There is a buzz around the Royal Festival Hall. Tickets are like gold dust. Every seat is packed. They have set seating up on stage near the piano. People are standing at the back of the balcony behind my seat at the centre of the back row, breathing down my neck. The flora and fauna of the Classical world are out in force. The habitues and the fair-weather public. Daniel Barenboim is in town, doing the Schubert piano sonatas. It’s like David Bowie or Kate Bush for the pop fraternity. The atmosphere is oppressive. The man in front of me has got his score out and will follow the concert with his head down, infuriatingly turning pages in the quietest moments of the andante. The woman next to me has the programme, a book of Barenboim interviews and a Barenboim biography. It is as though she is swatting up for a Barenboim exam. After one movement of the first sonata a man calls across the balcony to some poor fool: “switch that phone off”. A man turns round and rebukes an elderly woman for swallowing too loud. In the interval I hear two teenagers talking. One of theh girls says to the other: “I just love Danny so much. I want to stand close to him.” It Dannymania.
I myself have a history with Barenboim. Years ago I used to queue up for the cheap tickets for the Orchesttre de Paris and sit on the front row of the Barenboim concerts when he was chef d’orchestre there. It got so that he used to recognise my face and when I was in the Salle Pleyel cafe and he walked by in the foyer of the concert hall he’d nod at me through the glass, thinking no doubt that he knew me from somewhere though he couldn’t quite place me where. So I felt we were friends, me and Danny. And when over the years I’ve attended his concerts, it’s been like meeting up with an old friend. The complete Beethoven sonatas about six or seven years ago was our last reunion. When I see him again now it’s always a poignant moment, not so much a rendez-vous with Danny as a rendez-vous with myself, a few years on.
People with children (yes, people with children are the majority of the population) are very tiresome when they talk about their kids whom you have never met. They tell you some laborious tale and you have to fix a contented, honorific smile up for its duration. All the while you are thinking but I have never met Oscar or Felicity. Sometimes Oscar or Felicity are now grown up and this is an ancient tale, as ancient as the House of Atreus, and you still have to be imagining them young as when this story was first minted. It is like when you listen to canned laughter from an old sit-com and you know that all that laughter is from dead people. Stale dead laughter from distant galaxies. And when that is the case and the story is from when Felicity was a cute little thing of three and winningly tripped up and fell into a dish of jelly and got a glace cherry on her nose and now Felicity is thirty-two and lives in Milton Keynes with her computer programmer husband with an ugly beard and tatoos and Felicity ain’t no looker herself nowadays, when it is like that even Felicity finds these ritual repetitions of the glace cherry story unbearable too, then you suddenly wonder what the telling of this story is all about and who it’s for. Not Felicity who isn’t here and hates it, not us who don’t care and have never met Felicity young or full grown. It’s for some strange psychodrama of your life. Speaking as an unparent, it is fascinating but tiresome.
I remember I would have been about eight and for some inexplicable reason over a few day period a fat boy from my class at school started coming round to my house to play with me. Now I didn’t want to play with this boy, not just because he was fat, but he had nothing to do with me. I didn’t mix with him at school; he didn’t like football; he didn’t like Val Doonican. What could he possible have to do with me? But for some reason there he was at my front door. Now, as I was a nice eight year old (you have probably gathered this) I accepted to be drawn away from Top of the Pops or The Avengers with Diana Rigg and go out with him into our little patch of front garden. But what to do with him? We couldn’t play football, which was my default solution to social visits. And then I remembered some old plastic skittles we had in the shed. I got them out and lined them up and like two four year olds we bowled them down and set them up, bowled them down and set them up. It was deadly. And then a friend of my brother walked by and said “Fatty and Thinny!” over the garden fence. I remember thinking How did I get into this position? My feelings about the fat boy were only reaffirmed when he started asking me if I would ask my mum for biscuits. We got some but then he started wanting me to ask for more and I said no and he went and talked to my mum direct and asked for more biscuits and she shouted at him. In the end, the fat boy went home and I went back to Top of the Pops or The Avengers with Diana Rigg. I probably said to my mum that I wouldn’t be answering the door to that fat boy again and because of the biscuits she probably agreed to go along with any excuses I wanted to make up. It is from that time that I date my present carefulness in the choosing of companionship and my wariness of social committment.
Geri Halliwell (or is it Geri… or Gerry… or Jerry… anyway it’s old Ginger Spice) got married to a guy called Christian Horner. Christian Horner I was vaguely familiar with from odd moments of desoeuvrement where I watched Formula 1 on telly and he got interviewed on the start line before the race. He is the head of Red Bull racing team and always seemed to me to be a very nerdy racing car technician with his talk of horse power and tyre options and pitting strategy. In my mind it looks like two incompatible worlds coming together. As though Ed Milliband had an affair with Lady Gaga or David Backham ran away with that grey haired Classicist off the telly, that Mary Beard woman. I perhaps have a faulty understanding of the media profile of Christian Horner and perhaps underestimated Ginger Spice. In fact, it’s nice to have your notions of who will go with whom undermined now and then. Amongst famous people it’s pretty rare. Depressingly, they tend to find love amongst their own. As though anyone other than an A-list celebrity was beneath them or could offer no possible charm. It often rings false, especially when you compare with quotidian life where I am frequently astounded by who gets together with whom and how it had been going on in secret for seven years under my very nose without me suspecting a thing. I fear I am not the only one who somehow feels that if I have not moved the chesspiece that is another person around on the chessboard of my imagination myself, then that rook will have stayed definitively fixed on its square. But no! These chess pieces are shooting around willy-nilly without me raising a finger. Imagine such a thing! Other people have a life of their own!
“The battle where men perish shuddered now with the long
man-tearing spears they held in their hands, their eyes were blinded
in the dazzle of the bronze light from the glittering helmets,
From the burnished corselets and the shining shields as men came on
in confusion. That man would have to be very bold-hearted
who could be cheerful and not stricken looking on that struggle.
Two powerful sons of Kronos, hearts divided against each other,
were wreaking bitter agonies on the fighting warriors,
since Zeus willed the victory for the Trojans and Hektor,
glorifying the swift-footed Achilleus, yet not utterly
did he wish the Achaian people to be destroyed before Illion
but only was giving glory to Thetis and her strong-spirited
son, while Poseidon emerging unseen from the grey-salt water
went among the Argives and stirred them since he was angered
that they were beated by the Trojans and blamed Zeus for it bitterly.”
(The Illiad Book 13 Lines 349-353 translation Lattimore)
Then Terry of the fearless valour came forward into the throng in the box
where battle was thick and clamour great for it was a set piece.
And Mourino had clad him in valour for he had license to get his head on a cross,
for quality was coming in from Hazard. Nor did Drogba hold back,
in the penalty area, he of the bronze strength who had proved his worth
in campaigns many and renowed including the Champions League final
where he had scored that header in the last minute against Bayern.
And Wenger saw that Terry had come up for the cross and he stepped out of his
designated area, to intervene in the action, pulling an extra man back,
who was much vaunted Giroud. And Mourino now stirred as he was much incensed
by Wenger straying out of the designated area, and he too ventured forth,
and vaunting cried out: “You who have not won the Premiership in ten campaigns
nor the Champions League either while I have tasted sweet triumph.
Poor fool, who thought you could slay my team and their parked bus,
stricken as you are in the wake of swift-footed Hazard.” So saying
the hordes gave forth great tumult for the cross came over and struggle
was in earnest with claims for holding and much wrestling of mighty forwards,
though the ref gave a goal kick and the hordes relented their clamour,
and with just a minute left on the clock before half-time,
went to get meat pies.”
(The Illiad. A reworking for modern sensibilities)
If I were to give a value to the items I had got the best use out of over the year the results would in no way correspond to the monetary value of those items. I have a little sharp knife that I use for all peeling and cutting of vegetables, fruit, meat and fish. I think I bought this knife from a supermarket for about £3 about twenty years ago. I do not use this knife for buttering, for cutting bread or for eating, but I use it for the rest. Over the years it has given me more pleasure and utility than any other object in my possession, I suppose. Items in my possession on which I have spent a (relatively) large amount of money rarely give me much pleasure. For one reason, I rarely use them. But more than this, the care with which I use them takes away from the ease that I might feel with them, how comfortable I am in their presence. When my best knife breaks (if ever it does) it will be a sadder moment than when I drop my Ming vase (have no fear, I don’t have one) or when I accidentally tear my Gucci trainers (likewise). The value of my best knife resides in how it fits into my palm, how it knows my thoughts. Its value is that it is close to you. The distance between you and it has disolved. With luxury items their value are that they are distant from you. Best possessions are familiar creatures, not creatures that you admire from afar.
Borges is famous for his baroque tales and parables that rehearse strange coincidences and weird symmetries. Time and reality may turn back upon themselves or twist through a an Escherian spiral into some paradoxical void. You do not expect to find Borges in the classroom.
A student had an exercise to accomplish for his Spanish oral. For the exam, whcih was to describe a photograph, he told his teacher he had a photograph at home of him and his family having a Christmas meal. The picture showed mother, father, brothers and sisters, dog, festive champagne and general merriment. Over the next two or three weeks the boy with his teacher prepared his description of the photo in Spanish, whcih he would then learn and polish for the imminent oral exam. Two days before the exam the teacher asked to see the actual photo which would have to be sent away with a recording of the speech to the examination board for marking. At this juncture the student (let us call him Arnold) admitted that the photo did not exist. It didn’t matter, he said, because his friend was very good at photoshop and using a number of separate photographs of father, mother, brothers and sisters, dog and champagne, could recreate the image that Arnold would be describing in his oral. The next day when the teacher and Arnold met up for final preparation Arnold admitted that the photoshop boy was unable to help him reproduce such a complexly described reality, but what Arnold could do was go home and search through the family photo albums and try and find a photograph that matched the reality he had so lovingly created for his oral exam. For Arnold it was too late to begin composition of another real picture. He would have to stick with the original text that he had so brilliantly constructed (the Spanish in his speech was exquisite) and try and find a picture of a reality that corresponded to that.
Borges never wrote this story, but he should have.