December 31, 2004

Temporary like Achilles

There is no recovering some memories, however far back in time you go. I have tried to trace where my interest in the ancient world began, but there is no starting-point that I remember, only some of the milestones along the way. It's something that's happened to me gradually rather than something I took a decision to go for. Most things are like that. When people talk about all the decisions they make in their lives it makes me laugh, and not laugh kindly. Life is not a game of chess. If it were, I fancy I would be a great deal better at it.

The same is true of my fondness for classical music, which is more recent than anybody who speaks to me about must imagine, dating from a long time after my childhood, my early record-buying years and even my time - my first time - as a student. The only time I can recall showing an interest in classical music when I was at Oxford was in knowing, for a crossword, either that Beethoven's only opera was called Fidelio, or that the opera, Fidelio, was written by Beethoven. My friend remarked that it was strange, I always knew the answer to the classical music questions. I remember the remark and I remember thinking that yes, it was strange. But I cannot remember ever knowing any other answers than that.

Classical music and the classics: both are far distant in time and my interest in both - certainly the degree of my interest - is recent enough. I assume that the two are inextricably linked, that in either instance the idea is to retreat from there here and now, to remove myself as far as I can from the present. When you have withdrawn from everything possible in the here and now, that only leaves the here and now itself from which to keep one's distance. So this is why I do the things I do. Even my passion for chess seems to me to be water drawn from the very same well.

I'd come across a little of the ancient world in passing. We learned some of the myths in the first year of secondary school (I can still remember one pupil asking, "Sir, did this really happen?", much as another might ask of a poetry composition, "Sir, does it have to rhyme?") and I read bits of Virgil - the second book of the Aeneid, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes and the rest, for my Latin O-Level. We also read the letters of the younger Pliny, about which I remember nothing save that he reported the destruction of Pompeii.

I also read Aristotle when I was at Oxford. Or rather, it was on my reading list and I bought a copy of the Politics. This was an advance of a sort. As a rule, almost everything on the reading list went unread, and almost everything I bought would go unread as well. (Just about the only books I bought and read were by people like EP Thompson and Christopher Hill and weren't really necessary for the curriculum I was studying.) The Politics went mostly unread, save for some of the comparisons of governmental forms which I read with theoretical interest but insufficient knowledge of Aristotle's subject matter to keep proper track. I knew very little of the world within and about which it was written. At the time I was unaware that there had been a Peloponnesian War, let alone who had fought it, or who won.

I did find out not very long after. In the nine years after leaving Oxford (after leaving Oxford University, that is, since I carried on living in the one, and the one is not the other) I lodged with Graham, who had come to the university to study Chemistry, had ended up reading Classics instead and who had copies of Ste Croix's Class Struggle In The Ancient Greek World and his Origins of the Peloponnesian War. I read neither book, since I was yet to recover from the destruction of my enthusiasm for reading - or for anything else - that was among the consequences of my three years "studying" in Oxford and the breakdown that I suffered at the end.

Graham also wrote an article for a socialist magazine in which he celebrated the 2500 years that had passed since the origins of democracy in ancient Athens. This was an anniversary of which I was unaware and an event of which my awareness was only marginally greater. All of this, being Politics, the only subject, as I now very much regret, about which I remained able to read, stimulated my interest to some degree. But not enough. Not enough to shake off my lack of enthusiasm for enthusiasm, not enough to make me read more.

I could watch more. I remember a TV programme in which the late Bob Peck read passages from Thucydides, culminating in the disaster that overcame the Athenian force during its expedition to Sicily, captured or killed in its entirety. I remember also reading a copy of Suetonius' Twelve Caesars, which I found in the back of a friend's car on the way home from a football match, and thinking it a breeze. Though not a pleasant one for the benighted members of the ruling class of Rome, the casualty rate amongst whom, during the reigns of Nero and his successors, appeared to match that suffered by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during Stalin's purges. I couldn't understand why people worried about being sent into exile. It seemed to me to be several degrees of magnitude safer than any of the conceivable alternatives.

This was what first attracted me to the classics. Good stories without unnecessary fiction. I still cannot really read fiction any more. I doubt that I have completed twenty novels in the last ten years. I find myself too much aware of the artificiality of the novel, too disinterested in the characters created by the author and therefore insufficiently affected by what happens to them. It's not a critique. It's certainly not a theoretical position. It's just an inability to concentrate.

I skim-read. I keep track but I cannot keep my mind on it. So I build up no picture of the individual, and very little awareness of them other than a name. But I am aware of events. They keep me reading. I may not care so much what happens to the characters, but I still want to know what happens. I kept reading Xenophon because I wanted to know if they would make it home to Greece and what would happen on the way.

Even if you know the outcome, as you always would in a Hollywood film, it is still worth following for the exigencies, the contingencies, the reversals of fortune, the difficulties overcome and the ingenuity involved in overcoming them. So I was less moved than one is supposed to be by the cries of "The sea! The sea!" - I knew that it was coming and could therefore hardly share the Cortez-like wonder and bewilderment of the Greeks. But The Persian Expedition is still only halfway through when they find themselves on the shores of the Black Sea, and although they know it not, half their journey is still ahead of them. And one reads on.

I liked also the straightforwardness with which the Greeks appeared to discuss ideas. That was one of the merits of democracy being the exception among the political systems of the day (and an unpopular exception with most of its leading thinkers). If they did not believe in democracy, they felt no mealy-mouthed compulsion to pretend they did. What they said was what they thought. And the presentation of their ideas had the same straightforward quality. As nothing was assumed, therefore everything had to be explained. The most advanced political works nevertheless include the most basic definitions of their terms. If they are among the most influential works of political thought in human history, they are also, often, among the most accessible.

To start from first principles is an approach I find refreshing. I read Plato's Republic, mostly on a ferry journey between Dublin and Holyhead, and learned from the translator's introduction that Socrates spent his time travelling through Greece asking people what they meant when they casually used terms like right or freedom. It is not hard to see how this must have got on people's nerves, and perhaps how it might have made the man unpopular enough to lead, however indirectly, to his trial and his bowl of hemlock. It is also annoyingly reminiscent of Michael Howard, who often invokes the phrase "as I go about the country talking to people" before expounding his latest prejudice-driven policy initiative - as if he actually did this, which he patently does not, but also as if he were a contemporary Socrates. (But one who has dispensed with all the wisdom while retaining all the capacity to irritate.)

But it is at least a starting-point allowing for the discussion of the ideas and concepts that we please. It is the very opposite to the enervating complacency that passes for political discussion in the contemporary world, where we are invited to assume - where we are instructed to assume, if only by default - that all the great questions of politics and economics have been resolved by the events of the last twenty years of history and that the world which we are living in is the last and only one imaginable. The Greeks, by contrast, were well aware that there were a whole range of possibilities. Political systems were altered by human action in the world in which they lived, and in a variety of directions. Nothing was settled. Nothing, therefore, could be assumed.

It followed, therefore, that where it was possible to change the system under which one lived, it was necessarily possible to imagine such a change. Idealism was not something to be sneered at. Indeed, it was something which their thinkers were supposed to engage in, something which was arguably the primary purpose. Therefore their thought was alive, alive and healthy where ours has already pronounced itself dead and happy to be dead. (There are good reasons for retreating from the here and now.)

I read Xenophon when living in the YWCA in Newcastle during the autumn and winter of 2001. I had a tiny room but had to stay in it most of the time. Being a hostel, the TV room was usually occupied by a few people who no more wanted to see you than you wanted to see them. What violence there was, was sporadic and short-lived, and usually led to the expulsion of the offenders: but muttered threats, however vain they may be, are unpleasant and unsettling all the same, and there is always the risk of being caught up in something and finding oneself also expelled and with nowhere to go but the street.

So there was little to do but read - I had no money to go out with- and so I read. I read Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Spartacus. I also read the life of Spartacus in a collection of biographies by Plutarch, who is able to find very little harmful to say about a man whose memory he must have feared and hated. Then, while I was still at the YWCA, 9/11 happened. And I read Thucydides.

Auden's poem September 1, 1939 came into my mind on the very day of the attacks. I remember posting it on the internet - it went round the internet, as I was far from the only one to whom it almost instantly occurred - and emailing it to friends. The feeling of foreboding, the certainty of war to come, the feeling that the politics of the recent years were rotten and were about to burst and eject all the accumulated poison into the world at large. These, in the minds of many, linked poem, past and present.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
And there, in the third verse, was Thucydides, the historian of the Peloponnesian war, about which I should have read Graham's book ten years before. The war which defeated and destroyed the power of the state which first founded the idea of political democracy and then discredited it through its recourse to imperialism:
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
I had, therefore, to read Thucydides. When I did, I came across a most striking passage in the second of his eight books. Archidamus, one of the two Kings of Sparta, warning of the danger of Athenian resistance and vengeance should the Spartans attack their territory, has these words attributed to him:
People grow angry when they suffer things that they are quite unused to suffer and when these things go on actually in front of their own eyes. They do not wait to think, but plunge into action on the spur of their impulse. And the Athenians are especially likely to act in this way, since they think that they have a right to supremacy and are much more used to invading and destroying other people's land than seeing this happening to their own land.
Thucydides knew. Auden knew what Thucydides knew, and I could hardly help but know the same. We must suffer them all again. And that bounced me back from the ancient world to the contemporary, and back to the ancient, no longer to hide from the contemporary but to understand it. To Tacitus, his Agricola, and the contempt of Calgacus for the Pax Romana:
They create a desolation, and they call it peace.
One is pulled back, inevitably, to the here and now. It is, after all, a major reason why the Victorians studied the Greeks and Romans as thoroughly as they did. They admired, in the Greeks, the defeat of democracy - and in the Romans, the triumph of imperialism.

Ste Croix writes:
Romans often pretended that their empire had been acquired almost against their own will, by a series of defensive actions, which could be made to sound positively virtuous when they were represented as undertaken in defence of others, especially Rome's 'allies'. Thus according to Cicero, in whom we can often find the choicest expression of any given kind of Roman hypocrisy, it was in the course of 'defending their allies', sociis defendendis, that the Romans became 'masters of all lands' (De Republica, II.23/35). The speaker in the dialogue, almost certainly Laelius (who often represents Cicero's own views) goes on to express opinions - basically similar to the theory of 'natural slavery' - according to which some peoples can actually benefit from being in a state of complete political subjection to fairness to Cicero, we must not fail to notice that on several occasions in his letters and speeches he knows a real awareness of the hatred Rome had aroused among many subject peoples by the oppression and exploitation to which she had exposed them.
The present is full of echoes of the past. But repair to the past - and it is full of echoes of the present. There are no hermits any more. All your escapes are merely temporary.
An' here I sit so patiently
Waiting to find out what price
You have to pay to get out of
Going through all these things twice.
All the things from which we try to take shelter. We must suffer them all again.

December 26, 2004

What we have here is a failure to communicate

An educated slave of Plutarch's who knew his master's treatise On freedom from anger (Peri aorgesias, usually referred to by its Latin title De cohinbenda ira) protested, while being flogged, that Plutarch was being inconsistent and giving in to the very fault he had reprobated. Plutarch was quite unabashed. Insisting he was perfectly calm, he invited the slave to continue the argument with him - in the same breath ordering the flogger to continue applying the lash.

- Geoffrey de Ste Croix, The Class Struggle In The Ancient Greek World

December 25, 2004

Four thoughts

I said I wanted to hear Eliot read aloud. No sooner had I said it than I was given the chance. A couple of weeks ago I went to a reading of the Four Quartets at the Calder Bookshop in Southwark.

I've been to a few readings and other literary evenings in London over the past year or so. They're one of London's little worlds-of-their-own that contribute much of its metropolitan mosaic. If you going to live here - and for choice, I'd live some way north - you may as well explore some of the different worlds that exist within it, be they the hidden-away rentier world of Chelsea or Marylebone, the South London suburbia where I play much of my chess, or the life of small specialist bookshops and the wider, but still small and semi-hidden world of publishing of which those shops are part.

Michael Moorcock wrote twenty years ago in a pamphlet, The Retreat from Liberty, that you could believe in anything you wanted in London, provided you stayed in the right places. Go to some of these places and you can see what he meant. I can walk less than a mile from Brixton to Dulwich and in doing so go from a smashed-up estate to the world of tall hedges around large gardens - long driveways and preparatory schools and Dulwich Picture Gallery. But it is quite possible to live a lifetime in either without ever visiting the other or being more than intermittently aware of its existence.

I cannot be in one without thinking of the other, because of one of the consequences of an Oxbridge education after a comprehensive school, or a series of low-paid jobs after an Oxbridge education, is that my lifetime has been lived in a combination of the two. Like a writer, I have lived in one - not always the same one - and criss-crossed the border with the other, and spent much of that time pondering the relationship between them. But for most people in either of these worlds, the other is the Other, alien, uncomfortable, threatening in one sense or another.

The world of publishing has rather more of Dulwich about it than it has of Brixton. Or at least it is clothed that way, with silk scarves and cravats and suits that look as though they were purchased yesterday but designed forty years ago. It's hard to work out why. The small bookshops are usually empty and there's not supposed to be any money in books. There certainly isn't for authors.

I never liked publishers much, partly because they usually wouldn't publish the books I wanted to write, partly because even when they did, the money I got for working hard on them appeared to be less than their editor got for working on them as little as he could. It seems to be a world of cheap and unpaid labour on the one hand, and on the other, of permanent book launches and parties and lunching for a living, Brixton and Dulwich in the same trade, the same building, the same office. Most worlds are unhealthy that are not built on people working full-time for a solid living - they are divided and dysfunctional, manic, parasitical. On those criteria publishing is worse than call centres and almost as unhealthy as the world of rock 'n' roll. And yet, they bring books to fruition, and care about books, and have people read the Four Quartets, and with that on the credit side of the ledger, they can at least be half-forgiven.

We were in a back room behind the shop counter. To my surprise it was packed. There must have been about a hundred of us in there. Each Quartet was introduced by the owner of the bookshop, an old man who, he said, met Eliot himself a number of times, and each was read by a woman with a silk neckscarf and a man in a poloneck. (I like polonecks. I think the only time I have ever been complimented on my attire was when I was wearing a poloneck once.) They read alternately, or on one occasion together, changing voice - as far as I could see - for no particular reason made necessary by the text, or even by fatigue, since the turns differed enormously in length. Perhaps the reason for the variation was simply that - to vary, for the benefit of the listeners, to break it up at irregular intervals so as to keep us alert.

Because it is difficult, to listen to huge chunks of poetry at a sitting, especially when one is unfamiliar with most of the verse and has no time to digest it, the poem continuing as it does and allowing no time for reflection. (Harder still without the text in front of you. I had printed it out and brought it with me, but forgot to take it out of my bag and didn't want to rummage around while the reading was in progress. We were on to Little Gidding before I managed to retrieve it.) No sooner has one caught hold of an idea then one is presented with the choice - either let go of it straightaway or lose track of the poem. There is time, perhaps, only to hear echoes of other lines in the spoken lines of Eliot, before one moves on, to be reminded of the same idea one has heard before, in other forms, in other words. There was something in Eliot's parcelling up for death of all the great and good -
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
The captains, merchant bankers, eminent men of letters,
The generous patrons of art, the statesmen and the rulers,
Distinguished civil servants, chairmen of many committees,
Industrial lords and petty contractors, all go into the dark,
And dark the Sun and Moon, and the Almanach de Gotha
And the Stock Exchange Gazette, the Directory of Directors,
And cold the sense and lost the motive of action.
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury.
that brought to mind Dylan's Gotta Serve Somebody, which, for similar reasons but in a different way, reminds the wealthy and powerful of their powerlessness before God.
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
And on hearing Eliot's distrust of experience:
.....There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been.
I found myself thinking of Crass and Punk Is Dead:
Movements are systems, systems kill.
It doesn't matter that the echoes are partial, serendipitous, tangential - they are all one has time for. One follows the poem, or at least the rhythm of the words, and it lulls. So they break it up as best they can.

For all that, I found it a little monotonal, at least until they got as far as East Coker and its more discursive passages. When the poet speaks plainly (and Eliot can speak both plainly and allusively, to the nth degree in either case) then it is possible to follow his thoughts, to think them through at the same pace as he is doing, to dispense with:
...The intolerable wrestle
With words and meanings.
The poetry does not matter, not so much much when you're so close up to it, not when you are fighting to keep a hold of what the poet is saying, and he is fighting to get his point over to you. That is what East Coker is about, that is why he stops himself in his tracks (as he does in Prufrock) and makes himself point the point more plainly. First he rebukes himself -
That was a way of putting it-not very satisfactory:
A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion
and then the listener:
You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again?
because this is urgent, this is desperate, things are wrong, as wrong as things can be.
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
It is an enormous cry of despair, East Coker, as are the Quartets in general - I know of no poems of similar stature which are so entirely enveloped in gloom, which pass so soon from life (go, go, go said the bird) to dark (humankind cannot bear very much reality) and to death (they all go into the dark) and stay there. Eliot calms down towards the end of the second Quartet, his mood becomes more meditative, but no more optimistic:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years-
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate-but there is no competition-
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
And that is the passage which stopped me, which cannot be evaded or ignored or pushed away. Twenty years largely wasted. One has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say. There is only the fight to recover what has been lost / And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions / That seem unpropitious. I know what most of that means, or at least, I have my own meaning for it, and I have the feeling, if not quite of entre deux guerres, as of having been through one war and not yet having returned, not entirely, not whole.

Towards the end of the fourth Quartet, Little Gidding, a man in the audience got to his feet. The reading of the final section had begun, and the man in the poloneck had begun the passage that ends, despairingly, with the phrase Every poem an epitaph, as if everything were death or the preparation or the recognition of death:
...any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea's throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
and he got up from the front row. I thought at first that he was going to heckle, to intervene in some way, to express contempt for the reading or the reader or for Eliot himself, but instead he headed toward the exit, as if he couldn't face any more. But just as he reached the door, he stopped and crumpled and fell to the floor.

He was - I don't know, part-ushered, part-dragged - into the main part of the bookshop, and an ambulance called. As it transpired he had only fainted - the room was stuffy, and full. But I thought for a moment that he had died. I thought for a while that Eliot's poem on the theme of inescapable futility and death had ended in the demise of one of its listeners.

December 20, 2004

You'll never eat lunch in this town again

According to the Standard, following the revelation of her affair with Simon Hoggart, Kimberly Quinn has lost her friends and "may be forced to quit London".

How would that work, I wonder?

Would it be like Ving Rhames telling Bruce Willis that he'd "lost his LA privileges"?

Or like Eric Ackroyd, exiled to London for accidentally allowing fresh air into the Grindley smokeworks?

Or like the Emperor Augustus banishing Ovid to the province of Pontus?

Or does it just rest on some definition of "London" that refers solely to people who live in Islington, work in Westminster and eat at restaurants in Chelsea and Soho?

December 19, 2004

Insane difference

I was reading a review of Anna Politkovskaya's book Putin's Russia containing the following passage:
For old Soviet specialists, there is the surreal re-emergence of the Serbski institute of psychiatry and Dr Pechernikova. She was notorious for putting away anti-Soviet dissidents in the 1960s and 1970s for "schizophrenia"; in other words, being mad enough to question the regime. Thirty years later she pops up, again doing her duty for the authorities by examining an army officer accused of the rape and murder of a 15-year-old Chechen girl. To the public delight of the military hierarchy, he was diagnosed by the good doctor as having had "a temporary mental breakdown" that night.
I couldn't help thinking, in the week of David Blunkett's resignation and the subsequent verdict of the Law Lords, that we just lost a Home Secretary whose major achievement has been to lock people up in Belmarsh Prison without charge or trial and with the outcome that four of them - so far - have lost their sanity.

I wonder. Who do I think the winner in this particular sprint towards the ethical basement? Is it she who locks people up and claims that they are mad? Or he who locks them up until they are?

December 17, 2004


I had a very strange experience yesterday. I sat in a conference room in the ACAS offices in Borough High Street and argued a case in front of an independent assessor. It was not a numerically equal contest. Each party was lined up on one side of the room, with tables and microphones and nameplates. On the one side of the room were two UNISON full-time officials, three lay officials, a solicitor and a barrister from the same chambers as Tony Blair's wife. On the other side of the room - me. And only me.

Thinking about it now, it reminds me of the scene in The Name of The Rose where all the monks and all the Papal representatives gather together to talk through a controversy which, we assume from all the song and dance about it, from the suggestion that the whole state of the Church depends on its settlement, must be something obviously important and controversial - and is then announced to be the question of whether or not Christ owned the clothes which he wore. The critical question on which I was divided from UNISON, their brief and his bag-carrier was this: whether or not, at an AGM of a union Branch on the first of March 2004, the person who went as delegate to the National Conference later in the year was properly elected.

It would test the patience of a Trappist monk to take anybody through the details of the case, the 'bundle' of which came to nearly 150 pages' worth of documents, mostly consisting of all the emails and letters that had gone back and forth between myself and various UNISON officials over the months and years leading up to hearing. It's not important anyway. The case is done, and heard, and it's most unlikely that I shall win it.

In the first place, I doubt whether I can (or did) prove to an independent observer's satisfaction that my version of events - at a meeting more than nine months previous of which there were no records or minutes in existence - was correct, whereas the version given by my opponents was false. In the second place, it turned out - a deus ex machina if ever I saw one - that my employer may very well have neglected, when I joined the union in April 2002 and ever since, to deduct any subscriptions from my salary. UNISON therefore argue that according to their constitution that disqualifies me from membership in the first place, thereby meaning that I am not permitted to bring the case against them anyway.

Curiously it took them until the very last moment to tell me this (they sent a letter making the claim on the very last day for submissions to the tribunal) and, indeed, until fifteen minutes before the hearing to supply any documentation supporting their claim. I don't much like that way of doing things. There's a good reason for this. It's that it's because they go about their business in this fashion that an extremely minor dispute involving one branch of the union should end up in an expensive tribunal and apparently require an expensive barrister to argue UNISON's side of the case. Flattering, I suppose, that they should think all this was necessary in order to see me off, but in truth they didn't need to do any of this. All they had to do was properly answer any of those letters and emails that I sent about the matter in the first place.

I first emailed the Branch Secretary about it in July 2003 (when she had managed to go to the previous year's conference without any mention of her election being made at that year's AGM). I was surprised, more than anything. Having been a union representative myself for many years, and one who was aware of the requirements and importance of trade union democracy, I didn't much like the idea of people taking up posts without receiving the say-so of the members. There was no corruption in it, no malign intention, and the post itself was uncontested anyway. But it is not the way things should be done.

Fearing a repetition, I tried again this year, emailing twice in January. I didn't get a straight answer, let alone a satisfactory one. In March, I wrote twice to a regional official. In May, I wrote twice more to another regional official. In June, I wrote to the Regional Secretary. The replies - when I was favoured with replies - were not just unhelpful, they were entirely hostile. The higher I went, the less helpful and more hostile the response. It was the instinctive response of the bureaucrat everywhere and all through recorded history: Don't deal with it. Don't discuss it. Get rid of them. Don't let anybody know such claims are being made.

Had anybody, at any point in the process, done what they should have done, and spoken to me, for long enough to establish that I was a bona fide complainant with bona fide concerns, then we would not have found ourselves in Borough High Street all day Thursday. The sole impact of any investigation would have been to improve the operation of the branch and ensure that in future, proper democratic procedures were adhered to. The actual impact of the lack of the investigation will, presumably, be that democratic procedures remain unadhered to for the foreseeable future.

I can't say that I care less. I won't be there to see it. Because the other impact of this fiasco is that after fifteen years' worth of trades union activism, an experienced trades unionist found it necessary to resign from his trade union. It's what I believe in, when everything is stripped down to essentials, the rock on which everything else is built: the collective organisation of the labour force. But I don't care. I have withdrawn in disgust. If what you get for being concerned about union democracy is to be successively ignored, insulted and hounded by that same union, if they think the appropriate response is to hire expensive barristers against you and to try and stop your complaint even being heard, then, you know, let them have their way. I do not need it. I've given up anyway. Let them have their way. Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

Like I say, I can't prove it. You can't prove anything about meetings of which there are no minutes (they didn't do that, either). But I have a question. Or I would have, if there were anybody further of whom I could ask it.

Among the bundle was a copy of the form on which our delegate announced herself as the duly elected delegate of the branch, a process that was allegedly not completed (and could not properly have been completed) until the aforementioned Annual General Meeting. The form was received at UNISON headquarters on the twelfth of February 2004. Which is strange, because the AGM wasn't held until the first of March. And it strikes me that something is very iffy about a process which is not supposed to be completed until the first of March, but whose result is announced, eighteen days earlier, on February the twelfth.

But there can't be anything really odd about it. Or nothing odd about it, perhaps, by the standards prevailing in UNISON. Because I can see no other reason why a simple query about a simple matter should otherwise have ended in a conference room used by the Certification Officer at the offices of ACAS in Borough High Street, with two UNISON full-time officials, three UNISON lay officials, a solicitor and a barrister, all lined up together just to deal with me.

December 13, 2004

Down to me

I've always had this idea that I'd like to be the only person in a cinema audience. Either as a gag or as something more than that, I don't really know. Either it's an amusing irony I would like to share with my friends, demonstrating the eclecticism of my tastes, so individual that I went to see something that nobody else could wish to see, or I really want to do this, really want to be in that large, dark room on my own, want to keep everybody else out, want to keep them away.

I might want that, thinking about it. The more I think about it, the more I think I want it. I have a large rejectionist streak in me, the streak that makes me walk away from places, people, conversations, maybe before they walk away from me, maybe because they're never really what I want.

I was talking, last year I think, to a friend from university days who wanted to know why I'd cut him and so many other people off after we'd finished our time there - a deeply unhappy experience which culminated in much personal anguish and a breakdown that went on for five or six years. I told him I didn't know really - you never really know about things you do emotionally and impulsively, or at least you never know at the time even if you understand yourself a bit better some years down the line. But I thought I was just rejecting everybody because, friends or not, they weren't really what I wanted. Put like that it sounded spoiled and brattish. It looks spoiled and brattish on the screen. But that wasn't how it was. It wasn't something under my control. You can just get to the point where your systems start rejecting everything like the body rejects a new organ, and that was what happened all those years ago. I just didn't want anything any more, just didn't want to know anybody or anything any more, just wanted to be alone.

I've never managed to be alone in the cinema yet. I nearly managed it in Ilfracombe when on holiday in 1998. They have (or had, I don't know) a little arts cinema in the town and it was showing Face, which I hadn't seen, and when I turned up at the cinema I was the only one there. Unfortunately, they decided they couldn't be bothered to open up and show it just for me, a decision which led to a heated exchange on the subject of my having wasted the last half an hour waiting for them to open. (I say exchange. In fact, as I recall, I shouted at them and they couldn't be bothered to answer back. It's one thing to want to be on your own. It's quite another, I think, to have an argument entirely on your own.)

I was the only person in the cinema when the trailers began before Richard Linklater's Waking Life, although my hopes were dashed when another five people turned up before the film began. (There were, however, only three of us left in the cinema when the film came to an end. Ansd for all I know the other two were asleep.) The only other Linklater film I've seen is Slacker, which I saw at home, on my own, on video. I had a conversation about it with a friend afterwards in which he said that he'd seen it and thought of me. I replied that yeah, I had to admit that I'd followed all the conspiracy theories and ancient political discussions the characters had gone through in the film and I'd been familiar with all of them. He said no, it wasn't that. He'd just thought I ought to be in it. I'm still not sure what he meant.

There was a documentary on Linklater on Channel Four tonight. Not a very good or very illuminating one, but they did spend a lot of time repeating one line from Slacker which the presenter seemed to think was close to the core of Linklater's thinking. (I hesitate to use the term philosophy, if only because the presenter wanted to use the term Rickosophy which was embarrassing enough for several documentaries.) In Slacker, one character says:

Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.

It's not. But not necessarily in the way they meant. The way you'd look at it first, withdrawing in disgust would appear to be the active option, apathy the passive one. You take yourself away from the world - that's an action, a decision, an active decision. You don't care about the world - that's an absence, a lack, an emptiness. You do one after thought. The other takes place without it.

But I think maybe otherwise. I think it might be the other way round. I think apathy is a decision. I think you decide not to give a monkey's. I think you take the decision either that you do not care, or that it is not profitable to be bothered and deflected by caring and its consequences, or that life is just to short and too rich to waste on care. And, on the other hand, I don't think you decide to withdraw from the world in disgust. I think you end up withdrawing. Else there would be no disgust. I think you withdraw hurt, battered, traumatised, any of these or any combination of them, all of them a process of rejection just as your body might reject a transplanted organ. You do not want it to. As a matter of fact it is the last thing in the world you want to do. But you have to do it anyway.

Disgust isn't necessarily a moral reaction, a judgment. It's a giving up, a wearisome abandonment of the struggle, a having-had-enough. A final emptying of patience. You just say - you find yourself saying - no, no, this is no good, this is just no good, if this is the best there is then it is still no good. And you simply do not want it and cannot have it. And you find yourself sitting, or wishing you were sitting, in a cinema or a field or a whole universe completely on your own.

Chess and Checkers

[I was trying to remember what this reminded me of - you're being mean and horrible to my kid! - and then I remembered - Richard Nixon's "Checkers" defence. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we're gonna keep it.]

Dear Serious Readers

Re: the photo of the chap with the chessboard in your newspaper and magazine ads.

On a chessboard the white square is always on the right-hand corner, not the left-hand one. It's an extremely common error - but also a completely baffling one to anybody who plays the game, as it's so easy to avoid.

It's a bit like having a photo of a football match with rugby posts at either end.





I'm afraid you'll have to get in the queue- you are the 7th person to write on this subject- sorry.

The board was set up by my 5 year old who was really proud of himself, until the complaints started coming in. I've already crushed him by telling him how much he has upset the world, so I won't pass on your note this time- I'm sure you won't mind.

It is gratifying to see that people are looking closely at our adverts at least ! One thing is for sure, Elliot will be properly setting up the chess set that Santa has bought him, next year.



Serious Readers

December 11, 2004

My brilliant career

I was reading a piece by Caryl Phillips in the Guardian today and he mentions canvassing for Labour in the general election of 1983:
I remember canvassing for the Labour party during the 1983 general election in the housing estate between Uxbridge Road and Goldhawk Road in Shepherds Bush. I pressed one doorbell, and a girl, who can hardly have been more than seven years old, answered the door. "Hello," I said, "Is your mother or father in?" The girl looked at me, and without turning around said, "Mum, there's a nigger at the door." But I'm a stubborn type of fellow. A few doors down the same block I tried again. An older man, in vest and carpet slippers, and with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, opened the door. "Will you be voting Labour in the forthcoming election?" He slowly looked me up and down. "Well," he said, "I was till I saw you." I went back to Labour headquarters and gently intimated to them that perhaps I wasn't their best canvassing tool.
Ah, the 1983 election. I remember it too. I remember two things in particular. One was the way in which the date on which the election was expected kept moving forward - from June 23, to June 16, to June 9. This only mattered to me because had it been on June 16 I would have been one of the youngest voters in the country. As it was, on the date finally chosen I was six days too young to vote.

In a marginal constituency - which Stevenage, with its overwhelmingly Labour council, should not have been - this might even have been a factor of some minor importance, keen as I was to vote for Labour, whose manifesto, its least successful since before the War, was the only one that I have ever liked. And indeed it seemed that way, as the other thing I remember was that two days before the vote, the local paper published a poll putting Labour neck-and-neck with the SDP and the Conservatives. (Or maybe with just one of them - I can't recall that well. But neck-and-neck for the lead, it certainly was.)

I therefore tore myself away from my A-Level revision, not that I ever did very much of it, in order to spend the next two days frantically canvassing for Labour votes across the housing estates of Stevenage. I didn't go to the count itself, which was just as well, as I needed my sleep to be properly rested for my exams.

It was also just as well because of the result. The fruit of my labours? The Conservatives won. It was neck-and-neck all right. The SDP were second, by around a thousand votes. Labour came third about ten thousand votes behind.

December 10, 2004

All I see is flames

I went to see Adrian Mitchell last night, at the London Review Bookshop. I was a bit worried that it would be an evening of agitprop poems and righteous people saying "yeah!". I needn't have been concerned. Half of the poems were written for kids and the other half were read for entertainment and a good time was had by all.

However, he concluded (as he always does, he said) with his most political poem, or at least his most famous one, and the reason I took an interest in Mitchell in the first place. I have seen the footage of him reading To Whom It May Concern in - I think - the Albert Hall in 1964 or 1965, and it's gripping, gripping in its anger and desperation:

I was run over by the truth one day.
Ever since the accident I've walked this way
So stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain,
Couldn't find myself so I went back to sleep again
So fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.
Made a marble phone book and I carved all the names
So coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

I smell something burning, hope it's just my brains.
They're only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains
So stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

Where were you at the time of the crime?
Down by the Cenotaph drinking slime
So chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out,
You take the human being and you twist it all about
So scrub my skin with women
Chain my tongue with whisky
Stuff my nose with garlic
Coat my eyes with butter
Fill my ears with silver
Stick my legs in plaster
Tell me lies about Vietnam.

I forgot about the poem for years. Even when 9/11 happened and I found myself anticipating vengeance and destruction, it was Auden who came to mind - to my mind, and to many others' too - rather than Mitchell.

And then, some time before the war began but some time after we knew it was going to happen - which ought to place it after the great march of February 15, though for some reason I am sure it was before - I dreamed of war and conflagration. I dreamed of the destruction of the world by fire. Every time I shut my eyes all I see is flames.

Heard the alarm clock screaming with pain. I was shocked when I awoke. I had never dreamed like that before, even though I suffer from nightmares and have them once or twice a week, sometimes more when my peace of mind is particuarly disturbed.

I fear my dreams. I fear them all the more because the reason that I dream the way I do must be because I am afraid. But I never dreamed that dream before, not even during the CND years when it used to be on our minds all the time, when you used to hear military aircraft in the sky - particuarly easy if you were living in Cambridgeshire - and think about it happening.

I always used to think of Crass instead, of They've Got A Bomb and its fantastic, paranoid lines:
They can't wait to use it
They can't wait to use it
They can't wait to try it out

Twenty odd years now waiting for the flash
which might sound mad now - oddballs indeed - but which is how it felt at the time, how it felt to worry about it day after day after day. But there were no dreams, until a shocking night twenty years later.

I don't know if I saved it up for all that time. I certainly didn't expect the bombing of Iraq to result in the end of the world by fire. I didn't half-expect it, or even fear it in the way that we feared mutually assured destruction when the Cruise missiles came. But I was unnerved, and fearful in some way, and it took my sleep and left me with a mind full of flame.

December 08, 2004

Who guards the Guardian?

To: Mr Ian Mayes
Readers' Editor
The Guardian

Dear Mr Mayes

I wonder if you and your editor might like to have a look at the Guardian's policy on writing offensive and ill-informed pieces about mental health problems? Twice in recent weeks your paper has run such pieces - a
piece by Sarfraz Manzoor treating stress as if it were just a skive, and then today's piece by Mary Kenny telling depression sufferers to be "brave" and pull ourselves together.

I wonder, would you run pieces treating a broken leg as a sickie, or telling somebody with cholera to pull themselves together? If not, why is it acceptable for pieces such as these to appear ? These are career-threatening, and indeed, in the case of depression, life-threatening ailments. Why does the Guardian see fit to demean their seriousness by responding to them in such an offhand and contemptuous manner?

Mr Manzoor, Ms Kenny or indeed your editor want to try living with stress or depression for a while: then they might appreciate what a desperate struggle it can be to cope with them and how shocking it is to be told that all one need to do is to pull oneself together.



Bringing the house down

The Standard yesterday, commenting on the job cuts at the BBC:

The job losses, totalling 7000, are likely to depress further the stagnant property market.

[this wasn't an afterthought, by the way. This was their main comment, in the third paragraph of a front-page story.]

December 04, 2004

Fortunes of agents

Anybody who stays in leftwing politics for long enough is liable to disillusion. So often you achieve so little, at so much cost to yourself, that you are, quite probably for years and years, a disaffection waiting to happen.

You lack enthusiasm. You lack optimism. And as these are necessities for any difficult and lengthy struggle against the odds, you lose the ability to play any role, other than as a peripheral participant in movements organised by other people. You find yourself an unhappy presence at the side of the room, with the air and countenance of somebody who has been disappointed too often, let down too many times by other people. Somebody hoping for everything but expecting nothing. Yet somebody anticipating the despair that comes from hoping for everything, rather than the serenity that expecting nothing brings.

Somebody unhappy. Somebody irritable. Somebody lacking patience with all the stupidity, all the faction fighting, all the denunciations, all the rhetoric, all the inability to let the small things go in order to concentrate on the big ones. Somebody lacking patience with people too young to understand that they do not know everything. Somebody lacking patience with oneself, for one's own impatience.

Yet, while the same gut feelings remain, it matters not so much. And mine still remain where they have been for a quarter of a century. I am still where I was. Though more constrained, though more truncated, I am still where I was. They also serve, who only stand and wait. But sometimes, it is hard to stand and wait, and not to walk away. Sometimes, one's patience is worn thin.

After the Hutton Report was published, the anti-war movement in London announced that they would hold a rally in Whitehall one Saturday afternoon in which they would burn a copy of his miserable and obsequious Report. As I was working that morning, I went along. I left the library at noon, and on the District Line on the way to Westminster, I suddenly realised that I had no business allowing this to happen without complaint. I was a librarian. A report is a book. A librarian cannot be present where books are burned. Cannot be present and say nothing.

So I realised that I was going to have to attend the rally - and object to what they were going to do. Even if I were the only one to do so - which would almost certainly be the case. It was a matter of conscience, conscience driven by the implicit vow I took when I became a librarian. But it was also a matter of the left not doing so many stupid and thoughtless things.

I know now, and knew then, that this wasn't some Nazi book-burning. One of the leading lights of the Stop The War Coalition, in a friendly enough fashion, told me so, after I had raised my voice against the burning. But I knew already. Of course it wasn't. But it was, nevertheless, a stupid thing to do. Stupid, because entirely unnecessary. Stupid, because it is not clever to associate the left, or the peace movement, with the sight of printed papers burning because we disagree with what they say. Stupid. And stupid things are better left undone.

Anyway, they went ahead and did it all the same, and I was pissed off at them but couldn't do anything about it, either about the act itself or the stupidity behind it. Nor could I do anything about the idiot youth in front of me, with whom I had the following exchange:
ejh: I can't stand aside while somebody burns a book.
him: It's not a book!
ejh: What is it then, if not a book?
him: It's not a book, it's lies!
The idiot youth was, I think, a little drunk, or at least I hope he was, because after that, when the burning began, he threw his arms in the air as if saluting a warlike god and shouted burn! burn! burn! in a way that made me shiver. I do not want to see a sight like that too often. I do not want to see my side looking like that too often. If I do, then sooner or later they will cease to be my side.

In between the discussion with the gentleman from Stop The War, and the confrontation with the idiot youth, I was the subject of a limited yet troubling verbal attack from another leading light in the Coalition. He wasn't pleased with me at all. He was sure that my intentions were not innocent. "I know what your game is", he verbally lunged at me. "I know what you're up to."

It was clear that he thought I was some sort of agent provocateur. And that, of course, is the swiftest way to drive somebody out of a movement, to label them a traitor, an agent of the other side. Not because most other people will necessarily believe them, but because, unless you are wholly committed, it is simply something you are not going to stick around and listen to. Why turn up and support a cause, why work for its success, if the price of doing so is to be told that you are working for the enemy? Why bother? Why care, if the price of caring is denunication?

Some people leave movements because they are expelled. Far more will take their leave because they are angry, disillusioned, worn out, worn down. The swiftest way to drive somebody out of a movement, is to label them a traitor, an agent of the other side. And that was just about the last day of my twenty-five years' worth of active political involvement.

The individual who accused me was none other than George Galloway. I wonder if he knows, now, how he made me feel?

December 01, 2004

Social absurdity

When I was living in Newcastle some years ago, I used to go and watch Hartlepool United play on a Saturday afternoon and would take a rickety train, not unlike the one that goes to Oban, down the County Durham coast. It would arrive at a station with only one accessible platform, which did not prevent the announcer stating that trains would be arriving "at platform one" as if there was anywhere else it could possibly go.

I would alight, go out of the station past a chip shop (presumably not the one where Peter Mandelson apocryphally mistook mushy peas for guacamole) and arrive on a deserted high street. It was reminiscent of a Western, like High Noon when the train has arrived at the station and the streets are empty because the bad guys are on their way: the wind blew rubbish, instead of the dust of the desert, down the street, and one could easily imagine the flapping of saloon doors. Especially as the pubs were the only places anybody seemed to be.

One of these pubs had been renamed The Office. After very brief reflection one assumed that this was in order to facilitate a little joke: when drinking there it would be possible to phone home and say "sorry I'm late dear, I'm still at the office".

It's hard to see how this joke was considered amusing for much longer than it took to think it up, but from little acorns great rebranding exercises grow, and hence this witticism was imposed in physical form on the good people of Hartlepool. It was harmless enough, its lasting effects presumably limited to earning an unearned bonus for somebody two hundred miles to the South.

I left the North-East nearly three years ago and forgot all about The Office, or would have done had I not spotted one or two other manifestations of the brand in one place or another. Then I was reminded of it in Glasgow city centre last Friday afternoon when making my way towards Queen Street station to catch the Oban train. In one of the gentrified alcoves between Hope Street and George Square I noticed a bar calling itself The Social.

I assumed this joke was along roughly the same lines as the other one. "I've got an appointment at the social." "I had to spend the afternoon down the social." Ribaching stuff, funnier the more people repeat it, funnier still the more times you repeat it yourself.

Or maybe otherwise. Maybe there was something I really didn't like very much about it. The expensive bar that has driven out the sort of pub you could afford to drink in. The expensive clientele that has driven out the sort of people who would have drunk there. The likelihood that the latter sort of people would have been familiar with the social when the former sort would know it only as a place they never had to go to. The feeling that this was all a joke, but not a very nice joke, because the whole joke was that you'd never really be down the actual social. That was for other people. That was for the sort of people who you didn't drink with. That was for the sort of people who used to drink round here and didn't any more. It was a joke made at their expense, by the people who had done well at their expense.

The Office - that was funny for a few seconds at least. But not The Social. Some jokes are never funny from the start.