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Daniel Canty, author of Wigrum (2013) and Les États-unis du vent (to be published in English by Talonbooks in 2015), is completing a six-month residency at the Studio du Québec, in London, England. In this, his first report (which follows from his earlier brief lines and photograph), Canty tells of his haunts and jaunts.
Some of you have enjoined me to provide a report on my current remove. It has now been forty-seven days since I have become the man from London. Some weeks ago, I was inspired to light a votive candle in memory of my father in the Catholic cathedral of Westminster – there are two, you know – near the alcove dedicated to the Irish regiments. To each his own. Since my arrival, improbable sunlight, capable of melting all waxes, had been weighing over the city. After forty days and nights, the shiniest, roundest Moon of the year blazed through the curtain of smog that permanently greys out the city’s night sky. Behind, the italic fall of the Perseids, slanting across the sky. I saw a star again, framed by a brick-walled backyard in Dalston, and was reminded of the firmament’s existence, and of the probability of rain. The augural Moon, with irreproachable narrative efficiency, announced the returning sombre afternoons, under the cloudy continent that so many English stories of mist and phantoms have driven us to expect.1 (I live in a loft on the first floor of a castle of brown bricks that was once an East London safety match factory. At one time, not too distant from Dickens’s days, it was the biggest and most modern of all the factories in the city. The building, like the city itself, is a sort of labyrinth. I sometimes have difficulty sleeping.) And, when the Moon returned, I heard, at the foot of my windows, where there is so little place to stand, unintelligible voices, turning into uncontrollable laughter, slowly modulated in an awkward imitation of barking. It is said that the employees of the factory, mostly little girls and young women, daily exposed to phosphorus, would in many cases lose all their teeth and part of their lower jaws. The plant’s managers had installed, in some corner of the complex, an in-house dental office. In an old photograph, one can see the swivel chair, the immaculate sink, the table laden with instruments, a small room with a mosaic-tiled floor, awaiting their Jack Nicholson. The match girls would be among the first to spark a strike. Phossy-jawed phantoms at my windows. Whistling wordless secrets, mouths aglow with longing.
At the back of my head, something is whistling, and I find sentences that are only echoes, but that are, that are. I must admit that one can’t quite see what’s going on at the foot of my windows. But a certain version of the future hovers right in front of me: the Olympic Stadium’s O, still bristling with construction cranes, as if the games were still to come (it’s an old story, but some say that the only sport that was really taken seriously around here was real-estate speculation); Anish Kapoor’s vertically knotted rollercoaster tower, burning with primary redness as soon as night returns. At its foot lies the sandpit of the London Concrete corporation, where the yellow trucks that so enchanted our youth rearrange, day in and day out, the basic materials of modernity. Next door, one of the towers of Stratford’s new developments, whose facade did not blink at the hour when the civilian authorities suggested we turn the lights out for an hour in memory of the First World War, now in its centenary. The lights are going out all over Europe. And you, where do you find yourself? That Stratford has not much in common with Shakespeare’s. Though, at one time, Joseph Conrad did live around here, with a domesticated monkey, brought back from the heart of darkness, who never learned to speak proper English.
In front of all this, at the bottom of a concrete-sided ravine, run the ribbons of the A12 highway, one of the major tributaries of the London Orbital, vainly attempting to circumscribe the entire city, its tarmac inclined like the gradient of a velodrome, or the crown of a lackadaisical sovereign. I have concluded, after losing myself one time too many by thinking I was heading in a straight line while I was turning in circles, that London is a leaning city, its ten thousand streets stretched around its crossroads and circuses, over a vast subterranean country, intent on reclaiming the city as its own. The autumn fogs, which recent facts of weather already anticipate, are its breath, a second sky, waiting to emerge from the hollows.
Not a day goes by that doesn’t take me back under the soil. When the trains of the Underground leave their wormholes and penetrate the wider tunnels, where their convoys, directed in incompatible directions, trace a widening V, an uncertain space opens up, where those who have forgotten their way sometimes become visible.2 They are waiting, candles in hand, with phosphorescent mouths, to watch over the parade of the living, to share with them their inchoate, glowing silence. An obscure silhouette emerges from underground, sheltering the unnatural flame of a match with its open palm, walking through the fuliginous night, searching for a procession to call its own. It will find it, and when it does, it will blow out its match, and disappear with it, proving that the city is so vast that it can waylay anyone.
But those are only stories we tell ourselves in order not to sleep. To find our ways through here, we had better invent our own paths.
I am doing fine, thank you.
Daniel Canty, Esq.
(Thank you to Émile Martel for pointing out three pointed poetic mistakes in the French original.)
1 At the time, I was reading a science-fiction novel, The Black Cloud, in which astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, in clumsy but oh-so-earnest prose, describes the coming of an extra-terrestrial cloud from the depths of space, parking itself between the Sun and Earth. Despite its cosmic pretentions, this notion seems profoundly English to me.
2 A train rattles its way past the first floor of the building where I live, toward the future at my window. I believe that the platform is located somewhere in the adjacent wings. I have not found it, and suspect that it only becomes accessible to those who believe that time’s arrow is pointing in the general direction of Stratford. They willingly ignore that Stratford is itself only one of its possible destinations.
Canty’s second report is available now.