A foreigner in a foreign world Unable to return for the last farewell I drink white wine next to Americans And contemplate who the man was Suddenly An idea Comes to me Bookworms and fishermen are actually quite similar We spend hours in silence Looking in front of us Waiting for something To catch He probably thought me one of those Gallivanting Europeans Whose loose morals and liberal ways Are the ruin of our Empire I remember him once Telling me about Poles in Lincoln And all I could think of Was Walkers’ Crisps He and I never chatted much We at family parties Always shook hands Always maintained polite protocol Always took the measure of the man But there was none of that Knee-slapping Thigh-smacking Back-cracking Kind of conversation I am used to Oh ‘allo he would say In that Lincolnshire accent A working man’s drawl An accent I regret not hearing more of But one that sounded almost exotic In our family of Northerners “Oh ‘allo” was about as far as we would get And I would leave him where he was In a chair with the kids A beer in hand And a smile that showed How happy he was Nobody can be that kind My cousin said All those years ago When she brought him home He glided into the family Sometimes clumsy always kind Strong not stubborn Thoughtful not shy And now my aunt has Lost her DIY king and will Live in the realm He put together with bits from B&Q An outside toilet A set of shelves Crisp packets behind the radiator Hooks that have lost their meaning A row of twenty or more fishing rods A rustic sword of Damocles A box of maggots in the fridge And a full bag of soil That was meant for the tomato plants I’m sorry He didn’t get To plant His tomatoes. I really am. And now he finds himself In a poem that paraphrases Horace Live each day as fully as you can Put nothing off Plant your tomatoes catch your fish Even as you read this Your time has shrunk a little Anglers and writers Heart-broken wanting to help Know deep down The biggest fish Will always get away
The nicest thing that my grandma ever told me was when I was seven years old, 23 years ago. She said that a poem I had written in her upstairs guest room was ‘actually quite good’. It was about cowboys, I think, and it was written in verse and in pencil in a spiral book. It marks the beginning of my writing ambitions.
The most unpleasant thing that has been said about my writing was just this week, when a friend said that the first chapter (and only one they have read) was clichéd, that I just didn’t have what it takes and seemed to suggest that I give up. This, however, does not mark the end of my writing ambitions.
As I became a teenager, I started writing poems – they flowed out of me. But I also wrote what I might call prose poems, because they told a story with a poetic message to them. I also, as any youngster with literary ambitions, started drafting a fantasy novel inspired by the Elder Scrolls computer game. The poetry continued and cumulated when I was 17 with a poetic anthology of maybe 100 poems. I say maybe because, when I moved to France in 2012, I burnt the original manuscripts and there are two printed copies circulating somewhere in the world – I just don’t know where!
While at school, I learnt the beginnings of essay writing, which then was honed at university, when I must have written close to 200,000 words on Golden and Silver Age Latin literature, Roman history, Ancient Greek and Classical French tragedy, 19th century literature, with a specialisation on Stendhal and Mallarmé, and edging up to the middle of the last century. This form then found a home in a first blog called ‘Paris Theatre’, inspired by my own theatre critiques for the university newspaper, and it continues to this day in this very blog you are reading.
I have written short stories, inspired by Maupassant and Baudelaire. And I have kept a written diary on and off throughout my whole life. I have taught a class on literature, examining the works of Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. And now I am writing a novel, for which I wake up at 6am and write no more than 300 words at a time, crafting each paragraph with care. It is the second draft of this novel and is the fruit of many years of reflection. It is a labour of love, but also an exploration of a stylistic philosophy, inspired notably by my readings of Wayne C. Booth and Erich Auerbach.
I could go on, but you probably get the point now. I admit that other people’s writing lists may be longer than mine. But what I see when I look back at this reflection is development: from poetry to essays, passing by short stories and blog posts, there remains the novel form to tackle.
So this is a message to my friend, or indeed anyone who might want to take a pop at my work:
My writing is here to stay. And this is just the beginning.
There is an argument that doesn’t sit very well with people because it defies everything they have learnt about History: one man cannot change the course of historical events. Tolstoy in War and Peace is a staunch defender of this idea, arguing that Napoleon did nothing, that greater forces were at play, and that the macro overcame the micro.
Over the summer, I tried to convince a friend, a dyed in the wool rationalist, of this fundamental shift in my own thought. He would respond, “So do you think Ludwig van Beethoven had no effect on music? Do you think Martin Luther King Junior’s fight led to nothing? And what about Leo Tolstoy himself?” And the infuriating answer that I would give was ‘no’.
It’s so baffling, isn’t it, to think in this age of agency that the series of events that led us to this moment are not the result of individuals. The image of our DIY society crumbles when we consider that a great network of pulses and vibrations is responsible for who we, as humanity, are. And that therefore everyone’s actions are responsible for what happens, even when History takes an extremely dark turn, and we don’t even know it.
It’s a pretty hard idea to grasp, but I think an analogy with football can help. (Disclaimer: I am no football expert, but I have seen enough games to know why the off-side rule matters).
Here we go: a football match is a battle and the league is a war. The managers are generals, the owners of the club politicians, and the players soldiers. Everyone watching the match are civilians, while everyone commenting the match are journalists, consultants or pub pundits. 90 minutes is an arbitrary timeframe, just like dates and years to define different periods. And a goal scored and subsequent win, loss or draw are those things we call ‘events’, the spume on the wave of History.
I could go further and talk about local and national economies, the reputation of towns, advertising, international repercussions and the different interpretations we can have on the course of events.. But I fear becoming fanatic. Suffice it to say that the analogy holds up and I hope you, reader, can agree.
Can we therefore say that a football team wins a match because of one person? Sure, they might have scored the winning goal, but there are an infinite number of variables that lead to that goal being scored: the weather, what they ate for breakfast, their childhood, what was going on three weeks ago, the look someone just gave them, a fan shouting loud enough to be heard, and so forth. A manager might take a team to win the league, maybe even twice in a row, but would the pundits pin all the victory on one person? And what about the other way round, when relegation comes knocking – surely that is more the effect of bad training, itself a result of bad choices made by people who do not actually play on the field?
If we then apply this lens to History, the Tolstoy argument becomes clearer. All the more so because it has many more factors, some that are either only known for an instant, or unearthed years later with more evidence.
As luck would have it, Blackburn Rovers – my home team – lost 7-0 against Fulham on Wednesday night. As I rarely go to matches, living abroad, my friends and family pinned the blame on me. It’s football superstition, of course, but I’m convinced a slither of this joke was true. Because I was at Ewood Park on 3rd November, the home team had their heaviest defeat ever.
This is clearly absurd. Why? Because one person cannot influence History.
After six weeks of a Masters programme in Paris, it is the half-term holiday and I am going back to Lancashire for a short visit. It is a moment to restore and prepare for the next slog, which culminates just before Christmas.
Sociology is an important element in the course and while in the first half we have examined critical theories (Benjamin, Adenauer and Habermas), the next part will involve a sociological autoportrait.
Bourdieu’s last published piece in 2004 (Esquisse pour une auto-analyse) was an exploration of all things cultural that made him. It is an attempt to understand which environmental factors have played a role in one’s becoming: how did Bourdieu, son of a working class family in rural southern France, end up becoming one of the country’s most important thinkers?
The first, instinctive, response is to say that he was very, very clever. But in a world where there are many very clever people, this kind of answer no longer cuts the mustard.
The second response then is to look at his upbringing and to recognise that a cultural world beyond the one he was born into moulded him. It gave him an understanding of another modus vivendi, and allowed him to move beyond his class.
The rest was probably just hard work.
When I learned about the specifics of this final task – namely that we will have to analyse our own upbringing through a Bourdieusian prism – I almost spat out my caviar. I have spent the last five years trying to understand what happened when I was at Oxford University. They were five years of my life that took me from Lancashire and spat me back out in Paris. There was a baptism by fire of social mores, academic rigour, and class protocol. Not just the place, my degree (Latin and French) was and continues to be a quagmire: What are you going to do with Latin? Where do they even speak it? You wasted at your time at university, didn’t you?
Here I am now, though, writing with a Waterman in the Historic Library of Paris, living by the Pompidou Centre, studying at the Sorbonne, and wondering what strange web of agents and actors led me here.
Friday night was Bond night (because the Brothers Karamazov at the Théâtre de l’Odéon was, alas, sold out) and I’m suddenly not satisfied with my simple Swatch. And I’ve also started wondering whether the Paris Metro really is all that great – wouldn’t it be comfier and sexier to whip about in a Land Rover or Aston Martin? And what about my own run-of-the-mill holidays to rainy Lancashire? I should be off to the south coast of Italy to burn my secrets in the balmy Mediterranean air.
The film has mixed reviews, which I suppose I’m ambivalent about. Some say it lacks balls (too soon?), that it’s a three-hour perfume ad or that killing James is just unforgivable. Others will say that Bond in love offers more depth to the dialogue, that the colouring and cinematography are beautiful, and the timing is slick.
Personally, I enjoyed it, despite being worried that I had selected a dubbed version due to the pesky first scene in French and was wondering whether we’d have time to get over to the 21h30 viewing that I know is VO. But I didn’t look at my (now unsatisfactory) watch once and I felt the appropriate emotions when the action indicated me to do so.
While Bond struggles with conflicting feelings over the possibility of domestication, here I am having to get up at some ungodly hour just to fit some writing in. I guess you and I are not so different after all, Mr Bond.