Say what you want about Scrooge, he certainly had a nice way with words. Christmas day. A fine excuse to pick a man’s pocket every 25th December… Die? They had better do so and so reduce the surplus population… And so my affections have always gone out to him. Especially in this time of rife profligacy when the benefits of frugality are being reassessed. They call it saving the planet, but they will only do it when it is couched in those terms. I noted a worrying instinct in myself the other day. I was buying some trifle or other and it cost £3 and I paid for it without the slightest of winces. My instinctive reaction was: it’s ony three of those minor monetary units. Hardly anything at all. Do not let it register on my inner abacus. You can see this is the thin edge of a very dangerous wedge. The pound sterling as a negligeable unit. I remember when the French franc shifted into the Euro in the year 2000. People continued to talk and count in Francs for years. Some people still do. At the time of the Franc some people spoke in old francs from decades before. The day you transitioned from one currency to the other was the day your inner abacus ceased to work its checks and balances, the day its mechanism got unbalanced and couldn’t give you instinctive winces on key figures. A dangerous day. Relaxing about money is the renounciation of a key set of values about the world. If you do not wince if you are paying £3 for anything you are going wrong somewhere. Scrooge was right.
I have always seen the dream as the wound left by the day. Greek: trauma = wound. German: traum = dream. Its shape is essentially backward-looking. Your day comes out through the mangle. Bit-part players cast as heroes.Inanimate objects get leading roles. Your free will, your agency, are all subjected to deep and constant sabotage. It’s like a lesson in life. Vladimir Nabokov had another take on dreams. He saw the dream as the one moment where the true nature of time is revealed. For him the dream casts backwards but also forwards. You can foresee events. In our waking lives we are unable to exist within this plastic multi-directional time but, instead, travel in a sorry apparatus leading us one way down a narrow gauge track, but in dream we are liberated, conveyed in a wondrous vehicle. Nabokov’s example is our experience of the following type of dream:
You are trying to save someone from the guillotine. This is a twisted version of revolutionary France. You are wearing a weirdly shaped Napoleonic-type hat. You are involved in a protracted conversation with a man who looks like, say, your brother-law, or a man you saw in a trailer for ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. All the while you are hurrying to try and save your friend, possibly a monkey, from the fall of the guillotine. You finally get out of the conversation. You see the podium on which the guillotine is set in the distance. You fight your way through crowds. You knock over someone’s Starbucks coffee and give the poor coffee-splashed man, who looks likea a famous weather forecaster, some coins as compensation. The coins look like nuts and as you give them the nuts turn to dust and stain the man’s hands. He is furious but you make a quick getaway, still focused on the guillotine. Your friend, the monkey, is mounting the dais and you are still fifty yards away. You push through the crowd. In any case, how are you going to save the monkey? Monkey is surrounded by guards, all armed to the teeth with muskets. You look in your pocket for a weapon. All you have is nuts. The dream accelerates. You are on the podium. You are struggling with the guillotine. The monkey is watching you from a safe distance, laughing. What are you doing? Oh no. The guillotine is falling. It is hitting you on the shoulder.
You wake up. Your bedside lamp has fallen and has hit you on the shoulder. How do you explain this dream? Could it be that the entire picaresque narrative telescoped into one instant when the lamp hit your shoulder? That lamp fall had been prepared through countless threads of narrative from the very outset of the dream when the guillotine had been revealed. Whatever the explanation, time being squidged into a pin-prick instant or set backwards in motion, time in dreams is flexible, supple, gymnastic in a way our geriatric waking-world cannot manage.
The big identifying feature of my own dreams is the lighting. My dreams are spare; in black and white, or, rather, charcoal grey. But above the characters are thick viscous clouds of dark colour, lumpy bubbles, like speech bubbles in cartoons, that may or may not be creatures in their own right. We, the characters in the dreams, do what we can, but there is a feeling that the sinister, dark bubble shapes are really in charge.
I remember, as a five-year-old, the day I was expected to be able to write. We used to have a section of the day given over to what was called ‘News’. The teacher would write up on the blackboard the news for the day whcih would invariably be Today is Tuesday. It is sunny. The tadpole is dead.The day of the week; a bit of weather and a bit of actual news. There was, I recall, a kind of wooden slate hung up somewhere in the classroom with spaces into which we could insert wooden words like Tuesday and sunny, so we were used to these words. So the teacher would write today’s news on the board and we would painstakingly copy. Then one day she said today you are going to write your own news. The bafflement that spread around the room was massive. It was like the news of the Kennedy assassination. I looked to my right-hand neighbour. He started with the letter A. I copied him. I looked to my left-hand neighbour. He had started with Th. This looked more likely to me, so I crossed out the A and put Th instead. After 20 mnsutes the evercise books were collected in. Mine was a blank page with a crossed-out A and a Th. My memory now goes blank, but I do remember looking through my News book a few weeks later and the next page was written on. Soemhow the next day or next week I had managed something. Today is Wednesday. It is windy. We have a new tadpole or some such stuff. Somehow I had understood what it was to compose a piece of text. In a now forgotten space my mind had processed something and the main moment of my education was done. I was now ready for the world.
The pianist in the piano trio introduced the Schumann saying it was a ‘tormented’ piece. Most of Schumann, he said, was ‘tormented’ but this third trio was ‘particularly tormented’. Then it was time for the Schubert. He said Schubert was also a ‘very tormented composer, especially in his late work’. This piece was from his late work but it was only ‘moderately tormented’. This was, presumably, a great disappointment to us all. At te start of the concert we had heard an early Mozart trio which was ‘not tormented at all’. I suppose the pianist saw himself as pretty tormented himself. He hadn’t shaved for a couple of days, so that probably proved it. The violinist, who had that red blubbery skin that can’t grow a beard at all, did not have a hint of torment about him, and the cellist was as cherubic as a schoolboy. So between them it was only the pianist who was bothering with the tormented vibe. Good luck to him. Torment sells.
I myself am pretty untormented these days. I think I grew out of it when I started taking an extra slice of cake. Torment wasn’t giving me enough back. These days I’m the harmonious type, at one with the universe. Here, cake helps. As I get older I find its the holistic, balanced role I play, which in many ways goes against my nature. I was born to be tormented. I can grow a beard and everything. But the older you get, the less the tormented look is attractive. I mean, when life gets going, you’re given the data, deal with it.