Attention to Detail: Reading with Distractions

By Rob Packer

I made a stop at The South Kensington Bookshop (lots of good deals) coming back from central London last week. I picked up a hardback, half-price copy of Derek Walcott’s Selected Poems, then squeezed myself into a crowded tube towards Richmond. As I struggled against falling over, I took out the book and flicked through a few pages at random, before coming across ‘The Light of the World’ from his 1987 collection The Arkansas Testament.

I am, probably like most people, not a good reader standing on the tube: people push past to get in and out; you stagger forwards as the train brakes and backwards as it accelerates; the station announcements intrude. With the precision, rhythm and language of poetry, it’s even worse and the smallest disturbance can stop you up or set your eyes reading words with a brain too distracted to listen.

As the District Line train swayed its way through Earl’s Court and Hammersmith, the poem somehow took me from the doorway where I was wedged to another vehicle at sundown, this time a minibus back from market day on Walcott’s native St Lucia:

Marley was rocking on the transport’s stereo
and the beauty was humming the choruses quietly.
I could see where the lights on the planes of her cheek
streaked and defined them; if this were a portrait
you’d leave the highlights for last, these lights
silkened her black skin; I’d have put in an earring,
something simple, in good gold, for contrast, but she
wore no jewelry. I imagined a powerful and sweet
odour coming from her, as from a still panther,
and the head was nothing else but heraldic.
When she looked at me, then away from me politely
because any staring at strangers is impolite,
it was like a statue, like a black Delacroix’s
Liberty Leading the People, the gently bulging
whites of her eyes, the carved ebony mouth,
the heft of the torso solid, and a woman’s,
but gradually even that was going in the dusk,
except the line of her profile, and the highlit cheek,
and I thought, O Beauty, you are the light of the world!

The poem continues for another eight stanzas and between the stops and starts of the train, it felt like it took the whole journey to read, but it was also so gripping that I barely noticed all the tube’s other distractions. It’s some feat of writing.

When I got back home, I noticed this attention to detail. Look at the colours:

My thoughts on Derek Walcott’s most recent collection, White Egrets, here.

Derek Walcott, Selected Poems, Faber & Faber 2007

The Olympics: Cycling Road Race

By Rob Packer

Team GB: Wiggins, Millar, Froome (and Cavendish in the back)

After last night’s fantastic opening ceremony, we got up at a bleary-eyed 6am and sent my dad down to the cycling road race at Hampton Court this morning to bag a good view and set out some flags.

After Wiggins’ and Cavendish’s wins at the Tour de France, Britain is now completely cycling-mad and there was something really emotional about seeing this Olympic event on the roads where I grew up—and where I used to cycle as a teenager. In a break from the norm, the race is still going on, so there still is all to play (or ride) for. Here are some photos: Read more of this post

The Fondation Beyeler

By Rob Packer

I was in Switzerland for work earlier this month. After a few days in Lugano and Zürich—and a few hours on a train between the two, wishing the train would stop and I could kick off the dress shoes, change the suit for something more comfortable and run off up a mountain—I spent a couple of days at the end of the trip staying with some very good friends in Basel.

I’d barely been to Switzerland before and Basel has always seemed the most enigmatic of the country’s larger cities next to Zürich with its banks and Geneva with its international organizations. Those two even have archetypal Swiss locations perched at their lakeheads, while Basel europeanly straddles the Rhine, which no Germanist can cross without feeling a historical shudder or literary frisson—mine was Heinrich Heine’s satirical conversation with Father Rhine, where Old Man River complains of having been “politically compromised” by Nikolaus Becker’s “Rheinlied”, later infamously put to music as “Die Wacht am Rhein”. But that is in Cologne where the Rhine is more bombastic, while hardly anyone ever talks about Basel: in fact, I’ve probably only ever had a conversation about the place with five or six people—one an architect, two who live there and the rest from the art world.

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Linguistic Showdown!

By Rob Packer

I was recently confronted and affronted by a friend of a friend. She was from Italy and may have been a plant to ruin my birthday party. It was indeed my party and I could’ve cried if I wanted to, but decided it unseemly for a newly 30-year-old man to blub in a pub in once painfully hip Shoreditch—these days surely merely hip and at some point in the far-off future, just painful. Tears were spared, but teeth were gritted and the anger only subsided when a very good friend I hadn’t seen in six years walked in like a ray of sunshine after the apocalypse.

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A Late Anniversary

By Rob Packer

It is two weeks late for the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth. In my defence, I had no idea until I was flicking through magazines absent-mindedly at the barbers’ this morning that I found out that this pioneer of computing spent two years, while he worked at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, living barely 500m from the house I grew up in. I catch sight of whenever I’m at my parents’ house and go for a run or catch a bus, but had never seen (or looked at) the blue plaque set on the white wall by the front door. It also seems bizarre to think that he must have walked twice a day across the same park I go running in. I have no idea if the post-war park had the same open savannahs and herds of deer that Bushy Park has today, but it’s a nice image to have.


By Rob Packer

The chocolate digestive

If Pandora was alive today and living in Britain, the chances are that her famous box of troubles would have a different shape: a roll about 20cm long and about 5 in circumference with a red plastic wrapper. This all sounds pretty harmless, but once opened, rest assured, it would be Hesiod all over again: everything all escapes in one go and impossible to shut—or put back in the cupboard to save until tomorrow. Every house in Britain has at least one of these Pandora’s rolls and it’s really no surprise: the things are delicious.

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A New Richard II

By Rob Packer

In this Olympic year, London has gone Shakespeare-mad: an entire run of the canon at the Globe each in a different language or dialect, an exciting program at the same theatre this summer, talks, and adaptation after adaptation on the BBC. If this is 2012, I can only imagine what will happen in 2016, the 400th anniversary of what must be the saddest day in the history of literature: 23 April when both Shakespeare and Cervantes died.

Last night was Richard II on the BBC, the first part of The Hollow Crown that will run through both Henry IV and Henry V. I’d never seen Richard II before (it isn’t performed all that frequently) and I really enjoyed it—and if you’re in the UK, you can judge for yourself.

Some thoughts, more or less at random: Read more of this post

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