June 29: marx brothers and my clan identity index

I had a dream a couple of nights ago. I was watching a Marx brothers film with a group of people and trying to tell them how funny Marx brothers films were. Of course, this being a dream, it was not a Marx brothers film but some kind of surreal programme where flower arrangements were augmented and diminshed on the screen in time to chocolate box music. It was quite boring. Nobody I was with in the dream was convinced about how this film was as funny as I was professing it to be, and I myself was dismayed to see that perhaps they were right. But still, my fidelity to what I remembered of Marx brothers films made me continue to argue, ever more desperately, that if we just persisted we would seen see an uproariously funny scene. But still flowers continued to make elaborate but boring patterns on the screen.

This issue of fidelity to a clan is fundamental. If after a few minutes a film, or a person, or a political party, or a family, disappoints our expectations, do we reassess and change our mind or is a committment to a belief a fundamental part of our identity that we seek at all costs to retain? Sartre famously criticised Camus for saying that entre ma mere et la loi je choisis toujours ma mere (if it comes to a choice between my mother and the law I will always choose my mother). For Sartre this was the thin end of the wedge on the road to nindless adherence to what you know. We should always be prepared to reject our clan to follow our belief. In the past it has been true that revisiting a film that I thought I liked, and now realized I didn’t  (I’m thinking some Tarkovsky, some Antonioni), I had to strike that detail of my cultural identity from my cultural passport because my critical faculty would no longer allow it. I’m not a great one for clans, but we all need a few certainties. I will have another look at A Night at the Opera over the next few days. If the Marx brothers are forced to bite the dust too, my clan identity index will be looking increasingly threadbare.



June 27: script tattoos

Script, I have noticed, has become very popular as a tattooing option. You have it above your left shoulder blade or across a swathe of belly; etched over an expanse of chest or scaling  a billowing of breast. Ideally you want it to be in foreign so that nobody can understand it or even in alien script so that you can’t even recognise the letters. If, by any miscalculation, you have decided to have yours done in English, it had better be good. Fail again, fail better was a good one. Samuel Beckett, I believe. Or believed, until I realized it was a mantra of the body building community. When you fail to lift a weight because it is too heavy, you tear a muscle  and it rebuilds, stronger. So much for Samuel Beckett. What you tend to get in English are gnomic utterances of the type What you see is what you get. Cue me looking at what I see. A bloke with a beard and a baseball cap. I’m none the wiser. Another one was I is what I is, which has the advantage of being both ungrammatical as well as redundantly circular in its argument, like a snake eating its own tail, which was  a motif the bearer should perhaps have plumped for in the first place. What you really want is something very opaque, like the first line from Finnegans Wake: riverrun past adamandeves from swerve of shore to bend of bay or whatever it is. That will keep your readers guessing. Or else Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall written backwards. With Humpty Dumpty you’ve got the lot: the Fall of Man; radical Maoist politics, Brexit and the recipe for omlettes. I’m getting my local tattooist to source me some Ancient Sumerian. Your urn of myrhh in exchange my two goats. Howzabowtit?


June 25: on being falsely accused

(This is a guest piece fom BOXETTE)

A friend thought she saw me at a meeting the other day. I wasn’t at the event, but someone who looked like me was. And that person spent seventy minutes ignoring my friend.

– How did you feel? I ask.

– Furious.

– Didn’t you realise she wasn’t me?

– Only later. But I’m still angry with you.

This happens a lot. I’ll go somewhere for the first time and people will stage-whisper: it’s amazing how she dares to show herself after last year.

When we work out I couldn’t possibly have met them, let alone stay at that particular B and B, they start tutting that I could tell such a bare-faced lie.

This is complicated by the vague uneasiness that I experience in new social situations. I’m terrible at recognising people I have met before, even several times, especially if they have changed their shoes.

So whilst I’m fairly sure I haven’t broken the law (unless when sleepwalking), there’s a nagging doubt that I may have encountered my accusers somewhere, in a doctor’s waiting room or Lidl, and done something unspeakable that they only discuss after I’ve left. It’s like the time a pigeon poo dropped from an overhead branch onto my jacket. I felt a soft thud but only noticed when I got home.

It would stop me going out entirely if it weren’t for the need to rein in my doppelganger to clear up the mess she is making of my life. She’s undoubtedly having more fun (I have no time for frivolity). She’s also enjoying a kind of post-punk freedom of expression, which is deeply unfair because I never allow myself to speak out of turn. Without a doubt, she’s been losing friends all over the place, and making more interesting ones that I don’t know about.

I wonder whether her new acquaintances are mistaking me for her, disappointed that she has become so dull, so aloof and so ill-advised in fashion purchases.

I hope they’re offended. It would serve her right.










June 20: amazing words

There was a piece on the Internet the other day about the ten words you shouldn’t use as they reveal your weaknesses. These were were maybe, perhaps, actually, might, honestly, literally and four others I can’t remember. All words that reveal a sense of doubt or hesitation or playing for time. If we were living in The Wolf of Wall Street world doubt or hesitation might be seen as weakness. In the real world such sentiments are mostly good things.

My three words to be always avoided are 1. amazing  2. unbelieveable  3. passionate. These are the words that express the enthusiasm or delight that we hear from television interviewees when they are invariably asked by televion interviewers to reveal how they feel. My advice to them. Just spend ten minutes thinking about a word other than amazing or unbelieveable to express your feelings about the atmosphere at, say, Euro 2016. These words might be bemused, alienated, contingent or perhaps even an entire phrasal construction of the type curiously distanced  from the euphoria as I am mainly concerned about finding a way of putting the ball in the back of the net but happy that so many people are having a good time in their own way as long as this does not get out of hand.


June 18: bring back the proper handkerchief

Yesterday I saw a youngish man on the tube take a cotton handkerchief out of his pocket and blow his nose. He then briefly examined the mucus on the cloth, folded the handkerchief up and replaced it carefully in his pocket. It struck me then that I had not witnessed such a moment for quite some time. Leaving aside the increasingly rare business of nose-blowing, the handkerchief as a personal accessory has now almost completely disappeared from our lives. As a child I was never without one and was told by my mum to keep it up my sleeve, even as she told me to keep chewing gum behind my ear. I never really took to this method of chewing gum storage, though I did always have the unsightly lump of a hankie under my jumper. When I lived in France I became familiar with the notion that the cloth handkerchief was an unhygenic throwback to bygone days and had now been superceded by the paper tissue or le kleenex. My English friend John , though, was forever getting a voluminous handkerchief out of his pocket and waving it around. This was greeted with much ridicule and some disgust by the natives. In the theatre in recent years I have often seen the cotton handkerchief as a signifier of pomposity and prissiness. They are unfolded to sit down on by eccentrics or used for effeminate dabbing motions by bowtie or waistcoat-wearing characters. Nowadays the cotton hankie has all but become extinct and le kleenex has triumphed. The middle classses have fallen in love with tissue paper. They take five luxury triple-ply out of the box at once just to apply a faint dab at their middle-class nose and then toss the whole handfull into the bin.  What they then go on to do is continue lecturing me about how they are contriving to save the planet. Bring back the proper hankie.


June 12: my other life

Because I am not always that sociable and because there are certain times of the year where I might receive invitations for drinks or diners that I’d rather not accept, I find myself constructing an alternative social diary which often clashes with the real one. So I am unable to go out to the restaurant with some people because I have another already booked fictional meeting with someone. I find myself embroidering on the details of these fictional dinners (they are sometimes dates) so that if a question about them came from left field I could easily handle it.

I suppose we all have a fictional, alternative history, one that is ready to be revealed for public consumption but may have very little to do with what really happened. You might want to cover up what really happened for all kinds of reasons: shame; enbarrassement; the desire to protect others. It can be that over the years you have so elaborated the fictional version of a motive or incident in your past life, with each telling modifying the material to suit the new listener, that you have lost all contact with what once really happened, with what you once really thought. So that we might say that the more you recount your history, the more it becomes a lie.

There is a passage in Stendhal somewhere, I remember, wher he writes about his experience in the Napoleonic army crossing the Alps and after a moment he realises that what he has been describing is not his actual recollection of the event but is, rather, the description of an etching he has since seen of the famous crossing at St Bernadino or wherever it was. We are all living a lie.


June 4: who wears the Brexit pants?

Mr V. came bouncing into the room wearing a pair of bright red trousers. Ah, I say. I see your wearing your Brexit pants. I was joking. I didn’t know he was Brexit. Apparently, he is. You never can tell. You suddenly turn round and the person beside you whom you thought you knew casts no reflection in the mirror. The country is split. It’s the War of the Roses and the strata of allegiance are complex. Hard left and hard right are Brexit? Soft left and soft right are Remainsters? Idealists can be either. Pure sovereignty fetishists are Brexit; pure love they euro-neighbour fetisists Remainsters. David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn are Remainsters though we suspect they are secretly Brexits. You can be a secret Brexit who won’t associate with Jonson and Gove. Or a closet Remainster who likes to grandstand Brexit. I felt a bit Brexit when I lived in France where there were politicians who constantly spouted stuff about closer European integration being a historical inevitability, as if we all led our lives on Hegelian principles. In the YouKay I go the other way in reaction against Ian Botham who thinks we should do all we can to remain an island, as though aspiring to hold a tea party in a war zone like Syd James and Charles Hawtry in Carry on Up the Khyber. It’s all very complicated. And meanwhile at home at Number 10, in the secret enclosure of the Prime Ministerial bedroom, Sam Cam asks DC for a bit of kinky role play. Oh please put your red Brexit trousers on for me tonight DC. Let’s pretend your Michael Gove. If it gets out of hand, same safeword  as last Tuesday: Common Agricultural Policy.


June 3: my hols or the polyphony of place

At this time of year minds turn to holidays. Does everyone really like holidays? They tell us that we do.   We have to decide if we want the familiar or the alien; if we need stimulation or respite from stimulation. Do you need to forget yourself or find yourself?  Sometimes the alien turns out to be too familiar: overly resourceful agents of exotic venues can sometimes spend energies making the exotic familiar; do we want coca cola and dominos pizza in Cairo?  But would we rather venture into a dark doorway and eat something we do not know amongst strangers speaking in an alien tongue? Or we might end up spending too much time with the ones we thought we wanted to spend more time with. Holidays teach the value of moderation. And anyway, as the man at Total Recall tells Arnold Scwarzennegger: the real holiday we all need is a holiday from ourselves.

There are places I find it hard to go to. Places where the wash of the past is too insistent. These are often places where I have spent a lot of time, where ghosts have been created by past life. When you go back there things have changed. Where once there was a charming cafe, now there is a Starbucks; where once you knew someone, now there is a stranger; people go on with their own lives and you play no role in this city anymore.

There are other places where a city has so many layers of history, so many palimpsests emerging one from beneath the other that it is difficult to deal with the polyphony. In Berlin it is hard to accept what is happening in Mitte now at the spot where the wall ran between east and west, which itself was the spot where Hitler sat in his bunker contemplating the end. Now there is a drum and bass party going on there.


June 1: on not buying a ticket on the bus

I had a heavy package so I took the bus from Royal Albert Hall. The driver’s machine wasn’t working so he waved me through. A free journey. A mere grain of pleasure but many grains of pleasure make a whole heap of pleasure. By the time we got to Sloane Square the bus was labouring and the driver called an early terminus, everybody off. The bus had broken down. I cursed under my breath. The one day I have a heavy package. The next bus came. The last bus broke down, I said as I skipped past the driver to grab a good seat by the window, not paying. You see, I had offered to pay on the first bus. My offer was (was it not?) rejected. The second bus is subordinated to the negotiation of the first bus. A fine legal point but, I’m sure you will agree milord, a valid one. In Pimlico a bus inspector got on. My argument about bus subordination withered. I was determined to carry the day by my acting abilities. I rehearsed the moment. The inspector puts my debit card on his little control plaque. You haven’t paid, he says. Yes. My last bus broke down, so I didn’t pay on this one. I dare to look boldly into the inspector’s steel blue eyes. But you didn’t pay on the last one either. His technology is formidable. I post up a puzzled mien for a couple of seconds before feigning a realization. Oh! I exclaim. The machine was broke on the bus that broke down. The driver waved me through. The ticket inspector, convinced by my acting abilities, allows me to pay retrospectively with no fine. The danger is negotiated. As it turned out, it wasn’t a ticket inspector. It was just a man in a high-viz jacket. Or if he was a ticket inspector he was off-duty and on his way home. He got off at Vauxhall, no doubt to take another bus into the far reaches of South East London where, on a ticket inspector’s wage, he could afford accommodation.