Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress

Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress

I have never had any problem sleeping, losing consciousness within minutes of laying my head on the pillow. Yet, paradoxically, I have always been a light sleeper, snapping awake at untoward sounds and disturbed by encroaching light. Any happy balance I had achieved between these contradictory poles was instantly shattered when, in late April, we brought home our new Cocker Spaniel puppy. Not only did I get less – much less – than my preferred allocation of sleep (being woken and expected to play chase around the garden at 5am), my light sleeper mode went into overdrive, instantly waking at the slightest movement or sound from the puppy’s crate at the foot of our bed. The pup would shift, then fall asleep, while I lay sleepless and alert until the grey light of dawn spilled through the curtains and our noisy, thoughtless neighbours began tootling their blasted chorus. Continue reading “Days of indolence: reading Geoff Dyer and trying to make progress”

First fig: ‘every fruit has its secret’

First fig: ‘every fruit has its secret’

First fig 4

First fig: ‘every fruit has its secret’

Somewhere in the Bible there’s talk of ‘a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills; land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olive, and honey; a land wherein thou shalt eat bread without scarceness’. Was there ever a more mouth-watering list of things delectable?

When we took over our allotment four years ago I was surprised to discover that one of the items from that biblical catalogue – the fig – could be cultivated in these northern climes.  So, a year later, on land cleared of brambles and bindweed (surely some other biblical passage there?), I planted a Brown Turkey fig – and we settled down for a long wait.

Because you must wait at least three years before you can hope to get fruit from a freshly-planted fig.  This week we have harvested our first two figs.  Two figs! you might exclaim. So what? But these were figs that tasted as if they might have grown in the land of milk and honey: sun-warmed in this Indian summer, soft, succulent and sweet. Best of all, we had grown them in Dingle earth, and eaten them fresh from the branch.

First fig

Our first fig droops: ready to pick

Our Brown Turkey is regarded as the best variety of fig tree to go for.  The fruit ripens in late August, and has the combination of reddish-brown skin, red flesh and sweet flavour that makes me swoon. The figs are ready to pick when the fruit droops on its stalk and the skin is well coloured. When the skin cracks open it is fully ripe – there may even be a drop of nectar.

First fig 1

Second fig: almost ready to pluck

Googling for figgy words with which to pad out this post, I discovered that the Old Testament verse about beating swords into ploughshares also dwells on figs – as a symbol of peace and security:

And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid

– Micah 4:4

It’s a vision of peace that is a reminder that the words were written in a time when most people lived by cultivating the land, and all they wanted after toiling all day was to be able to sit under their own fig tree without harassment from men waving spears and swords.  It’s a vision, too, that all those with an allotment will recognise.

The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple

The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple

There must be something about figs.  According to legend, it was while seated beneath a fig, or a close relative, the Bodhi tree, Gautama Siddhartha (aka the Buddha) received the enlightenment which gave birth to a new religion. The Bodhi Tree at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, India is believed to be a direct descendant of the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

First fig 3First fig 5

A Dingle Vale allotment yields up its riches: from plot to plate

The fig varieties grown in Britain (like our Brown Turkey)  develop fruit develop without flowers or  the need for pollination. That’s helpful, since we don’t have any fig wasps here to do the pollinating.  Because the remarkable thing about figs is that the flowers are inside the fruitlets that develop like little buds on the stems.  Elsewhere in the world, the flowers inside the fruitlets must be pollinated by a female fig wasp (a creature that lives for only two days) which must enter the fruitlet via a tiny opening at its apex.  The female wasp then proceeds to pollinate the stigmas of the fig before exiting the fig in search of other young receptive figs to complete the cycle. Once the fig wasp has left the fig, it ripens.

I mention all this botanical detail because there’s a lubricious poem about figs by DH Lawrence, from his collection Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, published in 1924, that has at its heart a couplet that reveals Lawrence’s knowledge of the fig tree’s strange botany: ‘There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward/Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb’.

In terms of today’s gender politics, Lawrence’s poem might raise eyebrows.  He represents the fig as a bearer of female mystery. But in the current age, as women assert themselves, he appears to say, the mystery of females is being destroyed: ‘the bursten fig’ is a ripe fig, and ‘ripe figs won’t keep’. Nonsense, of course, but this was a man who raged in verse and in prose against censorship and prurient attitudes toward sexuality, who was steadfastly anti-pornographic and who wrote passionately about nature and human experience. WH Auden once commented on  Lawrence’s poetry: ‘Whenever he…describes the anonymous life of stones, waters, forests, animals, flowers, chance travelling companions or passers-by, his bad temper and his dogmatism immediately vanish and he becomes the most enchanting companion imaginable, tender, intelligent, funny, and above all, happy.’

The ‘Fruits’ section of Lawrence’s collection is all about eating fruit and being changed by its sensual properties. In the case of the fig, its suggestively dangling fruit holds a mystery that can’t be understood intellectually, only experienced with the senses. Whatever else you might feel about the poem, ‘Fig’ certainly does that:

The proper way to eat a fig, in society,
Is to split it in four, holding it by the stump,
And open it, so that it is a glittering, rosy, moist, honied, heavy-petalled four-petalled flower.

Then you throw away the skin
Which is just like a four-sepalled calyx,
After you have taken off the blossom, with your lips.

But the vulgar way
Is just to put your mouth to the crack, and take out the flesh in one bite.

Every fruit has its secret.

The fig is a very secretive fruit.
As you see it standing growing, you feel at once it is symbolic :
And it seems male.
But when you come to know it better, you agree with the Romans, it is female.

The Italians vulgarly say, it stands for the female part ; the fig-fruit :
The fissure, the yoni,
The wonderful moist conductivity towards the centre.

The flowering all inward and womb-fibrilled ;
And but one orifice.

The fig, the horse-shoe, the squash-blossom.

There was a flower that flowered inward, womb-ward ;
Now there is a fruit like a ripe womb.

It was always a secret.
That’s how it should be, the female should always be secret.

There never was any standing aloft and unfolded on a bough
Like other flowers, in a revelation of petals ;
Silver-pink peach, venetian green glass of medlars and sorb-apples,
Shallow wine-cups on short, bulging stems
Openly pledging heaven :
Here’s to the thorn in flower ! Here is to Utterance !
The brave, adventurous rosaceæ.

Folded upon itself, and secret unutterable,
And milky-sapped, sap that curdles milk and makes ricotta,
Sap that smells strange on your fingers, that even goats won’t taste it ;
Folded upon itself, enclosed like any Mohammedan woman,
Its nakedness all within-walls, its flowering forever unseen,
One small way of access only, and this close-curtained from the light ;
Fig, fruit of the female mystery, covert and inward,
Mediterranean fruit, with your covert nakedness,
Where everything happens invisible, flowering and fertilization, and fruiting
In the inwardness of your you, that eye will never see
Till it’s finished, and you’re over-ripe, and you burst to give up your ghost.

Till the drop of ripeness exudes,
And the year is over.

And then the fig has kept her secret long enough.
So it explodes, and you see through the fissure the scarlet.
And the fig is finished, the year is over.

That’s how the fig dies, showing her crimson through the purple slit
Like a wound, the exposure of her secret, on the open day.
Like a prostitute, the bursten fig, making a show of her secret.

That’s how women die too.

The year is fallen over-ripe,
The year of our women.
The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.
The secret is laid bare.
And rottenness soon sets in.
The year of our women is fallen over-ripe.

When Eve once knew in her mind that she was naked
She quickly sewed fig-leaves, and sewed the same for the man.
She’d been naked all her days before,
But till then, till that apple of knowledge, she hadn’t had the fact on her mind.

She got the fact on her mind, and quickly sewed fig-leaves.
And women have been sewing ever since.
But now they stitch to adorn the bursten fig, not to cover it.
They have their nakedness more than ever on their mind,
And they won’t let us forget it.

Now, the secret
Becomes an affirmation through moist, scarlet lips
That laugh at the Lord’s indignation.

What then, good Lord ! cry the women.
We have kept our secret long enough.
We are a ripe fig.
Let us burst into affirmation.

They forget, ripe figs won’t keep.
Ripe figs won’t keep.

Honey-white figs of the north, black figs with scarlet inside, of the south.
Ripe figs won’t keep, won’t keep in any clime.
What then, when women the world over have all bursten into affirmation?
And bursten figs won’t keep?

Matisse, FigLeaves, 1948

Matisse, Fig Leaves, 1948

Finally, I had to include Matisse, having written about him yesterday.  In 1947 , he wrote about some fig leaves that he was drawing, saying how he was searching for the qualities that made them ‘almost unmistakably fig leaves’. He did not want to record exact copies of particular leaves. Instead, Matisse said, he worked to find the ‘common quality’ that united things despite their visible differences. He wrote of searching for an ‘inherent truth’ about the fig leaves.

Julian Merrow-Smith, Still life with figs and grey bowl

Julian Merrow-Smith, ‘Still life with figs and grey bowl’

All Is Lost: getting to grips with mortality

All Is Lost: getting to grips with mortality

All is Lost 1

Redford in ‘All Is Lost’: a modern day Sisyphus

The other night I found myself adrift with Robert Redford somewhere in the Indian Ocean, catching up with All Is Lost, the film written and directed by JC Chandor about a lone mariner’s attempts to keep his stricken yacht afloat after it has collided with a shipping container and is holed at the waterline.

I hadn’t been particularly drawn to the film when it was first reviewed, but my attention was caught recently by references to the film in an article by Geoff Dyer in the Guardian after the disappearance of flight MH370 that fell from the sky somewhere in the same ocean.  He compared the aircraft’s black box to the brief message that begins, ‘All is lost…’ which Robert Redford’s sailor scrawls, puts in a bottle and tosses overboard. ‘All may be lost’, Dyer writes, ‘ but the hope is that this hand-scrawled version of the black box, will be found’.

All Is Lost must be one of the most truly cinematic films ever produced.  Apart from the few spoken words of his last despairing message spoken by Redford at the introduction, there is virtually no dialogue, apart from an anguished ‘Fuuuuuck’, uttered by Redford at a desperate moment in the proceedings.  The rest is Redford’s superb acting, stunning cinematography, sound – and the silence of a lone sailor adrift on the wide ocean.

The film’s writer and director, JC Chandor, steers well clear of the conventions of the disaster movie genre. Who is this sailor? Where does he come from? Chandor never tells us: there is no backstory of family or previous life.  All we see is an elderly man fighting to stay alive, his actions defined solely by the crisis that has afflicted him.

Does Chandor have an environmental message about humanity beleaguered on the planet we have desecrated? I don’t know – probably not.  The thought only occurs because the film pivots on a random event in which Redford’s sailor encounters solid evidence of globalization and the detritus it leaves in its wake.  The sailor wakes one morning to find that his yacht has been pierced by a container full of trainers, one corner of the metal monstrosity embedded in the gashed fibreglass hull.  The sea is awash with trainers that pour from the container like blood from a wound.

I’m currently reading Jean Sprackland’s book Strands, and coincidentally, I saw All Is Lost on the same day that I read the chapter in which she documents all the  plastic that she finds washed up on the beach. She goes on to talk about the ubiquitousness of waste in the oceans and the phenomenon of the North Pacific Gyre:

The Gyre has become home to something known as the Great Pacific Garbage  Patch, a gigantic stew of suspended plastic and other human debris. [… ] Estimates put the garbage patch at a hundred million tons, and it is aid by some observers to cover an area twice the size of Texas.

Sprackland speaks, too, of a famous cargo of plastic ducks and other bath toys that spilled from a container ship in the Pacific Ocean in 1992.  A scientist, Curtis Ebbesmeyer, has used observations of where the toys are washed ashore to track the currents and tidal systems that can transport human debris like those trainers in All Is Lost right round the world.
Seabirds are particularly at risk once sea-borne plastic waste enters the food chain, and this reminds Sprackland of Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ which can be read as a prophecy, or warning, of the consequences of interfering with the natural order.  That reminded me of a recent reworking of the poem by Nick Hayes as a graphic poem, The Rime of the Modern Mariner.  The story his modern mariner recounts is one of environmental doom. After killing an albatross and being forced to wear it around his neck, his ship hits the North Pacific gyre, that huge collection of plastics and chemical sludge:

Swathes of polystyrene
Bobbed with tonnes of neoprene
And polymethyl methacrylate
Stretched across the scene
Tupperware and bottletops
Bottled bleach and tyres
The detritus of a careless kind
a scattered funeral pyre.

Allis Lost trainers

A cargo of trainers…

Back on board Redford’s yacht, water has gushed in and shorted out all power on the vessel, eliminating all contact with the rest of the world. Now the camera follows every desperate  move Redford makes to try to keep his vessel afloat: the ingenious method he uses to dislodge the cargo container, the slow and methodical patching of the jagged tear in the hull. He bails out water, makes careful repairs, teaches himself how to check coordinates with a map and sextant.

Later a terrific storm blows in, sheers off the yacht’s mast and reopens the gash in her hull. The sailor is knocked into open water and sustains a cut to his scalp. He realises that his one hope is to chart a course towards the shipping lanes from where the malignant container probably came. In the darkness, with the storm still raging and his boat sinking, the sailor inflates his life raft and cuts the cord. He watches, battered and sodden, as the yacht goes down, leaving no trace.


Every aspect of All Is Lost’s production – from the murmuring musical score to the stunning cinematography – make this pure cinema:  just a story told through movement and sound. But above all this is a tour de force by Redford. He throws himself into a physically punishing role with total commitment and the understanding of one who is a sailor (he needs to: he’s on screen from beginning to end). If Robert Redford chose never to make another film, I reckon All Is Lost would be considered a truly fitting achievement to cap his career.  As the Washington Post review observed:

At a time when his 70-something colleagues are trying desperately to prove they’re still hip, macho and please-God relevant, he quietly delivers a one-man master class in the art of screen acting in what is arguably the finest and certainly the bravest performance of his career.

Watching all his tribulations, Redford’s sailor becomes a modern day Sisyphus, rolling his boulder uphill day after day, cursing the toll it takes on his body, but reaching inside himself for the resolve to carry on. In his piece for the Guardian, Geoff Dyer has an interesting take on this Sisyphus parallel, noting that Camus insisted that we must imagine Sisyphus ‘happy’.  Dyer suggests that Redford’s lost sailor is in his element:

This is what he came to sea for. And it would be wrong, as we hear those fateful words, ‘All is lost’, to take this as an admission of regret. It would be just as accurate to say that he has achieved his destination.

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The yacht goes down

Several reviewers have noted that All Is Lost explores themes remarkably similar to those in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. The crisis of Sandra Bullock’s astronaut, spinning in a crippled craft in space, is even brought about in the same way: by a surreal onslaught of debris.

In an interview with The National, director JC Chandor observed that when everything is lost and a person is forced to confront themselves in extremis, ‘the big existential questions become harder to avoid. What are the things that make life worth living and give it value? Why battle on when death is inevitable?’  He said:

The only thing that everyone on planet Earth has absolutely in common with one another is that we are all going to die. All Is Lost is about a guy coming to grips with his mortality, which is something everybody is going to go through, sooner or later.

In the Observer Xan Brooks wrote:

There is no journey towards redemption and no cosy life lesson lying in wait at the end. There’s just the sea and the sky and the struggle to survive. Chandor’s ironclad minimalism has you gasping for air.

But, as Geoff Dyer noted in his piece, the ending (I won’t divulge it) might suggest redemption, some form of  ‘religious salvation’.  Maybe.  I’m thankful to Dyer, though, for opening my eyes to a poem with which I was unfamiliar.  Of the film’s ending, he writes:

It is also strangely reminiscent of DH Lawrence’s great long poem ‘The Ship of Death‘. Few people can have lived their lives with such a consciousness of death as Lawrence – though this often manifested itself as a wilful refusal to attribute his ill-health to the tuberculosis that would kill him. […] But in the posthumously published poem he confronted his death directly, through the image of a boat sailing slowly into deeper and deeper darkness until it is completely enveloped by it:

And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone,
entirely gone.
The upper darkness is heavy as the lower,
between them the little ship
is gone
she is gone.
It is the end, it is oblivion.

Few pieces of writing bring the reader this close to the incommunicable experience of death, of non-existence. The end is as uncompromising and absolute as the verdict that flight MH370 went into the water, that there are no survivors. But the poem is not at an end. It continues:

And yet out of eternity a thread
separates itself on the blackness,
a horizontal thread
that fumes a little with pallor upon the dark.
Is it illusion? or does the pallor fume
A little higher?
Ah wait, wait, for there’s the dawn,
the cruel dawn of coming back to life
out of oblivion.

As I write this, hundreds of children are missing after Wednesday’s ferry accident off the coast of South Korea. For the grieving parents it must seem as if all is lost

And everything is gone, the body is gone
completely under, gone,
entirely gone.