20 x C + M + B x 14
By Alan Cunningham.
“London is the loneliest place I have known: this loneliness is the only holy thing in the city.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
It is Easter Sunday 2014 and the inscription 20 x C + M + B x 14 has been chalked onto most of the doors in the village of Pöcking, Bavaria. It has been painted, however – in a florid, white script – above the entrance to the village delicatessen. It is also present above the entrance to the library, but there it has instead been stuck on in the form of what looks to be an industrially manufactured and subsequently store bought sticker, more easily removed if – when? – the need arises.
As I walk through the village I think that the inscription has the air of something quite different than intended: it looks like a mathematical equation or, perhaps, dimensions written down to aid in the completion of a Do-It-Yourself project.
This last sentence is a partial fiction, I will admit: it implies that I knew at first sight what the inscription meant.
On my return to my room, I sit down and search online for the meaning. On reading it I am amused by how far my initial interpretations had been from what is meant.
I have been in Germany one week, teaching the English language to German teenagers.
Two weeks later, my teaching done, I lie in bed in London and watch some actors being interviewed on The Graham Norton Show – Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. They are promoting a movie called X-Men: Days Of Future Past. They are all very sociable. I envy their bonhomie. I envy their apparent ease with performance. I envy their apparent ease with their own materiality. As I watch the television show, I think about what I am doing – watching a BBC show on my tablet, alone, in bed, in a city populated by millions of people – but I am very tired having taught German children and teenagers for two weeks straight and I want to be alone. I want to be by myself and to watch, instead, as others are around people, even if it is only performance.
I need to recover, I think: something has once again affected my ability to keep – with all adequate ease – good and right company.
While in Bavaria, I attempted to convince some German teenagers to take part in a creative writing class. I attempted – acting on a suggestion made by a Californian colleague, who said that I Remember by Joe Brainard is good for jump starting the writing process – to use recorded sections of I Remember to prompt the students into writing sentences about what they could remember.
I searched online for a recording of the text. I had never read it before so was a little shocked, when, listening to a recording of Brainard reading at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York on the 31st March 1971, I heard:
I remember stories about bodies being chopped up and disposed of in garbage disposals.
I remember stories about razor blades being hidden in apples at Halloween and pins and needles in popcorn bowls.
I remember stories about what goes on in restaurant kitchens, like spitting in the soup and jerking off in the salad.
I remember stories about a couple who owned a diner. The husband murdered his wife and ground her up into hamburger meat.Then one day a man was eating a hamburger at the diner, and he came across a piece of her fingernail. That’s how the husband got caught.
Listening to Brainard I thought, I can’t let my students listen to this. This is too much. The parents might complain. I was a little annoyed as I had expected that the ‘I remember’ exercise would be a good – and more importantly easy – way to spend the class that day. I’ll have to come up with something else, I thought, though I really didn’t want to.
I fast forwarded through the recording to see if I could find a part that would better suit the age of the class. Eventually, I heard:
I remember chicken noodle soup when you were sick.
I remember that a good way to catch a cold is to walk around barefoot, to not get enough sleep and to go outside with wet hair.
I remember black heels on new shoes that make marks on floors.
I remember the first time I heard water swishing around in my stomach while running and thinking that maybe I had a tumor.
I remember thinking about how awful it would be to be responsible for a car wreck that took lives or for a fire.
I remember when I was very young, a photograph in Life magazine of a man running down the street, naked, on fire.
That’ll do, I thought.
After playing the section, I ask the students to write their own sentences, beginning, of course, ‘I remember’. After ten minutes or so, I go around the room, asking them to tell me their sentences.
One student reads out:
I remember that I was in love with a girl when I was in kindergarten.
I remember that I had a dog that lived just 5 days.
I had asked my Californian colleague for advice on teaching creative writing to German kids – or had he instead offered advice, adroitly foreseeing some difficulty, I can’t remember – because I had already tried creative writing as a workshop with the kids, but it hadn’t really worked. Well, that’s not true. Some of the eleven year olds I had tried it with had formed a collaborative working group and had come together to write a story about a young boy called Nils. Part of the story read:
suddenly the balloon went upwards and Nils cried but then he saw the wonderful world and he was still and looked at the beautiful trees.
But the rest, well, the rest – unfortunately – was all too forgettable.
“During the following winter and many winters after that, the fall of dark found me in my den up to my knees in scribbled paper. The corner of the room upstairs in which I worked was the North Pole of our house. It was often very cold.
‘Come down before ye get yer death of cowld’, I would be advised.
I never heeded.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
While working in Bavaria I experienced – but more so toward the end of the week – a strong and strange feeling of unease regarding the necessary act of being around other people. I felt a strong and strange sense of unease upon realising that keeping company was a necessary part of the job. The job: the thing I was getting paid for. The week in Bavaria was my second consecutive week teaching German teenagers and living in temporary accommodation, so I did appreciate that the feeling was in keeping with the circumstances. I was tired and busy. Anybody would have felt the same. In fact I later remembered that I had felt the same feeling once before.
It was strange to realise I had so easily forgotten it.
There was a difference, however, between the two sensations.
What was different was that the second time I became more conscious of the potential of a fact: feeling the way I felt – or not feeling that way – was somewhat within my control. I don’t only mean this in the sense that I could change my perspective. I mean – also – that I realised that how I felt was mostly the result of what I felt I should be doing with my time. I thought: if I was doing what I ought to be doing, I might feel less uneasy in the company of others. I might feel the burden of my tiredness less.
What it was I was supposed to be doing – what that role was – well, of course…I have no idea.
One day, in the hostel where we are staying, I see the receptionist carry a tray of white coffee mugs into a meeting room, and I imagine he has entered a work meeting with his colleagues and that the staff are sitting around a beautiful table, about to drink coffee and eat cake and talk, pleasurably, reasonably, about the glorious future of the place. I could not do such a thing, I think, it is entirely possible that I could not sit and be satisfied with that, no matter the coffee and cake. There would always be some other work to be done, some other place to be, even if I cannot begin to explain at all what I mean by that.
“My neighbour, Johnnie of the Parables, said to me one day, ‘you have a whole lifetime’s work before you in MacParlands farm.’ He thought this was something to make me glad. And so it should have been if I had been an artist as a farmer. For an artist, whether poet or farmer, must find glory and exultation in struggling with the crude ungainly crust of earth and spirit.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
In London, I decide to re-watch the Sidney Lumet film The Verdict. The film tells the story of a lawyer called Frank Galvin, played by Paul Newman. Having once refused to jury tamper and having gotten fired as a result, and after having lost his way in many other ways, Galvin is offered a case that might, might go some way toward putting him back ‘on track’. The case concerns medical malpractice: it is alleged that a patient was given the wrong anesthetic during a procedure and suffered brain damage as a result.
By the end of the film, Galvins involvement in the case – although of course difficult and testing in many different ways – appears to redeem his view of himself, of language and of truth.
In a pivotal scene the nurse who was in charge of admitting the patient takes the stand. She is examined by Galvin and cross examined by the defence lawyer, Ed Concannon, played by James Mason.
Galvin commences by asking the nurse:
Did you sign this admission form?
Those are your initials, K.C?
Kaitlin Costello. That’s my maiden name.
Did you ask the patient…..When did she last eat?
What did she say?
She said she’d had a full meal…one hour before coming to the hospital.
And did you put the numeral one…on this admission sheet? I mean…standing for one hour?
A single hour?
Thank you. Your witness.
Concannon approaches the stand, asking:
You are aware of the penalties for perjury?
It’s a crime.
It is a crime, a serious crime.
I wouldn’t do it.
You would not?
In fact, you’ve just taken an oath that you would not commit perjury, you’ve just sworn to that, isn’t that right?
You have sworn before God…that you would tell the truth?
Now, I want to ask you something. Four years ago, when you were working as a nurse, are you aware that these doctors, Marks and Towler, based their treatment of Deborah Ann Kay on this admitting form, which you signed?
Wasn’t that an oath, these are your initials, K.C. When you signed this form, you took an oath, no less important than that which you’ve taken today. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that right?
And which is correct? You’ve sworn today that the patient ate one hour before admittance, four years ago you swore that she ate nine hours before admittance. All right, which is the…lie.
You know that these men could have settled out of court. They wanted a trial, they wanted to clear their names. And you would come here and, on a slip of memory four years ago, you would ruin their lives.
They lied? They lied. When did they lie? Do you know what is a lie is?
I do, yes.
You swore, on this form, that the patient ate nine hours…
That’s not what I wrote.
You just told me that you signed it.
I…yes, I, yes, I…I signed it, yes. But I didn’t write a nine. I wrote a one.
You didn’t write a nine, you…wrote a one. And how is it that you remember so clearly after four years?
Because I kept a copy. I have it right here.
Objection. Can’t be expected to accept a photocopy when the Court already has the original.
I’ll rule on that presently. Please, proceed.
What in the world enduced you to make a photocopy of an obscure record and hold it for four years? Your honour…this…eh, Why, why would you do that?
I though I might need it.
And why would you think that?
After the…after the operation, when that poor girl, she went into a coma, Dr. Towler called me in. He told me that he’d had five difficult deliverys in a row, and he was tired…and he never looked at the admittance form…and he told me to change the form. He told me to change the one to a nine…or else…or else, he said, he said, he’d fire me, he said, I’d never work again. Who were these men? Who were these men? I wanted to be a nurse.
Before all this it had been established that giving general anesthetic to someone who had eaten a full meal only one hour earlier would be criminally negligent – the potential for vomiting into the airway being too high.
After all this the Judge rules that the document is disallowed, and informs the jury that:
‘they will be advised not to consider the testimony of Ms. Costello regarding the xeroxed form. It is unsubstantiated. We cannot accept a copy in preference to the original’,
and, as she was rebutting the documentary evidence – judged disallowed – :
‘the jury will be advised not to consider the testimony of Ms. Costello. Ms. Costello was a rebuttal witness. Her sole rebuttal was the document, which has been disallowed. Her entire testimony must be stricken from the record. You shouldn’t have heard it, but you did, and that was my mistake.
You must strike it from your minds.
Give it no weight.‘
‘The lover’s task, the accomplishment of which will in fact enable him to reach his (or her) goal, is to recognize the true nature of the love that has seized him (or her)….it is not the other half of himself (or herself) that the individual seeks in the other person, it is the truth to which his (or her) soul is related.’
The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure,Foucault, M. (my additions in parenthesis).
Earlier in The Verdict – before discovering the existence of the nurse – Galvin recalls that he has made an appointment to meet with a Dr. Gruber. Gruber had agreed to act as an expert witness in the case. Galvin rushes to the pre-arranged meeting place. Dr. Gruber is not there. Galvin goes to his clinic. No answer. He goes to his house. A maid answers and says, ‘Dr. Gruber is not in. He’ll be back in a week.’ Galvin realises, panic growing, that this witness has been lost.
‘If you’d like Dr Halperns number, he’s taking all of his calls,’ the maid adds, perhaps mistaking Galvin for a worried patient.
A medical doctor must have to take a lot of calls, I think, on hearing the maid utter this. A medical doctor must be in constant demand. And he or she must constantly be about their business – there is always the threat of litigation in matters of life or death. To be tired, to forget, is no excuse.
Even if I was a good doctor, I think, even if I was a doctor who really enjoyed being a doctor, there would be times, perhaps every day, when I would not want to be busy.There would be times when I would say to myself: I just don’t want another call, I just want to be alone.
Is this normal?, I think. That even if I had a valuable skill, a skill that could help others, I would try not to use it – because, because what?
Because I do not want the demands of others imposing on my time?
What do I plan to do with it?
But I have only ever thought that I wanted to be alone, I realise. When loneliness occurs – when others are absent – I often forget what it is I wanted to do.
When I was sixteen I left Newry and travelled to my grandmother’s house in Wexford, ostensibly to write. I have always aspired to be recognised as a great writer. I only stayed two or three weeks, however, having planned to stay two months. I was bored stiff, even though I was working picking strawberries, and I wrote only one line of a book that was never completed.
I have no idea of how to describe my vision of that unwritten book to you, so incomprehensible was it – although that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Down below in our kitchen visitors and customers were talking. Their conversation intruded a little at times on my mystic reveries. Johnnie of the Parables was there, relating the most profound metaphysics to the most homely parable. I thought Johnnie a bad construer of parables till now when I am trying to invent ones of my own to replace his which I have forgotten. He could tell a story to illustrate the working mechanism of an airplane engine or the movements of stardom.
‘It’s just like a wheel plough on a rocky ridge’, he would begin, or: ‘Ye might compare it to a man that was after comin’ from America.’ I could never see any comparative points. His other listeners would say: ‘It’s just like that, that’s exactly how it is.’
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alan Cunningham is the author of Count from Zero to One Hundred (Penned in the Margins 2013) and contributor to Penned in the Margins’ Mount London: Ascents in the Vertical City. He is from the north-east of Ireland and is based in London, and has taught on issues relating to appropriation and art at the Node Centre for Curatorial Studies, Berlin, and on Intellectual Property issues at Queen Mary, University of London. A further text interwoven with quotations from The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh will feature in gorse no. 2.