February 23, 2005


On BBC Breakfast this morning, introducing constitutional expert and notorious courtier Norman St John Stevas, Bill Turnbull inadvertently referred to him as "Lord St John of Fawnsley".

February 22, 2005

The boys who never grew up

I was watching Bowling For Columbine last night, for a while, anyway. I always find the footage of the massacre extremely upsetting - the security camera footage, the teacher on the phone to the police and shouting at the kids to get under the tables. But I find it troubling, too. I say troubling because I've never properly known why. I'm sure it's partly because the shooting started in a library, and libraries are places where things like that are not supposed to happen. Of course the same is true of schools - I can imagine people being shaken by the events at Beslan, say, in a way that I was not - but being a librarian, and being without children, I don't have the same emotional feeling about a school that I do towards a library. I had a problem watching Elephant, for the same reason. The library is the opposite of slaughter. The library is sanctuary.

There was something else, though, and last night I think I may have begun to grasp it. I could, I suppose, imagine why the killers might have wanted to lash out, why they might have wanted to kill the innocent, why they might have considered that the innocent were guilty. We all have horrors locked inside ourselves. We can all see ourselves wreaking vengeance on the world. But what I couldn't see, what I couldn't get my head around, was the appeal of the inevitable ending, since they must have known, clearly did know, that they would be shot down at the end of it, that their bodies would be blasted apart in immense violence and enormous pain.

I can understand the will to give up living, but that's a different thing completely. That involves giving up, letting go, an inability to keep on going any more. It is a state of final disintegration. The one thing above all it lacks is energy. The planning, the violence, the running, the shouting, the noise - these things would be beyond all contemplation. You could not do it, nor want to do it. Thi must have been something else entirely.

Then, as I was thinking about this, as the clips of interviews with the schholchildren were running and all sorts of motives were being offered ("they killed the black kid - they killed him because he was black") I remembered a line from my childhood - a line, come to that, from many people's childhoods.

To die will be an awfully big adventure.

And that might be it. That might be what persuades children to shoot down other children in cold blood, in the certain knowledge that they too will be shot down in the end. Because, in their childish way (and I mean childish, although they were young adults) they were probably not consciously, but with certainty nevertheless, they knew that this was the greatest adventure they could ever have. Not just the the killing, but the being killed. Not just that it was something of greater magnitude than they could, otherwise, ever dream of accomplishing. Not just that it would make them famous in a way that they would never otherwise be. But that to die would be an awfully big adventure.
Which troubles me no less, now it has occurred to me, than I was troubled before. It troubles me to make that connection, to derive something as devastating as mass murder from something no more rare and no more profound than immaturity. It troubles me too, that this might have happened simply because it was the best idea they could think of.

February 17, 2005

Full of pornography, the kind that's clean

On my way through Victoria station today I saw a hoarding advertising the Daily Mail - even an advertising hoarding has to make a living, I suppose - which commended the newspaper to us with the following slogan:
Which is a remarkable achievement, when you think about it. They've found a way people can read the Mail without feeling dirty afterwards.

February 14, 2005


On the train from Forest Hill to London Bridge this morning, with the temperature closer to zero than to double figures, the man asleep in the nearest seat to where I was standing had, in his lap, a cricket bat, and a bag which contained a pair of batting gloves and a towel.

February 12, 2005

Ad influence

Talking of attention-grabbing signs, I was in a pub last Saturday afternoon and they were showing Manchester United v Birmingham City live, on one of those French or German channels which show live Premiership games at three o'clock on a Saturday. I sat at kind of an angle to the TV, so I could see what was going on if I really wanted to, but without being distracted or actually looking interested. When they went two-nil up I got up anyway and walked over to the other side of the pub to see if two international rugby union sides could manage to produce a single try between them. And to consider passing remarks about the unlikelihood of such a problem occurring in a rugby league match. And to think better of it.

There are many reasons for not watching Manchester United and another one cropped up that Saturday. In fact I'm sure I'd noticed it before, but if you only see them every few months - something I find very easy to do - then you're liable to forget. (In this way, every time you watch, everything that annoys you about Old Trafford can annoy you as if it were annoying you for the very first time.)

They have moving advertising hoardings running around the ground at Old Trafford. I've not seen them anywhere else in English football, though no doubt they will soon be everywhere, from Chelsea to Carlisle to Dulwich Hamlet. Or Chelsea, anyway. I remember seeing them first in a match played in Tirana, of all places, when England played a World Cup qualifier there some time in 2001. On that occasion I believe they were actually virtual moving adverts, not visible to the spectators in the stadium, but entirely and intrusively visible to everybody watching on TV. They were basically fluorescent, bright reds and oranges, and they made my eyes hurt. They made a lot of people's eyes hurt, judging by the comments people were making the next day.

This was probably judged at least a partial success by the people responsible for the advertising, since it meant that rather than talking about the match, people were talking about the advertising hoardings. But presumably it wasn't a total success, since the experiment was not apparently repeated. Or not until Old Trafford gave it a go themselves.

I've got used to advertising hoardings at football matches, and at cricket too, just as I've got used to sponsors' names and logos on the shirt. The former, at least, I never had to get used to as such, since they've been there since before I started watching football, even on the television. To see old photos and old television coverage, where the hoardings are missing, even gives that very impression - of there being something missing that ought to be there, something that you have to work out - what's not there that ought to be? It's almost as if they started the match without goalposts or something. The only sorting event of any magnitude that I can think of which still does without on course advertising is the US Masters, and in that case the organisers' rejection of it is so well-known that you're already aware of what's missing before you start to look for it.

Sponsors' names on shirts, in contrast, came in some time after I started watching football. All the players' photos that I pinned up on my wall had shirts that were free of advertising, and perhaps because of this, I find it intrusive in a way that I do not find advertising hoardings intrusive. If that much can be put down to age, however, the same is not true of the realisation that we do not need it. It is supposed to benefit us all, to bring much-needed money into the game - but of course, it doesn't. Or it does so, only in a way that multiplies both inflation within the game - of wages, of ticket prices - and inequalities between the competing teams. It is a source of harm rather than of help. But although it cheapens what it touches, as money nearly always does, it does not harm the game itself. The playing of the game. Or the watching of the game, to any great extent. It is a small visual intrusion. But who cares what is on the shirt, if your eyes are following the ball?

Which is precisely what is different about Old Trafford's moving advertising hoardings. Why have them move? What is the point? With a stationary hoarding, the idea is that one's eyes follow the ball, and when the ball goes near the hoarding, one sees that too. Hence certain locations are more favoured than others- the one just beside the goal,for instance. Or opposite the television cameras. But that is all. The people who pay for the hoarding want you to watch the game, to follow the game, because if you do not follow the game, you do not see their advertisement.

The point, however, of the moving hoarding is to distract the eye. That is why they move, because movement attracts the human eye just as much as it attracts the eye of a cat. Movement takes your eye away from what it was doing, and bids it look somewhere else. It is more than intrusive - it is demanding. It insists you look at it. It makes you do it.

So, rather than have you follow the game - rather than want you to follow the game - the moving hoarding makes it harder. Tries to stop you. Tries to make you do something else. It consciously of its own nature tries to disrupt your concentration and thereby spoil your enjoyment of the match. It is much more than an intrusion, it is a distraction. A very conscious and unpleasant and contemptible distraction.

I need few reasons to persuade me to avoid watching matches played at Old Trafford. The fact that Manchester United win so many of them is usually more than sufficient. But this last, this newest reason may be the best reason of all. If I don't really want to watch the match- well, Old Trafford don't want me to watch it either. Don't really want me to watch it. Want me as far as possible to watch something else.

I think I can probably manage that.

February 06, 2005

Into the fire

In the van yesterday, taking my things from the old place to the new place, we had just got to the the penultimate corner, a couple of hundred yards down the street from where I'll be living, when I noticed the following sign by the side of the road. Couldn't help but notice it really - it was written on a bright yellow background. And then there was the content...


February 04, 2005

A sense of Porpoise

I always liked Muriel's Wedding, even before it helped to change my life. Or change my name, at any rate. When the thought came into my head, five years ago, to try and wrench my life into a different direction and to try and kick off - and symbolise - that process by changing my name, it was, I'm sure, Muriel changing her name to Mariel which first gave me the idea.

So when I took that decision - or rather, as with most of the life-decisions that most of us take, had that decision thrust itself upon me - and cashed in my first name, Edmund, for my middle name of Justin, it was an appropriate coincidence that in looking for a joyful piece of music to commemorate the moment, I should light upon Abba's Dancing Queen. It might seem a strange choice, not a choice I would have made had I really thought about it. But it was an appropriate choice, at any rate. It's not a choice that moves me, when I think about it, which I do but rarely. Nor one that I think has any profound relevance. No hidden significance. I wasn't born, or reborn, to Dancing Queen or anything like that. It was just the sign that marked the passing of the time.

I'm moving out of Brixton on Saturday. I can't think of any sign that will mark the passing of the time. I remember Holden, in The Catcher in The Rye, not wanting to leave Pencey and go home until he'd got the right 'goodbye' from the place. I know what he meant. I've had the occasional right sort of goodbye, times when I've known I was leaving for the right reasons and in the right way, leaving a place that had done me little hurt, and maybe going to the right place as well. Now and then, now and occasionally then. But I don't think I shall get any sort of goodbye from Brixton. I've never felt I belonged to the place. I've never been able to belong.

There are places where you know you're temporary and transient, and places where you think you're permanent, and I prefer the latter. But either will do as long as it is what you know it is. It's when the two are mixed up, when you're held back or when you're wrenched away, that places become miserable, either in the staying or the leaving. To be trapped in a place where you thought you would be only temporary, to be unable to settle when it's what you want and need - that is what wears you out, either with the constant moving, the insecurity, or the never moving on. The never being able to move on.

I find myself in both situations at once. When I moved down to London, three years ago now, the intention was to stay here for only two. Long enough to pick up some work experience and to hopefully pay off most of my debts, and then move out. Move north, move to somewhere where I could afford a flat or even a small house. It didn't matter where, so much as it was somewhere, somewhere that would offer me a job, somewhere that would offer me a palace to settle. But then the housing market went mad and suddenly - it seems like suddenly - everywhere was out of reach. It was dispiriting. Demoralising. Leeching of will and of morale. The syndrome whereby the harder you try, the harder you try to work toward a goal, the further away the goal becomes.

I cannot imagine ever being able to move away now. So I am stuck in London. But where in London? I have no overriding objection to London as such, being a city that I know, being the city where I was born. It is too big for my taste, and too expensive to live in, but it is far from intolerable. It has compensations in the provision of accessible culture for what it lacks in the provision of accessible countryside. But London, as it is right now, makes itself impossible. Because you cannot settle. You cannot become part of the community, for the nature of community is that it is settled, and you cannot settle. You cannot move.

Coming from that direction, you are trapped. But from the other direction, you cannot settle either. Any way you look at it, you lose.

You cannot settle, because you cannot find secure accommodation. You cannot buy anywhere, that much is axiomatic, that much is known to everybody. Council housing is impossible, a thing of the past, or, if you ever went on the housing list, a thing of the impossible future. Social housing, maybe. But there is a list for that as well. So it is neither permanent nor temporary but a limbo between both. A permanent transience. A city which wil not let you rest.

You cannot even find a place on your own. That much is not known to everybody. It's amazing how many friends, on hearing that I was on the move, asked "can you rent a studio flat or something?". And no I can't, not unless I have about seven hundred pounds a month to spend on renting one, which is a great deal more than I actually have. It is impossible, this city. This prosperous and ancient city cannot provide affordable housing - affordable in any sense - to a single individual in full-time employment. You have to share - which you do not really want to do when you are 39, and an unsociable and withdrawn 39 at that - or lodge. That is your reward for nearly two decades in the labour force. A fuck you from the society for which you have worked.

Now this would make me less angry than it does, if it were known more widely. But when you are in that position, you get the persistent feeling that you do not really exist. You do not really exist as far as the provision of housing is concerned. No provision is made for you. You are outside the market and outside all the provision made for those who are outside the market.

But you are also outside the public view. There are a thousand television programmes about home ownership, about buying and selling and doing up your house, about buying a second house, about looking for a second house, about what happened when you went to live in another house you'd bought in France or Greece or in the Falkland Islands. There are a thousand mentions on the news about a quarter-point rise in interest rates or the prospect of a quarter-point rise in interest rates or the fear of the prospect of a quarter-point rise in interest rates.

But there are no mentions of the prospect of a rise in the price of rented accommodation, or the fear of being on the street. No programmes about the search for somewhere to live, following our subject's search for rented accommodation, having a fly-on-the-wall crew film them running through the adverts and registering on websites and rushing all over London and having stupid interviews and not being called back by the people who promised they'd call you back and trying to get their deposit back off the previous landlord in order to pass it on to the new one.

Which is odd, really, because the number of people who have to go through that experience must be enormously larger than the number of people who ever find themselves looking for a pied-à-terre in Brittany. What's more, it must include nearly everybody who works in the media and produces television programmes about people trying to find themselves a pied-à-terre in Brittany. But we remain invisible nonetheless. Not as invisible as the homeless people you see everywhere. Not remotely so desperate and so hideously treated as they are. But invisible nevertheless. And, because invisible, without value. Whoever is not acknowledged is not valued. Their requirements are not valued. Their contribution is not valued. And their inability to find themselves community is not valued.

I have lived in Brixton for two and half years and never really felt part of it. I have never really tried to feel part of it, because how can you feel part of it, when, at any moment, you might find yourself having to move on? I lived in Oxford for fifteen years. By the end - by long before the end - it had become rare for me to get a bus into the city centre to do half-an-hour's shopping without bumping into one or two people I knew, from football, from chess, from any of my political involvements or any of the places I had worked at or any of the pubs I drank in. And I had drunk in all of them, because I went out of my way to do that, to knock every single last one off my list.

It seemed to be a way to get to know every corner of the city I was living in. So it was. I could find almost anywhere in Oxford even now, provided you gave me directions according to what pubs the place was near to. But I would never have started, never have made so many acquaintances, never have tried to get involved in Oxford in the way that I did, had I not felt that I was going to be staying there. You cannot build a house if you think you might be whisked away before you've so much as laid the foundations.

So you don't. And you don't. And you carry on like that, not building, not starting, not even waiting, really, because what you were waiting for is never going to happen. You carry on until you move on, and then you carry on again.

I believe in community. Community is stability and security. Community is time. Community is people together and what they do together. And community is people considering themselves as community. Not merely as individuals ("and their families") who simply buy houses and go to work and purchase commodities for their personal consumption at the shopping centre. The collective, rather than the individual. The bus, rather than the car. The cinema, rather than the video. The library and the school, rather than the drive-through and the phone-in. The helping hand, rather than the lashing out. The Labour - the gut Labour- rather than the Conservative. The social animal, the zoon politikon, the human being - rather than he who stands alone. Alone, and angry, and afraid.

I believe in all these things. I believe in the fundamental nature of these things, their fundamental nature as requirements for a stable and functioning civilisation, as fundamental in their way as democracy and taxation and a system of law. But they depend in themselves on a stable and secure population, which in themselves depend on things we do not have - secure employment, homes for all. Because without these, we cannot settle. And without settling, there is no community. And without community, there is no social animal. Just somebody waiting for nothing very much to happen.

At the end of Muriel's Wedding, when they leave Porpoise Spit to go back to Sydney, they stick their heads out of the windows in the back of the taxi and shout goodbye to everything they go past: "goodbye shopping mall!" and so on. The impression we get is that they've had enough of these places, that they want to get away from them and the stultifying, small-town, small-mind world of which they're part. And so they do. But in order to recognise them, in order to get away from them, in order to reject them, they had to know them in the first place. You cannot say goodbye to what you do not know. And so I shall leave Brixton tomorrow, for East Dulwich, without saying goodbye, not, anyway, to the town itself. Because it is a town I never knew. Never had a chance to, really. And I'm sorry about that.

February 03, 2005

What the other half looks up

This lad just came up to me in the library. Twenty-one, maybe twenty-two, medical student. Asked me if we had an A-Z. I wasn't sure, so I went over and had a flick through the maps and atlases we have, without any success. So, thinking that I could maybe refer him to Multimap or something, I asked, "Are you looking for anything in particular?"

"Oh no," he replied. "My friend and I were just looking for property".