We took the coach to north Devon because it was a lot cheaper than the train. It was supposed to take six hours. This is a long time to be stuck on a bus but we thought we could manage it. The coach was due to leave a 1.30 from Victoria coach station. At 1.25 the screen suddenly posted Delayed, so we waited some more. They had said get there just ten minutes before the departure so there is not much waiting around in a confined space; it was covid thing. From 1.30 onwards we were all waiting around in a confined space and nobody was much bothered about it. They just love bleating out messages about safety, but when they should be looking out for it nobody’s noticing.We asked the guys in high-viz who were not letting us through the gates and they said they didn’t know when the coach would be ready to leave. The waiting went on. There was an old guy there with an ancient mariner look in his watery eye. The officials had found him a seat but there was a lot of close-contact milling going on, and a lot of whispering. The driver was still having his lunch; the coach was locked in traffic. One hour and fifteen minutes into the delay I went hunting for someone. I spoke to a man near the information desk, who was the station manager it turned out. He said he’d find out. I went back to the milling and the old guy with the ancient mariner look. After five minutes the station manager came and told me the coach was here. He pointed across the station to a parked bus and smiled. I said It’s no good there. It’s supposed to be here, and in fact – I looked at my watch – half way to Bristol by now. We finally got going at 3.15, one and three quarter hours late. The old guy with the look of the ancient mariner was, I gathered from eves-dropping, a former coach driver himself. He’d driven the Margate route thirty years ago, he said. He wasn’t waiting for a coach. He just came along to the coach station every day to relive former dramas. This happened on the Margate route every week, he grinned. We were two hours late but it was nice to know that things hadn’t changed in thirty years.
When you read a bit of 18th Century literature you see the degree to which private letters have played a role in people’s sense of self, sense of worth, sende of belonging. They are forever hiding compromising letters, never for some reason destroying them. Also, given the precious nature of much 18th Century language, epistolary language is often ambiguous and can lead to fatal misunderstandings. I do not think that this is just the genre of fiction that requires quid pro quos and surprising reversals; it holds true for non-fictional work too (Rousseau in his Confessions was constantly undone by his inability to call a spade a spade in his correspondance).
Have we changed? I don’t think so. We retain this pathological desire to commit taboo thoughts to paper or, more likely, screen. We love to document, leave a record, take a selfie, write a blog, issue a tweet. And the trail we leave behind ourselves is more voluminous than it was in the 18th Century. And, like in the 18th Century, it will break you. Something you thought acceptable in 2010 will bring you down in 2020; culture moves so quickly. What’s more, everything is pushing you to participate. I do not possess a smart phone. For a range of reasons, the main one being that I don’t want to participate in this endless round of chat and counter-chat on any one’s terms other than my own. On Friday in Peckham we came across a pub that looked alluring. Not too crowded, with an empty spot outside. We thought we might try it. The first pub in nearly four months. But when I went in to order a drink I was banned because I didn’t have a smart phone. Covid 19 has brought this about, but not just. I have experienced situations where I was banned from buying a train ticket at a station from an actual human being because I didn’t have a smart phone. We are being locked into the labyrinth, and there will be no Theseus to kill this particular Minotaur.
At the very end of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doeblin we read about the hero of the novel Franz Biberkopf: ‘About his life is there nothing further to be reported’ (Weither ist hier von seinem Leben nichts to berichten). We are being denied access to further information about the life of this character after 700 pages of detailed reporting on his struggles to make ends meet in Berlin of the 1920s. Suddenly, and seemingly, randomly, the writer pulls the rug from under our feet and refuses to tell us more.
The writer can do this. He is the servant of the reader. All is done for the reader but the writer makes all the decisions. He is the dictator of his universe.
The reader is an obese god. He is served on a plate all the offerings of the writer. The reader cannot influence anything. He must consume, consume. It can be frustrating for the obese god at times. He wants to know how the life story of Franz Biberkopf continued but he must accept what the writer offers.
And then there are the characters. These are the slaves, sent hither and thither by the reader. Often they are sent home by the end of the sequences, as in And they lived happily after or And they all paired up and got married or And then he died and his life was over. But sometimes they are left in some indeterminate space beyond the eye of the obese god whodoes not know how those feeble traces of ink continue their existence. In what tiny closet of whose mind is Franz Biberkopf wriggling now?