Under the fingernails


The book is already seated at the desk when I enter my office. Papers and books are strewn over every surface. A large pot of coffee stands in the centre of the whirlpool, on top of  folder marked ‘Version 3’. The book does not offer me any.

‘What kept you, I’ve been here for three days.’

‘It certainly looks like it. Do have a seat by the way.’

‘I think you’ll find it’s pretty much there,’ the book says, ignoring me. It jabs its finger towards the green folder in the middle of the desk. ‘I think I’ve cracked it. Much leaner. Much more under the fingernails.’

‘May I?’ I say, lifting the coffee pot and the folder from under it.

‘And I’ve changed the title.’

‘The title? The title was the best bit!’

Exactly,’ says the book.

‘And anyway, what’s ‘under the fingernails’ got to do with it?’

‘It’s a Heaney thing,’ the book says. ‘I’ve got it here somewhere. One of those remarks from a poster or flier. It’s in a notebook somewhere. Something he said once. To the effect that Wilde pared the surface but Synge really went in under the fingernails. I’ve always rather liked it. As a kind of test, of what to aim for. I’ve got it here somewhere.’

‘I like it,’ I say.

‘I knew you would.’

‘But what does it mean?’

The book glares at me, trying to weigh up if I am serious.

‘Think of a thing,’ it says. ‘Let’s forget poetry for a moment. A popular thing. Like a film. American Beauty for example.’

‘I love that film.’


‘Now think of another film that’s about the same kind of stuff, not necessarily as famous, which treats the topic in a less glossy way, and which takes the risk of being less amused by its own presumption. Which gets out of the way of its own fabulousness to say something altogether more serious and haunting. Poetic, even.’

‘You’ve lost me.’

‘Which doesn’t care what we think about it.’

‘Like The Ice Storm you mean?’

‘Exactly. Like Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline in The Ice Storm. Under the fingernails. That bit where she rolls over in bed and lights a cigarette. Or when he starts crying. You’ve got it.’

‘Or the Chelsea of Osgood and Chopper Harris, circa 1970?’

‘Absolutely under the fingernails! Take no prisoners!’

‘Or Goya’s Black Paintings?’

‘You’ve got it.’

‘Or Blue. Or Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’. Or Shadows on Our Skin. Or Archipelago. Or Mary Oliver?’

‘That’s it! It’s the difference between the Today programme and From Our Own Correspondent. If you really want to know what’s going on you choose the latter.’

The book and I regard each other for what feels like a long minute. Neither of us moves.

Finally the book speaks. ‘That’s what you’ve got to measure up to. Go under the fingernails. To the quick.’





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