September 30, 2004

Ashington statement

The Guardian letters page is doing north-east accents at the moment:

A woman walks into a hairdresser's in Ashington and says "I'd like a perm please". "Certainly, madam," says the hairdresser. "I wandered lonely as a cloud."

September 29, 2004


From my holiday reading, Like A Fiery Elephant, The Story of BS Johnson by Jonathan Coe:

One of his press releases described him as 'the most important young English novelist now writing', but it galled him that not everybody accepted this view. (And besides, he wrote that press release himself.)

September 28, 2004

First, catch your cat

I wrote down the date on my scoresheet yesterday - 27 September 2004 - and thought there was something familiar about it, but just couldn't put my finger on it. It wasn't until hours later that I realised it was the fourth anniversary of my release - or escape - from the unit.

Talking of madness, I have devised a plan to convince the library, by stealth, that I have lost my mind. I already have quite a lot of pictures posted up around my desk at work. Famous paintings, mostly, and poems, but also cat photographs - Alfred, Guthrum and a kitten with a rifle. Now, having successfully located a Manx cat yesterday, I have another one. So I wonder. Suppose I photographed loads of cats, and put all their photos up around my desk. So many that they obscured my screen, that they ran loose on the table like inhabitants of a two-dimensional lost cats' home, so many that they started turning up in books. Word would spread about this lunatic at the medical campus library who was obsessed by cats, but everybody would be far too scared to ask me about it. They'd all start expecting a monomaniac moment like in The Shining when Shelley Duval discovers that Jack Nicholson's written nothing all winter except ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES JACK A DULL BOY over and over again. It'd be great.

Wasn't the reason why cranky old women got cats as their familiars that they wanted people to think of them as witches?

Joseph and the amazing technicolour television

Walking to the newsagent to buy my newspaper this morning I was surprised to see, in the electrical shop along the street, the face of Gillian Joseph reading the news on all the televisions. This would cause less surprise if I were still in Brixton, as Ms Joseph presents the local news in London, but wasn't entirely what I would have expected in Port Erin. For a moment I thought it must be the main nationwide breakfast show, but then I remembered that actually I'd just been watching that in my hotel room and it had been the usual presenters, among whose number Ms Joseph could not be counted. And sure enough, as I watched, the screen started showing us the travel news and we learned that there were delays on the WAGN and Silverlink services. Where they operate. In London. Three hundred miles away.

Why they would need to know that in Port Erin, I cannot imagine - the only pertinent travel news here being that the 0900 bus to Douglas left early, with the result that I missed it. Perhaps the televisions are set to the London news as a sign of sophistication or something, to impress locals looking for an escape from their slow and rural island life. "Watch this television and be transported into a metropolitan dreamworld of money, glamour and signal problems causing delays on the Piccadilly Line." That must be it.

September 27, 2004

Benn there, not done that

I can't watch the Labour Party Conference nowadays, whereas twenty-odd years ago I used to watch every second of it that I could. There's a few reasons for this, one of which is there are uncomfortable memories associated with it, and another that there are uncomfortable feelings associated with the sound of Tony Blair's voice, to which I have much the same reaction as I used to have to Margaret Thatcher's. Not entirely the same - back then I used to have to use the off switch, whereas now we can just operate the mute button. Of course if you leave the telly off in the first place then it makes no difference.

A third reason is that it just doesn't matter any more, since there's not the slightest expectation on anybody's part that any decisions made by the conference will have the slightest impact on the policy of the government, which renders it almost entirely pointless in the first place. (We used to say not "by the conference" but "by Conference", a familiarity and a capital letter which its current inert status hardly justifies). The conference itself is almost entirely abject, almost entirely happy with its status, happy to be thrown the bone of being allowed to discuss five - five! - motions all of its very own. Nobody in the world is interested any longer in the spectacle of the political correspondents all gossiping about what a hard conference its going to be and how It All Depends On The Leader's Speech - and then, when he gives the usual speech with the usual picked-for-the-occasion theme (Africa, world poverty, presumably childcare this time) gets the usual standing ovation from the usual sheep and is, as usual, declared to have triumphed by Andrew Marr et ses amis. Really, I would rather watch Trinny and Susannah. I would rather watch Friends with the sound off than the Labour Party Conference with the sound on.

The voice of the Left is almost entirely unheard, and when it is heard, it is only with the sort of patronising tolerance than is given to the likes of Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner because the courtiers in the press no longer see them as a threat. Who controls the present, controls the past, and the role of the Left in the past is not even debated - it is taken as a given that they were wrong, and damaging, and irresponsible, and all the things that the victors write in the history books about the defeated. Perhaps this will change, in the future, if the left does indeed make the smugocracy less sure of their supremacy. Just as it became much harder to make Westerns when the Civil Rights movement made it impossible to take for granted the myths on which the Western had depended, so a new left will cast doubt on the narrative which the history of the last two decades has imposed on the events which opened them.

Because I remember it differently. I remember thinking how possible it all was, how right and reasonable it seemed, and it seems right and reasonable to me now, even if much less possible and much less likely than I thought when I was younger. I remember how riveting it was, how close we seemed to the possibility of power, when Tony Benn declared to Conference that "we shall create a thousand peers". I have thought much about Hartley Shawcross, and his wonderful outburst in the House of Commons in 1946 that "we are the masters now!" - how important it as to have that said, how wonderful it must have been to say it and have the other side know you meant it. For me, Tony Benn's speech, much flinched at by cowards since, was of the same importance It had the same galvanising effect.

And even if it seems, now, that half my life has gone on trying to bring about an elusive and chimerical socialism - in conditions less favourable for socialist ideas than had been the case in England for more than a century - yet I still think that we were right, right to try, right even though we were defeated, defeated, mostly, because we were right.

September 25, 2004

Parks and gardens

I am on the Isle of Man, playing in their international chess tournament. I played here last year, and did so well (two wins out of nine, but the strength of the opposition!) that I came back this year. It's hard, incredibly hard, if you find yourself playing against people who are good enough to play professionally. Like a park footballer playing against league players. I'm about as good at chess as a park footballer is at football. A good park footballer, true, top division of the Sunday league and good enough to play non-league to a decent standard, but I know the difference between me and somebody who really knows how to play the game. Perhaps that's what being good at something is - being good enough to know how bad you are. Just as one of the consequences of being educated, of being well-read is that you know how little you have really read and how much there is to know that you will never know.

I'll come back to the subject, perhaps. It is fascinating playing against people who understand something that you understand, but understand it a hundred times better than you do. Unfortunately (particularly having lost my first game today) I probably won't get to play any of the grandmasters. Viktor Korchnoi is here. I probably won't get any closer to him than taking his photograph.

I bought a disposable camera at Stansted in case I see a Manx cat. I didn't see any last year. I've never seen one, though last year I went looking for them more than once. I didn't expect them to wander out into the street for my benefit so I went walking round the residential areas of Port Erin (which is a strange phrase, I admit, as if there were a financial district and an industrial area) to see if I could see any cats slipping over fences or sleeping under cars. To no avail, as all the cats I saw were accompanied by tails, to the number of one apiece.

Nothing daunted, I intend to go out looking for them again, round Port Erin and even Port St Mary if I have to. Creeping round peeking into people's back gardens late in the evening. Last year people probably thought I was a burglar. This year they'll probably think I'm a pervert.

September 24, 2004

The loser who wasn't

I accidentally broke my vows last night and drank a third pint before the time limit was up. I was in shock, is my explanation.

I play for Streatham and Brixton chess club, which, from early on last season, developed the habit of losing nearly all its matches by the narrowest possible margins, sometimes because of the most unspeakably foolish play when victory seemed assured. Not an "oh, we were unlucky" sort of defeat, where you take into account all the games you lost from good positions and none of the ones you won from bad positions. I mean the match is in the bag, opponents are playing on in games they might have resigned by now, other teammates are in positions which can only be lost through divine intervention, that sort of defeat. Those ones keep you awake at night through no force more subtle than sheer disbelief.

One match we lost last year, where one of our players had rook and four pawns against rook and managed to lose his own rook, was the sine qua non as far as Streatham and Brixton disasters are concerned. Horrific. The poor bloke concerned was so affected by the disaster that nobody from the club has seen or heard from him since. And that's what happens - once you start doing it, you carry on, because your confidence is demolished. Aware of how stupid you can be, you aware of your capacity for missing the obvious, you start expecting to blunder, you lose all capacity for trusting yourself and your own calculations. Which, in chess, is fatal. You have to believe the evidence of your own eyes and mind. If you don't, you're simply guessing, and worse than that, second-guessing yourself about mistakes you might have made. You put yourself into a Hall of Mirrors, and then you wonder why you can't see straight.

Last night we'd already lost one game stupidly, in a position where it ought to be impossible to lose but it looked, as the games reached their conclusion, like a win for the good guys. Score tied 2.5-2.5, board nine going west but winning in two or three of the remaining games and the other one a dead draw. (Likely result before that loss: 6.5-3.5. Likely result afterwards: 6-4.) Despite having two pints of Samuel Smith's Extra Stout before the match I had won quite early on, which enables me to be detached, i.e. completely reasonable, i.e. completely sanctimonious, about the debacle that followed.

Not so much about the half-point that looks to have slipped away on board five (likely result: 5.5-4.5) as I missed that particular blunder while I was still stunned by events lower down the order. Our seventh board, Jonathan, who's not had a good run recently, found himself on top, winning a pawn at the end of the session. Each player had about a minute left, not much more, for their last half-dozen moves. I've seen that many times before. Jonathan immediately lost the pawn back. I've seen players do that many times before. I've done it myself many times before. Jonathan and his opponent then blitzed out the next few moves almost instantly. I've seen that happen many times before.

But I've never before, not ever in thirty years or so of playing chess, seen what happened next. Jonathan's king was in the middle of the board but short of undefended squares to move to. His opponent gave check with a rook. Jonathan briefly took stock of the possible squares his king might move to, and seeing them either attacked by his opponent's pieces or already occupied by his own, concluded that his king could not escape the check and was therefore checkmated. "Ah", he said. "That's most unfortunate." And he held out his hand and conceded the game. Likely score: 4.5-5.5 and though there are unfinished games to be played out at a later date, we're probably going to lose, again, by the narrowest of margins.

Only it wasn't checkmate. Jonathan had a square free for his king. All he had to do was move it - it wasn't like there was any choice, he only had one legal move - and he was fine. Not checkmated, not even losing, quite possibly the opposite. Likely score: he doesn't lose and nor do we. His opponent couldn't believe it. He couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it now. I have never seen anything like it in my life.

So it was only about fifteen minutes later, when I was halfway down my pint of extremely strong Czech lager, that I realised what I had done. I'm supposed to allow four hours wearing-off time: it's a rule, and I was about forty minutes short. A blunder of my own, but not a fatal one. You won't see me do it again. Provided I don't see anybody else do that again. If I do, I might just consider myself absolved from the requirement to abstain from sin.
White (Jonathan): Ke3, Ne2, Rg3, Rc7, Ps a2, b2, c2, f4, g2 , h2.
Black: Kg8, Bd5, Re8, Rf6, Ps a6, b5, e6, g6, h7.

1.Kd4? Bc4 2.Re3 Be2 3.Re2 Rf4 4.Ke5 Rf5 5.Kd6 Rd5 0-1

September 23, 2004

The losers

I don't write about football any more. Which is sad in a way, as once upon a time I thought that was going to be my living. There's all sorts of reasons why, but one of them is that while, over the last ten years, it's become easier and easier to publish sports books of no merit or originality whatsoever, I found it was getting harder and harder to have anything published that I particularly wanted to write. I particularly want to write things that I want to say but nobody else seems interested in saying - something which in itself makes it difficult to show that anybody else is going to be interested in reading. It's very difficult. Too difficult. I can't do difficult things any more.

One book I had wanted to write would have been called The Losers. Sport is nearly always written about in terms of winning - even if there are all sorts of disasters on the way, it nearly always ends in victory. We identify with winners, winners are interviewed about being winners, and if they come from the right social circle they end up giving motivational seminars to businesspeople about how to be a winner. Winners are sung about, winners are invited to civic receptions and meetings with the Prime Minister, winners appear on chat shows and become pundits and go on A Question Of Sport.

To say so much is nothing original in itself, just a statement of the obvious and a much-repeated one at that. Even the exceptions are generally exceptions that prove the rule - like Colin Montgomerie and Jimmy White, who are famous for not having won what they prized most, but who should have done - because normally, they're winners. There is the occasional book, or documentary, about fringe players, disillusioned players, teams who lose and always lose - And Smith Must Score - but such things are rare.

Which is odd, and not odd. Not odd because most public interest in sport is about winning. Not only are people mostly interested in the top echelon of any sport, by definition those people who have beaten most of their opponents to get where they are, but they get a great deal more interested when there is the possibility of winning. Tim Henman at Wimbledon would be one sort of example. Another would be the brief but real enthusiasm for winners such as the curling team who won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, in matches watched by millions of people who had never seen a curling match before, who never would again, and who had not the faintest idea, while watching, what was going on or why. Or the people who watched Paula Radcliffe failing to win the Olympic marathon, an event which normally few people would have patience or motivation to watch.

Not odd, because winning is what sport is about. It is what distinguishes it from other cultural activities. Contests can, and do, take place, even in the performing arts - one thinks, for instance, of the plays which have come down to us from ancient Greece, or all of which were specifically written to be entered for competition. But only in sport is that competition the point, the purpose, the overriding goal, the nature of the thing itself. We try to win - we do not, or not legitimately and honorably, try to lose. So even before we ask why we find it so important to identify with winners, why we consider this important in our lives, winning is what matters, it is what we are fundamentally trying to do.

So not odd. But odd nevertheless. Because for every winner, almost by definition, there must be at least one loser and probably many more. So sport is full of losers, and yet they hardly get a mention. Lionise the plumage, and forget the dying bird. And this is what I wanted to write about. I wanted to talk to people who had lost, mostly to people who had lost and were therefore forgotten when otherwise they would have been remembered. Perhaps members of the Luton Town side of 1985, which lost an FA Cup Semi-Final which they were leading, against all expectations, with about four minutes to go. Their bus passed mine on the way home, and while everybody got up and applauded the players for their effort and their passion spent, I have rarely seen sportsmen look so devastated as these did. The image (and the occasion) has stuck in my mind, and for that reason if no other, I wanted to take it out, look it at and write about what it meant.

I wanted also to write about whether we are not, in fact, nearly all of us losers, and whether glorifying in victory and shunning the defeated does not, in fact, merely imprison us in the role which we are pretending to escape. And I wanted to write about that very term, Losers, and how brutal and vile and contemptible it is. Yet how bound up it is with the way we live and the way we are expected to live. There's a passage that has also stuck in my mind, from Slaughterhouse-Five, one whose strength Vonnegut disguises, in his paradoxical way, by putting it in the mouth of an American Nazi and traitor:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kim Hubbard, "It ain't no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be." It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power or gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: "If you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" There will also be an American flag no larger than a child's hand - glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.

We don't bother with losers. Which means we don't bother with ourselves. Or means that we rejoice in rules which make a game we cannot, will not win. Which truth is demonstrated by the fact that we have to find other people's victories to attach ourselves to. To have to search for someone else to be a winner confesses yourself the opposite, is this not obviously the truth?

I was thinking about all this again this morning because I was thinking about Brian Clough, and his "rise to the top", his two European Cups and all the rest of it, great achievements all. And suddenly it occurred to me that I had no idea who was the Malmo manager in 1979. Getting them to the European Cup Final must have been every bit as great an achievement as winning the trophy with Nottingham Forest. What Clough achieved, remarkably, with his English side must have been all but matched by his opposite number in Sweden. Yet I have no idea who did it. I have even tried to look it up without success. I am beaten, defeated, not up to the task. We record those things that matter. Therefore, what is not recorded, matters not. He did not win. And losers make no mark.

September 22, 2004

Res ipsa loquitur

My favourite book in the library is probably So You Want To Be A Brain Surgeon?. My favourite journal is Experimental Brain Research, just for the title, but So You Want to Be A Brain Surgeon? is the best of the books. I like it because, once or twice, though it has been in precisely the right position on the shelves, students have come up to me on the desk and said they couldn't find it. So off I stroll to the shelves, and there it is, right where it's supposed to be. "Here it is", I smile. "So you want to be a brain surgeon?"

September 21, 2004

Glasgow doesn't belong to me

When I went to see Supersize Me the other evening there was a trailer for Ken Loach's new film, Ae Fond Kiss, in which one of the characters says during a class:

I'm a Glaswegian Pakistani woman teenager who supports Glasgow Rangers in a Catholic school.
But she wouldn't say Glasgow Rangers, would she? She'd just say Rangers. I've never heard a Rangers fan say anything else, the addition being not only inaccurate (since the club is actually called Rangers Football Club) but also suggestive of other clubs called Rangers, and hence of a possible confusion between different clubs of similar name. No Rangers fan would ever countenance such a possibility.

Moreover, nobody brought up in Glasgow would ever think that Rangers could be misunderstood as meaning anything other than the team from Ibrox. You would know that, your listeners would know that and everybody would know that. What's odd is that Ken Loach and Paul Laverty don't seem to know that.

Chest pain

At about a quarter past four yesterday I felt pain in my chest. Not all that sharp, almost like indigestion: but prolonged and painful. I sat down, but the pain stayed with me, as it did when I got back up. Eventually I went next door to the staff room and had a cup of tea, which could, for all I know, have been entirely the wrong thing to do. But after several minutes, the pain eased up and suddenly disappeared.

This happens intermittently, every few months. I don't know if it's age, or stress, or lack of exercise or lousy diet or any combination of the above. I probably ought to go and ask a doctor - or look it up in a medical library, seeing as I work in one, though I remember what happened when Jerome K Jerome tried the same thing:
I remember going to the British Museum one day to read up the treatment for some slight ailment of which I had a touch--hay fever, I fancy it was. I got down the book, and read all I came to read; and then, in an unthinking moment, I idly turned the leaves, and began to indolently study diseases, generally. I forget which was the first distemper I plunged into--some fearful, devastating scourge, I know--and, before I had glanced half down the list of "premonitory symptoms," it was borne in upon me that I had fairly got it.

I sat for awhile, frozen with horror; and then, in the listlessness of despair, I again turned over the pages. I came to typhoid fever--read the symptoms--discovered that I had typhoid fever, must have had it for months without knowing it--wondered what else I had got; turned up St. Vitus's Dance--found, as I expected, that I had that too,--began to get interested in my case, and determined to sift it to the bottom, and so started alphabetically--read up ague, and learnt that I was sickening for it, and that the acute stage would commence in about another fortnight. Bright's disease, I was relieved to find, I had only in a modified form, and, so far as that was concerned, I might live for years. Cholera I had, with severe complications; and diphtheria I seemed to have been born with. I plodded conscientiously through the twenty-six letters, and the only malady I could conclude I had not got was housemaid's knee.

More likely though that I will just forget about it for another few months, until it happens again and either passes, as before, within a few minutes, or ripens into a heart attack.

September 20, 2004

No surrender to the IRM

I have just been informed that the office in which I work is called "the IRM office". It is a tribute to the usefulness of this description that I had not the faintest idea what it meant. I could have done ERM or IRA or even ILM, but IRM proved to be a little bit beyond me.

It turns out to mean Information Resources Management, which I should have probably have guessed given that ILM, the initialisation of my postgraduate degree, means Information and Library Management. (Why isn't it Library and Information Management?) But given that I thought I carried out the functions - or rituals, if I had my way - of an Acquisitions Librarian and a Cataloguer, and given that I am no more a manager than I am a labrador, the solution to the conundrum simply failed to occur to me.

I shall not be going along with (or what should one say, "demonstrating compliance"?) with this particular piece of management bureaucratese, apparently designed to choke all the personality and ubiquity out of what we do in the Acquisitions Office or the Cataloguing Room. And designed also to replace it with a function that sounds meaningless because it cannot be distinguished from anything else. Rather than say what it is, it is intent on not saying what it is as such - because it is attempting to describe, not its nature, but its role within an organisation. As if it were any role and any organisation. The lack of character is not only deliberate - it is essential.

I am not an information resources manager nor an information professional nor even a service provider. I am a librarian. And a free man. So there.

September 19, 2004

The prophet dismissed

After the War, Isaac Deutscher asked my great-aunt Ruth to become his secretary. She turned him down because, so the story goes, "he smelled".

(Not quite Karl Marx's piles, but a story worth repeating anyway. Or at any rate, I've now repeated it.)

September 17, 2004

I don't want to change the world

I used to remind myself of Marvin the Paranoid Android, but now I remind myself of Slartibartfast instead. One of my role models, Marvin. Him and Eeyore, whose Little Book Of Gloom always makes me laugh. Him, Eeyore, Victor Meldrew and Private Frazer out of Dad's Army. Them, and cats. But particularly Marvin, if only for refusing to be unnecessarily impressed by sunsets. I had a similar reaction when the eclipse happened in 1999 and I couldn't see what everybody else was making such a fuss about. Really I couldn't.

Anyway, Slartibartfast. I decided to retire from active political involvement recently, or at least retire until such time as I thought I had a good chance of seeing a cause or a campaign actually win. Which, given the nature of leftwing politics, is very rarely likely. I came into leftwing politics just before the miners' strike, and Warrington, and Wapping. Not to mention the election campaigns of 1983 and 1987. There's been a lot of lost causes. I knew most of them were lost before they even started.

I've always had an emotional attachment to lost causes. When I lived in Newcastle I supported Hartlepool rather than Darlington, because Darlington were favourites to win their division and Hartlepool the favourites to go down. When I was a kid, I chose the weakest-looking goldfish in the tank because I knew that if I didn't choose it, nobody else would. But after thirty years I'm tired of standing up for the weakest-looking goldfish. I'm tired of standing up and tired of standing out. I fear losing, and I fear conflict, and I fear the fact that I have a self-destructive appetite for conflict. I do not want to want it any more. I am exhausted. You do get exhausted, eventually.

If it's going to matter, I want to have a chance of winning. I watch London Broncos on this basis, going to see them when they're looking good and giving them a miss if I think Leeds or Bradford are going to cross the try-line ten or eleven times. I go to a lot of non-league football these days, and I'm sure it's because it doesn't matter, so it doesn't matter if you lose.

The other night, in the pub, I got invited to join the Greens, by a chap from Lambeth Green Party who remembered me from the antiwar movement. Not my politics, really - though I'll probably vote for them next time out, I'm far more red than green. But it was nice to be asked. It was nice to get an email tonight inviting me to the European Social Forum next month, but I don't think that I'll go. Not that you can lose, as such, at the European Social Forum, but I don't want the arguments, and the disagreements, and the getting worked up over things. Not again. Not for another twenty years or so.

Of course people often get like that when they get older. Which is all right, so long as you know you're doing it. People often claim that they've "grown up" - dreadful, smug, patronising phrase - when what they mean is that they've developed an aversion to unequal struggles, or that they're asking different questions than the ones they used to ask. Notably, instead of asking "how can we change the world?", they're asking "how can I make my way through life?". (Perhaps the most significant difference is the I instead of we.) And that's all right. I need to ask how I can make my way through life. But it doesn't make you very much use, politically. If all your instincts are to run away you're not going to be much good at fighting against the odds.

So I want to sleep a while, a long while, and have somebody wake me up when things are better, easier. They are, it's true, easier than they used to be, easier than they were ten or fifteen years ago, but not a damned sight easier enough. I can do small things, campaign against local property developers, put up a poster, write a little. But no causes, please. No legwork. No traumatic, life-shattering defeats. I lost twenty years of my life to the miners' strike.

And I could, I suppose, compare this to Isaac Deutscher, retiring to his ivory tower in the Fifties, but I'm not exactly Isaac Deutscher. I'm more of a Slartibartfast.

"... we weren't really expecting to find anybody about in fact. I sort of gathered that you were all dead or something ..."

"Dead?" said the old man. "Good gracious no, we have but slept."

"Slept?" said Arthur incredulously.

"Yes, through the economic recession you see," said the old man, apparently unconcerned about whether Arthur understood a word he was talking about or not.

"Er, economic recession?"

"Well you see, five million years ago the Galactic economy collapsed, and seeing that custom-made planets are something of a luxury commodity you see ..."

He paused and looked at Arthur.

"You know we built planets do you?" he asked solemnly.

"Well yes," said Arthur, "I'd sort of gathered ..."

"Fascinating trade," said the old man, and a wistful look came into his eyes, "doing the coastlines was always my favourite. Used to have endless fun doing the little bits in fjords ... so anyway," he said trying to find his thread again, "the recession came and we decided it would save us a lot of bother if we just slept through it. So we programmed the computers to revive us when it was all over."

The man stifled a very slight yawn and continued.

"The computers were index linked to the Galactic stock market prices you see, so that we'd all be revived when everybody else had rebuilt the economy enough to afford our rather expensive services."

Arthur, a regular Guardian reader, was deeply shocked at this.

"That's a pretty unpleasant way to behave isn't it?"

"Is it?" asked the old man mildly. "I'm sorry, I'm a bit out of touch."

I'm a bit out of touch. And I think I need it that way.

Second attempt

The burglar came back on Thursday morning. At three o'clock in the morning, with everybody who had a key already inside and asleep, there were prolonged rattling noises as somebody tried to open the door. Or so I'm told. Personally, I slept through the whole thing, just as I slept through the initial burglary.

Anyway, he didn't get in. Janet had the locks changed the day before, since when she came home, she confirmed that, as we'd suspected, a bunch of keys had gone missing. Lucky for us, then, that he didn't come back a couple of days earlier, before the locks were changed. We'd been relying on the less-than-reliable latch, leaving a key in one of the Yale locks and putting a front-side light on overnight.

This lad (if lad it be) can't be the brightest light himself though, as he may well have been the individual arrested at Victoria station on Monday morning in possession of my cheque book and filofax, as well as other stolen property taken from an address in Battersea. I have no idea how he came to be arrested. I can't imagine the Met were doing a citywide sweep for my missing passport to pass the time in the days before the hunting demo. All I know is that I got a call from my doctor's surgery on Monday morning, because they'd been called by the transport police and asked to contact me. I must have written their number somewhere prominent in my filo. So within a few hours, I was off work and down the police station giving a statement and being reunited with my chequebook and filo. Or, at least, with a transparent plastic bag bearing my chequebook and filo within, in case they were needed as evidence.

There were two pens attached to the filo, something I never do - and besides, the pens weren't mine. Perhaps the thief had intended to use it for himself but hadn't had the wit to take out the pages which identified it as mine. But you made just one tiny mistake.....

Afterwards the fingerprinting people came round and dusted Effi's windowsill half to death. I don't know if they got anything useful, and we still haven't heard anything back from them. This is awkward, as the suspect is maintaining that he "found" the items in his possession, and without any convincing fingerprints or any identification evidence - shame nobody saw him out of the window yesterday morning - he can probably get away with that. They could charge him with handling stolen goods, but it's scarcely worth it for so few recovered items, and a caution will probably be as far as it gets. At least I'll get my filo and chequebook back, albeit a bit late given that I already replaced them on Saturday.

I've not replaced my radio yet, which the police may have seeing as they called me on Monday night to try and identify one they'd found in the suspect's possession. I think it was mine, though it's hard to tell as I was trying to identify it down the phone, a difficult proposition with a radio even if I'd been allowed to listen to it (ho ho). I also had to try and identify some keys, a task in which I failed, not least because I didn't know for sure that any were missing or what precisely they would have looked like. I was trying to take the call just outside the cinema where I'd been watching Supersize Me (a reference to Morgan Spurlock rather than Alfred the cat). Funny how this always happens when I go to the pictures. When I went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 my trade union called - twice - and my boss called me right at the end of Donnie Darko.

We keep finding things, or rather not finding things. Things keep, as it were, not turning up. Janet's suede jacket. (He nicked my jacket as well. Wonder if he wore mine over hers or hers over mine?) Effi has found all her CDs are missing. She also can't find her recipe book. Hard to believe a thief would run off with a recipe book.

It looks like Effi and I can't claim for our missing stuff, which is a particular blow to Effi (especially now the CDs are gone) and means I can't recoup, among other things, the seventy quid I had to spend applying for a fast-track passport on Wednesday. Moreover, we're more than a bit nervous that somebody still seems intent on getting back into the house and walking off with whatever was left behind the first time. I'm away in West Bromwich for the weekend. Mind you, apart from a couple of thousand books, I'm not sure that I actually have anything to steal. And who's going to steal my books? (But if he did take the recipe book...)

They're what I have to show for my life, really - a couple of thousand books. Little enough. Little enough.

September 15, 2004

Fox abound

I don't think I'd ever seen a fox until I moved to London, which is probably why most of the Countryside Alliance live here too. My first lodgings were in a ground floor flat about fifty yards from the railway tracks in Acton, and I used to see the crooked tail of a fox disappearing through the twilight, away from the rubbish bins and towards the fence and the undergrowth at the top of the railway embankment. Eventually the fox grew bolder, and once or twice towards the end of my time there it came right up to the window that comprised most of the wall on the railway side of the sitting-room.

When I moved to Brixton they were everywhere, perhaps encouraged by the large proportion of hunt sabs and environmentalists among the population. Certainly, on any given weekend one is more likely to hear the sound of a police siren than that of a hunting horn, and Alsatians are a rather more common sight than beagles. The cats would prefer to see much less of any of these species. A few weeks ago one fox, which - I know not how - had managed to get into the back garden, came right up to the low window at that end of the house, which caused Alfred and Guthrum to resort to keening and running round in circles. For some time afterwards they refused to turn a corner until they had craned their necks both forwards and sideways to see if it was all right, as if they were trying to extend their bodies like Mr Fantastic. Certainly they had an unnatural, cartoon-like aspect to them. I'd never seen them stretch like that before.

Alf and Guth might have a case for limiting the vulpine population of the district. So might even the Countryside Alliance, if they didn't pretend that screaming round the countryside red-coated on a horse was anything to do with it. George Monbiot writes, quite rightly, that hunting is not only sadistic, but is all about reiterating the rights of the Norman class to have the countryside for themselves. He could have gone on to say that it is about that same class ritualising and practising cruelty and violence. When they smear their children's faces with the blood of the kill, those same children then go on to schools where they are taught to be military officers and give orders for the spilling of blood.

These things are important to these people ,and there's a good principle that says that if something is important to your enemy, you should find out why, and stop them doing it. Hopefully, after today, that will happen.

September 14, 2004

Stress watch

I did say I keep forgetting things. Yesterday I went out without my watch. After I'd gone about a hundred yards I looked, and found myself looking at my wrist rather than the time.

It's not at all unusual for me to forget my mobile, and then worry about it all day in case I've lost it. Conversely, when I did lose it - or was it stolen? - I couldn't be sure, since there was the definite possibility that I'd just put it down somewhere. I've spent half this morning looking for a disc that I must have put down somewhere. I'm always putting things back into the wrong pocket and then having brief panics in case they've gone missing. My keys! My keys! Oh, thank god, they're in my righthand pocket instead of the left. My switchcard! My switchcard! Oh, thank god, I've slipped it behind my credit card instead of in a slot on its own. This happens about half-a-dozen times a day.

You can see how I could actually be unsure whether I'd been burgled or not - are those things missing, or did I put them down somewhere? - and how I could entertain the possibility that I might, in fact, have left a front door open and simply not noticed it despite the cold and the wind and the fact that I would have to have walked right past it.

Fortunately, I didn't. But I'm doing too many things like that. If it's not going away for a weekend and forgetting to pack any clothes, it's going away for a week and forgetting my mobile recharger. Or getting off the Tube at the wrong station. Or crossing the road and forgetting to look for traffic first.

I already set two alarms in the morning in case I forget to set one of them, though that didn't stop me forgetting to take an alarm clock on another weekend away earlier this year. (And the last weekend I went away, I forgot my toothbrush. How traditional of me. I'm going away this weekend and getting up really early on Saturday. What, I wonder, am I going to forget?) Each day at work I make big lists of everything I need to do and tick them off as I go. Perhaps I should put a big sign up on my bedroom door, saying HAVE YOU REMEMBERED? and listing all the things I'm likely to have forgotten.

It wouldn't make any difference though. It'd probably be like all the reminders I put in my filofax (which are less than useful, anyway, if through carelessness I have it stolen). Half the time I never remember to open it. So I never read them.

As it is, I already dress most mornings like I'd forgotten something. Even when I haven't.

September 13, 2004

Ghost story

It's four years to the day since I last saw my mother. I can remember the day, but I can't remember the sight: it didn't register, and I wasn't expecting it to be my last sight of her anyway. And at the other time I had other things on my disturbed mind - I was busy trying to make life as hard as difficult for the policemen who were carrying me to the ambulance, as I didn't think, personally, that being locked up was in my best interests.

She, however, did. Differences of opinion like that do have the potential to terminate family relationships. As do decisions to have the house cleared of your possessions while you're safely out of the way. It's awkward to talk to people after stuff like that.

I suppose I've forgiven her, really, sort of. To a degree. A little. A bit. Or learned to understand what she did. But it can't be forgotten, and as it can't be forgotten it can't be avoided. Lock people up and there will always be a wall between you. My sister, though, who defended it and connived in it - she will never be forgiven. She must never come near me or communicate with me or speak a syllable to me again. Not one. Never. Never even once again.

The place itself, the experience of being there - I've not forgotten that either. Actually, it's hard to imagine a less forgettable experience. But I don't think of it often. By virtue of its very strangeness it's hard to recall it clearly. I almost have to put my memories together out of all the known facts, like a reconstruction. I know these things happened, but almost in an abstract way, like I know that Harold was defeated in 1066 or that Cortez saw the Pacific. I know it happened. I don't ask myself whether it really happened. But everything that happened is infused with unreality.

I couldn't tell you exactly where it was. I couldn't get there without a map and I wouldn't recognise the exterior when I got there. That was part of the unreality in the first place. It would be glib to make a comparison to Cuban prison camps, for all sorts of reasons, the least destructive of which is that I had access to a telephone and thus to the outside world. But the feeling of having suddenly been scooped up and deposited in a strange place, which you do not know and from which you cannot escape, that I do understand a little. I understand some of the fear and some of the distress of that.

I understand a little of Franz Kafka's madness, of inverted reality, of causes becoming effects. You need to be here, I was told, because you are distressed. You walk to and fro in the corridors, you get angry, you have crying fits. I know, I said. I do all these things. I do them because you have locked me up in here, and that is the nature of my distress. But you do not believe me, and that causes me further distress, and because of that, you keep me locked up. It is a trap. And when I say that it's a trap, that proves that I am paranoid, and being paranoid, I need to be locked up.

One evening when I was there, Terminator II was on telly, in which Linda Hamilton is locked up in a psychiatric hospital, because when she talks about her experiences these are treated as delusions. If she tells the truth, she is delusional, and has to be locked up - but if (as she eventually tries) she decides to 'admit' that she was making it up, then she is admitting that she was delusional, and she has to be locked up. I wasn't so sick, or so sane, that I didn't laugh. It was exactly like that. We believe you want to kill yourself. When you tell us that you don't want to kill yourself, it is with the intention of getting out of here so that you can try to kill yourself. If you keep denying it, we will keep you locked up. If you admit it, then, because you admit you want to kill yourself, we will keep you locked up. And that causes me further distress, and because of that, you keep me locked up.

Pure Franz Kafka. Or pure Catch-22. You can never get used to the idea that that really happened.

Oh, there are things I half-remember, things that I remember happened but which I cannot picture. Being assaulted in my room by the staff. They called it restraint, but as they had no reason for it, assault is what I called it. Watching them assault another patient, and when I wouldn't walk away, the nurse shouting "that man needs medicating!". I do remember that that nurse was a thug called Jim Chalmers. I assume that he is still there today, policing his patients by medicating them.

I can half-remember the food, and the wait for the phone, and the visits, and the lack of privacy - you couldn't even shave alone. I vaguely recall the idle seriousness with which I thought about how I would try to escape if my appeal was turned down. I can just about recall the contempt with which they couldn't be bothered even to tell me directly, when they couldn't arrange my appeal within the legally constituted time, and the shock with which I found out I had no rights at all, because I'd assumed that they would have to release me, like having to release a prisoner who is not charged within a certain time. I had fewer rights that an arrested prisoner. I didn't even have the right to be informed directly. (At least they can't do that any more. The Human Rights Act means you must have a hearing within the prescribed time. It became law in October 2004, about ten days too late for it to apply to me.)

I know I went on hunger strike after that, and I know I got out at the Tribunal, and I know that the weasels who had written reports to keep me in there never admitted they had done anything wrong, and I know that nobody even said a simple sorry. I know I will always be grateful to the lawyer who fought my corner and to the friends who sustained me.

And I think I know that - strangest and most unreal of all in that world of mirrors - the experience was, in some ways, good for me. Had I accepted what they were doing, it would have been because I had lost the will to live. But I fought to get out, really fought, because - without having realised it - I really wanted to live. My life depended on rejecting the assistance of the people who claimed to want to save my life. And in rejecting them, in fighting them off, I wrenched myself free and began, in, however bewildered and truncated a manner, to live again. I was forced to choose between fighting for life and slowly subsiding into something else. I was forced to choose the first.

That's one side of the story. Nietzsche says that whatever does not kill us, makes us strong. Perhaps, perhaps. I have sometimes thought about that "something else" - what would have happened to me, had I given in to them. I have now, and, I think, had at the time, a picture of myself sitting sadly by a window, looking at the wall outside, half-conscious of the wall, the window and myself because of the medication they would have put me on. A medication always either changing or increasing, and never changing anything. And people sometimes talking to the consultants, who thought they saw encouraging signs and hoped for progress very soon, and everybody agreeing on how sad it all was. I think that would have been what would have happened to me. I think it would have killed me. I think it was that future that I was fighting against. I think that fighting against it made me stronger.

Perhaps, perhaps. At the same time, I remember - I remember this, at least, quite vividly - I remember when I was first in my room, or my cell, looking at the wall and wishing, wishing this unequivocally for the only time in my life, that I were dead. And I do not think you go through that, without leaving something of yourself behind. This is what I think. I think that you can cross a line, that experiences that cause you great trauma inevitably involve crossing that line. And if you come back, in some senses, stronger, you also come back incomplete.

Not all of you belongs to you. There's part of you, part of your past, which lives only in the memories of other people, and passes with the passing of those memories. And in a different way, part of you, part of your being, is torn away from you in the struggle to survive. And that part of you remains there, within the experiences and in the places from which you have had to escape.

Perhaps you only escape by discarding those parts of you, like ballast, or like a fleeing refugee. Perhaps. I think some part of me remains in the Orchard Unit at the Luton and Dunstable Hospital. But I don't know how much. I don't know whether there is some shadow, some fraction of me, that I slipped away from when they let me out. Or more than that. Sometimes I think that I left the bulk of me behind, and what got away was no more than a ghost.

September 12, 2004

A burglary

We were burgled the night before last. I'm pretty upset about it, though I'm starting to calm down now. I've had a few panic attacks and I still haven't eaten properly since the night before it happened. It wasn't the sense of danger, or the intrusion, that upset me, or even the potential financial loss involved. It was that I thought, until this morning, that it was probably my fault. I thought I'd let other people down when they were relying on me and put all their possessions and personal stuff at risk.

I lost most of last night's sleep, trying - unwillingly, because I wanted to sleep - to remember what I'd done on Friday night, whether I'd closed things up properly, trying to remember when I'd gone to bed, what I'd done and in precisely what order. From one theory to another and then back to the previous one, over and over again until the point of madness. When I did get to sleep it wasn't for very long, and it was just as well the police were a couple of hours late turning up this morning, as I was flaked out on the settee for most of that time. Hopefully, tonight will be rather better.

I thought I must have left the front door open. No reason for that, I've never done it before and being heavy and easily locked, it's not one you'd often forget to close properly anyway. But I couldn't think of any other explanation, when, on getting up at eight o'clock on Saturday morning, I found the front door open and a bike missing. I was the only one in - Janet, the landlady, is on holiday in France, and Effi, the other lodger, was in Greece, and I thought, coming back late on Saturday. So it had to have been something I had done, there was nobody else here to make any mistakes in locking up. And I am notoriously careless, through stress perhaps, and if I'm asked to do more than one or two things at a time something always gets forgotten.

I've left the back door open more than once, though that's a bit easier to forget as it will come to without locking, so you can forget it's open if you're not careful. So I just thought I must have left the front door open even though I had no other reason, other than the fact of it being open, to think so. Careless though I am, I can usually remember what I've forgotten, after I've forgotten it. If I'd left the front door open, I'd have noticed. I'd have noticed when I went to bed, as there would have been a huge draught even if I'd not seen the gaping aperture. I couldn't have missed it. But there it was, the door was open, and a bike was missing.

But nothing else seemed to have gone. Naturally I rushed into the front room to see if the telly and PC were still there, and they were. Nothing electrical seemed to have gone. Nor was there any mess. I couldn't understand it. I started thinking maybe there hadn't been a burglary, and perhaps Effi had come back early, left her stuff round a friend's house (since she wasn't in and there didn't seem to be any bags in her room at all) borrowed the bike for a trip or something and left the door open. Put like that, it seems stupid, and it seemed stupid at the time, but why would anybody come in through the door, take the bike furthest from the door - Janet's favourite bike was still there - and not take anything valuable?

Then, on my way out to see a friend, I found that my bag was missing. My bag, with chequebook, passport, glasses, radio, umbrella and filo. And my jacket didn't seem to be anywhere around either. So I had a panic attack, tight chest and short breathing in the too-familiar manner, sat down for a bit, then rushed round the house several times looking for it in all sorts of places. It wasn't in any of them.

So I called the bank, and asked them to stop my cheques, and called the passport office, and asked them how much it would cost to get an emergency replacement, since I need it on Friday week. I left messages on Effi's phone and Janet's, and decided I really needed to go and replace some of the missing items as well as getting some more photos and some more forms for the passport. I rushed out of the house, and then rushed back on remembering that I'd had a credit card statement in the bag which meant I really needed to call the credit card people too, in case anybody tried to use my account. Then I finally got out, upset and shaken, and went up and down Oxford Street buying a new umbrella, a new A-Z, a new filo, a new jacket and some photos for the passport application. I said I was upset and shaken - enough so to walk out in front of a car near Bond Street, though one far enough away to be able to brake in good time.

I went back via the police station, where I reported the break-in - if you could call it a break-in, since no entry appeared to have been forced - and the opticians, for a new glasses case. And I went home, and lay on the settee until Effi called from Heathrow and I could tell her about it. After that, I lay on the settee for another couple of hours until she came home and was able to look through her room and find out if she had anything missing. Which she did - discman, camera, bracelets, a few other things, which I said I'd pay for as I still felt it was my responsibility. (The only things I had missing were things that had been on the ground floor. My room is on the top floor, and not only had I been in it but I'd left the light on while I slept. Had I taken my bag upstairs, as I normally do, it too would have been safe.)

Effi, though, wasn't so sure. She reckoned it might well be possible to break in through the front door using a plastic card, or something like that. Nor could she see how I could both have left the front door open and missed that I'd left it open. But even so, and even though I was sure that I hadn't left it open, that still seemed just as likely as somebody having gone for our door at random. More so. If it were a professional thief, somebody who knew how to open locked doors, why was the valuable stuff still here? If it weren't, if it were some kid who'd noticed an open door on his way home in the early hours, wouldn't they be likely to just whip a few items, avoid any doors that were shut - as was Janet's, and the front room - and scarper as quickly as possible, whipping a bike and a jacket on the way out?

Privately, I still thought it must have been me. Or most likely me. Hence the subsequent, sleepless night, and the trying to remember and fit together events. Hence the subsequent lying on the settee, and the loss of appetite. I was also concerned that neither the police nor the insurance company would find the story convincing - "somebody must have broken in, honestly, even though there's absolutely no sign of them having done so" - and conclude that some sort of story was being spun them, either as a backside-covering operation or as a fraud. I wasn't looking forward to telling them about it.

Until, a few minutes before the police came round, Effi came in and said she wondered if they'd broken in through her window, which she had left open while she was away. And this made perfect sense. It would explain why her room had been gone through. It would explain why the door had been open, since that was the way the thieves would have gone out. And the police thought that seemed like a good possibility, too, even though Effi's window is on the first floor and getting there isn't easy. (I also wondered whether anybody coming in through the back might have been put off by my light being on. But I have a very heavy curtain that's nearly permanently closed, and it might well be that the light isn't actually visible.) They also said that it was quite possible that somebody might have broken in the front way. They were fine about it. And I felt much better.

Not because the buck passes to somebody else, though Effi might feel terrible about it. I certainly don't blame her if it was her window, as I leave mine open too. (Or did. No more, I should think.) And as I should have taken my bag upstairs, I blame myself for that going missing. I don't blame anybody else for anything. I don't even blame the cats for not being guard dogs. But it is a weight off my mind that I don't feel personally responsible for the break-in. I feel upset, I feel a bit stupid, and I still don't feel like eating, much, and I don't fee like filling in the passport forms - I always have difficulty with forms - and I won't feel completely better until, at least, I get my new passport, which will only be a couple of days before I need it, allowing plenty of opportunity for panic.

But right now the chest is no longer tight and the head is no longer spinning. I've lost a few personal items and some money and a weekend. But I've not entirely lost faith in my own trustworthiness, and that is something, for the moment.

One of the policemen had a mobile phone which went off a couple of times. The tone was the Allegro from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

In league against us

If you want a chip on your shoulder, get into rugby league. Rugby union and the London-based media will do the rest for you. If it's not the way that club rugby union is always reported more extensively than league, and always comes first on theTV sports roundups - although league, at club level, is actually the better supported of the codes - it's the assumption, over and covert, that union is rugby and can therefore simply be called "rugby", as in Rugby World Cup, as if league didn't exist. There's a particularly grim example running as a Times advert at the moment, where Jonny Wilkinson and Gaby Roslin are debating the status of their different games and Roslin asks Wilkinson whether rugby isn't viewed as not being a game for the workers. It bloody well is in Bradford and St Helens, Gaby.

But I'm not sure "you don't exist" isn't preferable to "can't be bothered". I was watching a roundup on the BBC news this morning where last night's vital Widnes-Castleford game was mentioned. Castleford, the Tigers, were referred to as the Wildcats. The Wildcats are Wakefield. It was claimed that next weekend "only a win against Wakefield will be enough to keep them up" (in fact, it also requires Hull to beat Widnes - and a sufficient combined margin to wipe out Widnes' small advantage in points difference). Finally, when the newsreader asked the reporter, "the Jungle, then - where's that?" she guessed, correctly as it happens, "it's their ground?" before pricelessly admitting:

I don't know. I'm from the South!

I have bought myself a T-shirt saying Rugby League - Too Tough For Jonny. XL, so that it fits my shoulders.

September 11, 2004

Green Wing

Green Wing would be funny enough even if I didn't work in a medical library. As it is, it has roughly the same effect on me that Father Ted has on anybody who was brought up a Catholic. I should know this, because I was brought up a Catholic.

Green Wing doesn't have old priests. It has young doctors who love themselves. We have more than a few of those at the library. Young doctors who love themselves, young junior doctors who love themselves and young trainee doctors who love themselves. (I'll save up the consultants for a separate denunciation.)

When I started working in libraries my biggest enemy was the mobile phone. But however much I hate the mobile phone, I don't hate it as much as I hate arrogant young trainee doctors using their mobile phones. They've taken over at the top. They're my Library Hate Figure Number One.

Mobile phones are Number Three.

September 10, 2004

Just flat wrong

It's one of those things you never notice till somebody points it out to you. After that, you see it everywhere. When you walk round London, and see new developments going up, conversions, apartments, private housing, there are nearly always fourteen of them, like it was a magic number. An exclusive gated development comprising fourteen luxury apartments or words to that effect on the developer's boards surrounding the site. Fourteen. Never fifteen and never more than fifteen.

There's a reason for it, and it's not that the sites they develop are always magically the same size and always magically only big enough for fourteen highly expensive luxury flats. It's that if they go up to fifteen, they can't make them so exclusive any more. Any development of fifteen or more dwellings and they have to make provision for social housing, which means housing somebody like me can afford, which means housing at about a quarter of the price they want to sell it for. Which they do not want to do.

So they stay, rigidly, at fourteen. If the site is a little too small, they cram them in, fourteen studio flats or starter flats or whatever the current euphemism is for a flat the size of a biscuit tin. If the site is a little too small, they thin them out, perhaps daringly making some of the homes two-storied. Or including one or two "retail units" a curious designation, seeing as they're keen on walling off these developments so nobody can actually get into them who doesn't actually live there. Which makes it hard to see who these retail units would serve and what they would sell - there's only so much luxury furniture you can cram into a studio flat, particularly while the fad for minimalism continues. It doesn't really matter, so long as the wall remains unbreached and the rule of fourteen remains unbreached likewise.

Fourteen in Inner London. Twenty-four, if my memory serves me, in the suburbs, but fourteen here in Brixton anyway. I didn't know this when the garage out the back was sold and a development of fourteen flats proposed, or even when the developer met with residents to talk about parking, noise, rights of way, loss of privacy and all the usual issues that arise when somebody proposes to put up a large building overlooking your windows and gardens and blocking the access to the shops you previous enjoyed. I found out just a few days later, and cursed the lost opportunity to have innocently asked the developer why he was building that precise number, and be told some transparent and swiftly-exposed lie by way of an answer.

Still, the knowledge comes in handy. We expected building to start not long after planning permission was granted, which after some argument and some alterations, it was. Not a bit of it. Instead, all was quiet. The garage continued to operate. We continued to walk to the shops and to be able to see beyond the end of the garden without the aid of X-ray vision. Then, a few months later, came another application, for the replacement of the building adjoining the garage with another development of exactly fourteen flats.

The names on the application were different, but the architects were the same and it was clearly part of the same plan. Only staggered, so as to get round the fifteen-homes rule. They might have got away with it, too, because only immediately affected residents are informed of proposed developments, which meant a different set of houses along our street to those which had been informed about the first development. However, Barney, from nine doors down, came round here to tell us about it, was as surprised to hear about the first development as we were surprised to hear about the second one, and after various letters of objection went in, the proposal was withdrawn.

A few days ago, we received a letter announcing an application for planning permission for a third development round the back, on the other side of the garage. Actually it wasn't even for fourteen flats this time, there being a limit to how many quarts even a property developer can pour into a pint pot. It had a different name on the application and this time the name of the architects was different. Which, seeing as the architecture was exactly the same as in the original plan, might have constituted a serious case of plagiarism had it not been obvious to everybody that it was the same people as came up with the other two plans, even if they were trying to disguise their true identity. They'd have been better off with a false nose and a wig.

There is obviously a long-term plan here, or else work on the first set of homes would already have begun. There is a site far too big to restrict to the newly traditional fourteen flats. They therefore want to put it together piecemeal, getting permission for one part, then another, until everything is ready, and will then, hey presto, be built as the single scheme it is. With no place for ordinary and local people. They will be watching from the street.

I take ethical exception, in the first place, to people who go out of their way to build only for the affluent, who sit down and work out exactly how they can best avoid making any provision for people on average incomes, let alone the truly homeless and the poor. Imagine the conversations they must have. Imagine their cynicism. Or, rather more likely and maybe even worse, their complete ignorance that what they're doing is wrong in any way at all.

But if I take ethical exception to that, to exploiting the rules in order to avoid meeting their purpose, I take exception so much more to the use of deception to get round those rules. To deliberately give a false impression in order that somebody can make as much money as possible without having to build as much as a single affordable flat. Who does something like that? Who sits down and plans and works out the details, over months and years, of an operation like that?

The difference between wrong and wickedness lies not always in the act, but sometimes in the circumstances. In these circumstances - a borough strewn with homeless people, a city full of people crying out for homes - this is a deception that goes across that line.

September 09, 2004

The Hollies and the irony

The earworms are getting worse. The latest one is I Love Jennifer Eccles. Only the name was Jamie Dalrymple instead.

That's JWM Dalrymple of Radley, Oxford, Middlesex and, almost certainly never, England.

September 08, 2004

Quart short

It's been months since I had a proper drink. Or, at any rate, more than two proper drinks at any one time. Last Xmas I decided to cut it out until I was forty, and I'm just about halfway there.

I've never had a drink problem, except insofar as I've had plenty of problems exacerbated by drink. During my last term at my first university I was putting them away at the rate of thirty pints a week, and I imagine I'd have had a problem keeping that up for another eighteen years, but the question never arose. What I did find, rather too slowly and too late, was that if you suffer excessively from anger, and excessively from grief, then alcohol magnifies them both, lets them loose, puts them in control or whatever other figure of speech bests suits your taste or the occasion. I had had enough of shouting at other people, enough of screaming at myself and enough of Incidents (and Episodes) that grew out of either.

So, last Xmas, after the last of these incidents, I decided to pack it in. But while I was breaking one habit of a lifetime I decided to break another, that of never doing anything in moderation. So instead of giving up alcohol like a true believer I decided to cut myself down to two pints a session, and instead of giving up for life, to cut down my period of moderate abstinence to the year and a half it would take me to reach the age of forty.

I used to have a friend who used to call the third pint the "danger pint", the one which stops you going home and keeps you in the pub all evening having seven or eight. The third pint seems to be the one where the drink takes over, and so the third pint is the one I cannot have. I can have two pints, or two glasses, or two measures, in a session, and then I have to wait another four hours before I can have another go, or only two hours if I only have a pint. So if I stop at 6.30, I can have some more before closing time, or if I have a pint at 2.45 I can have another couple after the match. And I stick to that. I don't cheat, except by allowing myself to ignore the strength of the beer. I don't make exceptions for special occasions or "only one". And it's been good, actually. It's helped keep me together. And I can stop in nine months' time.

But I would rather I didn't have to keep chipping away at myself into order to remain whole. I seem to be permanently in retreat, permanently avoiding things that I think will stress me or disturb me or cause me hurt, and the list of those things never shortens but only gets longer. A few excerpts from the list of Things I Avoid (which incorporates Things I Used To Be Able To Do But Can't Any More):
  • reading novels
  • active political involvement
  • watching Friends
  • David Aaronovitch
  • doing anything that's difficult
  • having any real contact with people who I do not absolutely trust
  • (coming shortly) playing chess by email. I keep losing.

Next up will probably be

  • having long complaint sagas with bureaucracies and their call centres.

Some of these things are trivial. Some are funny. But some of them are serious. It's not really healthy to keep away from things, even things that it's healthy to keep away from. I once had an unhappy email from somebody who didn't want to meet up with me because she considered herself a recluse. I emailed back that I was a recluse myself. What I was actually thinking of was Dylan:

Ophelia, she's 'neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession's her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah's great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into
Desolation Row
But I didn't know whether I was thinking of her, or me.

When I was in Scarborough I kept thinking of how much I would like to live there, not necessarily because it was so great in itself (though it has the seas, and the sea air) but because compared to London, there were so few people there that I seemed, practically, to be on my own. And the people who were there, didn't bother me. That was all I wanted of them. They were neither loud nor pretentious and they didn't get on my nerves. Neither, nor, didn't. So I found myself asking - is that what you want from people, then, that they do not bother you? Is that what you want from life, then, that it does not bother you?

Most people get through life by going down the line of least resistance. I have mostly spent my life following the path of most resistance, and that is the most effective way to break yourself on rocks. I don't believe that I should do it any more, even if I could. Personally, politically, I feel drained. Or everything seems to have drained away. I'm listening to Gill Scott-Heron's B-Movie while I write this, and it has that exact mood, at the end, a fading away (as opposed to a fading out) which seems to say, I am resigned to this. I am angry about it, but I am resigned to it. Peace, peace, peace of mind. Perhaps you can attain it only by divesting yourself of everything that disturbs you.

I am not sure what to do when I am forty. Perhaps I shall increase my quota by a pint a year. Perhaps I shall take up meditation once again. Perhaps I shall go and look at the sea. Look at the sea for hours and hours.

September 06, 2004

Body count

Here is a news story about a natural disaster. Torrential rain which has left dozens of people dead in China. And here is a news story about another natural disaster. A hurricane which has killed two people in the United States of America.

One of these stories has been received widespread coverage in this country on television news programmes. The other, far less important story has, to my knowledge, received none.

Not put out

As it happens, there's some question as to whether Thomas Cranmer ever actually spoke the line ("we shall today light such a fire in England...") that is generally attributed to him. I learned this from a pub conversation with Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose biography of Cranmer won a number of awards. Diarmaid said he was researching the pamphlets of the time to try and work out whether the phrase might have been put into Cranmer's mouth posthumously by his admirers - or whether it was recorded by his enemies, and therefore likely Cranmer's own. Diarmaid was unaware of the reference to the phrase in Truffaut. I have occasionally wondered whether he ever did publish any conclusions on the subject and whether, having provided him with that small snippet, I may have been mentioned in some obscure footnote in some journal like Past And Present.

I once saw Diarmaid's book praised in the Guardian by no less important a Protestant personage than the Reverend Ian Paisley. Did he know that the subject of his commendation was a gay Catholic Irishman?

In libris

I am just back from the pub, and hence of a mood to be sentimental. But why not be sentimental about librarianship, when you have people like Tim Coates and Will Hutton agitating for it to be reduced to little more than manning the checkout while people take out novels from their local sub-library in the evening?

I have been reading Moses Finley on The Ancient Greeks, and reminding myself that the first of the great libraries was founded in Alexandria by order of Ptolemy I: and as it happened, I mentioned just the other day, at work, that we stood in the tradition of the librarians who worked there. As is true of many of the things I say, I was overstating, but without joking. The line can, and must, be drawn to link what they were doing in Alexandria, and what we are doing in libraries today. The connection is in the why.

When I did my Masters the pre-course reading list was full of asinine management texts, as well as a few that were presumably of some practical use. I wanted them to rewrite it so that it included The Name Of The Rose (which ends, as did the library in Alexandria, in a fire). Something to emphasise that we were librarians, not management somethings where the something was the variable part of the phrase. I was probably wasting my time, since I don't suppose they changed the reading list and I don't suppose it would have made any difference if I had. Half the students, if students is an appropriate description, showed little sign that reading was an activity which they engaged in or that books were something which they valued.

But I thought of another book this evening: Fahrenheit 451. Actually if I am to be honest it wasn't the book I was thinking of, but Truffaut's film, and in particular, the final scene, even more than the celebrated scene with the burning house and - I cannot recall exactly how the line is rendered - "we shall today light such a fire in England as shall never be put out". The final scene, in keeping with the disturbing, non-naturalistic style of the movie, shows the few people who have fled the book-burning society from which Oskar Werner has escaped, each one of whom has chosen to "be" a book, to learn that book word-perfect so that it can be preserved even if the last copy is tracked down and destroyed. They preserved literature, preserved creation and knowledge, even if they did so only within themselves and only for themselves. They did so because it was right, and because they must.

That is what we are, librarians. The preservers, the curators, the Keepers of the Flame. The Keepers of the Flame, even against fire. We do it because it must be done. We do it because we must.

I feel like that every time I walk into a library. Except, perhaps, the one I work in.

September 05, 2004

A couple or three points

On the Horse Trials on telly this afternoon (I was, ah, following the cricket via Teletext) there was a rider going by the name of William Fox-Pitt. I could scarcely have been more impressed had he sported the surname Gladstone-Disraeli. Fox-Pitt? I could only wonder whether it was purely a coincidence, or whether the families of the two opposing political leaders of two hundred years ago had indeed been united in marriage, perhaps precisely for the purpose of avoiding future conflict. Just as royal dynasties have done, throughout recorded history.

I suppose we could look forward to Blair-Howard, with the future coupling of Euan and Larissa or some other combination of the various progeny involved. Not that there'd be any point in it, the difficulty nowadays not being in uniting the political rivals but in telling them apart. Previous generations had marriages of convenience. We do the same job with focus groups and triangulation.

September 03, 2004

Nader does not mean nothing

There was an interview with Ralph Nader on Newsnight earlier this week. Well, they advertised it as an interview - I don't know what to call it. For some reason, ever since the days of the great Charles Wheeler, the BBC have always sent over the most mediocre Atlanticists to be their US correspondents. People utterly unable to walk behind the scenes, as Wheeler did, and ask questions of their own, instead of simply reproducing the issues as mainstream US politicians would like to present them. Stephen Sackur. Gavin Esler. All of them. Of course, by reputation the US press corps are no better, but, just as one would like the Prime Minister of this independent country to step outside the US line a little, the fact that Washington journalists are so lacking in independent-mindedness seems a poor reason for British correspondents to wish to emulate them.

Anyway, Gavin Esler was the Atlanticist in question. His interview with Nader comprised precisely five questions, rather fewer than he was to ask Don King at the Republican National Convention the following evening. The first of these questions asked whether Nader cared that the effect of his campaign might be to let George Bush in. This would have been a legitimate question had it not been the second question also. And the third. And the fifth. I can't actually remember the subject of the fourth question, but it was not an invitation to Nader to set out his programme and expound on his political philosophy, something he was effectively denied any opportunity to do.

As an interview, it was a disgrace. Polite, well-mannered, friendly, but a disgrace nevertheless. I very much doubt that Esler set out to do what he achieved, though I don't recall the BBC only asking Ross Perot whether he wasn't letting in the Democrats. But he succeeded all right, simply by doing what BBC correspondents in the US do, and asking only those questions that the mainstream does. He denied Nader his independent voice.

The US mainstream sets out to reflect and protect the political duopoly - there are the Republicans and the Democrats, and outside those two there is nothing. Or if there is, it is described only in so far as it affects the duopoly. Nader has no independent existence - he exists only in so far as he might take votes from one party and thereby aid the other.

The interview, if interview it was, demonstrated in itself why Nader is running - that the stranglehold of the Republican /Democrat system is so tight that it chokes the breath out of all political life outside it. (Not, one might add, that there is any real life within it.) But ironically it also, simultaneously, demonstrated why he's probably wasting his time.

Kind hearts and coronets

Talking about property reminds me, at a considerable tangent, of what may be my favourite exchange in the history of British cinema, if summing it all up in a couple of sentences is the sort of thing to admire.
Mama : Louis, we must think very carefully about your future.
Louis : Well, it should be quite easy to get a job.
Mama : Not a job, dear, a career.

Property qualification

They were talking about the property ladder on the television this morning, and they thought they were doing me a favour. I wasn't sure how. They were saying that a survey of householders showed that many of them would have difficulty in meeting their mortgages if the rate went up another 2% - and that this showed how many people weren't able to get on the property ladder.

I couldn't see how. I could see how it might make life difficult for people who were already on it. I couldn't see how it would make it harder to get on it in the first place. What makes it so hard is not that paying the mortgage would be hard but that paying the asking price is impossible. I can see that. I can see that because a small house in my relatively cheap part of London costs at least a dozen times my salary. It doesn't matter what the mortgage payments are or what the mortgage rate is. It might as well be tuppence or two million pounds, one percent or one hundred. The point is that I haven't got a quarter of a million quid and have no means of borrowing same. I cannot afford to buy a house. I cannot afford to buy a house in London. I cannot afford to buy a flat in London. I cannot afford to buy a house in Birmingham or in Manchester or in Glasgow or in Cardiff. Forget the bloody interest rate, I'm not remotely interested. I cannot afford to buy a house.

I really don't know what they were up to. It's like saying it would be harder for me to buy a car (and I can't afford that either) because the price of petrol went up. Maybe they really think that's why they think some people don't buy cars. And maybe they really think everybody can actually afford to buy a house - possibly they don't know anybody who can't - but they're not quite sure that the time is right or that's it's the right house for them or that they can afford to keep up the payments. At least the last of these has some purchase on economic realities, if no others. But in the circumstances it's neither here nor there. How many people are holding back from buying houses and getting on the property ladder because they're worried about the interest rate - next to nobody, I would respectfully suggest - compared to the millions of us who cannot afford to buy a house?

Perhaps the problem lies in thinking of housing, in the first place, through the concept of the property ladder. Any reputable investment advisor - and there may well have been ten good men in Sodom, if only the Lord had had the patience to look for them - could tell you that you do not treat your home as an investment. You do not treat your home as an investment because it is your home. Yet our entire discussion of housing in this country revolves around the assumption that we do just that. The television schedules are thick with programmes about buying them, selling them, doing them up so that we may sell them and buy another one. Or two, or several. No sooner have we bought one then we're looking to up sticks, sell it on and buy another, better one, as if we had nothing better to do at the weekend than buy or sell a house. What shall I do today? Wash the car, or buy a house? Couldn't get a tee time, so I sold the house.

This is not, in truth, exactly how people are living their lives. But it may well be how a lot of people think they are living their lives. That is what the property ladder is all about. If it is property rather than a home, then the reason for buying it is to sell it. Houses are first and foremost commodities, exchange-values rather than use-values, and first and foremost their purpose is to be bought and sold. And where do we find them, to buy them, and to sell them? Look in the paper and there you find, not houses, but the Property Section. We are supposed to be making investments, even though what we are buying is something that we shouldn't treat as an investment. And when we have done it, then we are on the property ladder.

The whole thing leaves me baffled. On the one occasion that I did buy a house, the bloke kept trying to describe me (he had obviously been on a course) as a cautious investor instead of some other, more adventurous sort of investor - I forget the actual phrase - as if I'd have been buying a five-bedroom detached house in North Oxford overlooking the river, if I only had the get up and go to get up and go for it. What I was actually doing was buying just about the only house in Oxford that I could afford to buy. I was doing this because I was desirous of having a place securely in which to live. The idea that it was an investment had never crossed my mind, and nor did it occur to me at any later date. I had no idea that I was on the property ladder.

As I had no intention of moving out, how could I have? Who on earth gets into anything that's good, with the intention of getting out of it as fast as possible? What on earth that's sane can possibly come from that?

This is true, and sane, despite the fact that when I did get out of it I realised several thousand pounds in profit, and that this helped put me through college, not least by paying an awful lot of rent. This happened not because I was a brilliant investor who bought a clever house in a clever location or did it up in a clever way, but because I got lucky. I bought when house prices were at their lowest for years - I mean, that's why I was able to buy - and sold when they had gone up a little at the start of the present madness. Had it been the other way round, no profit, no investment, just the foot of debt hard on my drowning head. Because a home isn't property, it's a home. You haven't got a property portfolio or a pied à terre. You have a home. A friend recently said to me: "it isn't property unless you've got at least two of them".

Of course people can't entirely be blamed for thinking otherwise. You work hard all your life and never make a penny, not unless you're one of the very few. (Not that they think they're the very few. I remember asking a man who was on the top rate of tax what proportion of the working population he thought were in the same position. "Oh", he strained, trying not to overestimate, "about half". It's actually about one in eight. As it happens, he was my landlord at the time.)

The very few have money for investments and trust funds and second homes. The rest of us do not. Practically every penny that comes in during the month goes out, in one way or another, before the month is over. Even what we save is saved towards a holiday, for relief from work, or maybe for a pension, for when we finish work. We never get ahead of the game.

Or the only way we get ahead of the game is if, by a stroke of luck, something unconnected with our employment comes our way. A relative leaves us money. A parent helps out with the cost of buying a house. A house we bought when it was cheap turns out to have gone up when we sell it. You only ever make money that's unearned. And it's for that reason that you reckon you deserve it.

So half the population think they're sitting on a fortune, in the difference between what they paid for their houses, and what they think they're going to be worth. In most cases it's an unspendable fortune - because to realise it, they'd have to spend it on another fortune-swallowing house, or simply because they've bought too late. The property ladder is like Jacob's ladder. Just as illusory, just as far to travel up in order to reach a non-existent top.

And I am not on it. And that is not what bothers me. I would like a house, a flat, a place of my own to live in. If possible I would like to buy a place, but as long as it's secure, mine to stay in and make in my own image, then there are other arrangements that would suit me fine. It's not being able to find security that eats away at people. Do these commentators have no sense of that, no imagination, no understanding of what it's like? I'm not bothered because I have to pay rent. I'm not bothered because I cannot invest in the market. I cannot invest in the Stock Exchange either and I lose no sleep over that. That's not what gets me down, and it gets me down all right, every time I read another story about house prices and how they've gone up five per cent since they told you last. Or maybe they're going down. Or up. Or not. It's relentless. And what it gives you is a sense of worthlessness. A sense of pointlessness. A sense of futility. A sense of wasting your time, all your time, and having no way of doing otherwise.

Not because you're never going to be able to accumulate. But because as far as you can see, no matter how hard you work, no matter how damned hard they make you work, no matter how many hard years of damned hard work they make you do, you are never going to have even as much as a secure place to lay your head. That is what eats away at you. Perhaps people cannot see that, if what they view as "failure" is no worse than not being a success. If what they mean by worth relates to the word's true meaning in the same way as property relates to home. But what eats away at you is much worse than that. It's the sense of playing against ridiculous odds. The sense of all of this being for nothing.

The property ladder is nothing to do with it. What grinds you down and wipes you out is simply this. The further you stretch for the balloon, the further away it always floats.

September 01, 2004

Liquidity needs

The Breeden Report on the corporate mismanagement of Hollinger International by its controlling shareholders, led by Conrad Black, contains in its executive summary this happy phrase:

The Special Committee believes that the events at Hollinger were driven in large part by insatiable pressure from Black for fee income from satisfy the liquidity needs he had arising from the personal lifestyle Black and his wife had chosen to lead.

This is nicely illustrated by one of the items Black is shown to have claimed in expenses:

"Summer Drinks" ($24,950).