67: Shroud – Concealing

This is how things are for me. Is there no va­lidity to this experience? Even the madman suffers the reality of his own experience. Even the world of the psychotic is a world that is lived in, no mat­ter how hopeless its capacity to nourish and sustain, to deliver up a meaning that makes going on a possibility. I am not sure if what is at issue is the Nature of the Real or an Inability to Make Con­tact with the Real. When those who, like me, feel compelled by the irresistible logic of empirical idealism cannot find anything real that subsists beyond the experience we have of what-we-may-think-is-real, what can we do in this despairing not-world whose moment by moment unfolding is nothing but the laying down of traps?

I have been lucky, when I know that others have not, for however heavily the bleakness that weighs down this side of the balance, I have rev­elled in the good fortune of having more than enough interesting things to place on the other side. Just as distractions perhaps, just as a substi­tute for the sun that does not really shine outside the cave that has no outside. It is for that no less a precious thing, and here is my one hope, that in­teresting things never lose their appeal, though, there is in that hope a terrible dread that matters cannot stand so forever. And then what? Lack of certainty, or at least lack of hope for a certain robustness to that certainty, feeds such a primitive fear of some nameless abomination. Please, more distractions to cover it up! Please, more distractions that reach right to the edges and tuck around like a proper shroud.


65: All Things – Ending

Almost all my dreams are nightmares, and always have been. The earliest dream I can recol­lect places me in my infant’s perambulator, lying on my back, gazing at a brilliant sky in early sum­mer. Next to me, heard but not seen, were my mother and her friend Sheila, who were talking and talking and talking. I could not follow what they were saying, a feature common to reality that was simply replicated in my dream. I was myself not silent, not any more, for I was wailing in dis­tress and terror, and I was trying to alert my mother to the awful danger that was descending upon us. For high up was flying a squadron of aircraft, painted grey and barely visible against the pale blue of the sky. And from each aircraft had been despatched some piece of ordnance, sus­pended like floating down from two, three or even four giant parachutes – howitzers, heavy mortars, 25–pounders, anti-aircraft guns, armoured cars and even a handful of tanks. Gently, gently, all this menacing metal drifted towards the ground, ready for deployment on the battlefield that must lie all about us. And right above me now, spread­ing out in all directions, was the bottom of a troop carrier, which in only a few moments would crush us to death. And I wailed and wailed my warning, with all my heart I tried to alert my talking moth­er. But she just kept on talking, totally oblivious to the danger that was bearing down upon us.

Some few years later, at about the time I start­ed school, I had a sequence of dreams in which we were being evacuated in an emergency, and I had struggled to find my precious things in time as my parents bundled cases and bags into their shaking arms and headed up the short driveway at the front of the house to the main road beyond, where transportation was waiting. But I could not find quickly enough what I wanted to take,[1] and oh, what a sense of desperate panic came upon me … and which to this day has never really lifted. By the time I got outside, they had gone, everyone had gone, and I was on my own. And then the bright flash, and everything was instantly on fire. All the trees, all the bushes at the front of the house were bathed in an exquisite, incandescent glow of flickering blues and yellows and reds, as if they were made from silver and gold wire, caught in a gentle, undulating breeze that made them sway and shimmer and dance with light. I felt no heat. I was not myself on fire. I was already dead, I sup­pose, and now as a spirit surveyed the ruined world for just a little while longer. Although I was too young to have yet heard about the nuclear menace or understand is mode of operation – to know that flash fires will erupt instantly upon det­onation, well in advance of the mighty and all-consuming shockwave that will follow seconds or minutes later – I nevertheless dreamed it accurate­ly, and there is a mystery indeed.

[1] In those days, my father’s shirts came in cardboard boxes, all of which I kept, for they were so incredibly useful for general storage – ideal for jigsaw puzzles whose original boxes had torn or split, perfect for toy cars, which when stacked anticipated the multi-storey car parks of the future, just the thing for odds and ends such as Sellotape rolls, paper clips, the mirrors from cos­metic products, bits of string, bits of pencils, rulers, rubbers, scissors, staplers, exercise books, watercolour paints, brushes, little pots for water, plastic zoo animals, toy soldiers and their weaponry (ironically). One of these boxes was ideal for taking a few things on our visits to my grandparents or other destina­tions, for I hated, so hated not having something to do, or being cut off from my project of the moment. So in my dream I was desperately trying to select the few things that I wanted, that would fit into one of these boxes, and in my panic I just could not think, could not think at all, and like the panic itself, this procrastination has followed at my side, muddling my thoughts, ever since.

58: World – Impinging

I was awakened this morning by the not so distant sound of something banging, banging, banging, banging, banging, BANGING … then a brief pause, then … banging, BANGING, again. My heart was pounding, pounding, pounding in true shell-shocked fashion, maintaining a difficult counterpoint to the banging outside: three mighty heartbeats to every bang. I thought at first that what I was hearing was someone in a van sorting parcels and packets, tossing them vigorously against the sides of the van, turning the vehicle into a super-large tympanic instrument, and I fan­cied I could hear a furious voice fuming, ‘Where the bloody hell is the packet for number sixteen?’ But then I wakened further, and I realised that wasn’t it at all. Someone just round the corner is having a long and complicated renovation done, and what I was hearing was the builders tossing debris and rubbish into a skip … still a mighty tympanic booming, but this instrument had no wheels, and no one was searching for anything.

I am usually awakened by something of the sort breaking into my nightmare-riddled sleep, and my adrenal glands react like that man who suffered so awfully in the trenches who, ever after, jumps in panic at the slightest sound, who trembles under the bed with their head pressed hard against their knees, convinced that the postman’s knocking portends violent death at any moment. There is no knocking here, but an electronic doorbell that enthusiastically and in piercing, strident voice shrieks out some famous melody or folk song, mangling every harmony ever discovered. They play heavy rock music at super-loud volumes to victims being brainwashed, I hear. They should try my door chime device at ordinary volume. Success is guaranteed.

Some imposition always intervenes before my natural, or even unnatural sleep concludes. If I try to trick the world by retiring an hour or two early, with the intention of wakening before the day’s external activities break into my interior world, I always lose the game, and some idiot will perhaps raise and lower, raise and lower the bonnet of his car at 5 am. Or a door will slam, and heated voices will each try to shout down the other in tones by turn furious, frustrated, ferocious, infuriated, in­dig­nant.

And so the acrimony of the world fragments right across the globe, and these little shards of trouble and disturbance trigger my shell-shocked brain into telling my heart to go, go now, go like the clappers, for danger is here, and death is near, and these must be our last moments on earth, so beat out your final song until the beating breaks you, for that is all we can do. We have fought this foe, you and I together, for all these years, and we must cease soon. If not today, then soon, so beat until you burst. You sound out my terror as the percussionist beats out the composer’s anguish. Between us, we can bring a rhythm to The Scream, the painting by Edvard Munch. We can make the swirling colours of his sky and ocean throb and pulse with a universal hatred of all that vexation that need not be vexation but for the selfishness, stupidity, thoughtlessness of others. We will beat out the self-destruction of civilization, for that is our only song, now.


And every morning I waken to a fresh hatred of the world which is so stupid, so insistent, so repellent. Of course my heart objects to it. Its beating is like the beat of a war drum, but I have no idea how to take this war to my enemies. Just pounding and pounding and pounding.

49: Forever – Waiting

Even though I have attained the age by which a proportion of men retire and begin to ease them­selves into old age (though, in fact, my state pension cannot be claimed for a few more years), I am all the same hounded by that deep and power­ful impression that has always been near the front of my conscious mind since the age of nineteen, that my life’s mission will soon commence – what­ever it is – and that in this new condition, I will feel differently about things, value things, value myself, differently. For over four decades I have sensed that my life’s mission – whatever it is – is about to begin, and I so very much want it to begin. Of course, I have already discovered, and completed my other mission, to care for my sick wife for the entire duration of her adult life, and I know that many people will look askance and think, but that was his life’s mission, surely? It was a mission, yet it never at any point attained the sta­tus of the mis­sion. That unknown mission, so my gut feeling tells me, is yet to begin. I accept now, after all this time, that it may never begin. That sense of hoping for, needing, a beginning, is just that, an always-to-be-unfulfilled sense of not being where I want to be. But, dear goodness, it is such a strong feeling, so dominating my waking experi­ence, it is as if everything is muted and suppressed, further away than it should be, not properly expe­rienced at all.

On this new mission that will not present itself, I am at least content, perhaps even confident, in some measure fulfilled or wholly fulfilled, if not objectively valued myself by the wider world, at least finding value myself in what I am doing, that this thing, or rather its fruits, will be of use to oth­ers, something that will give my life a purpose that will lift it above the purposeless that so weighs on me at the moment, and has weighed on me since childhood.

But what a strange circumstance this is! I may choose from so much, read anything – in English – from the world’s massive, massive repository of books and articles, perhaps even find a way of learning new skills, earning new qualifications (if I could have my life over again, I would put archae­ology near the top of my list). Yet I do not know how to choose from this bewildering array of alternatives. I think someone in my predicament would be better off in the pre-Roman Iron Age, where my choices for what to do in life could be counted on the fingers (not including the thumb) of one hand: become a farmer, an artisan, a black­smith, or a healer. But the world has grown com­plicated, and I do not know what it wants of me. Time is running short, and I suspect, with a sense of dread, that this unknown path I cannot find, so cannot tread, will elude me all my days.

44: Bullies – Stamping

I am nine, and I am sitting in the back of the Ford Anglia. I have been sitting in the back of the Ford Anglia for years and years, for my whole life, dreading the terminus of this short journey, for my mother is taking me to that terrible, terrifying school where I must subject myself to endless, cruel humiliations and beatings. Much of the time I walk to school, but when my mother has time, or when she has a trip planned to travel on, to go to the shops, or visit her parents, she takes me to school, on her way. And now the car is just turning into the street where another quarter of a mile further on, that place of torture awaits, all white­washed and Victorian, with thick gloss paint on all the doors, and the smell of soap in the air as thick as soup. Because I am new, on my own, starting here mid-term alone and alien in this different culture, I am an easy and obvious target for boys who thrive on violence, who learnt it, I later wonder, from their fathers (and uncles and older brothers) at home.

Ford_Anglia_1958_Castle_Hedingham_2008 photo by Charles01 wiki

I will not want to vacate the car. I will say I feel unwell and want to be taken home again, but my mother will make me get out, and propel me, her hand in the small of my back, through the school gates into a world of abuse and violence.

If not on this day, then on one close by, the boys will notice my new shoes, and enviously wish to convert them into the worn and used up wrecks they wear themselves, as well as hurt me, so they gather round too closely and then start stamping, stamping on my new shoes, trying to scuff and split them, trying to break my toes. It is not the pain of this attack that particularly worries me. No, I am more concerned with how my mother will react later, at home, when she sees the appalling state of my new shoes, for she will blame me and say it is my fault, and doubt my account of the bullies.[1] When the attack is over, and my toes feel wet, I go inside to use a piece of paper towel to wipe away the mud and grime, and later, back home, in a moment of uncharacteristic slyness, I quickly apply boot polish to fill in the scratches, and my shoes do not look too bad, considering the ferocity of that attack, and my mother in days to come will raise no query.

Forever I sit in the back of the Ford Anglia, forever on my way to my horrid doom, and I so wish, so wish to be taken somewhere else, to a sunny garden, a bright, open park, or to go back home, not to our new house here, but back to my great grandmother’s house where I might ride my tricycle up and down the garden path, even though now my tricycle is, of course, much too small for me, and must have been donated to a jumble sale or given to another child who I hope so much treasured it as much as I did, and maybe they too will all their lives remember the circum­stances of its coming to them, perhaps brought by a grand­mother sitting constrained in the front of a little car.

[1] In later years, it was suggested to me that my mother’s habit of rejecting my account of things, of holding me a liar, can be explained by the likely possibility that she was the liar, glid­ing through life on the efforts of others, manipu­lating and cajoling with false flattery and lies, such second nature to her, that she assumed that every­one else too was a liar, that this was just how peo­ple are.

33: Biscuits – Mending

I dread filling in forms. I have a form of formophobia, so to speak. For there is usually that question without a question mark, occupation, and I never know how to answer. For I never did consistently work at anything, except when I was an undergraduate, and after that when I was a post-graduate, and I suppose it is fair to include the time was commissioned to write a book about the philosophy of the Roman Stoic teacher Epictetus. That, I think, is the extent of my list. If I was an associate lecturer, that was for eight weeks. If I was a tutor, that was for one term. To be sure, I have always been occupied by reading and, to a lesser extent, by writing. But those answers are not what the ques­tion is asking. Occu­pa­tion seems to be a demand that I justify my existence, my entitlement to wear clothes and sleep in a bed, and I cannot. I have no defence to offer, for I have never had an occupation of the sort that others seem to have. I struggle even to fantasise about how it must feel to be able to respond ‘bus driver’, ‘solicitor’, ‘road sweeper’, ‘aeronautical engineer’, ‘wallpaper designer’. But no. There are no such expressions that will align with the life that I have actually lived. For all those years, I cared for my sick and disabled wife. But that is not the answer that the question is asking. I am tempted to play the fool, and write ‘broken biscuit mender’, but that way trouble lies. And I have never liked trou­ble.

30: Bearings – Binding

It is 18 October 1959, the Sunday after my third birthday, and my grandparents have just arrived at my great grandmother’s house, and they have brought my eagerly awaited birthday present.

I have just pulled open the heavy front door, and I gaze up the slope of the short driveway to where my grandfather’s car is parked on the main road, maybe fifty feet away. My grandmother is sitting in the front passenger seat, and she holds my present awkwardly on her lap, a small child’s tricycle, made from blue and red tubular metal, with its front wheel almost level with her face.

The beige Ford Anglia is in fact jointly owned by both my grandfather and my father. My father uses it during the week to go to work, and my grandparents use it at the weekends for day trips and visiting relatives. On Friday afternoons, instead of driving home, my father would drive to my grandparents’ house to leave the car with them, then complete his journey home on the Under­ground. On Sunday afternoons, my grandparents would drive over to visit us, leave the car, and go home later, taking my father’s Underground jour­ney in reverse. They maintained this arrangement for four years, until my grandfather had saved enough to buy a car all of his own, at which point we were able to keep the Ford Anglia all the time.

But how excited I am, now that my grandpar­ents have come, and that they have brought my present! My mother has been dropping endless hints that this is indeed how events would tran­spire this Sunday afternoon, that my wish for a tricycle would be fulfilled, and that my grandpar­ents would bring it with them in the shared car.

And now I am outside, on this bright and warm afternoon, sitting on my new Tri-ang tricy­cle, all blue and red with its shiny enamel paint. But alas, the bearings by means of which the front wheel turns when the pedals are pressed are too tight, and I am not strong enough to turn the wheel. Even the slightest movement that I am able to produce, applying all the strength I can muster, is immediately rendered useless by the fact that in straining against the pedal I cannot help but turn the wheel sharply to the left or the right, and my tricycle veers jerkily to the side of the pavement and off onto the bare earth at the sides. Any normal, forwards, movement is quite impossible. I remember that I persisted in trying to pedal my new tricycle, but I could not do it, and I remem­ber not just a sense of disappointment, or even profound disappointment, but a sense of dire dread. That my physical weakness was responsible for my plight made me feel personally responsible for the calamity, so that sense of dread was tem­pered with a sense of guilt.

And now I am back indoors, and we are eating tea in my great grandmother’s front room, down­stairs (I and my parents occupy the rooms up­stairs), and my grandfather has been out to the garage to find some oil that he has applied to the stiff bearings, and as we eat, he sits gripping my tricycle between his thighs, and vigorously works the pedals with his hands, trying to ease the trou­ble­some bearings.

He meets with partial success, for now I am out­side again, again sitting on my tricycle, again straining against the pedals. But this time I am moving forwards, following an approximation of a straight line. Up and down the pavement outside our house I am going! My grandfather is there, and my father, though my mother and grand­mother have stayed inside, I think, for this is men’s work. Whether they are there or not, I do so want them to see me going up and down on my new tricycle! Oh, but it is an effort to turn the stiff bearings. I strain with all my might, and I can just about do it, with rather jerky movements, follow­ing a rather rickety trajectory.


As the weeks pass, and as I pile on the mileage, I think the bearings gradually lose their stiffness. But in that first hour or so, on that Sunday after my birthday in 1959, the disappointment and dread and the sheer effort required to make my tricycle move has served as a sort of template for almost everything I have done since. My trying to master anything, especially reading and arithmetic when I started school two years later, was always referred to the sheer effort I had to summon that Sunday afternoon. I have never found anything easy or straight forward, acquiring any skill, attain­ing any objective, starting anything, maintaining anything, finishing anything has always seemed to require such an inordinate quantity of effort that I am astonished by it. This does not seem to be the usual experience that most people have most of the time, and it is a troubling thing. If I could go back with knowledge of the future and do it all again, I would not do half the things that I did in fact do – the sheer effort was too much for too little reward. Any number of outcomes would prove too feeble and disappointing in comparison to the massive effort required to bring them about. If I could undo those things, I would. Better would be sitting quietly and not trying to peddle at all, so to speak. I would have been better off enjoying the few things that I liked and that I could master with a smaller application of effort. For the unpleasant­ness of trying and trying and trying always clouded any possible enjoyment of this thing that might ordinarily have been expected to come to me – the sort of enjoyment that I think most people under­standably take for granted.

I have no idea why I always found everything so very difficult.