Yesterday I needed a box to put an object in. It was the main quest of the day. The object was a gift, so the box needed to be semi-decorative. I found it in the end. Got the right size and put my object in the box. The object is itself a receptacle. Now I need some wrapping to contain the box and then a suitable bag to contain wrapping, box and receptacle. It is a Russian doll business, as so many things are these days. Some people love this. They put their packet of tea in a tea tin which goes into a special transparent box that contains all hot beverage. Or when they are out in town they put their umbrella in a bag and that bag into another bag.
When I lived in Paris working for a company that contained about ten people, people who trained people, I was at one time made formateur des formateurs or trainer’s trainer. This was a case of what I call king of kings syndrome. King of kings syndrome exists in business. You are reponsible to someone who is responsible to someone who is responsible to someone else. We all fit inside each other like Russian dolls. You may be king of kings, but are you king of king of kings? And in private life when we organise our state of being we like to put things in boxes too. I have done it myself with my tank theory of human happiness now very popular in the self-help communities. The question is when you put your life into boxes, what do you do when something doesn’t fit perfectly into the box that your conscious self has supplied. The unconscious is so much stronger than the conscious. If they were twins the unconscious would be the first out of the womb. He would know all the tricks to get by. So all the real stuff, the intriguing stuff, doesn’t go into boxes at all. So even if you the king of kings of kings of kings, you are king of a kingdom of rubbish.
In the park toilets in Kennington Park this morning (they are traditional park toilets; bad-smelling, turd-retaining) I noted some obscene graffiti. It can happen in public toilets. In the Gents anyway. I don’t know whether the Ladies have the same particularity. I shall not trouble you with the complexities of the message but there was one word that caused me to raise an eyebrow. The word hole spelt as whole. I do not think a pun was intended. I think it was the error of someone who thought he was giving the correct spelling. Someone who had recently noticed the word whole and assumed it was the correct, sophisticated spelling of the word.
This tendancy to over-elaborate a word to make it sound more sophisticated and end up getting it wrong is something of a trend. On Radio 5 Live they like to compliment a piece of play in a football match by referring to it as simplistic which to many ex-players seems to mean very simple in a good way rather than overly simple in a bad way. Then there is the word ideological that many people seem to think means to do with ideas rather than ideology, as in it is a very ideological speech meaning full of ideas. The greatest example of this was when a famous ex-footballer thought he’d just amplify a turn of phrase and instead of speaking of a player now taking on the mantle of captaincy said that he has taken on the mantlepiece of captaincy.
The moral is that writers of obscene toilet graffiti and ex-footballers should keep their language simple.
We are curiously susceptible to the seductions of language. It only took someone to mention two words this morning to set my path for the rest of the day. Those two words? Corned and beef. But it could be anything. Somebody said jacket potato the other day and that was me down the Tesco on some primal hunt for conveniantly sized baking potatoes. Of course, this bewitchment perpetrated by language does not merely apply to comestibles. Writers have documented the power of the word in the realm of human emotions. Words like love, desire, hate, revenge, need. Words that carry around with them a dense magnetic field; that are heavy with culture; bewitchnment inhabits words like these; they are tempest-tossed by an unpredictable micro-climate that can set the mind in a spin. They are sacred words. When they are invoked, all kinds of acts can be set in motion, tragic acts, irredeemable, dreadful acts. Why, they are almost as powerful as another word that can play havoc with the imagination. Bacon.
There is an expression in French to designate the witty ripost you always seem to have when you are on your way out of the door; in other words, too late. L’esprit de l’escalier. The wit of the staircase. You might also have another form of wit. What you might call l’esprit du pas de la porte. The wit of the front doorstep. This is the wit you prepare in advance and which never turns out quite the way you wanted.
I am a great one for the wit of the front doorstep and I tried it out the other day. I went to the opening night of the Sluice Art festival. This is the alternative to the Frieze Art festival. Anyway, knowing there would be a great mass of hipster-types in the assembly, bearded gentlemen, I had an old Ken Dodd joke I wanted to place. It runs like this: “Ah! I see you are sporting a beard, sir. Beards. Very trendy these days. Very trendy. I just have one question. When you are eating shredded wheat, how do you know when you’ve finished?”
Clearly, a hilarious joke! And yet, even though I tried it on three separate occasions each time to an appropriately bearded stranger, there was scant response. On two occasions I was greeted by the ripost “what’s shredded wheat?” I ask you. Where does that leave you? How can you tell a joke without a shared humanity? Or at least a shared breakfast cereal?
Opera ain’t cheap. With my friend Christina we were lucky enough to get offered a below-the-proper-price ticket in the stalls. Row C. As close as I’d ever been. You can actually see the singers’ faces. I didn’t know they had them. But we needed another ticket. I was near the box office when I overheard a conversation. I’m afraid we don’t do returns on the day of the show, said the man in the box office to a slight woman with straight hair. But then the woman had an idea. She went outside and gave the ticket to a Big Issue salesman. What a nice gesture, I thought. I waited a moment and then popped out, as though aimlessly. I caught the Big Issue man’s eyes, as though inadvertently. I retained his gaze, as though randomly. Do you want a ticket? he said. I feigned surprise, as though spontaneously. He was ready to give it me for free. It was a £20 ticket. I gave him £10. He was delighted. Even gave me a free Big Issue. When I went back into the foyer I went up to the slight woman with straight hair to say thank you. The Big Issue man gave me a ticket. Thank you very much, I said. Did you pay him something? she asked. Of course, I said. Paid him £10. She seemed quite all right with me. My husband couldn’t make it, she said. She was with another man. They were American. But when I got into my seat the slight woman with the straight hair seemed peeved and ignored me. I could see the problem. She had created for herself a moral conundrum. She was effectively subsidising my ticket. I’d given £10 to the Big Issue man, nothing to her. Maybe if I’d given him £20. Maybe if I’d offered her £10. That would at least mean I’d paid the same as her. But as it was, the Big Issue man was quids in, I was quids in and she was quids out.
I should have gone the whole hog. Sat between her and the bloke she was with, opened my free copy of the Big Issue wide, ruined their evening completely.What was she doing out without her husband with this strange man anyway? She’d inadvertently handed over seat 30 instead of seat 31. I could have insisted on keeping her apart from her friend. It was big of me to let them sit together. And what if the Big Issue seller had used the ticket and sat next to her and her friend? Would that have made her evening any better? Would that have been her good deed for the day? Bringing culture to the hoipolloi? The Opera Ticket. It would make a good play by George Bernard Shaw. Class conflict and culture. His favourite themes.
I dare say I ruined her evening, the slight woman with the straight hair. I know the idea that I’d paid for somebody else’s ticket would have ruined mine. But that’s just me. I’m rubbish. I have a sneaking suspicion she was too.
The search for a decent cobbler goes on unabated. You arrive with a pair of shoes to be heeled. Th cobbler, or more often than not, the cobbler’s mate, receives you into their humble abode. The cobbler’s gatekeeper I call him. Often a woman, of course. Perhaps (who can guess?) his wife. This is a question you cannot ask. Excuse me Miss, but are you by any chance the cobbler’s wife? This would be an interrogation too far. The mate assesses the damage. To what level has the heel degraded? There are strata of degradation to a heel and on such decisions is the estimate given. Mostly, I feel robbed by the estimate of the cobbler’s gatekeeper and go away thinking I should have just bought a new pair of shoes. If only I could have spoken to the cobbler himself, the master cobbler and not his mate. But that is the way with gatekeepers. Of course, the humble cobbler lives in a downsized shed-like construction with a hatch-window, where he is obliged to also perform the humiliating business of key cutting. Pity the poor cobbler; key-cutting was never his aspiration. It is the cross he must bear. Moreover, this unfortunate profession is also the victim of etymological machinations. To cobble is indeed a 13th Century word to mend shoes but in the 16th century the meaning of botching something also arises, as in to cobble something together. Hardley the greatest endorsement of the cobbler’s craft. Still, it’s hard to find a good one in London. Here’s an idea. The cobbler, like the dry-cleaner, is cheaper the closer into the centre of London you go. I throw this idea out there. It’s just a suggestion. Everything else gets more expensive. Cobblers get cheaper! Cobblers thrive at hubs. It is at intersections that the cobbler plys his trade. They know that hubs are where custom throngs: the city gent; the traveller hurrying to his destination; the femme du monde. Hence competition amongst cobblers. Supply and demand, ergo deflated prices. The simple economics of a cobbler’s life.
The other day I was talking to a friend I hadn’t seen for a quite a time. I could tell this friend didn’t get out much by, in part, the material of his or her coversation, and, in part, the shape of the conversation. I had asked a question. The answer was being provided. It had gone on for quite some time. I interrupted with another question to wiggle the subject into a new, less tiresome field. My friend ignored my question (I assumed he or she hadn’t registered it) and continued with the in-depth response to the initial subject. Then, a minute or so later, when that first response was over, went seamlessly into the response to the second question, which turned out to be another solid block of monologue.This is conversation as stimulus with great blocks of response, conversation as exam interrogation, and not my idea of how it should be done. Much as I like prefer Mondrian to Jackson-Pollock as an artist, I do not like conversation done in that way. For me, conversation should be a nimble give-and-take, a picking-up and a putting-down, serious and jokey together, the sublime and grotesque, more Shakespeare than Racine, light. That is the art of conversation. It is not the assiduous articulation of exhaustive reports. You need to adapt to the expectant ears and eyes in front of you. So remember that next time we’re engaged in a chat. Much as I enjoy sponge pudding and custard on the kitchen table, I don’t want it served up in social life.