April 30, 2005

Expletive repeated

In point of fact, I seem to be doing it all the time. It's the election campaign that does it. If it's not the television, and it is the television every morning and nearly every evening, then it's the canvassers. I've often sworn at rightwing canvassers, for want of the desire to engage them in an argument neither of us would want to have - or, just as likely, for want of having ever learned to grow up. When I was seventeen, during my disastrous stint working for a Labour victory in 1983, I can even recall winning a small victory over a Conservative canvasser by menacing him with a soda siphon after he knocked on our front door and made the improper suggestion that I might like to vote for his party. (I was six days too young even to vote against them.) They won a rather larger victory shortly afterwards.

Twenty-two years later, Barons Court Underground station has been swarming with them. Swarming by the standards of this particular election, which is to say that two or three times, in the last two or three weeks, there have been three or four of them at the entrance. Handing out material supporting Greg Hands, a particularly nasty Tory even by their own particularly nasty standards.

The station is on the edge of one of the more exclusive areas of Earl's Court, an area of panama hats and blazers, and one in which I saw, yesterday morning, a young girl going to school in a straw boater. But in the morning, very many of the passengers who disembark there work, as I do, at Charing Cross Hospital. Whether that particular multiracial and largely ill-paid crowd thought well of wealthy Tories handing out leaflets attacking immigration from Africa, I can't say. (They didn't say, since only I was impolite enough to express an opinion. Possibly the Africans among them were too busy getting to work to do the hospital cleaning that the Tories think is so straightforward.)

Come to that, nobody but me seemed to say a word when UKIP were handing out more anti-immigration leaflets at Forest Hill station the other morning. "Would you like a leaflet?" I was asked. "No, I would like you to fuck off", I said. I would, too. I would like them very much to fuck off. I'd like the Tories to fuck off, as well. And occasionally, over the last twenty-odd years, especially during election campaigns, I've told them so.

It's the right of the curse that belongs to the defeated. The convicted witch curses her persecutors on her way to the stake. The prisoner abuses the jailer, if he can. The employees abuse the boss. When you have no power but the power of speech, then what you use is words. But if all you have is words, those words can never hurt them. A well-dressed lady offered me one of Mr Hands' foul leaflets. "Oh, fuck off", I said. The lady looked at me, less appalled than amused. "Well", she said, in a formidable English upper-middle class manner, with an unmissable undertone of not-remotely-being-bothered, "have a nice day!"

One-nil to her, I suppose. Or, as Queen's Club was clearly visible down the end of the road, game set and match.

April 27, 2005

They're drinking vodka in the Lenin shipyards today

It's not the first time I've said "fuck off" in public recently. Last November I wasted half an hour of my life watching the first half an hour of I Heart Huckabees from the back row in a Glasgow cinema: and I wasted the previous quarter-hour watching the pre-programme. If that's what the trade are calling it now. The trailers and the adverts. One of the latter advertised its product using Bob Dylan's Blowin' In the Wind, played through, so my mendacious memory tells me, from start to finish, though my underemployed common sense suggests it was probably just the first verse and the chorus.

Mendacious or not, I can't even begin to remember what the product was that it was selling. Which, of course, rather negates the purpose of employing the song in the first place, unless that purpose be to get on my nerves while I'm waiting for the film to start. In that purpose, it certainly succeeded, because when the song had run its course and the identity of the product, an event to which the whole advert (and thus the song) had been a build-up, I found myself saying "oh, fuck off", so that the whole cinema could hear me.

They didn't seem as offended (if their laughter is any guide) by my reaction to the advert, as I was by the advert itself. And even I wasn't all that offended. I'm not that precious about Dylan. I'm not that precious about adverts, nor the misuse they make of cherished symbols and cherished art. I wasn't even offended, as such, at all. I just thought it was pathetic. I could have said, "give us a break", instead, without a change in meaning and in the same tone. But I lack patience, these days, and I have always lacked manners, and so I said "fuck off" instead.

Or maybe I'm more precious than I thought. Maybe I ought to be. Yesterday, having gone to a sub-post office on the Fulham Palace Road in Hammersmith, near where I work - partly to post some letters, partly to check that there was actually a sub-post office still there - I was walking back towards Charing Cross Hospital when I saw a car, one of those Ford Ka things, I believe, making a turn at the end of a side-road. Nothing stands out like a Ford Ka, says the blurb, and it's true that this particular one was distinctive indeed. It carried the colours and symbols of the Solidarnosc trade union. (I say "the colours and symbols". A medievalist, or an advertiser, would probably say "the livery". But I get ahead of myself.)

I was curious. What would Solidarity be doing on the Fulham Palace Road? I assumed it couldn't be anything to do with trades unionism, since Charing Cross Hospital is already a unionised workplace and I suspect Polish trade unions would lack negotiating rights, even though the Bridlington Agreement no longer applies. I did, for a brief millisecond, wonder if it had anything to do with unionising migrant Polish workers in London. This would be an admirable occurrence. Yet, by the very virtue of being admirable, I imagine that it would be most unlikely to actually occur.

So this fantasy made speedy way for the assumption that, given the political direction taken by Lech Walesa and many of his colleagues since Poland was liberated from Stalinism, it was most likely connected with some sort of Polish political party. Presumably a party with Catholic and right-of-centre politics, though even so, its presence in Hammersmith remained a mystery. Still, there are some buildings just opposite housing foreign companies, including some from Eastern Europe, so my assumption wasn't totally implausible. It was, however, like most assumptions, wrong. Coming closer to the car, beneath the famous red-and-white flag that I used to wear on a badge on the lapel of my school blazer, I saw the words:


- those words, and the URL www.solidarnosc.co.uk. All it was, was a lousy advert for vodka. And a lousy advert for vodka that had appropriated - and presumably placed some copyright on - the use of the name and symbols of Solidarity.

The only thing that stopped me saying "fuck off" this time was speechlessness. Speechlessness on my part, provoked by shamelessness on theirs. A lack of shame, a lack of dignity, an entire lack of appreciation of the difference between what something is worth and what you can pay for it.

It wasn't an hommage. It wasn't ironic. It expressed no ideas, save perhaps the idea that the only reason the Polish workers organised against the United Workers' Party was so that they could buy a particular brand of vodka. It was cheap, and cynical, or perhaps too stupid, too emptyheaded to be cynical. Can you call "shameless", those who know no shame? But shameless it was, and cheap. And walking past this new, and shiny, well-cleaned car made me feel dirty, almost too dirty to feel like walking back to work by my normal route through the hospital.

I'm glad the Berlin Wall came down. It was one of the greatest and most important political memories of my life. I'm glad even though Wenceslas Square has been turned into a advertising hoarding, Moscow into a brothel and Yugoslavia into a war zone. You cannot support that which will not stand, and I am glad the Wall came down. But sometimes, you know, on some days, I am less equally glad than on others.

April 23, 2005

Cycle wrath

An unfunny thing happened to me on the way to the bookshop.

I had been fighting - an appropriate word, in the circumstances - to get across town, trying to reach Chess and Bridge from the Courtauld Library in less than an hour (having left the library at ten past five, and the shop closing at six) by public transport. After a bus had trudged up Regent Street at something rather less than walking pace, I gave up when I found that Oxford Circus underground station had been closed to prevent overcrowding, the subsequent overcrowding above ground reaching such proportions that when the gates were opened I remained in the queue for several minutes without actually getting any closer to the entrance. So I decided to go to Foyles instead, and having found and bought the book I wanted, I walked up Charing Cross Road towards Burger King to get some food, of a sort, down me before heading off to the LRB.

When I tried to get across Oxford Street, a task which, given that the green man was showing, should not have proved too difficult, I was forced to stop. First one cyclist, then another, zoomed across the pedestrian crossing as if neither the crossing, nor the red light, nor indeed the unfortunate pedestrians existed. They were not, in fact, the first and second cyclists that I had had to try and avoid that day, they might have been the fourth or fifth, and for whatever reason, the fifth was one too many.

Whatever the reason, I had had reasons enough. The arrogance, the disregard for other people's safety, the last, lousy hour, the struggle with the traffic, the persistent experience of nobody in the London traffic giving a stuff for anybody else trying to use the same road, the fact that it was raining, the anxiety and fear provoked by the possibility of the Conservatives winning the election. There are always reasons enough, in a major city, for there to be one reason too many. Reasons enough for anger to take the place of reason. I get angry too easily, and neither London nor the world in general make it any harder. Nor do reckless and stupid cyclists. I had had enough of the world in general, of London in particular and of this individual cyclist as the personification of both. He didn't hit me. He didn't even come close to hitting me. But he might have done either, and in the circumstances, lacking any further reserves of patience or self-control, I told him to fuck off.

He did not, in fact, fuck off. He got off. He got off his bike, parked it neatly between the pedestrian barrier and the newsagent's hut, and punched me to the ground.

I don't know how hard he hit me. He hit me hard enough so that I suffered from a stiff neck for a few days (indeed, it's still a little stiff ten days later) although they reckoned at A&E, the next morning, that this probably resulted from my head bouncing off the pavement when I fell. I don't even know whether this happened, either - I was too busy scrabbling for my glasses in case they fell off, and in case the cyclist decided to stamp on them if they did. He didn't. He didn't even hit me more than once or twice when I was prone. He got up, and was surprised, on doing so, when, more promptly than he might have liked, I got up too.

You don't really have much chance in a scrap when you're wearing glasses. Or, for that matter, when you're wearing a rucksack. Or, for another matter, when you actually have no idea how to handle yourself in a scrap. I've never had the faintest idea. I never had any idea in the playground, nor at any point in all the years that have gone by since. The other chap, however, knew exactly what he was doing.

Straight in, no sizing up the opponent just in case he had the chance to do some sizing up of his own. Left hand out, fingers splayed, to obstruct the other guy's vision, to distract him from watching for the other hand, and to provide a sighter for that other hand to find its range. Then in with it, a right hand into my face, and over I went, just like I used to, so often, all those years ago in the playground when the demands of my mouth exceeded the dictates of my wisdom. I didn't wear glasses in those days - it's possible to be a swot without them - and I used to get really hurt, in those days, because they didn't get up when they'd knocked you down, they kept on hitting you until a teacher intervened. This time the bloke got up even though no-one else had intervened. I don't know why. Nobody looked like intervening. Nobody looked like they gave a tinker's damn. But maybe he thought they'd take some notice if he sprayed my blood all over them. So he got up. And when he got up, I got up too.

There followed some verbal shadow-boxing to go with the boxing that preceded it. He asked me if I'd like him to come back and do the job properly. I suggested that if he did so, he wouldn't be too hard to trace. He was a courier rider - he had a bit walkie-talkie strapped to his chest, which made it all the more surprising, speed being integral to the courier cyclist's job, that he had time to spare to go and give a kicking to a member of a public. (I suppose he may have been on his break.) I was actually hoping to buy time to see if I could spot any livery, which might have carried the name or number of whoever he was working for, but without any success. He had no more identification than a policeman in the miners' strike. But a little less confidence. He didn't come and finish the job. When we'd stared at one another for a bit - and I'd made an idle suggestion or two to the effect that he'd be vulnerable when he got back on his bike - he did indeed get back on his bike, and cycled away, turning right down Charing Cross Road.

I looked around and nobody was looking back. I was standing, as I had just a minute before been falling, on the corner of one of the busiest junctions in a busy city at one of the busiest times of day. I would guess than rather more than a hundred people must have witnessed what had happened, many of them at close range, many of them probably close enough to count my teeth as my head hit the pavement and my mouth came upon. None of them intervened. I could understand that. But none of them said a word, not even afterwards, not even a word from one of them to ask if I was all right. And, that, I couldn't understand. I couldn't understand in any way I liked.

I wasn't feeling well-disposed towards the world before it happened. It wasn't the right time or the right place or the right circumstances for it. And I've always been more fond of humanity than I am of people - that's why I like cats, I think, because they're solitary creatures who don't trust people more than they're obliged to - and I wasn't feeling too fond of humanity at that time either. Election campaigns are never a good time to feel good about the human race. I don't think I've ever felt good about the human race, not since long before those beatings in the playground. But seeing as the human race was apparently feeling particularly indifferent that evening, I found myself, for the rest of the evening, not only feeling a stiff and swollen neck, but feeling rather less than indifferent towards the human race.

April 14, 2005

Literary controversy

It's been a while since I saw any debates in English language or literature rendered as graffiti. But last night I went to a subscribers' evening at the London Review Bookshop to pick up a copy of The Vanishing by Tim Krabbé with a five pound discount voucher I'd been waiting to use up. Given that - it being a special event - they were doing a ten per cent discount anyway, and were also laying on free glasses of wine for attendees, by the time I'd left the shop with two glasses of red and several sausage rolls inside me, and the book inside my rucksack, I'd probably made a profit on the journey.

Before I left, the two glasses of wine (and a previous Coke with a meal at Burger King, which I would have avoided had I known about the sausage rolls) induced me to use the staff toilet which is situated in the basement of the shop. Inside, there was a notice pinned up over the basin:

Due to its fierce flow action, the tap requires very deft and gentle handling.
Underneath, somebody had added:

"Owing to", surely?

There's something charming about that. Or amusing. I'm not sure which, or why. And it's not just that I don't understand what's wrong with "due".

April 07, 2005

Coming of wage

Today was the eighteenth anniversary of the day I started my first proper job. I started at the Department of Health of Social Security, at Harcourt House on Marston Road in Oxford, as part of a training group of twenty-seven people, on a thirteen-week course in Supplementary Benefit and the associated functions that went along with the job of administering and paying it. I stayed in the job for six and a half years, which is almost twice the length of time that I have stayed in any job subsequently. On 3 December 1993, with the ultimately abortive and futile idea of becoming a writer, I moved on. The benefit involved had already changed, as had – twice – the name of the department, and I believe the office has since moved elsewhere as well. All things are grass.

I can remember the date I left, as I can remember the date, 6 April 1987, on which I began, without difficulty, when the start and finish dates of other jobs are lost to my memory forever. It reminded me of the old prole that Winston Smith meets in the pub and pumps for memories of life before the Revolution: able to recall events from a long way back but not more recent ones, as I remember, say, Cup Final scores from the Seventies but not, or not without a struggle, from the Nineties. But it turned out that my memory was even at fault here. It's not the distance of the events that affects the old man’s memory, and the memory of the proles in general, but merely their import:
They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the _expression on a long-dead sister's face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones.
In truth I had even forgotten that it wasn't really my first job. I actually worked for one day in a restaurant in Norwich, where I was living in between dropping out of a teacher training course at the University of East Anglia and returning to Oxford where I had been previously. One of my housemates worked in the kitchens there and knew they were looking for people to help with the washing up, a particularly gargantuan task given that it was the period just before Xmas and the restaurant was therefore packed. As were the sink, the draining boards and every spare inch of space that could be used for dirty plates, dirty cutlery, dirty kitchen tools.

It proved too much a task for me, and when the time at which I was supposed to finish was long past, but the pile of washing up, though much diminished, was yet in existence, I left. Although I was paid - a tenner, as I recall - I was not asked to come back, or, more accurately, I was asked not to come back. I therefore achieved the distinction of being sacked after my first day of my first job.

A memorable distinction, one might think, but not so memorable that I can usually remember it. Or that I care to commemorate it when I do. I have never been sacked since. (Or not yet, anyway.) I have never been promoted. I have acquired no property with my earnings. But I have, just this month, succeeded in paying off the remnants of my debts, and have therefore managed to return to the precise point where I started. Jjust about dead level. All those years and nothing gained.

Not being sacked, then, may be the only thing I have achieved in the eighteen years, eighteen years today, since I began. And tomorrow will be eighteen years, and one day.

April 06, 2005

The evil that holy men do

The Pope is dead, and I am glad.

I am glad not because his politics were opposed to mine, or because he was a bigot, or because I believe not at all in God and even less in organised religion. These would be reasons not to like the man. But they would not be reason to be glad. They would not be reason to celebrate. You do not celebrate death without a very good reason.

You celebrate the deaths of personal enemies, perhaps, but I did not know the man. You celebrate the deaths of tyrants, but although he was a tyrant of a sort, utterly authoritarian in the apex of an utterly authoritarian institution, he never killed anybody, nor ever had anybody killed. But you do, you do celebrate the death of evil men.

You celebrate it with dignity, with restraint, without any semblance of sadism or brutishness. But you celebrate nevertheless. You celebrate the death of evil men. And the Pope was evil in a way that no other man on the planet was evil. He was evil because his reign - his term of office, his Papacy - was devoted to the promotion of superstition, and hence of ignorance. To ritual, to the worship of people because of their office, to deference, to the mind emptied and the head bowed. No other man in the world had the power to promote superstition like the Pope did,. And he took the opportunity as no other man for centuries has done.

It's difficult to get over the evil of the Catholic Church to people who have never been Catholics. The main reason for this is that not having close acquaintance with superstition, they find it hard to understand what superstition is. They can understand policy, all right. They can understand that the Pope's attitude towards women, or abortion, or contraception, or anything else, might have been wrong, or even wicked. They can also understand absurdity. All this nonsense about a God, without the slightest scientific justification to back it up, and then all the Jesus and Virgin Mary stuff on top of that. How can anybody believe it?

They can understand that - or rather, they can't understand how anybody can believe it, but they can understand that it's absurd. But absurdity is not superstition in itself. Still less is it evil. To understand why the Pope was evil, you might need to have been a Catholic yourself. Or, maybe, a Muslim.

In Tariq Ali's autobiography, Street Fighting Years, he writes of the occasion when he first came to Oxford University and attended the Freshers' Fair - in the same building, I imagine, where I did the same eighteen years later. He is surprised to see a man, from (I think) the Atheist Society standing on a table shouting "Down with God! Down with God!". When Tariq joins in, the man starts shouting "Down with Allah! Down with Allah!" instead. After he has finished, Tariq speaks to the man and asks how he knew he wasn't, say, a Hindu. Never, says the man, they never feel the need. It's only the Catholics and the Muslims.

The Catholics and the Muslims. We don't just reject our religions, as one might reject a scientific theory, as one might revise one's politics. We fear the religions we leave behind, and for that reason, we hate them. We hate them, because of the ritual and superstition. We hate them because they appeal to the fear of magic. We hate them because they declare the existence of holy men in order to inspire awe.

We hate them because they operate in mediaeval ways, with magic spells, with people who claim to have power because of their direct connection to God, and because, in that way, they deliberately encourage the dreadful robe-touching, ring-kissing, icon-displaying spectacle which is currently playing in St Peter's Square. There is no dignity in that, no reason, no contentment in one's humanity. Merely submission, servility, self-loathing, deference and fear. That is the religion of imams and the religion of priests. That is the Roman Catholic Church. That is the Pope.

It is not just the Muslims and the Catholics, not literally. The Orthodox churches play much the same cards in much the same way, with their icons and their Patriarchs (and, one might add, their attachment to the nastiest of politics whenever they get the chance). Presumably many people who grow up within the Orthodox tradition develop the same fear and loathing that a Catholic will often do. They may find it easier to understand both the spectacle of mourning for the Pope, and what is so terrifying about it. But a Protestant may not. For Protestants do not have imams and priests. They have ministers, and a minister is not the same thing.

A minister has no magic. A minister is simply the leader of a congregation. A minister has no secret knowledge that is kept from the rest of the congregation, a minister's person and clothing have no special aura. A minister is not a holy man. And, not being holy, they cannot inspire fear, cannot command deference merely by the person and their presence. They cannot silence their critics on the premise that God has given them authority to do so. Terry Eagleton observes that the claim to absolute authority was the hallmark of the late John Paul II, and so it was. But it has always been the secret of the Catholic Church, the secret of its power over its adherents.

A minister can tell you that you are bound for hell. But a priest can have you sent there. The Archbishop can tell you that you should be silent. He can even take your job away if you are not. But the Pope can tell you that God commands your silence, and if it pleases him to do so, he can take away your immortal soul. The authority of the Pope, where he commands it, is absolute. And there is no absolute authority without fear.

It is this fear, and the means by which it is inspired and enforced, that makes a Pope such a grotesque personage. John Paul was not just a reactionary old man. Of course, he was reactionary, and one can think of all sorts of reasons for being glad for his overdue passing, in his attitude to women, in his policies towards gays, towards AIDS, towards contraception. Only a few days before his death, his agents in this country compared abortion to the policies of the Nazis - a comparison that should be made by nobody, let alone an institution that has so many far-right connections and whose apparently beloved leader saw fit to honour the followers of Franco, of the Ustashe and of Mussolini.

But in itself, these would just make him another loathsome old man among world leaders, one who people had waited to pass away so that they, too, might be able to move on. Indeed, on seeing his body laid out for the faithful to pass in front of in such numbers, I was immediately reminded of the death of Deng Xiaoping. The leader, like the Holy Father, of hundreds of millions, another bureaucratic old man in an organisation of bureaucratic old men. As if the Church were nothing but the Chinese Communist Party with votive candles.

Perhaps the comparison is instructive, enough, and perhaps the comparison, not so much with Deng Xiaoping but with the death of Stalin, is not so very strange to make. The worldwide grieving was not so very different, right down to the portraits that the faithful held. But the difference is, nevertheless, the votive candles. The Church may change its policies. It may change its position on celibacy, on contraception, and even, however unlikely it may seem, on abortion. But it cannot get rid of the votive candles. They are what mark out the Catholic Church from everything else. They are part of the sorcery. They are the triumph of faith over reason.

The late Pope created more saints, I am given to believe, than a large number of his predecessors, combined, covering a period of several hundred years. Saints? What is a saint? What is the purpose of making a saint, of creating saints, if not to increase the total quantity of superstition? Never mind (though it is scarcely irrelevant) that these saints have included all sorts of fascists and lunatics, including the madman and charlatan Padre Pio, and many worse than him. The question is, why do it? Why have saints, and why find it so important to have so may of them, if not because you want your flock to be always saying prayers to them, always lighting candles for them, always hoping superstitiously for their intercession? Is that not how the Pope wanted people to be? Is that not the antithesis of everything that is civilised and educated in the world?

That is what makes this spectacle so terrifying. Not just the fact of faith destroying reason, but the enormous power that it wields when it does so. The power that leads people to grieve for a Pope that they could not possibly have known is the same sort power that led people to grieve for Diana, only an older power, a wiser power, a conscious power, a power aware of itself and its own interests. It knows what it is doing to people and it likes them that way.

That is why reactionaries love the Catholic church, why the Telegraph and the Mail have no disagreement with it - save that their loyalties are to London rather than Rome. They like what it does to people. They like to see the mass of people bowing, praying, asking no questions, weeping for their human gods. When the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, there will be no scenes like these. But the Archbishop of Canterbury is not a holy man. He is just a man.

So, the Pope is dead. And with good reason, I am glad. And if the reader is inclined to sanctimony on the subject, and to say that the Pope was just a frail old man in whose death we should, as human beings, find no satisfaction, then the response (as the catechisms have it) must be: let them say so, then. Shall I recognise that the Pope was only human, when the Church themselves depend on the pretence that he was not? Let them say so. Let us have some reason. Some reason about man, some reason about faith.

Let the coverage of this bizarre and terrifying circus speak more of commentary and smell less of hagiography. Let somebody allow the suggestion that this is ludicrous, that this is neither a holy nor an admirable spectacle, that the lachrymose and superstitious worship of human beings, be they English princesses or Polish Popes, is depressing, dangerous, undignified, undemocratic. Let them accept that John Paul II was just a man like all the others. Let them admit that he was no more touched by God than are the rest of us, and then it will be possible to respond to his death, and to his life, as one would respond to the life and death of any other man. But they will not. They cannot. They cannot and they will not, because they are the Catholic Church. And the Pope is dead. And I am glad.