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Trying to try, onions, marbles, a rubber ball
#4 | 'February' 2023
Trying to try
February’s newsletter arrives in the middle of the second week of March because I convinced myself that I was too busy to write a newsletter last month as I was putting whatever spare time I could find into trying to write. And much of that time trying to write was spent trying to read. The word ‘trying’ here is apt — the form of writing I’m attempting is an essay, which, after reading Brian Dillon’s fine book Essayism, I’ve discovered comes from the French verb essayer, meaning ‘to try’. I honestly don’t know if reading has helped to relieve or reinforce my particular creative clot. I also don’t know of another artistic act where one so readily turns to the form of one’s creative constipation in an attempt to describe that blockage, but at least I’ve now committed, a few weeks late, to this newsletter. Writers tend to try to write even when writing itself is the very thing eluding them. It is the most curious kind of vanity. There’s a necessary immodesty about the act of writing; never more so than when writers resort to writing about their writing.
The photo above shows the place where I sit down to type. My computer’s desktop picture alternates between photos of my mother and objects from her home that I’m hoping will inspire me to find the words which I’m after. To the side of the screen, taped to the wall, more inspirations: photos of Pessoa, Beckett, Camus and Kieślowski. Also there, rediscovered words of encouragement from six years ago from a kind literary agent: a reminder of someone else’s belief in the hope that they might stifle this writer’s doubts. And a poem – ‘I Don’t Know How Many Souls I Have’ – written by the first of those photographic inspirations, above.
The catalyst for all of this self-referential awkwardness started with a book that’s been sat on my desk for a while wherein I discovered the most beautiful sentence from Rebecca Solnit: ‘Writing is saying to no-one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.’ It was enough to stop me reading and push me here and start struggling with something different.
Onions, marbles, a rubber ball
At the weekend, from a jar in the cupboard, I took the last of the onions. I chased it around the mahogany interior of its glass container with a fork, though wished I’d had a spoon. Dad, when he was still able, would shell a hundred or so small white onions, top and then tail each, and place them into three maybe four Kilner jars and finally fill each to the top with Sarsons pickling vinegar. There was a big stone step that led you into the pantry – the darkest and coldest room in the house. Inside, there was a blistered white wooden shelf immediately to the left, next to a small frosted window which looked out into a dark alley, which separated one half-detached house from the next. The onion jars would sit on the red quarry-tile floor below the shelf, a sack of potatoes next to them. Beyond that, I’m not sure I ventured often, but which I also can’t recall. On that shelf above, if lucky, would be a tray or two of Dad’s homemade glass toffee, broken into shards. A savoury prize below the shelf, a sweet prize on top. The onions would sit there for a month before they were ready to eat, though impatient fingers would often begin scooping them out sooner. Each repeat covert trip to the pantry would result in more shards and less available toffee, and the quiet unscrewing of the onion jar, hoping that there was still a round lubricious form lurking somewhere in that dark liquor.
I took the last of the onions today and remembered playing marbles with Pete in the alleyway between the houses. Along one side of that dark passage there was a down-pipe which led from the roof gutter to a small concrete valley below. A square metal grate sat in the hollow and we would roll multicoloured glass spheres towards it without concern for what other detritus had found or passed through that same place of rest. We played the most impossible games of narrow football there, too, always with a small rubber ball. A smack against the broken timbers of the coal shed at the end of that dark corridor would confirm a minor victory for one brother over his twin. I’d love so much to hold one of those impossibly beautiful marbles in the palm of my hand right now; to bounce that duck-egg blue rubber ball, to trace a finger around the flayed edges of its seam.
No other family member really cares for pickled onions (likewise the gherkins, set a jar or so more dimly inside the cupboard). That last onion is a particularly lovely pleasure. So much so that I immediately wrote ‘pickled onions’ onto the list which Charlotte had started earlier that morning: promoting a Christmas shopping custom into an early spring novelty. And when the next last onion should come around, perhaps after that I should avoid shop-bought and instead commit to making a next batch. Dad would have spread two pink sheets of the Birmingham Sports Argus across the table. He’d discard the dry outer layers of each bulb, square the ends. I’d need to double-check with Mum whether she recalls what I recall of the rest of Dad’s methods. Her memories will be different. There was probably salt, sugar. There must have been heat before bottling and soaking them in their liquor bath for four weeks. Perhaps it was three.
Recommended other fragments…
Just read: The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard
There are whole passages in this book that feel like they rush over my head. But then there are words, phrases and full pages that prick such intense feeling in me that the read and struggle feels more than worth it. In my notebook, some dozen or so highlighted bits of text pulled from the pages of Bachelard amounts to more than two or three hundred pages from so many other writers.
Now reading: On The Pain of Others, Susan Sontag
‘Nonstop imagery (television, streaming video, movies) is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite. Memory freeze-frames; its basic unit is the single image.’ Sontag writes in a very easy way, scratching at the surface of things, occasionally digging much deeper into some subjects. These essays question how we justify creating, publishing and consuming images that reveal the pain and suffering of others.
Podcast/Broadcast: The Last Of Us, HBO
Usually, for me, the more hype something gets, the less compelled I feel to follow sheep-like towards watching it, however ‘up my street’ it might seem. But too many people whose opinions I trust said too many good things about it. And Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) is its brilliant screenwriter. And… it’s brilliant, even if my wife did have to leave me to it, traumatised, after three ‘fungi-explicit’ episodes.
Music: Scott 3, Scott Walker
A perfect album which has been keeping me company during days of photo editing and weeks of writing procrastination. There’s an unmistakeable similarity between the strings on album opener, ‘It’s Raining Today’ and one of my favourite Radiohead tracks, ‘How To Disappear Completely’. Walker’s voice, a decade later on, would give us the eerie but wonderful ‘The Electrician’. A decade and a half later, ‘Farmer In The City’. His genius was consistent and then less so, and then sporadically so, but his voice always remained unique and beautiful.
People: Ben Veal and Marc Millar
I spent the end of last week listening to two men talking about their mental health. Historically, that’s not something men have excelled at. The Covid lockdowns of 2020 would be the catalyst for each to bring about change in their lives. Ben Veal gave a moving talk about living and working with purpose, an ethos which he has taken into the PR and communications consultancy he founded, Second Mountain Communications. Marc Millar is a friend and brilliant photographer who I worked with on a couple of cookbooks six years ago. He is the founder of men’s mental health and cold water dipping group, Edinburgh Blue Balls. He gave a candid interview to The Men Who: Talk podcast.
Phone photography masterclass, Monday 24th April
Join me, via Zoom, for my next phone photography workshop. If you’re keen to improve your photographic and styling skills, either for personal or business development, then the workshop is an effective way to start. More than 1,200 people have participated over the last few years, with 10% of each £80 booking fee now donated to The Trussell Trust (£2,149.64 since these donations began). Follow this link for more info on what the course entails. Free places are available each workshop for those who cannot afford to pay – simply drop me an email or message on Instagram if that’s you.
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