On top of the wall of the walled garden behind St John’s church in central Hackney, a large grey squirrel is eating a chicken drumstick. A few minutes’ walk away, in front of the Town Hall, two men are twisting many metres of Christmas lights into the branches of a pair of trees:
“I know it’s still September but we gotta lot to do before December luv.”
In the West End, G is talking about fiction and journalism and the greater strengths of ‘oblique writing’.
“The journalist bit of your brain makes you ask really stupid questions. When you’re spontaneously you, not you the journalist, you are much more interesting.”
This says much less about me than it does about most journalism today. Less tidy writing, writing that doesn’t have an obvious beginning, middle and (particularly) end, is more interesting, more real, more honest and more revealing. Nearly all journalism is encouraged to be neat. Fit life, fit conflict, fit Buddhist monk protests into the neat box of the report. End on a firm conclusion, a firm question or back at the beginning.
G and I return to questions of fact, questions of truth and questions of fiction. Dropping the aspiration for objectivity and truth is the way forward. It’s not so alarming, if you stop to think about it seriously. Letting doubt in, and fantasy (the KFC squirrel), raises the game of understanding and learning.
At the gallery, the one artist I wanted to meet had stayed in Ghana: Glen Turner, who once gave me one of his oil paintings. I scrawled a note and passed it on to another artist, Wiz Kudowor. Wiz’s work became the subject of much debate later: the men saw the phallus, the ladies only faces and sun. Even when the men pointed us to the testicles below, we all said, “But the faces, the faces.”
“Wombs,” one of the men added.
G gave a good talk, leading us through the painting. And then another piece of Wiz’s work, about colonialism in part. Wiz listened and chuckled.
Earlier, there was drumming. Drumming with branches from Highgate, broken, torn and shaped earlier that day. Master Drummer of the Ghanaian Royal Palace. Asante became apprentice drummer at the royal palace when he was four years old. He is among the very best drummers in the world. Playing for maybe twenty of us in Pall Mall. He drummed and told a story…
“This is a story about the difference between seeing and believing…” drums drums drums “… You cannot always believe what you see…” drums drums drums “… and you cannot always see what you believe…” drums drums drums “…an African diplomat living in a smart white suburb in the States…” drums drums drums “…Goes to his local store to do some shopping…” drums drums drums “…He asks the lady behind the till for some dog food…” drums drums drums “…What for? says the tiller I see no dog…” drums drums drums “… do you eat dog food? I can’t sell you dog food. You eat dog food?..” drums drums drums “…I have a dog, says the diplomat, and the food is for him…” drums drums drums “… but the lady wouldn’t sell him the dog food, believing still that he the diplomat would eat the food..” drums drums drums “… the following day, the diplomat returned to the store…” drums drums drums “…and asked the lady at the till for some cat food..” drums drums drums “… Why do you want cat food? I can’t see no cat. You eat cat food?..” drums drums drums.. “I want cat food, the diplomat said, for my cat, at home..” drums drums drums “… but the tiller refused, I don’t sell cat food for you to eat…” drums drums drums “… The following day, the diplomat returned to the store…” drums drums drums “…with a paper bag under his armpit…” drums drums drums “…He went straight up to the till…” drums drums drums “…What do you want today? said the tiller..” drums drums drums “…The diplomat pulled the bag from under his arm…” drums drums drums “…since you never believe me, I ask you to take this bag and put your hand inside…” drums drums drums “…The tiller took the bag, and slowly, carefully, reached down inside it…” drums drums drums “…She felt something at the bottom of the bag, and pulled her hand out quickly…” drums drums drums “… Her hand was covered in shit…” drums drums drums “… I’d like some toilet roll, the diplomat said…” drums drums drums drums drums drums drums drums..
G wasn’t happy. Some people were laughing. Later, G said it’s about the audience. This Pall Mall audience changes the joke, alters the way the joke is understood, the story is read and received. I wondered if I shouldn’t have laughed. He was right, G. Was he? So I’ve been rethinking some of my conversations with a certain J, since that night. What a good night. The drumming was incredible. I bought an album. Ohene Kesee a Ebin or Big Chief with Shit on his Face. Can’t imagine Phil Collins coming out with something like that. There we go – the wrap up, the conclusion.
Nothing Oblique.
In the taxi, back to Camden, I heard that two people I’d been talking to, who’d disappeared, had been having sex in la galleria’s toilets. Only later did I wonder if Wiz’s Youth was the inspiration. She finally understood. She finally got it. And that was her only response.