August 16, 2005

Cheapest form of wit

A woman just came to the issue desk and bought a one pound printing card. There followed:

Her: Would it be cheaper to buy a five pound card?

Me: No, it'd be four pounds more expensive.

August 14, 2005

May I show an affirming flame?

I did a good thing once. It might, on reflection, be the only good thing I've ever managed to do: the only good thing of real substance that I've ever managed to do.

I used to think it would be otherwise. I was very clear about it: my life had purpose, and that purpose was to do good. But it never happened quite like that. It never happened anything like that. Of course: whatever it is, if it matters that you should do it, it will matter to someone else that you should not. And, at the same time, if it is up to you to act, it is either because nobody else will do so or because nobody else believes they should. When you are young, you ask why no-one else can see that something must be done. So, if you are anything, you try to do something yourself. But after you have failed, failed enough times, you end up thinking, as a reflex, as a habit: if everybody else can see what I can see, there has to be a reason why they leave it as it is. And chances are there is no reason, save that it be hard. But being hard is a most convincing argument. You cannot spend your whole life trying to break rocks.

So the harder it is to do what's right, the less rewarding it will be to persevere in trying - and even if you do, the more ambiguous will be the outcome. The more unclear it will be that there is any such thing as outcomes, that there is any point - other than death, when it will be too late - where you can blow a whistle, call "time" and ask your contribution to be measured and found good. So the less sure you can ever be that anything was achieved: the less sure you can ever be that anything ever is achieved. You cannot just do good. Sometimes I think you cannot really do good at all. But I did a good thing once. Even if it was the only good thing I've ever done.

It was four years ago, or more like four years and a half. It was in Newcastle, where I lived for a few months in a house in High Heaton, a shortish bus ride, or a slightly longer walk. Along the coast road from the city centre. If you chose to walk, you'd cross Jesmond Vale by walking across Armstrong Bridge, with Jesmond Dene visible to you on your left and the trees of Armstrong Park below you on your right.

It was a shared house (from which, as it happened, I was later evicted in dramatic circumstances) in which I spent the second "half" of my extended year at college. I was finishing the library qualification which I had aborted, through illness, halfway through the previous academic year. Having managed to survive the months that followed I returned to Newcastle: in the first place, to try and finish my Masters and in the second place, while I did so, to try and hold myself together.

In the end - if, as I say, there are "ends" - I managed both, if only for the want of rational alternatives. If only because having lived through the alternatives, I was exhausted by them, too exhausted to be able to think about exhaustion. When I used to run cross-country, when I was at school, I would keep going and keep going until I had crossed the line: it was only when I stopped, collapsing on the grass bank a few yards beyond the finish, that I had the time to notice that I couldn't possibly go on.

So it was, when I was back in Newcastle. There was a line - the completion of the course - and while I was running towards it there was nothing I could do but keep on running. (After that, there were other lines - a job, finding a home, and others small and large, so that the moment to stop running never came, and I am running still.) So it was, when I was back in Newcastle.

But it wasn't quite like that. I was aware that it was possible to stop. I thought about it. I thought about what it meant, and what it meant to be in possession of that knowledge. From experience comes knowledge, and from combining, wisdom: but the most important wisdom you can have is gained from knowledge and experience that other people do not want to have. To have returned from places where people do not want to go, that brings a wisdom that they cannot have, even if it springs from knowledge that you do not want.

I kept on running: I kept on walking up the road from Newcastle, across the bridge and up to a shared house in High Heaton. Soon after moving in, when the other tenant was evicted for assault, I had it on my own for a week or two. But after that, other tenants came and went, and there were always at least two of us in the house. I rowed with some, got on with others, more of the former than the latter. Where possible I tried to avoid them, to pretend that they weren't there, and sometimes they did much the same, and as quietly as we were able, we mutually kept ourselves to ourselves. Sometimes, there was quiet. There was peace, even if there was not peace of mind. There was quiet enough to hear the disquiet of others.

One evening, in the quiet, I heard sobbing. Not desperate sobbing, uncontrollable, with gulps and gasps of breath and howls. (I had cried enough, myself, in the previous couple of years, that I could practically distinguish and identify tears and the noises that accompany them in much the same way as a biologist distinguishes a subspecies. It was my specialist subject. I considered myself an authority.) It was coming from L's room, L being maybe fifteen years younger than me and generally as quiet as the sobs themselves. I do not think we had ever talked, before then: it may be that the sobs were the first that I had ever heard from her.

I listened to them, as I came out of my room. They were not loud, they were not wrenching, curdled sobs, but they were deep and they were not temporary. It was the way one cries when one is used to crying, when one cries regularly as if observing prayer, as an involuntary duty. One cries, without drawing attention to oneself, one finishes, and at another time, it starts again. It is, at least, a most unobtrusive way to cry. In its unobtrusiveness lies in danger, because it is so easy to overlook. It is so easy not to hear. It is just as easy to hear, and to stay silent, and for good reason, too, because there is nothing you can say to make it stop. Because, you tell yourself, whoever is crying wants to be left alone. And so they do: the two things in their life that they want most of all are to be left alone, and not to be left alone. You hear their tears, they hear your footfall. They hear you stop, you hear them carry on. It is, after all the quietest of noises. You were not meant to hear. They do not stop: they hear you carry on.

But, knowing how deceptive was that quiet, knowing how heavy a burden came from so light a noise, knowing what that quiet meant, I stopped. I called out to L. I did not ask whether she was all right, to which she could only have given the absolving answer that she was, allowing me to go about my business. You cannot ask a question that insists upon a lie. Instead, I told her the only thing I could that was of any help. I told her that when she was ready, I would be downstairs for her to talk to. So I went downstairs, and presently, when she was ready, she came down too, and talked.

I don't remember most of what she said, and not just because of the passage of time. I remember that she said that she was desperate, that she had tried to kill herself three times in the year gone past. I remember too that she said that every time she walked over Armstrong Bridge, she wanted to throw herself off. I remember that. But most of it, I have forgotten. Most of it was not important: the details were not important, or it was only important to listen to them, rather than to grapple with them and try to put them right. Look at it another way, that is what people tell you when you are desperate, as L was desperate, and the effect of that is generally to make that desperation worse. Because you can't, you cannot simply see things differently, and if you could you would not be sobbing in your room and wishing that either you, or the world about you, would permanently stop.

You cannot simply see things differently because desperation is not a function of the way you look at things. You do not add up your feelings like arithmetic and come to an answer that means desperation. You have your feelings. If you could simply control them or instruct them to be otherwise, does anybody think, dear God, does anybody think for a single minute that you would not have made them otherwise a thousand times?

But they do. Apparently they do. And you have to tell them that it isn't so, and have them disbelieve you, and you have to do that over and again. And you have to do that every time and it makes your desperation worse, far worse: because either you are sane and everyone is mad, or everyone else is sane and you are mad. Either way, you are on your own, and desperation is the knowledge of being on your own.

I knew that. That was the wisdom gained from knowledge of forbidden, fearful places. That was the precious, dreadful thing I knew, that other people did not know. Knowing that, I knew not to put L through the repeated torture of telling her that it wasn't so bad, really, if only she'd look at it another way. I knew that the very opposite was true. That it was so bad, that it was bad whichever way she looked at it. That it was bad enough to cripple and destroy her: and that to tell her otherwise could only intensify that process.

But I knew something else as well. Knowledge, on its own, is purposeless. It is merely a pile, stored up to serve and illustrate our own conceit. That is something I learned at Oxford, where knowledge served mostly to allow the holders of that knowledge to claim superiority over the fellow human beings. Knowledge must serve: knowledge must serve humanity. For knowledge to be wisdom, knowledge must be shared. Knowledge says, dominus illuminatio mea, but wisdom replies, we must love one another or die.

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

No-one exists alone. No-one, and no-one can. That much is knowledge. To make somebody who feels abandoned, feel they do not exist alone, to know how that is done - that much is wisdom. So I said to L, said it because it was right to say it, but said it also because it was true, that she did not, in fact, want to throw herself off the bridge. She did not, in fact, want to die, because if she did, she would have done so. The only thing stopping her throwing herself off Armstrong Bridge was that there was something stopping her, and that thing was that - however weak the impulse, however desperate and last-ditch and doomed the struggle, she wanted to live. What made her so desperate was very her desperation to live. You do not want to die, I said. That is why you feel the way you do.

Had it been a lie, its effect would not have lasted long, not long beyond the ending of our conversation. But because it was true, it lasted longer. It wasn't an appeal for her to change her perspective. It was an attempt to have her understand what her perspective was. It was the opposite of self-deception - it was self-knowledge, wisdom, therefore of the most important kind.

We must love one another or die. And as it turned out, L did not die. I had to look after her a little, in the following weeks, making sure she ate, when she was unable to want to eat, making sure, a couple of times, that I cooked more than enough for myself so that I could quietly, unobtrusively fill a plate for her as well. It was the most practical of knowledge. Nobody feels so bad when they have a hot meal inside them.

I don't suppose the sobbing stopped at once, or for a while, or easily. Or will ever stop for L entirely. But, just as I got through, and survived, and moved on, so did L. She survived. She started to live. I helped to make that life. Beleaguered by the same negation and despair, I helped to make that life.

She lives in Holland now. She, and another life within her, another life tonight. Some weeks ago, L emailed me to say that she was pregnant: on Friday I called her and when we spoke, for the first time in four years, she said that the birth was likely to be on Sunday, which day it is today. New life, within the life I think I helped to save. She said, as she could only say, that it would change everything in her life, forever, and I said it surely would. Another life would be hers, would depend on hers, and every thought and movement in her life from now on would be with that other life in mind. I said, too, that this would give her life not only change but meaning. A sense of worth that she had never had before. Nothing can makes us feel worth, more than the feeling that another life depends on ours. We must love one another or die.

I have tried so hard, in my life, to feel worth, and tried to feel that worth by trying to do good, to do what I thought was right. My experience is that you cannot feel worth that way. All you feel is confusion, disappointment and the alienation from your fellows that comes from strife and argument. But one time, I think that I succeeded in doing good, one time at least. I feel like Tom Joad, seeing the mother and her child at the end of The Grapes of Wrath: here, at least, amid all the hopelessness, in new life there is hope. New hope that grew out of hope extended, hope that grew out of a hand extended in a room in High Heaton more than four years ago. I have, if only once, done good. May I show an affirming flame?

August 08, 2005

That Standard reply in full

Evening Standard
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5EE

2 August 2005

Dear ejh

Thank you for taking the trouble to write to me [letter here - ejh] regarding your concern with the Evening Standard headlines over the last week.

I can assure you that the Evening Standard published its report on the death of Jean Charles de Menezes according to the best possible information available to us at the time from police sources. We were hardly alone in this: the BBC, ITN, Press Association and other national newspapers all reported the same story.

Our headline, "Bomber is shot dead on the tube", was immediately followed by the opening line, "Police shot dead a suspected bomber today after chasing him into Stockwell Tube station." We spoke to a series of eye witnesses whose account of an "Asian man" running was in line with what police sources told us - that he was a suspected suicide bomber. Of course late on Saturday afternoon Scotland Yard announced that Mr de Menezes was in no way connected to the terror investigation. This fact only received widespread publicity in the following day's newspapers. In our first available edition on Monday morning we took up the story with great vigour, giving major prominence to his innocence and the understandable distress caused to his family and friends.

With regard to your complaint about our billboards, these are changed with every edition and reflect the main stories/headlines of the day. They are put up by our team of approximately 100 drivers and stay in place until they are changed either the following edition or on the following day.

On this occasion our understanding was that the story was correct when the news bills were put up on Friday afternoon and still correct when our sales outlets closed that night. The fact that the story changed on Saturday when the police admitted that they had made a mistake was regrettable but, unfortunately, there is no mechanism in place to remove them should such a situation occur. Had this been any other day of the week they would have been removed the following morning as part of the normal process.

Naturally, I fully understand your concerns regarding reporting that could be considered prejudicial to a future trial and of course we keep this matter in mind when editing the newspaper. However, I do not consider that in our recent reporting we have created a substantial risk that the course of justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.

Please accept our apologies for any offence caused but we do reserve the right, as always, to report the most up to date news as we know it.

Yours sincerely

Veronica Wadley

Working title

Jenni Diski retails an anecdote in the latest London Review of Books:

Just after the beginning of the first Gulf War I arrived at Toronto airport to take part in a literary festival. Along with a couple of dozen others (mostly dark-skinned or from Islamic countries) I was sent to wait in a queue for special questioning when I presented my passport. After about an hour I was taken to a cubicle by a short but perfectly square woman in uniform who lolled behind a desk and looked at me long and mean. I had been on a seven-hour flight and no one had mentioned before I got to Heathrow that Air Canada was all non-smoking. I was not cheerful.

"What’s your job?"

"‘I'm a writer."

"Why are you here?"

I showed her my letter from the festival. She glanced at it.

"What are you doing at this here festival?"

"I've come to do a reading."

Nothing up to this point had got a reaction. Her eyes had remained blank as mirror shades. Now, though, her eyebrows hit her hairline and she lunged forward across the desk, her face all lit up in a smirk of triumph. She knew how to winkle out the bad guys all right.

"Oh yeah? You just said you were a writer! Now you tell me you're reading." She drew out the last word in proper third-degree style. "So which is it, huh?"

This reminds me of a not dissimilar conversation I once had with a police officer who found me hitch-hiking, or trying to, on a slip road near Northampton about fifteen years ago.

"What do you do?" he asked, having ascertained my name and address and attempting to complete the set by adding my occupation to his collection. I could see no good reason why he should need to know this, so being young and stupid I thought I would essay some dumb insolence.

"I'm a civil servant", I replied, as unspecific as possible.

"But where do you work?" he tried.

"In the civil service", I responded, no more helpful than before.

He gave it another go, trying to leave me less room for evasion: "But where do you work?"

"In the civil service."

I thought this was quite amusing at the time. Diski might have agreed, appearing as she does to share my taste for insolence to officialdom. She raised her arms in surrender and confessed all to the immigration officer:

"Officer, you got me. You’d better send me back to the UK. Deport me. I want to go home."

She got let into the country and proceeded to her festival. I was less lucky. I got fined thirty quid for hitching from a slip road.

August 07, 2005

Search strategy

As I get older, it often seems the major function of the present is to remind me of the past. I watched every ball of the cricket today, England beating Australia by two runs in one of the closest matches in Test history, and what I mostly thought about was an evening more than twenty years ago in December 1982, when in a similar finish England beat Australia by three runs in Melbourne. I had been talking about it with friends, the previous night, when discussing prospects for the morning's play: but for other reasons, it had already been much on my mind.

On the evening in concern (it was, of course, morning in Australia where the game was played) I was walking back from a gig in London, on my way to King's Cross to catch the last train back to Stevenage where I lived. I was walking along the Euston Road, quite close (as I recall, and I recall that evening pretty well) to Euston station itself. There were only about fifteen minutes left before the train was due to leave. As I walked, I became aware that I was being, for want of a better term, kerb-crawled by a police car. The driver started dawdling behind me, then driving ahead, stopping, waiting for me to walk past and then dawdling again.

I found this highly disconcerting. I'd never had much contact with the police before, being a reasonably respectable youth (albeit one with straggly long hair) from a reasonably respectable background. Besides, it was the crawling that perturbed me, that made me nervous. Had it been anything other than a police vehicle, I think I might have started to run. That I didn't was less because I trusted I would come to no harm than the belief that running away from a police officer was likely to get me into trouble. If a policeman wanted to ask me something, why didn't he just park his car, get out and ask me? As it was, I was nervous, and a bit afraid.

I have reflected since that this must be part of what it is like to be a woman, walking home late at night and hearing footsteps behind you. The feeling of being sized up. The feeling of the situation being sized up, some course of action being weighed up and you being powerless to do anything about it. According to the prevailing wisdom - the wisdom, usually, of those who are never likely to be stopped by the police - I should not have been worried, for (like Josef K, I might over-dramatically claim) I had done nothing wrong. But it isn't like that. You are being confronted by somebody in possession of power: if anything, the very fact that you have done nothing wrong makes you more nervous, since something has, apparently, gone wrong already.

So I was no made any less nervous when the officer did finally get out of his car and approach me. He asked me my name and address, where I'd been, questions like that, none of which seemed to me to his business but questions which I answered nevertheless. He was then good enough to reveal that he suspected me of taking drugs. Which opinion, he declared, was based on the fact that I was walking very quickly and, so he said, shivering.

This had the merit of being some sort of an explanation. It had, however, the demerit of being otherwise entirely disconnected from reality. My explanation, which I was happy to offer by way of counterpoint, was that I was walking quickly because of the necessity to catch a train: and that I was shivering because it was December, it was not far short of midnight and I had neglected to dress as sensibly as those facts should have determined. This explanation, by contrast, had the merits of being true in every detail, and of being entirely sufficient in itself. No detail of my appearance and behaviour was unexplained: no further explanation was required. It was a proof quite as complete as any Archimides might have published. It had, however, the serious demerit of not being what the officer wanted to hear.

Up to that point, I could have accepted that he'd made an honest mistake for honest reasons and left it at that. That is, if he had left it at that. He wouldn't be the only policeman ever to make a mistake by misinterpreting his observations and jumping to conclusions. However, he had presumably had time, during his kerbcrawling exercise, to start looking forward to running in some poor lad with nothing better to do of a winter's evening than stick a needle in his arm. Now, apparently, he was going to miss out on the opportunity. At least, he wasn't going to take the chance of running me in anyway, and then finding himself in trouble if I turned out to be the drug-free child of nice middle-class parents who didn't take kindly to the way their son had been treated.("First rule of policing," says Detective Sergeant Wakefield in The Cops. "Never fuck with the middle classes.")

So, rather than let me walk away without further discussion, he compromised with himself. I got to walk away, but not before he'd buillied me a little first. He decided that I should demonstrate my drugs-free status by holding out my arm, completely still, at a right angle in front of me. This would prove, apparently, that I wasn't a junkie after all. Of course, we both knew that it had nothing to do with that at all: that he was making me do it because he could, and that I was going to do it because I had to. Nevertheless it was a feat which, despite the aforementioned cold and aforementioned absence of appropriate clothing, despite the fact that I was a nervous teenager in front of a powerful official, I managed to perform without shaking - and therefore to his satisfaction. Though, presumably, sufficient satisfaction had been obtained from making me perform the task in the first place.

So I was free to go, which I did, taking the officer's number before I did (though he refused to allow me to borrow his pencil to write it down). I even got to King's Cross with time to make a short and somewhat dishevelled phone call to my mother before getting the train and getting home. I remember that I wrote a complaint and passed it on to my great-aunt, who had been a member of Camden Council and was acquainted with the Police Consultative Committee, this being the early Eighties when such bodies had some clout. Or, at least, wanted to have it. However, I was passed a message from a friendly councillor to the effect that under the Metropolitan Police Act of whichever year it was, they could do pretty much as they chose and therefore there wasn't much that I could do.

But, as I've always remembered, the evening when I got home, the radio was on. So, while I was talking my family through the events of the evening, Allan Border and Jeff Thomson were coming within four runs of winning the Fourth Test - until Thomson edged Botham to second slip. The ball cannoned off Chris Tavaré's chest into Geoff Miller's hands and England won the match. I've never forgotten that finish. I've never forgotten the small humiliation outside Euston station either.

Of course, more than two decades later, now that I've tried to learn to override my natural inclination to be stroppy, now that I try - sometimes - to leave things be, I sometimes look at it thus: it's not important. After all, nothing really happened.

I was not beaten up, or even hurt, or even arrested let alone charged with anything. I was not even insulted or spoken to in a particularly unacceptable manner. It was not Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. It makes a difference. In different circumstances, what constitutes a night in the cells now might bring about a bullet through the neck. And yet a night in the cells is very differenet to a bullet in the neck.

If it happened now - which of course it would not, now I have short hair, now I am forty with a shirt and tie and look like the librarian I am - then I might very well mentally record the number of the officer, but I would probably not be as upset about it as I was when I was seventeen. Since I was seventeen, I have seen and been through far too much for that.

But, in another way, that's the point. It wasn't all that much and yet it was humiliating. It wasn't all that much and yet I still remember it today. I was sufficiently wounded, as a teenager, by a small humiliation at the hands of the police, to still be stung by it today.

So, what do I think now, when it is being spoken out loud, that what we need to do is to stop and search young men, young Londoners, people who will often be much the same age now as I was in December 1982. And, moreover, to do this not just once but, maybe, over and again for an indefinite period? Young men who will have done nothing and will feel all the worse about it because of that? Do I think they will forget it more easily than I did my Euston incident? That they will not feel upset about it, that they will not experience humiliation? That they will not brood on every incident just like I did?

Or do I think instead that the major function of the past is surely to remind us, in the present, to do differently?

August 05, 2005

Brown paper packages tied up with string

Rank has its privileges.

I was on the late afternoon shift on the issue desk this afternoon and had barely taken my seat when the post came in. Mostly journals, as is normally the case, a fair number of books returned to othre campus libraries and sent on to us, the odd letter or circular or invoice. But mostly journals. Among the copies of New England Journal of Medicine and Experimental Brain Research was a small parcel, basically a cardboard box enclosed in wrapping paper and tied up with a piece of string. In the corner it said:
I took the journals into the office for the library assistant who normally prepares them for library use, went back to the front desk and looked at the box. I picked it up and took it into the office too. "I thought I'd let you open this", I said.

August 03, 2005

De te fabula narratur

Talking of newspaper headlines, the Daily Mail today carries the front-page headline:


Presumably the Mail knows, and presumably it does not care, that many people will have felt a gut reaction on the lines of yes, you are.

I have, as it happens, met the writer of the piece, albeit many years ago. I was at college with his sister, who like me, completely failed to make anything of herself after leaving Oxford. I became, eventually, a librarian: she became, eventually, a schoolteacher as well as the mother of a number of children. As far as I am aware she has also completely failed to contribute anything to the current climate of Muslim-hunting and intolerance.

Whether, as an educator, and therefore as a champion of learning, she manages to cancel out the total quantity of ignorance produced by her brother at the Vile, I cannot say. Probably she does. Yin and yang, the universe in balance, the fine but unchanging balance between good and evil: they probably cancel each other out exactly. But I cannot say for sure.

I can say, however, that however loathsome and potentially dangerous the hotheads currently mouthing off in mosques for the benefit of the tabloid media, they will have to mouth off very loud and very long indeed before they're quite so loathsome - or remotely so dangerous - as the Daily Mail.