Patti Smith riff

M Train is a book about nothing – about the in-between spaces, the wadding of human life. Patti makes the crevices feel fertile and itchy with green, ‘nothing’ like rich, dark, velvety boxes lined with stuff. Patti makes it permissible to expend days in wandering at random, musing, writing, and sitting too long at off-times in cafes. She makes it possible that this is itself a life.

Sometimes, serendipitously, Patti meets a strange personal idol. She seems to have no sense that she is herself a famous person and that her idols are probably awe-struck and delighted to meet her.

I wonder if Patti is one of us.1 Her father spent many years devising a handicapping system for horses, but he never placed a bet. He had ‘a mathematical curiosity … searching for patterns’. He was ‘kind and open-minded’ but ‘dreamily estranged’. Hiroshima and Nagasaki ‘broke his heart’. ‘Question everything’, he told his children. He always wore the same thing: ‘a black sweatshirt, worn dark pants rolled up to his calves’ (surely an autistic touch) ‘and moccasins’. At the weekend, the children were ‘obliged to give him some privacy as he had little time for himself’.

Patti talks to inanimate objects, which have personalities and a view. Myself, I would have thought this was normal, except that I have become aware it isn’t. She spends days roaming around on her own, coming upon people, places and things. This, too, seems normal to me, but I’m autistic. Patti is obsessive – she says so herself. I think perhaps rather, though, she is immersive. She immerses into worlds – of books and lives and TV programmes – like blotting paper sopping into a dish of ink. She is herself an immersive world. A mood. A music. A dish of ink.

I first became aware of Patti in in 1978. ‘Because the Night’ and the iconic cover of Easter. I was 15. She was upraised arms, white camisole, and flagrant dark armpit hair. She embodied something I couldn’t define and didn’t understand, but wanted inchoately. I’ve always adored armpits with their soft, tender hair – the shape, the undulations and hollows, the suggestion of hidden places and sex. Patti didn’t conceal hers or do the polite thing and depilate. She flaunted them, these beautiful, unseemly, ordinary things. I was slow. It took a lot longer for the penny to drop. I had lovers who were men, and I liked their silky armpits. At some point, eventually, it occurred to me that I could have my own, and ever since I have. It’s kind of farouche and fuck-you and normal, dammit. It’s me, and it’s mine, and here I am.

I wrote this in the wrong book, at the back of the Mysore class register. It arose in the interstices – a weed on a page not intended to cultivate actual writing. I wrote it in Patti space, drifing an hour or so, in the Picturehouse downstairs, cake for breakfast,2 rain drilling the tarmac, slick olive trees – yes, olive trees – St Alfege’s, massed and matronly, presiding. It’s not about practice, but it’s hiding out now in this blog, an outlaw, whisky-toting, red kerchief, hooves on rocks.

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1. Autistic.
2. The cake was delicious.