My usual cafe is closed for refurbishment, so I am frequenting the next-door cafe on a Saturday morning. I have looked longingly through the windows of this next-door cafe for many months. Of course, complex cafe politics has meant that I have been unable to shift allegiance. Now I have carte blanche to change, no strings attached, and, inevitably, it is a disappointment. The way this new cafe works – I shall call it Scarlet and Black – is novel. It ostensibly doubles as a book shop, although nobody ever buys the books. They are mostly cooking and life style books and children’s books. They provide an environment, an atmosphere.
One of the books on display yesterday was called ‘How to talk about places you’ve never been‘. Now, over and above the inaccuracy of the grammar (where is the to?), remarkable in itself, is the revealing nature of the sentiment. It is part of a trend typified by the How to bluff your way in Existentialiam…Poiltics…Structuralism…Art Theory type books. Any knowledge or experience is mediated for you. It is not the experience that counts. It is how you trick others into admiring you. It is part of a wider trend of mediation in society in which readers interested in ideas enslave themselves to somebody else’s version of a set of ideas. Which Art students read Deleuze, Lacan, Adorno, Freud? None of them, and yet they are forever banging on about them. This in itself is part of a wider trend characterised by Wikipedia culture. We move further away from the more primary sources of information and so shackle ourselves to the potential manipulations by others.
Scarlet and Black is also noisier, by the way, and attracts customers from a narrower socio-economic tranche. I’m hoping the old cafe will be open again soon.
According to Immanuel Kant, the Enlightenment was the time for people to take responsibility for themselves. Selbstdenken, he called it; thinking for yourself. By the late eighteenth century humanity had grown up. It no longer needed to have decisions taken for it, by the Church or the State or the King. It was no longer a child. Man just needed to use his own understanding (Verstand) of things. It was as if his brain had evolved to reach the required size. He didn’t need experts to tell him what was what. He didn’t even need special analytical skills (Vernunft) to work stuff out. Humanity had evolved.
What went wrong? Did we de-evolve? We got the European referendum and proved ourselves unable to selbstdenken. In Turkey it was the same thing. The Turkeys voted for Christmas. There was also the Trump thing.
People are free to vote how they want. Maybe Brexit is the best idea. The issue isn’t that. The issue is that society doesn’t help us. It robs us of our ability to achieve decent agency. Is it the Press that makes it impossible for us to think straight? Is it fake news? Is it social media that mixes us all up? Mundigkeit (Maturity) is the key Enlightenment image used by Kant. Mankind emerges from the dark and steps into the light The way we allow the modern world to work us is as if we are being ushered back into the shadows.
I buy the newspaper once a week. on Saturdays. I am a Saturday newspaper buyer; not a Sunday one. This makes me a modern newspaper buyer (not a very modern person, as modern people don’t buy newspapers). The Sunday paper was the traditional purchase but in recent years the Saturday paper has tried to encroach on Sunday’s terrain. The Saturday buyer wants previews; the Sunday buyer wants reviews, Saturday afternoon and evening being the slot pre- and re-viewed. The Saturday buyer wants to look forward; the Sunday buyer to look back. Saturday prefers to imagine; Sunday to take stock.
When I am flpping through my copious Saturday paper I sometimes step back to see myself as others might see and judge me. Which articles do I choose to ignore; which to pursue? And why? There is a general rule. I pursue those pieces I know something about and I ignore those pieces that I have in the past decided do not interest me. So, in today’s magazine, I ignore the columnists (except for Clive James, whose piece is short). I ignore human interest stories. They are too long and too constructed. Anything with the name Mark Zuckerberg in it typed in bold and large font to attract the reader into the article. It has the opposite effect on me. In fact, all the snippets pulled out of the main body of the text and enlarged as highlights to pull me in, tend to push me out. That is because I am contrary. Here’s a feature about delivery vans. That’s vehicles. That doesn’t do it for me either. Blind Date. That’s a rubric where two strangers meet for a blind date and judge each other. I would read this but have learnt from past reading that the judgements are too anodyne. Recipes page. Ignore. I have never cooked from a recipe. I am a man who won’t eat vegetables starting with the letter A (Artichokes, Aubergines. Asparagus and company), so I won’t entertain the range of ingredients required on a fancy recipes page. 80g pitted green olives cut in half lengthways; 100 g dried apricots cut in half; 3 tbsp rose harissa. 450 g muscovado sugar. No. It’s not going to happen. Gardening. No. Weirdly, I do the quiz. Don’t read travel section; don’t read family section. Read sport. Read books. All logical, given my preoccupations. In The Guide read TV review. Piece about history of LGBT characters on TV ignore. Oh yes, you get a very good sense of who I must be by my newspaper reading profile. A slightly irrascible, reactionary, car-less, food-pragmatic, uninterested in human interest, low-tec, careful dweller of a zone that has been shrinking for years.
I was in the rose garden in Kennington Park reading another Patrick Modiano novel in today’s sunshine. In this Modiano novel two strangers are pressed against each other during a riot and become friends. I don’t know how you meet people. It is mysterious. Maybe I’m not open to it these days. The rose garden was fairly deserted. There are about six benches around the sundial. I was on one of them. Just one of the others was occupied. Suddenly a man in a suit with white shoes and a man bag appeared and sat down next to me. Hiya, he said. I said hiya back. He went to shake my hand. Instinctively, I refused to shake his hand. It was too much rapid intimacy. What deal was he already concluding with me? After a few seconds I felt the need to excuse myself. I told him that my hands were sticky from the sun cream I had put on. It was true, but it was significant that I only said this about thirty seconds after the refusal. I thought he was an Evanglical Christian wanting to engage me in idle conversion (the suit, the white shoes, the open friendliness) and I was busy with the more serious business of keeping myself to myself. After a few minutes he started making phone calls and putting the speaker on his phone. Not very Christian with me reading next to him. He had a silly coversation with a Nigerian man, to whom ke kept saying that he loved him and his family. Then he checked his credit (he had 79 pence left), then he phoned another man and asked him to call him back. He waited for a couple of minutes, then called the man back and angrily told him he had something very important to tell him but had no credit on his phone. He waited for the return call again. It did not come, so he called him again and got an answering machine. Then he started muttering angrily under his breath. After a couple of minutes he moved away to the next bench, knelt down on the gravel and joined his hands together in prayer. He remained like this for a few minutes. My assumptions about his religiosity had proved correct. I nodded smugly as I got on with my reading. Then he took up his man bag and walked off to the other end of the garden. When I looked round I saw that he had engaged someone in conversation.
My conclusion is that it is perhaps a good thing that I do not easily meet new people and that I do not lightly shake hands with strangers.
You wonder about the relationships between people who work closely together in the public eye, how they deal with the way they are seen by the public. It strikes most clearly in the relationship between a solo violinist and an orchestra. There she is, the young virtuoso, dressed up in her own designer outfit, performing the Beethoven violin concerto or the Paganini, centre stage, whilst at her back the ranks of violinists of the London or Berlin or New York symphony orchestra, all dressed in black, cast as functionaries, extras, all genius prodigious violinists in their own right, give back up. What does go through their minds? It is almost a public humiliation.
You wonder too about the relationships between the newsreaders or the newsreader and the weatherman or weatherwoman. What is it that the newsreaders say to each other as the studio lights dim and the music comes on to herald the end of the programme. They gather their papers or switch off their laptop and exchange a few saucy words. That’s how I like to imagine it, for the public, performative domain eroticises; it titilates; it leaves us wanting more. When the newscaster offers a final valedictory enquiry at twenty-nine and a half minutes past ten: I’ll be watering my garden this weekend then. And what are you up to Lucy? Lucy chirps back. Oh just enjoying the sunshine. Your curiosity is piqued. Might it not be the case that Lucy is sunbathing in the same garden that Thomas or Evan or Ted is watering? We will never know. I once did see a well-known weatherman (was it Michael Fish?) in his garden in Twickenham one afternoon as I was walking past. What was all that about? The simulacrum off the telly doing the very thing that he claims but surely only emblematically to do in the time when he is off-screen, dead time when he doesn’t really exist, where he should really be in some sealed box somewhere in television centre.
Ignorance or partial ignorance equals sex. This is a truism not lost in the great twentieth century novels where objects of affection tend to be shadows, simulacra, performers in the theatre of the imagination rather than flesh and blood. On that day in Twickenham Michael Fish had clearly escaped from the unit and was living out his cyborg dreams pretending, just for a few melancholy minutes until security picked him up, to be a real human being.
The pluperfect is a tense that makes you fear the worst. I had mentioned to you that you needed to write that report but I noted that you had not filed it. It looks back to a earlier time which is now irrecuperable. If you are using the pluperfect someone has missed the boat. When I hear someone piping up with the pluperfect I set my mouth in an attitude of stoic acceptance, I nod gently, my mode is melancholy, for nothing can now be changed.
Tenses have their own ways. Today I saw a girl with a tee-shirt that said This girl can , which is a boast that both empowers and disempowers the wearer. It empowers, I suppose, with its sentiment, but it disempowers with its use of the word ‘girl’. The wearer was no girl. She was a woman. You wonder what the effect of This boy can might be. Or This man can. Or a gender neutral version. This is all a political minefield. and that is without changing the tenses. I see myself as more of a This person might kind of tee-shirt wearer. Or a This person could have, which would be a melancholy boast, lying out there in the distant swamps of the Conditional perfect, the land that time forgot.