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from White Ivory, chapters 5 & 6

< chapters 3 & 4        chapters 7 & 8 >

A Fortnightly Serial.


Chapter Five
Will’s Lecture

HE HAD FASTENED up on the wall, as usual, his reproduction of Francis Bacon’s painting of Miss Muriel Belcher. And alongside it his Head VI of 1948, one of those human mouths screaming in a world of silence, with a weightless cube of white lines surrounding it. This is where Charlie had learnt the technique.

The question doesn’t acknowledge the fact that identity finds a terminus in a name.

‘Names are the elementary particles of the philosophical world. If you don’t believe me, then think of this: I say “I once met Picasso, you know.” And you say, “Which one?” The question doesn’t acknowledge the fact that identity finds a terminus in a name. A name declares the ontological status of its referent. We say with a name, Here is something that can’t be meaningfully subdivided into further categories. When we name, rather than merely categorising within a nomenclature, we are asserting a quintessential reality, and saying, Let the name represent the reality. Let us agree at least upon that.

‘Now the reason I want you to look at these two pictures behind me is so that you can think about the significance of names; the reality of names. The painting on this side is called Miss Muriel Belcher. Whether anyone, including Miss Belcher, would have known that without the title, I don’t know. But this is a portrait. It is a portrait that has just undergone a century of modernity; a portrait where identity is no longer fixed; where the human body and the human personality are no longer uninvaded entities that can keep the rest of reality outside. Freud probably wouldn’t have liked this picture much because his tastes in art were conservative, but his work helped make it possible nonetheless. So did two world wars. And so perhaps did alcohol and drugs. Muriel Belcher you may recall started the Colony Club in 1948.

Identity is problematic, anguished, never-at-peace, but it is still identity.’

It’s up in Soho, only five minutes walk from here. The bohemians and artists of this town could drink there after everywhere else had closed. And they did too. So you could say Miss Muriel Belcher presided over a kingdom where intoxicants blurred the line between the inner and the outer life, until there was no line left. Look at the painting. It is a painting of movement, and yet the outlines of the head make it plain that the figure is not in movement. What is then? The psyche perhaps, as usual, or even the perceptions of the observer. For perception is fluid and changeable too. Identity is problematic, anguished, never-at-peace, but it is still identity.’ The smear of red right across the skull made him think suddenly of Malcolm Filey. The flame of his concentration swerved for a moment, like a candle guttering, then recovered.

‘So what is the relationship between the name and the identity? The reality surrounding this head, which is the reality of modernity, has made inroads into it. It is leaking out, blowing away. Time has speeded up since those tranquil, static portraits by Van Dyck, where space and time were both absolutes. Between the name and the identity is a vortex and we call that vortex modernity. And yet somehow, in a way we can’t necessarily define, we still have Muriel, on her stool with her gin and tonic, staring imperiously out over her crowd of miscreants.

The man is so much a scream that he has become a scream.

‘But now look at this other picture. Head VI, 1948. No name, merely a designation. If you say “This is Muriel Belcher” I can’t say “Which Muriel Belcher?” But if you say “This is a head” then I am permitted to ask you which one. Which might perhaps be to say that this isn’t an elementary particle of being; that it doesn’t have that ontological status. The man is so much a scream that he has become a scream. So much a scream that the top of his head has started to fade away; his eyes are receding into the darkness. They are not needed for such a screaming life. Even life sounds wrong. Existence would be better. Life has too much narrative, too much teleology, attached to it. We cannot hear the scream. The weightless white box in which this figure is contained dictates a permanent isolation. He can be observed but not heard.

‘It makes a difference that he has no name. That too helps keep the scream observable but silent. The way we name and the way we unname indicates the nature of our world, our philosophy, our ethics. If I were to say of this man, He is a British citizen, then you might have to say, He must be brought back to these shores from wherever they are doing this to him. If I say of him, He is a prisoner of war, you can say, Then it looks to me as though the Geneva Conventions are being breached. But if I say to you, Actually he is merely an illegal combatant, and therefore the Geneva Conventions do not apply, and nor do the usual niceties of citizenship, well then you can say, This is a portrait from Guantanamo Bay. This person does not have a name attached to him, only a classification. Those white lines painted round him indicate the full nature of his isolation. His scream is silent because he is not in the human world any more. He has passed beyond the region of our naming. Remember in Macbeth the Weird Sisters perform a deed without a name.

‘Naming is originary and political. In the Book of Genesis the most important thing that happens to Adam after his creation is his naming. In the fairy tales collected by the Grimm Brothers the taking of someone’s name, the giving or witholding of a name, is power. Things have not changed at all. First take away the names, then extinguish the identities.

‘The others are made deaf to all the other screams by their own’.

‘A few years ago I remember standing before an image of hell on the walls of the cathedral in Pisa and as I looked I was damned. My scream was silent but no less piercing for that. That’s the curious thing about the screams in the inferno: no one can hear them but the screamer. The others are made deaf to all the other screams by their own. That’s lawlessness once it becomes a metaphysical condition. This is hell; nor are we out of it.’

Will’s ex-wife hadn’t come to the lecture, but someone else had. Someone oddly implicated in his marriage, and its termination. Her name was Rachel. And she was accompanied by a tall young man, with black hair and a black beard.

‘You remember me, Will?’

‘Of course.’

‘This is Paul.’ The young man seemed to stare at Will with an unembarrassed intensity.

‘It’s been a long time, Rachel.’

‘Twenty-one years. You must have been very busy. Not to be able to reply to my letters in twenty-one years.’

Will smiled sadly. He looked from one to the other.

‘We could have a drink somewhere, if you like.’

So it was that Will returned with his new companions to Revels for the second time that day.


Chapter Six
Blind Charlie Shade

BY THIS TIME, Charlie was watching entranced as Luna Module, the little Scottish comedian, cavorted, her orange hair luminous as a Belisha beacon, the needle through her nose constantly catching the light.

I’m an insomniac with a retro radio. Has the old cat’s whisker, upon which I sail back and forth through the ether all night. In search of far-off lands and distant peoples. It’s a witches’ sabbath every evening, believe me. And it’s got so that I don’t need to look any more. I can tell by the sound of their voices which station I’ve landed on. Radio Five, for example. Heart-rending existential discussions of…football.

She slipped into cockney football manager mode:

This is the thing at the end of the day. If you give a dog a bad name then you are going to besmirch his bony fidos in perpetuity. That, I would say, was an inescapable conclusion. As sure as night follows day. At the end of the day.

She stopped. Brief applause.

Radio Three. The ghost of Jacob Bronowski still stalks the land, speaking in a funny accent through his wire-rimmed spectacles: Von mornink Gregor Samsa voke from troubled dreams to discover that he had become a great beetle. He vent downstairs to the kitchen vere his sister Grete vas vashing the dishes. ‘Greta,’ he announced, ‘I have become a great beetle.’ ‘OK, Gregor,’ his sister replied, vizout turning from the sink, ‘so vitch great Beatle have you become? John Paul George or Ringo? And don’t you give me any of that crap about being Stu Sutcliffe, and how the boys only dumped you in Hamburg because you had more talent than all the rest of the band put together. I have heard you sing, remember Gregor, and the sound you were producing had a funny smell. So if you’re a Beatle, why not crawl under a Rolling Stone?’

The applause and the laughter were louder now. She had them all. Charlie was getting a bit worried about following this. ‘Woman’s hour.’ Suddenly she was middle-aged Irish, full of elegiac mischief.

I always insist on Irish butter. Oh I won’t have any butter but the Irish, I won’t. Something about the yellow drippiness of it and that slightly salty taste always reminds me of semen. Good old-fashioned Irish semen, you can’t beat it. I remember when I was housekeeper to a priest in County Galway. Should we ever have the misfortune to run out of Irish butter for the toast after early morning mass then there was a simple solution to hand…

Even Charlie was laughing blindly through his shades.

And then there’s a whole galaxy of channels which spend all day long talking to rock stars. Asking them how they feel about things. Or even what they think about things, which seems a bit of an oxymoron really. Why would anybody want to do that?

She slipped now into a druggy drawl, the curious honeyed slur of self-caress and self-righteousness of the decades-in-the-saddle dopehead:

I mean I was being asked in these jobs to do things really quite early in the morning. Which represented something of a difficulty, given my commitments late the night before. Getting stoned and getting laid can be exhausting activities at the best of times and obviously keep you going till long after dawn, a long time after actually. Then there’s the travelling, of course. Not always possible to get stoned and laid sitting in the same inglenook in Bath. And that was before I’d even tuned up my guitar. There was let’s say a recurrent timetabling problem, which my various employers were never very sympathetic in bending an ear to. So I suppose you could say rock has been my salvation. Apart from the fact that it would have been very difficult to dress like this if I’d still been floor manager at Harrod’s. Anyway I’d probably have to play Woman in Red all day in front of that fucking shrine overlooking Knightsbridge, while some Egyptian tart waggled her belly at me.

Now it was normal voice again. Sincere. Scottish plangent.

Before I became a chameleon, I was a nun. No, come on, don’t laugh. I still miss the convent sometimes. Particularly the sex, obviously.

Then she was back to the cockney football manager:

I took Trish down this Mexican restaurant. She got them gastric enchiladas they do there. Cor, luv a duck, talk about Uncle Dick. In and out of the bleeding khazi…

Finally, she was finished. They were clapping and roaring. It was time for Charlie’s set. Blind Charlie Shade would now be led on-stage to follow Luna Module. And he wished it had been the other way around.

It had all started as a joke.

‘Your problem, Charlie,’ Frank the manager had said a few weeks back, ‘is that you’re sighted. You’ll never get anywhere in the world of the blues with your peepers switched on.’

And so they had dreamt up Blind Charlie Shade, and here he was behind his vintage dark glasses.

And so they had dreamt up Blind Charlie Shade, and here he was behind his vintage dark glasses. They had decided to create a mystery. Marketing men did it every day, so they’d heard, and look how much money they made. He’d offered Charlie a hundred pounds to give it a try. What did he have to lose anyway?

And so he sang his way through his set. Sitting on Top of the World. Miss Collins. Statesboro Blues. Whisky Straight. And they took him to their hearts, even Luna clapped. But then she could afford to be generous after her reception. By the time he had finished the second set that night, Blind Charlie Shade had been born. Born to be blue. Sightless of course. Blind as a blue bat behind its little black windows.

And by that time Will, Rachel and Paul had bought their second bottle down in the stony hole in the ground that was Revels. Paul’s silent stare into Will’s face had become so unrelenting that Will had turned away gradually until he was facing Rachel and only offering his profile to the young man.

‘So, I got by. I still do. I bought your book. Kicking Away the Ladder. Struck me as a good title, but you probably didn’t mean it as autobiographically as I took it at the time. Paul’s read it too, haven’t you Paul?’

Paul silently reached down into his bag and took out a copy of Will’s only book, battered and peeling now.

Paul silently reached down into his bag and took out a copy of Will’s only book, battered and peeling now. He handed it to Will, who couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a copy in his hand. He didn’t bother looking at his own any more. He stared at the line drawings of Plato and Wittgenstein on the curling dustjacket. It was a serious book; he was still proud of it. Even if its meditations were too specialised for the likes of Maddox.

‘Sign it for me.’ This wasn’t a request; there was something peremptory in the tone.

‘What do you want me to put?’

‘For Paul.’ The young man’s voice was curiously compelling.

Will wrote the inscription and handed the book back.

‘We’ve got to go,’ Rachel said, ‘we have to get back to Ealing. Can I have your address, Will? If I sent you a letter would you answer it this time? Any wife in residence up there in Shropshire?’

Will shook his head. ‘No, only me.’ It didn’t seem a good moment to speak of Sian. He took a piece of paper from his bag and wrote down his address and telephone number on it. He gave it to Rachel. They stood up and he kissed her cheek uneasily. Then he turned to Paul. To his surprise Paul took Will’s hand in both of his. He clasped it as he stared into Will’s eyes as though he were searching for the answer to an unasked question, then turned abruptly and set off up the stairs to the street.

When Will finally got back to the little hotel near the British Museum that night, he tried to phone Sian, but there was no reply. He sat down in the chair by the window overlooking the square and stared out into the blurred lights and intermittent bleating of the London night. Rachel. He certainly hadn’t expected that.

The next morning he checked out and made for the train. He wanted to stop off at Birmingham to go and see Sian, but they had a firm protocol between them. No unexpected visits. No unannounced arrivals. Everything must always be arranged. He had wanted it all that way once; less so now.

And who exactly was Paul, that he should still seem to be staring into his eyes even now?

At some point concrete and brick became green again, the roads and houses and people sparser, Rachel’s face, the nutmeg hair, the brown, perennially pleading eyes, flickered back and forth at him across the flittering window. And who exactly was Paul, that he should still seem to be staring into his eyes even now? How had those eyes so irrevocably entered his mind?

—This is the third installment of White Ivory.
See previously
chapters 1 & 2
chapters 3 & 4

ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

Image credits: A stamp printed by France shows Study for the Portrait of John Edward by Irish-born British figurative painter Francis Bacon, circa 1992 (Sergey Goryachev); Royal Collection painting, Queen’s eldest children, Van Dyck (1635), RockingStock; Mary Stansbury Ruiz Bequest, History of the First Parents of Man, pl. 1 Mary Holland, 1604.


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