October 27, 2005

No particular place

I took last weekend in the country. I was tired, tired and jaded, tired and jaded and stressed. I was in serious need of a view of uncluttered sky, in need of a dark that was properly dark and a light unobstructed by bricks and concrete. I was in need of time that passes slowly and without measurement, in need of quiet, in need of the absence of people. In need of absenting myself from London, where the distance between people is a consequence of their proximity. So I took a train out of St Pancras, a train that began full, stuffed to overflowing with other escapees but emptying, gradually, as it got further from London and closer to its terminus in Derby.

One felt almost that the train itself should be whittled away as it went, shedding carriages, staff and buffet car along with its passengers, bit by bit, coach by coach, until it arrived in Derby looking like a local, branch line train: comprised of one or two carriages and perhaps a ticket inspector too. There were few enough passengers already when I slipped away at Loughborough and met up with one of my hosts. After a short drive, through roads emptier than any one might see in London, we were at their house in the Nottinghamshire countryside: still close enough to the real world to see the traffic go past on the A453, but, at the same time, far enough. Far enough to hear nothing, as if a pane of heavy glass stood between us and the traffic.

There was nothing in the world to disturb me, nothing, that is, outwith the contents of my mind, a mind which needed to be left undisturbed, left to settle, left to sift. I slept easily and set no alarm. When I woke up, late, or better put, in my own time, we went for a walk. We walked both mornings, going one way on the Saturday, the other on the following day. On the Sunday morning we went out, through a field, through the sheep that grazed there, to a weir below a railway bridge, just to watch the water go unhurried on its way. J, with whom I walked, had been stressed too: stressed, as it happens, rather more than I.

I was stressed enough, with this and that, with waking too early and travelling too long, with work and its stupidities. I was stressed enough - stressed enough to be forgetting things again. On the Thursday evening, making a risotto, having fried my onions and my aubergine and garlic, having prepared my stock and added it and seasoned it with pepper, salt and basil, I realised that I was trying to make a risotto without any rice. On the Friday morning - how it can accumulate, over the week - I was too distracted to pack my bag properly and came away without having remembered to bring any T-shirts (I had to borrow clothes from J to see me through the weekend).

I was, at least, at work: J, however, had been off work for a week and a half and was, even more than I, in need of being left alone by the world outside. We needed, both, to be outside the world for the while. We needed, both, to watch the river move with neither speed nor purpose. We needed, both, to look across the river and to see a field, to look across that field and to see another.

I saw the river, and the field, and the field beyond: and looking further, as I pointed out to J, even though the scenery was flat, flat as the basin of a river might expect to be, there was not a human habitation within sight. If we turned round we could see the manor house, a red-brick building that hid the village from our view, but in front of us there was not a single house, nothing signalling that there were people living there. Nothing but the river and its farmland, nothing distinct, nothing which would require individual name and title. There was a real feeling, one not diminished by the closeness of the railway, that we were, effectively, no real place at all. That we were experiencing the absence of place. "You know", said J, "we could be anywhere".

Not quite anywhere, of course, the landscape not being quite anonymous enough for that, though it was a landscape you would think of as being characteristic rather than particular. There was, for instance, the absence of hills, and the presence everywhere of that particular kid of green, the one that a hotter sun and a less common rain would never bring about. A green of muddy paths and munching cattle, a pleasant green, a moderate rather than a lush and fertile green. Not quite what Orwell meant by the sleekest landscape in the world:
the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage
but not so very far away.

Certainly it was England, and it could, indeed, I said to J, have easily been Kent. Not the suburban Kent which I live close to, but the Kent beyond, which one sees only by taking a train for a long way and then walking for a further while. Kent, but flatter than Kent, with a touch of the flatness that makes Fenland so strange. I took the train once, from Boston to Lincoln, and because there were no real landmarks, nothing to distinguish the place you had just left from the place that you were going to, there was an irrational nervousness, almost a degree of fear, that you were, in fact, going absolutely nowhere.

That was why I had come, why we had walked: to be nowhere for a while, to be nowhere for an unmeasured moment. We needed there to be nothing particular to think about, nothing to look at even, a landscape without special features.

But even so, I would not have minded a view of mountains. We miss them in London, almost as much as one misses the possibility of peace and quiet: we miss their permanence. It's something I thought about in Tromso, and again when I was, the following month, in South Wales: places where you cannot get away from mountains, where to look up is to have them in your view. They are individual, recognisable: they might be a landscape to which one might escape, but they are not one to which one escape to anywhere. They are themselves, their own particular, characteristic reality. They are inescapable. They insist upon themselves, upon their presence, upon their permanence.

And I think, that in their inescapability, in their permanence, they create some humility in the landscapes that they dominate. Whoever you are, these mountains are greater than you. Whatever you have done, these mountains will outlast you. Whatever you build, these mountains will look down upon you still. A cat insists on your humility: whatever you say, the cat pretends you are not there. The mountain insists on your humility: whatever you say, you cannot pretend the mountain is not there.

But London is on the plain, away from the mountains, in its own landscape, dominated by nothing except its own sense of itself. And it can be as sleek, where it is successful, where it is comfortable, where it is pleased with itself, as any city I can possibly imagine. There is an aspect of London, as aspect of some of the people in this city and some of the places that they make, which cannot imagine that there is anything better, anything more desirable, than sleek, successful London.

It is one of the things that sometimes, when I get out of London, I am trying to get away from: the enormous conceit of conceited London. And I want them to look, while they sit and talk to each other about the deals that they close and the people that they know, about the projects they are leading and the taxes that they do not want to pay. While they are discussing how important they are with one another, I want them to look up to the mountains and realise that they are not so very important. That the weight of the mountain, the weight of time and history that the mountain represents, will always crush them utterly, will always render them as meaningless as Ozymandias. To look with ego upon mountains is surely to have that thought. To compare yourself with them and to find yourself defeated.

I want them to have that thought. And when I am on my weekend escapes, looking at the gentle river and the greenness of the meadow, feeling myself apart from the world, away from it, I wish that when I came home I could see those mountains, that I could turn my eyes away from London and look at them instead, and be reassured that nothing, nothing that is less than mountains, is forever. That when time can be called "forever", it is not measured, pressured time. That what is not forever, what is less than mountains, really matters. That nothing really matters. That nothing really hurts.

October 17, 2005

Stand down Margaret

The Guardian excel even themselves this morning, though, by rendering, in their second letter down, Margaret Hodge - the government minister - as Patricia Hodge. Who is an actress.

October 16, 2005

Currency fluctuations

The Guardian was at its erratic best on Friday, reporting Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize and in particular the money that he won along with the award. It mentioned the $1.3 million on the same page twice. At the top, it reported that in sterling, this was worth £741,500. The currency markets must have been having a wild day of it because by the time I got to the bottom, it was worth only £723,000.

October 10, 2005

Lunch will eat itself

My local Sainsbury's Local, on the Fulham Palace Road, has started putting up all sorts of notices around the drinks section, masquerading as serving suggestions but presumably designed to prompt you to go back and buy the suggested accompaniments before you hit the checkout.

The masquerade, however, is more substantial than they may have realised. One notice that caught my eye read as follows:
Try serving your ale with thick slices of ham, cheddar cheese, apples and chunky bread for an authentic ploughman's.
An authentic ploughman's? There's no such thing. I learned this twenty years ago when sitting through Richard Eyre's The Ploughman's Lunch, which employed that item as a metaphor to describe Thatcherism, or at least the manufactured account of a British past by which it buttressed itself.

Make people believe something that's false and then they'll make it true by buying it: that was the way it seemed to work, back in the days when a political party could be notorious simply for using an advertising agency. How different then than now, when they are dominated by the marketing operation to the extent that the difference between one and the other is not immediately apparent:
The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
My first assumption, on being reminded of the ploughman and his anachronistic lunch, was that this was something that the marketing kids concerned would not have been aware of - being, if nothing else, too young to have even heard of the film. Or, quite likely, being Thatcher's Children, born and brought up in a age defined by marketing, that even had they seen the film they would not have grasped the point of it.

But then it occurred to me that perhaps they were very well aware of it. It must surely be referred to in advertising circles, even if only as a critique of what they do: and they might even (at a very long shot) have deployed the phrase slyly and ironically, to draw attention, for the benefit of the informed observer, to their own awareness of the falsity of what they were doing. To use the false to communicate the truth about the falsehood: too unlikely, really. And too complicated a sequence to get my head around. On a Monday lunchtime, anyway.

Pale imitation

Barney Ronay
The Guardian

Dear Mr Ronay

I understand you used to write for When Saturday Comes. From your lousy Guardian pieces this would appear to represent a measure of that magazine's sad decline from a journal of original and urgent writing into a magazine composed largely of weak, unfunny and complacent space-fillers.

Or, one might say, a pale imitation.



October 09, 2005

Nothing for the weekend

This weekend, Saturday was just another Monday: the university term has started and, for the first time in about eighteen months, I was rostered to work on a Saturday morning in the library. So my routine yesterday was the same as it will be tomorrow: early alarm, television on, watch the travel news and the headlines, then get up, get dressed and get on a bus.

So I woke on the alarm and turned on the television: from which I learned, straightaway, prominently, as a matter of apparent national importance, that Boy George had been arrested for alleged cocaine offences, in New York. This was, the talking head informed me, "the main news for today, Saturday the eighth of October".

Of course. It would have been quite wrong if the BBC had led on what, even at that early hour, were hundreds of deaths in India and Pakistan. Or a substantial death toll in Central America in the sort of storm that was extensively reported when it hit the US, with rather fewer casualties, several days before. It would be an eccentric set of values which interpreted these events as being of greater moment than the undramatic detention of a man who had a number of hit records about twenty years ago. Granted, the disasters and the deaths were overseas, but domestic news must always come first: hence the prioritising of the arrest, in New York, of a resident of that city.

It worked for me, anyway, at least if the intention was to get me swiftly out of bed while swearing at the television. Normally, I lie in bed for the headlines, the main stories and as much Teletext as I can flick through before I absolutely have to get up. On Saturday, I was on the bus at roughly the same time I'm normally reaching for the toothbrush.

This morning, on Sunday AM, the papers were being reviewed by Toyah Wilcox.

October 05, 2005

Oxford town, Oxford town

Towards the end of a bout of joblessness and homelessness, just before Xmas four years ago, I was sat in the television room of a hostel in Newcastle, watching a programme about the Spanish Armada. Everybody else must have been either out at the pub or temporarily barred from the hostel and I had the room to myself for the while, able to relax without the irritation of somebody making it hard to hear the television, or worse, somebody trying to pick a fight. Trying to pick a fight with me, which I was afraid of for most of the three months that I lived there. When you're in a hostel you're almost permanently conscious that you're just one row, one argument, one dispute with authority from being on the street.

It's stressful, unsettling and destabilising and of course it makes that fatal row all the more likely. Take away other people and you take away the cause of all your problems: easy to feel that's true when you're cooped up with other people in the YWCA.

However, that evening, or that part of it, was other-people-free, and I settled down, relaxed, to learn what I could about the Armada (a futile exercise, in retrospect, since I can now remember none of it). All of a sudden my mood of relaxation was disturbed, disturbed by the thought that I knew what was going to happen next: they were going to have one of my old Oxford tutors on. I knew it. And so it came to pass: the talking heads were academics, academics specialising in Tudor history, and one of them was Susie Brigden. I knew it. Even in a little corner of Newcastle, even in a hostel, I could not escape them.

It is, today, twenty-two years since I arrived at Oxford. I have seen the date for months: all over summer we stamped books with the date 5 OCT 2005, the date for returning vacation loans. I had time to become aware that 5 October was a date that meant something to me and further time to realise why this was. I would rather have gone unreminded and the anniversary left unremembered, but it was otherwise, the books are coming in bearing that same date and we are twenty-two years on from my arrival at that university. More than twenty years. More than nineteen since I left the place. But I will never get away from it.

That's what I hate about the place, as much as anything. You can't get away from it. I remember watching Have I Got News For You when John Sargeant (Shrewsbury and Magdalen) was on with Ian Hislop (Shrewsbury and Magdalen). Paul Merton (neither of the above) commented how odd it was that he never came across anybody who he'd been to school with. Nor do I. Nobody at all - save, as it goes, the sports editor of the Guardian - who I knew between the ages of 5 and 18.

But take the period from 18 to 21 and it can hardly be avoided. If they're not writing chick-lit novels advertised on the Tube, they're being found not guilty of conspiracy to defraud or presenting on The Culture Show. Every so often, they go quiet for a while, and then another one is being appointed to run Royal Mail's marketing.

You can't get away from them. It was half the problem at the time, cooped up with them as much as I was cooped up at the YWCA, as rootless then as I was homeless later, as miserable then as I was later nervous and destabilised. Impossible, I should think, to explain precisely why. Probably in bad taste, too. Explaining that three years at Oxbridge was a nightmare is a bit like explaining that a morning in a Kensington hotel is a morning spent in Hell. Plenty of people would give everything they had to swap with you.

But it was, nevertheless, a nightmare, a period of confusion and unhappiness. A couple of summers past I went to a reading, from his autobiography, by Terry Eagleton (Oxford University, Trotskyism and the Catholic Church) and during the Q&A I asked whether Oxford were not simply a machine for hurting people. It's not something I'd say to anybody who I didn't think would understand. It's the sort of thing one can only say if the person to whom you say it knows you do not mean it literally - but knows, also, why you say it, and why you think it's true. I think he did: knew what I meant, that it was an intense experience and one set up (hence why I said machine) so that it hurts those people who do not fit in. I did not, at all, fit in. Not there, not at that particular time.

I was the wrong sort of person in the wrong place, come from a comprehensive into a world resembling a public school, where almost everyone around you had experiences and expectations very different to yours. I was somebody aware of the world around me and yet found myself in a world apart, a world the revelled in being apart, a world defined by its distance from the world at large. I was a young man terribly unhappy, needing the right time and place and circumstances to deal with that, needing, probably, to be left alone: and being instead in a hectic atmosphere, one composed mostly of success and self-congratulation. It was a bad place at a bad time. A bad time, most of all, to have a miners' strike and lose it.

I don't know what to think about it now. I lost my love of reading there and never got it back entirely. I lost my love of learning there and only really got it back when I began to work in libraries. I suppose it was a lost opportunity, of a sort, although it was an opportunity I never could have taken. I went to the citadel of learning and all I learned was that I hated it. Mr Antolini says to Holden:
I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. But I don't honestly know what kind.... It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college.
But that was all I learned while I was there. My fault, their fault, nobody's fault, it makes not a pomegranate's worth of difference in the end. Except that I cannot get away from it: and so I think about it still, though, for nearly twenty years' worth of thinking, I still do not know what to think.

You cannot get away from it. On Monday night, irritated by Channel Four News making a major moral crisis of the drinking of George Best, I changed channels and found myself watching The Battle For Britain's Soul, a history of Christianity in Britain. The presenter started to talk about John Wesley: and all of a sudden my mood of relaxation was disturbed, disturbed by the thought that I knew what was going to happen next. They were going to show and talk about the college that he went to. Perhaps, even, the room he had had when he was there.

It came to pass. There was the Reverend Peter Owen-Jones, in what was, when I was sat in it twenty years ago, the John Wesley Room. I sat in it being tutored by a man who later became the Rector of the college, whose predecessor, the holder of the office while I was a student, was the model for George Smiley. Which meant that when he died, I read about him twice.

I cannot get away from them: they are part of me now. Which makes no sense to me, for I was in the place but never part of it. I was the part that didn't fit. It matters not, at Oxford, where you're from: you can still be one of them. As long as you want to be one of them. But I did not. I could not have done. I could never have been one of them.

October 03, 2005

You just kinda wasted my precious time

Much though I love Dylan, my dedication to advertising his verse extends no further than having the lyrics to Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues on the wall behind my desk. Rather greater enthusiasm, though, from some people at the top of Denmark Hill where I usually get off the bus to get the train on my way to work: from a first-floor window this morning hung a sheet with words written on it, possibly in spraypaint.

Usually on Denmark Hill this indicates a protest banner of some sort, generally against the decanting of council tenants from their estates against their will and without their consent: but when crossed the road to get a better view of the slogan, it turned out to be a couplet from It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.

The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.
Rather literal, I thought - Dylan being the most allusive of poets - being painted on a sheet and all, though a witty enough choice at the same time. Dylan must be on a lot of people's minds at the moment as a result of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home being on the television over two nights last week, having at the very least the effect of reminding the viewer how great he was when he was really great. But he'd been on my mind already, as a result, the previous week, of having had to attend an awayday at a Kensington hotel with all the library staff: teambuilding, presentations, overuse of the word challenges, the usual drill.

This would normally be sufficient on its own to recall several of the verses to Maggie's Farm, even had the various conference rooms not been named after great American musicians (Jimi Hendrix was another one) and our meeting held in somewhere inexplicably entitled, I believe, the Dylan Foyer. I had the whole morning to switch off and select for myself the line from Dylan most appropriate to the exercise.