My residency at the British Library, attached as a tug to the upcoming exhibition on the Franklin expedition and the search for the Northwest Passage, now has a title, which is helping to rein in all my calving thoughts.
It will be called On My Wife’s Back, and I hope that you will follow my progress over the coming months as I try to pull something Shermanish from all the fervent, hushly white mythology that surrounds the Franklin and Arctic exploration in general.
Above is its logo, of sorts, in the original Greek sense. This title, this logo and its themes, will encompass what is looking to be a pretty bastard variety of new work, from writing to art to music to essay to video to hardware, and from now all news to do with the residency, including all of the material that I will release, will be found on my research Tumblog. There’s nothing much there at the moment, but I’m sure something will bob up soon.
In the meantime, I do hope that you’ll come to the Library and see me, gloaming through the Rare Books Reading Room, before the exhibition itself, ‘Lines In The Ice’, starts in November.
A tiny party of you might have been looking over my blog and website for the past few months a little worriedly, wondering where I’ve got to. Of course, things are happening, behind the sub-domains. There’s a sort of rumbling, huffing squawk that you’ll sometimes hear, and occasional gouts of hot breath that you can see rising into the air More than anything, you might have seen a certain aesthetic emerging. White on white, with little dashes of red. The pattern of snow, on every stylesheet, forming a sort of Arctic hoarding while I get on behind the skeines, carving this website into some sort of order.
I don’t even like snow very much. It’s a folksy sort of acid, charming the feet off your ankles, making pressings of all your nerves, and causes great, cheery delays on the trains running into London, which struggle at the best of times with the maelstrom of slight damp, fallen foliage and teenagers pushing each other off the platforms.
However, I’ve chosen it as my new digital camouflage because it has a nice obliteration to it. It’s the colour of the internet, anyway, and I thought that, rather than get all clever with my hex codes and background images, that I would just choose something for my blog that represented the medium in which I’m choosing to write. The web, hungry for anything, ready to obliterate at the slightest mistake in one’s syntax. It’s a lot like snow, isn’t it? So inviting, but so horribly judgemental.
It’s appropriate, also, for my next piece of art, the funding for which I have just found out, this week, is migrating over to me for the winter. For the past five months, as well as fannying with HTML and doing some sort of job in the daytime, I’ve been making applications. Overusing words such as ‘institution’, ‘pedagogic’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Philip’, drawing up Gannt charts, paring down to word limits (you must know how that hurts me). I was hunting for money, for support, for funding, but all of this pairing and peeling and stitching of words and chart-making put me in mind of preparing for a sea voyage. Admittedly, I’ve never taken a sea voyage, not outside a ferry, and I suspect that I’d find it horrible, but I’m still enough of a quivering, genteel mast of glycerine to enjoy the metaphor.
And, it appears, that my funding application was watertight. We have our money. Our voyage is going ahead.
For the next five months I will be Writer-In-Residence at the British Library. Despite my lack of experience or sea legs, and my obvious weakness to scurvy, I will, after all, be the official artist to a sort of naval expedition, one that tacks back into the past, looking for long-lost sailors. In the Folio gallery, a meandering knock-hole underneath the escalators in the Library’s foyer, an exhibition is being put together. It will contain the Library’s collection of documents, personal effects and paraphernalia relating to the lost Arctic expedition of John Franklin in 1845. Franklin was one of those longitudinally impossible men of 150 years ago who managed to be both Governor of Tasmania and a north polar explorer in his lifetime, though the latter was only by dint of all the other candidates being either too chilly-willy, too married or too Irish by half.
With two ships, the Erebus and the Terror (arrogant, tiny little ships, named for primordial horrors) Franklin set off with his crew and the blessings of the Admiralty to find the Northwest Passage, the mythic, ice-free trading route over Canada and down into the Pacific.
I don’t like to link to Wikipedia and be done with it, but in Franklin’s case it’s the only sensible thing to do.
Franklin was a much braver man than I am, but I do see parallels in our work. As an attaché to this exhibit, producing original artwork and writings relating to the Franklin voyage, and the subsequent attempts to find his vanished crew, I feel as scared as if I was about to take to the ocean. Throughout my applications for this position, I have been getting tongue-tied between the words ‘exhibition’ and ‘expedition’, and the gap between them has certainly shortened. Looking at the body of work in front of me, the amount of time and research that has gone into the Lines In The Ice exhibit, as it will be called, perhaps the practices are not so different, after all. As I sail through the Library’s archives, seeking the stories of Franklin’s adventures, the odds he and his crew faced, and how a great trooping line of subsequent explorers, down the years, have uncovered the sad tale of what happened to those several hundred men, their elderly commander, and their two malaprop vessels, I feel more and more like an icebreaker myself. My research will uncover documents forgotten for many years, and as my crew I will have the resident curators, bookbinders, scholars and excellent cooks that make up the Library’s staff. With them, I will discover terrific vistas, great pains, and create something entirely new to sit alongside these old, old log books and ship’s diaries, something which the public can enjoy until March, when winter is getting woolly, and the exhibition ends.
I am still working out what it is I want to do with my time at the library, but rest assured of the following:
- I will have my own cabinet in the exhibition, to fill with whatever I like;
- There were plenty of ideas that did not make it into The Black Crown Project, my last piece, which are due a stiff pint of sea breeze;
- I’ve stockpiled an awful lot of ship’s Twine for the task;
- You do not have to be with me aboard the British Library to participate, but I have been told that I make a charming mate in person.
There will be more details here and elsewhere when the charts have been finalised, the hull caulked, and we are ready to set sail. Once all this is in place, we’ll be heading out from Port St. Pancras, north and west, following the stars until the bend in the earth sunders them. We’ll be seeing what we can find in the lines in the ice. The British Library is an odd vessel to charter, shaped more like two steamer ships pulling perpendicular, and it has particular dearth of masts. Still, if you are interested, do come and join my crew.. The galley does a cracking doorstep sandwich.
And if you won’t be coming to join me, don’t cry, don’t send out search parties, and put the kettle on. I’ll only be months.
I was at a variety gig some time ago, staged in an former keeper’s lodge at the gate to one of Britain’s less provincial towns. As well as feeling London like a shadow on the lung, I could taste the soap in my beer. The doorman wore tattoos like eczema at the corners of his lips. It wasn’t at home.
My opinion solidified after a few hours of awkward listing about the dance-floor, and resolved itself into the need to leave very quickly and get on a train. Unfortunately, the sprawl of the audience was, for some reason, centred on the only door, and nobody was intent on moving. The current band had been popular ten years before with a very slender wedge of humanity, and most of them were here tonight, being overwhelmed. The fact that I might want to leave was as inconceivable to them as museum lighting was to a pharaoh’s capstone. I had to squeeze around them, apologising.
However, in the centre of this static storm, unmoving and full of cardigans and Rorschachs of backsweat, I came to an impasse. The only way through to the door was between a ferociously nodding man and a pregnant woman, who stood sipping mango juice with her back against a wooden post.
I still feel awful about what followed, and I think that a large part of this guilt is due to my superstition, and the superstition of many, concerning pregnant women.
Most media that I can access portrays them as fecund, ripe, bountiful, Wildorf-esque beauties waiting for enlightenment to crown. And this woman was beautiful, blonde bobbed and florally dressed in blue, and she wore her bump less like a delicacy and more like a fuel tank, necessary for her extreme performance. I have been very unkind to her in the above drawing. She was nowhere near as monstruous as I have depicted her, but then, nobody is. She just terrified me.
What terrified me most was that apocalyptic fragility to her. I am an immeasurably clumsy man, my hands like combine harvesters with the pedals jammed, but even accounting for this I am surprised that pregnant women allow themselves out of the house. It seems to me that even walking, considering their payload, is like balancing a cascade of champagne flutes on aerosol spray. And there is such potential, with only a small mistake on the behalf of anybody encountering them, for such annihilating misery, such miscarriage, that I find it best to give them as wide a berth as possible.
I had a bag on my back, and I tried as best as I could to nudge the man in front out of the way, but he was too busy trying to emulate a twelve-stringed guitar with his one-stringed mouth. He pushed back. And so it was that I slammed, almost neatly, into her.
She gaped up at me betrayed, mouth sagging with implication. In my mind there was such a smoking, Biblical tower of sorrow in her, at the thought of what my clumsiness could do, that she transformed into this clenched, incandescent clump. Her hands went to her stomach and I almost vomited. I apologised as profusely as I could, gibbering over the violin solo. Two men beside her, who were not her friends but who felt out the roles that they must now perform, marshalled protectively, flanking her like Chinese lions outside a restaurant. I think one of them even bared his teeth, but if you asked him about that now, he might be embarrassed and feign all knowledge of it. We all get a little canine when the fundaments of life are involved.
After a while, or what must have been one-eightieth of a second, her anger turned to understanding, as she read the signs of her body as surely as her own handwriting. She knew that nothing had died, or gone moronic. I pinged out into the night, free of the trial, almost on the point of tears.
It is perhaps six months later, and I still think about that woman, and when I see somebody pregnant I instantly become aware of my tottering, unpredictable body, and my unaccountable limbs, and how they might, if I am not careful, inadvertently deconstruct a life. Sometimes I am angry at her, for not understanding that it was not my fault, and that it is difficult to for the rest of the crowd to maintain the aura around her when she stands in the thick of it like that. I then feel awful for being angry, of course, and go on avoiding women like her, dubbed numinous by society, and desperately safeguarded against people like me.
It appears that I was mistaken. I have found a recording of Mour Mour Mour, the most famous literary work of Jon Praester, the 17th century Dutch emigre, poet and tailor. Sorry for pleading ignorance on that; it must have disappeared into some sort of crack.
Despite its tempestuous voyage down the centuries, arriving to us as no more than driftwood in three fragments, I am pleased to finally present this special reading of Jon Praester’s surviving poetry.
My thanks to Tartarus, Professor Dale Cull, and Joseph McShea, for his patience and leathery voice.
I spent an agreeable few hours in the National Gallery this afternoon, sketching instead of job-hunting. If it was not very racist, I would rank nationalities of tourists by their propensity to stand in front of the painting that I am sketching for a very long time, before practically mushing their wattles across my page to see if I can draw at all. It would be like an extremely passive-aggressive UN report.
I call this ‘Sleepy Jesus, Grabby Jesus, Aborted Hands, Heaney’s Dewlap, Sutherland’s Eye, Leigh’s Beauty.”
After spending a large amount of time very close to it, I think that Vivien Leigh’s eye and its environs might be the most perfect example of matter yet in existence. A prime piece of God’s precipitate.
The first draft of this post was written at about half-past eight on a Sunday morning in the Midlands. It was winter, and half-past eight is not so long after dawn, at that time of year. I had just completed the countdown that would lead to me getting out of bed, and I almost grizzled at the icy laminate and my dirty toes. Outside the window, the clouds stretched away into the south-east like dunes, and the sun had just made deep, trip-up footsteps on their leading edges. It was hurrying into the world, flinging off all of its frankly Victorian attire, letting it all shine out as it whooped down at the edge of the unseen sea.
I revealed the inside of the window with my breath, as I stood and took all of this in. This was a resolution of mine, as it was the New Year, to witness everything more clearly, and appreciate those times that I was not looking through a screen. On that Sunday morning, when I looked into the glass, I could see all sorts of grease, dotted like microbes across the plate. On both sides of the glazing fingerprints have been dragged, looking like the handiwork of a raptor. The overhead cable that was slung just outside vibrated softly, to the tango of pigeons beyond the curtain, precarious on their tiny raptor feet.
That morning seemed like an auspicious, quiet sort of time, before anybody else was up, to compose my goodbye to you. There have been other drafts since then, in libraries where hundreds of others have hawked and ticked on their own pieces of glass, and now as I finish typing this I am sitting in my bedroom, peeked at by a lime-green poster of the moon and all its seas. If you do not mind, I’ll continue to pretend I’m still there, in that morning, before the kettle had boiled and the heating had gargled on.
This week’s #onepanelguff, on the theme of ‘Acorns’.
My fellow presenters in this podcast, Rob Gordon and Paddy Johnston, have been doing a far better job than me touting this around Twitter, like a tiny tiger cub for sale in Kowloon back alley. However, I thought that I might contribute to the pitch, demonstrating to you all how soft its claws are and how it doesn’t yet know how delicious we are.
Of course, it is not a tiger cub, it’s a podcast. I said that up there, and it is called ‘One Hour Stories’. Every episode, we take a different theme, and spend one hour writing a story to that theme. Themes have so far included ‘Barry Makes A Hideous Discovery’ and ‘My Favourite Gland’. We cannot edit it, or correct it, in any way. When we finish, we read out the stories. It is refreshingly simple, and has elicited stories about fox parties, baths of rotting milk, and a scientist hunting for a hallucinogenic starfish womb.
I hope you enjoy us cocking about in discrete half-hour segments. I will add a page to the main website soon with links, but until then you can find it at various different outlets below.