Obituary

My father was a man, my mother was a woman. My dog was “a domesticated carnivorous mammal” with “a long snout, an acute sense of smell, non-retractile claws, and a barking, howling, or whining voice”. My house was “a building for human habitation”; it had walls, floors, doors, windows, a roof. Visitors said it was a nice house. Visitors were people who came by to meet the man, woman or children who lived there.

I feel no nostalgia or joy remembering that house. Although its creaky floors and panoramic bay windows shaped me (tread lightly, look panoramically), it is as impersonal to me as an adobe hut in New Mexico or yurt on the Mongolian steppe. It is where I learned the futility of love, where I explored the terrifying boundlessness of consciousness unleashed from socially induced constraints. It is where I learned that countries are sham entities which shamelessly exploit people’s deep-rooted need for belonging. It is where I learned that even the most acute intelligence is susceptible to vanity and that rationality will always be trumped by emotion. Above all, that house is where I learned of my thingness. That in the vast scheme of things – historical, geological, biological – I was no more than a thing among things, both cattle and chattel.

The day we moved into that white house was a joyous day. I was nine and full of love for the birds and the bees. I remember eating fish and chips after hours of unpacking (eaten amid the chaos of crates and boxes). It had already been decided who would sleep where; I was to share a bunk bed with my older brother. When I went to bed later that evening, I excitedly read the white pinboard that ran along the wall just above my mattress (the bunk bed was slotted into an alcove). The previous occupant must have been a vaguely rebellious teenager; the board was daubed all over with pithy protest: BAN THE BOMB, SAVE THE WHALES, MEAT IS MURDER. My favourite was I DRINK THEREFORE I AM. The faux-philosophical writing was already on the wall for me.

Boyhood, adolescence. Numerous films and books attest to that oily, priapic rite of passage. I was hard all the time. That could be hard: on a bus, in class, hard for no reason, whatsoever. Perhaps my cock got confused, mistook itself for a clock, strained to point forward, to show me the future. Either way the future came, again and again.

Difficult to distinguish oneself. Just say no. Not to drugs, not like that, but to everything that everyone says. But do it right, do it tastefully. Don’t don an alternative uniform. Don’t be contrarily gothic or oppugnantly punk. Take no as far as it goes. Unravel the skein of language right back to the beginning…

Once upon a time…

Atomic nothings jostled away…

That formed a Word…

Black, oily, oozing with being…

A spell, a command, a wish, a curse, a stab in the back…

Go mad until you realise (worst of all) that you can never go mad. Or just get on with it, as your mum lovinly suggests. Get on with the third-person, singular neuter pronoun, as in “Just do it” or “I’m lovin’ it.” That’s it, now you’re speaking. You’re starting to resemble a human.

Rachel Whiteread’s House was installed in East London around the time I met B. House heralded a new era of public art in the UK; the sculpture quickly passed into myth, its absence (it was soon demolished) the source of its monumental meaning. It simultaneously won the prestigious Turner Prize and the K Foundation’s award for worst example of British art (its cash prize was twice as large as the Turner: Whiteread accepted the money, which would have been burned if she hadn’t, and donated half to a housing charity, the other half to young artists).

Iain Sinclair wrote in Lights Out for the Territory: “House was a concept, the human elements were the flaws: it was the husk of an idea, extinguished in execution. The sooner it was disposed of, the better: only then could it work on memory, displace its own volume.”

My old house still stands. It is probably worth a considerable sum of money. Zone 5 of the London Underground. Four bedrooms. Edwardian era. Large garden. I used to go there with B, trembling with dread at returning to the source of my absence. Until one day I knocked on “a metal object hinged to a door and rapped by visitors to attract attention and gain entry” in order to pass through the “hinged barrier” in my way.

I do not have sturdy foundations or a lovely view. No home, no family, no country. Only this ramshackle shelter of words (it gets very leaky, very draughty). Only a good dictionary and its prototypical definition of things. My old house still stands, a symbol of madness. Where shoes got slashed and turds stabbed. Where war was declared on disorder. Where stairs creaked with disbelief. Where doors slammed with revolutionary zeal. Where light was an intruder and night a liberator of ancient grievances. Where song birds were Greek choruses chirpily forewarning of future tragedy. Where dogs were pouffes. Where Shakespeare was traduced as scriptural proof. Where language was nothing more than a perpetual tug-o-war. Where my refusal to enter into a 25-year period of bondage with a bank was born.

 

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