An exercise in negative thinking

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The Independent Culture
SOHO; some damned cafe or other, can't remember which, doesn't matter which, they're all the same: tables, steam, waitresses not so much being waitresses as acting them; they all have Equity cards and are waiting for their break. Clientele: as interchangeable as the cafes. Time: the grey zone, the dead hour when all the straights have slithered off to have a go at mating and the gays haven't come out to play yet.

A commotion at the door, a lurching cacophony and a blast of inarticulate cursing. A couple comes in, she thirtysomething, rather more than less, blowsy, fertile, haunted, eyes wide with embarrassment but clinging to her dignity; he, forties; more dog than man, spiky bleached dog-hair, a big stupid dog snout, a deep furrow between his dumb, pissed dog's eyes; not so much the result of thought as of unsuccessful attempts at thought, straining away while his tiny Brussels sprout of a dog brain cowers, unresponsive, in a corner of his skull. The sprout cannot think; sniff, gobble and bark, that's your lot.

He lurches to his table in a spittle of curses at the waitress; slumps down, assisted by his girlfriend; sinks instantly into drooling self-pity, in a high, glottal, sinus-whine like something that has been taught to speak but doesn't know what it's for. Snuffles between his words. Boasts, complains, recites lists of grievances, can't find his money, spills his milkshake all over himself, shouts at his woman, falls off his chair, blames her, describes how he's going to make his comeback, tells her she makes him sick, scratches his armpits, sniffs, dribbles.

He is a punk; or rather, he was a punk; couldn't sing, couldn't play but got paid for it. Probably famous, propelled into brief celebrity by music-pushers in Armani suits with the collusion of silly, facile "music" journalists terrified of admitting that it's moronic, violent, graceless, incompetent crap in case someone should think they are old. Now the pushers and hacks are finished with him. He's just an empty on the doorstep of the Music Biz, a rusted needle, a twist of foil, a roach.

I sat watching this living corpse, wondering for how many years he would lurch fitfully around before someone had the decency to pronounce him dead, and for some reason I found myself thinking of my mother's father, Grandpa Price, although I never called him that; small children name people in the manner of primitive men, after their attributes; when I was two, my grandfather had some beans on his plate at lunch which I wanted: so Grandpa Beans he became, and Grandpa Beans he remained.

He was a man of immense dignity, the youngest son of West Country yeoman stock. By the time it got to his turn, the money had run out, so while his oldest brother went to Oxford and then to Geneva with the UN, Grandpa Beans went to Newport and the steel works. These days, he could probably have qualified for counselling for the blow to his self-esteem caused by this sibling preference, but he was born in less feeble times and his self-esteem remained impregnable. In due course he became Master Roller at Whitehead's No 1, 2 & 3 Hot Mills; his subordinates, themselves masters of their trade, would set the tremendous machinery with gauges and micrometers, and then Grandpa Beans would check it with his thumb; in case of dispute, his thumb held the casting vote.

When I was about seven, he took me to see his domains. We went in the night; white-hot ingots snaked about the floors; furnaces roared like hot scarlet carnivores; heroic men, heedless of danger, stepped through imminent blazing death like ballerinas in steel-toed boots. Everywhere he went, men would raise a finger to their cap-peaks: "Evenin', Mr Price," or, for the older, wiser men, "How do, Ive." He became, for me, a reincarnation of Vulcan, a colossus whose achingly slow Monmouthshire speech - he never lost the bucolic rumble, and you could drive a 16-wheel truck through his pauses - was further evidence of his solemn and unassailable dignity.

Grandpa Beans died some years ago, having lived comfortably, done a good job, educated his children and never owed a penny, and I wondered why I was suddenly thinking of him in this interchangeable Soho cafe, in the dead zone, watching a living corpse. Then I realised it was like what happens when you look at a brightly-lit scene and then at a white wall: you see the thing in reverse; you see the negative image. Everything that Grandpa Beans was, the ageing, doomed punk was not.

It suits our book to believe that our modern times are the print itself, light and dark, the right way round; but why then do so many of our "freedoms" seem like a mere lack of substance? Perhaps we live in the negative. Perhaps there's a lesson here, but I have no idea at all what it may be. We wander through life noticing this and that, and think to ourselves "Bugger me, there's significant, innit?" but when we try to take things further, nothing happens. We sit there and clench the brain to absolutely no effect, which leads me to believe that our options are either dignity or post-punk burn- out, with nothing in between except a sort of affable but drivelling interior monologue, and anyone who tells you otherwise is having you on.

Once one acknowledges this bitter truth, life becomes more manageable. The Plain People of Ireland sorted it out long ago; living in a nation of phenomena and curiosities, they responded by developing the phrase "Well now," which does the trick admirably, meaning: "I have filed what you have just told me in a special area of my brain labelled 'Significant Observations of No Further Use'."

Time for plain speaking. The Ould Fella was a better man than your mouldy old punk. We'll not see his like again. It's hard for a man to keep his dignity these days. The End. !