Apt Reading for Holy Week

For choristers (like, ahem, me), the run-up to Easter is much more about singing than it is about reading. Good luck to you if you sing regularly and can get hold of a spare hour or so between Palm Sunday and Easter morning to chew up a novel (although the glorious Glinda, for one, has managed to go on tour, read a novel, and write a review of it for us at Quadrapheme, because she’s amazing.) This year is the first year for…a really long time…that I haven’t had a regular singing engagement somewhere. I hate it and will be finding somewhere new to sing should my proposed springtime move to London occur (fingers crossed). However, as a result, Holy Week has been all about them books.

The first half of the week was given over to Mark Doty’s new collection Deep Lane, which I’ll also be reviewing for Quadrapheme. I can’t give too much away here and now because, well, then you won’t read the proper review. Contemporary poetry is always difficult for me to start analyzing. I’m not quite sure why this is; possibly because the way I was taught to engage with poetry was formally, looking at its features and techniques. Much of contemporary poetry doesn’t yield to formal technique, or if it acknowledges it at all, it does so with an ironic smirk and twist. Doty’s work is wary of formal technique, but he has that ability to keep it all pinned together which I appreciate; he doesn’t do it through meter, but the lengths of his lines keep pace with each other, and his imagery is so direct, his voice so intimate and confiding.

Damn, there I go, writing the review! Anyway. On to book number two of this week: Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess, proof that a) when traveling I should always be made to keep a paperback in my shoulder bag, because b) if I don’t have one close to hand, I will go into a bookshop and buy one just for the purpose, never mind if I have two books in my suitcase already, because that suitcase will be on the luggage rack of the train for the duration of the journey and what will I read in the meantime, eh?? Answer: Earthly Powers. (At least I only bought one. In the past, as regular readers will know, travel paranoia has induced me to buy three at a time.)

Earthly Powers is a great book to be reading during Holy Week because it is all about religion, although it’s also not. As a teenager, I used to make a game out of seeing how much I could compress the themes and plot of a book whenever anyone asked me “What’s it about?” Were I to play the game with Earthly Powers, I would have to reply, “A gay Catholic novelist and the Pope.” (If I really wanted to compress and confuse, “gay Catholic novelists” would have to do. Maybe just “gay novelists”, or even “novelists”–our narrator, Kenneth Toomey, drops many a name, including Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, “Willie” Maugham, and Norman Douglas, to whom one character rather delightfully refers as Abnorman Fuckless.)

That little pun–Abnorman Fuckless–is a good barometer for Burgess’s linguistic pyrotechnics. I know that’s an overused phrase, “linguistic pyrotechnics”, but the things he does, the wordplay, the vicious, perfect wit, reminds me of Catherine wheels going off one after the other. It’s so fucking funny; not laugh-aloud funny, but definitely snort-into-your-soup funny. There’s a delicate bitchiness to the diction that reminds me, at times, of Blackadder:

“As I foresaw, I am to assist in the canonization of the late Pope.”

“Oh God, oh my God, oh my dear God, you? Oh, Christ help us.”

“Don’t be silly, Geoffrey. You forget certain facts of my biography, if you ever, which I am inclined to doubt, knew them.”

And the one-off observations are peerless, as when Toomey, watching the Archbishop of Malta attempting to equivocate, says that he “played an invisible concertina for two seconds.” The precision of “two seconds”, the absurd picture of “an invisible concertina” and yet the absolute accuracy of how it looks when someone flutters their fingers back and forth, looking for a word… It’s very good writing.

At present, I am with Toomey in Malaya (now Malaysia, then still a British dependency), watching the effects of an exorcism performed by the aforementioned “late Pope”, who happens to be Toomey’s brother-in-law, back when he was merely Don Carlo Campanati.

It’s an incredibly weird book, but I’m enjoying it.

Also, it’s on my Classics Challenge list! So perhaps a fuller review once I’ve finished it. I’d like to finish it by tomorrow; goodness knows if that will happen. I’m off for a cup of tea and a good natter with the great-granddaughter of the Duchess of Warwick now, my dears. (This is actually true, although not as pretentious as it sounds. I’m staying with the Revered Ancestors for Easter and they live in one of those villages where everyone is either a great-granddaughter of a duchess or a retired brigadier colonel.) Toomey and Geoffrey would no doubt approve.

In 2014

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I don’t believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has always started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff is just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. What I do for New Year’s, instead, is to list what I’ve done over the past year. That seems more likely to produce, on the whole, happiness. And even bad memories are worth more than half-assed, panic-induced vows to improve my life.

So, in 2014, I have:

recorded a CD with Exeter College Choir

written my first review for Quadrapheme Magazine

danced at Burns Night

Burns Night

planned an alumni event at Freshfields on my own

met J.K. Rowling, and talked to her about her shoes

staffed Founder’s Day (hungover and on four hours of sleep)

endured sixteen consecutive days of fatigue, alcohol, singing, and jet lag

sung at the National Cathedral

made friends at a gay bar called Freddie’s in Crystal City, in the company of my darlings Theresa McCario, Jonathan Giles, Chelsea Meynig, and Ella Kirsh, and new darling Michael Divino


attended a keg party

found emergency medical care in lower Manhattan

skipped May morning for the first time

met A.S. Byatt

shaken the hand of the Queen of Spain

gone drinking with a platoon of Marines

become poetry editor at Quadrapheme Magazine

Quadrapheme logo

performed the second most ludicrous gig of my singing life so far

purchased an ostrich feather wrap and a tiara

sung my final evensong at Exeter College naked (except for the cassock)

attended a white tie ball

ball me and N

danced around a bonfire with Will Michaelmas Watt

written my first lesson plan

marked someone else’s coursework for the first time

adopted winged eyeliner

started a novel

milked a cow

become managing editor at Quadrapheme Magazine

composed precisely forty job applications and cover letters (I’ve just counted)

moved house

This is not actually my house, but it is my street.
This is not actually my house, but it is my street.

gotten my first adult full-time job

learned how to use Twitter properly

vetted, purchased, installed and learned to use a new database

had a poem accepted at Boston Poetry

strategized, recruited for, and implemented a new after-school programme

stuffed 2,705 individual pieces of paper into ~540 envelopes

seen the Late Turner exhibit at Tate Britain

The Blue Riga, JMW Turner
The Blue Riga, JMW Turner

sung harmony with my little brother on guitar

read 102 books

I don’t believe in predicting the future, either: not five years into the future, not one year, not even six months. Experience has taught me that such predictions take a particular delight in confounding you. But I can say that I fully expect 2015 to fill the shoes of its predecessor.

Travels with Choir In Search of America

I. home

Going through immigration and border control at Dulles (the worst airport to have ever existed in the entire history of the world). I use my American passport, which saves me about twenty minutes. The immigration official eyes my customs card. “You carrying anything?” I’ve declared the presents I’m bringing for my family–a college coaster from Founder’s Day for my father, a mint Aero bar for The Kid, and a jar of lemon curd for Mamacita. “No sir,” I say. “Just chocolate.” He smiles and taps my passport twice on the counter. “Good girl. Welcome home.”

II. tales of the city

After our first evensong, there are people I recognize in the congregation: my darling and long-unseen friends Jon, Red, and Chelsea, all of whom I met when I was still in high school. Red lives in Ohio, so seeing her is particularly unexpected, and we jump around and shriek a lot. Jon suggests that we go out. “Hell yes,” I say, “but I don’t know this area, so where should we go?” He says, thoughtfully, “I think we should go to a gay bar called Freddie’s in Crystal City.” So we do. There are cheeseburgers, our waitress is a beautiful transvestite with eyebrows of Platonic perfection, I get a cocktail with a flashing ice cube in it, and we all get drunk enough. Jon, who is going to do postgraduate work in musical performance this fall, sings karaoke (Aerosmith and Scott McKenzie), and just at the end of the night, I get drunk enough to sing some too. When I get down off the stage, a ghetto-fabulous man sitting at a nearby table offers his hand for a high five and says, “Darling, that was gorgeous.”

III. bringing down the house

The next night we go back, but we bring the Duchess. She and Red get on like a house afire. We meet a group of amazingly camp anesthesiologists, and somehow get sucked into a poker game which apparently runs on Freddie’s front porch every Monday. The players have names like Donny and Junior, and most of them seem to have been in Vietnam or Kuwait. The only other female in the joint is a sweet butch woman named Lani who has the most perfect country-western voice I’ve ever heard in real life. She plays Texas hold’em with a preserved scorpion in a jar next to her on the table. She says it’s her lucky charm. They invite us to come to a baseball game the next day. We say yes, out of midnight goodwill, knowing full well that in the morning we’ll agree not to turn up. They all think that the Duchess and I are dating. We choose not to correct them.

IV. i’m a stranger here myself

Philadelphia. The day has been one of unclean hair and hangover and boredom and discomfort, and now we’re at a party thrown for us by one of the churches we’ve just sung at. There’s plenty of wine but I’m too tired to talk to anyone, so I take a cab home on my own. Halfway down Rittenhouse Square, I discover I’ve lost my phone charger, so I ask the driver to take me to a pharmacy. There’s no one behind the counter. I’m leaning over it, trying to make out the writing on the various boxes of electronics, when a woman appears. Her name tag says SHANNIA. She says nothing, but her glare is very eloquent. “Hi,” I say. “Do you have any chargers for iPhone 5?” Her stare becomes indifferent. “No.” I point at an empty hook, from which swings a tag that reads IPHONE 5 CHARGER. “You do stock them, though?” She glances, barely, at the hook. “We sold it.” I apply my most pleasant smile, as though it’s lipstick. “There aren’t any more in the back?” The woman does not move a muscle. “No.” Recognizing the uselessness of any further attempts, I leave. The taxi driver must see the look on my face as I emerge, because he rolls down his window and says sympathetically, “No luck?” “Afraid not,” I say, trying mightily to keep cheerfulness in my voice. The driver makes a face, starts the car again, and says, drily but not unkindly, “Welcome to Philly.”

V. the innocents abroad

Leaving New York by way of Newark. Jersey’s reputation is well deserved if the security people are anything to go by. They are all women, and all are using a tone of voice best described as a bark. I take off my ring in case it sets off the metal detector, and put it on top of my bag. One of the women snarls at me, “Put that back on your finger.” She sounds like Marlon Brando playing Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. This tickles me. I comply. As I’m about to go through the detector, she barks again: “This a laptop?” She’s grabbed my backpack and is feeling the contours of something heavy and rectangular. Fuck you, I think, almost happily. I can do this too. I raise my voice. “No ma’am.” Flat tone, disinterested eyes. The “ma’am”, as intended, does not sound courteous. “What is it?” she snaps. “It’s a folder,” I say. The less detail, the better. Subject, verb, object, now fuck off. And it works. She puts my bag down, says nothing else, motions me forward with a jerk of her head. The guy on the other end of the metal detector winks. Good girl. Welcome home.