November 30: managing Tesco for them!

Recently, I have noticed in my local Tesco that the shelves that house the heavily discounted foodstuffs that are passing their sell-by date have been situated by the management next to the long queue that now trails from the increasingly popular self-service check-out. This causes great congestion. I cannot refrain from taking a Tesco employee by the arm to explain: “The one place you shouldn’t be putting the discount foodstuffs,” I say, “is there”, as I point to the Black Friday ruck at the corner of the aisle. The Tesco employee looks at me as though at a visitor from the galaxy of Andromeda. Last week I made this point three times to three separate employees. I cannot still the voice within. It will out. On Friday I was coincidentally approached by a Tesco survey taker with a questionnaire clip-board, who asked me a range of anodyne questions about staff/stuff/service and whether they were mediocre/satisfactory/excellent. I gave quick answers to these daft questions before getting on to my specialist topic. “There is” I explained, “a novel written almost 150 years ago about the first big stores in Paris (I was referring to Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames) where the shop manager shifts all the products around the shop every couple of months  to disorientate the customers and make them encounter unfamiliar products, spending more time in the shop and so spending more money. I note that in Tesco you are still doing that, shifting stuff around not for the customers’ convenience but for your own commercial benefit. But when there is an actual real reason for changing the position of something which would actually result in a more pleasant shopping environment, nobody notices, nobody cares.” I flourish my right hand at the offending area. When I look up, the Tesco employee has a frozen smile posted up and her eyes are looking off to the side for help.

Memo to self: just shut up.

November 21: the worst comedy character in the history of literature

The worst comedy character in the history of literature is the Clown in Act 3 Scene ! of Othello. Here is the worst scene in Shakespeare.

enter CLOWN

CLOWN: Why Masters, have your instruments been in Naples, that they speak i’ the nose thus.

MUSICIAN: How, sir, how?

CLOWN: Are these, I pray you wind instruments?

MUSICIAN: Ay, marry, are they sir.

CLOWN: O, thereby hangs a tail?

MUSICIAN: Whereby hangs a tale, sir?

CLOWN: Marry, sir, by many a wind instrument that I know. But, masters, here’s money for you. , and the general so likes your music that he desires you, for love’s sake, to make no more noise with it.

MUSICIAN: Well, sir, we will not.

CLOWN: If you have any music that may not be heard, to ‘t again. But, as they say, to hear music the general does not greatly care.

MUSICIAN: We have none such, sir.

CLOWN: Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I’ll away. Go, vanish into air. Away.


CASSIO: Dost thou hear, my honest friend?

CLOWN: No, I hear not your honest friend, I hear you.

CASSIO: Prithee, keep up thy quillets. There’s a poor piece of gold for thee. If the gentlewoman that attends the general’s wife be stirring, tell there’s one CAssion entreats her a little favour of speech. Wilt bthou dothis?

CLOWN: She is stirring, sir. If she will stir hither, I shall seem to notify unto her

exit CLOWN.

Comedy Gold!

Now and then Shakespeare reveals a sense of humour: in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; through Falstaff. But quite often he is a nerdy punner. Much less fun than, say, Marlowe, whose comedy in Dr Faustus, for example, needs to be reappraised.

The Clown scene here may well be just a piece of nonsense popped into a play with no other comedy scenes, giving the comic a part at the last minute. Or else it could be a poorly remembered scene when the play was assembled into writing. Or else an invention of the final editor of the first folio. There are a host of explanations for it, buit whatever the reason, what has been handed down to us is poor fare. Even Shakespeare can be rubbish.

November 21: nice, interesting and weird.

They were talking about the word nice on Radio 5 Live the other day. The presenters didn’t approve of it as it didn’t seem to communicate much, and I suppose this is the common position of English teachers up and down the land. I have never subscribed to this view. For me, nice comminunicastes very adequately and modestly a general sense of non-analytical approval. It does its job neatly and with minimum fuss.

The word I do have issues with is interesting. How many times have I been in art gallery watching someone looking at a piece of contemporary art and heard their reaction to it as communicated through the word interesting? Interesting is the real confidence-trickster because it sets itself up as an analytical reaction but when you inquire there is rarely an explanation given as to why whatever it is evokes interest in the commentator. Nice is no such upstart.

A new and pernicious infiltrator into the world of insidious vocabulary is the word weird. Much used by younger people – not to sound ageist – weird has the unpleasant connotation of ‘the thing I am commenting on is out of my range and so I won’t be bothered seeing what it’s all abou’. It is off my radar.’ It denotes a lack of curiosity. If it were the departure point for an investigation, fine, but often it’s just a depressing full stop.

November 16: a rudimentary toolbox

In literature the consciousness of the writer can only do so much. Most of the best material seeps up through the unconscious. In ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ Freud suggests that consciousness provides a protective shield that numbs stimuli. What he means is that only when material is teased out from the unconscious can a writer gain access to a mysterious, more resonant, more rewarding world.
Claude Simon says much the same thing in his Nobel address in, what was it, 1986. He explains that when he starts to write, the initial intention is immediately modified by the act of writing. The unconscious takes over, the effect being, as he puts it that “le resultat est infiniment plus riche que l’intention” (“the result is infinitely richer than the intention”).
All the novels I like defy contemporary ideas of the well constructed text with its dull notion of a story arc and its insistence on the primacy of planning and knowing everything you are going to write in advance. If you totally understand your own text as a writer, you are working with a rudimentary toolbox.

November 3: your mission: a hired assassin in the fantasies of others.

In The Guardian on Saturday they run a kind of Proust questionnaire feature for celebrities where one of the questions is “What would your superpower be?” and celebrities say things like “flying” or “invisibility”. Mine would be the capacity for another person to be inside my head for the day. Note: not the opposite; they are in my head, not me in theirs. I even sometimes put famous people from history into my head. Shakespeare, for example. I am curious to see what people would make of my day, my thoughts. They are travelling along on a side-car to my consciousness. accompanying it, seeing what I see, overhearing my gloss on the day. A commonplace fantasy I used to have was to attend my own funeral. I am trying to jettison this one now, as in my mind it is becoming an increasingly disappointing event.
My habit of being sceptical about other people’s capacity to fulfil their hopes and dreams led me to thinking of myself yesterday as a hired assassin in people’s fantasy lives. You let me loose on your aspirations and I shoot them down, one by one, leaving you with the bare bones of your true life, all the glamour murdered. What does that make me? A therapist? A life coach? A kill joy? A miserable bugger?
Has this already been done in a Hollywood fantasy film? The therapist as hired assassin in the fantasy life of others. Maybe tangentially it has, but not as comedy. You could do a wonderful serious comedy where the fantasy lives of different people collide and get mixed up. A kind of multi-dimensional farce. The hero would be the therapist to the great and the good who administers a drug to his clients which gives him access to their fantasy world. He would go in and clean them up. For security reasons you wouldn’t want the fantasy life of the US President to be pathological. There would need to be controls on the therapist, of course. Hence a therapist 2.0 whose mission would be to terminate the therapist. Then they could go back in time to pre-terminate something in an early presidential fantasy, in Freudian thrall that is the pre-requisite to anything out of Hollywood. The possibilities for prequels and sequels are endless.

November 1: proust and more unknowability

Continuing to read through Proust and arriving at a section that deals with Marcel’s relationship with his grandmother in the ‘Guermantes’ volumes. The narrator speaks to her by phone and, shocked to hear her thin voice coming to him filtered and channelled down a phone line, feels he is hearing her in a pure state, though when the line goes dead he feels the melancholy of her absence like never before. Something like how I feel with Skype, which emphasises the absence of the person, especially when there is the delay on the reception or when the screen freezes momentarily. Technology can do this, I think: bring home the futility or paltriness of the communication process.
Marcel then hurries back to Paris to sample her so to speak real presence but when he comes into the room to see her she does not notice him at first and he sees her engaged in her own thoughts. He sees her living her life without him.
“…pour un instant, car elle disparut bien vite, j’apercus sur le canape, sous la lampe, rouge, lourde et vulgaire, malade, revassant, promenant au-dessus d’un livre des yeux un peu fous, une vieille femme accablee que je ne connaissais pas.” (Le Cote des Guermantes)
(“… for a moment only, for the image quickly disappeared, I saw on the sofa, under the lamp, red, heavy and vulgar-looking, sickly and distracted, scanning a book with slightly mad eyes, a peoccupied-looking old woman I did not recognise.”) (The Guermantes)
Sometimes we have a shocking inkling of the other life of a friend; some sharp remark that reveals a whole stratum of their temperament that was unknown to you, or their suddenly expressing a desire which seems to cast into doubt every idea you ever held about their behaviour and motivations. These are melancholy moments when you realise you know nothing about anybody.