Recent wanderings into and around speculation upon the places of the mind and feeling have encountered Sebald, Melville and the whole set of museum pieces such as “Debord”, “Benjamin”, “De Quincey”. This would be the Museum of Psychogeography, the latter word a meaningless catachresis that nevertheless circulates as does dust. Metaphors of mind and feeling, cities of God and Man, skies of gloom and dreadful nights are the “territory” of wandering, both an abstract fashion statement and the possibilities afforded by the power of a truly startling metaphor (which, after its birth can never be repeated to the same frame of experience: as Kierkegaard pointed out, the only true repetition possible is the repeated failure to repeat). Well, anyway.
…. does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing). The first few pages of “Open City” are intensely Sebaldian, with something of his sly faux antiquarianism. On the first page, the narrator tells us that he started to go on evening walks “last fall,” and found his neighborhood, Morningside Heights, “an easy place from which to set out into the city”; indeed, these walks “steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway.”
The protagonist is a young psychiatrist, half-German and half-Nigerian, encountering multiracial New York. Scheurich, in his comment, says that while the novel is not about psychiatry per se (“convincing because he is first and foremost a human being, and only secondly a shrink; he is not defined by his profession. Indeed, he mentions his work only in passing, although with compelling insight.”), the straddling of the normal and abnormal, as Scheurich puts it, does throw light on psychiatric practice. Scheurich quotes:
On that day, with these thoughts of Signs and simpling in mind, I had tried to give my friend an account of my evolving view of psychiatric practice. I told him that I viewed each patient as a dark room, and that, going into that room, in a session with the patient, I considered it essential to be slow and deliberate. Doing no harm, the most ancient of medical tenets, was on my mind all the time. There is more light to work with in externally visible illnesses; the Signs are more forcefully expressed, and therefore harder to miss. For the troubles of the mind, diagnosis is a trickier art, because even the strongest symptoms are sometimes not visible. It is especially elusive because the source of our information about the mind is itself the mind, and the mind is able to deceive itself. As physicians, I said to my friend, we depend, to a much greater degree than is the case with nonmental conditions, on what the patient tells us. But what are we to do when the lens through which the symptoms are viewed is often, itself, symptomatic: the mind is opaque to itself, and it’s hard to tell where, precisely, these areas of opacity are. Ophthalmic science describes an area at the back of the bulb of the eye, the optic disk, where the million or so ganglia of the optic nerve exit the eye. It is precisely there, where too many of the neurons associated with vision are clustered, that the vision goes dead. For so long, I recall explaining to my friend that day, I have felt that most of the work of psychiatrists in particular, and mental health professionals in general, was a blind spot so broad that it had taken over most of the eye. What we knew, I said to him, was so much less than what remained in darkness, and in this great limitation lay the appeal and frustration of the profession.
Indeed, in historiography, the indisputable advantage of a fictitious past have become apparent: secondary or tertiary worlds as imagined in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” manifest themselves from the ideas and representations of the world onto the physical world itself. In the final analysis, says a voice in The Rings of Saturn, our entire work is based upon nothing but ideas. Yet these ideas – or representations – are flimsy as film, and they change over the years and which time and time again cause one to tear down what one had thought was finished, and begin again from scratch: this from farmer Thomas Abrams who has devoted 20 years to building a model of the Temple of Jerusalem, a model that can never in reality be completed since it needs constant revision as archaelogists and scholars make new discoveries, imagine from ruins a complete whole, one may say an idealised whole outside time. Borgesian throughout, in The Rings of Saturn we never know quite where we are: only the imagined past seems a permanent orienting position.
Fiction is the more real. Sebald’s narrator is a fictional one in that it can be given the distanced and flat perspective on things. It can blend seamlessly into other first person narrative voices; it can with equal ease take an omniscient view. The long paragraphs (bearing little relation to paragraphs as we usually encounter them) compress disparate elements of story, theme, imagery and linkages with the rest of the book. Long lists of catalogued exotica (here I am reminded very sharply of Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing, and not just here) combine with this compression to require a slow reading, a savouring of the sensuous surfaces of life, and function with other devices to mourn, if ironically, the attempts to overcome time and death (Umberto Eco has written that we love lists because we fear death, and our possessions perhaps, ideational or material, are like those ordering lists that can be classified and set intoquasi-permanence) yet in reality, as far as we can know some stable underlying reality, Just as people supposed they could uphold some straight line, some dramatic and unexpected deterioration would compel them….to the last post, prisoners in their own homes. Ostensibly writing about the decay of country manors, Sebald is constantly thinning the line between psyche and physical – land, weather, buildings.
It would take an infinite line of academics to complete a commentary on the book (each commentary of course producing yet more commentaries). Duplication is the curse of humanity in ideas, copulation and mirrors, mirrors and paintings being covered in Victorian times at homes of the dead so that departed souls could move on unimpeded by reflection of themselves or representations of the world: memory too is a curse; memories can blind us to life. As for writing about our memories, as a memoir, as the Vicomte de Chateaubriand confesses, this removal from life through memories and the labours expended in writing them down are all part of the same humiliating and, at bottom, contemptible business! I dare say that the same is true for writing reviews.
Yet, as the Vicomte goes on, And yet, what would we be without memory? We would not be capable of ordering even the simplest thoughts, the most sensitive heart would lose the ability to show affection, our existence would be a mere never-ending chain of meaningless moments, an there would not be the faintest trace of a past. How wretched this life of ours is! – so full of false conceits, so futile, that it is little more than the shadow of the chimeras loosed by memory. Yet life itself, the ‘reality’ of it, is a chain of unexpected calamities, time and time again. One is like Kafka’s insect caught between impossible existential threats. Out in the flat landscapes of Suffolk, beneath the huges skies, without a soul in sight, Sebald as author-narrator recalls, At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralysing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past…. Destruction and decay are everywhere, the very will of the past. After exploring an old military research station, he is engulfed by a sandstorm where all shape and form is lost, sky and land are lost, and he imagines the world as it will be when it has finally worn itself out. Definition so beautifully evoked in exotic stories, almost fairytales, of far away times and opulent places, definition as the rage to order the world in encyclopaedic taxonomies, classifications and catalogues all go under in the dark and indifferent chaos that engulfs all feeble order. Elite ruling families, palaces, the land itself, entire dynasties go down. All that remains is one disaster after an other.
There is a psychic space where one loses even the ability to name feelings, perhaps the most dreadful space of all. Or it may be that feelings are socially and literarily structured as convenient communal bulwarks against affective disorder, and that to be open – on the flat land, under the big sky – to what is really there, inside, outside if these have valid distinctive meanings, is to experience something deeper and stranger than conventional emotions. At any rate, I knew then as little as I know now whether walking in this solitary way was more of a pleasure than a pain. Walking, of course, is a convenient metaphor for many things, as the new psychogeographers have theorised. Yet it’s more than praise to the writer for having so successfully evoked the inseparable melancholy tone from its physical counterpart to suggest that the bodily basis of thinking – or writing – is so well represented in the labyrinthine footpaths, dead ends and, one startling image, a signpost with nothing written on it. The solitary way is bleak and relieved only from the image of its own fragility and decay by re-presented, imagined worlds – and all worlds are imagined anyway. The rings of Saturn are there and not there, tied to forces which they require for their orbit, insubstantial as ice particles, but there perhaps as much as imagined worlds are, similarly held in place by forces of nature including history, yet containing an autonomy.
Frequently Sebald evokes a peopleless world: empty streets seen from a hospital window, the marshes, an aeroplane high in the sky although carrying hundreds of people seeming but as an object. When he lets a thought take him in what he calls his ‘notes’, ‘these notes’, he will bring to life a complete fiction based on fact, possibly a fiction that is located within a dream of the imagined author, fictionalised conversations and situations of real historical figures. Mostly these figures are wealthy, live in opulence, are part of the ruling elite, played crucial but often hidden roles in the course of history. The solidity of their wealth and power as evoked imaginatively is in a fictional permanence which is located in only the place that memory can create permanence, a permanence doubtless imagined not only by an observer looking back but also by the imaginary worlds of those who lived, and who still live. The latter as the former will in a different discourse succumb to erosion, decay, collapse, burial. But history qua history can be willed as a process of selection. One ‘thread’ followed by Sebald from the Chinese Empress’s cultivation of silk worms to the bizarre Third Reich educational programme for producing silk takes in the Norwich workers who, years before the Industrial Revolution, were strapped to wooden machines resembling instruments of torture, driven to bad dreams by their work yet who were, at this point of the history of silk making items of a truly fabulous variety, and of an irridescent, quite indescribable beauty as if they had been produced by Nature itself, like the plumage of birds. There is so much the reader needs to do to question and explore the many spaces Sebald opens up.
Since quotidian details of the author-narrator’s encounters with people on his walk are few and far between, one is invited by this lacuna to flesh out the real people of the world, to question whether we do this by evoking a simulated thickness of reality through imagination, that is by seeing others through structures similar to literary modes of representation, or whether we are in our world in a more direct apprehension of it. We may know that we are going to share the same dismal destiny as our forbears, yet in the physical encounter with the world, with Nature, with people, with our visceral defiance of war and cruelty perhaps there is enough to live by. The mind is subordinate to the body and the ground it walks upon, secondary to ideas which it knows it is the source of. It may be odd these days to welcome pain and pleasure equally, but in the end the pain of memory and its freedoms, and the constraints of the human condition that allow its freedoms are, whether we like it or not, how it is. For the wretched Vicomte too, life was worth it even though he once despaired, The chronicler…. inscribes his experiences, in an act of self-mutilation, onto his own body. In the writing, he …. is already in the tomb that his memoirs represent.
My reader may be wondering whatever happened to my review of this book. Let me quote from goodreads.com where I am known as abailart:
abailart:This reviewer has been out at sea three days. I’ve been hurled and whirled, up and down and backwards all at the same time, been beaten up and chased by goats, and had three barrels of rum, gin, brandy, vodka, Jack Daniels, whisky, whiskey, potcheen and every other spirit of Irish moonshine poured down my throat. What a way to spend Christmas. If I recover I will say something about this brilliant novel.
Elizabeth But keep this part, too. It’s funny. Were you chased by goats on the boat?
AbailartWould that a boat had been involved. No, my whole peninsula became unmoored after fiendish rodents chewed through my isthmus. My three hitherto tame Nanny goats with whom I have lived in peaceful harmony these many years were driven berserk by the raging seas and mistook me for a Billy goat.
ElizabethSlightly different from the description of the book but I think you have a compelling story there. Maybe “A Goat’s Story: An Autobiography” is in order?
K.D. Cool way to spend Christmas! I know you will recover so I will wait for your review, Ab!
Am off for asylum in Scotland for a week, and will return to review in 2011.
So that was my second New Year’s resolution broken (the first being never to make resolutions). Seriously though (as if), being away from a book for so long before reviewing it does bring insights. I realise that I usually review immediately upon completion, with close textual references to specific points of theme or form, and a general evaluation. I am looking forward to doing the forthcoming review with a much broader sweep. Perhaps this is most appropriate, for the novel got into my head as few have, just as my head seemed to enter the novel. Such swirly, unsettling literature that changes with every point of observation sets up a task I relish.
By the way, the novel has nothing whatsoever to do with goats. Except that it has.
Six lectures. like six walks with a fascinating companion who’s courteous, humorous gentle with the reader. He’s erudite, of course, but his insights come unforced and ‘natural’. Natural ‘talking’ as opposed to ‘articificial’ – one of the dyads he mentions in passing almost as a casual observation about fictional theory. The only demand he asks of his ‘model’ reader is attention 0 and, well, fascination. It feels inappropriate to say much about anything where Eco is concerned since he says it all so perfectly, and I think no matter how nuanced the reading the nuances of the writing may well be missed. One could say must be missed, for the woods are not some well-ordered landscape manufacture but “Sacred…tangled and twisted like the forests of the Druids.” In any case, anything I or anybody else says about this or any other text is at best an interesting, or even useful, diagram but nothing like the richly experiential, one may – or may not – appeal to the noumenal – immersion within the woods, within the text. I’d say that if you only read one page of this book read the last one to see what ‘immersion’ and precision may mean.
There are interesting methods that can be learned for approaching fiction if one takes one refraction of Eco’s book, one thin layer, as a guide. I’ve suggested this in practice by glimpsing Dermot Healy through a few of the ways. In particular, the dyads of model reader and empirical reader, the use of a text and the interpretation of a text are seminal. I’ll be returning to the empirical reader as the substance of this post. Suffice it to say that the attention Eco requests from his reader is a requirement to realise the distinction between empirical usage of a text for whatsoever pleasure or other employment a reader may make, and a nuanced sensibility to a text (which does not, of course, exhaust a text’s possibilities: he has been returning to his beloved Sylvie year upon year).
Not surprisingly, another dyad is the fiction-truth twinship that wriggles, writhes, and spreads rhizomes throughout the woods – for I as empirical reader may, even as model reader, legitimately take with me on my walks not only my own memories but the collective memories of my ancestors including Deleuze or whomsoever. There is a type of mainly male psyche which I shall be looking at in a later review of A Goat’s Song which is angrily opposed to ‘mere fiction’ and thereby an unconscious victim to the personal and cultural fictional narratives that effect subjectivity (including, a point Eco makes merely in passing, the subjective narrative of continuing self). As Eco’s lecture series reaches its final point, the fact that a knowledge of narrativity is absent moves from being innocent to being deadly serious.
In an early lecture he suggests that the ‘completion’ of narrative against the messiness and contradictoriness of the world was behind much of the appeal of fiction, myth (and, I think, by implication art generally, including poetry). I marked the passage in rather angry pencil; in my brain I etched cliche, and ‘depoliticised speech’. Yet as the series moved on it came as no surprise that Eco began by asking at the start of his final lecture whether the world could be read as fiction, and whether a ‘work’ of fiction could be constructed to represent the actual (non-neat narratological) mess of living. Swiftly moving through some interesting asides about language and theories of the semiotic-narrative (and I think he was resurrecting tthe possibility of looking again at the idea of grammar’s fundamental axis around activity, that each sentence is a story), he relates the dreadful history of the fictions-as-truths beginning with the Knights Templar of the fourteenth century, through the Rosicruceans, Scottish Freemasons, Jesuits, and all the other stuff – read it, it’s only a few pages – to that dreadful moment of protofascism beginning in nineteenth century France, informing Germany and with us still today in an ugly and terrifying antisemitism. This empirical reader sees fiction as too important to be ignored by the ideology of fact cataloguing.
It is good and human to move back the other way, to that innocence and beauty, the thrill of walking in the woods. We need consoling fictions too, the ones that are neat and well ordered, the way we would like life to be. It’s important too that we know the other end of the spectrum. Life is a struggle, it’s political and ends with death. As Eco ends his sixth lecture: “..since life is cruel, for you and for me, here I am.”
A short review below of this book. I am going to enjoy, I think, reading more Bolano. He seems to be the sort of writer I was getting at in my Anti-writing post.
I do not like those communities of artistic people who are talk and tinkle. I believe the world needs action from good being. Literature is indeed a valid pleasure for its own sake. But there are conservative, reactionary, and, I would say, bad folk out there who put ‘Art’ above life and politics. Surely it can be as much a retreat and sanctuary as anything, but to suggest it as a self-sufficient entity that represents some sort of suprahuman state seems to me to be deeply dangerous.
My Review of the Book
I thought this very good. It’s my first encounter with this writer, and although I have seen reviews suggesting his ‘difficulty’, I have no hesitation in recommending this to anybody. (I thank Mike Puma for suggesting it as probably the most suitable introduction to the author).
It’s very rich and dense, with startling images and cross-cutting motifs; many extra-textual references too, but I hardly think they matter at this stage. Later, I will return to read the book again, as one will return to a film, looking forward to the total experience, reading differently, with more prepared resonance as a reader.
Here I’ll reveal what struck me immediately. The single paragraph of the novel (well, there’s two if you include the seven word paragraph at the end, important as it is) is the confessional of a Priest/Poet/Aesthete/Critic who believes he’s dying. He isn’t – except of course, he is, as we all are. He’s not a sympathetic character, what with his being a coward, a debauch, a hero worshipper, a solipsistic fool (just to begin the catalogue). But he is sympathetic too for the poor man is just anyone. I’m not convinced that this is remotely a book about Chile, despite the confessor’s search for the very Christian, very Chilean, I think a reader who goes in fangs bared knowing this Priest is member of (fashionably, what else, negatively connoted) Opus Dei or intuiting that he was part of the establishment that crushed the brave Socialist experiment will miss much of what is actually in the text. That’s something ironic, something of the the world of the lovers of literature and the arts generally, that something being you don’t approach act and being as a political animal by chattering about representations. There are the precisely controlled traces, just enough, of the horrors of Chile – and, incidentally, Europe and the USA – to help embrace a certain readership into necessary active political studies of the nature of myths , narratives of gods, nations, good and evil, left and right, personal identity. Even Pinochet – who has a speaking part in this novel (during one of the Priest’s six stories) understands that to defeat a story you meed to understand it. Bolano, though, goes deeper, and suggests that if you scratch away at any story an utter boredom, acidie, ruination and decay are revealed. Again, here, the reader who knows knows about relating to personalities at a much more positive level (by contrast): the lecher priest who feels Pinochet’s hand upon his knee like a myriad desiring multitude of hands; the frightened priest who sees in a namesake baby with eyes and mouth closed himself against the world (while, in this moment also rushing with heterosexual desire) knows nothing of health: for him the world is in ruins, and broken and unstable as much of the imagery of the novel explores.
It’s useful to have priest-aesthete as narrator. For one thing, such an individual has the ideological permission to be above the mere world of the messily human, and Sebastian (the priest) assumes such permission (as many do do). His torpor (mere boredom) in Chile is followed by aesthetic excitatation springing from one part of Europe to another. In a hymn to his God he praises not the Lord’s justice or concern for the oppressed but his own being graced by encounter with “my happiness, passion regained, genuine devotion, my prayers rising up and up through the crowds to the realm of pure music, to what for want of a better name we call the choir of angels, a non-human space but undoubtedly the only imaginable space we humans can truly inhabit, an uninhabitable space but the only one worth inhabiting, a space in which we will cease to be but the only space in which we can be what we truly are…” My guess is that there are priest-aesthetes spouting this all over the world in various forms. There may have been refined monsters in Auschwitz sharing sherries with their local clergy who hissed it too.
This particular failed poet longs for a more ‘cultured’ ‘Chile’. He immerses himself in Graeco-Roman ‘culture’ (clean as a sculpture, and neatly forgetting Aristotle’s – and later Aquinas’ – emphasis upon the political centrality of being); he longs for ‘his’ country to open itself to Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Hugo, Borges, Tolstoy (what a truly bizarre conglomerate!); he wilfully, proudly, separates himself from the universe of political events (the real people’s acting and being), and regularly joins the grotesque gatherings of third-rate literati, artists and such that chatter in comfortable soirees while beneath them in the basements of a house whose labyrinthine corridors are laid our ‘like a crossword puzzle’, victims of torture suffer and die. But he’s no more a coward than anyone who lives like that. Anywhere, any time.
The failure of aestheticism to complete and identity is the torment of this narrator. It is universal. He’s allowed limited reflection himself, for instance awareness of his own own poems’ division into apollonian and dionysian (such a division, of course, being about as creative, active, poetic as a crossword clue), Where the insistent filmic image of ‘zooming’ in through the petals of a flower, through the entrance to the Emperor’s room through door after door of antechambers, to the ‘tunnel of time, back into time’s great meat-grinder’ (the latter near the end) there’s a redemptive possibility, that the frightened story-maker and conservative adult will recognise the wizened youth within and eschew both.
The truth is, I don’t believe all that much in writing. Starting with my own. Being a writer is pleasant—no, pleasant isn’t the word—it’s an activity that has its share of amusing moments, but I know of other things that are even more amusing, amusing in the same way that literature is for me. Holding up banks, for example. Or directing movies. Or being a gigolo. Or being a child again and playing on a more or less apocalyptic soccer team. Unfortunately, the child grows up, the bank robber is killed, the director runs out of money, the gigolo gets sick and then there’s no other choice but to write. For me, the word writing is the exact opposite of the word waiting. Instead of waiting, there is writing.
Todd took me to the Tower Bar and because he was surly and bad company I got drunk enough for time to pass unnoticed. The bar was a shop with a newsagent one side, a betting shop the other. People came and sat for a drink then left and came back, or sat and stayed. It was quiet. The other drinkers were like Todd, as if the the dark tatty room, bare of all colour were their natural habitat. If you took away the taps and optics the place could be converted to a presbyterian chapel for next to nothing.
Todd’s sister came in on her way home from work. She was straight into attacking Todd. “Him,” she said. “Him.”
Todd went to the betting shop.
Her name was Josie. We had a few drinks. She said she’d take me to the hospital the next day. Todd never went.
He came back with a paper and sat reading it. Josie left. About seven o’clock we went back to his flat picking up a fish supper and a carryout from the Londis. We watched the Rangers Red Star game. He fell asleep before half time. I went to bed at ten o’clock.
Next day I couldn’t find anything in the kitchen. I felt sick and light-headed. I went down the lift to meet Josie at the station. On the eighteenth floor a heroin or methadone woman got in. “Ye ken her doon the front, tha’s oor Joey’s cousin. Bastards. Bluidy hung hersen in front o’ the bairns. Aye, ye fuckin social services for ye. An’ him in t’other block christmas day off t’ bannisters, no even in paper. Three in a month twats.” And we dragged on past the concierge station, her still coming down the lift shaft out into the light. “An’ thay puir bastards a’ Red Road, three ae them all t’gither.” , and continuing away from me. “Fuckin social workers. Fuckin doctors.”
On the train I asked Josie why Todd never went. “Drink,” she said. “And the rest of it.” Todd hadn’t see his Dad for a year. He hadn’t seen his partner and kids for two years.
We got a bus from Tulliston. Owen looked ok, not as bad as I’d heard. After half an hour, Josie left, kissed her Da and told me the time of the bus back to the station.
I had the runs and then went down to the café and bought a sandwich and a couple of coffees and came back. Owen drank half his then vomited it up into the cardboard bowl by his bed. “I’m a goner, lad.” But he grinned, looked as strong as ever. Then his face dropped. “ We’ll come back one day, son. I don’t know – what – the old ways are gone, it’s not class, it’s spirit, it’s human resilience. Weak now…” he drifted off, his head turned way from me,” weak now, but we’ll return.” He clasped my hand. He smiled and his eyes looked incredibly alive for a dying man. “Keep fighting, son.”
I paused, he didn’t. “How’s Todd?” he asked.
“Good of him to put me up and put up with me.”
“Josie’s a strong woman. She disnae ken how to get him back. But she does know he’s not to blame. She’ll keep doing her best.”
He chuckled. “D’ye ken, now things seen a lot simpler to me, he’s just like the wee lad who got angry when he found out I’d been blagging him eight years about Father Christmas?”
We both paused, my hand still in his, until his eyes closed. I gently unclasped hands and left. I found my way back to the station and Todd’s. That night we went to the Tower Bar and I got very drunk. Todd went off with some boys and gave me the key . I stayed on, buying an old guy from the shipyards whisky. When I got back to the flats I found I had lost the key. I got into Kelvingrove Park and tried to sleep on a bench.
It was grey light and frosty drizzle when I woke up and had to heave myself to sitting to vomit the white stuff. Two healthy looking young things were passing and glanced with a cold indifference sharper than disgust. I felt awful. I made it to a convenience store on Woodside Road and bought a quarter bottle stiffener, felt better, had some drinks in the Castle Vaults then found myself in Queen Street Station. I bought a ticket to Tulliston and had a coffee and food while I was waiting.
People were looking at me at the bus stop in Tulliston. They could tell. I was beginning to feel ill again.
I’d been on the bus fifteen minutes when I realised I must have missed the stop. It was only a five minutes ride when I was with Josie. We were curving up a country lane. woods either side. I went to the front and asked the driver where the hospital was. He said I was on the wrong bus for Storbrail, said I’d have to walk back to Tulliston or take a longer walk through the country park at the next stop. I got off half a mile later at the entrance to the park and he told me it was a four mile walk, just keep following the signs to the main entrance, then a mile and a half up the main road.
There was a faded wooden board. Woodilee Estate, south entrance. The path was steep upwards, muddy. A broken down lodge at the start of it, red brick, cold and dark. I had to go behind it, my lower guts had turned to liquid.
A cold sweat broke out, I was heaving for breath and from retching, got one shoe a foot deep in slime as I climbed. Dizzy and sick I reached a high path that was more used, some gravel thrown on it. I kept coming to branches in the paths, soon had no idea which direction I had come from. The place seemed deserted. The only presence was the stink of layers of decaying leaves being digested by filthy soil. Then a guy with a dog came towards me. I aked him how to get to the hospital. The look he gave me, like he knew. He told me to climb the bank at the next bend and get through the wire, it would be a short cut, I’d see the buildings. I was covered in dirt by the time I got through and saw a huge rising sprawl of something ruined and long abandoned. I went down through debris, junk, thistles, sodden marsh and looked up at a huge clock tower. The place was massive, its walls and windows sliding, refusing to make a fixed shape as I tried to take it in.
A voice from behind me. “Let you out an’ all?” I turned. A big, long jacket hung off something, its voice coming from deep inside the shadow of the baggy hood. “Here ye go, Jim.” A hand appeared from the coat with a bottle in it. “Gae on. It’ll warm ye.” I drank and felt warm and better. “They let ye oot too on Tuesdays?” I drank some more. “See ye later pal. Ah’m away in the noo. Fishcakes. “ The figure shuffled across the smashed glass and rubbish, and disappeared through a cavernous porch into the centre of the building.
I went round the other side, found an overgrown driveway and followed it down, had to scramble through a tangle of thorns and barbed wire that interwined a broken down galvanised gate, then down a road and I hit a dual carriageway. I could see houses to my left and headed in that direction, a suburb thickening about me. I bought a bottle of vodka, sat in a memorial garden and drank. I knew I couldn’t go and visit Owen in my state, white vomit down my jumper, covered in mud and stinking of drink. I just wanted to get to a bed. I drank some more and felt better..
Outside the park, I came on a board advertising the renovated canal. It had a map on it, and I realised I could get back to Todd’s walking down the tow path. But it took me ages to find the canal. I ended up on a road that petered out into asphalt in a small council estate. Some boys fixing a car there looked at me, like they knew, so I kept on walking down a path across fields. There were tractors and some sheep, teenagers on scramble bikes, corrugated concrete sheds for battery hens. The path went upwards then I saw the canal. On the other side were green hills with huge radio masts dwarfing a couple of farm houses. I went down to the canal and headed towards the city. A mile on and I came to six blocks of flats to my left, fifty yards in front of them a tangle of pylons and transformers, the pylons radiating in every direction. Six or seven young guys smoking weed and drinking special brew, a bit further on a granddad and young kid fishing in the canal.
I walked past the lush Maryhill apartments to the Firhill Locks, sweating again and sick. Sat down on a bench. An old guy came and sat next to me. He pulled a half from his thick overcoat. We talked. “See there, Scouse,” he said indicating the football stadium. “That’s where Alan Hansen started.” He passed me the bottle. “This place used to be jam packed with boats. I used to pick up cargoes frae Leith and take them on to Clydebank. We had a community of men, real men, dockers, bargemen, shipbuilders. I come here each day, They’ve destroyed everything but they cannae take mah memories.”
The winter night had fallen quick and scraggy. I walked the short distance to the junction, up past a burned out clothing warehouse, into Purcell Street, into the Tower Bar. Todd was sat there with Josie. “He died this afternoon,” she said. Todd looked at me, his eyes wet and innocent of fraud, full of longing. I sat and hugged him close to me, stroked his head. “It’s all right. He loves you, Todd.”