I’ve just been informed that my presence is required at a black tie function at King’s College.
My agent also tells me that there are fancy dress literary parties in my near future.
Clearly, this means that I will have to fly to the states to buy a new dress.
This morning I attended a harvest festival celebration in the Jesus College chapel. Staring about in bemusement, it struck me again that I live in Cambridge.
This place is literally as far away from my rural working class provenance as it is possible to get, without learning another language.
I ditched my culture and country on a whim; the results could have been disastrous. The fact that I sometimes sort of like the place is…. rather peculiar.
It is conker season!
Over the course of the summer I claimed that I was not working. Or rather, I believed that I did not accomplish anything, despite the fact that I finished several interviews, published an essay, continued to whittle away at two or three secret projects, and mostly stayed on top of all the technical aspects of running an online magazine. Even while hanging out with friends I was deeply immersed in research; my notebooks are full of observations and character sketches.
The problem is that my work is only tangentially related to producing anything real and concrete. For the most part, I think. The value of any particular thought process is impossible to evaluate; it is not possible to know in advance which fleeting impression will be useful, let alone what will be published.
If I am sitting in my pajamas eating cinnamon jelly beans and obsessively checking social networking sites, an observer might think that I am not working. But perhaps I am considering adjustments to the sites I run. Or I could be doing research for a story. Or I might be corresponding with far-flung friends and collaborators, which is necessary to maintain my sanity and productivity.
I wouldn’t be able to categorize the experience if pressed. I’m not even sure that writing this sentence constitutes “work” though it would appear to fall in that category.
Last week I was pondering an essay about street racing in the rural Pacific Northwest. To facilitate the process I retreated to London, where I elected not to socialize with any of my friends. Instead I visited the British Dental Museum. I spent most of one day at the Hunterian. I also took my kids to the Tate Modern to see an installation of work by Pierre Huyghe.
Along the way I read several newspapers, two gossip magazines, started Gilead, and contemplated an essay about the nature of storytelling by Michael Frayn.
Did these excursions relate in any way to the topic I was writing about? Yes and no. While a pilgrimage to stand in front of Caroline Crachami’s tiny skeleton might seem a waste of time, I am concerned with the question of who owns a story – the participant, the author, or the audience? Dr. Hunter’s curiosity cabinet, while fascinating, contains many specimens collected by dubious means.
Charles Byrne did not want to be displayed, yet here he is, a human rendered and left to languish behind glass. Or what of poor Mr. Jefs, plucked from his grave?
I went to the Tate somewhat haphazardly, without knowing anything about the artist or his work. The first object in the Huyghe exhibition is a huge neon sign proclaiming I do not own Tate Modern or the Death Star.
The objects and films in the gallery proposed questions about place and possession that reflected all the points I was considering while assembling an essay about riding in fast cars before I was old enough to consent to the race. The Frayn essay offered observations about memory and subjectivity that were directly pertinent to my ethical quandaries in writing nonfiction. The Robinson novel contained the sentence It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled.
Wandering through a city visiting museums, sitting in pubs taking notes, exchanging text messages and email with friends, even staring vacantly at rivers are all integral to whatever final product I create. The fact that it doesn’t seem like work probably has more to do with my class antecedents than any true value of the experience.
I am paid to do this, after all.
Oh look, another discredited book: I read her book from beginning to end and wanted to get a pen out and cross out everything that was not true.
The puzzling thing is that the publisher, as has happened with similar cases, claims to have vetted and verified the material. Perhaps my experience is unusual, but three publishing houses in three countries have handled Lessons in Taxidermy without ever once inquiring about the accuracy of the content. Five or six others have published excerpts. Some of the material has appeared in newspapers. Etc.
My stories are of course true, except the name changes and the omission of a few identifying details that would distress family members. I can even prove it, since so much of my life has been conducted in hospitals and courtrooms. There are medical records, testimony transcripts, photographs of my lacerated body, and of course, visible scars.
But critically, the editors have not asked.
When I repudiated January and my birthday I gave myself an alternate day – September 9 – to commemorate buying the boat.
Boat Day was quite splendid the first two years. It is a genius time to go cruising up the river – cold, calm, easy to navigate, with migrating birds everywhere.
Unfortunately, I forgot to celebrate my own fake birthday last week.
And, as today is the sixteenth anniversary of my idiotic teenage marriage, it seems like a bad time to wedge in any kind of compensatory partying.
I’ve been away in London working (more on that later). At some point I also went out with the East London Massive.
While it is true that I know a lot of wild people, I can say without any amount of exaggeration that the scientists are the maddest. They go drunkenly leaping over bollards in heavy traffic, tackle each other on staircases over canals, break their fingers tumbling down steep hills, all the while conducting raging debates about esoteric mathematical concepts.
When I made a decision to stop hanging around murderers and thieves I thought my life would calm down. I was wrong – the scientists are often not even tethered to reality.
As Tarski said You will not find in semantics any remedy for decayed teeth or illusions of grandeur or class conflict.
Today I was supposed to go to London. I was packed and had my finger on the speed dial to get a taxi when I noticed the date and dissolved in the worst panic attack I’ve had in recent memory.
What to do when irrational fear takes over your life? Book tickets to Venice, apparently. I ran away to Rome with Gabriel when the actual events unfolded all those years ago.
Italy offers the consolation of history, at the very least. All I want to do right now is stare at Caravaggio canvasses in dim churches.
I’ve been spending a great deal of time in the borrowed flat, which has caused me to fall madly in love with London. Though note to self – apartment life does necessitate awareness of nudity. The neighbors notice if you wander through the kitchen naked at breakfast-time.
My favorite place at the moment? The Imperial War Museum. I caught the last chance to see an exhibit about wartime escapes, which made me sad down deep in my soul. Today I took in The Animals’ War.
I never cry over anything that happens in my own life, but I leave these exhibits streaming tears.
The aspect of Cambridge life I missed the most over the summer was my daily bicycle rides. Walking up and down Denny in the middle of the night does not at all compare to the wild pleasure of riding fast along the river through bucolic pastures and common lands.
This week I have ridden to Fen Ditton, Waterbeach, and Grantchester. The weather is turning to autumn – cool and bright – and I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
I was only back in town for about ten minutes before I ran across just about everyone I know – this is in fact a very small town.
So small, cows sometimes control traffic:
I finally opened my mail. The oncologist has issued orders that I undergo cancer tests four times per year (as opposed to stateside schedule of annually, or never, depending on the insurance plan). This means that my immediate risk of developing a particularly lethal cancer is higher than had been presumed. How high? I’m guessing between thirty and sixty percent based on factors like the genetic disorder and adolescent exposure to radiation.
Golly! I feel vindicated in my hunch that I needed to push for the referral, though also mildly annoyed that I will have to structure my future travels around testing.
It was way more fun to pretend that I will never get sick again.
Iain and Xtina went on holiday and very kindly offered to lend their flat. London is irresistible even if I have not yet unpacked, let alone recovered from jetlag. And, of course, I enjoy living out of suitcases.
The first night in the big city my talented and amazing agent took me out to a cabaret. Between the music acts and burlesque she leaned over and asked So, did you get a lot of work done during the trip?
I looked away and mumbled Um, I did some… research….
Byron laughed and interjected Yeah, she researched snogging!
That is commendable use of British slang, but not accurate. Since I did not need to leave town to be hedonistic it might be more correct to say that I was skiving.
Translation: Noun. Neglecting one’s duties or work.
Six weeks of decadence has drained my ability to protest an essential innocence; I just smiled and pressed a hand to a weary brow.
It is time to get back to work.
One feature of life in Cambridge is the fact that many of the people swarming around do not move out of my way. Specifically those who could be described as sinister hooded youth.
Of course, I do not believe that anyone has the right to impede my forward progress. The boys who get in my way do so at their own risk. I’ve slammed three so far today.
Though perhaps they like it – I have a limited scope of understanding on the subject. I was innocently purchasing fruit this afternoon and dimly perceived that one of the clerks was gawking at me; when I made eye contact he whacked himself in the head with a towering trolley full of canned goods.