Archive for September, 2014

Less Than Angels – Barbara Pym

LTA(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

This, her fourth novel, moves away from the world of the church into the world of anthropologists. It’s based on her own experiences working at the African Institute in London. ‘After the war, I got a job at the International African Institute in London. I was mostly engaged in editorial work, smoothing out the written results of other people’s researches, but I learned more than that in the process. I learned how it was possible and even essential to cultivate an attitude of detachment towards life and people, and how the novelist could even do “field-work” as the anthropologist did. And I also met a great many people of a type I hadn’t met before. The result of all this was a novel called Less Than Angels, which is about anthropologists working at a research centre in London, and also the suburban background of Deirdre, one of the heroines, and her life with her mother and aunt. There’s a little church life in it too, so that it could be said to be a mixture of all the worlds I had experience of.  I felt in this novel that I was breaking new ground by venturing into the academic scene.’ –Barbara Pym, “Finding a Voice” (1978 BBC radio talk)

She uses her experience in her portraits of impecunious young students vying for study grants and the sometimes less than ethical way that handsome men inveigle money for their projects from susceptible widows.

Themes include the breakup of relationships and bereavement, (quoting a passage addressed to men in Jane Austen’s Persuasion—“we certainly do not forget you so soon as you forget us” — to show that for some women a life of passive heartbreak had not changed much,” young love and the ups and downs of everyday domestic life.

We also see how the post-war English society of the 1950s was still influenced by Edwardian values yet had been profoundly changed: “Two wars, motor cars, and newer and ever more frightful bombs being invented all the time” (Mark Penfold); a lack of servants (Rhoda Wellcome), and “women consider themselves our equals now… [although] men were once the stronger sex” (Digby Fox). The by which the English middle-classes maintained their imperial power, was also changing and not only in the way suggested by Mark, that in West Africa “the roar of the high-powered motor-car of the urbanized anthropologist” was more likely to be heard than the roar of wild beasts.

Anthropologists don’t need to go to Africa. They can observe a debutante ball, men’s clubs and suburban courtship practices: the fur cape and pearls of the upper-middle class lady, the umbrella and briefcase of the businessman, and the squire’s shooting-stick, likened to a chief’s regalia. Although Charles Burkhart claims that “She has made Africa come home to suburbia and found that they are the same”, Pym uses African culture to show how repressed English society is. The decline of empire might be a symbol for impotence and loss.

The genteel, polite, ladies tend not to mention sex. It is kept under wraps. Yet there is a fascination with uninhibited African sexuality as, in the final chapter, Tom’s sister, Josephine, supposes that Tom’s African carvings would be “very crude stuff… not the kind of thing one would want to have in one’s house,” Catherine agrees: “Some of them are positively rude!”. Cf. Minnie Foresight’s taking exception to an academic article (about tribal initiation ceremonies with an account of behaviour and a rough translation of songs which she found “most shocking;” she was “deeply disturbed” by the “unpleasant details”) as obscene.

Middle Englanders lack interest in other people’s lives, especially those in “darkest Africa”. Pym describes suburbia as a cosy, decorative place that stifles imagination, but she also indicates “the dreadful things in the world” that lie behind it. Alaric Lydgate says that, “life was very terrible whatever sort of front we might put on it, and only the eyes of the very young or the very old and wise could look on it with a clear untroubled gaze” Television and radio are used to drug the mind rather than to gain understanding of people not like oneself. However, newspapers are read. The two sensational news-items at the time were Mau Mau terror campaign (for political independence from Britain) in Kenya, and the trial of the serial killer, John Christie, who hid the bodies of his female victims around his house. His conviction led the change in legislation regarding the death penalty in Britain, because he was found guilty of a murder for which Timothy Evans had earlier been hanged after Christie gave evidence against him. Full details of the Mau Mau atrocities against women were concealed from the British public and Pym does not mention them. However, she does show Deirdre’s Aunt Rhoda, “in common with a good many people from all walks of life”, avidly reading about the murder of women whose bodies had been secreted in a London house. So English society is shown to be just as “primitive” and “uncivilised” as it considers African society to be.

At the beginning, Catherine Oliphant, a central character who writes romantic stories for magazines, ss sitting in a cafe speculating about the people sitting near her, wondering what their real stories are.

Tom is another mayor character, a brilliant anthropology graduate who gained a fellowship to do field work in Africa on kinship structures.

Catherine makes a (“catty?”) comment to Tom about how much his indifference has wounded her: “Your people wait for you. How soothing it will be to get away from all this complexity of personal relationships to the simplicity of a primitive tribe, whose only complications are in their kinship structure and rules of land tenure, which you can observe with the anthropologist’s calm detachment.”

Some see him as “a kind of Lawrence of Arabia figure —so very far from the truth”

‘I should have thought that one might have discerned the faintest glimmer of his genius by now.’

‘Certainly his conversation isn’t brilliant, perhaps even ours is a little better than his’, said Digby uncertainly. ‘And I thought the paper he read in the seminar last term – well – confused’, he added, plunging further into disloyalty. Mark took him up eagerly on this point and they went into a rather technical discussion at the end of which they had the satisfaction of proving, at least to themselves, that Tom, far from being brilliant, was in some ways positively stupid and not always even sound.

‘Almost a diffusionist’, said Mark, his eyes sparkling with malice.

‘Oh, come’, said Digby in a shocked tone. Feeling that they had perhaps gone a little too far, he changed the subject.

If Tom is the hare, Digby is the tortoise who sees himself as “worthy, painstaking and biding his time” and, as Professor Mainwaring assessed him, “very conscientious and will probably make an excellent husband and father”. Digby shares Pym’s own wit, summing up Tom as “detribalized” and cracks jokes with his fellow student, Mark, and who sings an air from La Bohême in their squalid student digs.

There are those who say that Pym drew on a female tradition of the genre of the Woman’s Novel enabling her to yoke male-dominated academic anthropology together with the popular female culture of dress-making and table-setting. Edwin Ardener said of her work that it was “far beyond our time” in its portrayal of the “strange unreliability that respected figures show in her novels,” and in its “perception of disturbing chasms beneath the social surface.” Although Pym’s work of the 1950s seemed decorous, it was obliquely a forerunner of the rebellious feminist writings of the 1960s’ Women’s Liberation Movement pioneered by radicals such as Germaine Greer and Margaret Atwood.

I had to look up ‘topee’ = a lightweight hat worn in tropical countries for protection from the sun. Not a word in the current OED.

Pym is said to have done her research into anglo-catholicism. It is odd, therefore, that she mentions an organ playing at an early Sunday morning Low Mass. Low Mass is, by definition, a said service with no music. And I doubt whether, even back in the 1950s, there would be as many as a hundred communicants.

I liked the statement about ladies, after lunch, who left the dishes as washing up ‘was not their custom.’

Quotations

She left the bathroom as she would wish to find it, folding her own towels and everyone else’s in a special way that pleased her. It worried her a little that Malcolm was not yet in, for he would spoil the symmetrical arrangement … Before going back to her own room, Rhoda went quietly downstairs to see if her sister had laid the breakfast satisfactorily. She saw that Mabel had made an effort, but there were one or two things missing, the marmalade spoon and the mats for the coffee; she put right these omissions and then returned quietly to her room. Deirdre’s hand still lay on Tom’s; their moussaka would be getting cold, Catherine thought, and then pulled herself up, horrified at the sardonic detachment with which she had been watching them… I’m not one of those excellent women*, who can just go home and eat a boiled egg and make a cup of tea and be very splendid, she thought, but how useful it would be if I were!

Catherine often wondered whether anthropologists became so absorbed in studying the ways of strange societies that they forgot what was usual in their own.

And so it came about that, like many other well meaning people, they worried not so much about the dreadful things themselves as about their own inability to worry about them.

When one came to consider it, what could be more primitive than the rigid ceremonial of launching a debutante on the marriage market?

Like so many clergymen he had of necessity acquired that easy confidence in dealing with unmarried middle-aged women which is not often granted to the layman

‘After all, life isn’t really so unpleasant as some writer make out, is it?’ she added hopefully.

‘No, perhaps not.  It’s comic and sad and indefinite – dull, sometimes, but seldom really tragic or deliriously happy, except when one’s very young.’

“…I’m writing a story about somebody who’s just come back from Africa. I’ve made him a big game hunter, that seems suitable for the type of people who will read it. Naturally I have to make him have thoughts about the country he’s been in, and I was wondering if they were too wildly improbable.”
“I’m afraid I should be no judge of that,” said Alaric. ”I shouldn’t like to say what thoughts might be in the mind of a big game hunter.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean that exactly. You see, I have him sitting in this West Kensington hotel, remembering the noise of the rain splashing down among the mangroves, or the laughing faces of the women bringing in the yams…But would the rain splash down among the mangroves, and would the women bring in the yams?”

Mark craned head round to read what she had been writing; it seemed be an article about how to give an ‘inexpensive’ cocktail party.

‘Yes, darling, “inexpensive” or cheap, really,’ said Catheri­ne brightly. ‘Don’t get the best French vermouth and put more and more ice with the drinks so that as time goes on people will be drinking coloured melted ice-water and they don’t even know! And if they suspect, then they’re horrid people and not the kind you’d want to have at your party anyway. Writing is such a comfort, isn’t it, that’s what people always say — it really does take you out of yourself. I sometimes feel it lets you more into yourself, though, and really the very worst part.’

“She wished she had a ‘nice book’, something that would take her out of herself, but the bookshelf  by her bed wasn’t very encouraging, and only made her think what very strange  books people gave as Confirmation presents. The only real book of devotion she had, suitably enough from her headmistress, told her that we are strangers and pilgrims here and must endure the heart’s banishment, and she felt that she knew that anyway”.

“A very curious sound, which it is impossible to reproduce here, then came from her. Has she been in the company of ordinary people, it might have been supposed that something had gone down the wrong way and that she was choking, but here nobody took any particular notice of her or Father Gemini when he cried excitedly, “No, no, it is this!” and proceeded to emit a sound which would have appeared to the initiated exactly the same as Miss Lydgate’s choking noise.”

“There are few experiences more boring or painful for a woman than an evening spent in the company of one man when she is longing to be with another, and that evening Bernard’s dullness seemed to have a positive quality about it so that it was almost a physical agony, like the dentist’s drill pressing on a sensitive tooth.”

“They were soon absorbed in the play, for it was about people like themselves, being an adaptation of a well-known stage success. After a while both the sisters realized they had seen it before, but neither could remember exactly how it ended. So life seemed to go round in a circle, with tables hurtling through the air.”

“Of course it’s alright for librarians to smell of drink.”

A thesis must be long. The object, you see, is to bore and stupefy the examiners to such an extent that they will have to accept it —only if a thesis is short enough to be read all through word for word is there any danger of failure..

“If we lamented the decay of the great civilizations of the past, he thought, should we not also regret the dreary leveling down of our own?”

“He often thought what a good thing it would be if the wearing of masks or animals’ heads could become customary for persons over a certain age. How restful social intercourse would be if the face did not have to assume any expression–the strained look of interest, the simulated delight or surprise, the anxious concern one didn’t really feel. ”

“Do they understand the principles of cooking as we know it?” asked Rhoda.
“Oh, yes, a good many of them do,” said Alaric. “In some very primitive societies, though, they would just fling the unskinned carcase on the fire and hope for the best.”
“Yes, like that film of the Australian aborigines we saw at the Anthropology Club,” said Deirdre. “They flung a kangaroo on the fire and cooked it like that.”
“Now who would like some potato salad?” said Rhoda, feeling that there was something a little unappetizing about the conversation. She had imagined that the presence of what she thought of as clever people would bring about some subtle change in the usual small talk. The sentences would be bright jugglers’ balls, spinning through the air and being deftly caught and thrown up again. But she saw now the conversation could also be compared to a series of incongruous objects, scrubbing-brushes, dish-clothes, knives, being flung or hurtling rather than spinning, which were sometimes not caught at all but fell to the ground with resounding thuds.

Catherine is thinking this after Tom’s aunt has come to visit her: The day was coming to its end, and although it had been tiring and upsetting it had at least been full and that, she supposed, was all to the good. Pain, amusement, surprise, resignation, were all woven together into a kind of fabric whose colour and texture she could hardly visualize as yet. Something with little lumps on it, she thought, knobs or knops as it said in the fashion magazines.

“…though life was sometimes too strong and raw and must be made palatable by fancy, as tough meat may be made tender by mincing”.

“…and secondly because it was helpful to missionaries and government officials to know as much as possible about the people they sought to evangelize or govern”.
“And so it came about that, like many other well-meaning people, they worried not so much about the dreadful things themselves as about their own inability to worry about them”.

“He often thought what a good thing it would be if the wearing of masks or animals’ heads could become customary for persons over a certain age. How restful social intercourse would be if the face did not have to assume any expression–the strained look of interest, the simulated delight or surprise, the anxious concern one didn’t really feel”.
“Miss Clovis was acting as secretary to the selection committee and enjoyed the work, which was congenial to her natural curiosity about people and her desire to arrange their lives for them”.
“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things, she decided, wondering how many writers and philosophers had said this before her, the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard”.
“Understanding somebody else’s filing system is just about as easy as really getting to know another human being” .

“Men appeared to be so unsubtle, but perhaps it was only by contrast with the tortuous delicacy of women…”.

“…having the power to grant her moments of happiness but being very stingy with them just now”.

“…and in the evening read her favourite depressing poets, Hardy, Matthew Arnold and the lesser Victorians…”.

“Oh, what cowards scholars are! When you think how poets and novelists rush in with their analyses of the human heart and mind and soul, of which they often have far less knowledge than darling Tom has of his tribe”.

“Her words seemed to ring out among the peacocks, making Catherine wonder if they often heard or witnessed the deeper passion. The gossipy office chatter, the dreary female conversation, the quiet furtive hand-holdings, would be more what they were accustomed to, she felt” .

“Tom left the room feeling rather sad. He had the impression that his uncle was a kind of prisoner, or a sacrifice laid before the altar of the television set which demanded a constant tribute of victims”.

“Digby, characteristically, took up a handful of pieces of the sky and began trying to fit them together, leaving the more interesting sections of gondolas, water and buildings to Mark and the girls”.

“ ‘Writing is such a comfort, isn’t it, that’s what people always say–it really does take you out of yourself. I sometimes feel it lets you more into yourself, though, and really the very worst part’”.

“But sometimes, she thought, grief was all one had to give them and even then one was conscious of the poverty of one’s feelings, as if there were some lack in oneself that prevented one from suffering as deeply, as splendidly almost, as people did in the works of sensitive female novelists”.

* the title of another of her novels

return to the home page

Advertisements

Leave a Comment

The Joan Collins Fan Club: My life with Fanny the Wonder Dog – Julian Clary and Paul Merton

TJCFC(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

I used to loathe camp comedians like Larry Grayson so I was nonplussed when Julian Clary hit the television screens. I thought mincing comedians were a thing of the past. Then it dawned on me that this was something different. Clary didn’t put himself down. He used his biting sarcasm to put other people down. Men in the audience were often the victims. So now we have a sort of retro-camp coming from someone highly intelligent.

The print looks like something out of a students’ rag magazine of the 1970s.

It isn’t laugh out loud funny wit the double entendres make me smile.

‘I hit rock bottom. I became a student’.

A groping landlord.

Hans Drops his Trousers is set in pre-war Berlin. The trousers obviously represent the Weimar republic and the very fact that Hans drops them is indicative of the middle class’ rejection of Hindenburg’s economic policy. Undoubtedly the underpants symbolise the emergence of National Socialism. The outline of his sexual organs clearly predicts the construction of the autobahns. Previously released under the title Show us your Arse, Square Head, this epic work captures perfectly the mood of decadence only hinted at in the earlier movie Watch out Gustav, there’s a Homosexual Behind you. ‘Highly recommended’

‘Who cuts your hair for you — is it the council?’

`Shut up and act like a man,’ I retorted, ‘or don’t you do impressions?’

`What a lovely shirt you’re wearing,Brian,’ I said. ‘Such a pity the shop didn’t have your size.”

I felt several beads of sweat on my forehead, which I quickly fashioned into a necklace

Men like you don’t grow in trees.You usually we swing from them.

The conclusion: As I look back over my life with Fanny the Wonder Dog, I realise that she has manipulated events to suit her own purposes. And I suppose I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. She is a remarkable creature, a spiritual being in contact with the Universe and all the lamp-posts in it.

return to the home page

Leave a Comment

The Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes

TSOAE(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This book is beautifully written. Also, and I rarely comment on this, the book is nicely printed and pleasant to handle.

It’s a meditation on memory. We all perceive things differently. I rarely meet up with old friends – except at funerals. With the advent of Facebook and Friends reunited, it has become very easy to trace people from our past. But I am not sure that this is a good idea. They remember things differently. What advantage is there in reminiscing? We can’t change anything once it has happened.

Teenage boys like to appear suave. The clever ones discuss philosophy and try to get one up on their teachers. It can be quite endearing but, for those of us who have been teachers, it all becomes rather predictable and boring. E.g.: “What is history? Any thoughts, Webster?’

‘History is the lies of the victors,’ I replied, a little too quickly.

‘Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated. …

‘Finn?’

‘”History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” (quoting Patrick Lagrange)”

“History is a raw onion sandwich, it just repeats, it burps. We’ve seen it again and again this year. Same old story, Same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment”

Along with their typically abstract musing about time and history and memory, there’s a sense of mystery that runs through the book.

Suicide always leaves lots of loose ends that keep one wondering what part we may have played in it and knowing that we will never ever know for sure.

Some suggest that Tony is gay. I doubt it. However, that was my initial reason for reading this book since another gay book group had chosen it recently.

One reviewer doubted that the term ‘control freak’ existed when Tony was a student. Well, it started to be used in the late 1960s so it’s just possible. Or, given that the narrative is largely made up of Tony’s memories, it could be that he was using the term retrospectively.

The ending confuses some people but it’s ingenious.

Quotations:

“My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.”

a “two-word, two-finger response”

“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature…..When you’re young – when I was young – you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality. Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become. You want them to tell you that things are OK. And is there anything wrong with that?… Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. Our attitudes and opinions change, we develop new habits and eccentricities; but that’s something different, more like decoration. Perhaps character resembles intelligence, except that character peaks a little later: between twenty and thirty, say. And after that, we’re just stuck with what we’ve got. We’re on our own. If so, that would explain a lot of lives, wouldn’t it? And also – if this isn’t too grand a word – our tragedy….. I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy) would be in attendance. However…who said that thing about “the littleness of life that art exaggerates”? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life….“Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, and how we lose it…..“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents–were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was about: Love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God.”

`How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but—mainly—to ourselves.”

“What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

“We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”

“I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another. How could we not,except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbours, companions? And then there is the question on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it,and how this affects our dealings with others. Some admit the damage, and try to mitigate it;some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves, at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless, and the ones to be careful of.”

“Yes, of course we were pretentious — what else is youth for?”

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but we were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them. Time…give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical.”

“I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.”

“History isn’t the lies of the victors, as I once glibly assured Old Joe Hunt; I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious or defeated.”

“And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”

“That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.”

“I thought of the things that had happened to me over the years, and of how little I had made happen.”

“I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.”

“And no, it wasn’t shame I now felt, or guilt, but something rarer in my life and stronger than both: remorse. A feeling which is more complicated, curdled, and primeval. Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to be made.”

“What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival? Who paid his bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels? One whose self-rebukes never really inflicted pain? Well, there was all this to reflect upon, while I endured a special kind of remorse: a hurt inflicted at long last on one who always thought he knew how to avoid being hurt – and inflicted for precisely that reason.”

“The more you learn, the less you fear. “Learn” not in the sense of academic study, but in the practical understanding of life.”

“Also, when you are young, you think you can predict the likely pains and bleaknesses that age might bring. You imagine yourself being lonely, divorced, widowed; children growing away from you, friends dying. You imagine the loss of status, the loss of desire – and desirability. You may go further and consider your own approaching death, which, despite what company you may muster, can only be faced alone. But all this is looking ahead. What you fail to do is look ahead, and then imagine yourself looking back from the future point. Learning the new emotions that time brings. Discovering, for example, that as the witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. Even if you have assiduously kept records – in words, sound, pictures – you may find that you have attended to the wrong kind of record-keeping. What was the line Adrian used to quote? ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

“Life seemed even more of a guessing game than usual.”

“We live with such easy assumptions, don’t we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it’s all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient— it’s not useful— to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”

“In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian’s terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse – a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred – about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.”

“Later on in life, you expect a bit of rest, don’t you? You think you deserve it. I did, anyway. But then you begin to understand that the reward of merit is not life’s business.”

“But I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time—love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions—and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives—then I plead guilty.”

“He had a better mind and a more rigorous temperament than me; he thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought. Whereas most of us, I suspect, do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reasoning to justify it. And call the result common sense.”

“In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when the moment came, our lives — and time itself — would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible.”

“Whisky, I find, helps clarity of thought. And reduces pain. It has the additional virtue of making you drunk or, if taken in sufficient quantity, very drunk.”

“There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond this there is great unrest.”

“Some of the freckles I once loved are now closer to liver spots. But it’s still the eyes we look at, isn’t it? That’s where we found the other person, and find them still.”

“The next day, when I was sober, I thought again about the three of us, and about time’s many paradoxes. For instance: that when we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully.”

“When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later.. later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches.”

“I have at times tried to imagine the despair which leads to suicide, attempted to conjure up the slew and slop of darkness in which only death appears as a pinprick of light: in other words, the exact opposite of the normal condition of life.”

“I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory. So when this strange this happened – when these new memories suddenly came upon me – it was as if, for that moment, time had been placed in reverse. As if, for that moment, the river ran upstream.”

“Discovering, for example, that as witnesses to your life diminish, there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been.

“When we’re young, everyone over the age of thirty looks middle-aged, everyone over fifty antique. And time, as it goes by, confirms that we weren’t that wrong. Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young erode. We end up all belonging to the same category, that of the non-young. I’ve never much minded this myself.”

“Though why should we expect age to mellow us? If it isn’t life’s business to reward merit, why should it be life’s business to give us warm comfortable feelings towards its end? What possible evolutionary purpose could nostalgia serve?”

“I remember laughing with relief that the same old adolescent boredom goes on from generation to generation. …the words took me back to my own years of stagnancy, and that terrible waiting for life to begin. ”

“In those years before mobile phones, email and Skype, travelers depended on the rudimentary communications system known as the postcard. Other methods–the long-distance phone call, the telegram–were marked “For Emergency Use Only.” So my parents waved me off into the unknown, and their news bulletins about me would have been restricted to “Yes, he’s arrived safely,”and “Last time we heard he was in Oregon,” and “We expect him back in a few weeks.” I’m not saying this was necessarily better, let alone more character-forming; just that in my case it probably helped not to have my parents a button’s touch away, spilling out anxieties and long-range weather forecasts, warning me against floods, epidemics and psychos who preyed on backpackers…..Back then, things were plainer: less money, no electronic devices, little fashion tyranny, no girlfriends. There was nothing to distract us from our human and filial duty which was to study, pass exams, use those qualifications to find a job, and then put together a way of life unthreateningly fuller than that of our parents, who would approve, while privately comparing it to their own earlier lives, which had been simpler, and therefore superior…..“Back in ‘my day’ – though I didn’t claim ownership of it at the time, this is what used to happen: you met a girl, you were attracted to her, you tried to ingratiate yourself, you would invite her to a couple of social events – for instance the pub – and then ask her out on her own, then again, and after a goodnight kiss of variable heat, you were somehow, officially, ‘going out’ with her. Only when you were semi-publicly committed did you discover what her sexual policy might be. And sometimes this meant her body would be as tightly guarded as a fisheries exclusion zone.”

“Someone once said that his favourite times in history were when things were collapsing, because that meant something new was being born. Does this make any sense if we apply it to our individual lives? To die when something new is being born – even if that something new is our very own self? Because just as all political and historical change sooner or later disappointments, so does adulthood. So does life. Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“But cockteasing is also a metaphor: she is someone who will manipulate your inner self while holding hers back from you.”

“Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?

“In the letter he left for the coroner he had explained his reasoning (for suicide): that life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is the moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision. … Alex showed me a clipping from the Cambridge Evening News. ‘Tragic Death of “Promising” Young Man.’ … The verdict of the coroner’s inquest had been that Adrian Flinn (22) had killed himself ‘while the balance of his mind was disturbed.’ … The law, and society, and religion all said it was impossible to be sane, healthy, and kill yourself. Perhaps those authorities feared that the suicide’s reasoning might impugn the nature and value of life as organised by the state which paid the coroner?”

“I remember, in no particular order:
– a shiny inner wrist;
– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;
– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;
– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by half a dozen chasing torchbeams;
– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;
– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door. This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

“When we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful; whereas when the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we are more armoured and have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully.”

“Adrian’s fragment also refers to the question of responsibility: whether there’s a chain of it, or whether we draw the concept more narrowly. I’m all for drawing it narrowly. Sorry, no, you can’t blame your dead parents, or having brothers and sisters, or not having them, or your genes, or society, or whatever – not in normal circumstances. Start with the notion that yours is the sole responsibility unless there’s powerful evidence to the contrary.”

“When you are in your twenties, even if you’re confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. Later…later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches. It’s a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it’s obvious why you did; if you don’t, then the log of your journey is much less clear.”

“Some Englishman once said marriage is a long dull meal with pudding served first”

“The law, and society, and religion all said it was impossible to be sane, healthy, and kill yourself. Perhaps those authorities feared that the suicide‟s reasoning might impugn the nature and value of life as organised by the state which paid the coroner? And then, since you had been declared temporarily mad, your reasons for killing yourself were also assumed to be mad. So I doubt anyone paid much attention to Adrian‟s argument, with its references to philosophers ancient and modern, about the superiority of the intervening act over the unworthy passivity of merely letting life happen to you.”

“For most of us, the first experience of love, even if it doesn’t work out-perhaps especially when it doesn’t work out-promises that here is the thing that validates, that vindicates life.”

“Those little age differentials, so crucial and so gross when we are young, erode. We end up belonging to the same category, that of the non-young. I’ve never much minded this myself.”

“After a long analysis of Robson’s suicide, we concluded that it could only be considered philosophical in an arithmetical sense of the term: he, being about to cause an increase of one in the human population, had decided it was his ethical duty to keep the planet’s numbers constant.”

“You may say, But wasn’t this the Sixties? Yes, but only for some people, only in certain parts of the country.”

“You can take Lucas to watch football when he’s older,’ she once told me. Ah, the rheumy-eyed grandpa on the terraces inducting the lad into the mysteries of soccer: how to loathe people wearing different coloured shirts, how to feign injury, how to blow your snot on to the pitch – See, son, you press hard on one nostril to close it, and explode the green stuff out of the other. How to be vain and overpaid and have your best years behind you before you’ve even understood what life’s about. Oh yes, I look forward to taking Lucas to the football.”

“… forty’s nothing, at fifty you’re in your prime, sixty’s the new forty, and so on.”

“….in this country shadings of class resist time longer than differentials in age”

“If I can’t be sure of the actual events any more, I can at least be true to the impressions those facts left.”

“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age,” Tony says, “when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.”

“It seemed to us philosophically self-evident that suicide was every free person’s right: a logical act when faced with illness or senility; a heroic one when faced with torture or the avoidable deaths of others; a glamourous one in the fury of dissappointed love (see: Great Literature).”

“If I hadn’t decided on cremation and a scattering, I could have used the phrase as an epitaph on a chunk of stone or marble: “Tony Webster—He Never Got It.” But that would be too melodramatic, even self-pitying. How about “He’s on His Own Now”? That would be better, truer. Or maybe I’ll stick with: “Every Day Is Sunday.”

“Our parents thought we might be corrupted by one another into becoming whatever it was they most feared: an incorrigible masturbator, a winsome homosexual, a recklessly impregnatory libertine. On our behalf they dreaded the closeness of adolescent friendship, the predatory behaviour of strangers on trains, the lure of the wrong kind of girl. How far their anxieties outran our experience.”

“I settled into a contented routine of working, spending my free time with Veronica and, back in my student room, wanking explosively to fantasies of her splayed beneath me or arched above me. Daily intimacy made me proud of knowing about make-up, clothes policy, the feminine razor, and the mystery and consequences of a woman’s periods. I found myself envying this regular reminder of something so wholly female and defining, so connected to the great cycle of nature.”

“You like this stuff?’ she asked neutrally. ‘Good to dance to,’ I replied, a little defensively. ‘Do you dance to it? Here? In your room? By yourself?’ ‘No, not really.’ Though of course I did.”

“you find yourself repeating, ‘They grow up so quickly, don’t they?’ when all you really mean is: time goes faster for me nowadays.”

“historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism. It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is the most suspect.”

return to the home page

Leave a Comment