Portal Agony by Don Paterson

Don Paterson

Portal Agony


Covid finally caught up with us in Venice, though I reckon we caught it on the Eurostar. Mostly the week was spent cancelling the restaurants we’d booked as a reward for three years of missed holidays. The only reservation we managed to keep was the first and priciest, at a bleakly cool stunt-food outlet which had just won its first star and wasn’t going to let you forget it. There was a lot of swallowing hard and pretending to be rich. Isn’t it clever the way the snail chutney cuts the rabbit lung parfait? No, you’re right, it’s horrible. There was no foam or aerosolised soup, but at one point an intermezzo spoonful of ionised onion water was shoved into my face; my consent had not been sought. It was all a purity test, like so much these days. Had our waiter served a dead bee smeared on half an oatcake accompanied by a squirt of Lynx Africa and a slap round the head, they’d have been met with the same wince of approval I’d given the arrival of every other course. Unbelievably, some folk were rich enough to have brought their children, though I was pleased to see that most of them were crying. The roadkill tiramisu paid tribute to ‘Jackson Pollock, the chef’s favourite artist’. Top tip, Ugo: do not smear all-brown desserts, which will remind the parents among your clientele of other things. Either way, this was not technically food, in nature or quantity. After nine courses, no one should be buying pizza on the way home.

As for the rest of the holiday, I shall tiptoe round the matter, but I can confirm that Covid is as much an inflammatory as a respiratory illness. I was among that non-trivial percentage of infected males over fifty-five who spend the first week in the bathroom screaming into a towel. The tenth time of yelling, it was for a doctor, and I paid a brisk and perjink medico two hundred euros for some antibiotics, which, since the problem was viral, might as well have been Tic Tacs. We spent the week watching the garbage barge plough up and down the canal, opposite the final resting place of Marco Polo, with whom I longed to swap places. Death, I gently reflected, would also cure my tinnitus. Death almost came early in the form of the police motorboat that nearly rammed our water taxi on the way to the station, but we made it back alive and somehow still testing negative. We tested again the day after we got home. I think I may be the first person to get the T line before the C line.


My planned summer reading (all Russia and culture wars, apparently) has been wrecked by the pea-soup haar that rolls over my brain from midday onwards. Mercifully, Portal 2 has just been released for the hand-held Nintendo Switch. Portal 2, one of the funniest and cleverest video games ever made, is based on a brilliantly simple and intoxicating conceit. You have a gun. It fires two kinds of hole into a certain receptive material that you can find on walls, floors and ceilings as you walk through the world of the game. One hole is of entry, one of egress. They can be very far apart. The manner you enter the hole affects how you exit: if you gain height so that you can fall into one hole, you’ll shoot out from the other – so flying, of a sort, is briefly possible. This allows the player to navigate otherwise impassable and vast spaces. The game is set in a labyrinthine ‘testing centre’, where you have woken from cryogenic sleep long after bombs have laid waste to the planet; you must break out via an endless series of accurately placed holes in increasingly complex escape rooms. You receive the taped and tannoyed encouragement of the proprietor, a long-dead Henry Ford-like psychopath, voiced by J K Simmons. Stephen Merchant plays a power-crazed robot with a Somerset accent.

As it starts to infect your dreams, you realise that Portal 2 is really an allegory of the imaginative leap: the way in which we traverse the space between distant concepts, via the secret conduits we place within them. My own art form was long in the business of making miraculous connections between apparently unrelated things. Indeed, poetry used to have first dibs on such moves, and ‘poetic’ was used to describe a solution that proved elegance and economy two sides of the same coin. Leafing through this month’s little magazines, I am not sure the new intake has much use for portal guns. I have learned not to say ‘this is bad’ but instead ‘this stuff is not for me’, like a good cultural relativist; but how could it be? The corollary of incentivising an obsession with identity and victimhood is that poetry has never been so self-absorbed, nor conducted in such private languages. Most of these poems are just one hole, leading absolutely nowhere.


But one has to persist. Empathy is our moral portal gun, and it jams from underuse. Just before I got sick I reread Ian Hamilton’s Against Oblivion, his 20th-century version of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, for the first time since it was published twenty years ago. Far too white and male a selection even in 2002, it wouldn’t survive contemporary scrutiny; too much female talent makes way for male mediocrity. Hamilton finished it on his deathbed, which may explain the absence in his introduction of the kind of righteous spleen in which I used to take such guilty pleasure (his carpet-bombing intro to the old Penguin Robert Frost remains my all-time favourite worst-ever piece of literary advocacy). But now I can see that Against Oblivion is a book of carefully extended generosities. A few poets are judged beyond help: E E Cummings is still a twerp, and apparently HD is as bad as we originally thought she was. But mostly he finds small, treasurable and unsuspected virtues in now-minor figures – Norman Cameron, Henry Reed, Conrad Aiken, Roy Fuller – otherwise destined for the oubliette. Movingly, it reads like a book by a dying man who has made a conscious decision, against his temperamental inclination, to do his best by folk. Anyone who would meet such an enterprise with only a ‘do better’ possesses, I’d propose, too little human empathy to be trusted in regard to anything else.

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