Category: Journal

Bill Hayes’s Insomniac City: A Beautiful Tribute to New York and Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks. Photograph: Bill Hayes.
Oliver Sacks. Photograph: Bill Hayes.

Started reading Bill Hayes‘s memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me yesterday afternoon, and didn’t stop until the final page. Through a series of reflections and intimate diary entries, the book offers a revealing account of Hayes’s relationship with the late neurologist Oliver Sacks. The book is also a love letter to New York, and captures “the evanescent, the eavesdropped, the unexpected” nature of the city through brief vignettes and black and white portraits. Björk even makes an appearance. And another one. I laughed and cried at several points. Beautiful style. Wonderful photographs. Truly life affirming. To sum it up, I’m reminded of something Oliver Sacks said which Hayes recorded in his diary:

“4-22-15

O: ‘The most we can do is to write—intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively—about what it is like living in the world at this time.’”

— Bill Hayes, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me

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Reflecting on Non-Violence

“I need to set myself to the study of non-violence, with thoroughness. The complete, integral practice of it in community life.”

—Thomas Merton, Journal, 21 August 1962

Autumn. It has been almost four months since I made a decision to change the way that I live, and I feel happier now than at any other time in my life. I rise earlier in the morning (around 6 o’clock) to read and watch the sunrise. I go cycling or running almost every day, rain or shine. I have also become a regular visitor to my local library, which has a wonderful selection of books on every conceivable topic. At the moment, I am spending my days writing, looking for part-time work, and nourishing myself with healthy and delicious food.

I continue to find international news events troubling. I was saddened to hear about the most recent American mass shooting in Las Vegas, which took the lives of over fifty people and injured over five hundred. Someone who attended my wedding was at the event, and while she managed to escape she knew people who were shot. Other family members also know friends and colleagues who were in attendance that day, including some who were killed.

The shooting occurred on the first day of October. The next day, I spent an hour or more watching footage and witness accounts broadcast on various channels. I then picked up my coat and went walking. The second of October is traditionally known as the International Day of Non-Violence, a day inaugurated by the United Nations General Assembly ten years ago (June 2007). The second of October is significant since it marks the birthday of non-violence advocate and political activist Mahatma Gandhi. As I passed along Lloyd George Avenue, I saw that a new statue of the civil rights leader was being unveiled. The likeness struck me as a potent and inspiring reminder of human potential in the face of inestimable odds, and, moreover, a testament to the importance of kindness and compassion in these troubled times.

I went home and spent some time reading Thomas Merton.

Le Carré

[Overheard in a secondhand bookshop.]

— I must say, I have a bone to pick.
— Oh yes? What’s that?
— Well, you see, I’m looking for your John Le Carré titles and you don’t seem to have a single work! I must say I’m very surprised. Very surprised.
— I’m sorry to hear that you haven’t had any luck finding him. Did you try our general fiction?
— Yes, I did. I tried the general fiction. Nothing.
— And I’m guessing you were looking in our thrillers section?
— I was, I was. He is undergoing something of a renaissance at the moment. Didn’t you know that? I’m surprised that you don’t have his work on display. Front and centre!
— Yes, well, I’m afraid that when a writer is popular we don’t tend to get many sellers approaching us with their books. They hold on to them. Sometimes they reread them, sometimes they think they are more valuable than they are. We tend to get offers when the author is no longer in the spotlight, strange as it might sound.
— I suppose I could wander into a general bookshop, but I’m poor, you understand. Don’t you have a spy section? An area for spy stories and the like? It’s a very popular genre, you know.
— I’m afraid we don’t have a spy section here.
— Well, that’s an oversight if you ask me. It really is a very popular genre.
— Have you tried looking for Le Carré in the crime section? Perhaps he’s incognito.
— No, I hadn’t thought of that. Let me go and see.

Mandela

I alight at Waterloo Station and head towards the autumn morning light. Commuters and workmen stand at the entrance, wreathed in smoke. Cranes overhead, still as sculpture. I wait for the colour green at a pedestrian crossing and pass under a railway bridge. Near the South Bank, I see vendors setting up their stalls for the day ahead. It is cold and bright. I ascend a flight of stone steps and encounter a bust of Nelson Mandela outside the Royal Festival Hall. The bronze likeness is set on top of a granite plinth, and bears the inscription “My Struggle Is My Life”. The artist, a political campaigner named Ian Walters, offered the work to the Greater London Council in 1984. It was unveiled in October 1985, and publicly disregarded by the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the House of Commons. When the original was destroyed by fire in an act of racism, a copy was created and unveiled in August 1988. At this time, Nelson Mandela was still serving a life imprisonment sentence for his resistance to South African apartheid, and would not be released until February 1990. I first came to know Nelson Mandela’s name in June 1998, when my grandparents went to see him during his visit to Cardiff; they waited for him outside the Park Hotel on the sixteenth of that month, where he shook their hand and exchanged greetings. My grandmother and grandfather always remembered their encounter fondly, and for years afterwards there was a dogeared copy of his memoir, A Long Walk to Freedom, on their living room bookshelf. It is quiet where I stand, and after a few moments looking at the sculpture I walk on.