Orkney/This Life

January 27, 2017

It is big sky and its changes,
the sea all round and the waters within.
It is the way sea and sky
work off each other constantly,
like people meeting in Alfred Street,
each face coming away with a hint
of the other’s face pressed in it.
It is the way a week-long gale
ends and folk emerge to hear
a single bird cry way high up.

It is the way you lean to me
and the way I lean to you, as if
we are each other’s prevailing;
how we connect along our shores,
the way we are tidal islands
joined for hours then inaccessible,
I’ll go for that, and smile when I
pick sand off myself in the shower.
The way I am an inland loch to you
when a clatter of white whoops and rises…

It is the way Scotland looks to the South,
the way we enter friends’ houses
to leave what we came with, or flick
the kettle’s switch and wait.
This is where I want to live,
close to where the heart gives out,
ruined, perfected, an empty arch against the sky
where birds fly through instead of prayers
while in Hoy Sound the ferry’s engines thrum
this life, this life, this life.

Andrew Greig

follow like a witch-fire

January 27, 2017


Yes, oh, God, Robin was beautiful. I don’t like her, but I have to admit that much: sort of fluid blue under her skin, as if the hide of time had been stripped from her, and with it, all transactions with knowledge. A sort of first position in attention; a face that will age only under the blows of perpetual childhood. The temples like those of young beasts cutting horns, as if they were sleeping eyes. And that look on a face we follow like a witch-fire. Sorcerers know the power of horns; meet a horn where you like and you know you have been identified. You could fall over a thousand human skulls without the same trepidation.

Djuna Barnes


In 1962 Random House published a first novel by a thirty-two-year-old American living in Paris named Harry Mathews. The Conversions is an adventure story about a man trying to decipher the meaning of carvings on an ancient weapon, and it unfolds in a succession of bizarre anecdotes and obscure quotations, with an appendix in German. One particularly trying passage is written in a language once popular with schoolchildren that involves adding arag before most vowels. Furthermore is faragurtharaggermaragore and indulgences is araggindaragulgearaggencearagges.

The book was considered groundbreaking by a certain literary set. Terry Southern called it a “startling piece of work,” and George Plimpton published a seventy-page excerpt in The Paris Review. Mathews’s agent Maxine Groffsky, then in her first job after college in the editorial department at Random House, says that reading The Conversions was like “seeing Merce Cunningham for the first time.” But it baffled most of the reading public, including the poor Time critic who complained that the symbolism “spreads through the novel like crab grass.”

Mathews is one of American literature’s great idiosyncratic figures. His friend Georges Perec, who once wrote a novel without using the letter e, has accused him of following “rules from another planet.” He is usually identified as the sole American member of the Oulipo, a French writers’ group whose stated purpose is to devise mathematical structures that can be used to create literature. He has also been associated with the New York School of avant-garde writers, which included his friends John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. After forty-five years of congenital allergy to convention, he rightfully belongs to the experimentalist tradition of Kafka, Beckett, and Joyce, even though his classical, witty style has won him comparisons to Nabokov, Jane Austen, and Evelyn Waugh. Yet while he enjoys the attention of thousands of cultishly enthusiastic French readers, Mathews remains relatively unknown in his native land and language. “When I go into an English bookstore, I always ask the same question,” a Frenchman told me with the sly smile that infects all Mathews fans. “‘Do you have Tlooth?’”

Tlooth, Mathews’s second novel, came out in 1966. It begins with a baseball game at a Siberian prison camp. His next book, The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium (1975), is considered by many to be his masterpiece. Twenty-five publishers rejected it, which isn’t entirely surprising given that half of it is written in an invented pidgin English. Mathews used an Oulipian mathematical scheme to create the plot of his fourth novel,Cigarettes (1987). His last two novels are deceptively straightforward. The Journalist (1994) is the diary of a man obsessed by his diary. My Life in CIA (2005), an “autobiographical novel,” begins reassuringly as a memoir only to devolve into the preposterous, ending with the protagonist Harry Mathews tending sheep in the Alps after attempting murder by ski pole.

In reality, the self-described refugee from the Upper East Side has lived in Paris on and off since the fifties, though he does spend summers in the Alps and he says “there are sheep nearby.” Mathews was born in Manhattan in 1930, the only child of an architect and a cold-water-flats heiress. After dutifully attending Princeton for two years, he dropped out and joined the navy, then eloped at nineteen with the artist Niki de Saint Phalle. He finished his studies at Harvard, majoring in music, and in 1952 moved to Paris where he briefly studied conducting before deciding to write poetry full time. In 1956 Mathews met Ashbery, who was in France on a Fulbright scholarship. The poet introduced him to the works of Raymond Roussel, the early-twentieth-century French avant-gardist. After reading Roussel, Mathews turned to prose.

A novelist, poet, essayist, and translator, Mathews is also the author of many short works, including Twenty Lines a Day (1988), the result of more than a year spent following Stendhal’s dictum to write “twenty lines a day, genius or not,” and Singular Pleasures (1983), a series of sixty-one vignettes describing masturbation scenes. A volume of his collected short stories, The Human Country, was published in 2002.

Susannah Hunnewell
Harry Mathews, The Art of Fiction
Interview in Paris Review, Spring 2007

Even stones have eyes

January 27, 2017


Diary 25th January

Beautiful day: clear blue dome of sky, carnivorously blue, not a cloud in sight. But very cold.

Later in the day cloud rolling in off the coast: cumulus cloud, fat, cauliflower-shaped; in the west, with the sun going down, the cloud turned brilliant orange; then the light spread, become a bar of startling redness across the cloud tops, making it seem like the sun had a wide ring around it, an orange Saturn.

We walked, like the grand old duke of York, up the hill – as far as the mast. Acid grassland all around: common bent and mat-grass, grazed by sheep, cattle and ponies into spiky stubble; tussocky beside the old quarry workings. Gorse, much of it flowering, and bracken everywhere.

Bitingly cold, though. Our noses bright red with cold. Frequent stops to blow my nose.

She said: ‘Oh, for summer’s return! Not too long now, I s’pose. I love to listen to the larks overhead, soaring and diving…’

Here during the summer you’ll encounter Linnet, Yellowhammer, Song Thrush as well as the Skylarks. And, of course, the magnificent Buzzards all year round!

Also in the summer you’ll spot wildflowers in amongst the grass: Sheep’s Sorrel, Common Cat’s Ear, Brighteye all occur here. Tussocks of Purple Moor Grass and Western Gorse provide a home for a variety of small mammals. Early one spring morning I encountered an Adder basking in the sun.

On our return we went to the pub. Sat near the fire. We drank Merlot and eat salted peanuts and pork scratchings. Then home again to glasses of brandy (It’s Burns Night but we’re out of whiskey).


Writing yesterday about youthful goings-on in Mallard Street, brought to mind the tragic death of Dr Stephan Ward, and his entanglement in the sex and espionage scandal known as the Profumo Affair. He died (or was murdered?) in a flat on Mallard Street not a stone’s throw from the site of my own teenage transgressions.