The folk on the Apprentice are generally of the type who feel like Oxford and Cambridge graduates cannot possibly have any common sense. You don't see intelligence praised very often on the programme (it has that in common with the Gospels, according to Bertrand Russell, who doubtless was a big fan of Alan Sugar). They have a discussion of the World War II, during which it becomes clear that not a single one of them on the whole team can state with any confidence when it happened. To the nearest year, even. Yikes.
Interestingly, they've just told them to go and get a mortarboard, and one of them confidently stated that these were closely associated with graduation and particular at these ancient universities. Well, I never wore one. I did wear one of those gowns, and the 'Jedi' white fur hood on a couple of occasions, and (from memory) the academic bands (two strips of white cloth that appear to have no possible function). But I didn't wear them all day every day, because we just didn't. It seems that these places have an undeserved reputation for intentional mysteriousness.
So, for those unacquainted with the real experience of university (those universities, at least), here are two defining moments:
In one, the person who was elected JCR president acquired the nickname 'The Bollocks'. This is the level of wit and wisdom we managed. In response to a comment in the book about his presidency which read 'I think Ed is the bollocks,' he wrote 'what an important word 'the' is.' There you go. Razor sharp. He now teaches history at (a prestigious) university.
In another, some Americans asked a college-mate of mine if Cambridge students had an equivalent term of gentle abuse for those at Oxford (they call us, apparently, Tabs (as our degrees are marked 'Cantab')). He replied with something along the lines of 'yes: c**ts.' It's a really interesting feature of that most vulgar of words that it is the target of the rhyming slang 'berk', which usually doesn't feel quite so coarse.
There is a sort of violation that has taken place in trying to mix these two worlds of the fiercely academic and the fiercely business. I'm not sure which way round it is, though. My university experience was such that I am desperately jealous of those going to university now, and those for whom it is still in the future. But I will say this: the relatively high cost has changed what university is to many people. Those training to be doctors or lawyers, for example, can see a direct return on an investment. It's much harder to justify education, particularly of the type I had, which was of limited utility in the world of work at large. I would have struggled to make the choices I did if the costs were tens of thousands rather than a few thousand altogether. Alan Bennett shall have the last word today...
Scripps : Oh, Pos, with your spaniel heart. It will pass.
Posner : Yes, it's a phase. Who says I want it to pass? But the pain, the *pain*.
Scripps : Hector would say it's the only education worth having.
Hector : Pass the parcel. That's sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day. Pass it on, boys. That's the game I want you to learn. Pass it on.
Headmaster: Fuck the Ren-ai-ssance! And fuck literature, and Plato, and Michaelangelo, and Oscar Wilde, and all the other shrunken violets you people line up. This is a school, and it isn't normal!
Umberto Eco (he's a f**king semiologist), Peaky Blinders, grief and a bit of Gladiator...
It's great to see that someone has made a long-form TV series of The Name of the Rose. It's equally great to see that they have, so far at least, stayed true to the tortuous, wandering style and storytelling of the actual book. The risk of making TV like this is that, as it does not move at the frenetic pace that some TV goes for nowadays, it has no car chases, the only fight scenes are very much incidental to the storytelling, the risk, as I say, is that it becomes eight hours of boredom. There hasn't been much that has kept my undivided attention recently, but this, it seems, is it. I suppose Peaky Blinders might satisfy that same criterion - it's not something to watch whilst also trying to read, write, listen, play - that comes at the expense of an incredibly stressful experience. So, interestingly, Peaky Blinders was scheduled at the end of the weekend, Sunday night, when what you really need is something comforting and relaxing. The Name of the Rose is on Friday nights, which seems at odds with its leisurely pace, its frown-inducing plot and frankly opaque storytelling. I've read it twice, watched the film (Connery and Christian Slater - it's not bad, but it's not great). And I still can't remember what happened and, crucially, who did it. Still, it's a diversion. A real one, that is thoroughly absorbing and actually manages to quieten all those other things in my mind (the desire to do at least one, and possibly half-a-dozen, other things at the same time). And, because of the way it moves, it's not something where your heartbeat is elevated for the whole hour, so you don't feel like you've been running around afterwards.
People who read this blog regularly will perhaps be aware that around this time last year, I experienced a sudden and unexpected kind of bereavement: a work colleague (she was my immediate boss, but 'colleague' probably gets our work relationship across better) died. She had been treated for breast cancer, but appeared to be recovering. It was instead a pulmonary embolism that killed her. I am surprise that I find myself able to write these things, because thinking about them over the last week or so, particularly yesterday, has been very difficult and I would have found it almost impossible to speak those same words. The loss of a close colleague, friend, mentor, sparring partner, debating ally and opponent, someone whose life I had come to know, and who had come to know some details of mine that almost no one else had fully appreciated, well, it will be apparent from the list that it would have been hard. But that is nothing compared to the impact on those whose lives she was a central part of, and I feel pity for them still. Has time lessened my grief? I suppose, as there is a way in which it has: time and change and distance have brought me away from the same places, the same faces and routines which I associate with her. The immediacy is less. The best way I can think of it is that the sledgehammer moments of welling up are less frequent, and that is because of the lack of cues. I cannot imagine how difficult it is for those that are left behind, forced to walk the same corridors and be in those same rooms. For me, it is as the poem in the sidebar describes: it is exactly when I feel that weight of memory lifted that I notice, and in so noticing, the weight descends again. The difficult thing is to contemplate the long, desolate future of withoutness, the stark fact that a memory can sustain, but it is not the same thing as the person. The person is gone, distant, unreachable, but the memory is still there.
I cannot help but think that the ability to form these sorts of powerful memories, where these life-altering experiences are kind of burned into the fabric of who you are, is a bit of double-edged sword. It clearly has a value, in that it makes people capable of remembering useful stuff over vast quantities of 'noise', but it also has the terrible power to diminish a life. I have written on here about how I - and my characters, Edward Strelley in particular - try to deal with memories that make me sad by recasting them as happy memories. But I recognise that, taking Strelley himself as the model, an experience like his of a thwarted, doomed love, an intense passion never realised, a desire for another person that is wholly impossible, whilst also, cruelly, the person that he loves feels the same way about him, could shape the whole of the rest of his life. History prevents me from giving him the happy ending I might, as a sentimental old bastard, have given him. But we shall see. There is a kind of vagueness to my long-range planning that means even I do not know what the outcome will be.
So, to end: not Pirates this time, but the even greater work that is Gladiator:
Juba: It’s somewhere out there; my country, my home. My wife is preparing food. My daughter is carrying water from the river. Will I ever see them again? I think no.
Maximus: Do you believe you will see them again when you die?
Juba: Yes I think I will. I will die soon. They will not die for many years. I have to wait.
Maximus: But you would…wait?
Juba: Of course.
Maximus: You see, my wife and my son are already waiting for me.
Juba: You will meet them again. But not yet. Not yet.
PS: That title probably only means something to about three people, none of whom, to my knowledge, read this blog. Make of that what you will.
By themselves, they just mean 'hail and farewell'. But at the end of Catullus' poem, they are the climax of one of the saddest of all poems. As a young man, I heard these words for the first time before I really understood them, and then I experienced a few instances of grief: a distant friend, a grandparent. These were people whose lives I shared in some small way, briefly or just for a few moments every now and again, but not ones who I spent a lot of time with. Looking back, these were cases where I could say the words - and know what they meant - without really feeling what they meant to Catullus himself when he wrote them.
Making sense of grief is, by the evidence of the poetry, the songs, the paintings, the books, just about the hardest thing that people have to do. That, and when love does not work for whatever reason. These seem to be the foundations on which art is built. I can't paint, my poetry (usually in the form of song lyrics) is pedestrian at best, my singing is bad, So, I write. On here, These Matters, the flash fictions, all - give or take - about making sense of grief, over people lost and love that cannot work.
Christina Rossetti's poem - the one that gets read at all those funerals - counsels that it is better to forget and smile than to remember and be sad. If only it were that simple, although I do not offer that as a complaint about her advice. I recognise the sentiment: I should not feel guilty if, after time, when distractions are there, I do not feel that grief at every moment. Life, as my fundamentally unemotional dad said to me at his own mother's funeral, goes on. But life is irretrievably altered by those people we lost, whether that is to death, or to the long desperate future of life without them whilst they are still out there somewhere, which is the central theme of book IV of These Matters.
I can't really express the feeling. So here it is in the words of someone better at expressing it, and whose sadness ultimately took his own life:
I, I never wanted to write these words down 4 you
With the pages of phrases of things we'll never do
Hey, so I blow out the candle, & I put you to bed
Since you can't say to me now,
How the dogs broke your bone,
There's just one thing left to be said...
Dakin: The more you read, though, the more you'll see that literature is actually about losers.
Dakin: It's consolation. All literature is consolation.
Perhaps that's why I write. To console myself. There are many things in my existence to be thankful for, and sometimes I am guilty of failing to notice those things, while my sometimes quite focused (for which, read 'one-track' or perhaps even 'monomaniacal') mind attends only to the negatives. And the negatives are often tiny, minor frustrations, characterised by being a bit annoying rather than life-altering or defining terrible things. Sometimes, a bit of perspective is worthwhile. A step back, an instant spent reflecting rather than in the red mist of momentary anger, is actually quite powerful, capable certainly of drawing the sting of some of those angry moments. I am hardly a master of my own thoughts, or of anger when it comes, but I do know what I am aiming it, even if I'm not very good at achieving it.
It was World Mental Health Day on Thursday. It did not go unnoticed, although I did not find the time to write about it on here. I spent some of it sitting outside a rather beautiful building that catches the midday sun even now in autumn when the days are shorter than the nights. That was a pleasant experience, but the reflections that I carried with me about my own fluctuating mental health were not pleasant. It was a sort of fight between the inherently happy-inducing setting and the deliberate focusing on mental (ill-) health that is, for me at least, sometimes the enemy of good mental health. That's the strategy I was taught: to allow your thoughts to pass without engaging with them, to recognise the negative ones as such, but not to dwell on them. Choosing to go somewhere, even if I did not then speak about my previous illness, but choosing to go somewhere that says 'look, I have experienced this, I know why it matters' is a bit of a poke at the wasps' nest of that exact illness. I get something on my Facebook feed from a mental health charity or a related organisation at least once a day, and even seeing those is gives me a missed-heartbeat moment sometimes.
That's my real, central negative. The things I moan about in person are usually trivial. The things I write about, whether on here in discussion or flash fiction, or when writing something more expansive (These Matters!) seem to be the ones that are about what it's really like to be me. My writing gives a clearer indication of the reality of my life, perhaps, than what I say in person. So why the title? Well, it's a reflection on the need to carry on with existence, to keep doing even when the doing seems not to bring any pleasure, immediate or saved for the future. Time itself doesn't heal wounds, I don't think, and the reality is that some wounds are not going to heal in the way we might like to think, where they do not show up, where the feelings associated with them are gone entirely. Aeneas is called away from Dido by his duty, not by choice. Her reaction (suicide; the prevention of suicide was the theme of this year's World Mental Health Day) is immediate, angry, utterly pointless. Suicide in anger, in the moment of loss of control, is hard to prevent by any means, because it is exactly the loss of control that means any sensible precaution is doomed. But that other kind, where the person has quietly and calmly reflected, weighed up, measured, and finds that dying is less of an evil than living... That can be addressed. Because the quiet and calm reflections, the measuring, the weighing up, they are all wrong if that is where they lead. That's the point, I suppose. Mental illness is illness precisely because it leads to such wrong and wrong-headed conclusions, even if they feel as though they are reached rationally. That's the rationale behind all the 'ask twice' things. It might be possible to convince yourself that you are thinking straight when you are not, but it is rarely possible to convince others of it.
Three-and-a-half years ago, I sought desperately for a formula, a mantra that would protect me against the worst of my negative thoughts. My therapist - with admirable dismissiveness - told me that 'some people have a thing that they say, but the point is that you shouldn't need a thing to say if it's working.' And in a sense she was right, the formula phrase does nothing in the moment. But it sometimes needs to feed in to those supposedly rational, calm reflections (the ones which really aren't). So I have settled on mine. If you read this blog regularly, you already know what it is. It is 'wait and hope'. Two words which capture the possibility of the future. It might not be as you wish it to be, it might not bring those things that you desperately wanted and still want. But it will bring something to smile about, even if that smile is just for a memory of something that was good. Memory can be a powerful tool in brightening as well as darkening: I can think of a moment, or a series of moments, a person, a smile, a feeling, and that can alter the flow of thoughts from essentially bad to essentially good. The darkness is still there, but it goes when that light shines into it. Sometimes the light is distant, dim, pointing in another direction altogether. But it still casts its light, and knowing that it can shine again, drive away the darkness again, is enough even in the dark.
Bringing book IV (title still TBC, by the way; perhaps I'll run a poll on here to see what you all think!) to a close is challenging. Why? Because, for someone like me who consistently writes with a very vague idea of what is going to happen next, the fact that the various endings (the siege of Exeter, the battle of Dussindale, the eventual fall of Somerset (which will probably be separated off into book V)) are fixed, secure, historical, means that I can't play quite so fast-and-loose as I sometimes might. I can't just slap Longshawe into a fight and have him single-handedly win it, not when history records his side losing. I can't sneak Edward Strelley behind the enemy line and have him frighten the life out of the enemy commander so they pack up and go home, because that's not how it happened.
I'm not in the business of writing alternative history. I follow what the books tell me, and that has two meanings worth looking at as far as history itself is concerned. The first is that there are some recorded events which are, in some sense, fixed. There's a great episode of Quantum Leap where he goes back to Dallas in 1963, thinking his job is to save the life of President Kennedy. He can't, though, because we all know he didn't. But the rather brilliant twist - and I appreciate that if you ever see this episode it's going to have lost some of its charm through you reading this - is that it wasn't President Kennedy that he was supposed to save. It was his wife (Jackie Kennedy) that he was supposed to save, and the sneaky trick of the episode was that he should have remembered she originally died, but his brain had been a bit Swiss-cheesed (that is the phrase they used, honestly) and he had forgotten that key fact. The point is that Sam can't save John F Kennedy, because we all know he died. So I can't fly in the face of history, not where there is a good train of evidence. I might push against a record here and there, especially where detailed conclusions are drawn from minimal actual documentation, or where one record is followed by all the subsequent historians. Look out for a good old plot twist in a future book about that (I won't be the first to have thought of this twist, but it'll be the best version of it I've read, on the simple grounds of being the only one I've read).
The second way of looking at the history books as a source of inspiration is in terms of the real historical characters. I wrote a review of Christine Hartweg's book about John Dudley recently, in which I agreed with her basic point that he wasn't the darkly scheming, black-hearted Bad Duke of some historians' interpretations, but I did maintain that the overwhelming majority of writers on the subject see in the marriage of Guildford to Jane, and the alteration of the succession in her favour, a plan to try to win royal power for himself. And her line of argument is persuasive in the sense that it recasts John as a weary old man, rather than one who has always sought supreme power, but it does not save him - in my judgement - from the charge of usurpation and the almost worse charge of involving the largely innocent Jane in his plan.
Edward Seymour, Cranmer, the king himself, and many others that feature in book IV are directly products of something or other I have read or seen in 'serious' history. Yes, they are my interpretation, but they are anchored in the opinions of others better qualified to give them. Why don't I mention Elizabeth? Because in her story with Strelley, I have perhaps wandered that bit further from the established truth than with any of the others. Having said that, her slipperiness both during her long wait to become queen and during her reign, and her love of flattery by courtiers, and her refusal to marry even the one man she was supposed to have truly loved in Robert Dudley all point to something extra, over and above what the history books record. Some think it was her experience with Thomas Seymour, and I can see that. An older man who, apparently at least, was charismatic, charming and successful with intelligent and independent women, focusing all his attention on her. But I still think the interpretation which says she was a relative innocent is the right one. Fourteen-year-old girls seducing grown men is a rarity, and we aren't talking about a worldly girl. I don't think she was frustrated as Thomas Seymour's lover, in that I don't see him as the one life love event that made her who she became, and I do have this inkling that her adult personality was at least in part informed by a frustrated love. Although it would be accurate to say that I did not know Edward Strelley was that love until quite far into writing the books! So my Elizabeth is, despite the vast amount written, said, shown on the TV and in film and in whatever other media about her, more of an imagined character than some of the other peripheral characters. It has been a strange sort of privilege to get to know her over the time I have been writing about her: privilege because she is a great character, and strange because I feel I have a sense of her, a reading of her, that is entirely mine, despite her fame. In my mind's eye, she is not a creature of my imagination, rather she is real, her movements and her words and her face are all absolutely there independent of any effort of mine to conjure them. She does not really look like her portrait, not the youthful one attributed to Scrotus (really) or the older, more famous ones. But that doesn't matter. She may be long gone, but what she did, what she means, echoes on. So it is for her in my mind. So it is for her in Edward Strelley's mind, and I think him in her mind, divided as they are by fate, accidents of their birth rather than choices they made or make.
“It's subjunctive history. You know, the subjunctive? The mood used when something may or may not have happened. When it is imagined.”
Welcome to Sheffield...
Since the arrival of the new cohort of university types in Sheffield a couple of weekends ago, it has rained. Consistently, persistently, for a few hours alarmingly, it has chucked it down. Incessantly. Newcomers to the town may be given the wrong impression that the city is a wet mess. It isn't always, I have to say. Sometimes, it's nice. Sometimes, it's warm and dry and pleasant. But you have to be here at the right time to get it. Thinking back to twenty years ago when I was choosing universities to apply to, I can't get over the connection between the weather on the day I went to visit and my lasting impression of the places that I could have gone to study for three years. For example, York is, to my mind, a tremendously cold place with a lot of ducks. I shouldn't comment on it, really, because I was there for a few hours at the most. But that's what I think of when the word 'York' drops into a conversation.
I haven't been to that many places, all things considered, but there are a few of those places where for some reason I have a specific and lasting image. Rome is one. I have only visited a couple of times as an adult, but for whatever reason I have an unreasonable love of the place that is absolutely committed. It is a place to which I might retire. Paris, by contrast, to me, is 'meh', despite all the wonderful things that are there. Some places you associate with a particular experience, so for me the areas around north and east London that I can remember are places where cricket happens, and not a great deal else. That's what I did when I was there, so that's what happens there, in my mind. And a reasonable amount of young adult irresponsibility to go with it...
As a kid, I would have told you that Sheffield was rubbish. It is a place where I struggled to find my role, casting around as a teenager to fit in. I would have told you that it was small and struggled to attract the good musical acts that I wanted to see. Some time later, I can see that it is a place with just the right amount of stuff going on, not so much that you feel that fear of missing out that London almost inevitably brings - you'll never see the same person twice in London, almost no matter where you choose to go - but equally it's not so quiet as once I thought. It was, in my youth, a kind of prison, I suppose, from which the great adventure of university was supposed to be an escape. But some time later, it seems to be part of the fabric of who I am. Which makes it all the more irritating that each time I meet a new person who is local, they feel forced to ask where I am from, because of the ambiguity of my accent. It isn't right for the place, they seem to think. In my face.
But going away and being away was the thing. I don't feel at home when I go back to the places I inhabited even for several years. London is almost defined by its population of semi-permanent residents, those who go there in their early twenties to have a good time and to find riches and glory. There isn't much in the way of glory to be found there, and for most of us, any riches we might accumulate are instantly committed to the dangerously high rents for anything resembling comfortable housing. Home is a curious concept, because it is so personal, so inward. Other folks write their songs of praise for their city or their country and it is next to impossible to get into them because of that essential other-ness that those places represent. One day, perhaps, I'll finally get round to writing my song of Sheffield.
It'll probably be a bit rude, include a few references to places that used to be something else (anyone who can accurately locate the legendary fish-and-chip shop run by David Baldwin will definitely get a joke aimed at them), something about a knife, and maybe the Castleton-is-beyond-Hope joke. Approximately no people will care. But it'll be mine.
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought