Monday, February 28, 2011

On Not Writing

Why do some people write? Because they lack the character not to write.

(Karl Kraus)

We're reduced to cliche, as well as rubble.


Not long ago I came into the possession of a guide to Lombardy and Piedmont dating back to 1914. It’s a book that interests me for a number of reasons, but I was especially delighted by the old maps of my hometown, drawn in the distinctive and attractive style of the Touring Club Italiano publications. Looking for familiar haunts, I came across the road in which my father spent all of his working life, and found a river running through it.

I knew this, of course: the blue line at the top is a tract of the fossa interna (‘inner ditch’), one of the city’s many historical canals, which was paved over in 1930 to aid the circulation of cars. What gives this a degree of personal significance is that my father always referred to the intersection between Corso di Porta Romana and via Santa Sofia as il ponte (‘the bridge’), including when he had to give directions to unsuspecting and soon to be puzzled motorists, and regardless of the fact that by the time he was born the bridge had already been removed, the waterway covered. But there they are.

I could write about this today, as I planned to: continue scanning that map, of Milan before two world wars and, which in the second brought extensive Allied bombings; of Milan before the economic miracle, and even longer before the terminal decline of its manufacturing industry. I could write about this, recycling some of the things that I learned from Owen Hatherley’s latest book, and it would be what you have come to expect of me. But I won’t. And not just because my mind has been elsewhere. Although mostly yes, that’s in fact exactly why.


The always thoughtful George D remarked in the comments to last week’s post (on slowness) that he often finds the rhythm of this blog too fast.
You say something, I chew it over, see if there's anything to digest, and it's Monday again.

I think he might have partly been referring to how each new post effectively curtails the discussion of the previous one, but I am quite sensitive to his argument generally, and aware of the contradiction between my occasional appeals to slow, considerate, economical writing and the fact that, while I don’t post terribly often compared to most bloggers, I do so ponderously, and over time it builds up to quite a lot of words and commentary. In fact it’s secretly how I like it: the pretence of slow blogging, and the space to write regularly and at length on the topics that interest me. I couldn’t get you to read the book, but somehow enough people come back every week to make it worth my while and feed my slightly obsessive habit.

And it really is habit-forming, this discipline of mine: forty-seven essay-length posts a year, on most Mondays. I will spare you the sprezzatura: it takes effort, as well as being an occupation that I really have no business finding the time for. But writing is also about cultivating a separate identity, and so I have started to see myself, over time, as something of a commentator. I could temper the immodesty if it was that kind of post, but it isn’t and I won’t: suffice to say that I find myself with this public voice and with it comes the opportunity to put certain thoughts into words but also something of a sense of duty to the moment that I think is in fact quite commonly felt amongst people in charge of tiny corners of the Web such as this one, and not entirely displaced. We say so much by the things we don’t talk about.

And so on this particular Monday I ought to be writing about Christchurch, if I was writing at all. I can readily dispense in my head with some of the objections. It’s too early. But I wrote about L’Aquila one week after it happened. Haiti, too. You weren’t there. But neither was Emily Perkins, nor was Jolisa Gracewood last September. You wouldn’t know what to say. Oh, I think I could, I have nothing but words. It’s just that they don’t measure up. So much has been written already for us to be in equal parts upset and comforted by. How do I add to that, without also taking something away?

There were the tweets on the Tuesday afternoon, which ought to become a book some day and it would make you cry every time; there was the report that David Haywood composed the next morning at 2 am on his phone for The Guardian; there were the despatches at Public Address, mixed in with enquiries concerning the welfare of the members of the forum; there was Press music reporter Vicky Anderson, writing from the heart of the newsroom that was shaken so badly but still managed to go to print the next day, and every day since; there was the wonderful post that Emma Hart wrote as soon as the power came back in her house (‘reputation for staunchness possibly fucked forever’ – I really don’t think so); then Emily Perkins, also for The Guardian, telling the Brits about our roll of grief (Napier, Tangiwai, the Wahine, Mount Erebus: ‘people still tell these stories, and the names hold a stony, grave power’); Zara Potts (‘The park is full of people, looking at the broken skyline as the earth beneath their feet turns to liquid mud.’); Kip Brook, whose second account is possibly more harrowing than the first (‘Most of us don’t watch tv any more here, it’s too difficult and doesn’t help us cope. People from afar don’t see the full picture on tv’). Philip Matthews, three days later and then again five and six, pausing only to document the echoes in Tim Wilson’s latest novel; and the poetry of Johanna Aitcheson and Craig Cliff, and Mary McCallum and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman – the last one perhaps most of all, with his lovely tribute to Tetaki Tairakena.

For the past week we have been hanging on to these words, trying to fill our days with the voices of those who could help us understand, so that we could in turn better express our solidarity – a point made very eloquently again by Emma Hart in a Radio New Zealand interview with Lynn Freeman.
It’s partly about passing on solid information to the people of Christchurch and partly conveying how we feel to people in other cities so that they can feel in touch with us – and to give them an outlet too to say: "Look, we’re feeling for you," because that does help.
And then there are those who haven't written yet, although it is expected of them, and their silence too deserves our attention. It is heavy, like a long pause or intake of breath. It keeps us waiting, and holding off.


That was the first week. On Tuesday at 12.51pm we’ll observe two minutes of silence, and then gradually things will change as the larger community undertakes the work of reflecting critically on what happened and what is to be done. In fact it has already begun: Rod Oram for instance has written about the reconstruction, Russell Brown about the work of the media. Theirs too are carefully weighed words that signal the difficult switch into a new and necessary phase. I just don’t feel, at this point, that I could add to them either. Not yet. And so you’ll forgive me this non-post, which perhaps would be best left unpublished, except for one thing: the majority of my regular readers these days hail from overseas, and their attention has been pulled no doubt in other directions this past week – towards Libya, for one. Those voices and those writings may be useful to them, and besides they might not be aware of just how hard we have been hit. For that, I’m afraid, we also have pictures. This set, from the Boston Globe Big Picture section (how different that regularly visited page feels, when they report on your own country!), the before and after photos from the ground and from the air, and – if you’re on Facebook – this heartrending set by Brian Neller. It is every bit as bad as it looks. And if you’re under the misapprehension that we’re a rich nation and we’ll pull through, well, that may be true, in relative terms, but the costs will be staggering and we really could use the help.

So here is how you donate. The New Zealand Government has set up a global appeal, or you can give to the Red Cross (both via credit card). If you can do wire transfers, Women’s Refuge and the Maritime Union Fund are both worthy recipients, and the Wilding Foundation is the way to go if you prefer to use Paypal. Thank you.

Update: One of the 'expected people' I alluded to in the post, Cheryl Bernstein, has written, and it's a truly wonderful and moving piece.
Update 2: One more sensational post each by Cheryl and Philip.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, Giovanni. It is done.


Ashleigh said...

This is something I've been half-thinking/worrying about all week, and you've made it whole. I sometimes think that we expect to hear every story, every heartache, every tragedy - and the media tries to satiate that hunger. Or is it the other way around? But so many stories will not be told.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Cheryl Bernstein is one of the 'expected people' I mentioned in the post. She wrote a beautiful post this morning, and it makes conscious use of that reticence ("There are many things I can't bring myself to think, or to say, or to write.")

George D said...

I was thinking about/ what a friend had said/ I was hoping it was a lie. - Neil Young

I was on the internet last week just before 1 pm, with one tab open to Public Address System, and another on Twitter. The conversation on PAS had turned to the Welfare Working Group, and was savagely pulling it to bits.

The first I heard was Ian Urquhart's post during a conversation on the welfare working group

I'm still reading, but I notice a trend to try and move people to .. anther massive shake just hit Chch .. "move out of the welfare system and undertake tertiary study through the student support system" .. back later....

followed by, a few seconds later a comment on Twitter from ArtAndMyLife (Pauline)

Crap did you feel that (Dunedinites)?

@CherylBernstein Are you ok??? Felt that one really strongly here

You know things are very bad when a Christchurch quake is rocking Dunedin in that way.

And then back on Public Address


Wait: what?

Reports of damage began to flood twitter. #eqnz was a swirl of confusion. Things had gotten much worse in an instant. I drove to a WWG demonstration with my brother and his partner and child. It was poignant; Radio New Zealand trying to make sense of it all, and an interview with Gerry Brownlee minutes after the fact - it wasn't until a few questions in that Brownlee had to clarify that he was in fact in Riyadh, it was late at night, and that he was catching the first available flight.

We arrived late, and it was if nothing had happened. Nobody knew.

These are my strange memories of an instant unfolding.

GZ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
George D said...

Thanks also for the compliment. I'm lucky if I have a couple of meaningful thoughts in a day. The internet allows me to put both of them in front of an audience.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I had forgotten my 'wait: what?' reaction. I think it was connected with the fact that to Ian had managed to type his way through it.