August 13: prefer not to say

We did a survey from the Office of National Statistics. They pay you £30. It’s worth it. There was a simple flow-chart telling you about its usefulness. You do it – you send it – we look at it – we collate the information – we use the information for decision-making. Basically, if you do the survey you’re almost running the country. First question. Gender. Three options. Male. Female. Prefer not to say. You imagine some boffin at the ONS dealing with the recent gender debate. I suppose we’d better put something in for all those people stuck in between somewhere. Prefer not to say should do it. As you go through the questionnaire prefer not to say figures greatly. You wonder why. Might one feel that information might be used against you in certain cases? Is this the worry? Or is it the fear of treading on the toes of the hyper-squeamish? In which case why are the hyper-squeamish banking £30 for the survey? Am I being anti-hyper-squeamish discriminatory? Further question – the survey was mostly about mental health attutudes to coronavirus – : on a scale of one to ten where 0 is not at all and 10 is greatly, how depressed did you feel yesterday? I got toothpaste on my clean t-shirt again. I prefer not to say. It could well be that Boris Jonson is running the country on the basis of my tooth-brushing ineptitudes.

July 25: this happened on the margate route all the time

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.

July 12: no theseus for this minotaur

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.

July 9: frustrations of an obese god

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?

June 29: measly D-I-Y skills

I can tell by the way he leans his bike against the wall that he must be a good D-I-Y man, said my friend. Good point. It’s an interesting intuition. Do seemingly unrelated acts reflect each other? This is also a good game I can recommend in these etc etc times. Does a man’s posture tell you if they are proud or not? Maybe they are terribly proud but have a bad back. Here’s someone with a range of elegant hand gestures as she talks. You wouldn’t know she picked her nose in public. And look at how this fellow writes; his beautiful italic script; he must be so precise and meticulous in private life. It turns out he leaves a trail of chaos wherever he goes. The moment an actor does something counter-intuitive in their depiction of a character is always the moment that rings true, the moment they do something illogical or against the grain of the cliche. I remember Gerard Depardieu in a Truffaut film running halfway up the stairs of his suburban house then back down again for no apparent reason, just to illustrate mental turmoil. Or the moment in another film whose title I have forgotten the Emperor of Austro-Hungary inspects the troops. He is grubby and ill-shaven, a figure of no glamour or substance at all. When you see that, you realise it’s true. One thing doesn’t mean another. We are strange mixtures of accomplishment and  measliness. You would not think the one went with the other. So: he’s tricking you by leaning his bike against that wall in such an accomplished manner. In fact, his D-I-Y skills are measly.

June 21: maybe we can be acquaintances

In my block there is a guy who looks like he is married. He must be about fifty and wears pink chino shorts  in the summer. He is well built and looks as though he might represent a good catch for a woman thinking of settling down. I never see him with anyone, so I assume he is divorced. He looks like a divorced guy. I can imagine him having an extra-marital affair and getting booted out by a high-maintenance wife. In my block there are a lot of gay men but he isn’t gay; he has none of those gay characteristics. Nor is he a long term singleton. None of his fashion choices would put him in this bracket. There are no toothpaste stains on his tee-shirt or anything. He should really be living in Surbiton and have a car in a garage next to his family home. In my block we do not allow cars in the courtyard. People are mostly public transport people. What with the lockdown I have begun exchanging smiles and nods with him. The other day we exchanged words. He was standing in a queue for a toilet outside a pub that has started selling beer from its doorway as a takeaway drink. The main attraction of the pub was the toilet and he was standing there in the queue, again not with anyone in particular. I said hallo and he said something I didn’t quite hear and laughed. I laughed back. Maybe we can be acquaintances.

June 14: confessions

In Rousseau’s Confessions, which I am reading at the moment, you encounter a litany of deviant or marginal sexual activity. In Book One Jean-Jacques confesses to the pleasure he derived from being spanked as a child. In Book Two he describes in graphic detail the horror he felt at seeing his first ejaculation when a man with a penchant for him masturbated in front of the him (‘je vis partir vers la cheminee at tomber a terre je ne sais quoi de gluant et de blanchatre’ – I saw something gluey and whitish shoot out towards the chimney and fall onto the floor). In Book Three we read how he used to expose himself to girls who went to a well to fill their pail with water. In Book Eight Rousseau recounts how after a little too much to drink he and two other men shared the favours of a girl, taking her in turns. We also learn in Book Eight of the five children he had that he immediately gave up to the Home for Lost children. I have four more books to read. He was no saint.There will be more revelations.

And yet, is it not healthy to reveal the misdemeanours of youth or even maturity? Would it be healthier to whitewash them out? In 2020 any errors in your youth might well disqualify you for respectability in later life. In the digital age we document them all the time. We confess without realizing it. We blunder into confession and self-revelation. Our fallibility has become a liability. I can see that we do not want to empower a monster, but the deep puritanical strain that I think comes from the US is growing. D’Alembert, a contemorary of Rousseau, had a term for the type of thinker that Rousseau was. Not Lberte, Egalite, Fraternite but Liberte, Pauvrete, Verite. Verite or Truth is sometimes a casualty of the frantic rearch for virtue.

May 24: never mind people, isn’t boris Johnson rubbish!

There are a range of techniques involved in avoiding questions in the five o’clock session where ministers do their level best to boast and say nothing to the public. Here’s one. When the journalist asks you a specific question starting, say, can you say when Dominic Cummings was in Durham in lockdown with his wife and child?, you say: What I can say is…and say something irrelevant. This is the What I can say response. The What I can say response proves you can say things, even though they may not be apposite. This is communications technique number one, right out of the Dominic Cummings manual. No wonder he is so indispensible. Technique number two is when you repeat the question in more detail and with greater rhetoric.This is called Just repeat the question, also from the communications manual. Question: Is it one law for the politicians and one law for the rest of us? Answer: Very good question. Is it one requirement for the members of the political elite who, even though they make up the rules (double Boris fist clench) don’t seem to feel that the rules apply to them, whereas the ordinary people of this country who have done a sterling job self-isolating to keep the R rate beloe one, which is what we all have to do, and this is the most important thing and something which will dictate how quickly we can get back to normal and drive to places like Durham. Very good question. The next question is from the Bradford Times. The quality of response from the politicians, including Lizard in a Suit (Dominic Raab) and the Whey-faced Loon (Hancock) and Boris himself do not even deserve to be called casuistic, as that would imply a certain complex skill. In what the French call Le five o’clock the UK cabinet is rubbish.

May 20: lumberjacks all

Do you, like so many others, spend your working life logging? I recently made a complaint to my local council about the noise emmanating from a substation close to my flat. They eventually sent me a reponse and triumphantly announced that my complaint had been logged. My question as to whether they were going to do anything about it was greeted with disbelief. Was it not enough that it was logged in that great log-book in the virtual heavens? The power company have also logged my complaint. We have a record of your earlier complaint, they told me, it has been logged. Would you like to make another complaint? I considered for a moment. What would that mean? I asked, a mere innocent in all matters of logging. They are the experts after all; it was right I ask their advice on the matter. It would mean we log it again. Yippee! Double logging. Let’s go for it. Do you log? I am often asked to log at work for an imaginary day of reckoning. You know, I could always log something I haven’t done. Has that occurred to anyone? Does lgging get anything done? Probably not. Does it do any harm? Possibly. It stands in for doing something but protects you against legal action maybe. We are all lumberjacks these days.

May 3: the evolution of the queue

The great British queue is evolving. They have always prided themselves on queueing, the British. It has been part of their self-identifying story, like the stiff upper lip and keeping calm and pulling together in difficult times, all stuff that feels increasingly like nonsense and no more than a dossier of propaganda  pulled out of the hat for political purposes every so often. And so it is with queues. But the coronavirus queue reveals new  baroque strands. Outside the supermarket you have the two metre distance queue and the man who lets the gap grow. So that you are standing two metres behind a man watching a TV show on his phone who lets his gap grow to eight metres. This gives rise to anxiety in queue-ers like yoursef. When you turn a corner the strand of the queue could be lost. New people could slip in. You could be lost, become a mere pedestrian and not a queue-er, all that queue-time effaced, eradicated. And, in any case, you look forward to moving up in the queue. The moment you all shuffle forward. It’s one of the highlights of your day. What is this man’s motivation  for letting the gap grow in front of him? Is he oblivious? Is he a queue snob, refusing to recognize the strict regulations of queue culture, a queue libertarian? Is queueing beneath him? Does he see himself above the queue? He is like a car in a traffic jam that refuses to push along when the traffic creeps forward. What’s the rush? you might say. The traffic jam isn’t going anywhere. But no, there are streets that feed into the traffic jam and cars that insinuate themselves into the line and so take your place. Leaving a gap in a queue is never a harmess venture. When you vaunt your relaxation and casualness, your anti-queuenesss, what happens is that others pay.