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diary: on growing up

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1. Not many years ago, I think when I was living in the city where the plane just crashed, I remember reading one of those “diaries” in the London Review of Books. I can’t remember who wrote it, or even what it was about. It might have been about a soccer tournament, the World Cup, the European championships. What I do remember is a single image deployed offhandedly in the course of the piece. The author referenced sitting in his garden behind his house in London. The imaged barbed me, or I hooked the image, and it came with me wherever I went for a few days or weeks. If I could just have that. If I could be the sort of person who sits in his garden in London. Who comes in from the garden to watch a soccer game, or type away at an article for the LRB while sitting in my garden behind my house in London.

It was an outrageous thing to think at the time. I was doing my damndest just to get back to where I had just come from – New York, Brooklyn. I very nearly applied for a 4-5 at John Jay. I spent my nights looking up recruiters for posh high schools, those who would adore a CV like mine.

I am not in my garden at the moment. My back is to it, as I am sitting at my kitchen table. It is too dark to see through the window. But if it weren’t I’d see an overgrown mess of dead vines and piles of leaves on the ground. There is a dilapidated shed in the back left corner and my daughter’s playhouse in the back right corner. There is a table near the window where sometimes I work in the summer, but not often enough.

Rarely in life does one get the opportunity so directly to fulfil such an outlandish fantasy. But I suppose I did, didn’t I. I don’t write for the LRB, but I imagine one day I’ll get my shot, as I’m sort of tracked for it my virtue of my current position. And then I will type whatever I type there in the garden or in my office in Bloomsbury or at a coffeehouse on Tottenham Court Road or one of the libraries nearby.

2. An American journal arrived in the mail yesterday, not an academic journal but a creatively oriented one. I bought an early issue the year before last because I was taken with the cover art, and since then the thing seems to have come up in the world, is full of the work of relatively famous writers. This issue includes two poems by one of my best friends, a guy who I lived basically next door to (if the picture above was of the backyards behind my Brooklyn brownstone rather than the gardens of North London terraced houses, his window would have been the one on the first floor (that’s second floor for americans) of the third house from the left – the window obscured by the tree, which his was when leaves were in season.

You cannot see his apartment in this picture of the garden at the back of that apartment.

He still lives in Brooklyn, though he moved a few blocks away after I left to a new place with an additional bedroom. I have moved to two different cities, three houses and a flat, in the 3.5 years since I left New York. He has a daughter and another daughter on the way. I have a daughter and another daughter on the way.

We are still in touch, of course, in that intermittent way that one is with close friends during busy years and from far away. The three of them came up to visit us where we were last, spent several days. It was wonderful, just like old times except with kids! And now we routinely end our emails back and forth with something that goes like a tragedy that the girls are not growing up together! Can you imagine what that would be like? What friends they would be and become?

Today I read the poems in the journal. They are excellent. Perfect. I will write him tomorrow and say so. The best work I’ve seen of his since back there in Brooklyn. But they are also different. It’s hard to say just how, but not that hard. Whereas, in the old days, his work was exuberant and musical, these are pensive and quite melancholic. It is strange hearing news from a friend via poems in an airmailed journal.

3. Looking through the stack of iPhoto pictures for an image of that old Brooklyn garden makes my heart drop. Predictably, but it does. Jesus, my wife and I look young! And different in other ways as well!

4. My wife and I had a babysitter tonight, so we went downtown to the area that extends south from the British Museum. We go there quite a lot. The LRB Bookshop is a draw, as we like to look at tables of books, we always have. I bought a collection of short stories; she bought a new issue of a journal that publishes writing like her own. We had Thai food and talked about our work, what the devastation of the publishing industry might mean for her just about completed project, and what it might mean for those that I am about to revise again or those that I am just about to begin. We talk about childcare – whether I should talk to one of my soon to be unemployed students about living with us, watching the kids. And then we go to a pub at the corner, a pub it seems I’ve been to before (“how did you know there’s an upstairs and where it is”), where I have a pint and she has a coke. It is noisy as there is a football game on the TV. And then we head home. It is 6:30 when we leave.

The more interesting conversation – I wish I had a transcript of it, actually – took place in the Piccadilly Line on the way to our bookshop and restaurant and pub. I mentioned the poems, and the tone of the poems, and the subject matter. We wondered aloud about what it might mean. “They were very close, very very close, like us, like we were. Intimates, really. Not all couples are like that. It’s probably hard for them in just the same way.” I can’t remember who said what. The last time she saw him, which was more recently that I have seen him, he seemed melancholic, yes – “melancholic or depressed a bit like you can be.”

As we walked up the stairs toward the Russell Square tube stop elevators, I say that melancholia, that obsolescent term, might be the proper name of that middle place between depression and normal where the work gets done. She agrees, somehow, my wife, but I can’t remember how she said it or indicated it.

5. At some point in the course of these conversations I reminisce about the practice that said poet and I had, toward the end of my time in Brooklyn, of taking off early from work at home whenever we could, at 3 PM or 4 PM and heading out to the Brooklyn Inn to drink and play pool until our wives came home from work and stopped off to meet us there.

The Brooklyn Inn might just be my favorite bar in the entire world. The following picture is not mine.

We would play pool and drink Stella Artois for hours on end. Every so often he would go and put a song on the jukebox, sometimes inappropriate stuff that would get him yelled at by the hipsters who used the place as well. You had to buy tokens from the bar staff for the table, and if some other group took their turn with the table we would stand in the area of the table staring at them as they played, which usually kept the interruption to a single game.

We were fairly evenly matched, so the games were always competitive. And we would, as a rule, buy a new pint for each other with the start of each new game.

I can’t remember when exactly this run at the Brooklyn Inn happened, but from what I can remember by the end neither of our wives were drinking the cider anymore as both of them were pregnant.

6. There is an article in yesterday’s Times (the UK one, not the NYT) about Joan Bakewell, who has just put out a novel at the age of 75. A few months ago, around Christmas, you might remember that I read Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in a single sitting at a Barnes and Noble in Florida the day after its author died.  Well, Joan Bakewell is the model for the female lead in that play.

For all her achievements, her first-class mind, her groundbreaking role as one of TV’s first women presenters on Late Night Line-Up – interrogating Vaclav Havel or Allen Ginsberg in skirts so short no serious presenter could get away with them today – what will guarantee her immortality is her seven-year affair with Harold Pinter, thinly disguised in his play Betrayal. There is a photograph taken while she interviewed him. He – saturnine, intense – leans foward, while her body language opens to receive him. Both are smoking. As Bakewell’s agent remarked, it is a very sexy picture. How well did they know each other then? “Pretty well,” she says and chuckles dirtily. I might have guessed: it was at the height of their affair.

Nothing in her autobiography, The Centre of the Bed, is so vivid as the passages about Pinter. Her memories vibrate on the page: the green velvet frock that she wore when they first met, the flaking paint on the park bench when they first touched, a snatched day in Paris. She recalls Pinter’s wife Vivien Merchant, her “self-contained and proprietorial pride” with a snippy mistress’s envy: “I didn’t know then she was an actress but I might have guessed.”


And now Pinter is dead and while Bakewell has declined all offers to write about him, it is clear he still burns in her heart. She says: “Even within recent years, he’d sometimes say, ‘We had a good time, didn’t we?’” She adds, emphatically, as if he’s in the room right now. “‘Yes we certainly did!’ And it was very nice, and then we’d smile.”

They continued to meet over the years. “We were distant, married to other people, in different worlds, but we just kept an eye on what each other was up to.” They had lunch about two months before he died and spoke on the phone a few weeks later. Her eyes are filling when she says, “I don’t want to talk any more about it, except to say it does linger, it was very good and I was shocked by his death even though I knew he was dying.”

Ugh, the prose! Still, something about this, hard to say what. Something about the penultimate paragraph. Something to remember when one day I am writing a post (!) called “diary: on growing old.” Something about that last lunch, that last phone call, and what she says about it all.

No time to make this into a post on Betrayal, but for now… the author of the piece in the Times says the following:

The Betrayal of the title is not adultery, but the dishonesty between the two men. Michael and Harold were friends (but not as close as the men in the play): Pinter was incandescent at being deceived.

But that’s not even half of it. Set aside the circumstances of the described relationship. The real bazzlement of the play, the thing that makes it “incandescent” (urg) is the almost inevitable betrayal that comes of living in time. If anything seems to amaze Pinter in this work, it is that something can be something, that strongly, and then years can pass, and it can turn into something else. What’s worse, whatever happens doesn’t happen dramatic, epiphanical, but through a slow fizzle, a running out. This is closer to what grabs me about those last paragraphs above.

7. At the LRB Bookshop, I almost bought, but did not buy, Iain Sinclair’s new Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire. It looks too long to read, I have no time to read even the shortest of books, and this one is 480 pages long. I picked it up in the store to show my wife and said as I did, See, I would buy this and read it tonight if it were 150 pages long instead of what it is. (She responded that I could read a single street, as part of it is organized by streets, in the book if I wanted that length, and she was right…. I have time to read two or three streets).

Hackney, as I’ve said aloud but not on here, has strange associations for me. Clear cut but I can’t explain. Despite the fact that I wish I lived there a few years ago, perhaps during the years when I was playing pool at the Brooklyn Inn, I actually never want to visit it ever, even though I likely already have. Sorry, cryptic, I know.

But this book, and Iain Sinclair, were on my mind as we discussed, at the Thai restaurant, one of our perpetual themes: the difference between London and New York as work environments, writing environments. It’s not how we put it at the moment, but the appropriate takeaway from our discussion is that London is a more middle-aged city for writers than New York is. This is a good thing. NYC always wants the kid of the moment, the explosive aspirant who moves over 16 months from n+1 to the NYRB to the NYTimes Magazine to Harper’s or the Atlantic for a permanent gig. The median age for launch seems to be about 26. My wife in fact was, I think, one of those explosive aspirants for a few months in 2004 – the months just before and just after we conceived our first child, and months when we would have calls from editors at Random House on our answering machine when we came home from Thai. She was 27, 28 at the time. We worried ourselves to death when we were living there. With London, on the other hand, it feels like everyone writing is 42 or 52 and just making it, sending their kids to state school and relying on the NHS to treat the early or late symptoms of something. People seem to have time for tennis on Saturdays with other moderately successful types. They seem to stay for another drink at the pub near closing whereas in New York the promising who wish to capitalize on their promise have long since gone home to tap away at something other than a blog.

Luckily, there are no jobs anymore, so there is no job-application anxiety. We are staying here; there is no possibility of moving. And though it’s incredibly lonely here, unspeakably lonely for Americans, I, in the end, can’t even for a second imagine leaving. Even to Brooklyn. For I am middle-aged, at the start of it, and so is she.

8. I look a lot older than I did a few years ago. It stuns me that it finally happened, as I have been babyfaced for a long long time. Carded for cigarettes and booze, at thirty. But now, at thirty-two, I am starting to look my age. I don’t shave as I should, as all of my male colleagues do every morning from what I can tell. And because I don’t shave I get to examine my beard-hairs in the mirror. A few weeks ago, I noticed a strange white hair, a stray albino, on my chin. I was looking today and now there are four or five of them. Salt and pepper. I am not too worried, as I think I am one of those men that gets more attractive as I age. My father did, and now here I go. I think I am more attractive now, despite the lapse of the babyface and the aesthetic intervention of stress and longer hours and harder living, than I was before, and will be more so and more so probably for the next twenty someodd years.

Poor women. It all heads in the other direction starting just about now. At least some of the time, and in some ways, and in the eyes of some.

But there is a tightness in my chest that lingers. I tell no one about this tightness. I smoke and drink and I’m bringing it all on myself, I know. Some have pains in their side, I have a tightness in my chest, sometimes a deep pain in my left lung. My father’s father died young, and died from the effects of booze and smoke. When I lapse from health – probably not soon, but when I do – people will whisper “he brought it on himself. You know how he was.” And they will be right. They will say as they walk up the stairs at Finsbury Park or Bergen Street, “But you know how he lived.” And they will be right.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 16, 2009 at 12:25 am

4 Responses

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  1. I needed to read this today. It is 10:46 AM in Chicago, Illinois, right now.


    February 16, 2009 at 4:46 pm

  2. Wow really? I needed to write this yesterday! One never really knows whether it will make sense to anyone else etc… So thanks…


    February 16, 2009 at 11:20 pm

  3. ‘I don’t write for the LRB, but I imagine one day I’ll get my shot, as I’m sort of tracked for it my virtue of my current position.’

    Can you imagine how awfully smug this sounds? This is why people have problems with XXXXXXXXX.

    Ads sez: Hey now. None of that. Had to take out a reference to my place of work, for the record. Any more of this sort of thing happens, and I just yank the comment as a whole and block the commentor.


    June 22, 2009 at 8:42 pm

  4. Ah now for a proper response. Not smug. Just true. Do you think it’s better when people don’t talk about these things, when they pretend everything runs by freerange meritocracy? And further, just for the record and to straighten out what I think is a lingering misperception on the part of some, I only blog about what I haven’t done, what I’ve failed to do, what I should have done, and what maybe I’ll do if I’m patient and keep my shit together. And the anxiety that comes of all of that. If it ever sounds smug, it’s because I’m sending myself up. Read to the end of the post, any of the posts like this one, and you’ll see.


    June 22, 2009 at 9:34 pm

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