You worry about the Geoff Dyer the author Geoff Dyer is writing about, or at least I do. Is worry the right word? You wonder about the writer Geoff Dyer and the global travels and wanderings of the Geoff Dyer he is reporting back on. Which, in itself, says something about the qualities of the fine, nay prime, example of intellectual gonzo artefact that is Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it (2003) – a great title, by the way, that is right up my street, given that I bought a yoga DVD over a year ago now and so far all I’ve managed – apart from doing a few shapes on Wii Fit – is to remove its cellophane wrapper. Which may explain why this book is by far the most readily available and the cheapest of Dyer’s books on AbeBooks. For in the book, doubtless rather rather disappointingly for some, yoga is but a passing source of entertainment for the voyager and his companion; nor is this your average traveller’s tale.
Yoga for people who can’t be bothered to do it pretty much continues where Out of sheer rage, Dyer’s book about not writing a book about D.H.Lawrence, left us, though with seemingly less focus. His starting point is a quote from Auden about what or where home is. We then get reports from eleven spots on the globe, some more traditionally hippy-ish than others, in the course of which I was laughing out loud through his miseries and triumphs and even, before you realise it, as he realises he is having a nervous breakdown. The leitmotif of another failed book project emerges, this one on ruins and antiquity, and we get what I now recognise as trademark citations of Rilke (memo to self: really must open that Selected poems I bought a while ago now) and Nietzsche. He brings it all – and presumably himself – together beautifully and powerfully in the end with a meditation on the notion of being in the Zone (intensity, peace, a spiritual yet non-religious peak experience of being there) and another nod to Auden.
Anyway, here’s one of the comic master Dyer’s basic tricks, distilled right down to its essence, on the edge of the Libyan desert to:
I was so eager to see Leptis Magna that, in the morning, I took a taxi in the opposite direction.
Here it is again, two times, though these times he’s having his nervous breakdown:
I had become so habituated to this state of serial distraction that I scarcely gave it a second thought.
I had drifted to a standstill. I may not have admitted it at the time – if that afternoon was a turning point, then I responded as one invariably does at such moments, by failing to turn –
He can be so funny just in ordinary traveller’s tales adversity too. The boat journey in Cambodia is a beaut, while the magic mushroom disaster in Amsterdam had me in stitches (here it comes again, well placed, a source of endless joy):
Undeterred – or more accurately, almost entirely deterred – I started again.
This is a funny, powerful and brave book from which this reader emerged glowing. Beside it, I am afraid, Simon Armitage‘s latest slim volume of poetry is very small beer. Most of Seeing stars (Faber, 2010) is actually prose, short stories laced with uninspired surrealism that most of the time took me nowhere particularly interesting, or worse, just struck me as silly, the stuff of children’s literature. Why would a sperm whale have a brother called Jeff who owns a camping and out-door shop in the Lake District? And just because the text is unjustified does that make it poetry? Maybe if this stuff had been laid out as blank verse I might be a bit more sympathetic (and those 14 – fourteen – blank pages at the back of the book might have been less, um, empty). Most of the time wan smiles is the best I can muster; disappointing, because on previous evidence, Armitage’s is a world I inhabit.
In his weariness of travel Geoff Dyer ventures that, ‘ Sunsets impose a heavy burden on the sightseer.’ He continues, in his classic way of turning things on their head:
Waiting for the sunset becomes an activity, an exercise in abeyance. Idleness, doing nothing, is raised to the level of sharply focussed purpose. Expectation becomes a form of sustained exertion. You wait for it to happen even though it’s going to happen anyway. Or not happen. Frank O’Hara was right: ‘The sun doesn’t necessarily set, sometimes it just disappears.’.
We had an experience like that by the walls of Peel Castle on the Isle of Man. I don’t know if Dyer has ever been; it has its ruins, but the Isle, for all it has to offer, is not a place you’d expect to be in the Zone much. John Michell – late sacred geometrist, geomancer, astro-archaeologist and earth mysterian of this planet – had various mystical theories about the Isle of Man, as centre point of the British isles no less. In his book Who wrote Shakespeare (1996) – William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby, one of the Shakespeare ‘claimants’ was Lord of Man from 1610 – he even suggested that the Calf of Man, the small island at the bottom, was the model for Prospero’s island in The tempest. If John Grimson had known about this – or if he knew but chose to not exclude said knowledge from his readers – it might have spiced up his mighty (576 pages) tome about the island a bit. As would explaining why the monument in Castletown Square to Colonel Cornelius Smelt, Governor of Man for 27 years from 1805, is only a plinth and a column with a platform; it was a public subscription and there was, I am reliably informed, no money left for a statue.
So The Isle of Man: portrait of a nation (Hale , 2009) is not the book I wanted to read about Man, but it is certainly substantial and you cannot but learn a lot. There’s nothing else like it currently available. Grimson, who moved to the island in 1973 (“a come-over” but that’s not a criticism as such) is by turns straight-laced, po-faced, tetchy and folksy in a cosy middle class polite way. He’s not helped by the book’s three part structure of a potted history, followed by some thematic run-downs and finishing with a detailed tour of the island. So there is repetition in some instances, strange omissions in others. We don’t hear of the nineteenth century mining industry until the mines had closed; first mention of the famous TT Races – of huge significance to the island – is when they have to be cancelled because of the Second World War. (Grimson isn’t keen about the TT weeks, which involve shutting of large parts of the island’s road network for a fortnight, and he’s sniffy about what he calls ‘the motorcycle lobby’ while looking for compromise concerning the island’s rather splendid total ban on caravans). He tells of the armed yacht Penny in Castletown twice, first enticingly: “Inside were a ship’s galley and wine-bins, and all sorts of merry japes went on there. (More of this in Chapter 12)” – only Chapter 12 just tells us more of the same again and no merry japes. Local involvement in the slavery trade is glossed over whereas the museum in Douglas makes a big deal of it.
Despite stupid Fast Show stereotypes (I won’t even honour it with a link), there is much of interest about this small nation. After the geology, we get the neolithic settlers and the iron age Celts; the Romans never bothered to invade, but after a spell of Celtic Christianity the Scandinavians did, and it is to them that we owe the political institution – the longest continuously running parliament – of the Tynwald. The Scots and the English then contested control and the latter prevailed. Because there was no aristocracy there was no native landed gentry to lord it over the peasants; obviously there was inequality but Manx society as it developed was more egalitarian than on the mainland. And guess what set the scene ‘for the most serious constitutional confrontation between the Isle of Man and the United Kingdom in modern times?’ Hey Radio Caroline North anchored of Ramsey Bay in 1964 – now there’s a decent footnote in the annals of UK pirate radio!
I’ll leave the Isle of Man with this quote from page 351. Grimson is talking about theatre designer extraordinaire Frank Matcham’s work on the Gaiety Theatre in Douglas, IOM’s capital, in 1900, which was restored in the 1990s:
And what a job he made of it. The interior has been described by some as ‘ornately vulgar’. Ornate certainly, but vulgar? – never! To be seated in the body of that magnificent auditorium, surrounded by those swirling, seductive mouldings to ceiling and box-fronts, bathed in their softly lit pastel shades, is to dream of being enfolded within the welcoming embrace of a large, enticing, voluptuous woman – and wishing never to be released. (I regret leaving my female reader to dream up her own fantasy.)
Just the one, John?
Finally, more of Alison Graham, Radio Times tv critic in full flow. I trust this woman implicitly until proved otherwise:
Sugartown, July 24: After ten minutes of this gormless show you’ll feel as if you’re caught in a dreadful theme-park ride that hurls you through dank tunnels of cliché. You will be left queasy by the sweetly sickly premise: a small northern town’s fight to save its rock factory, and by its warm-hearted northern stereotypes. As for the plot – you’ve seen it all before … [plot summary setting the scene] By the time you’ve got this far you will have lost the will to live.
Read Full Post »