February 16: without the arthur schnitzler

We were looking through old photos before the wedding. That was a nice one of Anna, the bride-to-be, a few years ago out in the garden with the tulips. I said that’s a nice one of her with the tulips. Jerry didn’t seem to be paying attention. Later at the wedding reception, across the table, I heard Jerry talking to Auntie Molly. I found this lovely picture of her with some tulips out in the garden a few years ago, he said. I felt a tinge of irritation. Actually, I was irked. I mean, that was my material and Jerry had run with it. That’s not fair. Soft skills like that, noticing things, constructing material for conversation, is one of the only things I can do. I have no actual skills to talk of. When the people with hard skills are showing you how the computer works or putting up the shelves or sorting out your shower head, you just stand or sit there and nod along. But that’s all right, because you know that you can walk into a room and say something that will open the conversation up. And now here’s someone getting credit for your material.
The soft skill people and the hard skill people face each other across a dark forest of incomprehension. The hard skill people, complete with their hard hats and overalls and terminology and acronyms are convinced of their superiority. After all, they can do stuff, problem solve. Soft skill folk know nothing. All they have is a certain magical conviction that when they open their mouths, lights come on. They allow themselves to take a conversation where they want, down into any thicket, knowing they can bring it back to the path. Your hard skill people have to keep trudging on the stony gravel thoroughfare. They would not want to stop off in a little copse over the way there. It would seem senseless to them.
So when I picked out that photo for special consideration, chose it as the emblematic one of the bunch, I was actually bringing to bear all the years of invisible training. All that reading of Proust and Thomas Mann, it was all crystalising in picking out the photo of Anna and the tulips, and when Jerry just picked it up and used it for his purposes I shot a dark look across the table. Without the Proust; without the Thomas Mann; without the Arthur Schnitzler. I ask you.

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February 6: tomorrow’s kitchen sink

An infallible law maintains that as you grow older certain treats of your younger years become the scourges of your autumnal self. Christmas gradually transforms from a present-laden period of grace to a dread feast where you buy the presents and don’t receive them. You avoid Birthdays which, once awaited with glee, are now another digit on an already listing abacus. This disgreeable graph would plot a distasteful big dipper; as age grows pleasure diminishes.
But might it be that the horrors of our greener years are metamorphised into delectation as we advance towards decrepitude? Sprouts I didn’t like but are now at least a mild source of satisfaction; the notion of boredom changes its complexion these days, an empty day being the ideal to which I most aspire; as things stand I must admit to liking cooking, washing-up, even ironing (if we can omit the business of getting the ironing board out of the cupboard). The pleasures of silence (increasingly difficult to find) have become an absolute, while many years ago, in the long days of childhood, it would have been an absolute purgatory. This graph, then, has its consolations. I look longingly back to the Christmases of old but eagerly forward to the washing-up awaiting me in tomorrow’s kitchen sink.

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February 4: my last will and testament

I have now made my mind up about my last will and testament. I will find a suitable stately home for the weekend. My executor will have to do this. I will be dead. Ten chosen potential recipients of my great fortune will be invited to stay; chosen friends and family. Certain people will be surprised by their inclusion; others disappointed. The final choice will pay no heed to the conventional ties of kith and kin. Friday evening will be a formal dinner. It will be a long banqueting table. On the menu will be oysters, offal, cheese, meringue. A good bordeaux. No champagne. Water will be allowed. Each guest will come with a friend. That will make twenty people. At the head will be the executor tasked to guarantee the correct dress code for the occasion. Unwillingness or inability to respect the dress code will result in disqualification from the pool of potential recipients of the fortune. All guests will be made aware of these requirements. Saturday daytime will be a group ramble in the surrounding woodland. In the evening a drinks party in the ballroom. Dress will again be formal. At tea time on Sunday all guests will gather in the drawing room for the reading of the last will and testament. When the grandfather clock strikes four in the afternoon the envelope will be opened. I think I shall refrain form announcing the results via video from beyond the grave. This would smack too much of an eighties dramatisation of an Agatha Christie novel. The letter will be a sobre instrument. No, I am not looking for murders at the reading of my last will and testament, though who knows what people might resort to when the countdown begins.

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January 23: my recuperable periphery

are you synchronic or diachronic? Synchronic is when you understand something at a particular moment in time; diachronic is when you see it in the context of history (your own history, for example). I am diachronic; I don’t change much; I don’t shift away from what I consider to be myself; I don’t forget easily; I am whole. Synchronic people may be able to move on quicker; change; they might not feel locked into one version of themselves or an event in their past. They forget better. Maybe this means they take more risks; they are not part of the continuity that has defined them. I suppose you need to have elements of both. The psst is good to remember but you don’t want it to define you and you need to be able to move elsewhere nimbly. On the other hand, it might make you one of those people destined to forever make the same mistakes or leave a trail of wreckage in your wake because you never recognise the imprint of past experience, you never integrate it. Maybe, as they say on telly quite often, you might be willing to forgive but don’t want to forget. The key is to keep a memory on your recuperable periphery. Now there’s a phrase. I’ll try and remember that. Feel free to use it.

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January 17: what jeremy corbyn should have done

After two years of hogging it, not just to her own party but sometimes even to her own chest, the arch control-freak Theresa May was finally forced to open up the debate to other parties. She said it, in public, in front of the House of Commons, in front of millions of television viewers. Jeremy Corbyn stands up. Time to make a moment. He will never have the world looking at him like this. And what do we get? More blether. The heart sinks. More blether. We’re not listening.
Here’s what you should have done, Jeremy.
You step forward. don’t rush it. Wait till the racket dies down. Do what Adolf Hitler used to do. Wait till people start to wonder what’s up. Then look at your wrist to your imaginary wristwatch. Look across to the speaker of the House. Say What time are we finishing here? John Bercow will say: At eight o’clock or in fifteen minutes or whatever he wants. Then Jeremy Corbyn says. How long has she had again? Two years? All right. Then look across the despatch box to her. I’ll see you at a quarter past eight out the back there. Then sit down. Say no more. No blether.
Imagine how remarkable that quiet business-like manner would be. It would be headlines all over the news. Instead we get more old rhetoric. You wonder who works with these politicians on their communications.

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January 13: wapping

Wapping is a fluvial area of London east of Tower Bridge. In the 19th Century it was a district of docks and wharfs inhabited by a largely working class population. We went for a walk there today. Now it has been gentrified, or, as I like to call it, Waitrose-washed. Blocks of executive flats with empty balconies span the area punctuated by one or two pubs left over from the 1800s. There is a pub once owned by the painter Turner who put his mistress there as landlady, Another devoted to Captain Kidd. But on the so-called Wapping High Street there are no shops to speak of. Wapping is a ghost town. There is a Waitrose somewhere to satisfy the new aspirant Wappers (Bankers perhaps; the city is one way, Canary wharf the other). You wonder about this kind of London quarter, there’s another one arising round the corner from me at Nine Elms west of Vauxhall. Wapping is soul-less, with no visible sign of life in the streets, an empty children’s playground on a sunny Sunday morning, a plethora of estate agents. This is the kind of area that London is beginning to specialise in, bleak, driven by short term profit and presided over by a mediocre political class that sees thousands homeless in the steets and continues to patronise the building of forests of executive blocks. In the Orwellian Newspeak of the time some of these apartments are affordable. Never mind. We wouldn’t want them anyway.

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January 12: intensive manicuring

On the bus in front of me a woman was vigorously filing her nails. The man sitting in front of her was half turned towards her as though ready to make a comment. His face looked aggrieved. When he went to get off he said something to her -I didn’t catch it- but she didn’t look up from her intensive manicuring. He shook his head before making to go down the stairs to get off the bus. Half way down the stairs he came back up and said something else. She didn’t look up. I didn’t hear it. In the end, he got off the bus. She continued filing.
I wasn’t sure where I stood on the public manicure issue. She clearly thought it was all well and good in a public space and he didn’t. In the public realm what is acceptable has now no common agreement at all. A couple of minutes later a girl started watching a TV programme on her smart phone without headphones. I did not get up to say anything as the other man had done, but this for me was further beyond the pale than the public manicure. More and more, as public behaviour expands in the space and decible count it needs and as people treat public space like a extension of the living room, dissent will increase. The monoculture is now smashed into a thousand versions of what is or isn’t acceptable. The range of action of an individual is now vast; encroachments on her or his freedom are less and less acceptable. You would think there would come a day when the explosion of public extroversion becomes intolderable. As it is, I am thinking of setting up a rule in my own life that all talk after eight o’clock at night be conducted in whisper. I will drift incrementally, gently, down the stairs of the declining day to sleep. Sounds blissful. But then there are other people. They tend to have their say too. they may refuse to whisper. How unreasonable!

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