“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

I would not necessarily expected to have found an article on what will happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies as gripping as I did, but Sam Knight’s piece in the Guardian is a fascinating, and in ways disturbing read.


While Knight reveals some of the hitherto secret details – such as “London Bridge is down” as the code phrase to mark Elizabeth’s death – and discusses the immediate issues of Charles’ succession – the real interest of the piece is the psychological impact that the Queen’s death will have:

More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness – the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard – which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”

Knight links this to Brexit, to the possibility (again) of Scottish independence. Elizabeth’s coronation, in ways, marked the beginning of television age in Britain, and her death and burial will no doubt be over-interpreted in ways, but Knight’s piece is compelling in its evocation of an inevitable event that will mark a more than symbolic watershed.

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The most arresting line is at the end of this paragraph (though I do wonder how Brian Masters could possibly have come up with his estimate):

People will be touchy either way. After the death of George VI, in a society much more Christian and deferential than this one, a Mass Observation survey showed that people objected to the endless maudlin music, the forelock-tugging coverage. “Don’t they think of old folk, sick people, invalids?” one 60-year old woman asked. “It’s been terrible for them, all this gloom.” In a bar in Notting Hill, one drinker said, “He’s only shit and soil now like anyone else,” which started a fight. Social media will be a tinderbox. In 1972, the writer Brian Masters estimated that around a third of us have dreamed about the Queen – she stands for authority and our mothers. People who are not expecting to cry will cry.

No matter what one thinks of monarchy – or The Monarchy – this is one of those instances where I can only urge Read The Whole Thing. Knight writes that the life expectancy for a 91 year old is four and half years – but of course Elizabeth has very good maternal genes for longevity, and London Bridge is likely to have some years yet before falling.

Harry Mathews, “My Life in CIA”, nthposition, 2005

I am sorry to hear that Harry Mathews has died. Mathews in many ways relived the expatriate American writer story previously incarnated by Hemingway, Pound, Gertrude Stein and so many others. Mathews’ obituaries focus on his status as “the American Oulipian”, a member of the literary group whose most famous member was Georges Perec. I alluded to Oulipo in my review of The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel as part of a continuity of avant garde (if that isn’t an inherent contradiction):

Over time, the Latrourexians embarked on somewhat more interesting adventures – developing the various games featured inThe Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. They are perfectly aware that they are not really innovators – acknowledging their debt to the Surrealists, Situationists, Fluxus, and Oulipo, amongst other–ists and groups sounding like laxatives. The Oulipo author Harry Mathews, in his recent My Life in CIA, describes something very similar to the Latourex concept.

Now I’m usually a sucker for these kind of things. There’s something attractive about the Latourex concept, something of the Chesterton of The Club of Queer Trades and his other, sunny fictions touched more by buoyancy than nightmare. And who has not spent some time playing Exquisite Cadavers, the Surrealist game which involves writing a sentence or paragraph, folding the page to hide all but the final words, passing it to a companion who does the same and passing the paper on, thus ultimately creating a jolly little tale?

Surrealism is an oddly unproductive set of techniques. The initial rush of novelty and amusement at the odd combinations thrown up by Exquisite Cadavers fairly quickly gives way to boredom. The avant-garde, ironically, has barely changed throughout the last century. There is simultaneously something very dated and very timeless about experiments in automatic writing, group writing, and the rest. On the one hand, nothing is as dated as yesterday’s cutting-edge, as a quick look at any Sixties “experimental” movie will confirm.



The rather lofty dismissive tone of the above is, I think, a form of reaction formation.  I have always been drawn to literary games and writing-about-writing, and alternate between a sort of shame about this (seeing it, I think, as a rather cheap way out of Proper Writing) and an exhiliration.  I wrote a rather facetious review of his 2005 novel “My Life In CIA” for nthposition – attempting to play a little literary game of my own:


What a coup! Agent Harry Mathews has, for a long time, had the perfect cover. An expatriate author, specialising in fiction that experiments with the boundaries of form, Mathews had the ideal cover job. People will forgive any amount of eccentric behaviour in an author, the more so if he is an “experimental” one. His work as a CIA agent in France from the early Sixties to late Seventies was nearly terminated by the events described in this book. Half formed rumour has continued to dog him since, and he has here hit on an elegant, ingenious solution; write an “autobiographical novel” claiming to be a work of fiction whose point of departure is a real situation. The action of the novel, I can exclusively reveal for nthposition, is all true (well, I cannot entirely vouch for some of the more spectacular sexual encounters). Only the pretence that Mathews was and is an innocent abroad who was never remotely connected with the Company is false.

The germ of this book is the supposed misconception in Paris in the late Sixties and early Seventies that Matthews was CIA. (A character in the novel tells him, and us, that “the first thing to remember is that nobody connected with the Agency calls it the CIA. It’s plain CIA.”) Mathews tells us that there were similar false rumours that he was homosexual, and that he was a millionaire. Thus he presents the rumours that swept Paris that he was CIA as just-one-of-those-things, one of those persistent rumours that are entirely false but nevertheless acquire the patina of truth. Most readers will have experienced something similar, discovering rumours have spread about themselves that are as hard to eradicate as they are false.

Having won the readers’ trust, what follows is a dazzling psychological gambit. We expect Mathews to blur the distinction between fact and fiction. The uninformed reader might assume that this is what he is doing. We are told of his early consternation at being told by well-informed Parisians that, bien sûr, he is of the CIA, and why is he denying it? A potential lover and some Chilean exiles encourage him to play the part, to live it up, to “make the role your very own. It’s a winner. Believe me, respectable men will flatter and pursue you for information you haven’t got” and think of all the women who are dying to get into bed with a real spy!”

Mathews, in the novel, begins to arrange “drops” and to behave as if he is being tailed. He acquires a friend who, working in the private intelligence-gathering sector, teaches him the tradecraft of espionage. His role is so convincing that the Soviets haul him into their embassy for a grilling. He is denounced as a decadent literary gadfly at Communist Party meetings and is sucked into the orbit of fascist groupuscles such as Nouveau Orde and the nascent Front Nationale. Finally he is forced to flee Paris and events take a shocking, bloody turn.

Mathews may seem an unlikely author of a page-turning thriller. Agent Mathews is the only American member of Oulipo, “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”, the French literary circle that included Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino and which explored the interface between literature and mathematics, imposing constraints on the writer that would lead to unexpected results. The paradigmatic Oulipo work is Perec’s novel “A Void” (La Disparition), which is entirely free of the letter e.

Of course, as Mathews says to another character in his “autobiographical novel”, Oulipo had and has no specific politics, although most members are probably broadly leftish. Aside from the obvious observation that, for someone working for the Company, an interest in cryptograms and the sort of cryptic crossword intelligence that informs the Oulipo spirit is essential, the benign, larky nature of Oulipo means that no one would suspect this memoir of being anything other than an ingenious literary game, rather than the blend of confession and apologia it really is. Of course, it is a false confession, a double bluff, a minor truth used to pass a big lie.

Aside from the technical and mathematical interest of his work, Mathews is also a writer of engaging, witty prose. He possesses that “literary vitamin” which George Orwell diagnosed as being missing from Wyndham Lewis’ novels, on which “enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been poured” but nevertheless “it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books right through.” Mathews’ prose, even at its most “experimental” and opaque in terms of theme, somehow retains a certain readability. Novels like The Sinking of the Odarek Stadium and Cigarettes might confuse and baffle at times, but also have a clarity and sense of narrative purpose that carries the reader along. Perhaps Agent Mathews is not such an unlikely figure to write a thriller as gripping as a Jack Higgins or Frederick Forsyth.

In a neat example of life imitating art, few could read this novel without thinking of Our Man in Havana. Again, this is Agent Mathews’ genius at work – for this helps reinforce the sense that this is merely a rhetorical device, that therefore the more spectacular events are fictional. Echoes of real events are one thing, echoes of literary events are another – so the reader is seduced into assuming that the whole is a work of fiction.

So there is not a trace of falsehood or its cousin, fiction, in this “autobiographical novel.” Agent Mathews has not merely learnt from CIA – he has much to teach it. In times like these, the Agency needs men like Mathews.

“L’imagination au pouvoir” Edo – giant cardboard bricks

“L’imagination au pouvoir” Edo – giant cardboard bricks

Recently, via Kickstarter, I acquired no less than 50 giant cardboard bricks. These are the work of Simon Marussi of Edo, an Italian startup.

The blocks came just before Christmas but for various reasons I could only get them in the New Year. A pleasant evening – or two – of block assembly ensued. Initially my children played with the box the Edo bricks came in, while I tried to work our the (initially slightly confusing) instructions. Once up and running, assembly was straightforward and in its own way mindful, and the children could join in some of the tasks,

There are basically two bricks – a single “stud” (to use the Lego terminology) one:

and a double “stud” one:

There is also a junction piece to connect up blocks.

With these, an awful lot can be built. Edo bricks lend themselves to the building of forts very well:

And also to small prisons useful for holding captured toy dogs. In the top left hand corner of this photo we see the bricks in their pre-assembly state. 

Edo blocks have proved a hit with my own brood, although they are often the target of demolition work as much as they are used for construction work. I also have found by experience the importance of proper assembly, especially bending down small cardboard bits as per the instructions, and trying to ensure that the folds are as smooth as possible (fortunately, it is much easier than origami!) Edo bricks obviously evoke Lego, but also the creative spirit of Caine’s arcade (if you don’t know what that is, please follow the link or watch the below:

Empty Room, A S J Tessimond

Found at the ever wonderful First Known When Lost


Empty Room

The clock disserts on punctuation, syntax.
The clock’s voice, thin and dry, asserts, repeats.
The clock insists: a lecturer demonstrating,
Loudly, with finger raised, when the class has gone.

But time flows through the room, light flows through the room
Like someone picking flowers, like someone whistling
Without a tune, like talk in front of a fire,
Like a woman knitting or a child snipping at paper.

A. S. J. Tessimond, The Walls of Glass (Methuen 1934)

Sleep and dreams

One of my interests is sleep. Some of this is personal; I  used to think I was a “bad sleeper”, until I discovered that thinking you are a bad sleeper makes you a bad sleeper, and also that my sleep pattern wasn’t as bad as I thought (one of the advantages of a sleep diary approach)

Some of this is professional. Sleep problems are a major contributor to and marker of mental distress, and a warning sign of relapse in mental illness. Empowering someone to sleep better often makes a massive difference to people’s live.

Overriding all this, however, is a sense of wonder that this universal human experience is so little understood and so unknown to our conscious self. Unlike eating or drinking, the physiological function of sleep is unclear. We notice its lack, but what is it we are noticing?

On this blog I have tried to collect various passages from works, usually not explicitly “about sleep”, that touch on what it is to sleep. The literature on dreams is vast , that on sleep itself is less. A major reason for this is obvious; the experience of sleeping is not open to us, whereas that of dreaming is (to a degree)

The contemporary medical/scientific conception of dreams is that they are either meaningless or at most reflect the emotional state of the dreamer. This is one of the most dramatic breaks with most of human history, during which dreams were seen as messages from the Divine, or or prophetic. Freudian dream interpretation – with its idea that dreams are the Royal Road to the Unconscious – was perhaps, despite Freud’s atheism, the apotheosis  of the significance of dreams in culture.

Anthony Clare once said to me (among other psychiatric trainees) that people expect psychiatrists to explore two lines of questioning we rarely actually do explore – their sexual life and their dream life. While psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience are now unlikely to set much store if any on dreams, a vast popular literature still exists on their interpretation. A lot of this is probably spurious, but also reflects a thirst for meaning, and a cultural continuity with the status of dreams in most of human history.