August 17: escape in a basket

There is little evidence for many of the legendary scenes in folklore. Robin Hood (if he existed as an individual) probably wasn’t around during the reign of King John and Richard the Lionheart, so we probably never had the scene where the famous outlaw recognises the absent king in the greenwood. William Tell never shot an apple off his son’s head with his crossbow. St Paul almost certainly never underwent the conversion on the road to Damascus (it is never mentioned in those terms in his own letters and in Acts of the Apostles written many years after Paul’s death the text seems to be lifted verbatim from Euripides Bacchae). These old texts are all subject to the usual collage, bias, literary manipulation and ideological weighting that invisibly inform legend and myth. A nice one that has been on my mind this week for some reason is St Paul escaping the city of Damascus in a laundry or small cattle basket lowered down out of the city walls. This might be closer to the truth as St Paul mentions it himself in his letters. It is a rare moment of concrete picaresque adventure in what are otherwise rather abstract epistles. I wish we had a bit more of that kind of stuff from Paul. In Jules Vernes’ Around the World in 80 Days there is no scene in a hot air baloon, although most illustrations of the book show such a scene, simply because of its pictoral value, I suppose, and because there was such a scene in the classic film with David Niven. The other one I like in a similar vein to the Paul basket story is Charles II of England hiding in an apple tree with Roundhead soldiers below him. I remember it made a lovely illustration in my primary school history book with the perspective from Charles’ point of view looking down on the metal helmets of Cromwell’s troops.

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August 13: a health and wealth centre

The Park Hotel in Vitznau on the Vierwaldstaettesee (Lake Luzern in English) must be one of the swankiest of swanky hotels in Switzerland. Three years ago we went in there and asked if we could play the Boesendorfer grand piano. The staff were very welcoming and let us play the instrument for a couple of hours (when I say us, I don’t mean me, you understand).Through the open doors of the hall we were in we could look out onto the drinks reception on the esplanade on the lake. This was during the Luzern Festival and many of the residents of the hotel were attending the concerts a few stops along the lake. Last month we were in Vitznau again and thought we might pop into the Park Hotel again to maybe renew that agreable experience. On the door was a Scandinavian hotel manager right out of a Stanley Kubrik film. He intercepted us and explained how the hotel had changed since the Covid years. It had become (I quote from the card we were given) a Health and Wealth Centre, no longer a hotel, no longer open to spontaneous visitors like ourselves. Customers had explained they were no longer comfortable with the ebb and flow of the life of a grand hotel; they preferred to hire suites within the hotel complex and have entrance to the place restricted to the hoipolloi. The place was now policed and controlled. It had become a kind of gated community, a bleak index to the post-covid world of the very wealthy. They are shut away from all public intercourse in a sterilised glass unit. Health and Wealth Centre tells it all. Where was the piano? I asked. It too had been put into isolation.

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August 12: what I think about in bed: fagin; then shylock

When I am in bed, before my mind goes haywire and leads me into the perverse antechamber of sleep, I try and organise my thoughts. I read something the other day in one of those advice pieces that the internet is forever foisting on us that before you go to sleep you should assemble a to-do list for the next day. I do not do this. I think about money. On holiday I used to get all the bank notes out of my wallet and count them. I am a kind of Fagin, I suppose. Though I am not really taking any lascivious pleasure form these bank notes or from the figure I imagine in my current account when I am in my bed at night. It is more that I am creating a kind of relaxation by seeing that I am sufficiently well provided for for the next day at least. It was probably what was on Fagin’s mind too. This might put me into a state where I might be able to doze off, for I am not an easy dozer and need everything to be just right. The other thing I might do is think about the calender; how many days to my next pay cheque. As you see, another money matter. However, this is a less relaxing daydream, as I grow irritated at myself for wanting time to pass quickly to get me to that pay-cheque day. What am I doing? I think to myself. Just wishing my life away, because what happens at the end of all the pay days? You are just one month closer to the final due date, when the final pound of flesh has to be delivered (that would be Shylock) .

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August 7: the grey suit

The business of purchase is a painstaking and psychologically taxing one.

When I was at the Zentrum Paul Klee in Berne last month there was a gaggle of businessmen undergoing in some annexe room to the gallery a training session on communication or creativity or something and they were, almost to a man (there were only men), wearing dark charcoal suits. I thought, that’s a rather cool look in the heat of the summer, I’ll look into buying a dark charcoal suit when I come back to London. When I returned from my travels I went onto Jermyn Street and looked at all the classic suit shops: Hawes and Curtis; TM Lewin; Charles Tyrwhit. They were all much of a muchness in dark charcoal suits. They were suits for middle management types, industrially mass produced, cut for work with a long jacket and unflattering trouser width, and the salesman treats you like a battery hen (one said What’s the occasion? as if I’d never worn a suit in my life and in another shop the salesman with a big red wine-sodden nose said Work or pleasure? as if everyone’s life was so clearly compartmentalized.) Neither, I amswered, which foxed him). I refrained from a purchase on Jermyn Streer. I went into John Lewis to see what was on offer in the odds and ends department. I saw what I thought was an attractive charcoal jacket (not dark charcoal and not part of a suit). After oo-ing and ah-ing I bought it. At home i looked on line to try and find the trousers that went with it. I thought I’d found them and ordered them. When they came they weren’t the right trousers and the whole ensemble did not look good. Grey des not flatter me. I looked like a grey man The shape was too fuddy-duddy. It slowly dawned on me the entire look was a mess. Could I get my money back? I extirpated the wrapping for the trousers from the bin just in time. I have had the returns label printed and will post the trousers back tomorrow. Some people are doing these returns every day, I know. Buying and returning; buying and returning. I am innocent in the matter, but that’ll be £100 saved. As for the jacket, I will go to John Lewis tomorrow amd try and get my £`150 back but I have no receipt. I have conflicting opinions on this. One tells me they won’t refund without a receipt (the receipt went thoughtlessly in the bin straightaway). Another say no John Lewis are fine, they’ll refund you no problem. Even if they don’t I have decided on my line. – No sir, we can’t refund without the receipt, I’m afraid Sir.What! Even though you can see I bought this from here on my bank statement. I’m sorry sir, it’s John Lewis policy. – All right, I’ll say. Here’s the jacket back. I can’t wear it. Sell it again for another £150. And with a theatrical yet sovereign motion I will hand the jacket back over the counter. They will receive the pristine garment aghast. This will be some kind of a victory. After all, I will never wear it. I am happy with this as a gesture. even though I’ll lose the money. I’ll feel somehow vindicated and might not feel the heartburn that insists on rising in my gullet when money has needlessly slipped through my fingers.

Yes, the business of shopping is a painstaking and psychologically taxing one and you must be ready to pick out any minor triumph from the ashes of your day.

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July 29: steerpike

When you are sitting up to your neck in the cool water in a pool in the Gorges du Tarn in the Cevennes and your rest is disturbed by a teenager leaping from a height into the pool with a whoop, you curse the state of malehood. Why does the male always want to change the repose of things? I had spotted this mid-teenager a few minutes before. He had found or fashioned a long stick and was trying to skewer a fish with it. What if he had spiked a foot-long trout and came up with it all bloodied and wriggling? His father caught up with him, looked irritably and uttered that time-worn word Arrete. Men will always want to splash, noisify, alter. Women are happier with just being. Men will shift things along without worrying whether they are shifting to a better thing or not. They just want flux. But often you just kill the moment and the new state, unexamined beforehand, is not better, and there can be no going back. It’s everything that’s wrong with the world. We’re right to blame the men. I suppose there are some benefits from restlessness, but enough already. I called the boy Steerpike.

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July 29: access to people’s intimacies

When you are travelling around, on a bit of a budget, you find you have access to other people’s intimacies in a way you don’t when you are locked into your own routines. On a train as you sit behind someone you see what they are up to on their smartphone. One very correct-looking middle-aged Frenchwoman was conducting a very controlled conversation with her equally distinguished and impenetrable-looking husband, and then you see her looking at herself in the mirror of the smartphone interminably inspecting her eye wrinklage. Then suddenly she took out of her fashionably labelled handbag a ragged paper agenda branded Hello Kitty. In the youth hostel in Grindelwald when you share a dorm with four others you see the lot: there are of course snorers; there are thoughtless people who come in at three in the mrning and wear lights on their foreheads which they inadvertently shine in your eyes; the deranged fixated hikers intent on a glacier pursuing some absolute agenda (many of these characters in the mountains in Switzerland, like characters from a DH Lawrence novel). When you travel you are exposed to others. Instructive, but let me back into my closet now please.

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July 27: offer an empty vessel

When you find yourself meeting a lot of people in quick succesion, like when you are on holiday when you might have brief and superficial contact with a range of people, you inevitably find yourself makng ad hoc decisions about whether you like the people or not. I find myself liking the people who are not doing any selling of themselves. When you are younger you are more inclined to sell yourself, you are more competitive, feel the need to impress. Hopefully you grow out of this. It is nice to speak to someone who remains inscrutable and, in general, these are the people I like. And yet, just being inscrutable is not enough. It is nice for people to be quirky, surprising, for them to take risks and try and make a contact. My advice, though, (if you are desperate to impress me) is to avoid talking about jobs. Recommended is to be able to be entertaining and warm but give nothing away. In other words, offer a vessel, but make sure it is an empty one.

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July 27: a local emergency

No posts for recent weeks as I was away with no computer, no smartphone no internet access for five weeks. Can you imagine? In all the places we went, France, Germany, Switzerland, people and commerces generally preferred payment in cash, much different to what I had been led to believe was the norm from living in London. Nowhere insisted on payment by card. Cash was always the most welcome. Most people were not forever on their screens or computers in cafes. I have seen that this media dependancy is most rife in London. I came back yesterday and looking through the tube everyone has earplugs in and screens out. This is a local emergency.

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June 23: welcome

I have a very cheap computer. When I get it going it says Welcome for a very long time. At first I thought, that’s nice, I’m getting a right royal welcome from my computer with a red carpet and everything. Then I realised what was happening was that the gatekeeper was checking my ID and my QR code. And then,when I think I can get in, all the hangers-on from Teams kick in and stop me getting over the drawbridge; then all the pop-ups from Google Chrome swarm around me for an autograph. I had to take steps on the autograph pop-up hunters from Google Chrome and joined the Firefox label instead but all the foxes snap at my heels there too and delay my emergence into the crystal city. When I enter that land of endless promise I am exhausted. My girlfriend with her fancy machine is waiting for me on the other side of the moat twiddling her fingers. I come trundling through.

I do not have a smart phone. When I flip up my apparatus and switch it on it produces a merry jingle like something from Breakfast Television when that first started in the eighties. Then my fingers need to engage in elaborate prodding to just get the thing awake properly. It doesn’t like getting up in the morning, my phone. When emoticoms come through on text messages they just show up as blank squares for me. We live a very austere life, my phone and I. We are like a crooked old couple from a nursery rhyme. Jack Sprat and his wife.There is no fun allowed. That’s why most of my messages consist of monosyllabic agreements or rejections: OK, I say. Or else. No Can do. People must be confused that I, normally so verbose, come over all shy on the phone.

Yes. I am wandering through the world with just a coat to my back. No armour; no mace and chain; just poor forked man.

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June 17: sherlock Holmes on the tube

I found myself noticing a middle-aged woman on the tube this morning. She was reading and using a US dollar bill as her as her book mark. On her ankle was a Betty Boop tattoo. I surmised she liked American culture. I thought she probably wasn’t American. I wonder how Sherlock Holmes would have gone about the semiology. In his day society was more homogenous. He would just look at the quality of soil on the boot of a young lady and knew she had been to the Derby at Epsom. He would smell the type of tobacco on the coat of a gentleman and know in which establishment he had acquired it. You see, they didn’t have Tesco in those days. Today most people are emitting scores of signs at any moment: the clothes; the haircut; the post on TikTok or Instagram. They are desperate to belong to this huge variety of freemasoneries, or even sometimes to emit a sign without knowing what it means or that it completely contradicts what they think they stand for. You buy half a pound of signs like you used to buy half a pound of licorice allsorts and you just eat the whole bag. All we can do is try and be the person without qualities, to avoid falling into this pool of burning emblems and insignia. Semiology is pretty much dead.

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