March 31, 2005


Writing in the Guardian about his meeting with Bobby Fischer in Iceland, Stephen Moss observes:
Already, said one paper last week, after two days of citizenship, he is the second most famous Icelander after Björk. And I bet Björk can't play the Caro-Kann defence.
Which is an odd thing to say, really, because Fischer's no expert on the subject either. In all his years playing chess Fischer never once played the Caro-Kann defence.

March 22, 2005

Folie de roll

I have spent most of this afternoon worrying about a mystery swiss roll.

I was looking through my rucksack during a duller-than-usual tea break and was surprised to find a plastic bag inside it. At first, I thought it must have been the bag which had earlier contained my lunch, which I bought this morning from a supermarket, and carried into work in a plastic shopping bag. That bag, however, had long since been binned. It had, moreover, been from Tesco. It had contained a ham sandwich and a banana. The bag in my rucksack was from Sainsbury. It contained a raspberry swiss roll.

I do not eat raspberry swiss roll. I do not like raspberry swiss roll. It strikes me anyway as being unpopular by the general standards of comestibles: prior to setting eyes on the one inside my rucksack, I cannot recall setting eyes on one of them in many, many years. I would not, in the normal course of events, have any reason to contemplate a swiss roll, let alone contemplate the course of events that had led to having one in my possession. Yet there it was: rather flatter than it had presumably been before, largely inedible even had I been minded to eat it, but unquestionably in my possession as a result of a course of events which I could neither remember nor get to grips with.

I do not, as a rule, pick up the shopping bags of total strangers and put them in my rucksack. If I did, I like to think I would have better reason to do so than the theft of a raspberry swiss roll which I do not even like. I also like to think that I would remember carrying out the theft afterwards. You do not want to find yourself carrying out acts of larceny without even realising that you are doing so. You might steal the wrong thing entirely. You would certainly, being unaware of the theft, be equally unaware that the police, who you saw hurrying down the street, were hurrying after you in order to recover the unwittingly stolen property.

I suppose unconsciousness of the action might constitute a defence, in so far as there would be no intent - but then again, who would believe your story in the first place? I certainly wouldn't. Or I wouldn't have, before I found myself trying to work out how, let alone why, I had stolen a mystery swiss roll. It wasn't just that it might be something more serious next time - a coat, a wallet, a chocolate cake perhaps. Even as it was, I could imagine the Hammersmith Chronicle leading on the story:

'I do this all the time', the man claimed in court. 'At least I think I do. I can't remember'. He went on: 'I don't even like them'.
The defence would ask me to prove it by eating one while pulling a face, like OJ Simpson putting on his glove. It would be fabulous entertainment. I would be in court in the morning. I would be in the Chronicle by the afternoon. By the time I got home they would be reading about me on the internet all over the world.

I am sure that I was discovered sleepwalking, once or twice, when I was a child. But sleepthieving is a different thing entirely. And thieving unconsciously while you are awake - well, it is a passably eccentric thing to do. Even, one might add, a little erratic.

But I have been doing many erratic things of late (and earlier than that, too). On Friday, I lost my keys for fifteen minutes at the end of work, and rushed round the library in a mostly-controlled panic for a quarter of an hour, until they were discovered sitting on the desk opposite mine. On Saturday evening I accidentally locked the cat in the sitting room overnight, despite having checked (I thought) the room beforehand to see if she was there. She was only discovered the next morning by my landlady who heard the mewing and was able to release the confused and chastened creature - and was also able to inform me, later that same morning, that I had left the gas ring on after using it.

I then completed the weekend by travelling into town with the specific purpose of handing in a form at a Central London shop in order to claim a couple of free tickets for an exhibition. On this occasion, my rucksack contained less than I had expected: I left the forms at home. (I then went to an internet café, since I had been sent the forms by email, and paid to have them print some more - which I then took to the shop, who told me that all the free tickets had gone. I was completely unsurprised.)

Even today, while mulling over the matter of the raspberry swiss roll, I found two pounds and fifty pence in my back pocket. I have a small coin purse, which I keep in a front pocket. I could understand that coins might have fallen out of it and into that pocket - or flown out when I opened the purse, as happened later in the evening in the off licence. But how they could have travelled into the opposite pocket, I could not imagine. I was loth even to rummage further in the pocket in case I pulled out a playing card, or a rabbit, or an egg.

I have worried often about madness, or at least about irrational actions, things you do which have no reason, things you do which are not based on reality, which are based on a false perception of reality. Do things that you immediately forget, and are you not in the same sort of world? I do a lot of things which lead me later to sit down and ask myself - why did I do that? It is a step beyond that, to ask - did I do that? And when did I do that? And the logical step beyond that - what else have I been doing that I don't remember? I thought I cut out excessive drinking to stop things like that from happening. (Which has its own logical step beyond that - why bother, if it doesn't make a difference?)

There was, to my relief, a rational if unlikely explanation. Actually, it was unlikely enough to come out of one of those comedies where everything turns on two complete strangers looking the same, or having the same clothes, or having identical suitcases. It transpired that one of my brother librarians had, the previous day, bought a cheese and tomato pizza from Sainsbury. Which, coincidentally, I had as well. He had put it in the fridge for the afternoon before taking it home, which, coincidentally, I had as well. So when I went home - leaving before he did - I must have taken his, put it in my rucksack without noticing the raspberry swiss roll in the bag, taken the pizza out of the bag without noticing the raspberry swiss roll that was still in the bag, and taken the rucksack back into work the next day. With the raspberry swiss roll, still unnoticed, inside it.

He wasn't too upset - and he'd have had to be enormously upset the balance out the hugeness or my relief. I have had, in my time, a certificate of sanity, a claim very few people can make. Or, at least, a certificate issued at a psychiatric institution declaring, officially, that I did not belong there. I paid my colleague forty pence as compensation for his raspberry swiss roll. He'd only asked for thirty-five. It has to be worth five pence of anybody's money to know, however temporarily, that you are still sane.

March 11, 2005

Speech difficulties

During the shouting match over the meaning of a few cancelled operations towards the end of last week, Tony Blair, in a speech defending himself at the Scottish Labour Party Conference, said something that sounded strange to my ears. I heard it on the news, and what I thought I heard, sounded so strange to me, I felt I ought to check it first before drawing any conclusions.

It took me, however several days to track down the actual quote, which failed to appear in nearly all reports of what had been a very well and very widely reported speech. As if I had imagined it, or had imagined its significance, or nobody else had actually heard it but me. After a while I started feeling like Gene Hackman in The Conversation and wondering about my sanity.

The same weekend I saw a South Bank Show about madness in which people were asked to say what they thought madness was. Having had, in my life, occasion more than once to wonder whether I were losing my grip on sanity, I had an answer of my own. Madness is the suffering of false perceptions which are not artificially induced. Well, perhaps the false perception of Mr Blair on a news report would not constitute cause enough to have myself checked in to the Maudsley Hospital, but it was relief of a kind when somebody else located the correct quote in the Mirror. He had said what I thought he had said, but it seemed to have stirred nobody else's attention but mine.
"Shortly you will make a choice. Rightly the NHS and its future will be at the heart of it. If you believe the NHS today is worse than when Mr Howard at the Conservatives ran it, don't vote for me. Vote for him."
Odd. Odd, because, in the unwritten constitution under which the General Election will take place – a so-far-unannounced election, by the way, which also makes the shortly you will make a choice sound odd as well – nobody is in a position to make an electoral choice between Mr Blair, who is standing for the constituency of Sedgefield, and Mr Howard, who seeks to represent the town of Folkestone. These two places are about three hundred miles apart.

Choose between them? Hardly anybody will have the choice to vote for either. Scarcely more than one voter in a thousand will have the opportunity to vote for Mr Blair. A similar and entirely separate number may choose to vote (or not) for Mr Howard. No single individual in the entire world will have the opportunity to choose one of these in preference to the other. Their names will not appear on the same ballot paper. The choice that Mr Blair bids us make does not in fact exist. Which is, at first sight, odd enough. Odd enough to attract some comment. Yet, oddly enough, it appears to have attracted neither comment or attention of any kind.

What escapes comment, should only do so if it doesn't matter. But it does matter. The political and electoral system in this country is not a presidential one. It is parliamentary and based on organised political parties. We are not electing a head of state (although, of course, we should). We are not even electing an executive. We are electing the representatives of political parties – or independents, should they stand and should the electorate give their approval – to represent the voters of given constituencies. We are not voting for the policies of individual persons in the way that, say, the Americans do. But it is being made to seem that way.

It matters. It matters because the election is not a presidential election, and it matters because the Labour Party is not, or should not be, a presidential party. Its policies are not, or should not be, presidential policies. They should not be policies determined by an individual who wishes to run for election and by them (and their advisers) alone. It matters that they should not. It matters because a party like that is not a democratic party. It is no more than an electoral support organisation. You cannot be a real member of such a party, no matter what they put on the card they give you when you pay your fee. You can only be a supporter.

It's a commonplace, of course, to recall the great battles over policy formulation that used to take place in the Labour Party, and to recall how interesting, how thrilling even, the party conference used to be when that body actually mattered. It is also commonplace to shrug one's shoulders, to sigh, sadly, in the manner of Will Hutton, and say how much better it is that we no longer have such debates and such controversies. It is modernisation. And so it may be, provided that term is shorn of its positive associations.

Because it is not so commonplace, although of course it ought to be, to say that in a democratic society, the atrophy of democracy cannot be a good thing. It breeds cynicism. It also breeds cynics. And it breeds both, at the centre of what used to be the Labour Party - before it ceased to be a real party at all. It used to be a party with an active membership, a social role and a purpose. It is now a party with a passive membership with no role or purpose other than to sustain itself. It used to be a party with a mass base. It is become a party based on nothing.

What Mr Blair said, therefore, was therefore of real importance, even though it was almost completely unreported and went entirely unremarked. It went unremarked because it is supposed to be like that now. It is the way we live now – since the alternatives were ruled out of order - and it is supposed to be an improvement on what went before. Otherwise, why the silence, why the acquiescence which that silence signifies?

It is supposed to be an improvement because we are not tied tribally to our one party in the way we were before. We have consumer choice. We select our political leaders on the same basis that we buy hats, or houses. We choose. Yet we do not participate.

Consumers choose. They do not participate. People in movements do not choose. But they participate. They are involved, they discuss, they canvass, they debate, they formulate policy and decide on it. These are the things on which democracy depends – they are the things in which democracy consists. In a democracy, people engage with the world about them. Consumers do not. They engage only with the product. The world of the consumer is a world of narrow horizons and absence of vision.

Without vision, there are no alternatives. People read the Greeks because Plato and Aristotle had vision. They were obliged to, because they lived in societies where alternatives were real and were fought over. There was a choice of outcomes and it was therefore necessary to debate their desirability. But curiously, democracy in the era of consumer choice offers so little choice. The fact itself is often commented on - the paradox is not. We live in a democracy to which the free market is supposed to be fundamental. Yet the principle - better, the mechanism - of individual consumer choice by which that market works serves democracy so poorly that the choice is largely unreal and the democracy largely atrophied.

Yet this process goes without either criticism or comment. Perhaps it seems all right to the commentators, given that they tend to be well-off, metropolitan, close to the political establishment which wields all the power when there are no real political parties to stand in their way. It is rule by people like them, rule for people like them, and that is a state of affairs that would seem natural and normal to anybody.

But it does not seem natural and normal to me. It seems to me to be an empty process in which nothing is expected of us other than our votes - least of all a knowledge of the world in which we live or an interest in people other than ourselves. A democracy reduced to consumer selection at the point of sale, and where that selection is between two parties reduced to the persons of two individual men. And that way, for democracy at least, some kind of madness lies.

March 08, 2005

Pipes of unease

A few minutes after I saw the ferret, I saw a man playing the bagpipes, and I nearly fell apart.

I hadn’t been feeling at my most resilient. I'd been ill for a few days, off sick from work on the Friday, burdened by a cold presumably fostered by waiting at too many bus stops in the freezing cold of the last fortnight. Topped up by a dose of food poisoning I seemed to have picked up at a training session in Tooting on the Thursday. That, and the experience of being rattled around in the buses and Underground trains I took to and from Tooting, which wore me away until the contents of some malignant sandwich struck me down.

By the time I got home I could hardly move, other than to go upstairs and lie on my bed for hours, watching Groundhog Day (for the nth time) with my eyes closed, getting up only in order to throw up. Even by Saturday, I couldn't go much further than it took to walk to the shop for a paper and as much expensive orange juice as I could carry home. I carried it home on the bus. It is a journey of one stop.

By Sunday, though still fragile, I was well enough, come the afternoon, to go into town and buy myself a couple of conservative sweaters at Marks and Spencer, which is how I came to be passing through Soho Square, on my way to Oxford Street. There are two branches of Marks on Oxford Street, and I was still too dozy to notice that I'd missed the first of them until I got into a bus at a stop just beyond it and saw it out of the back window. I wasn't entirely sure where the other one was, but I got off the other side of Oxford Circus, and started walking down the north side of the street, towards Marble Arch. And outside Debenhams was an old man playing the bagpipes and I nearly fell apart.

I had been reading, just a little earlier, a dreadful, pious, two-faced article by Will Hutton, mourning and celebrating the defeat of the miners' strike, which had ended twenty years before. It was written in the spirit of this-hurts-you-more-then-it-hurts-me. (Or the tears that Castlereagh, when he was Eldon, wept when he sentenced prisoners to death.) It made me feel worse than the food poisoning had done. It was just as poisonous, but rather more fond of itself and less ready to disappear after a couple of stomach movements.

It was the sorrowful voice, the voice of Tony Blair, the voice of one whose patience has been sorely tried by our unreasonableness but who has soldiered on nevertheless. I can't bear to hear that voice, any more than I could bear to hear Mrs Thatcher’s during the strike itself. Sometimes it enrages me. Sometimes it just drains me. It tells me that everything is going to be like this forever, and that everything I have ever said or done to the contrary has been futile, a waste of time, an entire waste of my entire life. It can do that - it can have that effect, it can have that tone, it can have that authority – because the miners lost their strike in 1985. And with that loss, though I was not yet twenty, I lost all my sense of purpose. My whole sense of purpose, when I had only just discovered it.

So my unhappy head was already all wrapped up in 1985, when I heard the piper playing - and all the twenty years between us collapsed and landed on me all at once. Because I remember the bagpipes. I remember them playing - I wish that I did not - in Hyde Park barely a few hundred yards from the old man’s spot on Oxford Street. I remember, as I wish that I did not, the rally in London, at the end of February in 1985, the last gathering, the last protest of the miners and their supporters, barely a week before the strike was finally called off.

We didn't expect the end to come so swiftly. Even the BBC were not yet claiming that a majority of miners had returned to work. But we expected the end to come all right. Everybody knew the game was up. The lights had not gone out, the power stations had not closed down, the coal from abroad had continued to arrive and the lorries had continued to run. We knew the game was up. We were defeated. We didn’t know how dreadful the defeat would be, but we knew that it was dreadful. We didn’t know for how long its effects would last, but we know they would last for a long time. And perhaps for this reason, as well as for all the experience of the twelve months of the strike, there was such anger and bitterness among the people there. The people who had supported the miners, as well as the miners themselves.

I remember that bitterness very well - as I wish that I did not. I remember the insults being shouted at the police, in that park, in the cold wind of February, by Scottish miners waiting to set off on their march. Wth their band playing, and their pipers. I remember it, dear God, as I wish that I did not. For twenty years, all those feelings of futility, of anger, of the pointlessness of defiance, of the feeling of a wasted past and wasted future, have been mixed up in my mind with the sound of bagpipes. I heard them play, on Oxford Street on Sunday, in Hyde Park twenty years before, and after that, we marched off to Trafalgar Square, the miners fighting with the police - and after that, everything I had hoped for disappeared forever and it seemed there was no point to anything any more.

March 06, 2005

Here boy

Passing through Soho Square earlier this afternoon I saw a man, with a lead in his hand, taking a ferret for a walk.

March 01, 2005

Dysfunction and uniform

I went to Doncaster at the weekend to play in a chess tournament. I'm not sure why, as I'm not in the best of form at the moment and Doncaster is a long way to go to lose to players I should beat. Maybe it's because in any given gathering of chessplayers there's always more than a few who are sufficiently socially dysfunctional to make me feel almost healthy by comparison.

Such a one was my second round opponent, who I'd played before, in Blackpool last year, an occasion on which he spent the entire game burping. No hand over the mouth, no apologies, no getting up when it wasn't his turn to move, none of the things he could have done to alleviate the discomfort he was causing his opponent. He did the same again this time round, which persistent impoliteness I used as my excuse for playing without wit or concentration and losing with speed but without fight.

In Searching For Bobby Fischer Fred Waitzkin has some line about chessplayers being badly dressed, socially inept and "defeated in some fundamental way". That's apposite. That's us. Like gamblers, either losing, or even if we're not losing, losers nevertheless - inside when we should be outside, silent when we should be speaking, punishing ourselves in lieu of the capacity to have a good time. Even so, there's a limit to our lack of the social graces, and most of us stop short at burping for three or four hours into an opponent's face.

I don't know that my own personal degree of social dysfunctionality extends much further than talking to cats in the street. On the Saturday night, on my way back from a solitary couple of pints in a hotel bar, I saw a tabby on the other side of the same central reservation, in the middle of Thorne Road, as me. I called out to her: "Puss! Puss cat! Puss cat!" and rubbed my fingers together in the hope that she would come over for a stroke under the impression that she was going to be fed. Instead, she looked at me in horror, ran swiftly behind some traffic cones and then fled across the road at roughly the same speed as the cars she evaded on the way.

This reaction performed no wonders for my self-esteem. It did, however, considerably less damage than what happened next. A car had stopped just behind me and a man got out, opened his wallet and flashed some sort of badge at me. Strictly speaking I've always wanted to see one - I remember talking to a US Secret Service man on a protest when Bill Clinton visited Oxford years ago, and thinking later that I should have asked to see if his badge looked anything like Mulder and Scully's do - but at the time I was simply bewildered as to why trying to make conversation with a cat should cause me to be confronted with a police badge only seconds later.

What was even stranger was that when I looked up from the badge to see its bearer, he didn't look like a policeman at all. He actually looked like a waiter in a Seventies spaghetti restaurant. In fact, he looked like a specific waiter in a specific Seventies spaghetti restaurant. He looked like the weedier of Wolfie Smith's two sidekicks, who - in just about the only thing I can remember about Citizen Smith - had, as well as numerous children, a shortlived job in a spaghetti restaurant where Robert Lindsay once went for a meal with his girlfriend. For some reason, the policeman was wearing a black shirt, black jeans and a bootlace tie. I don't know whether those were his normal civilian clothes or whether he had thought up the ensemble specially for the occasion.

His appearance, odd though it was, was not as odd (and not remotely as offensive) as what he said. He asked me: "are you trying to pick up a prostitute?"

I could not have been more surprised if he'd told me I had won a million pounds in a free prize draw, although I would have been considered less enraged if he had done. I was furious. I was all the more furious for being as shocked as I was. What was he on about? What possible reason could he have for making such a suggestion? Did he go around walking up to people at random and making offensive suggestions to them? "You what?" I asked. or I shouted. Or at least, I raised my voice, enough for him to stand back a bit. I asked "who the hell are you?", which might have been a silly question given that he'd already flashed his badge at me, but I was having trouble adjusting to this completely unexpected and unreal situation. "No. I was talking to a cat. I like cats. Is that all right? Is it all right if I talk to a cat? Is it?"

I must have surprised him with the vehemence of my reaction. I would guess that when they are stopped by the police, real punters try to keep as quiet as possible for fear of anybody noticing them. I'd guess people don't normally shout at them, anyway. And this must have put him off his stride, because I was able to walk off without him saying another word.

Funnily enough, just a few seconds later, so far from approaching a prostitute, I was actually approached by one, with the words "want any business, love?". (The same thing happened the following night, too. Dysfunctional chessplayers? When you've got an Army Recruitment Centre on one main street, as Doncaster has, and open prostitution on another, then you've got something of a dysfunctional town.) She must have seen my argument with the policeman - she couldn't have missed it - and was presumably hoping that the policeman had been right and I had been bluffing my way out. "No thanks", I said politely, and walked on the hundred yards or so to my hotel.

I kept turning round, as I walked, so that I could deliver as many looks of contempt as I could, to the policeman, who by this time had recovered his bearings and was walking down the other side of the street, presumably also in the hope that I had been bluffing. He was about thirty or forty yards away, though, which gave me time, once I had arrived at the front gate, to make some extremely expansive and extremely unmistakable gestures conveying, in lieu of the complaint to South Yorkshire police that I didn't think worth making, exactly what I thought of him and what he had said to me.

It didn't even occur to me that he might have come after me, which he didn't - or it didn't occur to me until I was back in my room, which caused me to peep outside once or twice in case he was still hanging around. I suppose, really, he ought to have bluffed it out himself, and nicked me at the time, dragged me down the police station, done a deal with one of the girls to say I had propositioned her or something.

Obviously I'm glad he didn't. You don't actually want to be nicked for something you've not done - for anything, let alone for that. You don't really want policemen thinking that they're Popeye Doyle. But as it was - he was just so pathetic. Pathetically, he couldn't get it right. Pathetically, he couldn't tell the difference between a man approaching a prostitute and a man talking to a cat. Pathetically, he couldn't think of anything to say when somebody shouted at him for getting it wrong. Pathetically, he had to follow the man on the other side of the street in the hope of catching him at something, and pathetically, he then had to stand there and watch while the man made hand signals in his direction. He wasn't a policeman, he was pathetic. And he looked like Wolfie Smith's pathetic mate from a pathetic spaghetti restaurant.