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 to belong. 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. We bought fish and chips (an extemporaneous dinner amid the chaos of so many unpacked crates). My siblings called dibs on their rooms. When I went to bed that evening, I read the white pinboard that stretched alongside bed (parallel to head). The previous occupant must have been a teenage boy. The board was covered in graphically unthreatening acts of graffiti: BAN THE BOMB, SAVE THE WHALES, I DRINK THEREFORE I AM. The writing was on the wall for me from the outset.

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 labyrinth 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) you can never go mad. Or just get on with it, as your mum lovin’ly 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 are 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 over 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 she donated to young artists).

As 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 can get very leaky, very draughty). Only a good dictionary and its prototypical definition of things. My old house still stands, a symbol of madness. Where the dawn chorus screamed through my windows. Where a creaky floor was a medium for ancient horrors. Where the lush foliage strained to break in and purloin my nitrogen. Where my dog was so successfully de-dogged that it became indistinguishable from the furniture. Where my refusal to enter into a 25-year period of bondage with a bank was born.

 

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