‘In human affairs, things tend inevitably to go wrong. Things are slightly worse at any given moment than at any preceding moment.’J.G. Farrell, ‘The Singapore Grip’
Friday 20 Mar 2020 (4min read)
It seems a bit daft firing up my walking diary at the very point when the possibilities for walking have become so restricted. But it probably isn’t a coincidence. The urge to write often comes from the pain of exile. We’re all exiles now.
I walked to Chipperfield (from Boxmoor) in the second week of February to meet my Dad and my brothers for lunch. It was sunny, cold but not unpleasant. Catkins were conspicuous, dog’s mercury and bluebell leaves at the wood’s edges. The larks weren’t complaining either unless I was misinterpreting their song above the flinty Chiltern plateau.
Climbing the slope behind the railway line, I looked back across Hemel and noticed that the old Department of Environment and Transport building, a square 70’s office block near Aldi, with a funny shed-like box on top, was derelict. I worked there from 1986 to 1988. I felt strangely grateful to be able to say goodbye before the wrecking ball said it for me.
I’ve enjoyed revisiting that part of my life: rather I’ve enjoyed the process of finding pieces of the jigsaw and putting them back together. I wasn’t a great curator of my life at that point but still have cassettes and a few photographs and a few friends to jog the memory along.
We are all exiles from the past. Not that the past was always that great, but it is an odd feeling seeing its signs and symbols being torn down in real-time. I wonder if the old account books still exist somewhere? There was one account book I read for pleasure. It listed the personal effects of sailors who died at sea and contained exotic locations straight out of a Tom Waits song. I used it for a sort of unimaginative daydreaming.
I didn’t keep a diary at the time but I did keep a holiday diary. I had a working holiday in the Tatras, Czechoslovakia in 1987: or rather a non-working holiday after I bruised my leg jumping into a swimming pool. I had forgotten that I actually quit the work camp a day or two early – it must have been just too boring sitting around with a gammy leg whilst everyone was out. I caught a flight to Prague, was lucky to find accommodation for a couple of days and caught a train home.
An extract from my diary for 17 August 1987
The reserved seat, I soon find out, belongs to a middle-aged German American woman from New Orleans who has been visiting relatives in Germany. I say it must be nice to live in New Orleans. She says it isn’t. It’s too hot – not just ordinary hot but boiling hot all the time. She should have listened to her parents and would much rather be living in Germany where they may have snow in winter but at least they don’t have tornadoes. She tells me she is a telephone operator along with 30 others in the Hilton Hotel, New Orleans. She works nights. She hates it and it is badly paid. Some of the men in the hotel ask her to get them prostitutes. She says she is not a madam y’all. Others want medicines or just sympathy. Reagan stayed there recently, so the place was crawling with CIA. The Pope is due to visit and the hotel has been booked up for months. She isn’t looking forward to it. I tell her about my work camp. ‘You what?’ she looks horrified, ‘You’ve been working for the Communists?’ Oddly enough, I hadn’t thought of it quite like that, but yes I supposed I probably had.
But I was struggling with depression and, though I didn’t yet have a name for it, autism. 25 years old, living at home with my parents and younger siblings. I was clever enough to feel that working as a clerk was beneath me, but not clever enough to be able to do anything about it. The work was woeful. There wasn’t enough of it and I never asked for more. I just daydreamed listlessly, did surreptitious crosswords and took long walks at lunchtime, along the canal mostly, perseverating about Shanghai and the Gulf of Mexico, the words rather than the places, the lists of the effects of dead sailors vying for my attention with the moorhens and rusty shopping trolleys.
I’m still attracted by stories about faraway places. I’ve been listening to ‘The Singapore Grip’, J.G. Farrell’s 1978 novel. Farrell was a historical novelist attracted by the tragi-comic possibilities provided by Britain’s imperial decay: his invention of ‘Ehrendorf’s Second Law’ is priceless.
‘In human affairs, things tend inevitably to go wrong. Things are slightly worse at any given moment than at any preceding moment.’
I find that a strangely uplifting thought.