It’s the end of a week in which I’d said goodbye to another fine, wild man at his funeral and held hands there with long-gone riches. It's the end of a week in which I’d sat at the Inquiry and watched videos of a five-year-old boy in an Arsenal shirt who knew in his strong, bright heart he had life and a thousand years of play ahead of him, and had then hugged the dad who still saw every minute of every day that same boy’s death, a death five floors down from the place they both called home. It's the end of a week in which I’d felt old and in pain and impatient, with the hallucinating man on the 41, with the world, with my indecisions and rage and sadnesses. It’s the end of a week in which I’ve realised the need to find a way to open myself up fully to the good stuff that keeps running across no-man’s land towards me and being ruthlessly cut down.
At the end of this particular week, we walk through Victoria Park, along its Homerton edge: calm enough, content enough for now. The lazy, ugly, corporate, corrugated fence thinks it’s keeping us outside the circus and the young, happy, special people safely inside. For an abrupt moment, I want to see if I can climb it, want to see if I can knock it down, want to be the tank, herd, explosion - whatever - that bursts through its silly attempts at demarcating and containing and reducing and solidifying. And then we hear the rhythmic Jersey bang of her voice and the jazz-anger of Ginsberg’s Howl starts doing a little dissolving for me. This was the first poetry I ever heard and felt with all of me; one lonely, alien adolescent day I bought a crumpled old anthology of Beat poems and prose in a charity shop and it was the first time I’d come across words that made me want to write and sing and simultaneously told me I would never write this well, never completely sing. Stumbling into that book was the first time I ever wanted to be American and the first time I knew I couldn’t be. Remembering that 1975 kid now, trying to hold him tight, I feel the tight, wet, heartandthroatandeyes shiver of poignancy that usually belongs just to music - sweet saudade, sweet hiraeth, sweet melancholy, sweet self-indulgence, sweet victimhood - and I make a joke because I’m too tearful too often these days and I need a distraction from that and from the strange thrill of this invisible woman reading that man’s words.
We walk round to the entrance, wrongly, absurdly away with each step from the stage and the voice of kind, righteous anger. We shuffle our way through the barriers, get searched, walk through some more barriers, get searched again, buy comically expensive wine, head towards the voice and the stage, buy some more comically expensive wine, walk back towards the voice and the stage.
I think about the truth. I think about the fact that I was never actually a great fan of Patti Smith. I could pretend I was, just like I could pretend I saw The Ramones when they first came here, which, despite my mate’s protestations, I never actually did. I did like Gloria and Because The Night and Pissing In A River and I liked being annoyed by and knocked flat by some of her poems. But in 1976 and 1977 and 1978, when she became real to us, she was far too much for me, she was too female, too unfeminine, too angry, too clever, too intense. Patti Smith’s always been a little too much for me, a little too shadowed and harsh. And not just in the 70s - all my life, I’ve tried to spend time with the comfortingly romantic, the uplifting, the poppy-vigorous and hopeful, in art and in music and in poetry. Death scares me. Drugs scare me. The Gothic scares me. New York scares me. Revolution scares me. Though - of course - all of them draw me to them as I draw them to me and the time a couple of yeards back I realised I now loved Leonard Cohen was the time I realised I should finally give up resisting what’s real.
But... but there was always that line. You know the one: Jesus died... With each new sign from the universe that it’s not 1976 and I’m not 14 anymore, I’ve been finding my relationship with Him becoming more difficult. He was easier to dismiss a few years ago. But now He keeps creeping in like a sly, sepia memory, like an unwanted lodger, like next-door’s cat. My sins are my sins.
She does 'Land'. It's joyous and furious and tremulous in all its mad, silly, knowing, fuck-you nods to rocks past, present and future. I can't stop staring at her. She’s so old. I’m so old. She is absolutely sure about us both. And then, in the middle of it all, she starts flirting with London and taunting our mind-forged manacles and mentions Bunhill Fields and Blake and Plath and the glory of only feeling and only seeing and of our shot, knifed city, and I suddenly remember going to see her small, old photos in an exhibition somewhere or other a few years ago with one of my fine, wild friends and being intrigued and unmoved and a bit disappointed and then Patti smiles and I cry.
Patti smiles and I cry. I cry because, I think - I’ve no idea really - because in that moment it all comes together, it all connects. Feet come off brakes, masks are removed, eyes are opened to all the loss and regret and sense of time slipping and all the contradictions of idealism and pragmatism, to all the hope and joy that the words and rhythms of the good people - the sort-of flawed, sort-of holy people like Patti Smith - can deliver, to the magics they conjure with ancient, eternal beauty and passion, magics that offer daylight and redemptions and resurrections whilst dragging us through the nights and struggles and inevitabilities we all share.
Dusk lurks. The music stops. The sky darkens and it looks like it might rain. The moment’s gone, the quick tears with it. We applaud. She leaves us. The old East End is out there, past the fence, and there Blake and his wife are sunbathing in the nude to shock their sexless visitors and Sylvia's running rings round Ted. Because of them, I think - desperate to stay now and desperate to get home - because of them and because of Patti and because of all the years of this city. It's the end of a week when something changed.
It's coming to an end. Space begins to shrink. Time begins to reassume importance. You read Barthes and listen to Brel. You drink blanquette at 2 Euros a glass. You walk with the automata. You step out onto a bridge. You're close to falling into the river but faith grabs you by the ankle.
I wore that dress, she says, you pulled it up, remember? You hide under the bridge, pretend to be trolls. A kid comes and asks for a light. You feel surprisingly sad you don't have one to offer him.
You sit outside the cafe. The hailstones bounce off the tables. Later, in the gallery, you fall in love a little with the Sultana. with the gallant officer at Trafalgar, with Mary Magdalene.
You fly home.
Tonight we watched YouTube. We watched Lionel Blair. We watched some moustaches. We watched a slowed-down Carpenters song (yes, it's possible). We watched a Sony Walkman sit proudly on its plinth, The Star Prize. And then we played table tennis and listened to Earth, Wind And Fire.
We imagine ourselves in that hell. We imagine ourselves trapped. We imagine our children trapped. We imagine the decisions we would have to make. We imagine the bureaucrats and the wasters and the politicians and the profiteers. We imagine our revenge.
Today I was introduced as un poète. Which was nice. Though untrue. Today I was also introduced as un docteur de la tête. Which was also nice. Though even more untrue. I'm not sure, of course, what I am. Never have been. Intruder Syndrome's a powerful thing, but sometimes it stems from several grains of truth, not merely self-effacement or a lack of self-worth. I've always avoided wrapping myself in any of the cloaks I might have done - nurse, teacher, lecturer, writer, astronaut, whatever - because I don't feel I fit them and they don't really fit me. In the last six months of not working (or at least not doing real work...) I've stumbled even more when people have asked me what I do. I've been tempted to make something up, but I'm never convinced I can convincingly carry off the whole 'defensive midfielder for Spurs' or 'designer of the G-Wiz' things for very long.
I can choose though - and I can choose to describe myself as a father, a friend, a partner, a man, a human being, a woolly liberal. But I'm not going to. Instead, tomorrow I'm going to be un philosophe. And, at the weekend, I'll get them to introduce me as un mime.
We have a fear of silence: that was agreed. We would prefer twenty-four hours of daylight to twenty-four hours of night: that, too, was agreed. We would make rubbish Inuits; we could understand the absurd fears of the woman who hid her missing teeth with her hand when she spoke to you; we had no opinion (unlike our new friends) about whether we preferred very short grass or slightly longer grass; we heard nightingales for the first time: each of these was agreed. What wasn't quite agreed was whether we would ever have moved towards the horizon, to Bugarach, to the upside-down mountain, to avoid the apocalypse that the New Agers said would come in 2012. And we couldn't agree whether we would have then willingly gone with the aliens (oh yes) to their planet, their time.
There's something about the air here that's thick with craziness and something about the land that grows hope. (France has, apparently, a cult watchdog - The Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combating Cultic Deviances - to keep an eye on the vulnerable, the hopeful, the unleashed. If I learn nothing more this month, I'm pleased I've learned that.)
This time? You're off to France. Ryanair. You don't have Priority Boarding. You glare at those in the Priority Boarding queue. You should have got Priority Boarding.
Soon, you're above Carcassonne, circling. Circling. Circling. The pilot speaks: 'Sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen. There appears to be a hole in the runway. The French tell us they should have it fixed in about fifteen minutes.' You smile with the others. As the plane jerks to a punchy, paroxysmal halt on the holey runway, the stewardess lets out a gasp of shock and fear. You smile with the others.
Later, you sit and watch as a bat collides with a branch of the almond tree. There's a date inscribed high up on the front of the house. You try to remember if it was Napoleon who changed the calendar or if it was one of those Central Asian dictators. Or both. You wonder if you'd change the names of the months, of the days of the week, of every single person, if you had the power.
The rabbit hutches are worn, neglected, locked. Histories murmur from within the stone walls. At seven, the Angelus tolls. You think about Skibbereen and famine pits and colder, simpler days. You miss the heart of your life. The light here is sharp yellow, the heat hard and strong. You're glad to be here and so, so glad for the wit and wisdom that's here with you. And you want to be at home.
It's only when the little plane on the map shows you leaving Greenland behind, heading out over the Atlantic towards Iceland, that you feel the first sense of loss. You think back - inevitably, predictably, wryly - over your time there, to slips on the ice, to unimaginable, ferocious grandeur, to sheer, sharp blues and whites, to mountain panic, to the red of the seal's organs, to the flowers left for the man who crashed a stolen car, to the lovers who married in 1408, to the musk ox burger, to the elusive Thai restaurant, to the awful music, to the kids waking their teachers at 5am. You think back and you realise you fell in love with it, just a little, just enough to feel protective towards it, warm towards it, kind towards it, just enough to want to spend time with it again. And you realise that's because it offers no escape.
There's no escape from dark and light and day and night in Greenland. There's no escape from the earth and the sun and the sky, from the real and the unforgiving.
There's no escape from our collective past. There's no escape from the recognition that we've all run a long, long way from what made us, from what gave us life and will take life away. There's no escape from beauty and mundanity and everything in between.
There's no escape from culture and belief and language, from our ancestors' ancestors, from spirit, from our need to create stories that can explain, charm, defend, lash out, foretell, embed.
There's no escape. And you realise then there's no escape from the desire and the love and the choices you've left behind either: and you're glad. Because Greenland won't let you avoid. Reflection is everything, everywhere. The place shines a light on you, one that lets you see yourself - a little - without noise or shadow. And that's why you need to love it, just a little.
Small icebergs have started appearing. I'm not sure anyone else can see them. They wait there, smug, owning the water, gathering strength even as they fade. There's a sweet, turquoise light around their base, the reflection of their underside, of their hidden depths. My eyes keep jumping from one too-white shard to the other. There were only four a minute ago, surely? Well there are five now...
One is curved, smooth, the shape of an old man's cap. A second swirls and twists like an angry serpent. A third is jagged, harsh, spiky, dental. Another - it reminds me of the Queen's profile on stamps - has (I'm sure) been edging its way towards me. And one - there's always one - just ignores me, stays indefinable, hiding behind the others, biding its time.
The too-early air jabs my ears. I'm leaving tomorrow. A huge raven sits and screams from the top of a lamppost. A child laughs. I turn to go inside again and there's a crack, a split, a shuddering behind me.
There are six now.
“All things look good from far away and it is man's eternally persistent, childlike faith in the reality of that illusion that has made him the triumphant, restless being he is.”
Four of us are going to Sigrid Bjornsdottir and Thorstein Olafsson's wedding. The man who brought us here has gone. The island is grave-still. The church is small but the people here are happy, special. They're people forgotten, disappeared, lost. Today they don't care. The mountains were here before us. The mountains have witnessed a million weddings. Why now? Why do you want to come here now? We want, I think, to resurrect Sigrid and Thorstein.
The church was built on a graveyard: it's partially collapsed as a result. There's a barn over there, a byre, houses. If you listen closely enough, you can hear the boasts of the men, the keen whispers of the women. If you look closely enough, you can see the pride on Bjorn's and on Olaf's face. Pick up that cup: there's plenty of ale and mead. There are breads, a stew. Stick the plate on your lap. The meat is seal, beef, mutton. Dance if you want. Swim.
Huginn and Muminn are watching the ceremonies from up there. Thought and Memory. They'll let Odin know what we're up to. And they'll follow us back to the town.
'I don't want petty self-expression. I want the elemental, infinite thing; I want to paint the rhythm of eternity.'
Nothing much to say today. Except I just discovered - and have quickly become obsessed with - Rockwell Kent, whose wild trips to Greenland produced something very rare and very rich. And I heard this beautifully nostalgic song...
It's four a.m. and already bright outside. You went to sleep around midnight - it was only just dark then. You groggily drift into consciousness. You look at the Guardian app, at Facebook, wish you hadn't done either. You start to hear drumming. And shouting. And chanting. And the blowing of horns. You realise you've finally lost it: this is the quietest place in the world, it's half four, there's no way that noise is real. You have visions - shudders - of city madness, of Manchester sirens, Belfast marches, London demonstrations. You drag yourself up, look outside. The noise is coming from across the river: a cluster of white, ghostly shapes, clapping, laughing. You decide you have to find out what's happening, still doubting your reality.
It takes a few minutes to get out and by that time there's no sight or sound of the white ghosts. You head down to the now-familiar harbour. When you get there, you can hear drums from up on the hill. It starts to rain. You spot a bunch of giggling, gobbing, joshing, pushing kids standing/sitting/running/playing ball/looking tough up by the Rockhouse, the red guitar on its roof and its dodgy Elvis mannequin looking knackered, wet, hungover. You ask the kids what's happening. 'High School finished.' You think back, you realise you have no memory at all of your own last day at school but you feel an abrupt shove of sadness. You wait with the kids. More people join you. All wait together, quiet in that Greenland way. They're all smoking and you really fancy one.
After about half an hour, by now soaked to the skin, you hear and then see the scattered, fragmented, joyous march approaching. The kids are wearing overalls to protect their clothes from the paint and other stuff they're throwing at each other. A couple of them are pushing oil drums along the road. A resigned middle-aged man is bringing up the rear. You say hello. He's a teacher. You walk with him up, up the hill. He says the tradition is that on this day the kids get up early and go to teachers' houses and wake them up. He doesn't seem completely happy about this, but he asks you about Brexit and smiles his disdain for the French and the Germans and seems to cheer up. You share a quick joke with one of the kids, who speaks perfect English. You wonder again why you have no memory of your own last day at school. You wish them luck and you wonder where they'll be, who they'll be, in thirty, forty years time. You envy them this morning, you envy them their years. You hope the ones who need to stay on this wild island stay here and those who need to leave are able to leave. You tread gingerly down the slippery wooden staircase then, down to the main road. You head home and go back to bed, just as the sun comes out.
You read bits and pieces. You have blurry conversations about it on FaceTime. You want to watch video reports and you don't want to watch any. You see a mum pleading with the universe for the safe return of her daughter. You think back to taking your own kids to gigs, waiting around in the foyer for them, and picture their buzzing, bright-eyed emergence from the hall.
Rasmussen: 'What do you think of the way men live?'
Shaman: 'They live brokenly, mingling all things together; weakly, because they cannot do one thing at a time.'
"He didn't know how he should feel about anything or anyone and wondered if there might be a remedy. To which I could only reply, 'More living.'"
(Gretel Ehrlich: This Cold Heaven)
I watched the mist rolling in from the sea this morning. And now I can't get that bloody song out of my mind.