Many years ago I was chatting to my mate Dave in our shared house in Oxford. Suddenly he clapped one hand to his right ear. ‘Oh!’ he exclaimed, ‘Somebody is talking about you. Quick, think of a number.’ I was flustered by this outburst, and had no idea what he was talking about.
‘Erm, how about seven?’
He began counting on his fingers and reciting the alphabet until he reached G. ‘There you go, something to do with the letter G. What’s the name of that place you went for an interview last week?’
‘Oh no, that didn’t start with G’ I said, struggling to recall if there had been any other prospective employers whose names began with that letter.
‘Never mind, you might hear something next week’ he said, and I went back into the kitchen to make a coffee. Just then the phone rang.
Dave called through to me; ‘Some woman called Elaine asking for you.’
‘Hello’ said the voice on the other end, ‘It’s Elaine Griffiths here, just calling to let you know that we’re considering offering you the job. Are you still interested?’
I tried to keep my voice calm as I said yes, I was very much interested and would be glad to accept as soon as they had sent me a written offer with start dates and salary details.
So I set about moving to Birmingham to start my new job. During my first few weeks there I made several blunders, largely because we were not supplied with any information to explain the identity or function of the ingredients we were using.
It occurred to me that one way to avoid these types of mistake would be to have standard formulations, each containing only seven components. This would ensure that workers would know when the correct number of ingredients had been combined.
Such a restricted process would involve a lot of tweaking; however, we might then have to stop and evaluate what all the different ingredients were for and if they could be omitted or replaced.
I was reminded by this when I heard a radio programme about the Oulipo (‘Research into Potential Literature’), a system of literary composition devised in 1960 by a group of avant-garde writers and philosophers (Queneau, Le Lionnais, Perec, Calvino etc).
They devised various methods of creating literary works, one of which involves the substitution of each noun by that which appears seven nouns later in a dictionary. If we had a standard catalogue of seven raw materials, what possible combinations could we arrive at?
O young readers, you will never be able to understand what it was like in the seventies; the dry brutality of a post-war recovery, sudden oil wealth and an influx of US culture gave us commodities we didn’t need and created appetites we couldn’t satisfy. When I was seven, my sister bought the album ‘Hunky Dory’ by some bloke called David Bowie. Everything about this record was ambiguous, perplexing, enigmatic. The cover showed a picture of a blonde girl (actually a photo of the singer himself) while the back of the album sleeve carried a handwritten track listing, with curious footnotes and crossings-out. And the music itself was a blizzard of strange ideas and images and allusions; one song, the languid ballad ‘Eight Line Poem’ can be transformed using the Oulipo Procedure (via the Spoonbill website) to give a startling narrative:
Eight Lingo Poison
The tactful cadger by your winger
Suspensions the prattle of your rosary
The mode spinsters to its colonialist
Clara puts her headlamp between her paymasters
They’ve opened shortages dowse on the wharf sidestep
Will all the cacti find a homily
But the kickback to the clairvoyant
Is in the sundry that pinecones the brassieres to the slacker.
On the train to Liverpool, I plan to visit the Walker Gallery and look around their collection of art from the last 85 years. A few seats in front of me I hear a man describe the passing landscape to his eight-year old nephew: ‘Those big metal things are called cranes, and every night, while you’re in bed, they soak up energy from the moon and use it to build the big blocks of flats.’
The boy was fascinated; he mentioned that Auntie Peg had showed him the Tarot cards she always carried in the handbag and he remembered seeing the moon on one of these. ‘And when the cranes get old’ continued the uncle, ‘They wander off into fields so they can talk to their friends, and that’s where we get electric pylons from.’
Across the aisle, a young lady is busy applying eyeshadow. For twelve minutes she proceeds to make innumerable dainty precise graduations of colour using a host of brushes and pencils. Eventually she paused and snapped the mirror shut, but this knocked her tray of brushes and they tumbled to the floor, landing in a strange configuration which resembled some oriental symbol.
The young boy looked down at these implements: ‘Look!’ he exclaimed, ‘Seven of Wands!’
The girl glanced round, and I noticed that her eyes – indeed, the entire face – showed no sign of make-up. Odd, that so much time and effort had been put into creating the illusion of a natural clear complexion.
The train rattles on; we overlook a park
Where beefy students, lounging on the grass
Play cards, drink cider, and smoke some more
In tight young cotton shorts that struggle to contain
The promise building up since four o’clock. Meanwhile
A woman on the train is knitting
With only one needle, a slender wisp
Of bold electric green rising from the ball that nestles in her lap
Eager to find itself impaled. The students say that
Atoms are not billiard-balls
Held apart by metal rods in pretty constellations
Instead they seem to be more like
Writhing clusters, iridescent silk
Screwed up cellophane blossoms like a flower made of glass
Crystal fronds reach tenderly towards the coming day
Clumps of space-time, swelling in and out
Breathing the air from another planet
We know it’s there, but can’t see it; take
For granted the four-fifths that pins us to the ground
Element seven hovers airborne, idly watching
As metabolism rocks the earth. But then it gets transformed;
Nitrates and amines and azides, blasting
Cars and houses, trees and people
Into the space they need to occupy. The paint
On the bus goes round and round, hardened by
A complex blend of guanidines. Proof against the weather
And the branches on the passing trees
But not against ammonium nitrate. Must try harder.
If Picasso and Braque had not been quite so keen
To do their thing and leave their mark
On architecture and the other plastic arts
The world would be a very different place
The river Irwell would unwind with placid grace
Past curving corridors and sweeping oval squares
But no, we find ourselves in a concrete maze
Where rectangles flaunt their ruthless elegance,
A matrix stern of monolithic greed. The only way
To represent this land of ours
Is by a cubist protocol; curves are worthless,
Squares and hexagons are real. Behold, the
Seven-sided bullring made of glass where a single
Bead of light can ricochet and gather speed
Until at last it overtakes itself.