January 15: mid-century female existentialists

I have never thought of Virginia Woolf as an existentialist, but re-reading To the Lighthouse this week it is clear that that is what she is. If she had been writing in Paris in the 1950s she would have been classed along with Simone de Beauvoir whose Les Mandarins I have also been reading in recent weeks. Both of them are forever having their female protagonists suddenly stopping in their tracks to ask themselves what they are doing in life, where they are, how they got there, is their life fulfilled, is this what life is. Often, their doubts are somehow hooked up to the men and children in their lives. That is just the pressure of middle-class society in the mid-century. The male existentialists weren’t that bothered about family. Sartrean and Camusean heros are macho loners, exposed to war, guns and prostitutes. It’s difficult to know whether that is nature or nurture. It’s also difficult to know whether the existentialists doubts and reveries are just a response to new ways of writing, in particular the stream of consciousness., which took the writer into the uncertain thoughts of the characters. When you look at Middlemarch (1870), George Eliot’s protagonist Dorothea Brooke thinks about life but it’s mostly in connection with her actions in society. Maybe there was a shift in the twentieth century from the enlightenment optimism of empire and society building to the doubt and introspection after the Great War. Another thing maybe is that the women were more educated, more confident, more inclined to doubt the social project.

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January 10: forgetting names

I always used to think that under interrogation I could trick the lie detector by not registering in any part of my anatomy when I tell an untruth. My logic was that the difference between true and untrue is often a foggy zone anyway. Recently, I have had to accept that my body does act against my will at times and does register micro-shifts in anxiety without my permission. This manifests itself, I think, in the business of name remembering when you meet someone unexpectedly in the street. Only when I encounter someone in an unusual context does this distraction afflict me, but I can only assume that it is a momentary anxiety which brings about that loss of memory.

Yesterday in Herne Hill I was passing the house of somebody I know and I thought I’d prepare myself in case I bumped into her in the street. Immediately I couldn’t remember her name. The prospect of anxiety was enough to freeze my recollection. What I then do is construct an elaborate scenario in advance to avoid having to introduce the person I am with to the friend whose name I can’t remember. I could say: I’ll leave you to introduce yourselves to each other (this is a facile and transparent manoeuvre that would be easily seen through). I could just do one half of the introduction (undemocratic). I could introduce them through description alone, as in This is an old friend from school. At least that way you introduce, if not by name. Names are overvalued anyway.

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January 9: superficiality: further advantages

With lockdown it has become a truism to vaunt the advantages of going into work or school; we require society and the screen won’t do it. The advantage of work relationships is that they have the potential (mostly fulfilled) of remaining superficial. Your intercourse with your co-worker tends to remain functional. You may well spend more time with them than you do with your life partner, but the co-worker may know next to nothing about your real life. It is a training in the art of discretion. You skate around on the surface of things and rework a number of functional conversations interminably; an exercise in theme and variations. I would not know how to do a statistical analysis of this, but I would lay a wager on the fact that a lot of superficiial relationships is healthier than a few deep ones. With the former you feel you are integrated into a meaningful quantity of others; with the latter it may just be a few crackpots who escaped the statistical norm. Added to which, sometimes you don’t want to get beneath the surface.

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January 3: new year vanities

I mostly don’t bother with New Year resolutions. I normally just say more of the same and leave it at that. If you are not regulating your life on the go throughout the year, there isn’t much chance it will suddenly happen on January 1. This year, however, I have decided to give them a little go, these resolutions. I am giving up bread for January, just to see if it can cure my sluggisness. Sudden changes are rarely good. You find yourself compensating in ways which are equally harmful. You give up chocolate and you replace it with crisps. You give up smoking and you replace it with cream cakes. In a rare alignment of the universe with human ambitions, on January 1 I paid my television license: t,he same day the television stopped working. This could be a useful imposition of tellyless evenings. Yes but the risk now is that I will be on the internet longer. There is nothing for nothing. It is human vanity to think we manage these transitions without other harms or without canny manipulative compromise. We shall see for the bread. It has only been two days.

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December 24: birthday progress

Today, Christmas Eve, is my birthday. It is low key, as it has always tended to be, being the day before the winter feast. I am happier in media res than on a bank looking at the rushing stream, or, rather, meandering trickle. The other day, through the efficient business of astrology, I learned more about my character. It said I ride roughshod over other people sometimes, due I think to my moon being in Libra. This was the first time this had been suggested to me. Normally they tell me my moon is at home in Libra, whatever that means. Astrology, despite being nonsense, suggests things to you, and once they have occurred to you, you think about it and sometimes locate that element in your behaviour. Because I can ride roughshod. In fact, I did it the other day in a card shop where we were buying wrapping paper. We couldn’st decide between a red one and an ivory coloured one with mistletoe on it. We asked an elderly gentleman what he thouight. I can’t remember what hi opinion was because we didn’t want it really, just a chat. In the ensuing conversation we used the word misconstrue and then looked for its noun and came up with the word misconstrual. The elderley gentleman, in his half of the converstaion, came up with the word misconstruction. I need to check which one is right. And then, trying to move the converation on, I did my roughshod work and said. you’ve got a rubbuish card there to him. He didn’t seem too offended and there was a little conversation about the dogs on the card. It was for his grandchildren, I think. What I am trying to do is hurry a conversation into a more interesting zone, so I admit I can sometimes jog it on a bit by pulling on the equine bit of the vehicle. Sometimes the horse neighs in pain and my intention is misconstrued (the verb is right). This time it passed off without rub. Still, nice to see there is progress in my understanding of my personality.

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November 27: two cakes and a plant

We made a cake and gave a piece to Number 5. Normally we only give a piece to Number 2 but we opened it up. The first cake was a honey cake. I shuffled across the courtyard and knocked on Number 5. I gave him the cake on a little plate. Amazing! he said. And when I saw him again he said it was amazing. To be fair, he calls most things amazing. The other day I was taking the rubbish out. He said what are you doing? I said taking the bins out. He said Amazing. So I take it with a pinch of salt. A couple of weeks later we made another cake. Pear Upsidedown cake. I shuffled across and gave him the cake on a plate. He said it was amazing. The thing is, we weren’t getting our plates back, so we bought Number 5 a little lavender plant from Columbia Road Market. The idea was to give him that and mention the plates. My friend shuffled across to do the deed but she forgot to mention the plates. She said, you just go round and ask him. I said, you can’t do that because you’re putting him on the spot. The plates are probably all mixed up with his plates. We have never been inside Numbher 5. I suspect it might be ancient chaos in there. No, I said, what I’ll do is when I bump into Number 5 next in the courtyard I’ll say: Hi Number 5. We’ve got another cake coming up soon (Amazing) but this time I’ll give it you on a piece of tissue because we’re running out of plates. I’ll deliver this as a kind of joke. We’ll have those plates back in our possession in next to no time. I am confident this will work.

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November 13: the belgrano

After the Falklands war a British civil servant was put on trial in the UK for leaking information to the press about the sinking of the Belgrano, the Argentinian war ship by British forces. It had been given out by the governmnet that the Belgrano was imperiling British ships, whereas it appears that the Argentinian war ship was in fact sailing away from the exclusion zone at the time. The civil servant, Clive Ponting, was put on trial for an offence against the official secrets act. At the end of the trial the judge directed the jury to find Ponting guilty. In fact, the jury chose to ignore the advice and find him innocent.

It’s a nice story of an anti-establishment verdict being given by a random group pf twelve individuals seeing through a self-serving establishment. It was nice to read about this the other day.

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November 14: triage

In my recently revamped Tesco there is usually only one till open. This is the large Tesco between Vauxhall and Kennington in Central London. The queue stretches out to the crack of doom. I, being as you know an infamous complainer especially in Tesco, try to collar a member of staff and make my views known. The week before two tills were open but only one took cash and all the automatic payment machines now only take cards. The cash till stretched beyond the crack of doom. Baudrillard would call this social triage, a queue where you are chosen, not one that you choose. It reminds me of the days when I used to take the night ferry on the channel crossing before the channel tunnel was built. In the middle of the December 23rd night in the snow and cold you were made to assemble outside for the passport and customes control. It was willful parading of people who couldn’t afford to take the plane and was normal in those days. That was the British and French state in action, each as bad as the other. It looks like the private sector is returning us to this kind of social bullying for its own social engineering scheme..

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October 30: my mundane dreams

I had another mundane dream again last night. I was trying to push enormous plastic coins through a slot into some kind of plastic box but was unable to squeeze them in. This is a good example of the kind of nightmare I experience a-nights. It is a variation on another classic dream of mine when I am trying to compose a number on an old fashioned telephone dial but keep putting my finger into the wrong digit hole and am forever having to start again. They are dreams where the principal sentiments are mild frustration and trivial irritation. Blocked off from me are dreams of bliss and joy, horror and dread, pathological compulsion or ecstatic delight. No. My dreams are obsessively quotidian, bland and vapid, banal.. If they were a colour they would be a matt grey; if they were a sound they would be a middle-aged man clearing his throat. Does this reflect poorly on my inner life? After all, there are no dark quests through expressionist townscapes; few purple nights and crimson days; little in the way of daggers and poniards behind a velvet arras. Though the other night, in my sleep, I was apparently wincing in great existential angst. What was it that tormented me? A fall from the balcony of some great monochrome cathedral? Bitter tears shed in a poisonous night garden? No. Just another plastic coin that wouldn’t fit into its slot.

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October 18: supporting through thick but not thin

Newcastle United F.C. has just been taken over by some arm of the state of Saudi Arabia. Most of the supporters are overjoyed with the promise of incalculable wealth to buy world-class talent on and off the pitch. The fact that Saudi Arabia has a reputation for its unscrupulous dealing with others including well documented evidence of its state sponsored murder of the journalist Jamal Koshoggi seems to worry some but not many. How far is a supporter prepared to go in his undying support for his team? I must admit I am a poor supporter of my team. I refuse to watch Match of the Day if I know they have lost, as they did 2-4 this weekend. I will support them in the good times but not the bad. I support them through the thick but not the thin. Genuine supporters would lambast me, no doubt, but the way I see it is that I sign up to the support thing for fun not for suffering. Is this masochism? If I don’t want to spent 10.30 to 11.45 pm on Saturday night with my head in my hands, why should I? This infidelity to a project has become more general in me in recent times. Time was I would finish a book I had embarked upon whatever, even if I was hating it. Now I’ll give them some of my time, but if it doesn’t please me sufficiently I am unwilling to give the author twenty hours of my life. Why should I? There are plenty of other texts in the ocean swimming around and plenty other football clubs other than Newcastle United, or, in my case, Manchester United. If I am strong enough to disassociate myself from my background which is the reason why I got railroaded into this support phenomenon in the first place, on a strategic temporary basis, then my mental flexibility should be praised not criticised. I’ll come back to Man United when they start winning!

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