A selection of random texts…
I grew up around sheep, in the rolling hills that lie to the west of London. I was born in Room 10 of a post-war commune – a utopian experiment in communal living housed in a rundown, gothic mansion with a small farm attached. Both the house and the farm were run by a group of eccentric and confused idealists looking for a better way to live. My earliest memories are helping my parents in the spring with the lambing. Carrying the fresh, still-wet lambs back to the barn from the early morning fields. The cruel tool that snapped a bright orange ring onto the skinny lamb’s tails – the tails that we would later find lying among the nettles in summer. And on a Sunday, when paying guests arrived, we would sometimes get to eat one of these lambs.
Shepherd’s Pie can be the worst of bland British cooking but when pimped with more spices and herbs than existed in 1970’s England, it is a potent remedy for the melancholia of autumn. A ragu of minced lamb, with heaps of rosemary from the balcony, a little chilli, tons of garlic, slow-cooked onions and still bite-able carrots – all lying beneath billowing clouds of creamy mashed potato (with a golden surface from the oven). We didn’t often eat meat in the 70’s commune and when we did it had to go a long way. When cooked right, a shepherd’s pie stretches the earthy taste of a small amount of lamb, through a rich tomatoey sauce, sealed under a sky of soft potato.
Recipe (serves 3):
200g minced lamb
2 cloves of garlic
1 large onion
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
400g fresh tomatoes
A large knob of butter
A big dash of milk.
Smash the cloves of garlic beneath the flat of a large knife (frightening dogs and children). Chop the smashed garlic and add to a large frying pan with a little olive oil, the stripped leaves of rosemary and a small amount of chilli (it shouldn’t end up hot – just with a little background zing). Start slowly frying the mixture and add a large, finely chopped white onion. Cook slowly for about 15min until the onion has become sweet and golden. Add the minced lamb and fry further till the mince is cooked through. Then add the carrots and soon after the shopped tomatoes. Slowly cook until the sauce has become something similar to a Bolognese but with added slices of carrots that are just starting to soften. Season to taste.
Parallel to this, prepare mashed potato with heaps of butter and enough milk to make the finely mashed results ‘spreadable’. Season to taste.
Pour the ragu of lamb into a deep oven-proof dish and carefully add dollops of the mashed potato onto the top of the sauce until there is a complete layer of potato covering the meat sauce below (you need to do this carefully, bit by bit, so that the mashed potato doesn’t get mixed with, and discoloured by, the deep orange sauce). Riffle the surface of the mashed potato with a fork in concentric circles (or whatever pattern takes your fancy). Bake in the top of the oven for about 20min at 200C until the tips of the mashed potato ridges have just begun to become golden* If done right, the carrot should not be wet and soggy, but still have a last bit of bite. I find the rich, warm results can hold back the thick grey clouds of an approaching Berlin winter.
[*Most people add a little grated cheese to the top that helps the surface to brown – but I hate cheese…]
The radical artist John Latham was the enemy of my father, but also an accidental force in my life. I am the product of a utopian experiment in communal living. I was born in room-ten of a rundown mansion set in the Oxfordshire hills – the offspring of 1950s idealists disturbed by their experiences in the Second World War.
In the mid 60’s the commune was wilder than the one that I would grow up in. Loose groups of intellectuals and artists would drive down from London and convene in the fake-gothic mansion of Braziers Park for weekends of debate and experimentation. R D Laing and John Latham lead one such weekend and the events instigated by one of Latham’s ‘actions’ would cause the fledgling commune to split apart. The story of the ‘Black Spot’ shadowed my childhood and its events left my father as the key figure in a smaller and more conservative community.
Latham had asked the matriarch of the commune if he could make a ‘work’ using a book of philosophy that was in some way sacred to the founders of the commune. Not knowing what a ‘work’ meant, she agreed. The next morning the commune woke to find that the book had been stuck high up on a wall in the mansion’s grand Drawing-Room. Using Pollyfilla, the book had been attached near the ceiling and a big black spot sprayed over the wall and their precious book.
The commune split into two halves – a radical half that considered this an important work of art to be preserved at all costs, and a conservative half that demanded that Latham be run out of town. My father lead the group opposed to the subversive artist and my subsequent 18 years of childhood and adolescence in the commune was lived out against one its founding myths – The Black Spot.
40 years later and I find myself teaching in the Graduate Media Department at the Slade School of Fine Art, UCL. It is only a number of years earlier that I have connected my fascination for the works of the artist John Latham with one of the myths of the commune’s genesis. Shortly after the artist’s death, I bring my tutor-group with me for my first visit to Latham’s ‘Flat-Time House’. In my telephoned preparations for the day the anecdote had slipped out and after our tour, the curator discloses that there is film in their collection that I might like to see. A screen is erected and a projector connected.
Although the commune still exists, my parents had died a decade previously and I have had little contact with the commune since. On the screen a silent, black and white film crackles into life. Shot by Latham during the weekend that the commune imploded, the super8 film shows the Drawing Room and a collection of people. With my tutor-group around me, I see my first moving images of my long dead parents – shot by my father’s tormentor. My young mother is holding a small baby – I am unclear if the bundle in her arms is my sister, my brother or me.
For S. I think it is maybe like this:
A thumb, her thumb, walked off down the street.
But this thumb is still connected to her nervous system.
The thumb says: “Tschüss…!” And off it goes.
“But does it really have eyes and ears?”
“Don’t I have to use my eyes and ears to protect it?”
“If it gets squished by a bus
that thumb’s nerves, its pain, its hopes
are all still wired directly into my nervous system.”
But for me, it’s different.
It’s more like a ‘something’ arrived in my life.
A kind of hard-to-believe thing.
“Who are you?
Oh… you don’t know…
Ah… I see, you’re not actually a ‘who’ yet,
you’re building yourself a ‘who’…
Wow, that’s crazy how you’re doing that – and so fast!
I’m starting to see you now – like a Cheshire Cat in reverse.
Slowly appearing – the opposite of evaporating.”
And so I trust this Cheshire Cat grin.
It’s building itself so fast out of air and sugar.
Just watching a few times how the Earthlings do things, say things…
And then, in a wobbly kind of way, doing its own version.
But laughing like hell at the new discoveries that it makes,
the new ways that it’s found to climb stairs.
Ways that no one till now had tried, or even thought of.
And so it feels like:
“Alien… you probably have a position on how we might have more fun doing this…?
Eating this bread, throwing this stick.
I’m with you…!”
A friend described the echo-scan of a heartbeat deep inside her
as being like the sound of a tiny pony.
Galloping impossibly fast across a dark prairie.
Always a little nearer
Night, after night, after night.
When my alien arrived it had a pointed head
squished by the forces of entry.
Pushing, and being pushed
through a wormhole in time
and the feverish folds of a body.
So when she emerged onto our planet
a tiny alien head had been extruded out
into a purple cone of indignation.
A squeezed exclamation mark.
She shuddered with the aftershocks
of contact with our atmosphere.
She lay helpless in our gravity,
away from the liquid of her vessel.
I was asked to cut the link
that led back through space and time.
The tool that was handed to me
was a different kind of technology.
Metal blades – scientifically sharp.
I struggled to cut the sinewy cord,
a twisted coil of extraterrestrial gristle
that had wormed its way here from other dimensions.
An alien is put in my arms.
An exhausted and shocked placeholder.
A messy feedback-loop of pain and inputs.
It would ask a million questions if it could
but it hasn’t wired itself yet.
It hasn’t cohered itself a centre, from which to ask.
A screaming mess of questions without form, without subject.
Looking down, I am lost for words.
My thoughts have dissolved like sugar
– lost their language.
Standing in awe, speechless from what has just happened
– unable to fathom this event.
Perhaps men are just shocked.
They can’t see how an intelligence, and a perception,
and joy, and sadness and fear
are all going to precipitate out of this soft, oozing machine.
Unable to look into the future with their flesh
and perceive the being who will be emerging in this space.
A being is making themselves before their eyes.
A being that will slowly be borrowing,
or stealing their minders’ genes.
Pilfering them late at night,
whilst they’re trying to dance the screaming bundle to sleep.
Spinning around the living room,
using animal rhythms to lull the little animal.
A middle-of-the-night-man in a Berlin flat.
Spinning, dancing, dipping
willing sleep into a tangle of fluids and dreams.
Distracting her with motion.
Weaving her sensory inputs into braids of rhythm and pattern.
Trying to remember the movement of the orbits
around the strange planets of the night
from where she came.
Another middle-of-the-night-man in a parallel universe
at a small lit-window on the other side of the street,
a silhouette in the night – waves to us.
A man from another dimension, another time.
We wave back.
Or at least I do,
because at the moment she’s not yet human.
But she’s working on it fast…
“Did she just wave?
I think I saw her wave…”
come easy at this time of night
time of year,
time of life.
I should tell the man across the street
but the light is gone.
And now she’s bigger, lither and full of language.
She’s perfecting things and slowly forgetting from where she came.
She’s laughing and hurtling and growing so fast.
She’s understanding things that I’d forgotten.
She’s asking questions that are shockingly wise
and painfully stupid
and doomed to be perfectly true.
She’s developing ways to extract the maximum fun:
From chocolates (peeling away the layers one, by one, by one).
From baths (tsunami-ing water through the high-seas of her mind).
From walking (backwards, crackwards, gapwards, anything but efficiently TO-wards).
From bodies (farting, squeezing, shivering, slithering).
From limbs (dangling, tangling and always gambling with her old space-pal: Gravity).
From talking (to no-one – with pleasure – for hours).
Or talking to her audience of cuddly friends.
Or talking to her huddle of Earthling comrades
and sometimes (very occasionally) talking to her tired minders.
“Why is it seven o’clock?”
“Why are goblins so bad?”
“Why should I use a fork?”
“Why are your parents dead?”
“Why is B. a boy?”
And everything gets a name.
Your hippo becomes: ‘Pink Rainbow’
Your huge fluffy dog: ’Donnalotto’(from where did you dream that name…?)
Beetles are christened (if only for a few minutes).
Caterpillars, clouds, rocks – every thing is potentially a friend.
Every thing might be a playmate
to live and laugh with in this second.
No: ‘this moment’.
Seconds mean nothing to you.
Minutes are meaningless ages.
Hours are the glacial creep of adult schedules.
Weeks are the tectonic drift of planning.
Space-girls live only now.
The time-marking from where you came is not measured on cogs or circuits.
It flows through bodies or in the eddies of dreams.
Swirling and meandering through your opening eyes.
Time is a rhythm not an accumulation to be ticked off.
A syncopation of now.
She’s been dreaming of eating clouds
And finally in a gondola above the High Alps
I open a window so she can grab handfuls of the stuff.
“How do they taste?” I ask.
“Cloudy” she replies…
And now she’s here.
The future girl
– projected back from a time and space I will never know.
Her eyes, like dark tunnels
have learnt to see in our light.
And she passes amongst other futures
and holding us tight.
Seeing with a wisdom bourn of years that are yet to be lived.
Tears that are yet to be shed.
Sighs that are yet to be breath.