3 - Fragments





'IF' &




... continues, leaving thousands of unnecessary deaths in its wake. In the current political climate who could resist a few observations on the ongoing 'Pantomime'? Though it might appear otherwise, I really don't like banging-on about politics when there's so much philosophy and science and all kinds of amazing bizarre and screw-head ideas for contemplation instead.

It's just that politics controls so much of the outer world... I mean, it's the difference between living in the hell of, say, North Korea and living somewhere like Finland or Denmark. I guess if I thought a bit harder I could come up with more extreme examples. But the point is clear: it can have a huge effect on our everyday lives. It can make our lives happy and free - as for people like me with a decent place to live and a bit of spare cash - or dismal and restricted as for those on low income or homeless and destitute... it can make us optimistic about our future or pessimistic.

And that's where the pantomime comes in. Back around last Christmas the front cover of 'The European' depicted the prime minister disguised as a pantomime dame. The picture failed to show what I might have added: subtle give-aways bursting through gaps in the costume to reveal the ogre lurking underneath.

The fact is: as well as a far-right bigot, the PM is an entertainer - not an especially good one in my view - but he has a powerful charisma and shows great skill in winning support. Even many left-wingers are conned by his tactics - I guess they're not so bright, but people just love to watch him perform. No matter that he's stupendously incompetent as an administrator and makes all the wrong decisions - like as London mayor and foreign sec.

Here's a 9-min Tedtalk on 'charismatic' leaders:

Why do so many incompetent men become leaders?

Last January, while other countries were ordering lock-downs and mass-testing-&-isolating, the PM dismissed the coronavirus as if it was nothing to be concerned about... that it should be allowed to develop a herd immunity. He even made jokes about it while 'sympathising' with those who'd lost loved-ones to the virus.

Amazingly, 3-months on, the public are unconcerned that government incompetence has led to 30,000 deaths in the UK. As long as the PM survived the 'poetic-justice' of catching the virus, and they're being entertained, then fine, the public are happy to accept the consequences of a clown as PM.... or maybe, mesmerised and blinded by the 'show', they failed to notice the monumental ineptitude?

Because it's the show that counts above all, and the PM's supreme confidence in the way he announces great platitudes like: "Get Brexit Done!". "That's the way to do it!" cries Mr 'Boris' Punch.... The public love it; they lap up the juvenile rhetoric with the relish of infants - which most of them obviously still are mentally.

All this simplistic tosh the PM dredges-up and presents in his familiar lively manner raises expectations in the face of adversity... of future promise - of what, who can say? - but it's of no consequence because the PM knows he can never deliver: it's a future that neither he nor his obsequious underlings would ever allow. It would contradict Tory philosophy... but who cares, the key is to get the crowd roaring. "Hello Redcar!" cries the PM to great cheers, "Hello Sedgewick!" he bellows, thrilled and probably astonished at such unprecedented support from far-left constituencies that were battered to pulp by relentless anti-Corbyn propaganda before the election... and then, like lemmings to the cliff-edge, offered-up their souls to the far-right instead. "Hello kids!" cries Buttons, his blond hair characteristically askew. They need him now more than ever to justify their support of him; it would be too painful to acknowledge they'd been victim of a stupendous fraud.

Here in the UK, like in the US, if you're not on the breadline and live in a reasonably affluent location as I do where there's no rough-sleepers or beggars, then all seems fine - or did until recently... because now, with the coronavirus, millions who were even in quite lucrative employment have been forced to join the victims of 'austerity' who for years have had to rely on the pittance called 'universal-credit'. And many of them too will have to rely on food-banks (which are expanding like wild-fire to accommodate the increase in demand), and those no longer able to pay rent will be forced to join the many thousands of rough-sleepers.

Back in the 1940s, WW2 interrupted the media-establishment's right-wing propaganda machine. Instead, the formerly obedient, unreflective working-classes were exposed to and woken by a different kind of message. Thousands of copies of Robert Tressell's 1911 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' circulated among the soldiers who spent most of their time with little to do between boot-polishing and square-bashing... and not many who read that book could fail to be impressed by the social injustices it exposes, and the need to challenge the status quo. Tony Benn always carried several copies of Tressell's book to give anyone he thought needed to learn what reality was like for the unemployed or those in low-paid work.

Although in just a brief 5-years Attlee had made monumental strides in delivering a more just society, the propaganda quickly got moving again and the Tories were soon back in control. For more than three decades they dared not scrap Attlee's great work: nationalisations, the creation of the NHS, etc., for fear of a backlash - the benefits were too palpable and popular and would be acutely missed... until the public took them for granted like fresh air. Then Thatcher, with brutal ingenuity and stealth, began to demolish Attlee's welfare-state as the Tories had been dreaming of doing since 1950.

Michael Foot could see this clearer than anyone. He, like Corbyn 4-decades later, was lucky: they survived. John Smith and Robin Cook suffered a different fate than merely losing an election... they were the only likely candidates (during the 20-years through the nineties and noughties) capable of defeating the Tory elites: the City, the Eton mob, the media, et al., with their immense resources and far-right propaganda on overdrive.

Smith presented the most formidable threat to the 'establishment' because before Blair became leader most Labour MPs were well on the left. It took Blair two terms to establish perhaps a third of Labour MPs as Blairites (undercover Tories) - in the process of natural turnover, new candidates for MP were selected by 'head-office' in those pre-Corbyn days. One tactic was 'parachuting-in' candidates rejected by the Tories or a constituency that would only vote Labour regardless.

With MI5 as brazen as ever from the Iraq invasion... and Cook with his impressively articulate weekly column attacking govt policy... well, it would be pretty weird if he, like Smith, wasn't in MI5's sights for bumping-off. With no history of ill health, both Smith and Cook suffered sudden heart failure. How very convenient.... and the rest, as they say, is history. It was soon after Cook's death, I noticed, when Blair began to take on the appearance of Wilde's 'Dorian Gray' (or rather, the painting of him).

What all this means, of course - if you haven't already noticed - is that the UK is a one-party state... a kind-of dictatorship that pretends to be a democracy. The dictator not being a person but a 'class' made up principally of the elite, the Eton mob, BIG corp, and all the other spivs and sharks who own and oversee the City, plus an army of hangers-on and high-level sicophants who fawn over and serve them all. What a dump!

What to do about it? That's a question I'll resist answering for now.....

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Several days ago flicking through a few books and papers I hadn't looked at for a couple of decades or so, I unearthed some old scripts I'd haphazardly bashed-out on the word processor back in the 1990s. They reflected dull moments when I was first trying to write 'creatively'... so it's 90% fiction draped over a frail skeleton of reality that was all I had, due to poor imagination, as a foundation. From what I've read of successful writers in the fiction genre - especially horror - it seems that a difficult unpleasant childhood, predominately gloomy and miserable, or intensely lonely is a prerequisite.

I, in contrast, have enjoyed an easy life, even as a kid I was happy despite the hostility and hassle I experienced in school - which I left, essentially, at 14. So mine wasn't the best grounding for producing horror fiction, nor really any kind of fiction because those unhappy childhoods was precisely where the inspiration to write began. This means I can hardly expect to excel, yet maybe I could achieve something better than terrible?

But all this was from several years before real computers with internet became the norm. The printer I had then was dot-matrix with lousy resolution that 'sprint' (ie, software that converts text in a picture to actual text) struggles to scan and decipher properly. So anyhow, I randomly picked three items from the many - most of which I still haven't re-read (maybe I'll find better ones for next month?) - and scanned them in. Then I corrected the scanning errors so they're exactly as I wrote them, faults and foibles included, and loaded them here below. They're weird and pretty duff, but if you can - enjoy:

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One morning when I was seven, I remember laying in bed wondering why I existed. I'd wondered before, but this was the first time I thought of it seriously. In fact, there were several things that puzzled me just then: What was I doing here? And why here? What made me me and not someone else?

Dopey questions now, 45 years later, but some of them came back to haunt me when I was 35.

Seven is a curious number. Every seven years I seem to have crossed a barrier into a new mode of understanding about the world.

At fourteen I lost my innocence and ceased being a child - though maybe I lost some a little earlier. Then at 21 I became a real man. Oddly, I still don't feel like a man, as if some of the pre-21 me remains intact. There's probably more than a touch of pre-14 and even pre-7 still working away inside me as well. By 28 I had received a thorough introduction into the art of practical living: politics, DIY, relationships, professional competence, responsibility in general - or my version of them.

Then came that decisive 35. Until that hit me my life had been like climbing a gentle mountain. Pre-7, open plains; pre-14, sloping meadows; pre-21, woods and scree; pre-28, foothills; and finally pre-35, the mountain itself.

 * * * * *

If you haven't made it by then, by 35, you probably never will (hence decisive). At least that was what I'd been led to believe. And there I was at the peak. Not a very high peak in my case, but a peak all the same. And the only way to go from a peak is...

Then up popped those questions again: Why am I here? What am I? What's the purpose of it all? On my way up, these were irrelevant: I'd resolve them someday, I told myself, so leave them alone and get on with life; climb that glorious mountain, rough bits an' all.

But all at once those questions mattered. It was like facing a ravine: after all, if you gaze too far ahead down the mountain all you see is oblivion. So far as I knew, no one had ever found a satisfactory answer to any of those questions. And I wasn't about to scoot off into some fanciful religious void, so I decided to try and discover the truth. What, I wondered, had the great brains of the past unearthed? I was experienced enough by then to realise that others besides me had hit this barrier, though unlike me had had the drive, energy and skill to record their quest and inform the world of what they found. So I read. I read all kinds of things. I read Voltaire and Plato and Kant and Hesse and Camus and Seneca and Goethe and Sartre and Foucault and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Kafka and Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and the Bhagavad-Gita... And I read the novels of Greene and Chandler and Steinbeck and Kerouac and... And so it went on. And I travelled; not much, but some, in foreign terrain. And then I read some more; and I mused and rested back for seven more years to let it all soak in. Then suddenly I  was 49 (seven times seven, the curious seven-effect multiplied) and finally... astonishingly... I knew.

Most thinking people would challenge that. They'd say I was being absurdly dogmatic; and anyway, how could I know? And they'd be right: surely, if anyone found out the truth it would be plastered all over the newspapers, wouldn't it? Well, probably it would - except for the fact   that not everyone agrees. But let them search for themselves and see what they find, see whether they eventually realise that they 'know' - for just as a child can't be told and has to discover for itself, so do we all in this matter.

So at last I can get on with things; and I can trundle my way down the rest of the mountain without a care, taking in the air and the views, which are so much better on the way down even if I am beginning to tire and I see oblivion approach. I can leap the streams and rocks, all so easily now, as if these obstructions exist purely to make the trek more interesting and worthwhile, and on and on I go...

So I knew. It didn't come to me overnight, nor suddenly like some mystical revelation. But one day, when I reflected on it. I just knew. I knew the answer to all those questions that had puzzled me for so long - just as it suddenly dawned on me recently that I had really known all along, from way back, from even before I was seven! The only thing that troubles me now is what will happen when I'm 56?

Hastings 16th Aug 2001

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Today began as other days: coffee, rolled cigarette; another, then another... and as I sat smoking by the fire looking out at the snow in my garden, I remembered that something had happened yesterday, something terrible, something unforgivable, something that involved me. But what was it? How could I not know what it was?

That happens to me sometimes. It happens with a name, a word, an idea, right there on the edge of my thoughts, but somehow inaccessible. And maybe only a moment ago it was actually there, but I let myself be distracted; I can even feel it sitting there, waiting to snap into consciousness when I can relax enough to let it in. But how can this happen for an incident? And one as recent as yesterday? How could I forget that?

Had I imagined or dreamt this thing, had I recalled an unpleasant childhood memory? No. Something had happened. Of that I was sure. Something had a grip on me, something was tearing me to pieces inside. Another cigarette, I tell myself to keep calm; but I cough and cough and cough as though the whole of my insides are struggling to come out of me, as though some kind of rebellion is being staged in my body. I rest, recover my breath. I tell myself to relax. Over and over I tell myself. But I have to smoke. I have to. Nothing else works for me, I've tried.... I’ve...

I move across to my desk and switch-on my remarkable word-processor. I must think. Retrace the whole day. First, from the beginning. Consider: how to order the events - chronologically, you fool, how else? Consider: what to include, what to exclude, what kind of tone should it have..?

Eventually, starting from what I actually know with certainty had happened before the horrible event, I begin to write.

Five hours later:

I presumed that if I began from when the day began, then what I wrote would automatically lead me into the event and then everything would come clear. So I sat there, tapping out a few words, and for a while everything went well. I was comfortable, self-composed, and soon became quite lost in the task. Which is as it should be; mostly. And because I copied it, the beginning resembles this very piece: “The day began as other days begin: instant coffee...” up to the words – “...the snow in my garden”. And then, after “garden” it moved onto the subject of habit. Why was I writing about habit? When I had intended to describe the events of the day, why was I describing the problem of habit? Well, it’s normal for me to stray onto tangents when I write. That's how imagination works. It goes its own way, and if you are wise you follow it, see where it leads. All kinds of interesting things can result. Very often I find that what I’ve written has no conceivable connection with what I had intended; but I think: never mind, and let myself continue undeterred, wondering what will come of it. I wrote:

 An explosion in my head. Disbelief. Shock, delayed shock, an accident. I killed someone. Maybe? I failed to rescue someone from death? Did I actually walk away from something? I know there is room for initiative, for thoughtfulness in every event. And I know I succumb to the suffocating patterns of habit. I know, I know, I know these things. Of course I know them. Everyone knows them, senses them, feels them. Lives them!

I just feel safer with the familiar; I have an instinct to hold onto what I know, I am conditioned to do certain things, to react in certain accepted ways, to conform with what other people expect of me. Life would be hell otherwise, wouldn't it? Okay, so I am blindly subservient to the mad system I live in, and I realise how rotten and stifling and absurd it is. I realise that - so maybe I'm not so blind. But the whole point is that it works; after a fashion at any rate, it actually works. And it removes the need for me to think, makes my life manageable, predictable, frees me from the struggle of always having to learn new things and new ways of doing something. Habit eliminates the constant need to reassess everything that confronts me before I can act... Habit is good. It's what keeps me alive...

This went on for two pages, becoming ever more obtuse and extreme. And then it veered off onto some subject that 1 barely recognised but which for some reason I couldn't understand - made me flinch, as though it were part of an old and very nasty dream that I definitely did not want to know about.

Other writers tell of how something inside them can take over and produce work that even shocks them, work that in normal circumstances they would never imagine themselves capable of. This had not happened to me before. Everything I wrote was me as I am. I'm just not a creative person.

At that moment, as my writing merged into this new repulsive topic, my mind seemed to fade. All I could see and feel was a kind of grey nothingness. Not even the processor screen was visible. Yet somehow I was still writing. How could that be possible? My fingers tapped faster and faster and I didn't know what I was writing! And I began writing agitatedly, more and more furiously, feeling increasingly bitter and angry until I was virtually in a frenzy when suddenly - after what seemed like a long time, maybe half-an-hour - I stopped.

Was I resting, or had I finished? By then I had the impression that I was looking down on myself. Some part of me had become detached, like an etheric projection. My consciousness was separated, as if that man sitting in the chair at his desk was another person and not me at all. From another part of the room, I seemed to be able to watch the body lean back in the chair, the arms slide from the keypad, sweat streaming down the face, and the body sink deeper into the padding of the chair, the hands now hanging limp at the sides and the head twisted awkwardly as though asleep - or dead - except that the eyes were open and were staring immutably at some point near the top of the curtain-rail where the gaze had happened to fall. And the body just sat there, not a thought in its brain, exhausted, drained, spent.

Then I noticed something else. I noticed that his chest was tight, his breathing laboured and heavy... Something savage was happening inside him, churning away like some colossal overworked engine that throbbed and groaned and cried out in pain, in terrible agonising pain. And that was the moment when I realised I was paralysed.

The power of fear can be formidable... I wonder if you've been on one of those big airliners, those Jumbo jets that go from England to America? Going aboard is like walking into a long narrow cinema. You show your pass to the usher who directs you to your place and you go there and after storing your hand luggage in the overhead storage locker you take your seat and wait for take-off. And while you wait you can do any number of things, interesting things specially provided to distract you from any anxiety you might have about flying, or to prevent you from becoming bored or restless. There are magazines, mutichannel radio, or even these days TV. And then, when everyone's settled and the pilot has obtained clearance, the seat-belt and no-smoking lights flash and the plane begins to taxi to the end of the runway in preparation for take-off. And all this time you feel that you’re about to take part in a small adventure, or even a big adventure. However familiar you are with flying there's always that slight sense of danger, that you are colluding in a gesture that snubs defiance at the Gods, which turns the whole procedure into a kind of bet. And like all gambling, even – or especially - with your life, it can be very thrilling. It's too late now to change your mind. You should have thought of that earlier. The events that follow are entirely out of your hands. Whatever happens now is down to the pilot and, of course, fate. So you sit there, the plane stops at the head of the runway, poised like some overfed bird psyching itself for the immense effort to come, flexing its wing flaps in readiness. And sitting there static on the runway, you look out at the enormous wing that stretches away from you and you notice that the flaps have stopped moving; they rest, raised to their limit which looks oddly too much, as if they will probably snap off at the slightest jolt. And the next thing that happens is that you hear this tremendous roar and suddenly you're moving. The  whole plane judders like an old car as it accelerates along the uneven surface of the runway, faster and faster. The pressure on your back is forcing you into the seat, and you feel absolutely outrageously amazingly wonderful, if also a little scared, perhaps a lot scared. But either way there's nothing you can do, so you might just as well sit back and enjoy one of the most exciting sensations of your life. You watch the airport buildings rush past in the distance, you notice the other passengers sitting there like dummies, helpless and trusting that the skills of the pilot and the ground-staff who prepared the plane, and even the people who designed and built it, are all very good at their job, that nothing will go wrong. And then, sooner than you expect, the plane tilts up, the juddering stops, and some part of your brain tells you that this can't be happening; the huge force thrusting you upwards and forwards can't possibly be happening - and yet it is. And outside, through the little window, the world is falling. The world is falling and falling.

Those words have a strange effect on me. The world is falling. Where can it be falling to? I remember someone telling me when I was a small child playing with water one day, they said, 'water always finds its own level.' The words meant nothing, but I repeated them to myself for several days afterwards, and years later they came back to me and I thought: Why not oil, or treacle, or even glass - isn't glass supposed to be a kind of liquid? And then it seemed that everything might be said to be finding its own level; it was only a matter of time, And then I was on that plane again.

So eventually, after rising steeply for about five minutes, the roaring subsides, the pressure on your back eases as the plane settles to a more gentle ascent. Your weight returns to normal. Warning lights go out. You relax, light the crumpled cigarette you've been turning in your fingers since take-off, and wait for the steward who you know will very soon bring refreshments.

I can't help thinking that my life started like that, as an adventure, solid with promise and delights beyond anything imaginable. And now the take-off is long over, the refreshments have been and gone, have come again and gone again, and the adventure has become somehow tedious. It has ceased to be an adventure. You are trapped on the plane and now you are suffering from claustrophobia. The entire trip has acquired the same dull monotony as that background engine sound, that soft whining sound, once soothing and friendly, now irritating and hostile like a constantly droning tinnitus. And every so often, always later than you expect, around come the refreshments again. But now, you notice, that instead of looking forward to them with the eager anticipation you once knew and delighted in, ever curious to see what it would be, what new and ingenious delicacies would be placed before you in their equally ingenious wrappings, you now feel completely indifferent. It is no longer strange and mysterious. The novelty has gone. The indulgence has turned into a chore: the strangely presented food, the wine, a liqueur perhaps, and a coffee, even that final cigarette - all are nothing but habit.

The body was still in the chair. Why did it look so pathetic, so sad, so grim? What in heaven's name was I doing? What was happening to me? The body began to tremble and sob, terrible agonising sobs like the pain that it replaced. After a few minutes of this, the body slid slowly off the chair and collapsed onto the carpet. And it sobbed and moaned and almost choked with the despair and grief at what must have been some unimaginable horror. Could it really be because of that thing I have done which even now remained completely obscure to me?

But then I thought: What have I written? Obviously, it was something. Probably gibberish, but what? I tried to look at the screen. All I could see was a mass of incomprehensible squiggles. I would have to wait. A real screen needs real eyes to read it. I was two people: a blind confused little man desperately trying to remember and understand something inexplicable, and inside him a kind of shadow who knew exactly what he was doing and would tolerate no interruption. This shadow wrote for half-an-hour like that. And at the end of that time it was burnt out, frazzled. No, I or he hadn't remembered something, I hadn't remembered anything. This thing hadn't just simply arisen in some part of my head like a random thought, as if I had remembered to telephone my friend across town who I had promised to call, or that I had remembered to pay the gas bill.

You see, I have always conducted myself decently. I have always been a basically decent person. Even on those strange but frequent occasions when my mind has been preoccupied and when distractions have been going on all around me, I have still - though aware of it only upon reflection - conducted myself properly, in good taste, with decorum, saying 'please's' and 'thank-you's' and so forth as is expected of anyone who considers themselves to be a decent member of society. I am conditioned to do that. I am conditioned to behave decently. I don't even have to think about behaving decently. It's the way I was trained, brought-up.

The rising sorrow swamped my thoughts. I had no idea what I was thinking. There was just the anger, that incredible anger at myself, overlain with sorrow and remorse. I have never known such despair.

Well, that half-alien body lay there for several hours like that, sobbing and catching its breath, squinting then resting, almost falling asleep and then suddenly bursting into another fit of sobbing and groaning and twitching.

What in heaven's name have I done?

It's late now. Two more cigarettes, another coffee. Calm yourself. Last night I scarcely slept. I had gone to bed late after drinking almost half a litre of rum. It must have been two, maybe three by the time I fell into a doze. And then I must have slept, stirring only to gulp water from the big glass I always keep by my bed. I remember waking very early, the dark grey outline above the curtains dragging me from the welcome exile of my astral world, and impelling me back with a shudder into the meaninglessness of a new day.

I sip my coffee and draw hard on my cigarette, and I turn to see what I have written, to examine and correct my work. How can I not know what I have written? Of course I know. Of course I do. How can I not?

I don't need to read what I have written. I don't need to read a single word of it. I don't need to read my own words telling me that I am the most despicable person that ever lived. No, it doesn't say that. Not exactly. There have been many people far more despicable than me. Thousands of them. And there still are, now, as I'm writing this. Thousands upon thousands of despicable people. The world swarms with them.

Three weeks ago I met someone with beautiful eyes. Big dark beautiful eyes that looked into mine as if they were scrutinising the deepest reaches of my soul. And they did this not in a malicious way as I an used to; not in that impudent keep-your-distance way that yells out rejection as always happens to me if I dare to glance for a moment too long into the eyes of a stranger. This time the look was different to anything I had experienced in my life. It said one thing, unambiguously and with an intensity I would not have thought possible. It said, simply: Love.

Have you, like me, ever wondered why so many people loathe Christmas? People say, 'I hate Christmas, the sooner it's over the better.' And I say, 'But don't you like parties and presents and drinking and celebrating and going kind of wild and letting yourself free just for once? It's only once a year, after all.' And they stare at me blankly either in shame or disbelief before they change the subject or rush off to talk to someone who understands them. But the fact is, I hate Christmas too. To me it represents a period when happy people can flaunt their happiness while sad people are forced to bite their lips. It is a period when sad people sense more acutely than at any other time their awful unenviable condition. That's what I call pain. Does it matter why those miserable people are so miserable? Of course it does. But the problem remains.

About a year ago my finances grew low. To be truthful I was up to my neck in debt. And one night around that time I dreamt I was a beggar. I suppose I'd been contemplating the possibility of actually becoming a beggar but I have friends and relations who would help me if I needed help so the question was really rather academic. No, I would never have to beg. Nevertheless I dreamt that I was begging. And I sat on the pavement surrounded by snow with my hat laying there in front of me with a few coins in it, and along comes this man in a suit with his pockets so full of banknotes that they could hardly be contained and were sticking out in great bundles. In fact, the bundles were so thick that he was having some difficulty in walking properly. And then as he approached me he kind of swaggered so as to emphasise the fact that he was loaded to the limit, and when he got to me he stopped and said, 'Look! How about this? I'm rich, isn't that something? I'm so rich that the banks can't take any more of my money and I have to carry it around with me instead.' And he swayed from side to side, grinning arrogantly while patting the exposed banknotes that splayed from his pockets. I said, 'Can you spare any? Just one will do.' He replied, 'Not possible chum. They're all stuck. I can't lever out a single one without taking off my clothes. And that's quite out of the question in this weather. Bad luck I know, but that's the situation.' And with that he waddled away and left me there shivering. I watched him enter a very expensive hotel whose entrance literally glowed with warmth.

I roll another cigarette, and I take my papers and go over to the chair from where I can look out at the snow in my garden. Yes, I'm a despicable person. Not as despicable as some it is true, but despicable nonetheless. And my crime? I waste things. You say, "But everyone wastes things, who doesn't? So what's new?" And I say, "Right, but paper, bottles, cans, who cares; what I waste is opportunity." And that's the point: I've always wasted opportunity. I've wasted it every day of my life. And every time I waste it I regret that I've wasted it. Which means that my entire life is nothing but a catalogue of regrets. And one thing I’ve learned is that someone whose life is choked with regrets can never ever be happy. They are condemned to live in misery, a misery worse than hell – or so it would seem not knowing the nature of hell.

I am comfortable. I go to the superstore and there are all the wonderful products, the foods all set out so carefully, fresh and alluring and delicious. I feel in my pocket and there is enough money to buy more than everything I need, enough to buy wine and chocolate and exotic fruits like mangoes and fresh figs and grapes. And I occasionally see someone in rags fumbling with pennies when I stand there in my decent clothes with all my money at hand. And sometimes I see someone in a wheelchair, perhaps with no legs, perhaps in pain, perhaps someone who has no control over their body so that they continually twitch and writhe, and perhaps there'll be someone mentally backward staggering past before my eyes. And what do I think? Does it make me feel any better? Does it alleviate my misery to see people like that? People who would give years of their life to spend a day in a body like mine, to have a brain that worked half as well as mine? Does that help me to appreciate how incredibly lucky I am to have all my faculties, a fit healthy body that I am gradually destroying with cigarettes, and a brain that I am destroying through self-pity, self-torture, starving it of happiness?

One of the things I like doing is writing to people. I write to a friend or sometimes to a relative at least every week. Often I send two, three, even four letters in a week. I like to keep in touch. I like to give people something to think about, something interesting and, if possible, gripping or fascinating. Because I read quite a lot I can often come out with quite startling ideas. My letters are rarely of those self-indulgent type, the kind that ramble on about all sorts of trivial domestic goings on, issues that can't possibly be of interest to anyone but me. I feel that in this way I'm somehow making a contribution, doing my little bit for the world. I'm scarcely capable of much else, at least that's how I've come to see my position, my abilities such as they are. So I write these letters.

But what was it that happened yesterday?

Who knows?

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- 1 -

To start with, I shall never forget the morning back in '87 when I woke sweating from a terrible dream. I had dreamt I was in a tiny prison with dirt-streaked, closed-in walls, a small barred window, and a low ceiling black with mould which seemed to be falling in on me like flakes of black snow; and when I moved my head to look, the floor was smothered in a sort of thick black grease like a garage workshop; and everywhere crawled with horrible insects.

As I lay there in my cell, I knew that I had been sentenced to an indefinite detention; but for the life of me I could not remember what I was supposed to have done. What in the name of God had I done?

In the dream I had closed my eyes and tried to recall: Have I murdered somebody? Am I guilty of treason? Have I been wrongly accused? Yes, I remember thinking: my committal was a mistake. There's been a miscarriage of justice. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before. My record is clean; I don't have a record. I shall appeal. I must see my lawyer...

I open my eyes. And now I am in my bedroom again. The horror has passed. The sun shines through a gap in the curtains and onto my bed. The magnolia walls glow like marble. On the wall beyond the foot of the bed hangs my big gold-framed painting of the Alps: snow-capped mountains with fir trees sloping down to pasture and a castle with little turrets; a blue and white river runs through the valley. I look down at the floor. Instead of the black grease and insects that I half-expect to see my plush pink carpet is there, spotless like new.

Relieved, I rub my eyes hard and sit up. My dream is too terrible to recall. I don't want to think about it. Besides, I generally have only good  dreams; bizarre maybe, and trite, but always pleasant. My God, what's happening to me?

I get up, dress, and go to the bathroom. There are crow's feet around my eyes. Three strands of grey hair stand out from my head like beacons in a forest. I pick up the small pair of scissors and snip them off as low as possible and then rinse my face in lukewarm water. Now my face looks blotched and middle-aged. I am convinced that yesterday I didn't look a day over twenty (although at this point I am 38). I even felt twenty, before...

You see, I look after myself. I have always looked after myself. I have always thought I owed it to myself to treat my body as though it were the most precious thing in the world. After all, my body is a gift; it has to last for the rest of my life, ha, ha.

I drink orange juice for breakfast. I take a walk in the morning if there's time before work. I deliberately don't get steamed up in the traffic, especially if I'm late. I eat an apple or an orange for elevenses and not those sticky buns that come around on the coffee trolley and which everyone else seems to eat. If I didn't smoke I'd be a paragon of health.

But I have to smoke. I have worked there eight years, so I just have to. And in that time I have travelled more than - a brief calculation - 50,000 miles. I can't believe it, but it's true. 50,000 miles going more or less the same route, to perform more or less the same duties, to receive more or less the same salary (adjusted for inflation). I am well established at work. I have a reputation for diligence and always strive to carry out my duties properly, with care and precision, and to get on well with my colleagues.

During my eight years there I have set up a nice home for myself in a pleasant location. I grow flowers and a few vegetables, keep myself and my house clean and respectable, and regard myself as an altogether worthy citizen.

It was a shock when a month after that dream I found myself again in that filthy prison; and within a week I was there for a third time, then a fourth until it was every morning. And then one day it somehow followed me into the bathroom.

Before long, my house, my garden, my car became the prison. I could see shadows of bars on the windscreen as I drove to work. Soon, wherever I was, the prison remained with me, surrounding me in a kind of ghostly outline like those reflective images you get on a TV picture if you live near a gasometer or some other large metallic structure.

For a time I wondered if I was suffering from hallucinations. Could there be something wrong with the tobacco I smoked, something in the food. I had begun to notice more grey hairs, more crows' feet, more blotches. I changed my brand of tobacco and altered my diet. None of this made any difference. Next I discovered that when 1 tried to look deliberately at these outlines, they would vanish as though they resented being seen head-on. They would only submit to oblique observation like when you look at a very faint star. When I forgot about them they would suddenly loom up around me on all sides. For a while, I thought it was some strange form of claustrophobia, which turned into agoraphobia when I went outside.

This went on for months and months. Eventually I couldn't stand it any longer. Was my house haunted? Was it something to do with my job? Where I worked? Was it perhaps my car? This was my most difficult time of all. I somehow knew that it would have been useless to seek medical help. It was a phenomenon I had to deal with myself.

Then one day I decided to sell the house. A big decision, but it had to be made. When a buyer came along I made an even bigger decision: I resigned from my job. Then, when the house was sold, I paid off the mortgage and with the residue bought a small place on the coast where I could store my things. I've always loved being near the sea. It was too far away for regular travel during my last month, so I accepted an invitation to lodge with colleagues in their rented suburban house. Lastly, I sold the car and took the tube to work.

The prison by now had faded, was almost gone. My efforts were paying off. By then it occurred to me that my prison had always existed; it was just that it had been out of sight, beyond my visual field, as it were. And only when I had tried in vain to excel myself had I been forced, by that ugly symbolic form I have described, to confront my confinement.

I had not wanted to admit the truth to myself, but on the day before that first dream, my confidence had received a severe blow: I had failed my third promotion board. Several years earlier I had competed with older, better qualified colleagues, and my failure seemed reasonable; I had expected to fail. But this time my competitors had joined the firm later, were younger and were certainly less able than me. What in hell was going on? Was I a victim of what has famously come to be known as the passed-over-principle? I could have been one of their best technicians. I have a good degree for Christ's sake; I learn quickly, I am always, always ready to put myself out. What in the world had I done wrong?

When he had started there, one of the characters who got promoted had cheated on the hearing test. He told me himself that he had listened for the click of the examiner's switch and not for the tone that he was supposed to hear, and he had pressed the response button on that basis alone. He had contested the results of a previous test; it was his last chance. He hardly seemed capable of that kind of ingenuity, though clearly was more than capable of the deception. He was incompetent, and frequently needed help with all but the most basic bookings. He had twice failed an elementary maths exam which he was studying for again, an exam that most people could pass with their eyes closed. But most objectionable to me was his inflexible surly attitude, his habit of behaving like a spoiled brat. The two others who were promoted shared these latter dispositions, and neither seemed very bright.

I would actually have been glad for them had I been advised of why I had been rejected, why my talents were considered of less value than theirs. Why? Why? I wanted to ask. The managers would never reveal such things. It was not, they would have said, within their mandate - I knew this because it had happened to others before me. In spite of that, however, and in an act of what seemed to me supreme magnanimity, I congratulated my successful colleagues, individually, and wished them luck. This was my vanity at work, my self-respect; I would have found it even more humiliating to have appeared hurt, crushed, defeated. In any case why should my misfortune be allowed to dampen their success? They had their lives to lead, careers to follow, flats or houses to maintain, families to support... the bar was packed solid with other colleagues when they celebrated their triumph.

In contrast, on the day I left only six out of a possible thirty-five came up to the bar. Not one of those three turned up. Virtually all thirty-five were my friends, had been my friends; none had ever given the slightest impression of not liking me, of not regarding me as their friend. Yet all but those six were too busy to accept a farewell drink at my expense, and even they may have been there merely for the beer, or for reasons of conscience or etiquette.

In the climate of the time, I should not have been surprised by all this. The eighties was a peculiar decade which had an effect on people that was even more peculiar. As soon as the new government took over in '79, they increased the value of the pound. This made imported goods cheap and caused many firms to go bust. There was a surge in unemployment. But most industry had well-established home markets; and speculation in those, and firms with little or no competition, grew and began yielding huge profits. Suddenly, the economy was overloaded with money; lenders couldn't dispose of it fast enough. Very soon, house prices were leaping by several per cent a month, and almost everyone with any taste for a venture began to speculate, or to move up-market, to live on credit: borrowing to invest before prices rose beyond their reach. The process lasted several years so that slow beginners had ample chance to catch on. And all the time the gravy-train was accelerating.

Before long, most of the population was involved in this rush to buy, to borrow, to invest. The unspoken symbol of personal security was no longer 'career', 'social responsibility' and other established communal values; the new God to be worshipped was 'personal wealth': what price you could get something for, what price you could sell it at. And price inflation meant that quality, durability, or true value of a product, lost all meaning because whatever you bought you knew could be sold later at a higher price. This was how people came to pay far more for things than they were really worth; that is, than what they would cost to make. And this made people behave towards one another in ways that almost no-one had predicted, although it should have been immediately obvious to anyone who spared it a thought. The result was a universal sense of shock, a kind of non-alcoholic delirium-tremens.

I absolutely hate traffic. I calculate that during the eight years I must have spent an entire month round-the-clock stuck in traffic. At first I thought the enforced confinement in my car for nearly two hours a day had led to my ‘imprisonment’ dreams. My lungs, quite apart from smoking, must have been full of dust and who-knows-what hideous pollutants from petrol and diesel engines that I prefer not to think about. And I am as guilty as everyone else: I must have burned at least 7,000 litres of petrol to cart my 140 lb body and a ton of metal those 50,000 miles. And the cost: about five months' salary.

This might not seem so bad if I had been properly deployed. In fact I would estimate that for a third of my time I did nothing, was given no bookings, no duties; and sometimes my whole day was spent reading novels. There was no clear way around this problem. For one thing, the managers were obviously incapable of efficiently organising the schedules; and for another, I would have had to be there anyway, even when it was known I would not be needed. This policy was the same for everyone.

In the meantime, the price of everything was increasing. My house doubled in value from what I had paid for it. My debt to the mortgage company had shrunk from three-and-a-half times to only twice my salary, and had become a quarter instead of a half of the value of my house. Soon I began to feel rich, despite my debt. In my mind I was practically a millionaire. If I kept my head and waited I would be made for life, would never have to work again. Not for a moment did I stop to consider precisely where the money ultimately came from. I merely sat down every now and then - usually when a house like mine was sold at a price above that of a previous sale - to muse over how much I was worth or how much I would be worth in a years' time, and then to gloat over the results like a miser counting his hoard.

Then came the collapse. It began slowly at first because people could not accept what was happening. Even some of the big institutions refused to acknowledge it. They had become accustomed to the perpetual bonanza and couldn't bear the thought of losing out. That's when I sold. That it was an opportune moment was pure coincidence. Even so, I was astonished to realise that I was as capable of greed as the next person. I insisted on the highest possible price, and turned down two near offers before finally accepting the highest I could expect. The consequences of the manifestation of this trait which I had not previously noticed in myself was far from my thoughts at the time; they were to catch up with me later.

Then prices really tumbled. Thousands of businesses and millions of individuals found themselves sunk in debt, chased by law suits, courts, bailiffs, bankruptcies.

Miraculously, I had escaped. Another six months and the transition would have been impossible: I could never have afforded an unmortgaged property. But at last I was free. Free of traffic, free of work, free of that haunting image of the prison. Above all, I was free of the rat-race.

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