June 28, 2005

One is not enough

I was on another bus yesterday, from Hammersmith to the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, sat on the top deck listening to the chatter of the schoolkids. Two lads were discussing Tom Cruise:

"...in the last two years he's only made, what, three films, but he gets forty million dollars every time."

"He must be rolling in it."

"Yeah. Just think about it. I mean the way we live, you'd only have to do two films and you'd be made for life."

June 26, 2005

Like tears in rain

I was listening, on Friday night and again on Saturday morning, to the second movement of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto, the Emperor. I had seen a television programme on the Thursday, Beethoven's Hair, which had ended with the composer's funeral in 1827, and the oration written by Franz Grillparzer and spoken at the gates of the funeral by Heinrich Anschütz:

Because he withdrew from the world, they called him a man-hater, and because he held aloof from sentimentality, unfeeling. Ah, one who knows himself hard of heart, does not shrink! The finest points are those most easily blunted and bent or broken. An excess of sensitiveness avoids a show of feeling! He fled the world because, in the whole range of his loving nature, he found no weapon to oppose it. He withdrew from mankind after he had given them his all and received nothing in return. He dwelt alone, because he found no second Self. But to the end his heart beat warm for all men, in fatherly affection for his kindred, for the world his all and his heart's blood.
Over the words spoken by Anschütz, and over the subsequent credits, they played a theme from the second movement, Adagio un poco mosso, of the Fifth Piano Concerto, and the following day I went to the music shop at the Barbican and bought a recording of the piece. I had the afternoon off, and when I came home the sun was beating down outside. I stayed inside on the sofa and, oppressed by the sun and exhausted by the week, I fell asleep for a couple of hours.

When I was woken by the complaints of the cat, I found her hair was wet from rainfall (and it rained again, before I awoke on the Saturday) and I went into the kitchen, put on the CD and looked out at the glistening garden as the second movement played. The theme begins a minute or so into the movement. It is a short-lived, fragile theme, on the piano, descending down the scale and giving, to me, the impression of gently falling rain. Which might have been why it felt so evocative, that evening and on the subsequent morning, recently woken and watching the wetness of the leaves.

I have known the theme for many years. I heard it last when listening to all five piano concertos before a concert last August at the Barbican, but I heard it first, I think, on the soundtrack to Picnic At Hanging Rock. This, very likely, is why I associate it not only with the general mood of sadness that the theme implies, but with wider themes of loss and disappearance and unresolvable sadness, themes that often occupy much space within my thoughts. When put together with the oration from Beethoven's funeral, the sentiments of which ("he withdrew from mankind") strike deeply and disturbingly, they summoned up those themes and the need to explore them once again - and the need to explore them with the help of the music which had provoked them. Hence the CD, and the garden, and the themes of loss and disappearance and gently falling rain.

One evocation produces another, and another in its turn. Moreover, when one is freshly woken, one's mind slips easily from one subject half-remembered to another half-forgotten, like sleepwalking across stepping stones. One grasps for an idea - what is it that I'm thinking of? - and slips into that idea, or, just as likely, a different one, by a process no more controlled than a word-association. A theme-association perhaps, as one wanders blindfold through the memory and listens for recognisable sounds.

As Beethoven's falling rain moved me gently from one recollection to another, I began to think myself reminded of the final paragraph of a short story by Pamela Zoline. One that I had read first, thirty years ago, in an old copy of New Worlds and one which I had returned to, intermittently, ever since. It's another story of loss, but the loss of one's balance, the loss of one's sanity, the onset of a breakdown. And, as Beethoven evokes falling rain, it begins with a woman's falling tears. (The tears, however, are never just her own. Michael Moorcock, who first published the story, wrote that it "struck me with such force when I first read it that I cried".)

She begins to cry. She goes to the refrigerator and takes out a carton of eggs, white eggs, extra large. She throws them one by one onto the kitchen floor which is patterned with strawberries in squares. They break beautifully. There is a Secret Society of Dentists, all moustached, with Special Code and Magic Rings. She begins to cry. She takes up three bunny dishes and throws them against the refrigerator; they shatter, and then the floor is covered with shards, chunks of partial bunnies, an car, an eye here, a paw; Stockton, California, Acton, California, Chico, California, Redding, California Glen Ellen, California, Cadix, California, Angels Camp, California, Half Moon Bay. The total ENTROPY of the Universe therefore is increasing, tending towards a maximum, corresponding to complete disorder of the particles in it. She is crying, her mouth is open. She throws a Jar of grape jelly and it smashes the window over the sink. It has been held that the Universe constitutes a thermodynamically closed system, and if this were true it would mean that a time must finally come when the Universe 'unwinds' itself, no energy being available for use. This state is referred to as the 'heat death of the Universe'. Sarah Boyle begins to cry. She throws a jar of strawberry jam against the stove, enamel chips off and the stove begins to bleed. Bach had twenty children, how many children has Sarah Boyle? Her mouth is open. Her mouth is opening. She turns on the water and fills the sink with detergent. She writes on the kitchen wall, 'William Shakespeare has Cancer and lives in California.' She writes, 'Sugar Frosted Flakes are the Food of the Gods.' The water foams up in the sink, overflowing, bubbling onto the strawberry floor. She is about to begin to cry. Her mouth is opening. She is crying. She cries. How can one ever tell whether there are one or many fish? She begins to break glasses and dishes, she throws cups and cooking pots and jars of food, which shatter and break, and spread over the kitchen. The sand keeps falling, very quietly, in the egg timer. The old man and woman in the barometer never catch each other. She picks up eggs and throws them into the air. She begins to cry. She opens her mouth. The eggs arch slowly through the kitchen like a baseball, hit high against the spring sky, seen from far away. They go higher and higher in the stillness, hesitate at the zenith, then begin to fall away slowly, slowly, through the fine clear air.
The fine clear air. The piano theme in the second movement is lifted from its sadness by the strings, and lifted once again by the woodwind: finally it gives way to the triumphant theme of the third. But you can wait a long time for the theme to change. The sand keeps falling, very quietly, in the egg timer. The old man and woman in the barometer never catch each other. What is lost is often never found again. I looked at the freshness of the garden and the fine clear air and listened to the gently falling rain.

June 25, 2005

A pedant watches Wimbledon

During the fourth set of the match today between Andrew Murray and David Nalbandian, the commentator expressed the opinion that if it went to a fifth set, Nalbandian would be "the odds-on favourite".

It immediately occurred to me that in a field of only two, the favourite must by definition be odds-on.

June 23, 2005

God and the machine

No sooner had I got on the bus today - or, at least, before it had pulled away from the next stop down the hill - than the engine died. The driver pulled over to the kerb and tried, with no initial success, to start it up again, while the passengers - the bus was packed and the temperature high - tried, with no initial success, not to sweat. They then, if they were thinking along the same lines as I was, thought about how they were probably going to miss their trains, how they were probably going to be late for work and how they probably ought to phone their work and say so.

Some may have been unmoved by the prospect of being late. Some may have worried about it and some may have taken it more seriously. Some may have taken it seriously enough to say a token please God under their breath. But one woman said it openly, and repeatedly. Over and over again. Sat right next to where I was standing, with Danielle Steel's Zoya on her lap in lieu of a bible, she was repeating, like a sinner, loud enough for me to hear:

God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.

God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.

God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.

God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.

But God would not let it start. Which was a problem, as it became clear that his supplicant was not going to stop until the Lord repented of his folly. The driver turned the key, the engine would not start and the prayer would neither cease, nor slow, nor alter.

God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.
God, please let the bus start.

I have a certain aversion to religion, which I would like to think derived as much from reason as it does from an upbringing within the bosom of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. I have a particular aversion to public religion, and to religion being propounded on the bus. This aversion was reinforced by an experience last year in which, travelling back home on the bus from Walthamstow, I was preached at on the upper deck by two men who were kind enough to concede that the victims of the tsunami may not have suffered their fate as punishment for their sins. I even have a certain aversion to people muttering prayers on the bus when it is hot and sticky and I have already had to get up far too early and they will not shut up.

I nearly said so, lacking common sense as I often do. I nearly said, "lady" - a form I have recently adopted, as it enables me to avoid calling anybody 'Miss' who is a 'Madam', and at the same time avoid calling anybody 'Madam' at all - "will you, in the name of the God in whom you believe and I do not, please shut up? But before you do, can you please, if you will, explain to me why you think God is interested in whether the engine of the 176 bus in East Dulwich starts right now or never starts again? And, further, why God is not every bit as culpable for allowing the engine to stop in the first place, as he would be responsible for graciously allowing it to start?"

"Indeed, Madam" (I imagined myself continuing) "is it not precisely that hypocrisy, in which all good things are ascribed to God and all bad things to Man, that rationalists like myself have every reason to find intolerable in religion? Is it not echoed in the way in which religious people are always able to inform us accurately of God's Will when it comes to politics or personal morality, yet when it comes to cancer, or the death of children, or disasters, tell us that there is no comprehending the mind or the will or the purposes of God? So, this being not only so but self-evidently so, do you think that, for all these reasons but most especially because you are getting on my nerves, you could please shut up?"

I said, as it happens, none of these things. One reason for this was that I am not entirely devoid of common sense, or not, at any rate, at all times. Another was that I reflected that it could, at least, be viewed as a variation on Pascal's Wager: Oh God, if there is a God, start the bus. (One could continue: "if there is a bus", but that would raise more questions that would have been suitable for a quarter to eight in the morning.)

One might as well pray, goes the argument, for no harm can be done by not doing so. Except, as Pascal probably failed to reflect, that if you do so out loud, it may get on the nerves of the atheist standing next to you. Moreover, recalling Pascal's Wager reminded me in turn of Slaughterhouse-Five, which I have read from start to finish perhaps a dozen times. Perhaps more often, even, than the average Christian on the bus has read the bible front to back.

There is a passage which refers to one of the character Kilgore Trout's many unsuccessful science fiction novels - in this instance, The Big Board, which:
....was about an Earthling man and woman who were kidnapped by extra-terrestrials. They were put on display in a zoo on a planet called Zircon-212.

These fictitious people in the zoo had a big board supposedly showing stock market quotations and commodity prices along one wall of their habitat, and a news ticker, and a telephone that was supposedly connected to a brokerage on Earth. The creatures on Zircon-212 told their captives that they had invested a million dollars for them back on Earth, and that it was up to the captives to manage it so that they would be fabulously wealthy when they were returned to Earth.

The telephone and the big board and the ticker were all fakes, of course. They were simply stimulants to make the Earthlings perform vividly for the crowds at the zoo--to make them jump up and down and cheer, or gloat, or sulk, or tear their hair, to be scared shitless or to feel as contented as babies in their mothers' arms.

The Earthlings did very well on paper. That was part of the rigging, of course. And religion got mixed up in it, too. The news ticker reminded them that the President of the United States had declared National Prayer Week, and that everybody should pray. The Earthlings had had a bad week on the market before that. They had lost a small fortune in olive oil futures. So they gave praying a whirl.

It worked. Olive oil went up.
So why not pray? It might even work....and while I was thinking along these lines, I almost forgot about the prayer, audible and irritating though it was.

I let it go. As it happens, so did God, who directed his Mighty Hand to turn the engine over and start us back on the road to Denmark Hill station and the 7.59 to London Victoria. Thank you God, whispered the woman, and went back to her book, and left my weary ears alone. Deo Gratias. I almost said thank you to God myself.

June 15, 2005

How terribly strange to be forty

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me.

I am forty, and yet I do not know the colour of my eyes. I know now, know for a moment, as one knows the time when one has checked one's watch, and for the same reason. I have just checked. I had to check, and will have to check many times in the future, because I will never know.

I lived for nine years in Oxford in a small street, only eight houses, flanked on one side by a road called Freelands Road and on the other by Radcliffe Road. Which side was which, I never knew, and never could have known for sure. Because once I had been unsure for long enough, the fact of that uncertainty blotted out everything else: even when I thought I was absolutely sure, uncertainty took over like a failsafe mechanism and I had to check once more. My eyes are green. I know, because I checked. If and when I am ever fifty, seventy or ninety, I will, still, have to check.

My eyes are green. Tinged, to those same eyes, with a little brown and tinged again, to those same eyes, with a little too much sadness, with resignation and with tiredness. I have been told, occasionally, that I have distinctive eyes, not distinctive in colour but distinctive in the way I look at people. The nature of that distinctiveness has never been clear to me. I do not possess sufficient concentration for them to be piercing. Perhaps they look accusatory, and there are people I have looked at in that manner. But when I look at my eyes, they just look tired to me. Not exhausted so much as worn down, not worn out so much as worn away.

I am tired. Physically, I am tired. So are most of us, of course: most of us tired without ever expecting to be otherwise, and tired all the more because of that. I do not think that I look tired, though, not to anybody but myself. I do not think, for instance, that I look my forty years, My grey hairs are few enough, while my skin, although not youthful, does not yet betray me. But I am tired, all right.

I am tired of struggling. I am tired of fighting. I am tired of trying to be right. I am tired , perhaps most of all, of being right. Being right is such an overrated virtue. To be right is to achieve nothing. Nothing, except to frustrate and disappoint oneself: because by being right, one merely realises what could be achieved, and yet achieves it not. So I am tired, tired of the futility of struggle, of struggles, of all sorts of struggle. But tired, too, of so much else. Tired of being told, in one way or another, that if only I would look at things another way, they would look different. (As if, you know, one had not tried, had not spent most of the last forty years trying to do precisely that, had not become unspeakably tired of trying to do that.) I am tired of being told things. I am tired of other people. I am tired, I am worn down, I am worn out, I am tired. It is that, perhaps, of which my eyes may speak.

I do not struggle any more. Not for anything, or not for anything difficult. I did not give up, as such. I just found it impossible to be like that any longer, as one might lose a faculty, as one might lose the movement of a limb. Nothing dramatic. Not a collapse, not a breakdown, just an inability to do anything difficult any more.

Around three years ago I realised that I had changed, in that way. It was not a change from Hyde to Jekyll. Not a change in nature. But it was the loss of something that I always had before. Previously, though I might give up from time to time - and sometimes far too easily - my giving up was always temporary. Subsequently, it was different. No mas, as Duran said unexpectedly to Leonard. No mas. I do not want this any more. I do not want to struggle any more.

I say subsequently as if there were a cause. As if there were a moment on which everything turned. I do not really think there was. Something small did occur around that time, something about which I was unhappy, something unnecessary, something inevitable. But nothing you could single out and give the name of cause.

A few years ago I had a job interview in Wick and going up to John O'Groats afterwards, I pointed my camera at the Orkneys only to find that the lens was broken. Not shattered, not even split, but just slightly askew. I couldn't focus and I couldn't take a picture: and from that moment on, it never really worked again. But what caused it to go askew was nothing that happened at that moment - it was all the things that had led up to that. All the things that had worn it away. It took a long time to happen. It took, in the same way, a long, long time before I lost the faculty of defiance.

With it, when it went, went as well, most of my pleasure in people. Man delights not me. When I found that I had given up, then I found that I had given up on people also. Because what went was my capacity to sustain hurt of any kind, and of course, without that capacity, one cannot really function. Try and see it as many different ways as may be your will - it makes no difference. It is gone. It is gone, the faculty is lost, the missing limb is gone, and I would like it back.

Like the camera, I didn't snap. I didn't break. I didn't do anything dramatic. I just went slightly askew, a little out of step with the world, within it but not connecting with it, speaking a different language, passing right through it when I tried to touch. A little more askew than I had been before. I've always felt that I was, somehow, missing something, failing to understand what was going on, somehow set up differently from the world in which I live. As if it were a bad joke, as if it were an insoluble puzzle. "Poor George", says his wife Anne to Smiley: "life's a great puzzle to you, isn't it?". It is. It puzzles me, puzzles me to distraction, and I no longer find it possible to try and solve the puzzle.

So I am forty, and I am, I suppose, half, maybe even three-quarters a recluse. I speak to people, but I do not make conversation. I leave the house, but I do not go out. The mass of men, says Thoreau, lead lives of quiet desperation. But I am not desperate. I have simply let desperation slip away. I merely lead a life of quiet.

I do not really like it that way. I do not like myself that way. There is, inside, as there always is in everyone, that embryo, that potential, that possibility, that other-me. What a piece of work is a man! I could have been him. And, sometimes, perhaps, I have been him. And I could be him still. But I have given up trying to be him.

It shouldn't have been too much to ask. I have never asked for very much, not Things, not Career, not Money, not anything very much. I just wanted everything to be all right. But it was not. Ah, Jesus, I have spent my life against the odds, trying to counter the pessimism of the intellect with the optimism of the will. But that will slipped away, slipped away for good around three years ago. So maybe it can be otherwise. Maybe it will be otherwise. But I cannot any longer try to make it otherwise.

There are still wonders to behold. On Monday, I flew over snow-capped mountains, and in the night, the sun refused to set. On Tuesday I stood up on a mountainside and looked at the mountains at one end of a fjord, and then my eyes traversed the fjord and looked at the mountains at the other. I stood upon that mountainside and began to read Song of Myself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself.
But I see these things as a hermit watches Nature, and I sing for myself. For I am forty now and I see that I am tired.

June 14, 2005


We shall meet, says O'Brien, in the place that has no darkness.

June 12, 2005

La tenner e mobile

Curiously enough, 10p is the amount of change one receives from a tenner when buying the smallest possible glass of the cheapest available champagne from the Champagne Bar in the Royal Opera House: an experience I underwent on Friday night prior to watching a performance of Rigoletto. The ten pence piece comes back on a small tray, rather smaller than a silver salver yet slightly more substantial than a disposable ashtray. It occurred to me later on in the evening that if I had purchased a dozen glasses of champagne, it would have provided me with enough change to pay for the bus fare home.

I purchased just the one and drank it at the bar. It was a very small glass: by the time I had found a chair, it would have been time to leave it and take the empty glass back to the bar. There were, anyway, very few chairs in the bar, placed round the edges of the room and permitting only standing in most of the room, which thus took on the aspect of a "vertical drinking" establishment, albeit with the bar in the middle - thus curiously anticipating the circular, revolving set that would host the production later in the evening. (Not that the bar, itself, revolved at any point - I couldn't have afforded it.) One assumes that the idea was to have clean, architecturally pleasing space, rather than to give the impression that one was drinking in a Yates' Wine Lodge.

The production itself had its moments, most of them in the second scene, which several times was interrupted by applause. This was more than could be set of the opening scene, which was lucky to receive any applause at all when it mercifully finished. It is not a strong scene anyway, introduced by an unimpressive Overture and, for my money, orchestrally weak in its opening bars. Besides, the scene, an orgiastic evening at the Court, reminds one, and unfavourably by comparison, with the scene that dominates Roger Corman's Masque Of The Red Death. I've even wondered once or twice whether it might be the other way around, and Corman may have based his production on the opening scene of Rigoletto.

But lacking, as it does, quite the shocking brilliance of the film - one thinks, for instance, of the man burned to death in the gorilla suit by the jester dwarf, another echo of Rigoletto - the comparison renders it permanently unsatisfactory, in the same way, perhaps, as Brave New World or Darkness At Noon are always in the shadow of NineteenEightyFour, or Love On The Dole can never be read without reminding one of the superiority of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Anyway, with the second scene, the shambles was over, the comparisons forgotten, and the interaction of Paolo Galvanelli's Rigoletto with Anna Netrebko's Gilda was as moving as the previous scene had been tiresome. Moving enough for me to catch my breath at the point where the conspirators appear behind Rigoletto's house with the intention of capturing and destroying Gilda just at the point of her greatest happiness.

Here, too, was an echo of the cinema, as the masks, round and whitened, brought to mind the ones that are worn in Brazil. But this time the comparison served to enhance the drama that the singing, and the staging, had produced. They appeared so suddenly, and it was the unexpectedness that held the key. I remembered my previous visit to the Royal Opera House, to see Madama Butterfly, when I had forgotten that prior to her suicide, Cio-Cio San blindfolds her child so that he will not see her die. Shock lies both in the direct effect of an event and in its unexpectedness: this was therefore doubly shocking and I had to bite down on my hand to stop myself reacting. Nothing in Rigoletto was quite that affecting, but it was affecting nonetheless, and all the more affecting for taking me by surprise.

Which, in turn, reminds me of my favourite moment of recorded Shakespeare, which comes not directly from any production of a play, but from the film Withnail and I, which until the final scene, I never enjoyed all that much. I admired its wit, its script, its originality, its humour, but, like This Life or Sex And the City, all the characters in it were too vile or too tiresome to inspire any empathy. Until, that is, the final scene in which Withnail, having been caught drink-driving on top of many other well-deserved misfortunes, and surely on his way to prison, walks through Regent's Park Zoo and is moved, suddenly, unexpectedly, to recite one of Hamlet's soliloquys.

In doing so, he gives life both to himself and the soliloquy, makes of the latter not a recitation but a lamentation, and makes us care for the first time about him, and also, possibly for the first time, about Shakespeare, who is unexpectedly real, unexpectedly the expression of anguish. The first and third acts of Rigoletto end with cries of pain from the jester, bewailing the fate of his daughter and the curse that brought that fate upon her: but for my money, Hamlet's, Withnail's lamentation is the greater, more convincing, more traumatically the cry of the permanently wounded.

I have of late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither. Nor woman neither.

June 11, 2005

Line judge

In Dulwich Library this morning they were selling off some slightly-damaged stock, so I bought myself a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I might take it away with me next week, as the Arctic Circle, as far away as I could reasonably get from the rest of humanity, might be a good place to read passages like this:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

It is one of my favourite passages in poetry: I have it pinned up above my desk. It does not like God, nor Things, nor the effect on people of either. Nor, in fact, is it too fond of people in general. It prefers the company of cats. As, more and more, do I. And this is true however much I am inextricably "involved with mankind".

On taking it to the desk I was surprised to be asked to pay twenty pence for a non-fiction book rather than the ten pence they charge for fiction. Poetry is non-fiction? It would never have occurred to me to say so. "It's not something somebody made up", suggested the bloke beside me during the ensuing debate. Well, maybe not. Wordsworth probably did wander lonely as a cloud. But somehow I doubt that Kubla Khan did a stately pleasure dome decree. Not at any time and not in any place, and least of all in Xanadu. In fact, I think Coleridge may have made it up. But it's not a point worth arguing just to get a refund of 10p. It's either worth less, or a great deal more than that.

June 09, 2005

Arise, arise

Yesterday evening I went to the Friends' Meeting Hall in Euston for a book launch, hosted by the Marx Memorial Library: celebrating the publication of the final volume of the Collected Works of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, a project which has taken decades to complete. My late great-aunt had a number of the early volumes, and passed them on to me. They are long since disappeared, as, indeed, am I.

When I was setting out on the road to socialism, something like twenty-five years ago, I would usually expect to be one of the younger people at any given meeting I attended. I have noticed, as the time has passed, that this has usually remained the case, as if history had cut us out as a chunk, and carried us through time with the only changes to our numbers occurring when they were diminished by our deaths. You do get that feeling sometimes: that we were like the speakers of some dying language, part of its vocabulary lost for ever with each one of us who passes on, its whole history to come to a close when the last one of us is gone.

Perhaps, I mused, the event was like the attempts the anthropologists make, to record the speakers of those languages before they die, so that some, at any rate, of what they understood might be passed on to future generations. Or perhaps it was like Arthur C Clarke's The Nine Billion Names of God: at the conclusion of the project, the world would come to an end. But I feel like that most evenings anyway.

Anyway, most of the audience were a good thirty years older even than I: it was like being in Brian Aldiss' Greybeard, a novel I should read again, just as I should get round to properly reading Capital, one of whose translators, David McLennan, was on the platform along with Eric Hobsbawn and other notables. Once McLennan and Hobsbawn and the others has spoken, the meeting came to a close - no anthems, no Internationale even. It being a commemorative sort of event, I went and bought myself a mug depicting the Communist Manifesto, a keyring depicting William Morris and a postcard depicting the Peterloo Massacre.

Before I left the main hall, though, there was a small commotion a few rows ahead of me, when one of the attendees discovered that somebody had walked off and left an item of property behind them. The item was waved about a bit, but its owner had probably long gone and could not, anyway, be found. They had left and forgotten to take their walking stick with them. Their walking stick. Evidently, they had entered the hall requiring its assistance and yet left the hall without it.

The healing power of Socialism. It is evidently time for a revival.

Wednesday morning 9am

I have not been working full-time hours since going down with stress about this time last year. I was off for nearly three months and even after coming back, I have been working part-time hours, gradually moving up from four days (not working Wednesday) to four and a half (not working Wednesday morning) and then closer still to proper full-time work, coming it at eleven on the Wednesday rather than at nine.

Anyway, the time has come to work a proper full-time week again and so I got up with the alarm clock before seven this morning, took the bus to Forest Hill, the train to London Bridge and then a tube to Westminster, another tube to Barons Court and arrived at the library by a quarter to nine. I sorted out the early-morning shelving, receipted and processed a large number of new books and then took my place on the issue desk at twelve o'clock for the early lunchtime shift. At which juncture my boss approached me enquiring after my welfare and asking how I felt about returning to proper full-time hours....

...or rather, the prospect of returning to full-time hours, since the arrangement had been, she reminded me, that I should come in at nine not this week but in two weeks' time.

June 06, 2005

The nutter on the bus

There was a nutter on the 176 bus today. An incoherent man from a psychiatric hospital. He got on at the Maudsley, wearing a raincoat and a few days' stubble, and sat in the seat just ahead, and on the other side of the aisle, to mine. "Can I just dodge in there?" he asked the woman who was sitting on the half of the seat near the aisle. She got up to let him in, and after he had sat down next to the window, thought better of taking back her place. This proved a wise policy and an instantly fashionable one, as when the bus stopped next, he tapped his hand on the empty seat next to him - much as I might do to encourage the cat - and called out "there's a seat here, ladies!" to a succession of new arrivals. None of the ladies concerned felt that taking up his invitation was an option preferable to staying on their feet.

Disappointed, he began to commentate on events - or on, perhaps, some other subject, since he said little that was comprehensible - in a louder and louder voice until he found himself in an argument with another passenger, if you can properly define a series of hostile but incoherent exchanges as an argument. The other man - an ill-dressed black man, with a styrofoam cup of hot coffee in one hand and a extinguished cigarette in the other - took offence at the other ill-kempt man (at what, precisely, I didn't hear) and made enough unpleasant and menacing noises to drive him to another seat at the back of the bus, telling him as he went that he "ought to be locked up" and that the system locked up black men much faster for much less.

I reached my stop before the argument proceeded any further. I hope it didn't proceed any further. Neither of them seemed too healthy, to be honest. For that matter, I was off sick myself. Perhaps the buses are full of sick people on a weekday. Perhaps that's what we do, the sick people of London: we travel round on buses, picking fights with one another.

For what it's worth, the black man's complaint - his complaint against the system, as opposed to his complaint against the other man - is true. On both occasions that I've been admitted to psychiatric wards, one voluntary (when I was stupidly removed) and one involuntary (when I was stupidly admitted) a large proportion of my fellow patients - or fellow inmates, as I saw it the second time - were young black and Asian men. You can argue about the reasons as to why they should have been present out of all proportion. Or, indeed, why a fair few of those inside should also have been white men of middle-class origin, men who had lost their bearings. But the fact, itself, is undeniable.

I assume the incoherent chap was on day release. After a few days, provided you are deemed sufficiently healthy and are there on your own initiative, they let you go out for a few hours provided that you're back in time for tea. I remember leaving the hospital once (the first time round, that is: they didn't let me out the second time until they were made to) and getting on the bus to go back to my mother's house.

When I had taken my place, a bloke sat down next to me and started making loud, incoherent and disconnected conversation, just like the chap did on the bus today. Immediately, having been brought up on Jasper Carrot, I thought: when the nutter gets on the bus, why does he always sit next to me? And then, remembering where I had just come from, I reflected that the other bloke might just as easily have been thinking exactly the same thing, but about me.

June 05, 2005

Luvvie you can drive my car

I was walking down the Fulham Palace Road just after leaving work at Friday lunchtime when I saw coming the other way, a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce with a personalised numberplate reading RA III. The explanation - of the initials, anyway, if not of the conceit - was revealed when it went past me and I saw Dickie Attenborough in the back.

Ponce, I thought, ungenerously. And then - does he really need three of them?

June 03, 2005

The wicked witch of the West

My father left when I was thirteen years old. It wasn't a good thing to happen. It wasn't, at least, a good time to happen and it had the profound effect that such desertions have. It will, I assume, always do so, and if I am often fearful, often angry and permanently distrustful of my fellow human beings, the sudden departure of my father, all those years ago, may be as much of a reason as anything else. The feeling of being screwed up and thrown away, like an abandoned piece of paper into a waste basket, has stayed with me ever since, and brought about its own echoes, desertions small and large, repetitions of the original catastrophe.

The desertion of a father is one thing. The denial of one's children is another. Some years after he left, I found out that he had started a second family. I had two half-brothers, therefore, that I'd never known existed. But that much, I was all right with. That much I understood. Even the guilty must be allowed to get on with their lives. What I had rather greater trouble understanding was that these half-brothers did not know I existed. The existence of a previous family, my father's two sons and his daughter, had been hidden from them. We had been written out of history. We were something to be ashamed of. We were not convenient. We would get in the way. We were screwed up, and thrown in the waste basket.

It's hard to describe how devastating it is to know that your existence has been denied by your own father. I don't propose to dwell on it. I don't know that I could. I'm sure that I could not explain it to those who do not understand, and sure also that it would need no further elaboration to anybody who does understand. It is not, that said, that difficult a point to grasp. In fact, though I have mentioned it many people, the only one who has failed to understand it is my father. (I have met him twice since I found out about it. The first time, he denied that he had done any wrong. The second time, when he started to tell me it was good to see me, I replied "who the hell are you?")

The mother of these children is a woman called Sharon Bowles. An ambitious woman called Sharon Bowles. It is impossible, of course, that any decision to deny the existence of a previous wife and children could have been taken without, at very least, her consent and support. If she had thought it important that children other than her own should be acknowledged rather than abandoned, it would not have happened. If she had thought that the feelings of another mother's children mattered, it would not have happened. If she felt that anything mattered other than what suited her, it would not have happened. But it happened. And the other, despised children were devastated when they heard about it. But they were not her children, and so they didn't matter. So it happened.

She is, as I said, an ambitious woman. Private school and professional career: she also has a high opinion of herself. She has made several attempts to get herself elected, to the Westminster Parliament and the European equivalent. I cannot say, not accurately, nor with any sense of levelheadedness, how angry and how futile this makes me feel. It's not just that this is the woman for whose benefit I was consigned to history, it is that this is the career for whose benefit I was consigned to history. I am the screwed-up paper - the career is the brand-new sheet. And I am screwed up about it. Of this morning (for I have learned something, this morning) I am shattered.

The point is that if the career succeeds, then she is vindicated. If she prospers, then the route she took and the means that she selected are rewarded. By God, it fills me with rage, with hopelessness, with an inexpressible loathing. I have tried to express it. I have even tried to express it to her face. When she stood in the last Euro-elections, I went to the length, the pointless and vindictive length, of attending a hustings in Dartford just so that I could make it clear to her how much I hated her.

I asked a loaded question, wondering how the electorate could trust politicians who trod all over people in their personal lives, asking whether they would not to the same when it came to their careers. She replied, evasively, that everybody was human, even politicians, and that people who make mistakes should be allowed to get on with their lives providing they had once apologised. This was good answer. It was an answer I agreed with. But it was not just an evasive but a specious answer, since she never has apologised, not once, not ever, not a word. She has not, and he has not. Not a word.

After the meeting I confronted her in person, and told her what I thought of her, and did not do so gently in my tone or my vocabulary. I also told her that she might like to pass this on to my father, such that he might then remember who his children were. I told her this, and told her what I thought she was, and then I left, as angry afterwards as I was before, as angry then as I am angry now. But I was delighted some days later when she failed to be elected. She then failed to emerge as a candidate in the General Election last month. And I rejoiced. And I rejoiced too soon.

Because, as I found out this morning (I had been warned that it might happen, but I didn't know until today) one of her fellow Lib Dems, already an MEP was elected to Parliament, and chose, therefore, to resign his Euro-seat. The rules state that when this happens, the seat should be taken up by the candidate of the same party who was next on the party list for that consitituency. That unelected candidate was Sharon Bowles.

So, without even being elected, without even having done anything to serve it, my stepmother, my Wicked Stepmother, has been achieved the pinnacle of her career. Has been appointed, not even elected, but appointed to the European Parliament. She has got everything she wanted, and all her ego, all her arrogance, all her callousness - to the eyes of a deserted son, all her wickedness has been rewarded. And I feel cheated. I feel, today, today, once again, like the screwed up paper in the basket. I feel again, once again, like the thirteen-year-old boy deserted by his father, bewildered, lost, unable to understand anything that has happened - except (as children feel, as children always feel) that it must have been his fault.