May 29, 2005

Bar humbug

As one gets older it becomes increasingly harder to distinguish real life from a satire on the same, and living in London makes it no easier. I remembering thinking this when going to Islington a couple of years ago to watch Arsenal play Manchester United on a telly in a pub, with my brother and his Bosnian mate, both Arsenal supporters. It was the match in which Arsenal clinched the title, and therefore all the pubs were packed, although we did, finally, manage to get into the upstairs room of a Slug and Lettuce, us and something like three hundred other people, all of whom appeared to be younger than I was and none of whom, my brother and his mate apart, gave the impression of having a lower salary.

I can remember little of the game, which didn't interest me all that much in the first place, but I do remember amusing myself, after getting to the bar (some hours after setting off to do so) by asking if they had any pork scratchings. Regrettably, it was not an establishment where such comestibles could be obtained. Crisps, perhaps, I enquired? Alas, no. They were, however, able to offer me the only bar snacks that they had available, which were something called Japanese Rice Crackers. I think. I may not have that completely right. Never having asked for any since, I am somewhat out of practice in remembering the name.

Indeed, it was not until I read the Guardian Guide this weekend that I recalled the episode. For some reason, I found myself reading a section which appears to preview bars. That is what it says, anyway, at the top of the page:

PREVIEW : bars
thus surprising those of us who had never thought that bars needed to be reviewed, let alone previewed, in the first place.
That said, I did once attend a sort of "pub launch", the opening night of a pub in Oxford, or rather the opening night of a refurbished pub, which had been called the Fir Tree for several decades and had now been renamed something like The Olde Oxford Ale House in order to demonstrate that it was new. I mostly went to see what they might have done to it, and sure enough, as soon as I got in, I noticed that among other atrocities, the stupid bastards had stapled a typewriter to the ceiling.

Anyway, the Guide had sent somebody to enthuse over a new bar, the Deep Bar, in a "new development in Chelsea" going by the name of Imperial Wharf. The journalist was tremendously excited by the "bar eats" which were, she enthused, "of a high standard: crispy fried prawns".

Prawns. Actual prawns. No actual crackers, then, which were presumably too reminiscent of actual crisps to be admitted to this particular sanctum sanctorum. Poor Slug and Lettuce. It can never have realised what a faux pas it was committing. But it can never, surely, have aspired to the grandeur of the "eats" that went alongside the tastefully themed - and, hopefully, tasty - prawns.

But there was, mirabile dictu, more to come. They also offered:

tuna and salmon tartare topped with a quail's egg and fragrant pepper.

Not just an egg but a quail's egg. Not just pepper but fragrant pepper. My dear good God Jesus Christ. I was expecting to read that they were offering stuffed giraffes' necks with a nectar dip. Had I done so, I would still have been unsure whether the review was a satire, or whether this was really happening.

I might go down the Castle later on this evening (wooden chairs, cracked upholstery and a pool room round the back). If I do, shall ask for a pint of Guinness and some tuna and salmon tartare topped with a quail's egg and fragrant pepper. And a packet of pork scratchings to wash it down with.

Nothing odd will do long

When I was clearing away the clothes horse in my room last night, I came across two odds socks: both blue, but very different shades, the first being the sort of sky-blue that you get on a morning with a light breeze, light clouds and no likelihood of rain. The other was a darker blue, like the blue of a Bic pen. I didn't worry about it much. I don't usually worry about odd socks when I find them, clearing up my drying clothes four or five days after I've taken them out of the washing machine. There's often one without a fellow to make up a matching pair. More than seldom, there's two odd ones left and even three of them may not be my all-time record.

The odd ones turn up in the end, still in the washing machine where they're stuck in the drum, on the stairs where they fell when I first took the damp bundle back to my room, even stuck up the arms of shirts, tangled in the spin and not since extricated from one another. Most likely of all, they're still in with the dirty clothes still waiting to be washed, a comfy pile most of the time and one which, when I was still in Brixton, was one of Guthrum's favourite sleeping spots. I used to let her lie and leave the washing till the next day. I would willingly forego three-quarters of my wardrobe - such as it is - if it would increase in any way the comfort of a sleeping cat.

I assumed they were most probably still part of the pile, and didn't worry about it. For a second. And then I had a bad thought, and looked downward, towards the floor, towards my shoeless feet.

I was wearing two socks, both of them blue, one of them a sort of sky-blue and the other one a rather darker shade.

I am thirty-nine years old.

May 25, 2005

A little learning

There is a baleful date on the library stamps today. The standard loan is for three weeks: the date I have been stamping on the labels, the date three weeks hence, is the same date as my fortieth birthday. This is an event which, it seems to me, holds much the same promise as a Siberian winter, but without the prospect of redemption on the other side. I do not want it to happen. As it is going to happen regardless of my wishes, I do not want to be around other people when it happens.

So I am going to Tromsø, several hundred miles the other side of the Arctic Circle. That being so, there will be daylight for the entire period of my visit and for several weeks either side of it, which will not really be appropriate to the mood. I would have preferred unbroken night, but alas, I was born in June and not December, and I can no more change the movement of heavenly bodies than I can prevent the passage of inevitable time. I will, presumably, get drunk, for the first time in eighteen months, but in the manner of a wake rather than a celebration.

I shall be inviting nobody to join me for the occasion. I am, in fact, intending to issue "uninvitations" to my friends, advising them of the impending catastrophe and suggesting they wear black armbands on the day. I have searched around for a suitably gloomy text, a quote, a motto to accompany the notification. Some extract from the classics. Something that will not only reinforce the mood, but communicate, as quotations do, the sense of the knowledge and the learning of the person able to produce them - and by extension, the waste, the passing of that learning. Here is what I know, the quotation says, and here is all the use that I can put it to. And soon enough, even that will be gone.

In truth I know, or I remember, only fractions. Phrases, parts of sentences, wrenched free from their original surroundings, reduced practically to gobbets. Sometimes I wonder whether they actually serve any function other than to demonstrate the fact that I remember them. What function do quotations really have? Any function, other than to transform learning into demonstration? Than to turn education into show?

I stopped doing pub quizzes, years ago, for much that reason. I found them uncreative, pointless: almost to the point of obnoxiousness. They reduced everything one knew to showing off. I know this, and you do not, and therefore I am better than you.

What reason is that to know anything? It is not intelligence, nor is it education. There is no questioning, which ought to be the very root of both. De omnibus dubitandum, was Marx's motto: doubt everything. But here there is no doubt, no interrogation. No asking what information means, no development of that information into something useful, no alteration of the information as time passes and more is learned. There is only the production of the information. The information is not supposed to benefit the world in general, nor even the individual who produces it. Its only value is in its own existence. In its learning and repetition. And the only value of that process is that it allows the proclamation of superiority of one person over another.

That is a waste. A waste of the learning and a waste of the capacity to learn. It matters little enough when it comes to a pub quiz - it is our leisure time, and we may waste it as we wish. But it is also the story of education. Of how education becomes the presentation of itself, of how education becomes reduced to an expression of superiority. It reminds me, as too much reminds me, of Oxford, of its prevailing atmosphere of smugness and superiority. Of importance placed on never admitting one was wrong, rather than on never really knowing one was right. Such is the capacity of education, when it becomes a tool of social advancement and a means of comparing oneself with others, to close one’s mind, rather than to open it. To make one complacent rather than equip one’s mind with the tools to investigate a lifetime and a universe of doubt.

I hated all that, the showing off, the intellectual pissing contests, the pettiness. And if truth be told, I hated it all the more, as one does, for being aware of my own tendency to do the same. Everybody with education does, to some degree. We want people to know what we have got and to acknowledge we have got it. It is mere flaunting, just as it is flaunting to wear a gold watch or to drive a fast car.

So why present a quotation? For any reason, other than to demonstrate it as something I know? But I do it all the same. I am who I am, and have been for nearly forty years. And a quotation, there must be.

So I searched my mind for one, for one that would communicate world-weariness and pessimism at the passing of my years. My first thought had been of time's wingèd chariot:

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near.

That seemed to communicate the sense I wanted. Time, running out. Life, a journey towards certain and ever closer death. But, not remembering the source of the lines, I looked them up and found that they were Andrew Marvell’s. They belong to his poem To His Coy Mistress, and that was not at all the sense that I was looking for.

So I tried again, and lit upon Donne:

therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.

I had not realised that it was Donne. Still less had I realised that it was prose rather than poetry. I had been under the impression that the line was from Gray's Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard, presumably because of that poem's opening line:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day

which would, as far as mood is concerned, have serviced admirably. And, had I been going to Tromso in midwinter rather than midsummer, the fourth line would have worked as well:

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

But looking for my line, and finding it in Donne, I was knocked siedways bythe sentiment that precedes it. A sentiment which I had not previously seen, and which I would like to have known about some days ago. Because this is exactly what I was trying to say, only said better, more precisely, more swiftly and more memorably:

any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.

That is what I think. By God, I thought, on reading Donne, that is it. That is it. We are all part of one another. We are mutually dependent. If there is anything that I have learned in nearly forty years, it is that. That we live, really live, only with other people, only through other people. That there is no point, no value in expressing one's superiority over others, that to do so is to humiliate others and thus to diminish oneself. That we cannot survive without the help of others. That without others, we are not ourselves. And that this is the purpose of education, not to dominate others but to enhance them. Not to separate oneself from others but to bring you closer to them and offer them what you have got. It is not a pedestal on which to place oneself. It is a gift which one must offer to others for it to have any meaning.

It is why I am a librarian. It is why any of us are alive. And it is because I have succeeded,as far as I can feel, so little in that task, that when I come to forty, I shall do so by trying to get as far away as I can from the world I know. As far away as I can, and then to contemplate that distance on my own.

That is the purpose of quotation. It illuminates. But I shall not use the Donne quote, in the end. It says what I want to say but it says rather more than I wish to say. It advises me the opposite of what I shall be doing. So I shall settle for Horace:

Eheu fugaces, labuntur anni.

Alas, the fleeting years slip by. And so they do, and slip by faster than they did, and I have no way of slowing them down. There is a baleful date on the library stamps today. Where did the years go, and the people? It is too much to think about. Too much, and not enough.

May 24, 2005

Old school lie

24 May 2005

The Sports Editor
The Guardian
119 Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3ER

Dear Sir/Madam

I was most surprised to read in Donald McRae's
interview with Andrew Strauss yesterday that Strauss reckons he and Glenn McGrath "played a few games together" when McGrath was at Middlesex last summer. From memory, and a quick flick through Cricinfo just now, I don't reckon they were ever on the same team, not even once. Am I mistaken, or did Mr McRae neither know nor check?

I was also rather amused at the notion of a "mild dressing-room stigma of him being an ex-public schoolboy" – not to mention his claim that "when I arrived at Middlesex I was the only guy who'd been to public school". Given that Phil Tufnell went to public school, the latter claim is entirely incorrect and the former can hardly be taken seriously either. The current Middlesex batting line-up includes, apart from Strauss himself, both Ben Hutton and Jamie Dalrymple from Radley, Nick Compton from Harrow, Ed Smith from Tonbridge and Ed Joyce from an exclusive school in Ireland the name of which escapes me.

Which doesn't leave a lot of space for any "stigma", mild or otherwise. Indeed, one doubts whether county cricket has seen such a public school-dominated dressing-room since Gentlemen started coming in through the same gate as Professionals.



May 21, 2005

Here endeth the lesson

During half-time in the concert I was walking round the church and happened to see the rota for the various Sunday services over the current period, listing the lessons to be read and the people who would read them. Against each Sunday there were columns stating respectively the identities of the Intercessor and the persons giving the First and Second Readings. In each box, as well as the name, was listed the reference for the particular reading, e.g. John 1:1-14 or whatever it happened to be.

Except for one instance. For one particular Sunday, the Intercessor was listed as a Brian McHenry, which gentleman had presumably tested the patience of the parishioners on a previous occasion. Underneath his name, in place of a reference to a passage from the New Testament was simply the phrase:

Very short please.

May 20, 2005

Show me the way to Amaryllis

When I first started working at the DHSS in 1987, I was assigned to the section dealing with the summer vacation Supplementary Benefit claims of students, who, it was thought in those naive and distant times, should be the recipients of financial assistance from the Treasury rather than the Treasury being the recipients of their financial assistance.

It was a pleasant enough way to spend a summer, processing the uncomplicated claims of generally uncomplaining students, lunching in the Civil Service clubhouse and seeing the occasional visitor to our reception area before it closed at three o'clock. These were fairly untroubling encounters too, with the exception of the young man who felt it necessary to phone up and explain that he proposed to burn the place down, and was subsequently surprised both to be met by the manager, when he arrived at the office the next day, and to be informed of his good fortune that he had not been met by the police instead.

The only other visitors that I can recall (there were more than these few, of course, though not all that many more) were the Czechoslovakian dissident philosopher Julius Tomin and his wife Zdena, then claiming asylum in the UK; a student from the North of Ireland, who when his friend suggested that he write down his home address as "Londonderry", retorted "Derry was a city when London was a swamp"; and a couple who I only remember because of their extremely memorable names. Her name was Celeste Flower, which was mellifluous enough, not to say original enough, to be getting on with. His name was every bit as original: it was Hero Amaryllis Chalmers.

I often wonder why some upper-middle class parents insist on giving their children names that are recognisably different from anything a more proletarian child could be called. One can scarcely imagine a Tarquin at a comprehensive school, a fact which has the obvious corollary that if one attended a comprehensive school, one can scarcely imagine a Tarquin at all. The television programme Restoration features a historian of architecture called Ptolemy Dean: there weren't too many Ptolemys at St Mick's in Stevenage when I was there. Sebastian called his teddy Aloysius. Even to hear the name Guy is to imagine a public schoolboy. (Well, it is to me.)

The whole point, I suppose, is to stand out from the crowd, and to stand apart from it, to proclaim one's child different. But the effect, unfortunately, is to do precisely that, to accentuate a difference that others will resent, because it is essentially a difference of birth and of inherited wealth. Prep schools insist on dressing their pupils in uniforms that put the boys in short trousers just when their rougher contemporaries have discarded them, while girls are made to wear straw boaters as if the Belles of St Trinian's were their contemporaries. Presumably they are.

I'm not sure I like it, though. I'm not at all sure I like making the children of the wealthy stand out in that way. The short trousers might as well be a Kick Me sign attached to the backsides of the boys: the straw boaters say Mock Me. And the names, too, seem to say the same thing. My parents gave me this ridiculous name to show that I am different from you. They are memorable, certainly. But I wonder if they don't cause their bearers a few humiliations to remember, too.

Celeste Flower - there surely can't be two - now appears to write guides to Shakespeare for schools, an admirable occupation, since it matters not what class of school the reader is attending. To her I owe a correct answer in a pub quiz years ago, when thanks to having been reminded of the name a long time after I actually read the books, I was able to recall the name of the queen in Babar The Elephant.

Hero, meanwhile, if it be the same individual, writes about writers. (One virtue of the idiosyncratic name - it is easy to look up on Google.) The Amaryllis appears to be omitted, but I came across the name again last night, attending a concert at St John's Church in East Dulwich given by the Dulwich Festival Chamber Orchestra as part of the Dulwich Festival. In the programme, for a performance of music by Schubert and Mozart, one of the cellists bore the first name Amaryllis. It's a strange world, classical music. The world of classical music and the social world from which its performers mostly spring. When you're not part of it, it's a very strange and different world indeed.

May 17, 2005

Corinthians casual employment

My brother has a friend in Brazil. This friend recently wrote him a letter saying that he had been given a job at the famous football club Corinthians, translating into Portuguese for the Argentinian (and therefore Spanish-speaking) manager Daniel Passarella.

It could have been one of the shortest-lived jobs in history. The letter to my brother was written on the ninth of this month. Corinthians sacked Daniel Passarella on the tenth.

May 16, 2005

Do right woman

I played chess at the City Ground over the weekend, an amusing circumstance in itself. It was the first weekend of the play-offs, and had Forest qualified, the tournament would have had to have been cancelled. Not only could we hardly have played chess to the accompaniment of a football crowd more than twenty thousand strong, but the playing area - a bar and dining suite overlooking the football pitch on one side and the Trent on the other - would presumably have been required by the football club in any event. Therefore in order to book the venue, the organisers had to have been confident that Forest would fail to make the play-offs. And for that matter, the football club had to have been confident that the suite would not be required by supporters.

This seems a reasonable assumption given that they were relegated before the final weekend, but seeing as I received my entry form in, I believe, January, four months before the end of the season, it was a pretty confident statement of pessimism. (Or optimism, depending on how you look at it.) Crystal Palace had come from near the relegation zone to win the play-offs the season before. Presumably nobody in Nottingham, even at the football club itself, had thought Forest likely to do the same.

Anyway, my season ended much like Forest's, as I shed pawns, pieces, games and rating points like nobody’s business, eventually giving up, withdrawing from the final round and shelling out another fifteen quid for an early coach back to London. The journey lasted more than three hours, long enough, one would have thought, for the contemplation one's own stupidity.

Or maybe not. It wasn't just my chess, that weekend, that led me to worry about the apparent decline in my mental faculties. In the break between the second and third rounds, on the Saturday lunchtime, I left the ground and started off down the riverside path to make my way to the VAT and Fiddle near the station, when I thought I saw two men by the side of a Mini parked just behind a barrier. One was standing up looking at the other, who seemed to be on his hands and knees by the rear nearside wheel of the car. I assumed he was trying to fix something underneath the car.

As I got closer, though, I could see that the man on the ground had blood all over his very tangled hair and was half-conscious. I guessed that he was drunk and had fallen off the barrier in a lunchtime stupor. I was about to ask if anybody had called an ambulance, when the other man asked "have you got a mobile?". I had, and phoned 999 myself, which involved the difficult task of giving directions to a pathway with no name in a city which I don’t really know. (The ambulance subsequently zoomed over the bridge and towards the opposite riverbank, making it necessary for me to run up to the bridge, waving my arms to attract the attention of the paramedics after they realised their error and turned around.) They were about to give me instructions as to how to look after the victim when a chap rode up on his bicycle who seemed to know what he was doing, and I handed the mobile over to him. Much to my relief, as it was his jacket which ended up draped over the bleeding body to keep them warm before the ambulance arrived.

I'd been on the phone for a minute or so, saying "a man's fallen and cut his head open, no, I don't know how old he is, I think he might be in his forties, not sure" and so on in that vein, when the man who'd asked me to call attracted my attention again and told me that it was, in fact, not "a man" at all, but a woman. More than that, it was a woman who’d I'd already seen that day at the chess congress, as I discovered when the organisers came looking for her. (She was not only old, far older than I'd estimated on the phone, but diabetic, prone to collapses, and apparently in the habit of wandering off. "Lunchtime stupor", indeed.) On being informed of my error I reflected that it was just as well she'd fallen off the barrier and cracked her head open. At least that way she couldn't hear me when I embarrassed myself at her expense.

May 13, 2005

Isn't it a nobby one

I used to wear a baseball cap for a couple of years in my twenties. One promoting my trade union was normally the cap of choice, probably in sartorial reference to Arthur Scargill if the truth were known. Mind you, I used to wear a football scarf at all hours of the day as well. I've never had any idea what clothes to wear or how to wear them, or any more idea than you'd expect from a chessplayer and librarian. I do wear a shirt and tie at work these days, not because I'm expected to but because it amuses me to do so, and if I could learn to tuck the shirt in properly - it's only five weeks until I'm forty and it's really time I learned - I might look more like I knew how to dress and less like I had forgotten everything halfway through putting on my clothes.

I might go back to the baseball cap if I hear any more nonsense from the government, who have apparently decided to celebrate the election by making absolute fools of themselves in a way that they haven't managed since Tony Blair made his off-the-cuff speech about marching drunks to cashpoints to pay on-the-spot fines. (Cuffs. I can do them up. I can even keep them done up sometimes.)

I'd take rather more convincing that it was worth travelling all the way to Bluewater to make a point, seeing as I'm hardly likely to do any shopping while I'm there, but I have an inkling that a thirty-nine-year-old white professional wearing a shirt and tie is somewhat less likely to be thrown out for sporting a baseball cap than someone who comes into none of those categories except the one relating to headwear. (I am, however, off to the Royal Opera House to see Rigoletto next month, and I am already half persuaded that I need to wear a baseball cap in the Champagne Bar during the interval. One wonders whether it will be necessary to call the police.)

It is curious what is considered aggressive clothing, and what is not. One of my other baseball caps was of a khaki design, probably because I purchased it from Army Surplus, whose range of clothing has always appealed to me. Indeed, this very weekend, while sat at a chessboard in Nottingham, I shall be wearing, on one of the three days of the tournament, a khaki T-shirt. (My other two will be a facsimile of the Penguin Farewell My Lovely book cover, and one tendentiously proclaiming Rugby League - too tough for Jonny.) If wearing army clothing does not signal some sort of aggressive intent, then surely something is very wrong? Perhaps the army ought to rethink their couture, and switch to hoods and baseball caps.

In the meantime, if Mr Blair is concerned about aggressive behaviour in public - not, apparently, unusual in Nottingham - he might try having a word, not only with his Deputy Prime Minister, but with his best mate. Who is an advocate of the right to carry arms in public. I'd certainly swap my baseball cap for an AK-47 any day of the week. I am reminded of the quote, attributed to Brendan Behan, that:
bombs are all right so long as they're big and dropped out of planes.
Violence and intimidation only matter if they're relatively trivial. Which, as it happens, Brendan Behan was not. I'd have loved to have seen him in action at the Champagne Bar.

May 07, 2005

Spinning the bottle

It was five years ago today, I think. It might have been five years ago tomorrow. I may have known, at the time, but I have never known since. After it happens, your memory is shattered for a while, under the influence of all the images that fill your head during the days you are unconscious, summoned by artificial sleep and the morphine they pump into you. You live, for a while, in the world the morphine makes, a world of intense nightmares, made more intense by the morphine, made more real by your inability to wake. They stay with you after you wake, and only as they wear off, in the days and weeks that follow, do your memories seep back and tell you who you were before it happened.

They never return entirely. You never return entirely. Once you have crossed that line, a part of you remains behind even after your return. You lose the last few hours of your memory. You lose a small part of yourself. It might have been lost to you already - disintegrating in those lost last hours, worn away in the weeks and months beforehand. Indeed, it cannot happen unless you are worn down already. Eroded, unable to function any more. The machine stops. There are no decisions, no choices involved. Those faculties are gone, gone with the will to think, to fight, to struggle on. Gone with the will to observe, with the will to remember. It is something that happens to you – it is not something that you do. You cannot do anything any more. You cannot do anything but help the machine to stop.

I never understood this. I couldn’t have. So long as I possessed the faculty of understanding, I could not have understood it. I had thought about it. Thought about it for too long, thought too long about that and nothing else, thought about the circumstances and the timing and the reasons and the place. But in the end I could not have chosen any of them. It could not have happened until enough of me was worn away, and the capacity to understand among the losses. Once that was done, once I was rendered helpless, then it happened.

I had expected it to happen. I had expected it for such a long time, fought it off for just as long. It had expected it to happen maybe with a bang, with drums and bursting passion, ending like it was the first act of Tosca, ending with anger, ending like it mattered. Or I had expected it to happen with acceptance, far away, on the cliffside of a Scottish island with a sunset and a bottle and the tablets, slowly slipping into sleep. But these were the most impossible of fantasies. With passion? Where there is passion, there is fight, and where there is fight you do not give up fighting. With a flight? While I had the capability of flight, I never could have fled.

That is the thing, I realised much, much later. It happens when it has to happen. It happens when you are ready for it. And it happens when there is nothing you can do to prevent it any longer. For that reason, it happens where you are. Within the four walls of your room and within the confines of your head. Outside that, there is no world left any more. Outside that, there is no you.

The machine shudders, and stops. It breaks down. It has been breaking down. Noisily and slowly and painfully, it has been breaking down, and struggling against breaking down, until the noise and struggle come to and end, and everything is dimmed, and dulled. The last few hours are sleepwalking.

I can remember before then, clearly, all the eighteen months of crying fits, of screaming matches. All the countdowns, all the giving oneself another month, another week, another week before the previous one expired. I can remember the pills, the changing of the pills from one type to another, the desperation to get them in the first place, the desperation when they ceased to work, the doubling and trebling of the dose. I remember the hallucinatory agoraphobia they induced towards the end of those eighteen months, when I could hardly go out of the house without closing my eyes and hugging myself against the encroaching sky.

I can remember at the end of those eighteen months, the ward, the waiting, the waiting to be seen, the feeling that I was waiting there to die. And clearly, clearly, I can remember the consultant telling me to leave, telling me I was not depressed but merely angry, telling me that what I knew was false was true, telling me that he was taking away the last chance that I had. I remember that, all right. Oh, I remember that.

But after that, the memory is dimmer. Because, I think, after that, the screaming and the crying largely stopped. The line was crossed. One crosses it without knowing, first of all: one's own actions only confirm the fact. That's why it seems so easy, and so reasonable - you are already there. And having crossed the lines, the memory must dim. There is no will to remember, because there is no reason to remember.

Slowly, the machine stops. The functions close down, bit by bit and one by one. The memory no longer functions properly. I know I wrote a note, because I have since read it. But I cannot remember writing it. I have some memory of a football match on television. I have a dimmer recollection of loading some chess games onto my computer. After that I can remember nothing. Nothing but the walls around me. Not even the time, not even the day for sure. Not even whether it happened late in the evening or in the small hours of the morning. Not quite what happened, or the way it happened. I do not know whether afterwards, I slept easily and straight away, or whether I had time and cause to think. If I could think any more. I do not suppose I could. And after that, there is not silence, but two lost weeks that were filled with nightmares. And then, the waking, and the gradual rediscovery of memory, and the long struggle against falling that followed from that, and that still goes on.

I still go on. I still go on. I have left a little of myself behind me. You cannot cross the line and come back entire. But I still go on.

And I have not taken anybody else away. There is a sense in which you live partly outside yourself, in which part of you consists of the memories, the thoughts, that other people have of you. In which you are made real, even if only in image or in shadow, every time other people think of you. If that’s so, then when you die, just as you take your thoughts and memories with you when you die, then the people you have known die, in small part, too. You leave a little of yourself behind, but you destroy a little part of them. But I have destroyed nothing. I have not taken anybody else away.

But, still, I nearly did. And for a while, I did not know why. There was, as I said, no decision. There could have been no decision. So some weeks, some time after it had happened, I thought about what had occurred. After I had regained most of my memories and still not lost my balance, when I knew that it had happened but had not, yet, been overcome with gloom at knowing it, I thought about what had happened and came to an understanding about why. I hadn't wanted it to happen. Sometimes I had wanted it to happen, but that time had always passed. As long as I could hold my head in my hands for hours, as long as I could lie on my bed and shut my eyes, it had always passed. I hadn't wanted it to happen. I hadn't wanted it not to happen, that is true, but I hadn't wanted it to happen either. I knew that. I had always known that.

(Not very long afterwards, I shared a house in Newcastle with a girl who I heard, one night, crying in her room. When I asked her to talk to me, she told me that every time she walked over Armstrong Bridge she felt like throwing herself off. You do, I said, and yet you do not want to. Or else you would have done it. And, I could have added, if you wanted to, by now the crying would have stopped. You cry because you do not want to. And she didn't want to. And she still goes on.)

I didn't want it to happen. I didn't want it not to happen. And I was exhausted, exhausted, exhausted most of all by having to contemplate the choice between the two and make it all the time. I couldn't do that any more. I couldn't do anything any more. I could live, but I couldn't do anything any more, and least of all could I be made to suffer that impossibility, the obligation to decide. I could not do it. I abdicated. I wanted some other power, some power of chance (since even in extremis I was never tempted by the thought of God) to make that decision for me. To be is to decide, and I could not decide.

So, like I had done as a child, sitting with other children in a circle - and, come to that, like I hadn't done since I were a child - I spun the bottle. I spun the bottle, and let the power of chance decide which way it would be pointing when it stopped. I didn't know that I was doing that. I didn't really know at all, not at the time, what I was doing. But now I know. I have known for five years, less the few weeks it took me to remember, less the short time it took me to understand. I spun the bottle, and when it had finished spinning - it took so long, it took the best part of a fortnight to finish spinning - it was pointing the way that it was pointing. And when it had finished spinning, I was able to go on.

After it happened, and after that fortnight, but before I had really thought about it (let alone thought it through, and understood) I was taken outside the hospital for the first time in a month. I had not experienced fresh air or natural light in all that time, not since losing contact with the world beyond the contents of my room, and then beyond the confines of my head. The light was bright, though not harsh, and the breeze was gentle enough, but being the first breeze I had felt in weeks - the first in months without agoraphobia - I closed my eyes against the light and let the breeze brush over me, gently, as though the wind were leaves. And all I thought - for I could not, then, be burdened by too much thought - was that this is how it had turned out. This is what had happened, and this was where I was.

I sat there, on a bench in the grounds, with my eyes closed and my face feeling the wind, feeling what real life and light was like. Yet, at the same time, weak, without proper lungs (one of them had been damaged when they cleaned me out) and not yet able to walk entirely properly, and with the remains of a tracheostomy in my throat. I was damaged, badly damaged, perhaps, maybe even permanently damaged, but I was there. Nevertheless, I was there.

That, as I later realised, was where the bottle had finished when its spin was ended. That was the decision of the bottle. I was damaged - but I was there. And five years later, for everything that has happened since, I am here. Damaged, no doubt. Quite likely, permanently damaged. But I still go on. Ah, God, I still go on, and still want to go on. Alive but permanently damaged. Permanently damaged, but alive. I still go on. Five years today, five years tomorrow. The bottle spun. The machine does not stop. I still go on.

May 04, 2005

Green in judgement

I shall be voting Green, in Streatham, which is not where I live. The Royal Mail helpfully forwarded my polling card from my old address in Brixton, the addition of their sticky label ensuring that the polling card was of no use at all. But I moved too late to register in Dulwich and West Norwood, where I would also vote Green to avoid voting for Tessa Jowell. Not that I have read her manifesto or any of her literature. But if she can condemn Brass Eye without bothering to see it first, then I can do the same for her. East Dulwich is full of signs from the local Stop The War group encouraging the reader not to vote for Tessa. I do not need a whole lot of encouragement.

But I can neither vote for her, nor vote against her – all I can do is cast my vote in Streatham against Keith Hill. And so I shall. It will make no difference. My vote never does.

I cannot recall my vote ever counting for anything. Last time round, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne East and Wallsend, I voted for Socialist Labour, who gained four hundred and twenty votes. They did not come last. Nor did they come first. Nick Brown won the seat by fourteen thousand votes. In 1997 I was actually on the winning side in Oxford East, but Andrew Smith could have done without my vote (and, indeed, the votes of most of his sixteen thousand majority). I drank champagne and stayed up for Portillo anyway.

In 1992, although I was living in East Oxford, I fell in Oxford West and Abingdon, where Labour fell also, coming third and losing a lot of tactical votes to the Liberal Democrats (who didn't win). At least I was able to vote for Bruce Kent, the only time I've ever voted for anybody I've really admired. In 1987 the candidate was a mediocre local councillor called John Power. I voted for him nevertheless. He came third too. And in 1983 I was six days too young to vote.

My politics, or what politics still remain to me - it may be decades, many decades, until history disturbs socialism from its present state of sleep - are still rather more red than green. So although I like the candidate, who I remember from Stop The War meetings two years ago, it is still no more than a protest vote - against Keith Hill, who, as I recall, was a leading member of the Start The War campaign. I would like something to vote for. For that matter I would probably like a Labour Party I could vote for. But for the moment, there is nothing. Only protest votes and pessimism and the passing of futile time.

But I will stay up and watch it nonetheless, as a citizen should, because it matters. It matters even if it doesn't matter a hundredth as much as an election ought to. I shall stay up, hoping that everybody loses. That is a lousy democracy, but we get the democracy that we deserve and lousy is the democracy we therefore have.

I shall stay up and hope to be cheered by the occasional defeat of someone who deserves it. God knows there are enough of them. And if those who beat them are likely no better, well, I have got used to that. At the end of this month I shall probably find myself supporting Milan in the hope that they will stop Liverpool winning the Champions' League. Milan are Silvino Berlusconi's team. These are sad days.