Diary

John Burnside

I am waiting for a plane at Newark. Time was when anywhere in an airport was a good place to read, or just to go slack and empty, to be nobody in particular and, by that token, more specifically yourself. Now, there are TVs everywhere, placed so that, as I wander out of earshot of one, I come to the next, the news of the latest atrocity or government scandal following me from point to point with all the power and insistence that amplified trivia possess in our time. Even the bars and restaurants offer no escape, though here the chatter is usually about sports or the latest in a long line of ill-behaved boy bands. Today, however, things are slightly different because today we are being prurient about death. Or rather, about an afterlife that, for some time, has been a matter of common knowledge: a moment’s fear, then a white light from which some beneficent doorman out of central casting steps forward to welcome the newly departed. This anteroom of the world to come is taken for granted by millions, including possibly the same 86 per cent of Americans who told the Larry King Show that they believed in aliens and almost certainly the proportion of that number who say that those aliens have the same supernatural abilities as Lucifer and the fallen angels. Today’s testimony doesn’t stretch that far. In fact, it’s fairly routine stuff. What is interesting is the human dimension.

It seems that the interviewee – whose voice reveals that she is a youngish middle-aged woman from the Midwest – died two years ago in her local ER: according to her doctors, she says, she was ‘clinically dead’ for seven minutes. Now, in her mind’s eye, she sees the ER staff at work, nurses and doctors bustling about the body she has just left and calling for more of something, just like on TV, and she finds all the fuss and urgency surprising because she feels quite calm and not frightened at all. Then comes the light and she is moving into it, away from the mess of this world, with only the briefest pause to wonder why it is all so easy, why she is so free of regret when she has everything to live for: good husband, happy at work, lovely children, the usual formula. The hesitation does not last, however, and soon she is engulfed, the kindled light around her more like a cloud than a god, a cloud filled with all memory, all data. This wife and mother wants to go, she wants to leave everything behind, the old life dwindling pleasantly away, an overwhelming sense of peace flooding her spirit, until someone or something within that holy and merciful light informs her that she has to go back, that it’s not her time yet. She still has work to do.

So she returns to the ER, where a voice is still calling for something and the soul’s light has gone to grey. She returns and, as she tells it, her grief for what she has lost is palpable. I wonder what her children make of all this, or what her husband thinks, as he drives her to work. ‘Larger,’ she says, ‘it was larger’ (or words to that effect) and then she stops – but now we’ve heard it in her voice, not just regret for another world but also that her story is over. As in some latter-day Magnificat, her unworthy soul had for a moment been singled out and privileged, but what matters just as much, or even more, is that she was singled out by television, her story underwritten, her one experience worth telling set down for the posterity of YouTube, and finally made good by an authority we know we cannot trust, but still choose to believe, because it tells us, simply, unarguably, those stories that, even when they are tragic or threatening, are consonant with the narrative we were expecting. By such means, television takes possession not only of our lives, but our afterlives: the Lazarus tales we recount, rapt in wonder and joy, are immaculate scripts, already rehearsed onscreen a thousand times before. Who knows if these stories would ever have occurred to us, had we not learned them from TV?

Some years ago, I met the photographer Richard Avedon when he came to take a group portrait of some Scottish writers in a Glasgow bar. By chance, I had recently been to see his retrospective exhibition, Evidence, at the National Portrait Gallery, and had become almost obsessed by the series of pictures Avedon had made of his elderly father, Jacob, over a period of several years, culminating in a deeply moving final set in which the old man, previously dressed in formal jacket and tie, was shown in a hospital gown. Later Avedon wrote:

At first he merely agreed to let me photograph him, but I think after a while he began to want me to. He started to rely on it, as I did, because it was a way we had of forcing each other to recognise what we were. I photographed him many times during the last years of his life, but I didn’t really look at the pictures until after he died. They seem now, out of the context of those moments, completely independent of the experience of taking them. They exist on their own. Whatever happened between us was important to us, but it is not important to the pictures. What is in them is self-contained and, in some strange way, free of us both.

That day, however, when I asked him about the final images, he related an elegant and nicely self-contained anecdote. He had been away, he said, working in Switzerland and, knowing that his father’s death was approaching, had called home every day to check on him. During one of these calls a nurse had told him that he shouldn’t worry, that his father was determined to hang on until his return because he knew there was one more photograph still to be taken. And, sure enough, when Avedon got back to the US, his father was still alive, ready, as it were, for that final close-up. It was a story he had told before, I don’t doubt; it was neatly turned without being glib and, clearly, he enjoyed the effect it had on me, a complete stranger. But I also believe that it happened exactly as he told it. For days afterwards that pact they had created in the face of death stayed at the forefront of my thoughts, not so much making me wish as allowing me to imagine the possibility that my own parents and I could have similarly confronted their mortality and, when the time came, parted so graciously.

Avedon’s extraordinary series notwithstanding, however, the camera portrait is usually limited by its dependence on a single moment, a moment during which the subject is aware of being looked at. Reflecting further on his father’s attitude to the series, Avedon points out:

A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks. He’s implicated in what’s happening, and he has a certain real power over the result. Lisette Model told me she felt these photographs of my father were ‘performances’, and I agree with her. We all perform. It’s what we do for each other all the time, deliberately or unintentionally. It’s a way of telling about ourselves in the hope of being recognised as what we’d like to be. I trust performances.

In family snapshots, however, what is all too often apparent is a pained embarrassment about being photographed at all: the subject does not wish, or know how, to perform, and so he or she vanishes in front of the lens, frozen in the act of being looked at and having nothing to show for it. My parents did not enjoy being looked at under any circumstances, whether a camera was in evidence or not. My mother, in particular, would become quite distressed if we stared at her (and, by extension, at anyone); years later, it seems to me that this distress was occasioned by a feeling she had of being looked into, since she had no way of performing that might conceal her sense of herself as inadequate and, so, in ways that other, more successful people may have seemed to her to have eluded, transparently mortal. That was the reason we had such a powerful interdict against staring: the gaze was a reminder, even an affirmation, of the looked-at person’s mortality. This is the reason the king must not be looked at: if enough of his subjects stare, his power dissolves away.

Having grown up in that evasive, eyeless world – a world where to gaze for even a millisecond too long was tantamount to assault – I found myself incapable of looking at anyone in any meaningful, that is to say, interrogative or inquiring, way. For years, it seems, I didn’t see anybody (or if I did, gazed clandestinely, stealing a look the way the camera steals the soul), until I happened on a certain kind of cinema, in which the long gaze was itself an inherent element in the narrative. Sitting in the Arts Cinema in Cambridge in my tattered Army and Navy clothes, a poor student who would frequently skip a meal to see a good movie, I learned to relish the freedom to gaze at human faces, to see them shift through any number of different emotions or drift into self-absorption or boredom, or even that beautiful absence in which the soul seems to emerge into the ordinary light of day, like a timid animal come out to play in what it has decided is safe ground. That was what the high period of (mostly European) cinema meant to me, more than anything else: it permitted me to linger on the face of another who was both a real person and an illusion. Until then, such a gaze had been prohibited. It was only when black and white art films – and, later, early television – came along (the camera lingering on Garbo, or on the face of Marcello Morante at the opening of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew) that we could gaze with impunity at a face as it changed, just as Morante’s does in those first two scenes when he confronts the inexplicably pregnant Mary, shading from doubt and disappointment through dismay to a stoic and compassionate acceptance after his vision of the angel.

Andy Warhol recognised the power of that form of the gaze in the five hundred or so Screen Tests he made between 1964 and 1966: ‘I only wanted to find great people and let them be themselves and talk about what they usually talked about and I’d film them for a certain length of time and that would be the movie,’ he said. The ‘tests’ – whose subjects include John Ashbery, Lou Reed, Dennis Hopper and Susan Sontag – were shot on 100-foot rolls of black and white film at 24 frames per second, then screened, almost slo-mo, at 16 fps. The results varied: Lou Reed, who had studied drama, brings a Coke bottle as a prop and wears dark shades, so we can’t see his eyes; Nico poses, looks at a magazine, then lapses into boredom; but in the most nakedly intimate and engaging of the tests, Ann Buchanan, the former wife of the Beat poet Charles Plymell, stares unblinking at the camera for a minute or more before she starts to weep, the tears forming gradually, then running slowly down her cheeks. At this point, to continue to gaze at this woman’s face is an unsettling, yet strangely beautiful experience: this short film reveals the wordless grace of one individual in a manner that requires no external input, no knowledge, no context.

Television also picked up on the power of that monochrome gaze. Most of the beauty of Ken Loach’s celebrated 1966 drama, Cathy Come Home, is as wordless as Pasolini’s best work, or the Buchanan screen test. From the first frame, the camera singles out Carol White’s face from the flow of traffic as she hitches a ride to London, then returns to that scene under the final credits where, homeless and alone, her children taken into care, she stands by a dark road, traffic flowing by once more. As much as, even more than the factual revelations about the injustices ‘the system’ perpetrates on homeless people, it is the camera’s regard for White’s face that challenges the viewer. ‘Black and white are the colours of photography,’ Robert Frank once remarked. ‘To me they symbolise the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected. Most of my photographs are of people; they are seen simply, as through the eyes of the man in the street. There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.’ This quality is certainly present in Frank’s photography – but the performative aspect to which Avedon alludes is also there, as it must be in any still portrait. In a motion picture, however, especially when there is an external narrative featuring characters whom the actors can tell themselves they are pretending to be, that performative element is diverted. The actor, playing a part, allows us to see her own face, to see herself being the actor playing that part. In Cathy Come Home, it is painful to watch as the bright, optimistic young woman hitching a lift at the start of the film becomes more and more careworn, but when we leave her by that dark road, it is not the Cathy of the script we grieve for, it is Carol White, a person we have gazed at for a long time while she was caught up in playing her role and, by a kind of tacit and autonomic allegiance, care for, during that brief period, in a way we rarely manage with our nearest kin.

Before cinema and television, my first experiences of gazing at faces – watching my mother while she slept in an armchair, say – were touched both with guilt and fear and with a curious sense of the subject’s mortality. To look at is to risk looking into, and thus seeing the other as a mortal, as an inadequate, perishable being – the unbearable outcome of which is pity. That was the reason I didn’t want to see the face of the woman on the TV screen at Newark: hearing her voice – musical, with just a hint of the Midwesterner’s routine good-heartedness – I could think of her as a member of some other tribe, but the face, in colour of course, would have been another matter. I didn’t want to see it, not because I was irritated by her afterlife narrative, or even because I was embarrassed by the implied betrayal of her usual life. No: I didn’t want to look at her because I thought I might see something familiar in her face – familiar in the old sense, in the way a witch’s cat, or a clandestine lover, was once a familiar – which in turn is to say something that, to safeguard its powers, ought to be hidden from public view.

In the same way, I was very much affected by Avedon’s story, but it wasn’t until much later that I began to wonder what the father had done while he was waiting for his famous son to return for the last session of their work together. Had he thought about an afterlife? Had he wondered what he was leaving behind, not a work of art, not even some pharaonic monument to his own person, but a memorial of the times through which he had lived, including all who had lived through them with him, those tribes, those loves, those places, as reflected in a dying face? It may be fanciful but, looking again at those photographs of Jacob Israel Avedon from the early 1970s, I see an artistic achievement on the part of this performer that is even more impressive than the photographs as such. In fact, what I see is the precise opposite of pharaonic pride, or the banal fantasy of going into the light, to be embraced by your dearly beloved, or Jesus, or your old art teacher – an experience that, as described, sounds very much like walking into a television studio for an episode of This Is Your Life. In short, what I see in Jacob Avedon’s face is the knowledge that it isn’t: it isn’t your life; it doesn’t belong to you. It’s shared and, when you stop, it continues, until you, or something like you, turns up again, curious, shamefaced and inclined to stare.

My parents were never inclined to stare, especially after they were obliged to move away from everything they knew, and then, as the strangeness took its toll, to die among strangers, people they would have wished to like better, but who were not their blood. Not kin. What seems even worse to me now, however, is that they were obliged to die in the wrong colours. Corby might have been known as Little Scotland, but the new town had nothing of the deeply grained atmosphere of the Fife pit towns from which they had come. It was modern in that fervent, rather pink manner favoured by urban planners in the 1960s, it lacked the deeper shadows and rainy gravitas to which they were accustomed, doused as it was in synthetic colour, the new houses spoiling in their skins of gloss paint and faux woodwork, the rooms crammed full of the garish fabrics and fittings these economic migrants could now afford. As it happened, our move to Corby also coincided with the (somewhat precocious) onset of a certain exaggerated fastidiousness in my prepubescent soul and I remember how unhappy I was, living with all this gaudy, during that stage when children are taught to see that every colour, and every combination of colours, has to mean something.

Flags, for example, were emblems of soil and blood and the light of some one true God, of patria, of Motherland, of the people as clan, self-conscious, exclusive, violent. Green was Irish, Catholic, Celtic; blue was the enemy. The priest’s vestments were colour-coded according to God’s moods: red for Pentecost, or martyr days; purple for Advent. My parents belonged to this world and they seemed to want me to belong to it as well, for reasons I could never fathom – because it wasn’t really about us. On the days where we wore poppy red in memory of Our Glorious Deceased, I would stare at the shamefaced matrons and war-scarred uncles who gathered outside church and wonder what they really felt, if anyone really believed in glory or sacrifice. At Mass, the Virgin stood in her alcove of blue and gold, and our Man-God gazed down at me with his Sacred Heart pinned to his vest, his stigmatised hands raised to show the bloody depths of his wounds – and I wanted, more than anything, to live in the monochrome of old films.

It would be a mercy if the dying could inhabit that black and white zone for a time before they slipped into it for ever, but for my parents it was not to be. My mother was diagnosed with inoperable cancer at the age of 47, and lay for months under a bright bed-throw, in one of the hottest summers she had ever experienced, surrounded by roses and get-well cards. Almost every day, work colleagues and neighbours came by, and I would help her down to the big armchair by the hearth, where she would receive her visitors in a pink and leaf-green housecoat. The fabric was synthetic and felt too smooth on my hands when, towards the end, I had to carry her. I was too young and stupid at the time to understand that the small talk that filled out these occasions was more than perfunctory – that for my mother and her friends, it actually spoke volumes – but I was keenly aware that they all avoided gazing too long into one another’s faces. My mother went on like this for several months, during which I stayed at home to care for her; then, about a week before she died, two of my aunts came down from Scotland and I was excluded from the sickroom. She would not want me to see her like this, was the explanation. Better to remember her as she had lived. At her best. But I had never really seen her at her best; we had never really looked at each other. We were all too ashamed.

The last time I saw my father was in a hospital ward, after his third heart attack. Some hours before I finally got there (I had been travelling), the man in the next bed died, emergency medical staff working around him, his soul presumably floating off into some milky light, never to return. I knew my father’s one great fear was to die among strangers, with someone he didn’t know and would not have cared for, peering into his face, or fumbling to loosen his collar. I knew that because one of his friends had died like that on a rush-hour bus and, an hour or so after he heard the news, my father exploded into one of his cold rages at the world, smashing the fist-sized panes of glass in a bus shelter near my aunt’s house, deliberately and systematically, one by one. Now, faced with the same prospect (in his own mind, at least), he pleaded with me to make the doctors send him home – almost, in his desperation, looking me in the eye as he did so. Almost, but not quite. As it happened, he survived that attack, only to die a few months later, on the garishly carpeted floor of his local club, halfway between the bar and the cigarette machines. For a moment, I was told, nobody noticed he was gone; then everybody did.

Long before that final evasion, when I still summered in hand-me-down khaki, scuff-kneed, digging pipe bowls and chunks of bottle glass from my mother’s garden, I worked a rusting tin from a slick of clay and opened it to find something shaped from bone and feathers, whatever colour it had once possessed gone, but for a smear of indigo and one last thread of crimson. I stood in the warm sun, gazing at this find in wonder and sorrow. Once, this had been alive, a tight knot of pulse and quiver like the redpolls in my cousin’s homemade aviary, birds we had caught with box-traps and carried home like warm jewels from the fields around our pit town. Now, whatever it had once been was just a wisp of fluff and dry bone, lifeless as the slut’s hair and spent matches my mother would sweep into piles in the corner of the scullery on cleaning days – and yet, as insubstantial as it seemed, nothing I had ever had, or ever wanted, meant more to me. I would have given anything to bring that body back to life, if only to see what it was. Was it a native bird or a pet, like those brightly coloured finches I had seen in the pet shop just down from the picture house? Who had buried it there? A grown-up? A child? I’d heard that the people who lived in the house before us were DPs – or so Jim Black from the next prefab had told my mother – and when I asked what that meant, I was so intrigued by the notion that I carried the words around with me for days. DPs. Displaced Persons. I was beguiled by the idea – displaced, like children who strayed too far into fairyland, or the questing knights who wandered out of their homeland and were left liegeless, beyond the law and unprotected by kingly might. Displaced Persons. Maybe one of those people had buried this tin in the clay, muttering a brief prayer or blessing over it, in Polish, say, or Lithuanian, before filling the grave and turning away, the makeshift rite of burial complete.

It sounds so trivial, almost perfunctory – yet this, I think, is the true afterlife, or at least, an afterlife worth contemplating: the lasting quality of the tender gesture, the celebration of whatever streak of colour or grace lingers. A recollection of Walt Whitman’s lines:

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

The feelings in these lines might be initiated by a photograph, or a makeshift funeral in a rainy backyard, but its best instance is the chance, everyday look that lingers long enough to descry and then absolve both seer and seen of their mortality, and move both into a new region of possibility. What we discover there may seem banal in the telling: a rumour of evening prayer beyond the strip lights in a hospital waiting-room, oil standing blue in a sump, a bright, full moon reflected for miles in slant roofs and hosed-down yards as a man drives home from a formal dinner, his tie prised loose and the radio on to music that, while he has never heard it before, he finds so beautiful he scarcely dares to breathe. This is the moment that lovers or friends foresee as they exchange that initial look and, when one of them dies and the other is elsewhere – doing the laundry, say, or choosing dessert on a night out with colleagues – when one of them ceases to be, I think the other may be aware, either of an extraordinary nothing that steadies the world, if only for a moment, like the last sight of everything before a light goes out, or else (without passing this off as some afterlife cliché) a moment’s disbelief at having come through, followed by a brief hiatus, a looking back without regret on what had been, before the moving away, or dispersal, or antarābhava. I am not thinking of a new life here, or not according to the usual formulae (rebirth, say, as a deer, or a fish, or some new bundle of stem cells and karma), because I think that death asks first for the dissolution of the historical self, a forgetting, as such, to render moot all the apparent data, so that what, if anything, emerges is new, amnesiac and unattached. Unattached, yes, and yet, in some way that feels like a universal fact, not entirely discontinuous with what it knew before, so that, even if it does eventually end up looking out from a new body, as a new self, there would still be a lingering fibre of connective tissue, an almost but not quite impossible wish to gaze again on what it once gazed on, and mourned, and then forgot.