August 29: on turning the other cheek

When you are in a queue and somebody pushes in, what is the most ethical and laudable reaction you can have? Do you just accept it, turn away and let the person flout the rules of the group or do you pipe up and say excuse me we are queueing here. everyone takes his turn. It’s how we do it here. The latter, surely. You take responsibility for the collectivity, your culture, the society you live in. The ethical position is not to turn the other cheek. Turning the other cheek is a renunciation of your engagement with society, it is a closing-in upon yourself. Do not turn the other cheek. As far as is workable for you, stand up for the rules of the society that protects you by supporting it. The Christian injunction to just do nothing and wait for death is rife in Jesus’ teachings. “Therefore I say unto you, Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment? Behold the birds of the heavens, they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them.” (Matthew) Actually the birds of the air are working all day long to get their food, make their nests, get on their bike to other climes when the season changes. Waiting for death is not an ethical injunction these days.

August 22: the alluring secret of your identity

I was sitting in a cafe this morning looking through a window and I saw a woman get off her bike and cross the road. She was a bike woman, a bit sporty-looking with a helmet. I looked away or back to my coffee or read a bit more of an article in the paper. A few minutes later I looked out of the window again. The Portuguese cafe was opening up on the other side of the road. A waitresss in apron was sorting out the shutters on the window. The biker-girl had become a waitress. It was the same woman, now in a different costume. A few minutes ago I was in the Tesco picking up a couple of things for dinner. In front of me down the vegetable aisle was a shopper. It was a woman. It was the same woman again. She must have finished her shift at the cafe. Now she was a shopper.I have experienced three snapshots of three different roles of one woman today and, like an ethnographer, accidentally broken her down into three emblematic functions. I suppose we all incorporate a number of roles in a day, although not always with a variety of costumes. For each of these roles we are viewed differently by outsiders. In the park cafe the young man who works there once came up to me and said ‘What is it you actually do?’ He must see me hanging around a lot, as though with nowhere to go. I was somewhat flattered by being unclassifiable and looked to find an answer that would preserve the mystery of my enigmatic self. In fact, I enjoy those contexts in life where you can emphasise your own anonymity. Travelling is a nice one. When in transit who can know who you are and where you are bound? You are just some random, existential hero shuttling between meaningless dots on a map. This is perhaps why in a survey I read about yesterday most people in the UK prefer not to be addressed by strangers when travelling, because when you open your mouth you give the game away, and not even by what you say. Your accent or the tension in your voice may be enough. How much better to turn your head away from your eager questioner, look out at the landscape flooding past the high-speed train window, to blow out the smoke of a forbidden and imaginary cigarette and to keep the alluring secret of your identity intact.

August 18: the stag on the train

My friend Robert’s book The Last Wolf is apparently doing good business on the best seller lists. A catchy title referring to the last wolf killed in England some time around 1200. A wolf is always a good beast to have in a title. The other good word of recent years is ‘girl’; The girl on the train; The girl with the dragon tattoo; The girl in the spider’s web; The girl who fell from the sky. Girls are tops in the publishing industry. A few years ago it was snow. You had to have snow in your title to get noticed. The key to success might be as simple as that. A title with a magical word. Television certainly believes in the power of the title and will twist everything to a risible degree to get the snug fit. Rosemary and Thyme. Rosemary Whatever and Jackie Thyme; two gardeners with a knack for solving crimes. Isn’t it something like that? It’s so absurd it would make a cat laugh. Belt and Braces. Billy Belt and Braces McGowan. Two no nonsense cops with a taste for real ale and old fashioned policework. Trajan’s Column. Julie Trajan is a lonely hearts columnist with an interest in ancient Rome and an unlikely knack for solving crimes using her classical expertise. You could spend hours making the stuff up. I dare say they start with a title. It’s like putting the cart before the horse. Oh, there’s another one. The Cart before the Horse. Frank Cart and Bill ‘Horse’ Horsely, two insiders investigating corruption in the gambling industry. The question is what will next year’s word be. I’m putting my money on stag as the new wolf with fog as the meteological word and instead of girl knave. Here are my titles for 2018: The Stag on the Train. Jack Stag investigates a murder on the Virgin pendelino to Runcorn. The Knave of Thrones. Jack Knave; an unlikely rise to the heights, Jack Knave will stop at nothing to quench his thirst for power. Fog in the Casino. Jack Fog mixes it with the glitterati in St Tropez and reveals an unlikely cover-up.

August 17: on receiving hospitality

When you are waited on hand and foot there is a trade-off. In a traditional family environment in deepest Greece, if you happen to be the tallest, most senior man in the family unit, elderly women will wait on you. They will push extra portions of patatas across the table and look sternly on for you to consume them, even if you already have ample portions of patatas on your already amply laden plate. I will hear the familiar assemblage of syllables that I know means in Greek ‘Does Paul want…? Give Paul some more… Make sure Paul has…’ My sister, who could understand the high servitude bristled with indignation. Well, I can only say in response that if you happen to be the tallest and most dignified of guests at the dinner table, certain engagements are entered upon. Though it would be wrong to see this as a one-way relationship. If you are in receipt of all this hospitality, you are required to fulfill your side of the contract. You are required to eat. Weight will be gained. If you decide to refuse hospitality, you must do so with authority, with grave hieratic dignity, the gestures of dismissal must be sovereign, your disdain colossal. Oh, it is no small achievement to be feted royally; yuo have to be up to the job. I do believe I was.