January 18 Familiarity

In a Stefan Zweig short story found amongst his papers at his death in 1942 the narrator meets the world chess champion on a cruise. He also meets a man who spent months in solitary confinement under interrogation by the Gestapo and whose only source of sanity was a book of great chess matches that he had smuggled into his cell.In his head herpeplays classic matches of the Grand Masters hundreds and hundreds of times. Inevitably, the world chess champion and the Gestapo escapee face each other in chess combat.

Nowadays, travel is less exotic. You might not find a world chess champion on a commercial cruise liner. In his place you would find a retired couple who thougth the best way they could spend their well earned cash was browsing through the same international brands, coffee shops and fast food outlets that are available to them in their nearest decent sized town in Bedfordshire or wherever. In place of chess, this retired quantity surveyor and his wife might be hunched over an i-pad or a blackberry.

Today the commercial world requires us to aspire to what is dreadfully, mind-numbingly familiar. The alien has been almost entirely eradicated from the landscape. Even our cinematic escape into Elizabethan London or Regency Cheltenham will have William Shakespeare saying that some wench was “awesome” and Jane Austen as some feisty post-modern feminist with attitude. We have been locked into a new confinement of persistant and tepid familiarity and we have no set of Grand Master duels to escape into.

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