No 9 - 1973
Fisherman in the Goldfishbowl
The fisherman squats at the bottom of his bowl, surrounded by newspapers, bits of string, scraps of food, shards of splintered dreams, assorted chessmen, empty tomato cans, discarded, deserted and derelict futures, looseleaf notebooks with words scrambling through them like fleeing armies (and who’s to say they’re not), broken T.V. sets, cracked vases, faded possibilities, and rusted opportunities; he looks around; perhaps he is dissatisfied with his lot, or perhaps he just has difficulty deciding what it is. Whatever is it? Whatever it is, I’m stuck with it, unless I can get out of this fucking bowl.
The fisherman and friends — a photograph, in a dying sepia that somehow suggests something immeasurably old, older even than the technique of photography itself.
The fisherman and curry-pan — the curry hard and old and nauseating, an intense curry, a curry with a mind of its own, and strange primeval desires, inhuman purposes.
The fisherman caught on a line — ‘Was Orwell a philistine?’ is bait enough, and he is trapped again, no sleep for several hours. ‘What was Orwell’s real relationship to art, and in this context what did he mean by ‘the quality of life’? And what has all this to do with a flapping fisherman and the snares and delusions of his education?
In the streets the zodiacal traffic-signs encircle the ridiculous little twentieth-century man in his shortie raincoat, his equally ridiculous wife in her simulated animal-skin, and their strange ungodly children, intent on hopping backwards into an old savagery, or forwards into a new savagery . . . . . priests in plastic vestments throw dice for their congregations . . . . . little old men remember fighting alongside Hercules, getting drunk in Brooklyn with Popeye, and turning down a night with Helen of Troy to go out with the lads . . . . God stands outside the gents’ at the top of Norfolk Square, with a tatty sign — I AM COMING BACK — and asks people for the price of a cup of coffee; he is saving for a bottle of meths . . . . . policemen perform unnatural rites in the back of squad cars, dress up as people and try to sell dope to children whom they then arrest . . . . . teachers pin up notes everywhere saying LEAVE SPRAGG ALONE — HIS FATHER’S DEAD . . . . . Scandinavian women keep falling over in pubs dog-bogs spring up in middle-class sitting-rooms . . . . . STRIKE OF BRIGHTON STREETS — ‘They refuse to go anywhere’, says spokesman . . . . . Rabelais, resurrected by popular demand, seen weeping outside wineshop . . . three thousand northerners mill around the south, waiting to be patronised . . . . . England is going to be picked up by the corners and put down in Texas on wheels as a travelling library the fisherman picks his toes and his nose and pretends he is someone else.
On Tuesday a time. Wine . . . . . In the chair, a (bell, book, candle) martyr . . . . . a corner. Tuesday — rotten with memories, my half — turquoise . . . . . A certain amount of obscurity is acceptable — and why not? Hard On Tuesday the final suffocation — no need to ask. We are strung up like beads . . . . . The long one — a story. The walk, long walk. Warm in — a noise . . . . . If you play with words long enough, they go brittle, break off in your hands . . . . . there are plenty in the sea. MY DELIRIOUS OCCASION. There it is — warm. The cipher on the other end of the string. STOP NOW. Think. Think of the alternatives . . . . . Whatever it is I want it freshly ground. I don’t want the seeds, they are hard on the molars, and require more cooking . . . . . but they will do . . . . . Sunk in Tuesday . . . . . NO. I am not warm towards what we are, I am . . . . . That is one alternative. Think. Think of the others . . . . . On Tuesday the chair . . . . . Strung up like beads . . . . . In the sea . . . . . Waiting for it . . . . . I can trap you. I am a man of many. I can snap you. I am teeth and razor. Sometimes I prowl the world, an unnoticed giant, people sand between my toes . . . . . But there are more, more . . . . . On the radio it is Tuesday . . . . . Ignore the chair, and concentrate. Concentrate outside the chair . . . . . The weather, time of the year, four horse-clouds. At ten. And later . . . . . Are there really any alternatives?
dall? (1 lb.)
late with the tomato puree/liquid/bread/onions.
no matter. A shilling in the meter.
no matter. Take it with the bishop for fear of the pawn.
one steak knife
one ordinary knife
one carving knife
two cereal bowls
two large plates (10” diam. ?)
several small (too small) plates
several saucers (ignored)
one non-stick frying-pan
one non-stick saucepan
one ordinary saucepan
no matter. Sixpence in the gas.
no matter. Catch the bus down.
|Stanley Engel - Illustration|
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(1) I am thinking of buying a licence to legalise the relationship between my radio and myself. Till then we live in sin.
(2) There is constant competition between my typewriter and fountain-pen. I try not to take sides.
(3) Longer than wide my room, the ceiling sloping at one end to within 3’ of the floor; a servile hunchback.
Separate people dream along the beach and shiver under the pier — a list of names with ticks and crosses — a drawing pin in a wall, with just the minutest fraction of paper still clinging to it — Will Green saying YES . . . . . BUT . . . . . YES, BUT, YES . . . . . UH-UH . . . . . BUT . . . . . and Charlotte, Yes, but is Tony annoyed?
— and me — Christ I was supposed to meet Mary Joy at 8, she must have — and don’t forget that the Board of Governors is probably the local pork-butcher, who “‘STUDENTS KILL HOMOSEXUAL TUTOR IN RITUAL BLACK MAGIC DRUG ORGY,’ SAYS NUDE MOTORBIKE VICAR” s it through the News of the World every Sunday, and thinks that democracy is a thin disguise for COMMUNISM in blood—/sin-red poster lettering for hatchetface in drab serge with steel bootstuds and no time off for good upbringing — and some potsmokers in Kemptown amazed and horrified because I watch football on T.V., with Tony leaving me to it, and Sheila dutifully helping me watch — and the grease, the ever-lasting grease on everything, including the burnt poppadums and the ‘standard’ eggs that are really ants’ eggs under Waitrose see-through 18 x magnification egg-cartons in genuine let-us-share-in-the-ruin-of-your-environment plastic — and the ancient stiff socks that I hate even to think about lying in wait (or in state) under the bed that I Hoover around — and that brief halo the sun casts around memories of toast and marmalade on the balcony.
And that frozen instant when the light becomes a yellow accident and you know that she is suddenly part of the past, and her future only counts for her, and yours, as far as you’re concerned, for you, and the tide wondering which way to turn.
And you looking in the mirror — is it me watching me, or vice versa? — and sugar on the table that you don’t notice until you find yourself crunching something along with your sardine and tomato paste sandwich — and that particular pattern of scratches on your arms from climbing into an attic window at five in the morning, fifty feet above the ground soaking wet cold and recently drunk but not recently enough — and that special exquisite recurring pain in the right foot — and all the sins of omission: I failed to live up to my government’s expectations, my college’s expectations, my woman’s expectations, and last, as far as they all seem concerned, my expectations, which are not written down outside of my daydreams.
And in ten years’ time, will there be one thing, a taste, an aroma, a texture, a sound, that will make me remember, or will I just be wondering about all the same things. In ten years’ time will there be.... and so on? In ten years’ time will I even remember that I ever wanted to know?
In the penthouse, the fisherman eats cod-flavoured fish-cakes, and drinks almost-coffee with ersatz milk, out of the green mug — Gina gave it to me; she gave Tony a yellow one — he rolls up dog-ends for a smoke — Christ I hate this finance business — and spreads margarine on thin white sliced — the bathroom is under two inches of water right now, and paper that people have brought in to serve as bog-paper has decomposed on the floor and formed a mash, a porridge, a pulp — the glass is going to fall out of the window soon — maggots in the plastic bucket. Tony spent an hour doing them to death — that’s where the flies went then — driven to search for new quarters, disgusted by the idea of sharing their accommodation with maggots.
Last week, the fisherman fell asleep again after waking-up time, and the kettle, put on for him to make tea, boiled dry, became red-hot, and finally disintegrated — can’t find the money to replace it. In my whole life, I’ve never replaced anything. If anything collapses, wears out, or is destroyed by some act of God, or some carelessness of Man, then that’s an end to it as far as I’m concerned, because there’s very little possibility that I’ll ever own anything like it again. If something is stained, worn into holes, purloined, burnt, then I know I can count on a long and miserable life without it — and then these old fools come along and say — seagulls all hiding from the rain — beginning to sound like an old feller myself — seagulls — attic a perfect amplifier for cliche pit-a-pat of precipitation — have to boil water in the teapot itself. Charlotte stoops to putting the tea in as well, and boiling it all — is that ethical? — that’s how I see it. It’s not always walls and bars and nets and chains and men with guns that trap you; sometimes it’s horribly damaged kettles, it’s maggots and window-panes. When I was a lad, I liked to play in the rain.
He tastes the curry. An inscrutable expression fastens on his face like a bat, cloaking it. He licks the back of the spoon and frowns. He is obviously not really sure whether the curry tastes the way he wanted it to taste or not, or even if it tastes the way he expected it to taste; but, anyway, since it is not in his nature to leave well enough alone, he refuses to accept that it could conceivably be the way he wanted or expected it to be. He throws in a spoonful of jeera, stirs, waits thirty seconds, and tastes again. Whatever the change may have been, if any, it is obviously nowhere near drastic enough. He looks up wide-eyed. There is expectancy in the air. He reaches into the cupboard, coming out with . . . . . yes, chilli powder. He adds a spoonful, ponders, adds another, he can take it. Back to the cupboard for dried chillis, yes, he can take them, too. Nice to purge the system with a killer curry, a pseudo-vindaloo.
As always, the fisherman sees, reflected in his situation, his own image — the kitchen is well-stocked with every available spice, but of actual food there is no sign.
One day I’ll write a story about it all — ‘Trapped’ I’ll call it — well, I am — stuck in this place without room to fall over — in the corner is a pile of paper that people have sent to me, duly stamped, posted, and delivered — people write to tell me what they are doing, where they are going, what they think of recent measures by people of whom I have never heard in dealing with matters about which I am totally ignorant, and about which I find it difficult to stir, conjure, or in any other way become possessed of, any enthusiasm whatsoever — people write to inform me of things I have failed to do, things I have had the temerity to have done, things I must and must not do, and of the dire consequences of what I have and haven’t done, what I do and do not do, what I am about to do and am about to fail to do — people write demanding things from me, offering me things, and asking me if I know where things can be obtained or disposed of — one day I’ll write a story about it — surrounded by people wanting to know things — what do you think these spots are? — if Jamie doesn’t wake me in the morning, will Tony wake me when he goes out, or will that be too late? — do you think I’ve lost weight? — where were you on Friday evening? — why don’t you find me attractive? — what do you think of the baby? — what do you think he means when he says? — how does he? — when will I? — why is he? — ‘Trapped’ I’ll call it — well, I am — and decisions to be made constantly so that other people can perform whatever tasks they have to without being thwarted by my sudden dependence on them — where am I going to store all my belongings when I leave for the north — and does this fit in with the date of? And there are people insisting that I get some bread and come to the Shahrazad for a meal which I don’t really want — and Paddy saying something I apparently don’t like, I don’t know what, being too damned paralytically drunk at the time to retain any memory, and I belt him in the face and suddenly blood appears from somewhere, and I tell him to get out, which I instantly regret — and I lie on the bed until there is a knock on the door and I say GO AWAY, and Paddy’s voice answers O.K. — another mistake, since Paddy is a friend and holds no grudge but now thinks that I do — and my testimonial arrives the next day to tell anyone who is interested what a wonderful person I am —
and somebody sends me a sad story for possible inclusion in a magazine that I am toying with, not knowing that I am going to lose it almost at once and that he is seven years older than I am and consequently I have no right to be in this position.
and I have that sick too-much-wine-and-not-enough-bread sensation in the stomach and I have to play football in two hours if the rain holds off and now I have to decide on the relative merits of eating and not eating — I last ate nineteen hours ago so I am hungry but if I am to play football then I should not eat unless there is time sufficient for my digestive system to cope with whatever it is— life seems to be full of ridiculous distractions —
|Stanley Engel - Illustration|
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Well, here he is, his walls are tired, his curry’s finished, his world has shrunk until he would hardly be able to find it if it weren’t for the constant effort he has to make to continue to exist in it, his clothes have begun to fall apart and his mind is in a continuing torpor and what on earth can he do about any of it?
Existing in limbo seems all right for some, but the fisherman is sick to death of it, and wants nothing more than a stable relationship with the world, the only problem being that he wants it on his terms, and the world is not amenable to this. Look at it this way: so far the world, or at least the great British nation, has spent enormous amounts of time, money, effort and so on, on keeping the fisherman alive, on developing him into the full flower of his manhood, and expanding his mind until he begins to see, if dimly, what is wrong with everything, and now it wants nothing more to do with him.
That, you must admit, is likely to be disheartening for even the most confident of mortals, and the fisherman is certainly not that.
Outside are the rooftops, and over them the birds, for whom the town is probably just a convenient accident. They don’t see as much of it as one might think. They see the interesting crust, ignoring the pie. They wheel and swing high over the houses, making a bewildering assortment of noises: orchestra tuning-up noises, screeches, gasps, wails, chirrups, and so on. The seagulls make the sound of footsteps on his roof, which is all made of wood. The slightest sound echoes for generations. He is probably hearing the sound of long-dead seagulls right now.
He heard an amazing sound before. It was the sound of a clarinet being played by someone in the street. He was playing it in spasms, and was, to judge from the sounds that drifted up to the fisherman’s eyrie, surrounded by gangs of raucous, probably drunken, friends. The overall impression was of a musical snake being strangled at a football match.
Another sound he listened to and found intrinsically interesting was the sound of an old man in a backyard way below him shovelling coal and coughing. The relationship between the sound of the shovel and that of the cough was like a dialogue between two grades of sandpaper, or shingle talking to large pebbles on a beach. It was also a bit like a painting by a Russian artist, whose name he has forgotten.
It all adds up to life, of a kind.
The fisherman would like to have written his own life, slipping in a chapter or two of idyllic calm, maybe even a rapturous tropical incident. He would have removed Surbiton from the map entirely, substituting a Hebridean island — he removed Surbiton from the map entirely, substituting a Hebridean island — he would have had himself schooled in the martial arts and the social graces, well-grounded in all the sciences of his time — the perfect 20th century Renaissance man — renouncing it all in a single gesture of heroic, almost Gotterdamerung, futility — selling his Picassos and rejecting the adulation of the herd, the reporters and photographers, the carnival, setting sail for some remote and backward South Seas isle, there to raise a dusky family, and to institute a rule of calm wisdom, before dying tragically in an heroic rescue in the last reel
— and up go the lights as he leaves the cinema to go back to the simple joys of the English yeoman — there he goes, broad of back, strong of thew, a friend to all, St. Francis to the birds of the air, Don Juan to the birds of the local hostelries, the best wit, best darts-player, skittles-player, shove-ha’penny player, card-player, footballer, boxer, cricketer, drinker, and confidence trickster in the district, and . . . . well, she was a rich divorcee, see, and she come down from the city ter take perssession of Ol’ Barney Goodchild’s farm, see. Now, when he hears o’ this, ‘e storms over there, and, warl, you shudda bin there . . . . . they reckon that’s the best verbular battle wot’s ever bin in these parts . . . . . oh, ar, upshot was
— a church wedding, she in a blue gown, he dressed almost formally, in a sober dignity — her ex-husband gives her away, as a sign of their new-found friendship — even the cynical heart of society is touched by the warmth and generosity of the young prince’s court — his very presence seems a cure for and a protection against all bitterness, and his wisdom and knowledge stir the hearts of all who come into contact with him . . . . .
Unfortunate, then, that he had not written his life; unfortunate that there exist things like debts like things that lurk in the concealment of the underbrush and then crawl out of holes in the plasterwork with his name stamped on them in computerised lettering by Friday week or we take the slow train everywhere in the non-smoker all the way standing up like piles of bills and summonses like school-teachers and people that you can’t defeat by physical brutality, psychological sharp-practice, blackmail or due process of law, and who can effect great harm for their part like an intractable element like wind or storm, conjured up by the ghosts of ancient debtors or sent by the demons of the cabinet to plague poor harmless subservient folk with a talent for inspired pathos and inefficiency, for no other reason than to prove that it can be done. Hell’s apples, what are their aims? Surely the widespread distribution of paranoia, persecution complexes and feelings of inadequacy is not a governmental objective, and yet, to the casual eye, it might seem that this is all that they achieve, barring the upkeep of the nation’s ‘good name’, and other such expensive trivia.
Obviously they need a feedback system of greater efficiency, and perhaps I could write and tell them so —
Far be it from me to criticize Her Majesty’s Bubble-Gum, but I feel it incumbent upon me to explain, briefly, what I think the aims of a ‘government’ . . . . .
etc., but is that really likely to have any great effect on the state of politics in general, or upon British politics in particular? And, if one intends to rewrite one’s Iife; why can one not take the thing to its logical conclusion and rewrite everything else as well? Why not rewrite England in its entirety? Surely this is not beyond one’s scope . . . . .
(Go away for a minute or two while this thing resolves itself).
Right. Let’s get down to basics.
Can one rewrite anything? Certainly the fisherman has had little success so far, and is now likely to give up. His condition is nervous, and not untinged with a certain angry despair. Listen:
‘Whoever wrote my life had a completely unacceptable image in mind, if mind it was, and unless some dramatic literary event, in the classic sense, occurs within the next few chapters, I am doomed to becoming one of those redundant characters soon snatched from the limelight back into the chorus, bereft of my former appeal, and ready for limbo or extinction. The promises of various mystical and spiritual organisations to the effect that, having finished one’s run in one role, one can swap productions and characters, has always seemed to me remote and fanciful, therefore, my appearance in this creation must be long and enjoyable, and rise and set in human dignity.
Sadly I have risen late.
I fret on my setting’.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The