Echo's Bones

Added on by Adam Wood.

Today, 13 April, would have been Samuel Beckett's birthday. Back in 2006, on the centenary of his birth, I was fortunate enough to be at Reading University–home of the Beckett International Collection–and it was under those circumstances that my relationship with the work of one of the 20th Century's most interesting and influential writers began.

I like to mark Beckett's birthday in some small way: whether it's reading a couple of the poems or watching something from the excellent Beckett on Film collection. This year, however, there was something a bit special on offer: the recent publication of 'Echo's Bones', a short story written in 1934 and heretofore unpublished. Beckett wrote the ~13,500 word story at the request of his publisher, Chatto & Windus, who were looking to add a final piece to the collection More Pricks Than Kicks to make the slim volume a more substantial offering. The piece that Beckett turned in was rejected as 'a nightmare' that 'would depress the sales very considerably', and it has existed for the last 80 years only in the form of a single typescript and one carbon copy.

As part of its excellent work on the Beckett catalogue since the centenary Faber & Faber this month published the story in a hardback edition. The text itself is dense, allusive, and difficult, and suffers from the odd predicament of having a protagonist whom Beckett had killed off in the final story of More Pricks Than Kicks. Even with the benefit of hindsight (and thus knowledge of the work Beckett would go on to write and gain notoriety for) a modern reader sympathises with Charles Prentice of Chatto & Windus, who found himself rejecting a story that 'gives me the jim-jams'.

Presented on its own, without the accompanying pieces of the collection it was intended to conclude, the text would likely be entirely impenetrable without the concise introduction and precise annotation it's given here by editor Dr. Mark Nixon. As it happens Nixon was my Beckett tutor at Reading, and it was a pleasure to spend Beckett's birthday not just with a text that was new to me, but benefitting once more from Mark's guidance.

Everybody Street

Added on by Adam Wood.

I’m just done watching Everybody Street, a 2013 doc by Cheryl Dunn about the practice of street photography in general, and in particular the development of the art-form over several decades in New York.

Dunn’s method is to present a series of photographers in turn, explore their methods, their motivations, and their work. The result is a neat mosaic of some strikingly different personalities, all drawn to turn lenses on the city they call home. Enjoyable as these pieces are, it may profited the film to have had some dialogue between the various practitioners: to find out what they each think about what makes the others tick. There’s enough for the viewer to piece together where their various interests overlap or diverge, but in holding to the format of presenting one photographer at a time a conversation never develops between them; it feels a little like we’re seeing the surface of a dozen lives at the expense of really coming to understand any one.

If that seems uncharitable it is likely I was spoiled a little by 2010’s Bill Cunningham, New York - a remarkable documentary working similar territory, the magic of which comes when the film moves past Bill Cunningham as photographer and becomes interested in the man. If Dunn’s project here is solely to give an overview of New York street photography it is very well accomplished. That I came away with a list of names to look up, wanting to know more about some of the snappers than the film allows time for, can be read as either a positive or a negative.

Everybody Street (2013) is available for rental or purchase via Vimeo On Demand

On Caffeine Withdrawal

Added on by Adam Wood.

There’s a tightness between my shoulder blades like some stubborn knot, and a weakness in my knees which feel creaky and slow. Worst of all though is my lower spine and my hips: that whole section of my torso feels fused and unyielding, every movement I ask of it is torturous, and sitting, standing, or lying still is worse.

How have I been reduced to this lumbering, graceless, pain-racked thing? Am I in the latter stages of recovery from a horrific motorbike accident? Perhaps my body has been invaded by some especially virulent strain of influenza: swine, avian, homunculus? No, and no - this is all because I didn’t have a cup of coffee this morning, or the last couple of days. Caffeine has been a habit for more than half of my life, and I thought it might be interesting to find out exactly what role it plays for me by cutting it out for Lent.

Day one I developed a headache: a persistent, dull throb behind my left eye which spread to the top of my skull. I’d been expecting that—anyone with a regular coffee habit will tell you that headaches are quite common if you skip your morning cup—and I’d stockpiled ibuprofen to help. It didn’t alleviate the headache entirely, but it kept it at a low ebb as it stayed resident through the afternoon, and the evening, and the morning of the next day. More then half of people who quit caffeine get this, and it was tough not to just go get a macchiato to make it stop.

I was also looking out for irritability and depression, both of which I definitely noticed creeping in as the day wore on. That evening my girlfriend and I were trying to plan a trip and I found myself unable to concentrate on the details of travel arrangements and hotel rooms, disinterested, and yet annoyed at the lack of progress in our planning. I was also struggling to stay awake. At 8pm that first evening I had my eyes closed through most of an episode of House of Cards, and I was in bed by 9.30pm totally exhausted.

My energy levels bounced back the second day, though the headache continued - in total it lasted somewhere just short of 48 hours. I was also finding myself feeling really hungry earlier in the day than I normally would, and more quickly after eating. I started to regain the ability to concentrate, and my mood lifted, both of which I was thankful for, but the worst symptom yet started to come on in the afternoon of day two and is still with me as I type this on the morning of day four: the kind of pervasive musculoskeletal pain you’d normally associate with flu. I couldn’t get comfortable in my office chair, people looked at me weird when I tried to stretch out my hamstrings in corridors. Sitting meditation that evening was almost fruitless: although my mind was calmer the level of discomfort I was in on the cushion was too distracting.

Here on the morning of day four I’m convinced the headache is a thing of the past and I’m free of psychological symptoms, all that remains to fight off is this chronic aching. Painkillers don’t seem to be doing much, so all I have for solace is the fact that all of the articles I’ve read on the subject say that symptoms persist for a week at most.

Caffeine withdrawal is now listed in the DSM5 as a mental disorder, because its effects are severe enough to impair everyday functioning. If I had read that a week ago I may have found it difficult to believe, but just coming down from ~4 cups of coffee a day to none has been a real wake-up-call. It’s been a genuine shock to find out how dependent I was on caffeine for baseline normal function. It leaves me with a tough question about whether, once Easter rolls around, I renew my coffee habit. I enjoy coffee, I miss it, but I’m not sure how I feel about allowing a drug to have that much power over me.