Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Smell of Rain (Petrichor and a Runner's Memory)

Rain seeps down into the concrete to release its complex scent.

  The air's heavy with a glitter of damp scents. Petrichor: the smell of rain rises from the ground. The concrete seems impermeable.  The tarmac, the grey and pink flagstones, the pebbles, even, have all been brought to life by something in the air.  Their smell is swirling and diving, like the sun-bright scent of flowers competing for the attention of bees.  But this is wrong.  Rain doesn't smell; it's something else.  Petra: of stone; Ichor, the golden fluid that runs in the veins of the gods and immortals. Is it the blood of stones that we can smell? Life is to be found in the strangest of places. 
   Certain runs are imbued with melancholy.  For twenty years I have walked, run, and cycled this track of seafront between western Hove and Brighton. The place bursts with innumerable memories of football, skateboarding, sex, sun, high-winds and storms.  This stretch would be so quiet some mornings, years ago, that I would sit up on my bike to catch as much of the chasing wind as I could.  I would take my rucksack from my back, still pedalling hard, rummage inside it and take out that morning's post, open and read it as I cycled none-handed.  But it's years since I've been here. And like I was on those hundreds of trips in and out of town, I am here again, alone. This time I'm folding a quick run into a crease of time between seeing two friends.  I have got no shoes with me, but it doesn't matter, I can go barefoot. The sky is grey, the sun on the horizon is the memory of a gold coin, a grubby smudge of yellow light dipping into the sea.  And the overwhelmingly dominant memory is of being happy while I lived here, before it all went wrong. A run through this landscape is like running on pebbles. Tender layers of memory give way beneath the weight of each footstep.
   Years ago, twenty maybe, as an eager young reader I came across Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.  It was about 1992 and I hated my dismal job so much that even if I was going to be 10 minutes early for work, I would pull into a lay-by and read a bit more Brideshead. I was glad of the experience at the time.  Pleased that I had got it under my belt, (where it joined the five other books I had read in my life) but the effect was oddly disengaging.  I assumed I had missed something in it.  And now I know what it was.   
   Take for example this scene.  It is the one where Charles is finally ejected from Brideshead by Lady Marchmain, so disgusted is she that Charles has helped her alcoholic son find some drink, she asks him to leave this besmirched Garden of Eden. At the time, he is unaware that he is doing so for the last time. He remarks,

MY theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time. These memories, which are my life - for we possess nothing certainly except the past - were always with me. Like the pigeons of St Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning of war-time.
For nearly ten dead years after that evening [...] I was borne along a road outwardly full of change and incident, but never during that time [...] did I come alive as I had been during the time of my friendship with Sebastian. I took it to be youth, not life, that I was losing. [...] I had come to the surface, into the light of common day and the fresh sea-air, after long captivity in  the sunless coral palaces and waving forests of the ocean bed.'

   I was too young to make sense of this, the palimpsest of my memory was not a darkened one. This is how De Quincey saw it in his brilliant essay.  Memory is a palimpsest, a text scrubbed or scraped from the leathery surface but never absolutely removed. 

A palimpsest
Yes, reader, countless are the mysterious hand-writings of grief or joy which have inscribed themselves successively upon the palimpsest of your brain; and, like the annual leaves of aboriginal forests, or the undissolving snows on the Himalaya, or light falling upon light, the endless strata have covered up each other in forgetfulness.

   It was a rich metaphor. One of the handful of texts around this period that began to formulate the idea of the unconscious (before Freud went on to name a century later).  The palimpsest model of memory suggests that the mind is a stranger to itself, and also that nothing is ever really forgotten.  (The idea of one's life flashing before one's eyes at the moment of death is also introduced here).  But it works as a metaphor for other things, too.  De Quincey's own writings weave together reportage, biography, autobiography, essay, philosophy, journalism, memoir, (he was even an aficionado of murder) all thick with classical allusion and contemporary literary reference. The palimpsest is what his writing is. It's a metaphor for literature, too. Think of T.S. Eliot's 1919 essay, 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', it is De Quincey's idea from a century before given an Eliotesque twist.  The poet must combine their unique creative talent with the literary tradition that came before it in order to achieve greatness.  'The Wasteland' is a polyphonic palimpsest in which the tradition can neither be fully erased, nor ignored on the page.  It is resolutely 'there', speaking in tongues.  The past never really goes away.  

   Flying at the circumference of my vision are plumes of sun-blackened seaweed.  High in the air, it is the most ragged and 'blast-beruffled' crow I have ever seen.  It tries to climb, but the wind is too strong and it gives up. I never successfully 'see' it.  Its feathers too dark; its movement too chaotic in the high wind.  I'm reminded of a bit of Daniel C. Dennett that I also read (at the same time as Brideshead) many years ago.  Its the only bit of the book that I persistently remember, 'If the resolution of our vision were as poor as the resolution of our olfaction, when a bird flew overhead the sky would go all birdish for us for a while.' (Consciousness Explained). In memory, just like olfaction, the sky 'goes all birdish for us for a while' and we thirst for particular sense impressions to jog our memory into being.  Perhaps this is why olfaction is so kinaesthetically linked with memory.  Our sense of smell is undeniably poor, especially directional acuity, but particularity reaches fingerprint levels of specificity.  We can recognise with tremendous accuracy.  Think of what we can achieve by combining the twenty-six letters of the alphabet in variable combinations. Smell works a little like this.  Odour molecules, as they are bound, combine to create a sense impression, and we have about 350 active olfactory receptor genes. Each of these genes produces a receptor protein that binds odour molecules. That's an olfactory alphabet of 350 letters, and the words can be anything between 1 to 350 letters long.  The combinational possibilities are in the billions.  So Dennett is right, the sky does 'go all birdish' when we use our sense of smell, but we would be able to tell exactly what bird it is, and easily distinguish from another of the same species and genus.  We would know it's there, but we would not be able to point to it.

 Built for purpose, a soaring herring gull sits comfortably on the breeze like it has been pinned in place.  In the distance, I can see the tiniest cloud of starlings cloud-dancing around the charred remains of the West Pier.  The ground is wet and cold beneath my feet.  In twenty minutes, they may go numb.  Everything I see is so distinctly Brighton in a way that only someone that does not live there can notice.  There is a woman with tangerine hair.  But not the kind that you'd put in the fruit bowl, more like one that has rolled under a market stall, and then kicked about on the ground for a couple of days.  She's wearing a verdant green t-shirt, purple trousers, and Birkenstocks. If she wasn't seventy, she would look like Scooby-Doo's Shaggy. Bounding about are the dogs who are all happy and well behaved; there are even different breeds (all three factors are not so common in the London Borough of Lewisham).  And all of it is still here: playing football with David on our way into town to celebrate our degree results, walking in to watch a £2 mid-afternoon film when I was unemployed in 1990, cycling past a man who pulled down his pants and with a hopeful expression on his face waved his cock at me, chasing after my young  nephew who had in the freezing cold stripped and bolted because 'it's the seaside!', sitting in the moonlight listening to This Mortal Coil after my father died, reading Middlemarch on the beach, walking my dog, watching the '98 lunar eclipse. And all of it is somehow present in this smell of rain. 

   De Quincey thought memory was a palimpsest, I think it is the dried blood of a stone that thirsts for rain.  Oil, sodium, pollen, magnesium, bacteria, lichen, potassium, soot, skin, calcium, soil, dust, diesel, lead, wood, ash, mould, and sand.  They all sink and burrow into the magmatic caverns, atomic in size, made many millions of years ago in every inch of pebble and stone at our feet. Memory is petrichor, these arid scents, tucked tightly away, waiting for a breath of rain to release them into the air as a unique signature of place, never to be forgotten.  

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Running the Stones of Venice

'Was the carver happy while he was about it?'

My first run in Venice was an 'improvised' one.  I sat on the southern coastline of the city overlooking the wide canal of the Guidecca.  The sun was setting, I had eaten a fine meal, had a glass of cool, shimmering vino bianco and was watching the sun set.  The aches and pains in my legs from the marathon a few days before were fading.  I would be ready to run again in a day or two.  I folded up my book (Barry Unsworth's Stone Virgin) and reached for my wallet.  A few seconds later, I realised that it was on the other side of the city, still in my hotel room.  
How Venice does hospitals.
The second run was a more planned affair.  I wanted to run the Lido (where Aschenbach dies, having stayed too long in the city in Death in Venice).  I change and pack what I can (phone, hotel keys, travel card) into my running shorts and head out into a crowded noonday sun for the Vaporetto (river bus). The air isn't empty, there is an elemental weight to it. The Frari bells are chiming.  It is now that I remember this is a bank holiday.  There is no rhythm to find in such a crowd.  It is one of the stonemason's skills, the use of rhythm.  It represents the mastery of efficient working practice; but not efficiency in production, instead it is in the use of the worker's energy.  The skiffle rhythm of stop-start is not a comfortable one. Having read Daphne Du Maurier's 'Don't Look Now' last night, I'm amused that one of the people I have to dodge in a tight alleyway is a short old woman wearing a blood-red knee-length woollen coat.  Some of the other pathways are quieter, and even in the short time I've been here I know a few routes that are deserted.  I don't mind the crowds though, because I will have to stop for half an hour when I get on to the Vaporetto for the island.

From Ruskin's Stones of Venice
Two things create a city, its people and its architecture.  For Ruskin, these were one and the same.  His love of gothic architecture is well documented in, amongst others, The Stones of Venice, a multi volume work from the 1850s (at nearly half a million words).  One of the many remarkable things about Ruskin was that he didn't love Venetian gothic architecture for itself, but what he saw in it and around it, temporally as well as spatially. Like Carlyle, Mill, and Dickens, he was wary of the Victorian love of the mechanical.  Manual labourers were reduced to 'hands' that could work in the factory.  Elizabeth Gaskell's women labourers express the point well.  In North and South they proclaim that they have no intention of going into domestic service to be someone else's skivvy.  Why would they? When they can sell their labour freely on the open market, in whichever town they choose to live. They are the masters of their own domain: their bodies.  The tragedy of this scene is that Gaskell's implied reader is well aware that these working women have exchanged one kind of servitude for another more terrible one.  
In the increasingly industrialised world, Ruskin saw that the worker was being turned into a 'tool', to be beaten and used, blunted, and eventually discarded.  He explains, in the Stones, 'You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions.' By freeing the worker from his enslavement to the machine, society will yield, with all its imperfections, a productive cell, but more importantly, a contented one.  
In his previous work, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in thinking about the rudely ornate aspects of gothic architecture, he had wondered 'Was the carver happy while he was about it?'  Medieval 'hand-work' was rustic, rugged, imperfect, unfinished; a signatory expression of the worker's identity, albeit expressed within a specified form. Victorian factory work created, with reliable rapidity, perfectly finished objects, where the mindless machine-operator was merely a  faceless conduit towards the means of profit. 
The signature had become a stamp. 
The other aspect to Ruskin's obsession with Venice was as a vibrant corrective to Victorian apathy and assumed supremacy.  It was a place and a people, both of fading glory.  A few years before Ruskin was born, Ludivico Manin, the last Doge of Venice had been forced to step down by Napoleon.  The Venetian republic, a thousand years flourishing, was over, and now the city was in decay, too. Like the great Victorian historians, Macaulay and Carlyle, Ruskin found a parallel for his own times in the past.  He  hurriedly sketched details from columns, orders, arches, in fear that they would fade and crumble to sand, just as he believed England would. He could already see it happening in the months and years between his frequent visits.  Such is the charm of Venice.  Its architecture lends itself to melancholy and to death.  But it's people smile.  In the Campos the children, play, run and scream with a joyful abandon that you don't see in the deserted streets of London.  For them, the fading buildings are a backdrop to something always beginning.
The boat ride to the Lido takes about half an hour.  I have no map, but I can hardly get lost on an island the shape of a needle.  One side faces Venice, the other, the Adriatic.  I a expecting to have to dodge crowds, just like my journey to the Accademia, but instead I am greeted by the overwhelming scent of yellow-flowering pansies. this is a roundabout.  Why?  The island is a couple of hundred metres wide and only a mile or two long, but there are a surprising number of cars, here.
Straight. The beach must be on the opposite side.  After the last few days if navigating a city by the sun, I catch myself spotting landmarks so I can find my way back.  After a few hundred yards I have left the bustle of shops behind.  I see the beach, and  a runner stretching, but no one else. I smile at him, but I'm a pane of glass. 'Ah, like London runners.'. The pathway is smooth, so for the first time in many months, the shoes come off.  I've been so preoccupied with marathon training that I haven't barefoot run since maybe October. It's bliss.  As soon as I take my shoes off I remember why I love running so much.  The pain of the marathon is long forgotten as my feet whisper along the walkway.  
Onto the sand.  I negotiate my way nearer the shore where the sand is firmer.  There is the soft crunch as shards of shell are ground finer, each step only accelerating the work of time and these flecks' journey to powder.  There is no one on the beach.  The sun is full in the sky.  I must be on the wrong part of the island.  I clamber over groynes making my way slowly along the coast.  I become convinced that life is elsewhere, that there is something else to see, so after a mile I make my way up the beach, to the road, and to the other side of the island.  Is this where everyone is hiding.  But no, as suspected it is the coast facing the Venice mainland.  
This is the yacht described in the text.
Taken while skinning the Lido.
A yacht whispers into view.  It has a few people sunbathing, still as corpses. The air, heavy with a glimmering silence.  Never have I seen the sea so undisturbed, made stranger somehow with the backdrop of Venice in the distance.  I turn to make my way back to the Vaporetto.  I have an idea of how I can continue this run.
I am sort of lost, but I know I'm headed in the right direction - I can see Venice, after all. I feel a sudden urge to record this quietness, made emptier somehow by my bare feet smooching the concrete.  I wrestle my phone from my pocket and turn on the video - but it only records slaps, scene-jerks and funny breathing.  After a mile or so of weaving between beachfront, roads and inlets, I am woken.  
My olfactory sense has been so attenuated by years of medication and London that I am surprised to find it penetrated once again by the same sweet floral scent.  I follow my nose left. I quickly snap the flowerbed and run for the Vaporetto which is ready to leave.  The first stop is St Elena, on the eastern extremity of the island.  On my way in I had spied a path that looked like it ran all the way from here to San Marco, the scene of the daily siege of Venice by the tourist hoard. Seen from the bell tower of San Giorgio across the Guidecca canal they look like ants attacking a corpse.
The Vaporetto pulls away and I am like a dog in the traps wanting to continue my run.  The ride back is quick.  The barrier is lifted and I'm out of the boat.  I turn and shout to the crowd of passengers, "I'm going to race you all to San Marco".  Being English, of course, I did no such thing.  But I did want to race it. As soon as I began to run, at a much faster pace, I was immediately reminded of the time when I was eight-or-so, when on the street I used to see my mother in the passenger seat of our car in her role as driving instructor.  The learners always drove cautiously on our empty streets and I would puff out my chest, straighten my hands to darts like the T-1000, and sprint in an all out race-to-the-death, leaping over unattended bikes, tightroping garden walls, until either I lost, or the car turned off route. It was later explained to me that this wasn't quite the thing that the learner driver should have to contend with.
In the first leg of the race I take a clear lead.  The Vaporetto has to load passengers, and is slow to shake of its inertia.  But then, I am suddenly taken off route via an inlet over a bridge, losing at least forty metres.  The Vaporetto has made good ground and is now out in front, but not by much.  Then another inlet, but this time with no diversion.  I reach the summit and see the boat pulling in at Giardini.  I keep a good pace and the boat is slow to start again.  My legs still don't remember their marathon last week.  We are away.  Another bridge to climb towards Arsenale and each one gets thicker and thicker with tourists whose attention waivers in all directions but this runner's. Another bridge and my legs feel the climb of this one, but there is a long flat ahead.  I let go pushing hard in the sunlight.  As the Vaporetto pulls into the stop I pass it again and head towards San Marco.  My legs have had enough of this game.  Like the crowds, they feel sluggish and inattentive.  I pass a thick-haired golden retriever looking very unhappy at being out on a lead in such weather. But I don't make it to San Marco.  In the crowd, I lose sight of the boat and it is difficult to maintain walking pace.  I come to a stop outside the the hotel where Henry James had finished The Portrait of a Lady  in 1880 (that he wrote about in the 1907 Preface).  The challenge is over. I wipe the grains of salt and sweat from my face and feel a burning thirst.  I remember that I haven't drunk anything for hours.  I turn around and retrace my steps to a quieter point at which to catch the boat back. A couple holding hands smile at me, only then do I realise that it is because I too am smiling.
The desire to play is easily forgotten in someone my age, and I'm glad to be reminded of it.  Creativity is not an ability, but merely a desire to romp and caper with ideas or the body. Sartre was so enamoured of play that he ascribed to it all-but the meaning of life.  In Being and Nothingness, he argues that our condition is such that we spend our lives cowering in the face of our freedom.  We engage in complex acts of deception to deny our biological inheritance of freedom. We structure entire lives and livelihoods around our self-deception. For Sartre, play was a way to touch that void once again.  
The desire to play is central to our happiness. And today, even trapped by the ant-hive crowds of Venice (of which I am one), I still find that moments of liberty are to be found in the creativity of the body.  The stonemason may have to carve a gargoyle, but it is one of their own design.  Even in the narrowest and most crowded of alleyways, squeezing between pot-bellied walls that look like they are waiting to belch, expression is still deliverance and release. 

From Ruskin's Stones of Venice

The 'ant-hive' crowds of Venice.