Animal Metaphors

Posted on Thursday, December 26, 2013, under , ,

Here are two 'extended' animal metaphors I have come across recently. The first comes from a BBC4 documentary on one of the most unique singers/songwriters ever, Robert Wyatt. The man himself:

As far as I am concerned, I am dreaming all the time. The only difference is that I come up for daylight and other people the way a whale has to come up for air. 

cf: Have you heard of the term 'wyatting'? It's a verb. It means 'to play unusual tracks on a pub jukebox to annoy the other pub goers'. It sounds democratic enough to me. People complain of musical snobbishness of those who practice wyatting. But the complaints could be turned the other way. By the same token those 'snobs' have a right to complain, say of loud rap music that keeps them away from pubs. So, democratically, should a jukebox contain Brian Eno it is only fair that Brian Eno plays, provided someone is willing to slot a coin in the machine.

The second metaphor is by another Robert, R. Frost. This extract is taken from his 1923 interview for the New York Times Book Review, entitled 'We Seem to Lack the Courage to Be Ourselves'.

Men have told me, and perhaps they are right, that I have no 'straddle'. That is the term they use: I have no straddle. That means that I cannot spread out far enough to live in filth and write in the treetops. I can't. Perhaps it is because I am so ordinary. I like the middle way, as I like to talk to the man who walks the middle way with me. 

I have given thought to this business of straddling, and there's always seemed to me to be something wrong with it, something tricky. I see a man riding two horses, one foot on the back of one horse, one foot on the other. One horse pulls one away, the other a second. His straddle is wide, Heaven help him, but it seems to me that before long it's going to hurt him. It isn't the natural way, the normal way, the powerful way to ride. It's a trick.


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Boxing Day Story

Posted on Thursday, December 26, 2013, under

Fluster before Christmas

For several weeks now when not teaching I have spent my time lying around either consciously dreaming or unconsciously waking and in both cases irresponsibly irritable to the last degree.
              Robert Frost, Selected Letters

I had not been to see a dentist for some half-dozen years. If it weren’t for K., who would occasionally complain about my wafer-thin, shark-jagged central incisors, it would most likely be a further six years. So I found this dentist through a student of mine, who works there as a part-time assistant. Highly recommended. Doc went to Harvard apparently. Whatever ‘went’ meant.

I rang the clinic on Friday. A woman’s voice on the phone gave curt answers (in English) which to me suggested she belonged to that subspecies of youngish, despondent, don’t-talk-to-me-you-see-I-am-busy types. Slotted me in for the following Friday, 5.30 pm.

As expected, I went in with some trepidation. Six years is a long time. All sorts of nasty bacteria could have accumulated in my gob, by now gnawing happily at the gum. Well, the reception area was as small as they come. I almost knocked over a Christmas tree as soon as I swapped my shoes for the onsite slippers and stepped onto the lobby floor. And some tree it was, clearly lots of work went into decorating.

She was middle-aged and smiling, wearing a thick layer of black eye shadow. Ah, I know who you are, her dark eyes said as I approached the desk. Formalities ensued, including a form to fill in. The usual stuff: the history of my ailments, my past and present allergies, and where in the mouth it hurts. Not unlike the customs declaration paper: tick each NO to be on the safe side. ‘Just a check-up, see. I haven’t been to a dentist for years’.

She sat me down to wait for my turn. No mags in English. Eyes free to roam the room. Framed certificates all over the walls – you couldn’t drive a single nail between them. On closer inspection most turned out to be certificates of participation to various conferences and seminars. Bit of a letdown. Then there were these porcelain figurines inside the white glass cabinet depicting various scenes from a dental room (one had a patient spread horizontally surrounded by a doctor, an assistant, an old man carrying a lantern, and a couple of sheep).
And there was her, making herself busy, standing up and sitting down thousands of times, shuffling papers, checking files, typing, popping in behind the Operatory door. Once the room emptied of other patients it was our cue to strike a small talk. She led the way. Told how she and doc had been married for aeons, how the two of them had been regular globetrotters, how they just got back from Germany where they bought those figurines, how it took her the best part of a day to decorate the tree (it was the early days – first week of December – but there you go, the tree pregnant with bluish baubles to match the tinsel and dangling toy bears), how there were two more trees inside the Operatory, how the hubby was unbelievably busy (he was to catch shinkansen bound for Tokyo in couple of hours’ time).

I followed her to the Operatory. We walked past the other two Christmas trees, each more fetching than the other. ‘Yes, this one is my favourite, definitely’, I said for each. I was looking forward to exchanging words with the boss. The chief globetrotter being a man of the world and all. Spoke good English too, according to wife. Alas, the very man behind the surgical mask who treated me that evening was to remain just that – a man behind the surgical mask. Not only did I not speak to him, I never got to see his face either. When he saw me his mask slightly rose around the cheeks. I bet it was a smile.

For a routine check-up the whole thing took longer than anticipated. Or did it? Did it only seem long? Could I have dozed off? Hard to imagine, what with my mouth open and dribbling, a pretty assistant vacuuming the dribble, the noise, the instruments all over my mouth, the light in my eyes. They put a cloth over my eyes. The world went dim for a minute, perhaps several minutes.

Perhaps I did not dream a proper, fully fledged dream. But I did see images, of that I am sure. Images random, desultory, erratic, airborne, suspended by wires like marionettes: a Montgolfier balloon on fire; a giant dragonfly by a volcanic river; a Noh mask whispering garbled admonishments; the sun disc; someone pulling a dead fish out of water. Then a voice, ‘Rinse your mouth please’. Blood into basin.

The dark-eyed missus escorted me out. ‘So, anything I should be worried about?’ ‘No, not really.’ I leaned toward her. ‘Say, is there anything in that room that might make people have… visions?’ She stared. I tried to clarify: ‘I mean, is it possible that a person might fall asleep on that chair? You know, doze off?’ Her face relaxed. ‘Oh. I guess so. Did you?’ ‘I could have. I am not sure though’. ‘Well’, she chirped, ‘it must be difficult to sleep while your tooth is being pulled out.’ God! I frantically started tonguing about the mouth, feeling for gaps. Nothing. Everything seemed in place. Then it struck me: I did not feel any pain. No pain, no discomfort. In fact no sensation of any kind, no matter how hard my tongue pressed.

© Branko Manojlovic, 2013

image: Robert Sudlow, Dental Chair in the Woods (

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Social Class 9

Posted on Thursday, March 14, 2013, under , , ,

Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering - because you can't take it in all at once.

Audrey Hepburn

Today started with a touch of innocence when I lifted the window blinds. There was a boy in the street with his mum, both waving at the passing rubbish collectors (Japanese equivalent of bin-men) who in turn waved heartily back. Such an endearing sight, as if straight from the tacky alleys of Disneyland. Except this was a show of a child’s genuine wonder. And no wonder these men in pastel-green uniforms turned at once dignified and impassioned.

Such scene would be harder to imagine in the gritty environs of, say, any impoverished country in Asia. North Korea would be an obvious exception, where I imagine schoolkids are told to wave red flags and sing songs of praise as the proud rubbish collectors cruise the streets, picking whatever meagre waste there is to pick.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous today – crisp, sunny, the air feather-light. At about 2 pm I decided to make my move. I got on a bike and cycled to downtown Kyoto. I had previously made a tentative plan to pay a visit to this particular art gallery, based on their poster which showed a urban scene from an unidentified country, presumably in the southeast Asia.

The gallery was somewhat difficult to locate as it was tucked in on the third floor of a nondescript block of flats – simply a flat converted into a gallery space. I opened the door without knocking. There was nobody inside apart from a woman at a desk behind a sort of folding screen (she was constantly on the phone during my 10-minute visit). When I entered she protruded her head from behind the screen and we smiled in acknowledgement.

The installation itself consisted of a 3-minute video loop projection (shot by a car-cam) and about a dozen of photograph prints depicting peopled cityscapes. Those taken on the streets of Vietnam (presumably Hanoi, the Old Quarter) were the most striking. The author, John Einarsen, is partial to blue-collar folks going about their daily routine – be it twiddling thumbs at a bird shop, washing pots and plastic potties, or revolving pieces of meat on a skewer.

Each (neatly framed) print actually carries a price tag of ¥20.000, that’s about €200. That these ‘photographic items’ are on sale is hardly surprising in our age of global commercialism. I imagined what sort of people would want to buy prints of the impoverished metropolitan ordinariness. The same middleclass philistine, I thought, who finds the aesthetic value in the exoticism of the under-privileged. The same sick middleclass kind who would hang these photos on their bedroom wall to glance at while having their middleclass shag in their middleclass comfy beds. That’s who, I thought.

And yet, to the casual observer like myself, these scenes also deliver a touch of colour, or at least the kind of surreal absurdity almost exclusive to the poorest stratum of any society. On one photo there is an untieable knot of umpteen electric and telephone wires that can be tolerated only by the ‘underclass’ and that makes you think how on earth they were put up there in the first place. On another there is a man’s head sticking out of a house tarpaulin cover and under him a street vendor with hands in his pockets and a body posture of someone who couldn’t care less. On another there is a cat trapped in a birdcage. On another there is laundry drying on a clothes line sponging up the smoke from a grilled meat takeaway underneath.

This kind of pathos evokes Italian and Yugoslav social satire films from the 60’s and 70’s. Directors like Fellini, Pasolini, Aleksandar Petrović, early Kusturica. But one particular film sprang to mind while I was at the gallery, that by Ettore Scola: ‘Brutti, sporchi e cattivi’ a.k.a. ‘Ugly, Dirty and Bad’ (1976). This was one of my favourites back in my formative years – I remember how we used to act out the whole scenes by heart. This synopsis from IMDB sums it up pretty well:

Four generations of a family live crowded together in a cardboard shantytown shack in the squalor of inner-city Rome. They plan to murder each other with poisoned dinners, arson, etc. The household engages in various forms of sexual idiosyncrasies, land swindles, incest, drugs and adultery.

Here we go: the (in)famous part in which the family has for once united in order to poison their miserly head of household, magnificently portrayed by Nino Manfredi. Warning: definitely NOT for the squeamish.

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