Wednesday 29 May 2024



                LETTER L

                Selborne, April 21st, 1780


                The old Sussex tortoise, that I have mentioned to you so often, is become my property. I dug it out of its winter dormitory in March last, when it was enough awakened to express its resentments by hissing; and, packing it in a box with earth, carried it eighty miles in post-chaises. The rattle and hurry so roused it that, when it turned out in a border, it walked twice down to the bottom of my garden; however, in the evening, the weather being cold, it buried itself in the loose mould and continues still concealed.

I am nearing the end of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White, my nocturnal book for the past few weeks. Apparently Gilbert White did not enjoy coach journeys, and took days afterwards to recover. Maybe the tortoise did too. The tortoise is more ancient than humanity. Sleep may be the key.

When one reflects on the state of this strange being, it is a matter of wonder to find that Providence should bestow such a profusion of days, such a seeming waste of longevity, on a reptile that appears to relish it so little as to squander more than half of its existence in joyless stupor, and be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers.

Gilbert White was mainly interested in birds, but he also recounts other creatures, insects, the weather and labourers' wages, quotes latin and greek as among friends. Nature is his language; swallows, swifts and martins are his dialect, the letter his natural form. He was convinced that swallows did not go south in winter but withdrew some few hundred yards to a sheltered spot. A natural history always includes some wishful thinking.

Wednesday 22 May 2024


I like the french title une image peut-être vraie better than the english, Alex Cléo Roubaud, a portrait in fragments. The english brings out frenchness, not french, nor Alex Cléo Roubaud — her full name, her photos, her notebooks and letters — more the neutral catalogue quality that Hélène Giannechini brings to her appraisal of a short life in words and pictures, like a laying out, a door closing in great detail.

I'm well-placed to read her on a changeable afternoon in May, but I don't want to. An old unwillingness to recognise what I know best, creeps over me on the sofa in the new room, the cat asleep not far away, a few heavy showers, thunder yesterday, peppers planted out, borlotti beans started. 

A penultimate page entitled (BLACK) shows a photograph of six window panes and a cord-pull with a driveway, lawns, a belt of trees.

Let's pull the cord, hide the last photograph from view. I'll leave Alix's memory there. I wanted to write between the pieces of evidence. An account has emerged. Memories are words, and archives are documents.

       Fleshing Alix out in fiction was not my intention; I worked in the interstices between the traces of her that remain.

        This is not a photograph of Allix's life, but fragments of her work; scattered shards.

        A picture that may be true.

The Sylph Editions translation by Thea Petrou, ends with a letter to Hélène Giannechini. 

Making then, not taking. Through your wandering into the lexical fields of memory, action painting, dance, bullfighting, medicine and eroticism, I have followed Alix's processes in the darkroom and observed the imposition of her own physicality — a performance — on the film. And now I see the pictures, what they are made of.

    Thank you, Hélène.

Tuesday 21 May 2024


No month more than May pushes reading out of doors. Different books for different moments, different pockets of the garden. What to read where is the great question.

Alix Cleo Roubaud, a portrait in fragments by Hélène Giannecchini, translated by Thea Petrou, a young Canadian woman in France in the seventies and eighties, who took photographs, wrote letters and journals, had an affair with Jean Eustache, married Jacques Roubaud, died young, of a pulmonary embolism. Where do you read that?  

Not up at the pond on a sunny afternoon. Or up at the reservoir, with swims. Where Guy Davenport reigns, this year, or William Saroyan, for their intimate rhetoric, their matching of words to moments. Gilbert White for the small hours. Consideration of the swallow family and their variety, or why the cuckoo farms out her eggs. He hopes for a physiological explanation but there is none. He considers hedgehogs, witchcraft. He wants the swallow to hibernate in his village, though all the evidence is for winter migration. He loves the word, nidification. It is a pleasure to think of him in his house called The Wakes in the mid-late eighteenth century, observing his place, Selborne, in Hampshire, writing letters to like-minded scholars of the natural world, as I lie there, less interested in sleep than I was.

Sunday 12 May 2024


Whoever I was who read Explosion in a Cathedral in the early nineteen seventies, I cannot imagine, it's hard to summon former selves, so I read fast now, looking for places to rest. 

Why did Alejo Carpentier choose to imagine the ripples of the French Revolution in the Caribbean, through a trio of young, stranded people. Orphans. What did he need from it?  In the early nineteen seventies, speaking for myself, maybe strangeness was enough. The strangeness of the world for orphans especially on Caribbean islands. Every new turn cuts through everything.

That's how I would have written in the early nineteen seventies.

In truth I can't read Alejo Carpentier now. 

Wednesday 8 May 2024

Car Boot Sale, Blarney,. Bank Holiday Monday

Car Boot Sale Blarney, Bank Holiday Monday, the GAA pitch, I had walked the line the night before, from 2.30 onwards into the a.m. so was in no fit state, I could only look for books, or maybe plates and glasses. The complete works of Henry Williamson, for example. I should have bought Tarka the Otter, and The Beautiful Years, I loved them when I was twelve or thirteen. Henry Williamson's daughter cut my hair around then. There were beautiful years if you were this deep in the countryside. There was more than one copy of Akenfield. Plus Urn Burial by Sir Thomas Browne. Which house clearance did this come from, I wondered. Who were these readers?  These owners? I was in no fit state to ask.

I bought Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne, a 1970s Penguin edited by Richard Mabey; as you turn the pages there's a strong smell of mothballs. And a Mason's blue Regency dinner plate. Pete bought a cement White Rabbit in a red and black waistcoat, for his next performance. A girl with false eyelashes held a ruched pale blue satin against her thin body. It's a bit long, she said. It rides up when you walk, said the vendor, the vendeuse.

Gilbert White had the living of Selborne, as they used to say. His house was called The Wakes.You were left alone to be awake, to observe, if you were a parson in an English village in the mid-eighteenth century, you wrote letters full of your observations and queries. The beautiful years, indeed. Giving names to birds and listening to their song, imagining their migration. 

I met Davina the window cleaner in Ballincollig this morning, outside the Quay Coop. She had been at the Car Boot Sale. I told her about the blue silk dress riding up and she liked that. Her brother and sister-in-law had pitches there. Home made cakes and bric-à-brac, old tools, you know.