24th August

Lost Notebook

In his essay 'The Writer on Holiday' Roland Barthes suggests that there is a cunning mystification contained in good-natured summer portrayals of literary figures taking time off. The authors in question cannot conform to "factory time", they simply continue with their vocation while on vacation. "Writers are on holiday, but their Muse is awake, and gives birth non stop". Barthes' aim is to decode societal myths: "By having holidays, he displays the sign of his being human; but the god remains, one is a writer as Louis XIV was a king, even on the commode". The work of writers sets them apart as literary gods and yet at the same time the holiday snaps make them prosaic.

Barthes captures something profound about the inability to 'switch off' or take a holiday from the life of the mind. Even standing in the line for a ride at Disneyland we sociologists are still making mental 'field notes'. How many of us - graduate students and professors alike - sneak books and notebooks into our hand luggage? "I'll just take some work with me... in case I get time." I am as guilty as anyone else. This brings dangers and risks far beyond simply trying the patience of our nearest and dearest.

A few years ago I took the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao with my partner and children en route to the coast of northern Spain. Staying there overnight we visited the Guggenheim Museum. The curved steel structure looked like some vast ship-like


crab that had crawled up out of the sea. The shining building contained not a single straight line in its structure. At the time a retrospective of artist Juan Muñoz was showing. Muñoz studied at Croydon Art College and spent many of his artistically formative years in London. He died in 2001 at the young age of 48. Credited with re-introducing human figures to modern sculpture, many of his works have a sociological quality concerned with listening, incommensurability, how the familiar remains a mystery. The exhibition was a 'sociologist's holiday'. My family left me to it, wandering for probably far too long through the astonishing collection of paintings, sculptures, sound and video installations.

I was so taken with it, I returned the next day to watch once more a play that Muñoz had written with John Berger called 'Will It Be a Likeness?' My family took a bearing for the shops as I headed off towards the museum one last time. Armed with a huge bag of change I waited in line. When it was my turn I produced the jingling bag and asked the woman behind the desk to forgive me. She helped me count the money and as we got to the last pile of copper coins (the entrance fee was 12.50 euros), my eldest daughter came charging into the museum in floods of tears. "Dad, come quick - our car has been broken into." We ran back to the car park. The rear windows were smashed and a bag - containing all my wife's and my clothes - was missing.

Incandescent with rage, my wife mentally ran her fingers


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SUMMER - 2004

31 August