The Grand Parent

Julian’s ‘madness’ – diagnosed at the time as a variant of paranoid schizophrenia – seemed to involve two modes of suffering. One comprised an immersion in complicated fusions of London geography, centres of power and the pervasiveness of dark forces that sought to foment a race war. He saw evidence of such conspiracies everywhere during his long, daily wandering through the city and had devised a special circuit that took him past powerful places, enabling him to develop some sort of immunity against the darkness. He clearly passed much of his time in a state of great anxiety but there were times when he was mad and an ironic commentator on his condition at the same time.

Buckingham Palace, for example, was an important power point and Julian would push through the crowds of tourists, grasp the gates and roar “Mummy!” with all the vocal force that his actor’s training afforded him.

He told me of these exploits in one of his ‘down’ periods and I laughed out loud. Not only had he crystallised and exploited some of the normally occluded mechanisms of the joke engine but he’d overridden the popular notion that crazy people don’t know what they’re doing. Julian was immensely entertaining at the best of times and now, when things were dreadful, his wit and his skills remained intact, countering the assumption that to be mad was to be comprehensively out to lunch.



Peter is unworldly. You see Peter you think ‘What happened there?’ or ‘What didn’t happen there?’ Did he grow up never having to be afraid and this made him unquestioning or was he treated in such a way that he shrank from the world lest it eat him? And Susan is unworldly. And with Susan were there gardens and fresh air and close family or was something so protractedly shocking that it was best to look away and stay like that? But they had charm and you thought I wish I could be like that. But in a way it’s luxurious. You never have to think. But if that were all there was to it then many people would be charming and they’re not.

But I can think of a charming guy called Guy, many years ago, who seemed to drift through the world never catching his elbows on the corners and I remember thinking even at the time ‘I’d really like to be like that.’ He was probably 13. I was too. He did not lack personality, indeed, what it mostly was, I think, was that he had what we might now call a style of masculinity – I certainly never thought about things like that back then, in a way it wasn’t possible to – quite unlike so many other guys. In a sense he was less masculine, in that the available styles at that time were all minor variants on capability: some physical, some cerebral, some jack the lad or jack the wit. Guy was laid back – dreamy, smiley. Not a div though, not a village idiot. Arty. Or destined to be. Not that I had any advanced models of that for reference at that time. With hindsight I can see that the same applied to Richard, who had no academic skill but became a designer of successful chairs. Richard was also laid back perhaps slightly more emphatic. I often wonder what happened to Guy when the 60s came round. If he managed to remain laid back he would have effortlessly walked into the whole beat thing and flourished. I knew posh boys who pulled this off but it was a class-based languor – the world was already theirs so no hurry, really. But it did seem with Guy that he had a position, an attitude, an evaluation. Not because of what he wasn’t taking up but what he was like as a result of not having taken up anything that was being offered.

Reminds me of Charlie this kid my girls were at school with – he had the dreamy thing too. One time Charlie was in a race at school sports, about 60 meters maybe. The kids pelted off and Charlie walked it. Not in the sense of winning easily but in the sense of refraining from running at all. Just strolling. Not truculent. No swagger. Not grinning about it, just politely, not resignedly, doing the absolute minimum. I was with his mum and she laughed affectionately. 15 years later my younger daughter told me she’d seen him in the street and, like everybody said, she said, he was so immensely cool. Unbelievably good looking and cool. I don’t know if he had acquired a swagger. You couldn’t blame him if that were the case. But pleasing if he hadn’t.

Magnificent qualities. Despite the popular rise of sociopathy, there has been, over the last two or three decades, a softening of the male. In some quarters at least. I remember starting to come across young guys, initially in shapeless pullovers, whose performance impact was low. They seemed reserved. Modest. This was not to be confused with dull or humourless or retiring or unexpressive. Or dreamy. (Dreamy is fine but only one mode in an array defined by the absence of a fetishisation of capability. Not that these people were not capable. That’s not what I’m saying.) Even ‘cool’ carries the notion of arrogance, distance, not deigning to descend, probably petrified. But these were young men who had somehow sidestepped the gauntlet.


Pleasant Enough

Given the clairvoyant accuracy of J. G. Ballard’s assertion in the 1990s that ‘The 21st century will be the century of the psychopath’ it is not surprising that over the last couple of decades these largely male, white and profoundly disturbed figures have come to populate a significant and steadily increasing portion of TV and film thrillers and high finance dramas.

In the second season of the Danish psychological thriller series ‘Those Who Kill’, titled ‘Blinded’, we see an emerging variant of the ‘high-functioning’ psychopath who has already become prominent in such finance dramas as ‘Billions’ and ‘Devils’. In these latter are found ruthless businessmen (and some women) for whom betrayal is routine and there is no such person as the colleague who cannot be professionally destroyed if the full realisation of scruple-free schemes is to be achieved.

These financiers are charismatic, well groomed and dressed, have nice families whom they love and sometimes a dog. At this level of analysis they could pass for ordinary bankers and fund managers. Importantly, they don’t look mad or bad, their faces are handsome and unscarred and they are often seen being pleasant to people who are not their employees.

In ‘Blinded’ the variant in the high-functioning class of psychopaths features a family man whose low status job is cutting timber in a sawmill. His high-flying wife wants a divorce and he is left to care for his son. Despite the domestic setbacks he has a relaxed, low-key manner and is liked by his friends. He does, however, capture men and torture them at length before killing them. So in terms of variance, he largely eschews the women and children first template for TV psychokillers and, importantly, he doesn’t look like a bad man.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a screen psychopath is goodlooking and amiable, of course, but when he chats to his son, or his male chums or his boss or does the school run, there isn’t a hint of the currently most fashionable of evils in either his general demeanour or his micro-expressions. This is meticulously controlled throughout the series, with the actor (Tobias Santelmann) only facialising derangement when he is actually torturing his victims. Even when the net closes in on him he registers only a stern determination – a nice man experiencing some pressure.

Nevertheless and as we would expect, his days are numbered. Karina (Helle Fagralid), the police chief in Odense, meets Louise (Natalie Madueno), a criminal profiler, and asks for her support in tracking down the serial killer who, after a five year break, is on the prowl again. We are relieved of the need to endure the tiresome trope of ‘Cop resents sharing her case with an outsider’ because Karina and Louise get on well and respect each other’s skills. This seems to signal the production’s acknowledgement that women are capable of working relationships based on trust rather than competition.

There’s a key scene in Episode 2 when a forensic pathologist shows Karina and Louise the deep cuts that have been made on the soles of the feet of the killer’s latest victim. The women leave the lab and walk slowly down a corridor.

LOUISE          He cuts Ricky’s feet and unties him. His escape wasn’t an accident.

KARINA        Did he want to hunt him? Why take that risk?

LOUISE          I don’t know. We might be wrong about the motive.

KARINA        So it isn’t sexual?

LOUISE         It’s always about control and dominance. This guy also punishes his victims.

KARINA        For what?

LOUISE        I don’t know, but when we find the common denominator we’ll find the motive.

Somehow a relatively procedural scene, one that has to take place, acquires a much wider frame of reference. The corridor removes the women from the investigative environment and briefly becomes a liminal space in which the lifting of plot and genre constraints elevates their discussion to a measured analysis of a pandemic toxic masculinity that underlies the totality of social experience and consigns women to a leached and wearying game of pathologised whack-a-mole.




Double Bubble

I’m not so interested in people’s meals or holidays or pets but I do find Facebook a useful location for small-scale publishing of images, text and text & image work. If I ever get to large-scale, I’ll let you know. I would say my readership is currently manageable. I do not anticipate engaging an intern. At least not for the next ten years or so.

Despite my deep reservations about digital enslavement, from the point of view of the producer of clickables and from that of the consumer of the bait whose subsequent clicks reinforce the compulsions of the producer, causing the latter to feel both fulfilled, albeit for a few minutes, and incrementally anxietised, I feel held in thrall as soon as I publish.

It wears off quite quickly though. If I get likes I tend to revisit my work and admire it. Sometimes I admire it again with every subsequent click. If I get very few or no likes I often conclude, reasonably enough, that the product was insufficiently communicative. Sometimes I conclude that it wasn’t any good. Then I withdraw it.

The piece below created scarcely a ripple. I know that this is because it went too far. Not in an interesting way, however. The piece contains too much information. It is not legible.

I posted it a few days ago:

One couple of chinos my dear lady Peter said to the barrister at the counter point. Anything on top? the chirpy reply to this question. The parrot cocked its head to one side. Strictly speaking there should not be any sort of animal in this sort of establishment. The lady laid out the casual garments on the zinc. Peter liked what he saw. Pleased to see the french fly he said to her. Well it is important to have reliable closure one does not want zipper gape said the lady. I should say not! He quipped. Would you like a negroni with that she wondered? Well I would not have thought of it but now you mention it you have stirred a need yes please. I will.

I like it when a piece has more than one level of coherence. When it can mean two or three things at once. Sometimes these things are separate and discernible, sometimes they coalesce then separate again. This is an ideal, though, exemplified perhaps in the quotation at the foot of this post.

A cappuccino is close to a cup of chino: a café and a clothes shop have fused.

The barrister and a barista have the same pronunciation, almost: the barista is usually seen behind a counter and the barrister serves at the bar and, in refuting an argument, will make a counter point: a court of law has fused with the café and the clothes shop.

In asking ‘Anything on top?’ the barista refers probably to chocolate powder. But in a café and in a clothes shop goods are laid on top of counters for collection or inspection. In a bar they may be laid on zinc.

The head-cocking parrot is a novelistic, scene-setting incidental. An inducement to picture the picture.

Some of my trousers have a french fly. Extra buttoning is required but the tailoring device works well and can be reassuring.

Given that he is in a bar fused with a café fused with a clothes shop Peter sees no reason to decline the negroni offer. I went to a vintage clothes shop in Lisbon with my younger daughter and while she perused the racks I had a coffee with a glass of ginjinha the dark red, sour cherry liqueur served at most Portuguese bars. In the same shop. My daughter was happy and I was very content.

So far, so legible. Maybe. At this point we have a gewgaw that may be a source of harmless, frothy fun. But then I took a reckless swerve off what was already a perfectly capacious piste. What if the french fly were an aspect of fly fishing? And to what extent might it fuse with the bracing fusion of gin, campari and red vermouth that is the negroni? What if, indeed, there were rocks tumblers (a variant on the whisky glass) that actually bore the imagery of fly fishing?

Of course there were. Several types, courtesy, as usual, of Google Images. And the best were to be found in a boxed set of four, each engraved with a hooked and feathered fishing fly. Each nestling in a bed of crepuscular green satin.

And that was where it went south. The tumbler set was indeed enigmatic. But not in a good way. You could just about make out the engraved fly. Flawed to a fault. Illegible. Irritating.

This morning I deleted it from Facebook, having moved it first to the gated community of Strength Weekly.

I am more than comfortable with this though:




Impossible as it may be to fathom as an obscure totality, even at the level of a page, particles of immanent sense will stand out from the dark foil against which they are set, in turn to suggest connections with others, and still others, until – not necessarily in linear order – out of a web of items drawn together by association, a knot of coherent nonsense will begin to emerge; and upon this coherent nonsense, as upon the shards of a recollected dream, some interpretation will have to be practiced in order to discover an underlying sense.

Bishop, J.  James Joyce’s Book of the Dark p.22. 1986 (re Finnegans Wake)


But now and again coherence, as applied to nonsense, proves to be evasive.




I found an alley I hadn’t spotted before and heard sounds of jollity at the end of it. I walked down and round and came upon a primary school fair in full swing. This could only mean one thing: a secondhand book stall. In fact, that particular thing proved to be unremarkable but there was, right next to it, a stall selling beer and wine. For the encouraging schoolyard price of £2 I got a plastic cup of prosecco and dealt with it.

I strolled to the next street and found that it had been closed off and filled with stalls – another fair. But it isn’t a fair. It’s a street food festival where, instead of pleasing variety it’s types of snack on tables. Foods, as far as the eye can see down this packed street. Many cupcakes. Just think, every cupcake is different but not in an interesting way. The cupcake is very easy to make. Six year olds can make them and so can thirty year olds, it would appear. Toddler foods by British bakers. Just how many food stalls do you need before a street event becomes nothing more than the contents of victuallers’ shops moved into the street? At the farmer’s market you can get a rabbit or a swede and take them home. At the restaurant you can get courses. But what if all you could get at Borough Market or Smithfield were dainties? What if the restaurant only had afters on the menu?

How many times can you eat when the only diversion from eating is eating? Could you have lunch several times so as not to waste the opportunity? Surely a fair or a ‘festival’ has more than one type of thing in it. Surely once 90% of the available street-side space has been taken up by over-priced delicacy outlets, room should be made for tray after tray of over-priced jewellery. Ah! On closer inspection it becomes apparent that for every ten food stalls there is a ring and bauble stall whose proprietor will say “This is a very nice piece” to anybody about anything. Anyway, I don’t drive a 4×4 so I’m not really in the target constituency. When I was a boy you could see a pig with two heads. Can’t say fairer than that.

I escaped down a leafy side street, passing a group of people sitting on a low wall in front of a house, chatting in the sun. A boy of about five was playing in the background. I strolled on but flinched then froze as I heard a loud crack behind me.

I swung round and the scene had completely changed. In slow motion the adults on the wall were rising to their feet and gazing in horror at the space where the boy had been. A large sheet of wired glass, broken in several places, was sliding down into the cellar whose access shaft it had been covering. The boy had climbed onto the glass and it had instantly shattered. The glass crunched into the space below. Onto the boy. A big man ran across to the shaft, peered down then lowered himself in. A woman screamed, leaped to her feet and desperately cried “Sam!” over and over. From the shaft the man shouted “He’s okay! He’s okay!” The man emerged holding the boy in his arms. His mother took him. The boy started to cry. It was clear he wasn’t hurt but just beginning to realise what a shocking thing had happened to him. The man stroked his head and murmured something reassuring. It was over. I had tears in my eyes.

Moved by the heroism of the big man, wondering what I would have done if one of my kids had been so shockingly swallowed.

Strolling down another alley, one I knew, I saw a man at a table with a boy on his knee. The boy had just let go of a balloon and was getting ready to wail. The balloon moved in an upward diagonal across my path. It was about three paces ahead. By the time I reached it, maintaining a steady pace, it would be eight feet above my head and somewhat to the right. I became calm and I focused myself. To my left the father was rising slowly. Grasping the balloon was out of the question, only a basket-ball player would be capable of this and there was every possibility he would burst it.

Even as the way became clear my left hand, the one I am best with, shot, with serpentine certainty, towards that trailing tendril. Smuh! went my fingers around it. We were just about to have a situation there said the father. I smiled. As I made my way away I heard
Who was that man?
No one knows.
Does he seek reward?
No. He seems to be content with just the deed. Soon we will forget him. He will be like tears in rain.
That’s lovely.

At the far end of the alley were piles of used books and fabrics – curtains, doilies, valances and the like. I spotted a pale green towel. I needed one. It’s a very nice one the man there said. It was. It was in terrific condition. The man said it was £2. Apparently, moreover, it was new.

Then I saw Kenneth. There was no mistaking him: the white goatee, the bow tie, the challenging twinkle in his eye. He was a close friend of my father and had died about twenty two years ago. And now there he was in the street. When I was a little boy in the fifties Kenneth used to come round for supper. Unlike the other biochemists he talked about books and music in addition to amino acids and when greeting my mother would kiss her on the cheek, which she found unsettling. She said He’s a bit flamboyant.

Biochemists in the fifties were dour and polite but Kenneth laughed loudly and was strongly opinionated. At a party in his garden, this would be in the early 80s, after he had married my second cousin Doffy, the biochemists were discussing a strange new disease – more of a syndrome at this stage – that patients had been presenting in Los Angeles. It seemed to attack the immune system, was one line of thinking, insofar as the sickness seemed to comprise a number of pathologies at the same time. The people suffering from these odd symptoms were mostly homosexuals, particularly those who regularly visited the bathhouses where men would have sex with other men. The point was, the men were starting to die.

One of the biochemists, a young Italian, had been on a field trip to the bathhouses to talk to some of the men there. He told his colleagues at Kenneth and Doffy’s party that some of the men had as many as twenty sexual partners per night. The biochemists were startled to hear this but instead of disapproving they nodded ruminatively. The young Italian said that the men often used cocaine and amyl nitrite to heighten their sexual experiences. One of the biochemists wondered if their immune systems had been compromised by an assaultive drug diet.

Kenneth was listening to this discussion and said something that I have never forgotten. “Well, if this is going to be some sort of plague then it might solve the population problem. If you look at Africa, immune systems there are under constant attrition. A massive plague would solve a lot of problems.” He wasn’t suggesting that homosexuals might be usefully wiped out, just continentsful of people. It struck me that I might have misread that goatee.

Next door to Pizza Express there was a proper secondhand book shop. An Oxfam, in fact. And there, in the window, right at the bottom of a pile of books stacked spine out, was a book I’d had on the wish list for only a few days. Consonant with my career in the experimental arts I had always maintained a snobbish disdain for the work of Stephen King. “That’s one writer I won’t be reading,” I had thought. But then I read a number of warm reviews for ’11/22/63′, in which the period leading up to the assassination of Kennedy is visited by a traveller from 2011. The New York Times said ‘It all adds up to one of the best time-travel stories since H. G. Wells. King has captured something wonderful. Could it be the bottomlessness of reality? The closer you get to history, the more mysterious it becomes. He has written a deeply romantic and pessimistic book. It’s romantic about the real possibility of love, and pessimistic about everything else.’ (Errol Morris 10/11/2011).

Hefty at 849 pp but a snip at £1. Where better to examine it than Pizza Express? First I read the paper for a bit then I turned my attention to the doorstop in my bag. As I opened the bag I caught sight of an upside down word on the back cover of the book. Something like ‘myos’. Suddenly the room was quiet. The chatter and the bustle just fell away. I flipped the book open and it was in Swedish. I had taken home a Swede. Fuck. No wonder it was cheap. As luck would have it I passed another Oxfam. I told the man what had happened then kindly donated the book to his cause. I said “I don’t suppose you have one in English by any chance?” He said he was afraid not.

Some of the instructors had mixed groups of teenagers and adults but Olly, on this particular morning, the sky sullen but the waves regular, unlike the other day, had some really quite young ones to look after. I was standing out that day, because my ribs hurt so much, but my girls were in there, in another group, doing pretty well, standing up more and more. In Olly’s group there were maybe three small girls and three small boys. Each time one of them launched into a wave Olly would shout encouragement, clap his hands and laugh in celebration. A big, genial Australian, he wore a straw hat in the morning when hanging out the wet suits and now, standing among the breaking waves, had a peaked cap. It can get very tiring falling off or rolling off your board over and over and there’s not much you can do about that. But if you’re a little kid and Olly is your instructor then he will do this excellent thing. There’s a kid just coasted into the shallows, lying flat on his board and Olly wades forward, grasps the board on both sides and picks it up with the kid still on it. He then wades back to the waves, turns the board with the kid on towards the beach and launches him.

This is What You Do, Boris

Some years ago I spent several months travelling in the USA. Often I got lost or couldn’t find places and would ask people to help me. I was helped many times by a number of solicitous and amiable people.  When I got back to London I determined to help any lost tourists I might come across and was quite looking forward to this happening. I joked to my friends that I had been hanging around in the West End hoping that people would ask me the way. When they actually did I was delighted to give them clear directions and wish them well. After such occasions I would feel a special pleasure at having rendered a service. It was a pleasure I would have liked to have had every day. On more than one occasion, however, I was not entirely sure of the accuracy of the directions I was giving but I did not let this deter me. The odds were that I was giving reliable directions and could go on my way feeling pleased and helpful. On at least two or three of these occasions I walked past some of the streets I had recommended to the tourists and found that either they were not where I had said they were or they were clearly not going to lead to the tourists’ required destination. There was definitely one occasion on which I directed a tourist in precisely the opposite direction to which they required. When I made these mistakes I felt regretful but I also noticed that my errors had not dimmed the feelings of gratification that I had come to expect. It occurred to me that I could simply offer to help people if they seemed lost and then give them random instructions in an amiable way. I would expect to feel useful and likeable. In fact it didn’t even have to involve giving directions  – I could just promise to get people something they wanted and not do anything about it. I’d still feel the glow that follows services rendered.

This is what you do, Boris.