December 22, 2006

But thinking makes it so?

1. Some years ago I was working in the library at Oxford Brookes University where one of my colleagues was a young German woman. One morning she said to me:
"I can't understand how the students can be late with their books. After all, they have very small rooms."
2. Yesterday I was working in the shop when a young art student came in - not Spanish, I think, but Latin American, and we carried on a conversation partly in Spanish, partly in English. She asked me how I was finding Spain ("me gustan los Pirineos", I said) and she asked what things I don't like. Being, unusually, in a mood to put things euphemistically, I said that Spain was not very efficient. "Efficient?" she asked. I tried to say it in Spanish - "┬┐eficiente?" - but as she still appeared to be struggling with my accent, I picked up the dictionary and showed her. Eficiente.

She said she still didn't understand what it meant.

December 18, 2006

Blair firm on early polls

Guest post on Lenin's Tomb.

December 10, 2006

Love of life

Ichy is fighting for her life. The more gently she struggles, the more certain we will be that she'll survive: what's crucial is that the stitches in her stomach should not burst. As yet, she doesn't have the energy to test the stitches, not after ten of fifteen minutes of activity first thing in the morning, which exhaust her and send her back into the cupboard for the rest of the day. Tomorrow, the day after, may be the time of real danger, when she's able to run, or leap, or stretch herself and stretch the stitches as she does so.

Now, she rests, and sleeps, either in the cupboard or on the chair, lying on her silver-painted tummy, only her head visible. She wears a bonnet, like a funnel, to prevent her from reaching her stitches with her teeth. The rest of her body is swaddled in blankets, some wrapped round her, some wrapped round hot-water bottles, so that, to me, she resembles a blasphemous infant Jesus. Every hour we feed her, filling a small syringe with food, mixed with a little water, and manouevring it around her mouth until she opens up. Two or three centilitres, washed down with water, similarly squirted if and when she lets us do it. Then rest, more rest, and visiting the vet, twice daily, for injections. The cost, when we are finished, is going to be enormous. But we are trying to save the life of a cat.

She ate balloons. We didn't know she was eating them, not until she vomited and shredded balloon came up with the liquid. We knew she chewed them, but she chews everything: balloons, books, wires, pencils, whatever she can get her mouth round and plenty that she can't. We didn't know she was eating them: we knew she had a hoard of stuff, under the sofabed, but we cannot properly clean the flat, hemmed as we are into one room, with one room still almost unusable, the plaster falling on our heads in pursuit of the water which dislodged it. It is a mess, more of a campsite than a home, small piles of papers, books, everything, cluttering every surface in the house, and Ichy had her little pile too. Her hoard must have included some balloons, left over from the ones I tied to our stall at the book fair. We played with them a couple of times, letting them fall on Ichy like Rover in The Prisoner.

She would run away; then, regaining her courage, would creep up to the balloon and begin to paw it, claws extended (as hers always are) until the balloon would burst and she would run away again. This was fun, at the time. But now it isn't, now it isn't funny any more, because it must have been these balloons which she kept, hoarded, chewed and ate, and which she vomited up last week.

She had been off her food for several days, which worried us, but I have seen cats off their food before: disturbed by a change in temperature, or furniture, or anything else that may have affected their comfort and security. Sometimes, they do not eat for days, as Ichy wouldn't, but after you have tried to change their food (as we did) or after a week of pleading (which we did) they will change their minds again and eat as if nothing had happened between their last meal and the present one.

But Ichy didn't resume. She vomited, shards of balloon, then water, then nothing. Still she wouldn't eat. We took her to the vet, who filled her full of a white liquid, so that nothing left might show up in an X-ray. When she was home, close to midnight, she vomited up the liquid, on the back of the sofabed. By this time, we were desperate. So we took her back to the vet, who took her in, injected her, and closed her in a cage, to sleep there while she waited for her operation. She moaned as she was put in the cage and I tried to catch her eye before I left, but failed - and tried not to cry, because I knew the reason I wanted our eyes to meet was that I might not see her again, not alive, not with the eyes of a living, thinking cat. I left her there, and went home, guilty, thinking about all the times I could have cleaned the floor, found those balloons and thrown them away.
For each man kills the thing he loves
You can think about it a thousand times, or only once: yet the answer each time can only be the same. No matter how true it is - that you could not have known - nevertheless there were different things you could have done, and had you done them, those who hurt would not be hurt and those who died would not have died. No matter how you look at it. There is always a choice, even if you were not aware that it exists. At any moment there are infinite alternatives, and not all of them can have the same outcome. I could have acted differently, and I did not: because I did not, somebody was hurt, and came within an ace of dying, and is not yet safe.

I do not have the facility, of refusing to see the truth because it does not suit me. That is my weakness, my propensity to guilt. Or my humanity, for weakness and humanity are, it seems to me, inseparable, identified with one another. We are never more human that when we fail, never more in need of other people than when we stumble, when we fall. But I do not want to fail, not for Ichy. I need it not to matter that I failed.

She was close. Her intestine, when they operated, was rubbed almost raw where it had become permanently blocked. They extracted a small plastic pellet, green, the remnants of balloon that had got stuck inside her and blocked the intestine, a pellet which had prevented her eating but would not let her get rid of it. It nearly killed her. It might kill her still.

It was not the first time she had been close. We knew, for instance, that she was rescued from a pet shop, shortly before the owner lost patience with her, as a stock line that wouldn't sell. Her kittens, from which she was separated too early, were sold quickly, she was not: and he was intending to have her put to sleep. She lay there, as cats do, waiting to die, while a group of children taunted her - and a friend of ours saw and rescued her, and so she lived. As she must live now.

We knew about that, her close call, the only part of her life, before we knew her, that we were aware of. But when they X-rayed Ichy, we discovered something else. In the X-ray, just behind her shoulder, bright and obvious in the X-ray, as clear as it was previously hidden, was a bullet. Somebody shot our Ichy. Before we had her, in her hidden life, perhaps outside Huesca, as there are many hunters in the villages. Somebody shot her. She has carried that bullet ever since, maybe hurting her, maybe not, maybe aware of it and maybe not, most likely aware sometimes, hurting sometimes, forced every so often to remember that pain and to carry it. And I know, I know, what that is about.

I love cats, and I have realised, as time passes, how much I identify with them, with their distrust of people, with their need to be alone. That is why I look, and why I need to look, into their eyes, to tell them I am with them, to tell them that they are a part of me and I a part of them. That some of what they feel is what I feel. I did not know, before, what I know about Ichy now, but now I do, and I am closer than before. I share, I feel what she feels. And sharing feelings is another term for love.

December 02, 2006

The Clockwork Ending

It is cold, and sometimes wet. The clothes never dry completely on the line. They hang upstairs, in a shared attic, open to the elements: if I walk outside I can see them hanging. During the summer they dry in minutes - in winter, they take days, and even then they have to be taken down before the end, laid on a clothes horse and the heating turned on. If we don't, they feel damp, or cold, the one almost indistinguishable from the other, each feeling miserable, each feeling permanent. As if, you feel, if you put them on, even if you did not make yourself ill, you would walk round with the feeling of winter underneath your coat.

I touched the damp and thought of Newcastle. I remember the launderette in Jesmond. I used it while I was lodging in the YWCA, miserable as the weather, permanent nervous, confined most of the time, by cold and lack of money, to my room. Also by fear of confrontation. The hostel was full of people who were likely to pick a fight, with obscure cause but dire consequence: expulsion for both participants. To be that close to homelessness does damage to the nerves, which in itself makes confrontation much more likely. If you are one step from sleeping on the streets, that step is in your mind at almost every moment: and however carefully you may avoid it, there is always that dread, or that conviction, that should you avoid it ten thousand times, there will always come the ten thousand and first.

So my room was where I stayed, or where I hid, applying for jobs, waiting, trying to keep my mind within that room. Fortunately, when I did go out, the university had forgotten to cancel my IT access, so I was able to sit in their computer rooms, to stare at the internet, to read my emails, without having to pay for it with money that I didn't have. Which meant that I could play correspondence chess. Which meant that I had something to concentrate on, some goal to aim at, even if that goal consisted of no more than trying to win a game of chess against a man that I would never meet.

It didn't matter. If it was trivial, then it was trivial with some depth to it. If it was inconsequential, then so what? I was inconsequential too. The wider world is not concerned what happens to you: you have no weight, no meaning to the world. So if the chess game has no meaning other than itself and what you lend to it, that is all that matters. It fills your mind, when what you need is to occupy your mind.

We had been playing, I think, since June: it was now December, late November, cold and wet in Newcastle. Even if you put your clothes in the drier six or seven times, they still would come out feeling slightly damp, as if to say, this is you, and no matter how much you try, you are stuck.- You cannot put things right, you cannot finish what you start. You goal is out of reach. The job applications continued to be rejected. I stayed inside my room or in front of a computer, surfing without purpose, empty of enthusiasm. My damp clothes said, you never win. You cannot win your game. My rejection letters were of the same mind: all that effort and you will still get nowhere. Five or six months of trying. I had to win my game.
1.c4 e6 2.g3 d5 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Bg2 Be7 5.O-O O-O 6.d4 dxc4 7.Qc2 a6 8.Qxc4 b5 9.Qc2 Bb7 10.Bg5 Nbd7 11.Bxf6 Nxf6 12.Nbd2 Rc8 13.Nb3 c5 14.dxc5 a5 15.a4 Be4 16.Qc3 b4 17.Qe3 Bd5 18.Rfd1 Qc7 19.Nfd4 Bxg2 20.Kxg2 Bxc5 21.Rac1 Qb7+ 22.Kg1 Bb6 23.Qe5 Rxc1 24.Rxc1 Qe4 25.Qxe4 Nxe4 25.Rc6 Rb8 27.e3 e5 28.Nf3 f6 29.Nfd2 Nxd2 30.Nxd2 Bd8 31.b3 Rb6 32.Rxb6 Bxb6 33.Nc4 Bc7 34.e4 Kf7 35.Kf1 Ke6 36.Ke2 g6 37.Ne3 Bb6 38.Nd5 Bd4 39.f3 f5 40.Kd3 fxe4 41.fxe4 Kd6
He was one of six opponents in the tournament, the last to finish, and I was, I think, without a win against any of the other five. I could not work on a game for months, and then not win it at the end, if it were winnable. I could not draw and find out later that I could have won. Good knight against bad bishop, I knew I was the only player who could win - but if I could win, I could not see how.

I worked and worked. I worked on the same position for a week or more, making no move, no move on the chessboard and no meaningful move outside. Forced to take advantage of my circumstances, with nothing much else to look at than four close walls and a chess set that I had bought some years before in a shop on Charles Bridge, on the Vltava in Prague. I went to Prague in summer: the Vltava freezes in winter - I saw it, iced up with people skating on it, in January, on my way to Prague from Marianske Lazne - and if the Tyne does not, it was still icy in the air, the window misted up, and if I wiped it and looked outside, the breath of reluctant pedestrians misted too, small puffs in the air as they walked past as fast as frozen legs would let them go. I looked at them sometimes, and then at my set, and thought about Prague, and the distances people travel, and the things that happen to them as they go.

I worked, and thought, wrote variations down on paper, slept on them, lost sleep to them, realised while sleeping what I had not realised while awake, woke up and crossed them out and started ocer again. I had meant to play 41.Kxe4, keeping my kingside pawns together and bringing my king closer to a breakthrough, but I could find no way to force his king away with checks, no way to manoeuvre my knight around to a square unprotected by the bishop. I took with the pawn, but that seemed to give my king only one way into his position and I could not, as yet, see how I could take that route and win.

I confess, I cannot remember exactly which position I worked on all that week. I recall the week, and I recall the work, the writing down, the waking up and crossing out: but whether it was the position after move 41 or after move 43, I am not sure: perhaps because I had looked at that position so many times since.
42.g4 h5 43.gxh5 gxh5

Finally, I saw it: it was beautiful, like a mechanism, like clockwork. One move by the king, drawing his king along behind. Then two little circuits by the knight, hypnotising the bishop, putting it exactly where I wanted it to go. Then - and this, this surely, was the beautiful part - reversing the original move, taking the king back to where it started, like a clock reaching the hour. I almost expected a little click when it returned, and then the thing to happen all over again: but instead, when it got there, my opponent resigned, because he cannot keep my king out any more.

Not from the queenside, where it feinted, from the square c4 - but the knight will go to that square instead, forcing the black king to stay on the queenside and do nothing. While my king walks over to the kingside, on the white squares which the bishop cannot protect, picks up a pawn or two and wins the game. With what pleasure I found the clockwork manouevre, wrote it, checked it and played it. With pleasure, satisfaction, purpose.

It was my moment, my small achievement, my encounter with creativity. In my room, penniless, nervous and fearful, one step from the street, my damp clothes drying slowly, with reluctance, I had a moment, small but real, where though I had no purpose but to keep my mind from worry, I made something that could give pleasure to others than myself. The Clockwork Ending. A mechanism. This is what I made.
44.Kc4 Kc6 45.Ne7+ Kd7 46.Nf5 Bg1 47.h3 Kc6 48.Ne7 Kd6 49.Nd5 Kc6 50.Nf6 h4 51.Ng4 Bd4 52.Nh2 Bf2 53.Nf3 Bg3 54.Kd3 Black resigns