I am a partisan of the simple shake of hands. At the end of an evening out when friends are embracing or engaging in the elaborate forearm handshake, the blood brother handshake – these are men I’m talking about – I step back, like some Prussian or Austro-Hungarian officer, from these shows of intimate bonding. It is perhaps generational, perhaps regional, but, as I point out when quizzed, I am happy to engage in displays of physical intimacy with continental Europeans where I feel that the intensty of the gestures are more in line with the actual cultural norms. Here, in the YouKay, I don’t believe it. These are the semiotics of intimacy, a stage show to give the lie to the truth about British social mores, where little intimacy is actually shared, where conversations skirt around the peripheries of the leading questions and revelations, where discretion holds the key, even with the young. Alphonse the braying corporate man will engage in deep blood brother embrace with his old chum of twenty years past before going home and shifting his assets to a higher yielding strain, like Mime sitting on the hot glow of the Nibelungen gold, while his old buddy Eric goes home to rented accomodation that strips him of three quarters of his income every month. Yes, they are such great mates Alphonse and Eric. You can tell by their semiotics. I’m not saying I don’t have any great mates that might warrant a flourish of externalised affection, but when the show is systematic and so out of step with the rest, you have to shrink.
In the art gallery on a Sunday morning you are with a special group of people. They are here because they don’t go to church anymore. But they are still in their Sunday best. Today it is the equivalent of a brisk early winter walk, but one where culture might adhere to you. How you make you way through is up to you. There is a special route that the gallery organisers recommend, the stations of the cross round the top top artistic icons of the place. There is also a plan of the gallery that can lead you through century by century. Or you might just follow your own path. Some people might just follow a pretty girl round from a safe unimpeachable distance, or you might go from nude to nude (in each room there is at least one nude), or you might decide to listen in on one of the guides talking in front of a selected artwork which, I have noticed, will be a commentary mostly revolving around what the artist was doing at the period he painted the picture (invariably in love with someone or other or being influenced by some other one or other or living in some place or other). The word contemporary comes up a lot. Guides say it and visitors say it to each other as they wander round. It’s got so that I can recognise the word from fifty paces through lip-reading skills that have naturally accrued due to my exposure to this word in galleries. Naturally, it is a word I would ban. I sit down in a side corridor opposite an elderly man who is wearing sandles with no socks. It is cold today, the second day of winter. He must have feet that burn him that he needs to expose them in this weather. I feel impelled to ask him why he has no socks on, but before I can summon up my mode of approach he gets up and shuffles off. There are a lot of single old people here this morning, as well as the Sunday family groups. The elderly sit in front of canvases but mostly look down to their own knees or at their hands. This too is contemporary.
I have given up on my attempt to read Finnegans Wake. I had thought now was the time. I have a smattering of languages; more reading behind me; an interest in playful allusion and the construction of a ludic neologism. I thought: it’s now or never. It’s never. I tried about five blocks of one hour reading in bed over five consecutive nights. Each time reading about four pages in the hour. First time I thought I’d build up my sensitivity to what was going on and get more of it as I got used to the language, but it never really happened. Reading pleasure was scant. Understanding, even provisional, very partial. Joyce wrote it between 1922 and 1939. Seventeen years. Even granting that some of the allusions, local in time and geography (Dublin) are less clear now than they were or are to Dubliners, it remains opaque. And I like difficulty, I enjoy deciphering as a reading process, but this is beyond. Beyond.
I was reminded of the challenge of reading Finnegans Wake when I encountered issues on my computer the other day. I am computer illiterate. The vocabulary is unknown to me. When it tells me to consult my internet provider I do not know who that is or what it means. Is it BT? And is BT a man in India on the end of a phone who once after a forty minute conversation told me to stick a needle into an orifice on my internet hub and wiggle it around for sixty seconds? And what is my proxy setting? I try and examine the word proxy, as I would examine the Joycean neologism. A word of latinate derivation clearly. But this can only get me so far. In the world of computers I am like a four year old in a cocktail party for adults. If I can just get a piece of cake (use of email and word-processing) I’m happy, while the grown-ups are all drinking their fancy drinks and talking about stuff I don’t understand. I am like the reader of Finnegans Wake who just recognises a few words in the mass, a few stars in the Milky Way. With these fragnents I try and piece my way forward to get what I want. In the computer world, if you just leave me a small piece of cake on the side-table I’ll leave the party and go off to my bedroom to eat it on my own. Frankly, I should have been in bed hours ago.
This summer – it was August – I was taking my rubbish out to the bins and the postman asked if I would hold a package for a neighbour. It was a rather large box from the Nationwide building society. It said on it: Welcome to your new home. I kept the box for quite a few days. It was a big box and it took up a lot of space. The neighbour, clearly someone who was soon moving in, did not appear. I am doing the non-existant neighbour (him/her) quite a favour. We moved into September, October, now November. Still no sign of the new people in the flat. When you peer through the window (casually as I pass) there is no sign of presence within. I have looked at the outside of the box. It should be possible to wiggle the plastic binding off it and tease the box open. I am human, aren’t I? I am curious. I just want to have a look. If there is something I fancy in the box… Well, I’ll just have a look. I could always say, if the neighbour materialised one day and asked for the box, that I’d taken it back to the post office or something. This would be quite a reasonable thing to do. It is a large box. Last night I opened the box. I wiggled the plastic straps off with great dexterity. I pulled the flaps open. Inside were a number of items. Two rolls of kitchen towels. A small bottle of toilet cleaner. A box of Weetabix. It is a very disappointing outcome. Who had the idea of putting together such a Welcome box? At the very least I was expecting a bottle of champagne. I put the whole thing back together again. It is a large box to hold for a non-existant neighbour. I am doing them (him/her) quite a favour.
There is a lot of motivational wisdom around, sometimes taking the form of aphorisms, little packets of truth to take around with you. Facebook people love this. No-one is you and that is your power. That kind of stuff. Pepping people up; always optimistic. It doesn’t matter that you might also say the opposite. No-one is you and that is your tragedy.
Here are a couple I saw recently:
Life doesn’t always introduce you to the people you need to meet. Sometimes life puts you in touch with the people you need to meet, to help you, to hurt you, to love you, and to gradually strengthen you into the person you were meant to become.
As in so much of this type of wisdom, it is all written from the perspective that life will inevitably take you to a better place; it can never take you to a worse one. As though life were a benevolent guide. We are back to the Panglossian world of the meilleur des mondes possibles.
Here is another one.
Lemonade is my word because it reminds me that life is sweet and even when it has moments of sour you can make something great out of each experience.
What such sentiments remind me of are the Soviet requirements that literature and Art should be uplifting. This is American totalitarianism.
Life is about being yourself. ‘Cause no-one can tell you you’re doing it wrong.
But what if you are?