Amsterdam II: Horny

Reading as an Event

I came out of the café and looked around.  Andrew and Peter were inside tripping out to Pink Floyd when I made the uncool error of mentioning Schubert.  They laughed.  I left for the Amsterdam streets, which were creaking with a ferocious cold spell.  People were scuttling from place to place with their heads down, not taking in the pleasing patterns the bare trees made against the dark buildings nor the way the leaden sky turned the city black and white.  A glacé sheen, like the drizzled sugar on pastries, covered the less transited streets and cold penetrated the thin soles of my cheap plastic shoes.  I was happy.

20170128_205533-2In my mind’s eye, I saw an ice-skating putto with a mop of curls gliding through the cavernous arcades of a frozen underground reservoir.

I reached into the pocket of my blue nylon bomber jacket for the filter-less Camels I had bought earlier in the day: 25 in a pack; a bargain what you got for your money in Holland.  It was so cold the cigarette stuck to my bottom-lip.  Perhaps it was the gormless teenage bumsuck, but I pulled it away and took off a bit of lip skin.  My long scarf trailed behind me as I took off down the street, trying not to slip.  I didn’t exactly feel cool- how could I looking like a honky Huggy Bear?- but I did feel like somehow I fit there.

20170128_205559That feeling has been hard to get back over the years: the feeling that I fit, that the niche was made for me, that, yes, I could make forward movement, that there was no obstruction, there was flow, room for manoeuvre.  You could say it was just a naïve kid’s first time out in the world, but for me there was the sound of celestial music in those three days where things almost came together in a wump, wump of pulsating energy with art, literature, talking and teen hormones all coming together.  This could be a life!

Fast forward to the present and here I am in the garden.  There is a hanging cherry in the middle surrounded by rosemary I keep tightly trimmed because I’m sure it’s stopping the tree growing.  From this centre-point there are paths cutting the potager square into four quarters.  A continuous path goes all around 90 cm in from the lonicera hedge that is faced on the inside with a wicker fence.  A circle of marble circles as stepping stones cuts the quarters, roughly half way between path and tree, to give access to the beds, which all the books say you must not step on.  When I walk the circles, I feel like I am stepping on absence because they are the holes from marble kitchen tops that were being thrown away.

I made this garden and I should damn well fit in it, shouldn’t I?  Feelings come and go.  We laid the garden together and I abandoned it shortly after because…  really, I abandoned the garden.  “What a waste of time, effort and money!” you might say and you’d be right.  The weeds crawled over the paths and the bush hung over the wicker fence like a great shaggy afro.  The rose that was to go up over the arbour gateway was too heavy for its flimsy metal frame and it collapsed forwards.  I did nothing about it.  You might say I was sulking.  There were sheets of plastic down on the beds to keep the weeds from growing but they sprouted out the sides like pubic hair.  The underside was riddled with mole and mouse runs.

20170128_205547I remember what made me reclaim the garden.  It was more than just a place not cared for: it called out to me.  “You made me,” it said, “You claimed me from the field.  I was grass and you enclosed me.  Now you are angry and you turn your back on me because when you went away the crop you were waiting for was eaten by birds.  Do you want me, or don’t you?  Don’t go away.”  Godammit garden, you are right!  I am the one to take control of this.  It is worse to be cleaning away weeds to keep things presentable than…

To take the effort

To do the minimum

To keep the garden

To give us food

To eat.

So, I got back in the garden and sorted it out.  It doesn’t grow wild anymore because I don’t let it, but that doesn’t mean that I fit.

Thirty-five years ago, I was walking beside a canal in Amsterdam in a blue bomber jacket and chinos.  My long hair had a prominent wave across the front of my forehead.  The woollen scarf my mother made could have wrapped around my neck three times and I wore plastic shoes I had grown to love though they were gave me blisters.  The jacket made me think of Saturday Night Fever, I can’t deny it.  I’d like to pretend that I was all Schubert and existential poetry but that would be a grotesque pose.  Actually, I hated high-minded, purist shit, like some people had a sacred vision or talent or powers or whatever.  Give me a break, please.  Sure, we’re all different, but don’t hog the mic, that difference is not on an ascending scale.

Andrew, my scientist friend, hates this.  He says, “Why don’t you write something straightforward people will understand?  What is all this stuff about seventeen-year old you?  Who cares?  Why don’t you do some…”

“…science, Andrew?  Just give me a break.  This is my deal right now.  I’m going to work it back to reading as an event.”

“Oh, yippee!  I can’t wait.”

His sarcasm is well-meant.  If he hated it as much as he said, he wouldn’t read it.

20170121_174337Let’s recap.  There was me at seventeen walking down the streets of Amsterdam.  I had just left Peter and Andrew in a dope bar soaking up the tinny sound of “Wish You Were Here” and getting mildly high on secondary smoke.  Meanwhile, I am here in the mountains of Spain standing slightly off-centre in the vegetable garden meditating on fit.  You can’t get a better Darwinian word than fit and, Andrew, you should be pleased with me for at least bringing it in here.  When I say, I felt like I somehow fit in Amsterdam age seventeen that was the best feeling I could aspire to evolutionarily speaking.  Survival of the fittest does not mean that everyone goes to the gym, pumps iron and rides the elliptical until the one with the buffest bod is declared the fittest and gets to mate.  No, what it means is that each organism finds its ecological niche where it makes the best fit.  In that environment, the one that best fits will be the one that prospers most.  Hence survival of the fittest.  I was getting repeated kerchings of fitness from wandering around these galleries and talking about art and literature in Amsterdam.

Patience, Andrew, please.  As you can see, I am working my way back to your earlier question.  You asked why I do the bat shit stuff like reading Charles Olson for eleven hours, or having reading groups or walking up to the village for four hours instead of taking the car.  Let’s go back to Amsterdam.

In my head the images were on a carrousel, in my ears the sounds of the street were vivid from the tram to the crunch of shoes on compacted snow.  My body was vigorous and energetic and I knew that, even if I didn’t know stuff, it could be known and, even if I hadn’t mastered stuff, it could be mastered.  I knew that the narrow world of school life was a feeble imitation of this pale, sharp light in a foreign city.  I was hyper-ventilating on being abroad, it being the first time I had left the UK.  I was a virgin on the loose and I was horny as hell.  It may sound strange to you but I had not got the hang of masturbation.  The American Hotel in Amsterdam had hot showers where I gave it a good go, never reaching climax, just priming myself for another horny walk along the street in that blue jacket looking over all the women and approving even though they were wrapped up for sub-zero midday temperatures.

“This could be as good as life gets,” I thought to myself and said as much to Joe later on when we were sitting in the little sitting room of the room the three of us were sharing, me on a fold-out supplementary bed that I didn’t bother putting away during the day.

I was a hick.  I found the high-ceilinged room with this little corner cubby-hole with two armchairs and a table glamorous.  I stood at the window looking down the street at the street cars thinking of Maurice Utrillo.  “This is where it could all kick off.”  It was the great feeling that the world was ready and I was about to make my debut.  Van Gogh entered my head like a searing rocket.  Rembrandt and Vermeer soothed the wound.  Harmonious possibilities were in abundance.

“Just shut up and have a swig of brandy!” exclaimed Joe.  His Kirgiz eyes narrowed and he pushed the half bottle we had bought towards me.  Youth was all about crossing these boundaries, yes.  It was risky getting from youth to adult with all the attendant prat-falls.

20170121_174233“You know you’re a prat, don’t you?” he said.

“What?  Why?”

“Well, we go into the Van Gogh- right? – and you had a swig of brandy before we went.  I say something smart about the painting and Peter just looks at me and says I should keep off the booze.”

“Oh.”

“Oh.  Yeah.  You string a line of bullshit even when you are steaming.  You are a culture twat, a painting pillock and poetry prat.”

“That’s me, I guess.”

“And if you don’t stop looking at the girls’ tits in the lectures you won’t have any vision left for the art.”

“Don’t be a knob, Joe.  You can’t wear out looking and you can’t wear something out with looking at it, no matter what Barnes said.”

“Barnes?”

“Never mind.  The thing is this is all unbelievably sharp and acute.  I’m on the brink of something here.”

“We are on the brink of going back to school, mate, for a couple of interminable months of boredom topped off with exams.  That is our imminent brink.  Don’t get all fancy.  It just makes it more painful.”

He was right.  Returning to life was like being snatched from colour and double-dipped in grey.  Or given the aesthetic of February in Amsterdam, perhaps, it was like being snatched from Orson Welles and plonked down in Buck Rogers.  “Bigly, bigly; bigly, bigly,” I would come to mutter to myself repeatedly over the coming months.  Amsterdam was more than the feeling of release you get when you are let out of prison.  It was more a door half-opened to a world in which I saw I could fit.  The fact that it was closed too soon and I was whisked away to the penitentiary does not mean that I had not had that glimpse.

“So, what about the garden?” says Andrew.  “What has that got to do with it?”

“I’ll tell you.  Hang on and I’ll tell you.”

TBC

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