Saturday, 27 September 2008

Christmas is over.

Some people like to celebrate this ghastly time of year with a big festive blowout. I can understand that - it's the darkest, most spectral season, in which it's hard or unpleasant to be out in nature (people assure me). But, as always, I yearn for more nature and less humanity. December is like a great, swollen toad, with Christmas the lurid paste-jewel in its head. I want cold, and silence, and darkness.

On Christmas Eve, I happened to look out at the Thames, hazy with freezing fog, corseted by black overhangs of dripping willow. I stood on Magdalen Bridge for so long that people started staring at me, my hands on the mossy wet stone. The sun was setting, but the thick fog made it more like a bright full moon - just a bone-white disc in off-white sky, blank as paper. I stood there for a long time, centring myself to go back home and face the mess and chaos of Christmas. The poet Frances Leviston has a wonderful line somewhere in her collection 'Public Dream', which I'm currently reading, in which the speaker reflects that there are bones in her body that she has never seen. I thought about this for a while. Human beings are radically hidden, even from ourselves: our bodies run outside our control, our hidden, pleated innards utterly unknown though they could not be nearer. I thought about those unseen bones, as I looked out into the fog.

Driving through the quasi-suburban environs of Oxford today, I thought also of the opening to Hillary Mantel's magnificent novel Beyond Black:

Travelling: the dank oily days after Christmas. The motorway, its wastes looping London: the margin's scrub grass flaring orange in the lights, and the leaves of the poisoned shrubs striped yellow-green like a cantaloupe melon. Four o'clock: light sinking over the orbital road. Teatime in Enfield, night falling on Potters Bar.

Beyond Black is a superb ghost-story, in which Alison, an obese clairvoyant whose gifts are perfectly genuine and a nightmarish burden to her, is confronted by the horrendous ghosts of her past. Mantel's cool, merciless humour makes her depiction of contemporary sleaze, abuse and stupidity both entertaining and deeply unsettling.

And perhaps what's needed as an antidote to Christmas is precisely this: tales of (in Marina Warner's words) 'Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds', even if the supernaturalism of Beyond Black happens to be set within a wince-makingly accurate evocation of the sheer horribleness of contemporary Britain. I'll never forget certain marvellous observations in the novel, such as the sheep under the Heathrow flightpath with fleeces that stink of aviation fuel.

But a different type of fantasy is also needed, and so above I reproduce Max Ernst's The Robing of the Bride. When I was a child, I used to love a book of Surrealist paintings which belonged to my father, and this was one of my favourites. I love its eerie, hieratic fierceness and uncanny pomp. It reminds me of some of the early Irish wonder-voyages known as Immrama, that most oneiric of medieval genres. (They are far more dream-like so than any 'dream-vision' poem, except perhaps the Middle English Pearl.) The painting deliciously poses unanswerable questions. Why is the green heron-man's spear (so suggestively aimed at the 'Bride's' genitals) broken in two? Who is the woman with hair like a wave of purple coral who is turning away from us? What on earth is the squalling, green poly-titted creature at the bride's feet? (Some kind of monstrous birth, resenting its unceremonious expulsion from the womb?) Is the little face beneath the bird-head of the bride her actual, misshapen face (urgh), or a clasp? And is that an eye peering out from her bird-cheek? And why is there a painting on the wall which echoes the shape of the figures in the foreground? Is the coral-haired 'dresser' turning to it to check how she she must perform her task?

Answers on a postcard. And a very Happy New Year to any and all readers!

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