awareness within such awareness that worry and hope seem less meaningful when the larger arcs of lives and paths and expectations and occurrences are seen in their vast complexity.... But M2 also looked cheerful, almost happy in his freedom, rooted as it is in disaster and pain – he keeps telling us how gross his hand looked, and he won't show me the picture (he knows I don't like, for instance, horror movies): it clearly was a real shock, but now he seems – is it that he is detached from his normal patterns, as suggested above? Free, then, in a way: at least for the moment.
Of course I complete my swerve away from the busking guitarist, negotiating the Saturday crowds – at times a distinct source of my admittedly problematic irritation with the locals: I used to think, you can tell that they aren't city folk, the way they drift around – some of that is of course affected by the many students from the two universities (can you believe that I have, at times, barked "Spatial awareness!" at groups of congregating undergraduates in the hallways of our building, an instruction suggesting reference to a broad set of concepts that are probably not accessible to them in any case, and are certainly not more accessible to them because of my barking (barking, in which of two senses, divided by different cultures of slang?), okay let's say pithy, instruction, which may be evidence of my social dysfunction more than it is of my impatient urbanity) as well as the various families and fragments of families (of course baby carriages are cumbersome, but really, are you even trying to aim that thing anywhere at all?) and people from many countries (I still think, based on four years in Hong Kong, which is admittedly actually a very limited span of experience, that Hong Kong crowds had a particular relationship to space that was tough for a Westerner to negotiate – the background assumptions being that everywhere is always crowded anyway so what's the point in trying to get out of people's way, and so they just don't).
But since my favorite part of all that is my own status as urban and arrogant, it's easier to see the whole complex mess of people as evidence that all of them are more small-town or even rural than I am. Which fits my current irritable prejudices about the English – it's Brexit, it's May all over again, these are people who have Never Been Anywhere, unless to a tacky beach resort.
So the swerve is nearing the end of its arc, but it's hitting another kind of snag: the small man with the possibly-Turkish-or-Romanian mustaches and the magazine that is sold by the homeless here. This is, immediately, a complicated situation: there was a time when I regularly gave him money, when he was at the bus station next to the other side of Marks & Spencer; but he got increasingly demanding, wheedling and manipulative, and now he always tries to guilt me into giving him a pound or two, and I have come to resent that. So, more than most of the people panhandling around (note to American urban dwellers: there are actually very few of them by your standards – just a handful scattered across the center of town), I don't react well when he shows up: I'll usually give perhaps one person, per day, one pound, or on a pleasant day two people, or when I'm busy and self-involved none; but he raises the specter of trickery, of hopelessness, of desperation, on the receiving side of my decision: he will always be on the verge of collapse, I will always be measured, as though in one or another religious system of good and bad, by whether I overcome my annoyance and give him something anyway.
But I'm continuing to swerve and have had contact with other people, partly on purpose to block his view, so that this merely produces the familiar combination of (1) irritation, (2) not giving him anything, (3) his plaintive response which I avoid paying too much attention to, (4) afterthoughts that I should turn around and give him something, and (5) thoughts that I really should feel guilty, that I have failed or been greedy. Of course in some ways (5) influences (2) – the irritation of the whole relationship has made him a repeat loser, and I can justify it internally because he has made me feel bad, which results in an entire lack of charity. Of course these small tensions are nothing to the shattering memory of beggars in Cape Town... but there's no time for that memory now, we are too many miles, or kilometers I suppose, to the north.
Behind the man with the magazine is a patch of wet pavement, which brings up the problem of the currently slightly unpredictable weather: yes, it does feel like the beginning of spring, so soon after that snow – people are guessing at how to dress, sometimes guessing rather badly, they are wearing too much or not enough, but they know we are headed out of anything you would really need to call winter. The occasional flashes of shabbiness – do I merely interpret these things because I want for them to reflect current politics, the larger scope of a more brutal government, in a country where conservatives love to ignore the North – meaning here, of course? Am I reading loss and anxiety into the commercial world of this city because I expect it, am I overinterpreting? But in capitalism expectation produces results – the pure symbolism of money is emphasized in that relationship: however much you thought you had, if the news is bad and ideas of poverty and loss are floating around, suddenly you seem to have much less. Possibility evaporates, and we're left desperately husbanding what we have while worrying about some unknown but disastrous future....
Of course in such a context getting a Clarin's facial (what is Clarin's, anyway – has it existed for long? Certainly I interpret the company name as chic and high quality, though not from any real previous knowledge, but purely from their logo and location, which tells you something about the effects of advertising, and of a special glassed-in area of John Lewis... it occurs to me that I don't even know who John Lewis is, or was – he must have been a successful businessman, like the mustachioed Selfridge in the television series) becomes yet another disconnected shard of luxury, the fragments of the massive commercialism that always holds this country in its grip. The sensate, sensual, immediacy and pleasure of the facial, for N. that is of course, is partly a justification – far better than those chunks of glass sold as expensive crystal that my mother so disliked as gifts – yet another thing to dust, as she said each time. So: something transient but pleasurable, with a real though temporary impact on the body, which for me these days translates into 'real' value – unlike, interestingly enough, more permanent but immutable objects: luxury items that can't be consumed, which don't seem very interesting to give as gifts over the past few years.
The curve past the guitarist and past the man selling the street magazine has gotten me near to the long, high, channeled entrance ramp into the big shopping plaza, that plaza which will eventually lead to the point of focus at its center of perspective, by design of course, which is the square outlined by the outer corner entrance to John Lewis and, catty corner to that, the inner corner entrance to Fenwick's, so that I am assuming there will not be monstrous legions of mothers, grandmothers, mothers-in-law, surrogate mothers and hopeful mothers-to-be, all crowding around the area in front of the glassed-in spa-in-store with the Clarin's name displayed above it, so packed in that it is impossible to get past them, so demanding and focused on their needs related to Mother's Day (sorry, I meant to say, Mothering Sunday) that I will have to retreat, abashed, penitently aware that M. was right, and this was not the day to order the facial for N. –
but nearing the entrance also gets my path entangled with the paths that belong to a group of three or five (they seem such an enmeshed group that it's hard to notice exactly how many there are) tall young university athletes in various brightly colored plastics, the last of which passes near me, checking his phone with some unnamed anxiety. An immediate sense of their youth, of their focus on some things and not others: a sense of men, as men are – attractive but also raw, unfinished, not only because of their youth but because of the singleness of existence in the body: a sort of messy, sexualized innocence, a cluelessness about what they want and will do, about whether they can confidently know anything from an individual point of view, as they run and jump, and walk around in groups, or perhaps teams, or packs. Like any gay man I'll think, hello, what's this, and look, but after a moment my impression shifts to a slightly sad, slightly kindly pity, a hope that they – or the one I focused on last, the last one to pass me, that he – will figure out what they want, what they are, and not encounter too many decades or too much misery in the way towards it.
Time and the way it passes, we only perceive the three spatial directions but we estimate the measure of the fourth, of time, by its effects: and then we speak of time in spatial metaphors, emphasizing our inability to really see it. But we constantly see its effects, in someone passing us in the street, in the telescoped awareness of past and future, in the visionary split seconds that are embedded in each person we pass, that become quasi-visible as though on a series of blurry screens in the mind's eye: what will happen to each, what happened to get them here. What they want, what they hope, what we hope for them.
Of course if this expands too much one gets the kind of strange quality I used to read in those French 'new novels', when I was fascinated with Robbe-Grillet, with Butor, later with Perec – or, most hilariously, with the opening chapter of Nathalie Sarraute's The Planetarium, where an unnamed narrator goes on and on and on about the small round door she has had made, its wood and details, the custom-made silver knob, and the dent that the workmen have left near the center of that door, on their last day, just before they packed up and left. She looks at it and frets and worries and interprets and guesses for the first fifteen pages of the novel, an amazing inner monologue based on such tiny things, internal time stretching endlessly – and what influence would reading that have on me, what is there about awareness, or about detailed unawareness, that happens in following the threads of such thoughts?
But the door is swinging shut behind the last of the young athletes, and I reach out and grab it just in time, pulling it out a section of arc while moving into the space it outlines, going through the door into the shopping mall, where I will see about ordering the facial for N., for the birthday, for M2, for....
14:29 = 2:29 pm
10 March 2018 = Saturday