I never really want to swear. I am disappointed when it comes out. I can do it strategically, to anounce mock anger or to exhibit genuine frustration theatrically, though sometimes it just bursts out despite me. The f— word has an enduring traction. It might be the baring of the teeth that makes it work, something primeval, or the particular combination of consonants that gives out its own particular scent, for there are oral records of its popularity going quite far back, though you will do well to find this echoed in written texts. Writers have mostly been prudish about this kind of thing. I am sometimes surprised to see that in ‘Eastenders’ the characters are uttering words like ‘flipping’ or ‘frigging’, the f— word seems so ubiquitous these days. People have said that the f— word is a defeat. You have been found lacking in your vocabulary, unable to come up with anything other than the most vulgar and grubby of expletives. Thet’s one way of looking at it. But how do you explain its triumph? The way I see it is this. On the rare occasion I utter the f— word, it is not a defeat, It is a communing with all the hundreds of millions of minds, the hundreds of millions of frustrations and preoccupations that have found a split second of release in that syllable. For one glorious, dreadful moment you are participating with the world, you are finding concord with the common store of experience that finds exorcism through the shamanism of language. It is a rare moment of magic. Why fight it? Just be one of the many. Take your place within the hordes for we are legion. You can go back to your lonely self one split second later.
As I get older I find myself talking more to things or people that cannot hear or answer me. It might be the bus driver at the front of the bus who has stopped the bus at a bus stop because the company has told him to quote regulate the service unquote, which means waiting at a bus stop on Kennington road this winter with the doors open. I say something like ‘you might close the doors though’ though not loud enough so that he can hear. I also talk to the machine in Tesco which acts as check-out now, when it says ‘don’t forget your points card’, to which I will reply ‘no, I won’t forget my points card’ or ‘Oh, I’m not bothering with my points card today. I only spent £1.83 on some milk and a discounted family pack of crisps and that would only give me one point worth just one p. Not worth getting the card out for.’ People look round at me when I answer the check-out machine. The computer is another thing you can answer because it speaks to you too these days. Some computers will also understand you and start a proper conversation but not mine. Mine is a cheap computer because I got it for simple things like writing this stuff and so I don’t need much power or fanciness. I think I got it for about £180. Fair do’s. It gives me what I need.I also speak to lifts. There is a lift near me in the Tube station which says ‘the next lift shall be lift one’. I cannot stop myself correcting that lift’s grammar. ‘Will be lift one’ I say outloud, as I am getting in the lift. The other lift travellers do not meet my gaze. Correcting the grammar of a lift is probably deranged in their eyes. After all, the lift isn’t listening. but the way I see it is that we have a duty to manifest our poistions on things, our personality. By talking to things that can’t hear, all right, I’m not communicating, but I am manifesting my personality and surely, they can’t touch you for that, can they? Or can they?
When you are at a football match, or a rugby match, and you realise that you are being filmed by the camera that likes to register spectator reactions to the match, what you do is you wave at the camera. You keep one eye on the screen, which lies at an oblique angle to where you are facing the camera. It is quite an art to maintain your presence and watch yourself being present at two different angles at the same time. Grown-ups are suddenly, inexplicabley, transformed into toddlers waving at strangers from a bus as they are wheeled off to Alton Towers or Chester Zoo. Of course, the grown-ups are only waving because of the big screen and the promise of the even bigger screen of television where their mates might see them or they might see themselves later on Match of the Day. I wonder what I would do if I saw myself on the big screen at some match? I suppose I might wave to really confirm it’s me up there. But everyone waves, so it doesn’t confirm anything. By not waving, bucking the trend, I could confirm my identity more easily. I could just raise a knowing, quizzical eyebrow and the commentator might say something like ‘Wonder who he’s supporting?’ (I would not be sporting colours) or ‘Cheer up, sunshine!’. The cameras have now seen what happens when they film a wave-hungry spectator. Their dream shot has become the spectator who does not know he is being filmed. This has become their Eldorado: the unwary spectator, ideally involved in something heartwarming, some family scene or ardent manifestation of total fandom. The whole business has become a cat-and-mouse between cameraman and spectator. The second the waving starts, the camera switches away, earnestly seeking out some unsuspecting face in the crowd, or (God help us!) actually returning to the match because oops! while all this KatzundMaus was going on, United just scored.
You will recognise that when you see a representation of food (say, cheese on toast or a fried egg on toast or a slice of cake revealing the strata of delight beneath an iced topping) that representation of food is infinitely more alluring the more primitive it is. Some simple daubs of colour. A basic brown for chocolate; a thick white for the icing; a twist of the brush to render the melt of the cheese on the toast. This is all it takes to leave your mouth watering and hankering to go into that cafe, into that pub or bar and sample these archetypal foodstuffs. Sometimes you see a photographic representation of food, the dishes available in the hostellery, chicken biriani or lamb korma for example. You see them in all the intense action of their real presence detail, the colours lurid, the rice looking almost alive, like lice crawling beneath the grey-orange meat, which, in its turn, looks likes dollops of human organ. These representations are not attractive. They look too much like the real thing. We do not want to eat real thing. We want to eat the colours and shapes of our childhood imagination.
Maybe you can extrapolate this idea. We need to make our world as fable, make it fabulous, for it to please. If it is as dour in texture as a bowl of rice and spoonful of grey-sauced meat, why should it charm the senses? The process of simplification seduces the eye. We fall under the charm of pastel pink and Cadbury brown. If life were that simple and tastes were that sweet we would inhabit an Eden, wouldn’t we? But life is complicated, isn’t it? Sometimes we need war to keep greater peace. Sometimes we must be cruel only to be kind. We need to tell a lie to be good. We need to thimk complex to stay simple. That taste of the marshmallow of Eden will never be the same again.
I have been thinking a lot about Manchester recently (certainly on account of reading the Butor novel that uses Manchester as its model for Bleston), thinking of how my memory remembers it from when I was a schoolboy there. We know from Baudelaire that ‘la forme d’une ville change plus vite que le coeur d’un mortel’ (the shape of a town changes quicker than the heart of a mortal being), and Manchester has much changed since those days. Then it was a dark place. To drink after hours you went to the ‘Conti Club’, which despite its sophisticated name and promise of continental, existential conversation, was a grim little room with a bleak bar. The old abandoned Central station waited at the corner of my vision for most of my trips around the town interior and so often I seemed to be picking my way across sites strewn with bricks and broken glass which had remained wasteland since the war. The pubs were men’s places with pictures of naked women on the walls (‘Tommy Ducks’) or isolated places with a reputation for good bitter (Wilsons at The ‘Peverel on the Peak’). The Peverel still existed a couple of years back, still somehow on the margin of the city. Old Manchester was a rough, knockabout place. These days new nomenclature has sprung up for these old broken bits of city. There is the so-called ‘Northern Quarter’ where once there was a grid of rugged streets where you might come up against a gang of skinheads or football hooligani. Good, but not the town I knew. When people ask me where I am from I cannot say Manchester because it is not the same place. I do not know it. No place is ever the same. It is a place of the imagination as much as Bleston, scarred with long, fragile daddy-long-legged bus routes and recs.