Published

All is (not) well

Our impending move informed the decision to read In Cold Blood. Though I won’t get very far with just two months left in the country, it seemed prudent to at least attempt to tackle the unread books on our shelves before carting them to our next home. At least it made more sense than buying a new book, or borrowing one from the library which has been closed until recently anyway due to the pandemic. So, bearing my initial nonchalance in mind, it is fortuitous that In Cold Blood would turn out to be a favourite, whose place among our books is no longer under scrutiny.

Capote sets the scene through a series of character descriptions that contrast the imminent victims with their killers. Lengthy, expressive passages often conclude abruptly with an explosively suggestive statement for dramatic effect. The narrative is organised in a way that delays the reveal of the murders, prolonging a reader’s immediate judgement of those responsible whilst holding them in suspense of the truth. As example, where a chapter ends with one soon-to-be-victim farewelling her boyfriend into the evening, the next chapter bypasses any nocturnal activities, moving quickly to the discovery of the bodies by an innocent neighbour on his regular church pickup. The latter half of the book follows a more conventional chronology, picking apart the improbability of such vile crimes being committed by seemingly sane, motivation-less perpetrators.

Based on true events that occurred in 1959, In Cold Blood is a brilliant meditation on accountability and consequence – how we determine right from wrong, and when that moral compass fails, how we separate a crime from a criminal’s personal background.

As a side note, check out the variation of covers over the years, many referencing the genre of crime and the characters of Hickock and Smith. My pick is the edition with an innocuous Kansas landscape, which seems closer to Capote’s intention for the book in exploring the banality with which the perpetrators perceive their own crimes.

Published

Cummings’ cross-country travels

I didn’t anticipate feeling so upset by Dominic Cummings’ recent cross-country travels.

Do I think his actions were unreasonable? No.
Do I think he exhausted all efforts to comply with government policy or remain accountable to the public he serves? No.
Do I think his actions flouted government policy? Yes.
Do I think any member of the general public would be shown the same grace the incumbent government is showing Cummings? No.

Whether the prevailing logic is rationalism or legalism, the same logic must be applied to every citizen. No exceptions. But this is England, a nation where every citizen is not equal.

Published

What could a Commonplace Book feel like on the web?

Some ideas arrive as epiphanies. We stand witness to their delivery on a memorable day, time and location (very often the shower). Others are slow burners. Like new freckles, we are oblivious to their spread – our attention elsewhere – until eventually their presence shifts into our consciousness.

The idea for this site has been a long time coming. It has been motivated by: the lifelong gardens of Ian Hamilton Finlay and Louis Le Roy; the notebooks of Joan Didion, Virginia Woolf, Joshua Cohen and my extraordinary friend Piper Haywood; and the non-linear compilations of knowledge in Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, and the Commonplace Book format.

Paraphrasing the Wikipedia entry, Commonplace Books have been used since antiquity as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. They are inherently unique to their author and contain, but are not limited to recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas, observations and definitions. Unlike a diary or journal, they are not chronological or introspective, though some entries may include personal responses. Rather, entries are organised according to subject.

By the seventeenth century, commonplacing had become a practice that was formally taught to students at Oxford and Harvard (among them Emerson and Thoreau). For women who were excluded from the privilege of education with, I assume, limited access to libraries or affordable books, the Commonplace Book must have been a treasured possession.

There are a number of things I like about commonplace books. They were often a lifelong practice, growing organically over the years with fragments taking on new meaning as entries were added. And I appreciate that there seems to be little distinction between the formal and the informal. Recipes rub up against philosophy. An observation of cloud formations sidle next to mathematical formulae.

In this, my own version of a Commonplace Book, I will include personal responses to both explicit and tacit knowledge, with the added ability to index subjects, drawing, hopefully, unforeseen or forgotten connections. While it isn’t intended as a diary, it will provide a reading of my identity and, over time, its plurality.

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not…

I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about. And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.

Joan Didion in Slouching Toward Bethlehem

This site would not exist without my friend Piper. Her own notebook, which she has kept since 2014, is not a far cry from a commonplace book and was one of the many prompts for mine. Together, we’re curious to explore what a Commonplace Book could ‘feel like on the web’. Her WIP development can be followed on GitHub.

And finally, a disclaimer. Piper has magically folded the content of my multiple websites into this one location – a photo Tumblr from waaaayback and another I kept when I did my MA. I will do my best to organise these appropriately, but some posts may not be so pliable. The necessary pruning will take some time, don’t mind the mess.