March 31, 2006

Con job's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished. It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years.

The other day a friend sent me a link to say that an old acquaintance of ours, Constantine Gonticas, was now in day-to-day charge of Millwall Football Club. I was surprised and unsurprised. Surprised and unsurprised and interested, not least because until a couple of weeks before, I was living in Millwall country. I was lodging in East Dulwich, where if you saw a football shirt (and although East Dulwich is not Dulwich Village, that wasn't very often) it was likely to be a Millwall top. The Southwark News billboards, when they were not talking about crime, which wasn't very often, would be talking about events at the New Den. Not having much of a liking for crime-led local papers, I didn't read it very often. Perhaps I should have. I would, then, have known about Constantine.

I never made it up there when I was living on their territory preferring Dulwich Hamlet where the absence of success caused little anguish, but my landlady's boyfriend was a fan and they did, therefore, impinge on my existence. They would have done so a great deal more had I known that Constantine was there with them, because I know Con of old. I knew him when we were at Oxford. As I said, before, you can't get away from them.

I wish I could. But I'll say this for Constantine: he's a football man. It is the only thing I'll say for him. Other than that he must be one of the most arrogant and self-centred men I've ever met. If he told me the date, I'd check the calendar: if he told me my name I'd check my birth certificate. If he told me he was interested in anybody other than himself I'd laugh out loud. He was a keen member of Oxford University Conservative Association, and every bit the braying public schoolboy that you would imagine. His favourite word to describe other people was "sound": in that accent and in the manner that he said it, it meant somebody who was supportive of somebody like him. It meant somebody satisfied that people with a great deal of money should maintain, or increase, their share of all the money going round. His comment on student hardship was that those suffering should "get a job": he did not of course have one himself. Not even a directorship. But somehow, he managed to get by.

This, it transpired, was because he held a large number of shares, ones which did not, as far as anyone could tell, derive from any investment decisions he had made himself or any remunerative employment he had undertaken. He was a trust fund boy, and like many people who live off unearned income, he believed that other people were not working hard enough. They needed to work harder and to complain less. He complained about it often.

But he was, as I say, a football man. He supported Manchester United before it was unpopular to do so, though to my knowledge he had never been there and in all probability had only the sketchiest of ideas as to where Manchester was, none of the major public schools being located in that city. (He also, as I recall, had only the sketchiest idea as to who Dave Bennett was when that player scored in the 1987 Cup Final. Con, watching on television, attributed the goal to Cyrille Regis, a player who resembled Dave Bennett only in wearing a Coventry shirt and being black.) He had a much more highly developed opinion (though one as woefully ill-informed) of his own abilities as a footballer, believing his skills to be substantial and his prospects of playing for the University to be substantial too. He might have made it, too, had his twopenn'orth of talent been matched by more than a ha'porth of speed. He was, alas, even less fit in the physical sense than he was fit to run a football club, and the last I remember he was playing for the second team, not even of the University but of the College.

It was not the last I heard of him entirely: I recall him, during Black Monday, panicking loudly because his aforementioned share portfolio seemed likely to be reduced to the aforementioned twopenn'orth. Reacting to the departure of his money as others react to the departure of a loved one, he was unable to understand why those less morally serious than himself seemed to find it funny. He rushed out of the room in some distress.

It is a small world, Oxford, a small world that seems to dominate the larger one, and they always crop up sooner or later. That was the unsurprising bit; the surprise was that he should emerge at Millwall. I hadn't realised he was connected with Peter de Savary, who recently took over the club. A man, Mr De Savary, of extraordinary ability, or so it would appear: there can be no other explanation for his enormous wealth or his apparent belief that he can both cut costs through player sales and yet put Millwall in the Premiership within five years. Rarely can such a talented man have had such an untalented factotum.

De Savary claims to be making "a short-term plan, a medium-term plan and a long-term plan", for Millwall. Were I a Millwall fan my first inclination would have been to worry, lest the first of these entailed making cuts, the second involved making money and the last of them constituted making an exit with the club no better off than it was before. And, so indeed, it might. Apparently the idea is to develop the surrounding area as part of a project which places the football club at the centre. The football club would be able to engage in property development, regeneration and all the rest of it, a highly profitable enterprise judging by the amount of it that has stretched across the Thames from Tower Bridge to Greenwich and beyond these past few years.

This would therefore make much money for the football club - or, at least, for the people who own the football club, reminding me of the recent experience at my own Oxford United where the owner was able to realise an eight-figure sum in profit while leaving the club a few places above relegation to the Conference and tenants in a stadium they no longer owned. Would Constantine Gonticas be party to something like that? Of course he would. Because Constantine is a football man, but Constantine is also a greedy man and a Thatcherite.

Perhaps he is not so talentless as I thought he was twenty years ago. He has, at any rate, a talent in making connections. De Savary - a former Referendum Party candidate, like Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe - is a good man with whom to have a connection. His other connections appear to include the Crown Prince of Yugoslavia and most of the government of that truncated and benighted country - and one Thor Bjorgolfsson, a billionaire and the richest man in Iceland (and, so I am told, one of the central characters in the advanced libel course of a leading London-based financial magazine: his reputation, I should like to stress, is absolutely unimpeachable). Wealth is the teat at which the greedy have to suck, and Constantine, it seems, has sucked widely and well.

He is, one assumes, wealthy himself - the phrase "Managing Director of..... [an] investment fund" is at any rate more often associated with wealth than with its opposite. In the terms in which Constantine thinks, he must have achieved all the success that he set out to have. He has made it, and at the age Tom Lehrer had achieved when he referred to Mozart. The investment fund and other companies besides, his contacts among the rich and royal and even his own football club to play with. It is what an Oxford education is all about.

And as for me - I am a thousand miles away, without a source of income and never sure whether to wonder what happened to the first part of my life, or to see what I can make of the second half.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
But what words should I try to use? I should, by Constantine's standards, be jealous of him. I doubt that he could interpret my feelings in any other way. Success is the measure of man, and money is the measure of success.

But I am not jealous. Of what accomplishments could I be jealous? He has done nothing - nothing that I value, nothing for anybody save himself. Nor has he done anything that I could have done, nothing that I want to do. There is no shadow there, no other-me, no what-I-could-have-become. So there can be no jealousy. But there can perhaps be sadness. I am sad, though not for him. I am sad that people like Constantine find it so easy to prosper while other people - perhaps, the sort of people who watch Millwall - so often find it hard.

Sad, too, perhaps, that the sole purpose of an Oxford education should be to make somebody rich, though sad because that is the rule rather than the exception. We are told, in a Western world becoming increasingly unequal, that egalitarianism is the enemy of talent, that to hold back the rich is to hold back the best. But I have never thought that. I have always thought that elitism rewards the mediocre. And rarely has there been a man more mediocre yet more part of the elite than Constantine.

March 28, 2006

Poor show

There is, undeniably, something voyeuristic about opera, something about the form which makes it less empathetic than a novel. One may read a novel about illness or death or war or genocide and not feel that these events are being laid on for your entertainment: the whole idea is to put you within the events and the minds of those who experience them. Dickens may kill Little Nell: Primo Levi may walk you through the death camps, but in either case, you are there, watching it happen but wishing it would not. In opera, there is a greater distance. It is a show, which a novel is not. A novel does not seek to send you out of the theatre whistling the tunes.

At the same time, there is a heightened emotional atmosphere in opera, deriving partly from its musical nature, which serves, as music normally serves, to intensify and lay bare emotion. It derives also from its melodrama, itself a requirement of the form which, in the short period permitted to complete the action, allows relatively little scope for character development and little more for ambiguity. Opera is stark, and none less stark than Puccini: his heroines, like those of Verdi, die, and dying is what they are there for. There is never any doubt about it. You know what is going to happen: there is no sense of wishing it were otherwise.

Moreover opera is an art form with a repertoire: the material is not new, the conclusion and the working-out are already familiar. The pleasure in Puccini is not the plot, any more than it is in Shakespeare, where there is no capacity to surprise us. We need to know what is going on (I was not, in fact, totally familiar with La Boheme, nor with the Spanish in which the surtitles naturally were written) in order to appreciate the meaning of the songs. But the chances are we know how this is going to turn out, and even if we do not, the ending will not surprise us any more than we can be surprised by the death of Macbeth or of Hamlet. Hence, while we feel the death of Mimi or of Butterfly, there is no sense of wishing to prevent it, or wanting the plot to jerk from its apparent direction. In the action of a novel the hero may be trapped: we wish the hero to escape. In the action of an opera we know already there is no escape. If anything, we egg on the pursuers, since we wish the action of the opera to proceed. Cio-Cio-San must die. Violetta must die. Mimi must cough her last in the cold of winter. We want it to happen: we want to be there to watch it happen. There is something inescapably voyeuristic about opera.

But possibly the most voyeuristic element of opera is the contrast between the audience and the scenes that they have come to see. It is, in practice if not of necessity, an art form patronised by the better-off, by those who do not know cold in their homes, by those who do not sell their coats to fetch a doctor for a dying friend. That is not the audience which watches La Boheme - nor was it the audience for whom it was written. The opera is watched in warmth and comfort though it is about the absence of both.

Why does Mimi die? Why is Mimi doomed to die? Mimi is doomed to die because she is poor. It is her poverty, not the winter, which ensures that she is cold. Alcindoro does not know what cold is: Musetta does, and for that reason soaks Alcindoro for his money. Mimi knows cold but does not know money. For that reason she has consumption; for that reason she has no rest cure, no long stay at a spa. Her poverty places her in Puccini, not in Thomas Mann. She dies in an unheated room without a coat, clutching Musetta's muff: our coats are in the cloakroom and our seats are nice and warm. Che gelida manina: our hands are warm and fresh from holding drink.

We know what is going to happen, because they tell us so: in the third act, when Rodolfo and Mimi separate, they do so above all because he cannot bear to watch her die. But we can bear it. There was an interval before the last act, as there was before the third: in each of them I had una copa de cava at the bar. I had two glasses of champagne and then I came out for the last act to watch Mimi die.

March 27, 2006

Bathroom break

Yesterday morning I went to the bathroom in my hotel room in Madrid - and coughed like Mimi, who I had seen die of consumption in La Boheme at the Teatro Real the night before.

I had been suffering badly from hay fever for the previous few days, accentuated rather than alleviated by a night asleep, which had merely allowed all the gunk I accumulated in the night to gather at the back of my throat. Causing me to cough - to cough, and once I had leaned over the basin to spit, to also splutter, gag and retch, to spit into the basin not only the contents of my throat but, to judge from the tearing feeling and the spots of blood, much of the throat itself.

Mercifully, the throat remained intact. The blood was actually from closer to the mouth, as I discovered shortly, when I began to brush my teeth and found myself obliged instead to swill several glasses of water before the bleeding subsided. I have recently had a tooth extracted - the third of its family to disappear - and the resulting cavity is still both deep and sensitive. One fears to touch it with a brush because of the likely short-term consequences - some pain, some bleeding, some soreness, some discomfort. Yet one fears also to leave it untouched for fear of the likely consequences in the longer term: more decay and more extractions and an old man's empty mouth.

I shaved, using a cheap blade I had bought at the Farmacia opposite the night before. Once more my worn-out memory failed in a simple task: to remember that a razor might be one of the very small number of items one needs for an overnight stay. I completed the shave adequately enough, and having finished, looked at myself in the mirror and saw more grey hairs than I thought myself accustomed to seeing. I finished going to the toilet (at my third attempt) and completed my routine with a shower, which I interrupted halfway through by dropping the sprinkler too close to my foot. It missed that foot by inches, but the foot itself was not to entirely escape misfortune. By the end of the day it, too, was in the treatment room, suffering from a blister on the sole.

When you're in your forties you don't go for a shower in the morning. You go in for running repairs and maintenance.

March 22, 2006

Modern life is rubbish

I woke up this morning to the sound of cockcrow.

Bloody ringtones, I thought.

March 20, 2006

Fresh crop

Graeme Le Saux was on Match Of The Day last night: I am getting my hair cut this morning. The two are connected historically, if not in the present instance, since the morning's cut is induced by my impending emigration. My Spanish is still essentially vestigial: there is no phrase I use as much as no hablo mucho espanol, unless it be Los gatos son mejores que los perros. This being so, I felt it wise to put off as long as possible my first visit to la peluqueria, as any instructions I give as to my cut are likely to be misspoken, misunderstood and end in a misshapen haircut. (Huesca is full of hairdressers, almost giving the impression that it is devoted to them in the way that Charing Cross Road is devoted to booksellers, or Harley Street to expensive quacks. They have good hair, the Spanish: the English, apparently, do not, in keeping with our bad teeth, bad hygiene, bad weather and bad food.)

I have what is called, in England anyway, a French crop: it is apparently not called that in Spain, at least according to the Spaniards who were having their hair cut last time I had mine done, and told me that I would have to describe the cut I wanted. List its characteristics and specificationns, rather than simply saying the magic words and choosing between a number two and number three. I am fearful of the result. I may have to give myself a good few weeks to summon up the courage to have it done, and even then I may take a photograph and an interpreter.

The French crop, though, comes from Graeme Le Saux (appropriately enough, since Le Saux comes from Jersey). I have had it like that for seven years now, after having it cut, not long after I changed my name, and with a similar motive - to change myself out of all recognition in an attempt to wrench myself out of a personal crisis that nearly killed me. Be someone else, I thought: a different name, different appearance. I even thought of emigrating, at the time, though in truth I could no more have summoned the energy to leave the country than I could have played the St Matthew Passion on the comb and paper.

The difference was stark. Stark enough for people at work to fail to recognise me - though, alas, I still recognised myself. But the model for the cut was Graeme Le Saux. I liked his cut: it was different to mine, different to me. So I went into a hairdresser's in Thame, where I then lived, and asked for a cut like his.

It was a drastic cut But not the most drastic I have had. For five years, in my later teens, I never had it cut at all, growing it as far as it would grow until it was a forest of split ends. I can barely recognise myself in old photographs - which matters rarely as I am not sufficiently fond of my past often to look at them. Five years, and more. Until, during the first term of my second year at college, I became offended by the presence, in the student common room, of termcards belonging to Vincent's, a club for Blues, i.e. those who had represented the University at spor. (Or rugby union). For men, that is, who had represented the University, in the evenings at any rate, since the termcards bore the phrase that particularly offended me:

Women will not be admitted after seven pm.

I looked at the termcards, full of snobbery and arrogance, and I decided that they had to die. A tiny gesture, meaningless, more part of Oxford, when you think about it, than rejection of it, the futile dissenter being as much a component of the institution and its mythology as rowing, subfusc and Latin at its graduation ceremonies. Nevertheless, they had to die. I piled them on top of an ashtray which, in turn, was sat upon a coffee table, and being a non-smoker, asked around for a lighter. A friend of mine passed me his Zippo: I held it horizontally, so that the flame would catch the lowest of the cards and pass from there into the others. I clicked, and nothing happened. Clicked again, and again, nothing happened.

I probably should not have held the lighter horizontally: it's not designed to operate like that. But not being a smoker, ever - to this day, I have never had a legal cigarette - I wasn't used to lighters of any sort, let alone this powerful Zippo, which I had seen resemble a flamethrower when used by someone else, but which now refused to emit as much as a single spark. Holding it horizontally was my first inexperienced mistake. My second, rather greater, was leaning over it to see what I was doing wrong. At which point, everything went right, at least from the point of view of getting the desired flame. It was bright, and hot, and long: long enough to catch my hair, my hair of five years' length, which was draped over the table and cards as if it were intended to act as kindling. It ignited my hair in the manner popularised by Michael Jackson.

My hair lit up, though despite being the person closest to the flame I was the worst placed to see it. But I could feel it. I was told, after the event, that it went up in a fashion spontaneous and spectacular. I could imagine, as I'd seen it done before, on a coach trip to a CND march several years before, on which one of my friends non-violently set alight the hair of another. He beat it out so quickly, it was barely singed.

Having seen it happen probably saved my hair at least, and maybe more besides, as I simply battered my head with my hands until I was sure the fire was out. Little damage was done, and hairs with split ends might as well be singed a little anyway for all the difference that it makes. But after that, I decided that it was a sign from God to get my hair cut, and I did: a halfway house between the length that it was previously, down to the small of my back, and the French crop that I got fifteen years later, and which I will still have, later on today.

French crop. I didn't know, when I went to the hairdresser's, what it was actually called: in my naivete I assumed that if you named somebody famous, the hairdresser, who presumably did nothing else than read OK! magazine and talk about the hairstyles of the rich and famous, would instantly recognise both name and cut. Graeme Le Saux was famous then - he played his last game for England in the very year I chose him as the model for my makeover. But not, as it happened, famous enough. Or not in Thame, at any rate. The hairdresser had no idea who I was talking about and there was not a copy of OK! around to help us out. Except that the bloke in the adjacent chair not only knew the player, but his cut - "Graeme Le Saux - French crop", as I might have said "Graeme Le Saux - Chelsea and England". French crop it was. But I do not know what it is in Spanish.

(subsequent note: it is called un parisien)

March 13, 2006

My life in seventeen boxes

I am leaving the country shortly*: most of my stuff is in storage. I went and looked at it the other day, in its bleak metal box in a bleak industrial unit a short walk away from the middle of Croydon. I went and looked at it the other day: I went and looked at me.

A storage unit looks as bare when it is filled as it does when it is empty. The walls seem almost to come through the contents, to render them transparent, to render them absent. Their bareness says, this is a place where things are left, not kept. Whatever you leave here, is insignificant. It is not used, it has no place, it therefore has no meaning. There is nothing here. Your home is where you keep your things: yet here they are, your things. You call this home?

My life is in that unit. My tangible life. It is easily listed. A television, without remote control. A bike, neglected. A couple of chess sets. Four paintings. Six bookcases. And seventeen boxes. White packing boxes, of two different sizes, stacked like bricks in a corner. About fourteen of them are full of books, the rest with bits and pieces, bric-a-brac. It took me forty years to accumulate the contents of those seventeen boxes. Yet, when I look at them, especially when I look at them hunched together against the bare walls of a storage unit, how little they feel.

Well, a life is not composed of lists. A life is not composed of tangibles. Your life is the memories that you leave behind you, not the marks you make. And every life can be squeezed, can be reduced to the thinness of a notice, the carving on a headstone, the line in a newspaper, the numerals which denote the date of birth and death. All the matter in the universe might be compressed into a ball so small that it would fit inside my unit many times. They are nothing. Caesars, Christs and Stalins had statues erected of themselves in even the smallest towns and yet they were never satisfied because there were always places that remained unmarked. Often I have wished that I could cut myself free from my possessions and travel as I pleased. But there they are, piled small, and it hard not to look at them and think that they are all I have to show for forty years. To think that they are awfully little to have to show for all that time.

My books, mostly. My books. If those books that I have spent so long accumulating and protecting, if those books man nothing, what, then, do I mean? I am beginning again, another person, an unknown, in another country, one I do not know. That should be distance enough to allow a new beginning. But the strange thing is that it is hard to begin again without the sense that one is not beginning, that one is building on what is already there.

The past is always with you as you travel. You can only drop anchor: you cannot cut yourself adrift. Almost every night I dream. I dream of things gone past and yet not gone. I dream of fears both known and unknown. Last night I dreamed that I was living on a high cliff, and yet the waters had risen and were coming over the top. I am glad to be going and still I am afraid. Your life is in the memories that you do not leave behind you. Those memories make me afraid. Those memories make me stand in a cold box in Croydon looking at the boxes that it holds, and asking them what they tell me about me.

[* = hence the paucity of recent postings, for which my apologies]

March 12, 2006

You don't say

Newsflash on Ceefax this morning:
At least one person dead in suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan.